Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 May 2006
Issue No. 793
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cultures of denial

Khaled Diab speaks with Brian Whitaker, author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (London: Saqi Books, 2006)

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the infamous Queen Boat affair in which dozens of homosexual men were rounded up during a raid on a floating Cairo nightclub popular with gays. Inspired by these events Unspeakable Love : Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East delves into the underground, taboo-ridden world occupied by gays and lesbians in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

Brian Whitaker, veteran Middle East correspondent at the liberal UK daily The Guardian, also examines the pervasive culture of denial surrounding the issue, the sometimes grave consequences of not living the lie and the need to view homosexuality in a wider socio-economic and political context.

Although private attitudes can be permissive, homosexuality is rarely broached in the public domain. "In the Middle East homosexuality is possibly the most sensitive and controversial topic anyone can write about, so the thought of doing a whole book on it was pretty scary at first," Whitaker told me. "It would [have been] better if the book [had come] from an Arab writer but there wasn't much prospect of that. If it was going to be left to a foreigner to say these uncomfortable things I thought I was at least a foreigner with a reasonable chance of being listened to."

The Queen Boat trial and subsequent crackdown came as a shock to many open-minded Egyptians, particularly as there is no law specifically criminalising homosexuality in Egypt. But too many have allowed themselves to be morally bullied into silence.

The government's motivations seem to stem from the periodic need to distract public attention away from the political status quo and the economic stagnation gripping Egypt. It is also desperate to beat the Islamists at their own game.

"To counter this ascending [Islamist] power, the state resorts to sensational prosecutions, in which the regime steps in to protect Islam from 'evil apostates'," argues Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, of the 81 countries outlawing same-sex acts, 36 belong to the Arab League and/or the Islamic Conference Organisation. Whitaker focusses mainly on three very different countries -- Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia -- to highlight the diversity and complexity of the situation. Egypt does not outlaw homosexuality but is in the throes of a crackdown. Lebanon does outlaw it but a more tolerant counterculture is emerging. Saudi Arabia threatens homosexuals with the death penalty yet has a vibrant underground gay scene.

The book provides insight into the lives of gay men and lesbians in Arab countries and Iran. Ali, a Lebanese teenager, fled his family home after he had been hit with a chair so hard it broke, confined to the house for five days, locked in the boot of a car, and threatened with a gun for wearing his sister's clothes. "A point made repeatedly by young gay Arabs in interviews was that parental ignorance is a large part of the problem," the book explains.

Gaith, a Syrian fashion designer who left his family for Beirut was sent to countless therapists in a bid to 'cure' him of his condition. "I went to at least 25 different therapists and they were all really, really bad," he recalled. "They did all sorts of medical tests, like hormones and things, and they always made you masturbate into this little container."

Laila, an Egyptian lesbian, had a gentler family experience. Her mother once asked her if she " really liked women", and seemed relatively unperturbed by her daughter's expressed preference. Laila has two possible explanations for the more relaxed attitude towards lesbians: girls are less important to an Arab family's social standing and some more cynical parents will be secretly relieved that their daughter's predilection ensure she doesn't lose her 'virginity' before reaching a marriageable age.

"Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet," writes Iman Al-Ghafiri, a Syrian university professor, in her article, published in Arabic, "Is There a Lesbian Identity in Arab Culture?"

Large segments of the Arabic-language media -- following the lead of conservative religious voices -- often portray homosexuality, when mentioned at all, as an import from a decadent and overly permissive Western culture. "Depicting homosexuality as 'something that foreigners do' is a familiar practice in cultures where it is considered morally or socially unacceptable," the book observes.

In 1885 Richard Burton came up with what he termed a "Sotadic Zone" in which, he claimed, homosexuality was more prevalent than in other parts of the world. The homo- erogenous zone supposedly covered most of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, stretching all the way to the Punjab and Kashmir. Like other Orientalist thinkers, many of Burton's ideas reflect hang-ups closer to home and despite the imperial haughtiness of his theory he seemed to be trying to change English homophobia by showing that homosexuality was considered natural in many parts of the world. It took British society another eight decades before it partially decriminalised homosexual acts in 1967.

People who dismiss homosexuality as little more than an import have not read much classical Arabic or Muslim poetry or literature. Some 1,200 years before the summer of 1968 Abu Nawas -- court laureate of the celebrated Caliph Harun Al-Rashid -- penned hundreds of homoerotic poems. As scholars have noted, Abu Nawas's homoerotic ( mudhakkarat ) poetry was long accessible across the Arab world and it was not before 1932 that the first expurgated edition of his verse was printed in Cairo.

One major barrier to a broader acceptance of homosexuality is dogma. Whitaker's book tackles the theological arguments in detail, exploring the thorny issue of whether Islam actually forbids gay love or whether social attitudes are the problem. Like their Christian and Jewish counterparts Muslim scholars tend to focus on specific types of sexual act, not sexual orientation per se, frowning upon sodomy as a waste of sexual energy, according to Whitaker's discussion. Yet Islam has, since its inception, recognised the recreational side of sex. According to some traditions women, as much as men, are allowed to seek a divorce if their spouse does not satisfy them sexually and mediaeval Muslim sex manuals describe an array of inventive positions.

Whitaker points out that many Islamic scholars who claim that the Quran forbids homosexuality refer to the story of the Prophet Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet God, according to the Old Testament, is angry at Sodom's "pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness". Likewise, the Quran does not spell out the nature of the crime committed by Lot's people, save for their corruption and the rejection of the prophet God sent to them. Even more dubiously, suggests Whitaker, some scholars point to a hadith (saying of the prophet) of questionable authenticity instructing that men should not imitate women and vice-versa.

But theological questions, intriguing as they are, are unlikely to get us far without broader reforms. Whitaker cautions against reading the book too narrowly and regards Arab attitudes towards homosexuality as intimately bound up with other socio- economic and political issues.

"[ Unspeakable Love ] is not primarily a book about sex," he says. "It discusses society, culture, religion, politics, reform and East-West conflicts." He intentionally holds back from prescribing any concrete action. "The Americans have been busy prescribing agendas for change and look where that got them. It's a matter for Arabs themselves to decide, according to local conditions."

One potential model for change is the nascent gay lib movement in Lebanon. Helem (Dream), a Lebanese gay rights group, has aligned itself with other NGOs and reform- minded Lebanese to push for the modernisation of the penal code. The cultural sector also has an important role to play and some trailblazers are already challenging prevailing social attitudes. Alaa Al Aswany, the Egyptian dentist-cum-author who has helped give teeth back to the popular Arab novel is one such figure. Hatem Rashid, a pivotal character in his best-selling novel, Umaret Yaqubian ( The Yacoubian Building ), is a gay newspaper editor. Rashid is as flawed as any other character in the novel and Al Aswany does make a couple of sweeping generalisations, but the journalist is treated sympathetically on the whole and portrayed as a normal human being.

"I believe homosexuals in Egypt were always tolerated -- probably not in the same way as in the West -- but now I think this has changed," Al Aswany noted in an interview with The Guardian. "I tried to portray the gay character as a human being, not as a particular case. That is something new." A big-budget film adaptation of The Yacoubian Building premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is due for general release soon.

Gay pride, though, cannot be separated from the general struggle for human dignity, and ignorance is likely to prevail as long as poor education and illiteracy continue. Recognition of homosexuality in the Arab world is unlikely to come before a general acceptance of sexuality. In societies where the mainstream is sidelined, respect for minorities can hardly thrive.

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