Writing on his experiences as a gay westerner interested in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) issues in the Middle East, A of Arabia highlights the misplaced, 'imperialist' nature inherent in Western efforts to 'improve' gay and trans rights in other parts of the world. Western-based approaches commonly neglect acknowledgement of the economic security and opportunities associated with being openly gay within a given society, A of Arabia contends, failing in the process to take individual circumstances into account.
Through my research about subcultures in the Middle East, I found out that the media in the West has constructed two types of Arabs, one that we (in the West) are afraid of and which is threatening to our democracy, and another that we feel sorry for and which we want to help. When it comes to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) and the Middle East, the latter gets our sympathy and understanding. But is that image true? Do we take into account our own part of the situation?
I decided to study Arabic a few years ago. My decision came after a lifelong fascination about the region and with the intensifying media exposure of the Arab as a threat, after 9/11 I felt that now was the time. Studying this language exposed a lot of old, inherited knowledge about the Arab from people in my environment. Comments like 'Why Arabic?', 'Are you going to be a terrorist?' and 'Are you going to have sex with Arabs?' were thrown at me when I explained what I was doing. These comments showed what image we have produced about the Arab: an untamed, sexual beast who is a threat to our society. I always wondered if a student of Chinese would have the same comments.
Last year I went down to Syria to study the language in its true environment. The Swedish national radio contacted me and gave me a task, to make a short documentary about my life as a single gay man studying Arabic in Syria, my search for love and sex and looking for the 'hidden' gay culture. I not only found it but I became part of a diverse scene of people with more than one way to express their sexuality.
What I observed early on was that the scene is divided into two different societies (to simplify it). One belongs to the upper-middle class; they speak English and label themselves with Western sexual labels like 'gay' and 'bi'. This group is very active on the internet and socialises at private parties and in the fancy part of Damascus called Sha’lan. Many of them have the ability to study in Europe and they identify themselves with the Western way of being gay. The other group belongs to what I call the same-sex society. These men are mostly from the working class; they are married and they keep their same sex relations on the side. They socialise in the parks and the hamams (bathhouses) of Damascus. In an interview with the web magazine Dialogues on Civilization, the writer of the book 'Desiring Arabs', Joseph A. Massad, has described these two groups:
'… one is an identity that seeks social community and political rights, while the other is one of many forms of sexual intimacy that seeks corporeal pleasure'.
And with the power of the media I fell into the trap of producing knowledge in favour to the Western-identified group. I called them heroes and applauded their courage. The other group got pigeonholed into a dark collective. How this group was framed irritated me, and I settled with just describing them instead of giving them a voice of their own. The reason for this was mostly that I didn’t speak that much Arabic at the time and I couldn’t understand them. But as my knowledge of the language and my network grew, I couldn’t ignore the voice from this collective. And it was two meetings that made me want to learn a bit more about them.
Mahmud and Farhad were two men that I met at one of the many gay forums on the internet. They were both married with kids. Mahmud was from the upper-middle class and worked within tourism. He came out when he went to a sex-segregated college, where same-sex relations where common. After college Mahmud’s mother wanted him to get married and had picked out a wife for him, but Mahmud didn’t want to get married and tried to run away to an uncle in Europe to live his life the way he wanted to. But that plan fell through and he kept his gay life on the down-low in the beginning, but after a while he decided to be what he is. He told me once:
'I live my life ninety and ten. Ninety per cent is with my family that I adore and ten per cent is with my gay life, that my family doesn’t know about. I’m not ashamed and no one can tell me that what I do is wrong. This is what makes my life complete.'
Farhad came from the working class and worked in the market as an artisan. We met one day in his little workshop, which also served as his little love shack. After we had sex we talked about his life, his family and the future, and I was waiting for some sort of coming-out story, but it didn’t come. So in the end I asked him if he had come to terms with his sexuality. He looked at me with a perplexed look on his face. He didn’t feel that he had to come to terms with anything. When I later wrote a blogpost about Farhad, I added words like 'struggle' to describe his situation. But that was a lie; Farhad didn’t have a struggle with his life. That was just me and my biased way of producing knowledge. After this I wanted to learn more about this community. I went to the bathhouses and the parks and after a while I met Ali and we decided to date. I asked him on our first date, with my improved Arabic, how he labelled himself.
- 'Anta mithli?' ('Are you gay?')
- 'Shoo?' ('What?')
- 'Yani, anta mithli? Bathab shabab?' ('Are you gay? Do you like boys?')
- 'Bahab banat wa shabab.' ('I like boys and girls.')
- 'Ahh anta bi-sexual yani.' ('You mean that you are bi-sexual.')
- 'Shoo? Bahab banat wa shabab?' ('What? I love boys and girls.')
I laughed and took off the post-it stamps that I had forced on his forehead in order to label him. Ali didn’t want to be labelled and I had to respect that.
When it comes to media exposure and LGBTQ issues in the Middle East, the voice that is heard is from the group that we can identify with. They look like us, talk like us and act like us. We are willing to talk about their struggle, and they are willing and able to live like we do. They say what we want to hear. Their story tells us (in the West) that we are more free and that the way we live is the most admirable.
The writer that I mentioned earlier, Joseph Massad, came out with his book 'Desiring Arabs' two years ago and caused a stir in the LGBTQ community. Massad sheds light on the science that the West has produced about the Orient since the 19th century (when our modern interest in the region began). Within 19th-century Orientalism, the Arab was labelled sexually immoral and medically labelled for his sexual behaviour. But this attitude shifted at the end of the 20th century, and what was bad then was now good. And now we wanted to liberate the Orient. He has described this as Europe came and invented homosexuality where it didn’t exist, and a lot of LGBTQ organisations have accused him of homophobia.
As a westerner researching LGBTQ and same-sex relations, this book is an important tool when I produce knowledge. I don’t agree with everything, but when it comes to the West and its will to 'liberate' the Middle East, there is so much more that we have to understand. When we criticise Syria or Lebanon for penal code 534 which prohibits sex 'contradicting the laws of nature', we have to understand that we gave them this law in the first place. This is not an excuse for still using the law, but what we in the West have to understand is that we didn’t invented freedom.
The activism in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon is different depending on the different political situations. Lebanon, with gay organisations like Helem and Meem and its busy nightlife, is the hub of gay life in the region. A friend in Jordan, who is a gay activist, told me once that the Lebanese people are busy fighting each other so they don’t have time to 'care' about gay people. In Jordan the movement is underground but very active. My activist friend has a restaurant that is the queer hub of Amman, where most of the gay crowd networks. He calls it 'the rebel bitch of Jordan' and he is not only a gay activist but also challenges censorship and elitism. His staff is a mix of posh kids working there because it’s cool and people from the Palestinian refugee camps. When I ask him who has the biggest problem with him being openly gay he tells me:
'If there is anyone who has problems it’s mostly Jordanians educated in the West that label me with the Western sexual labels as something negative. For my workers, who come from the refugee camps and who live in the poorest of settings, I’m just the man that has intimate relations with other men.'
It’s hard to find activism in Syria, because of political circumstances. It’s hard to organise meetings and NGOs hardly exist. Most of the activism is in front of the computer, and if there is an action it’s mostly a private party that is for the privileged people. The activism that exists is mostly among women who use the blogosphere. I discussed the situation with a gay friend of mine at the beginning of my stay in Syria. With my Eurocentric view, I argued for the beauty of democracy and how well it worked in Sweden. He told me that he didn’t want democracy. Life was good as it was. If the majority won they would decide to close down the unofficial gay hamams, parks and bars:
'The secret police knows about everything and they don’t give a shit. As long as we don’t organise ourselves and become a threat to the power, we can do whatever we want to do, as long as it is behind closed doors.'
I couldn’t believe him, there I was talking about the most precious thing that I know about and he didn’t want it. What we have to add to this story is that this man comes from a privileged background. He works with oil and lives on his own. His position in the society makes it possible to choose a lifestyle.
And this is a part of my critique towards the West and its attitude to the Middle East and the LGBTQ liberation, which is that sometimes it feels like we talk about human rights as something cultural that comes from the West. This discourse explains the 'struggle', for gay people in the Middle East, to depend on the society that doesn’t want to except them, because the Arab in his culture and religion are 'unwilling' to do so. This is what the French Marxist philosopher Etienne Balibar calls the new racism, where the 'the biological interpretation of the concept of race has been replaced by a more culture-based idea of the difference'.
In his book 'Spaces of Global Capitalism', David Harvey, the social theorist and professor of anthropology at City University, New York, criticises NGOs like Amnesty because they mostly focus on civil and political rights and not on economic rights. The gay festival Pride was invented in the US and was franchised in Europe. The programme looks the same around the world, a few days of parties and lectures and a final parade to manifest your pride to be queer in front of the society. But this became possible through an economic development that made it possible to create individuals that can afford an alternative lifestyle. This is something we have to take into account when we want to 'free' the world. An activist friend in Syria told me, when we had a debate about honour-related crimes and LGBTQ, that:
'When we talk about homosexuals in the society, we need to separate men from women; each situation has its attributes. And we have to also consider whether the case comes from a rich family, a poor family, so all these elements do influence.'
With all this information that I get from scholars, activists and same-sex individuals, my critique gets stronger that our ignorance will not change the situation for the LGBTQ community in the Middle East. Karl Marx said that we have to 'interpret the world in order to change it', and to give the subaltern a voice is a good start.
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