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Searching for the gay identity in the Arab world

Homosexuality is concealed and, largely, invisible in the Arab world. The mainstream Western press, mostly, continues to misunderstand Arabs, their culture and their faith in spite of, or perhaps because of, the occupations, the years of meddling, the physical presence in the region. Unremarkable truisms in isolation, these two facts become more interesting when combined, …

Homosexuality is concealed and, largely, invisible in the Arab world. The mainstream Western press, mostly, continues to misunderstand Arabs, their culture and their faith in spite of, or perhaps because of, the occupations, the years of meddling, the physical presence in the region.

Unremarkable truisms in isolation, these two facts become more interesting when combined, as has been done in “Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a collection of gay men’s non-fiction stories recently translated into Arabic.

Speaking last week at a discussion of the book in Cairo, American editor Michael Luongo explained that his own interest in the region was born out of fear. His preface to the book opens with, “I was raised in an America that taught me to hate Muslims. Luongo explains that he began to “break down his own prejudices against Muslims “by directly experiencing various Middle Eastern, Arab and Muslim cultures on their own turf with my own eyes.

Later, after the devastation of September 11, New Yorker Luongo observed how homosexuality figured in the fallout from that event: firstly, speculation that Mohammed Atta, one of the bombers, might have been gay. Then the issues raised by the torture inflicted by US soldiers on Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib: while Arab homophobia was addressed, Luongo said during the book discussion, “what was never discussed in the mainstream media was the fact that the soldiers were projecting their own homophobia on their victims.

“Gay Travels is an attempt to find some meaning at the crossroads of these issues. Eighteen gay men present very personal meditations on their encounters with the Muslim world, as tourists, long-term visitors or sons of the region trying to reconcile their homosexuality with a culture which rejects them.

I found the four accounts of men from the region the most compelling. Egyptian-American actor Ramy Eletreby’s musings on survival as a non-conformist individual in a community which defines itself in group terms and rejects individualism were particularly interesting.

Writing under a pseudonym, Palestinian Ethan Pullman concludes, “to be visible in the Muslim world is to invite persecution and ultimately broke all ties with his family after coming out to them.

New York-based Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma intertwines a reflection on the complexities of gay identity in the Muslim world with the experiences of two Egyptian gay men who sought asylum in France after the Queen Boat incident in 2001, when 52 Egyptian men were arrested during a raid on the gay nightspot, abused in police custody and subsequently put on trial for debauchery.

Sharma concludes both that “Islam is not the problematic monolith that the West now finds itself grappling with, and that constructs such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer are Western and do not “mean anything to his friends living in Cairo or Islamabad.

Other writers grapple with this theme. Luongo – who details his adventures in Afghanistan, where he attends a “gay party – agrees with Sharma, saying that while in Europe and America “homosexual desire and acts become the very definition of a person, in the Muslim world, “homosexual desire and acts are simply one aspect amongst others, something people do but not something that defines a person above all things. Thus many of the Muslim men the writers encounter do not identify themselves as gay, and ask the latter why they don’t have wives, causing deep confusion, and in the case of Richard Ammon, offence.

Writing about Morocco, Ammon suggests that Muslim religion and culture is “toxic to non-marital sex and “the truth of sexual attraction. “I have developed dignity and appreciation for my own queer feelings and for those of my LGBT brothers and sisters, he says, before going on to explain the hurt he feels is caused by “a whole cadre of hetero Muslim men engage in what they feel is forbidden sex, betraying themselves as well as homo men’s desires.

It is the fleeting sexual encounters between Westerners and Muslim men who do not share a common language where communication is often lost, to the detriment of the message which is central to the book.

Luongo writes in the preface that he had been criticized for “eroticizing Muslims into sexual caricatures, and there is indeed validity to this criticism in some of the stories: an outsider’s perspective on a place is often fresh, and relevant, but there needs to be a minimum of knowledge, of mutual understanding, for it to have any value.

This is particularly the case when entering the minefield of sex. I put it to Luongo that some of the encounters detailed render the Muslim partner voiceless and two-dimensional because the author cannot speak his language and has no genuine understanding of the culture he is interacting with. This reductionist approach renders what should be multifaceted encounters into mere eroticism, and while there is a place for that, these accounts do not add anything of value to the issues the book seeks to explore.

Luongo emphasized that sexual encounters do not figure in all of the stories, and that in at least one of the stories where it does, there is real tenderness and a deeper emotional significance.

Why, I wondered though, does the book not contain more accounts from gay men actually from the Muslim world? Luongo explained that it was “really, really hard to get contributors for the book and that while some people had great stories, “they couldn’t write. Translation was not an option because of time and money constraints.

A shame, because some of the stories demonstrate a real misunderstanding of some of the basics of the societies they describe (“Muslims were not allowed to buy alcohol in stores since it was against their religion , “explaining our same-sex relationship to an Egyptian would take months, not minutes ) while others churn out tired, old Orientalist twaddle.

One of my favorites is this: “The most wonderful thing all the Egyptians we came close to, even the machine-gun toting, godlike young sentries on Cairo street corners, was their smell. Even if low on the economic ladder, they remained well-groomed. Elsewhere the author of this story, Steve Dunham, makes us endure a reverie on “the pert little honey-skinned young men in silk turbans in his hotel.

Despite this criticism, publication of “Gay Travels in Arabic is to be welcomed – if it ever appears on bookshelves: the Lebanese publisher is avoiding standard import and distribution channels so as to reduce chances of the book being seized. Another problem is that the first batch has somehow been given the title “rahalaat shaadh – or “pervert tales. The publisher will change shaadh to the neutral mithly – the term Arab gays prefer, Luongo explained, although he joked that sitting under a banner of “pervert tales at book signings might result in bigger audiences.

If the book finds its way onto the shelves of Egyptian bookshops without being accosted by either the authorities or litigious religious conservatives (who will undoubtedly be up in arms about the more graphic sexual content), it will contribute to bringing Egyptian homosexuality out of the shadows, and hopefully provoke a long overdue examination of this society’s attitudes to its gay citizens.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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