One of my favorite television shows growing up was a Ramadan special featuring an Egyptian performer called Sherihan. One year she had a Ramadan special called ‘Sherihan Around the World’, a twenty-minute singing and dancing extravaganza, which had her dressing in exquisite costumes from around the world and performing elaborate song and dance routines. Sherihan was a woman, but she was the best drag queen I had ever seen: camp, self-aware, and fabulous. She had planted in me, without my knowledge, the first seeds of my own gay identity.
Twelve years later, when I was living in Amman, my boyfriend broke up with me. I was becoming too open with my sexuality, he said. I had confided in too many people. Being with me was becoming dangerous. I told him that no one would kill us, let alone threaten us. The Jordanian police don’t have a history of targeting gay men, I reasoned, especially those of our social class. But that wasn’t the danger, he explained. The danger was that being seen with me was making people think he was ‘gay’. And he did not want to be seen as ‘gay’.
I did not see this transformation coming, but it happened. The ‘Gay Identity’ had unknowingly been growing inside me like a tumor, until suddenly one morning I woke up and realized I was infected, and the disease was terminal. I had become someone who identified as ‘gay’.
I blamed Sherihan. After all, she started this mess.
Many Arabs who engage in same-sex practices do not identify as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘bisexual’. For every queer Arab who has formulated their sense of self by watching ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Paris is Burning’ are countless others who do not feel it is unusual to engage in same-sex practices and remain unconnected to the word ‘gay’. Even amongst those who may feel at home in their gay identity, the notion of publicly coming out rings hollow in a culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter.
Like everywhere else in the world, sexual identities in the Middle East intersect with class, gender, and the complex interplay of private and public, making it impossible to speak of a singular ‘queer Arab’ experience. There are a multitude of queer Arab experiences: from gender rights activists providing underground abortion services to long romantic partnerships between Bedouin men in Siwa, each queer life in the Arab world is unique. Trying to write about a singular gay Arab experience would be, as one Lebanese gay rights activist put it, the equivalent of “writing a story about gay life in the US, and just interviewing someone from the Westboro Baptist Church, a closeted teenager in Nebraska, and Adam Lambert.”
Despite this, queer Arab bodies have become a battleground in a much larger war. After all, it is no secret that both liberals and conservatives in North America and Europe have, since 9/11, waved the flag of women’s rights, and to a lesser degree LGBT rights, as a way to gain Western public support to wage wars in the Middle East. Images and stories of oppressed Afghan women drove the call to war in 2001, and the more recent footage of ISIS throwing gay men off towers and enslaving Yezidi women stoked the fires of intervention in Syria.
Queer Arabs face a dual struggle: we are battling oppressive forces within our own communities, and we are also resisting the global narrative that tries to use our “oppression” for broader military or political goals.
The question then becomes: who owns queer Arab bodies?
Without my boyfriend by my side, I did not know what to do with my days. I chain-smoked and cried in my bedroom. At work, I wrote long, rambling e-mails to myself about what value a private relationship would have if it could not be celebrated publicly, in the same way the relationships of my straight friends were being celebrated in the lavish weddings I attended every other night.
In the afternoons, I watched Oprah, because she seemed to have all of the answers. But then a feminist friend told me that Oprah propagates an individualism that goes against the collectivist values needed to address structural problems like homophobia and patriarchy.
“Besides, you still have it easier than us women,” she said. “At least you can rent a hotel room with a guy and no one will ask to see marriage documents. At least, as a man, you can leave the house in the middle of the night without anyone breathing down your neck.”
I shaved my head, because I felt that a shaved head might make me less gay.
“Is this better?” I asked my boyfriend.
“No,” he responded. “I’m sorry.”
Who owns queer Arab bodies?
On May 11th, 2001, 52 men were arrested in Egypt. The men were aboard the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub on the banks of the Nile. The men were charged with “obscene behaviour”, beaten, and forced to undergo humiliating examinations to determine their sexuality.
The story remained in the headlines for months. Images of the men were plastered on government newspapers and television screens. In one particular photo, the men were dressed in white, crammed together in a cage as they waited for their sentence. Most of the men had covered their faces with white cloth in a futile attempt to protect their privacy.
The bodies of the ‘Cairo 52’, as they had been called, became a battleground for academics, intellectuals and rights activists to project their own theories about queer lives in the Arab world. The condemnation and shaming of the men became a way to bring some legitimacy to President Mubarak’s corrupt regime. Western LGBT organizations and human rights groups framed the raid as the Arab world’s Stonewall, with one group staging a protest at the Egyptian embassy in Paris with signs demanding the Egyptian government “free our lovers”. Meanwhile, anti-imperialist critics like Joseph Massad argued that it wasn’t the same-sex sexual practices the Egyptian government was attacking, but rather “the socio-political identification of these practices with the Western identity of gayness.” After all, he said, the men did not identify as ‘gay’. In fact, they desperately hid their faces. “These are hardly manifestations of gay pride or gay liberation,” he argued.
The 52 men, their faces covered in white cloth, were further obscured as their lives became political scoring cards: for authoritarian regimes, Islamists, western human rights groups and anti-imperialist academics.
Who owns queer Arab bodies?
When ISIS threw two men off a tower last year as punishment for being gay, western media fuelled international outrage against the terrorist organisation. But among gay friends in the Middle East, the incident had nothing to do with them.
“ISIS did not kill those guys as a message to us,” a gay friend told me as we drank gin and slim-line tonics in a bar in Beirut, less than 90 miles from Homs, where the incident took place. “The message was meant for the West: ISIS wanted to show that they stood against everything the West believed in.”
In other words, ISIS’s message was the political equivalent of “Come at me, bro.” Queer bodies flung off a tower are a footnote in a larger political and military bro-down.
When I first read about the incident, I wanted to know how these men were caught. Was it just a vicious lie spread by someone with a personal vendetta? Were those men in a relationship with each other? Were they in love, and if so, did they have any dreams? Or was it just a quickie in a dark alleyway? I wanted to know more. But as I opened my browser, I began to worry that, given my Arab background, perhaps searching about ‘ISIS’ and ‘Syria’ may flag me up to some Western intelligence officers as a terrorist threat, and I already had enough trouble traveling across borders as it was. Maybe it’s better not to know, I thought to myself as I closed the browser.
Later that week, the same Lebanese friend looked up from his phone and said to me: “The one good thing about having so many Syrian refugees in Lebanon is that you can find some gorgeous Syrian escorts on Grindr.”
He was chatting to one as he said this. He invited the man over later that evening.
The Syrian man arrived. They chatted for a while. The Syrian man explained how he had escaped Syria and was trying to make some money to support his mother. Upon hearing this story, my friend’s arousal dampened, and as the escort went in for a kiss, my friend pulled back.
“No,” my friend said. “I’m sorry I can’t do this.”
“Please kiss me,” the Syrian said. “You think I’m a bad person, I know it.”
“No, I don’t,” my friend said. He put $100 in the man’s hands. “Please take this and go.”
“I don’t want the money,” the Syrian man said, bursting into tears. “I want to get to know you. But now you think I’m a bad person.”
ISIS kills gay people. Assad creates gay refugees.
In 2012, 36 men were arrested in a cinema in Bourj Hammoud, a neighbourhood in Beirut. Cinema Plaza was a notorious cruising spot for gay men. The raid happened after a similar cinema in Tripoli, a working class city in northern Lebanon, was exposed in a Lebanese television show called ‘Inta Hurr’ (‘You Are Free’). Neither the police nor the media paid any attention to the multitude of gay bars in the more upscale neighbourhoods of Beirut.
In response to the raids, Lebanese gay activists released pictures of the host of the TV programme partying in a gay nightclub in Mykonos. The host shot back, saying that his privacy was invaded. In a statement released by the television station that aired the show, the host claimed that he “will not apologise [for exposing the cinemas], because the breach of public morality is one thing, and sexual freedom is something else.”
The message was clear: privacy is a luxury that is only afforded to those who can pay for it. If you have money you can buy yourself a gay identity in Mykonos. If not, then head to a rundown cinema and hope for the best.
Who owns queer Arab bodies? Is it the authoritarian regimes who trample on queer bodies for moral legitimacy, the jihadists who burnish their religious credentials by tossing these bodies off the highest towers, the western human rights groups who enforce their own narratives to ‘save’ these bodies, the anti-imperialist academics who argue that these bodies are naively adopting colonialist discourses, the neoconservatives who shake dead queer bodies in front of their constituents to justify wars and occupations, or the rich who dictate the line between sexual freedom and public morality?
As a queer person in the Arab world, everywhere you turn someone wants to use your body, your story, or your life for their own purposes.
In one scene in my novel, Rasa—a young gay Arab—comes out to his college friend in America. She responds by asking if he is at risk of being killed if he returns to the Middle East.
“I don’t think so,” Rasa replies. He pauses for a moment before adding, “Listen, people don’t just kill each other like you hear on TV.”
A few months after my boyfriend broke up with me, I decided to move to Europe.
I did not leave the Middle East because anyone was going to kill me.
I left because I wanted a western passport that would allow me to travel without having to book visa appointments months in advance, without having to prepare income statements and letters from employers and hotel bookings and return tickets. I left because I wanted a passport that would give me protection, a passport that would raise the value of my life in the global hierarchy.
I left because I felt that the region was knee-deep in frustration and hopelessness, that things were going to collapse, and that with my Arab passport I would have nowhere to go. I left because I knew enough to know that the world does not care about Arab and Muslim bodies washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.
I left because I was tired of finding ways to justify why I had to keep my gay identity hidden, and I felt that my sexuality was becoming yet another weapon that could be used against me: if someone developed a personal vendetta against me; if I spoke out of line; if I engaged in the wrong kind of politics; if I was not a good citizen who shut up and took it. I left because my sexuality had become yet another knife held against my throat.
Here are other knives held against people’s throats: Being a refugee on a boat in the Mediterranean. Being a black man in the U.S. Being a Palestinian in Israel. Being a woman pretty much anywhere.
Twenty years after I first saw Sherihan dancing on TV, I came across a YouTube video of her leading the crowds in a chant in Tahrir Square in 2011. My drag mother had joined the revolution for freedom and dignity. Watching this while sitting in London, I couldn’t help but smile. We had come full-circle, I thought to myself, naively assuming that the worst of the violence was over.
Listen, people don’t just kill each other like you hear on TV. I didn’t leave the Middle East because I feared for my life. I left because I was escaping another sort of death.
The truth is, I almost didn’t write my novel.
I almost didn’t write my novel because, whenever I opened the Microsoft Word document, I thought of my parents, and the shame my father would feel as his son exposed himself so openly.
I almost didn’t write my novel because, as my fingers hovered over my English language keyboard, my thoughts turned to various articles, opinion pieces and books written by some Arabs and Muslims in western media; pieces that indulged narratives of oppression and talked about the need for sexual liberation in the Arab world; stories that pandered to orientalist fantasies and Islamophobic stereotypes. The same fantasies and stereotypes that get me detained and interrogated every time I pass through an American airport. The same fantasies and stereotypes that justify closing borders to refugees fleeing war zones. The same fantasies and stereotypes that help Western citizens sleep easy at night as their governments drop bombs on Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.
I almost didn’t write my novel because I feared that writing it would make it more difficult to go back to the Arab world, the place I call home and that I love above all else.
But not to have written my novel would be to admit defeat to all of these forces. And while the novel remains only one story among thousands of other queer Arab stories waiting to be told, in the end, the only story each of us can tell—the only body we own—is our own.
Saleem Haddad is the author of the new novel GUAPA published this spring by Other Press.