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January 03, 2007

UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (Book Review)

I wrote the following book review for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay and lesbin weekly -- which publishes it tomorrow:

UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the MiddleUnspeakable_love  East, by Brian Whittaker; 264 pp.; University of California Press

When Tayseer, a Palestinian from Gaza, was 18, he was found in bed with a boyfriend by an older brother -- and as a result, he was severely beaten by his family and threatened with strangulation by his father if he ever had gay sex again.

A few months later, Tayseer was invited into an orange grove for sex by an undercover police agent of the Palestinian Authority, and subsequently arrested. Police told Tayseer that the only way for him to avoid prison was to himself become a Judas goat, to lure other gay men into sex so that they, too, could be arrested.

When he refused to be police bait in this entrapment scheme, Tayseer was hung by his arms from the ceiling. “A high-ranking officer he didn’t know arranged for his release--and then demanded sex as payback.”

When Tayseer fled Gaza for Tulkarem, he was eventually re-arrested, and forced to stand in neck-high sewage water with his head covered by a feces-filled sack. During one police interrogation, Tayseer was stripped and forced to sit on a Coke bottle.

Tayseer’s story is just one of the accounts by Arab lesbians Brian_whitaker and gay men in Brian Whittaker’s new book, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, just published simultaneously here and in the U.K. Whittaker (left), the Middle East Bureau Chief for the British daily The Guardian, writes that he was inspired to do this book when covering the infamous Queen Boat case in Egypt, in which 52 men were arrested in 2001 at a gay party on a disco boat, and subjected to a highly-sensationalized trial -- in a state security court normally reserved for terrorists -- for using “perverted sexual acts” as part of “satanic rituals” (one Cairo newspaper headline blared, “Perverts Declare War on Egypt.”) Thirty-five of the men received prison terms and 200 lashes each -- and 70 more men who had initially been arrested, then released, were also later sentenced to prison.

Whitaker writes that “the dearth of coverage about Arab homosexuality encourages the idea that it is almost entirely a foreign phenomenon.” It is the great merit of this book that it helps to give a fuller picture of both the wide-spread existence of same-sex love in the Arab world and of the increasing number of Arabs who are choosing to define themselves through a gay identity.

In dissecting the wide gap between portrayals of homosexuality in Arab media and official discourse, and the lived reality of Arab same-sexers, Whitaker writes that “Arab portrayals of homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon can be [plausibly] attributed to a reversal of old-fashioned Western orientalism. Western orientalism, as analyzed by Edward Said (right) in hisEdward_said  influential book, highlights the ‘otherness’ of oriental culture in order (Said argued) to control it more effectively. Reverse orientalism -- a comparatively new development in the Arab world -- taps into the same themes but also highlights the ‘otherness’ of the West in order to resist modernization and reform. Homosexuality is one aspect of Western ‘otherness’ that can be readily exploited to whip up popular sentiment…Where symbolism of this kind applies, the sexual act must necessarily be described in terms that maximize the reader’s disgust: there is no scope for portrayals of homosexuality that are anything but negative.”

In this context, and given prevailing cultural and official attitudes toward homosexuality, the near-impossibility of being openly gay, and the absence of public spaces where same-sexers can lawfully gather and meet, it is hardly surprising that, as Whitaker writes, “a point made repeatedly by interviewees…was that to be gay and Arab is often extremely lonely.”

So great is ignorance about the real nature of the same-sex impulse in the Arab world that the semi-official Egyptian daily al-Ahram al-Arabi could run a lengthy 2001 interview with “a professor of surgical medicine” on the “most successful method” of “curing sexual perversion”: to wit, “cauterizing the anus, which, by narrowing the anus, makes it more painful for the passive homosexual to be penetrated, which makes the active homosexual unable to penetrate, and causes the sexual encounter to fail.”

Whitaker quotes the late Zaki Badawi (right), head of the MuslimZaki_badawi  College in London, as saying that, “Homosexuality has always existed and continues to exist in all Islamic countries. Many high-ranking leaders in the Islamic Mohamed_vi world are gay.” Unfortunately, Whitaker doesn’t name any of those leaders, except for the Sultan of Oman. He might well have mentioned King Mohammed VI (left) of Morocco (also the country’s chief spiritual leader as Commander of the Faithful) who was outed on his ascension to the throne in 1999 by the leading Belgian daily, Le Soir, which revealed that as a university undergraduate in Brussels, the king-to-be had spentBouteflika  all his free time in gay bars. Then there’s Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (right), knowledge of whose homosexuality is widespread in his country, where he is frequently referred to as "ateka," a word-play nick-name meant to portray him as a “queen” (it can mean "old maid," and it's been chanted at him by entire football-stadiums!)

Whitaker devotes a chapter to the rare images of homosexuality in Arab cinema -- briefly touching on the work of the likes of Egyptian directors Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Saif, and Yousri Nasrallah, and the Tunisian Nouri Bouzid -- and the relatively few portrayals of it in modern Arab fiction. Novels like the Lebanese Hoda Barakat’s 1990 “The Stone of Laughter,” Egyptian Alaa al-Aswani’s huge best-seller “The Yacoubian Building” (2002), and Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt’s 1947 “Midaq Alley” are discussed. But the burgeoning lesbian and gay literature written in French by Mediterranean Arab writers from former French colonies -- who cannot publish in their own countries in Arabic -- gets only aRachid_o  sentence: the talented Moroccan Rachid O (right), whose novels have won critical acclaim, is mentioned but not discussed; and not even mentioned at all are such interesting writers on gay themes as the Algerian Aniss A., the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, the Moroccans Kasim Nasseri and Bahaa Trebelsi, or the Tunisian Eyet-Chékib Djaziri.

It’s unfortunate that, as Whittaker notes, most of his face-to-face interviews with gays and lesbians were limited to Egypt and Lebanon, and to the cosmopolitan centers of Cairo and Beirut --although there are 22 countries in the Arab League. Thus, the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia -- with a combined population of over 80 million -- are hardly mentioned.

The particularly virulent menace to homosexuals posed by the rise Yusuf_alqaradawi of Islamic fundamentalism gets no systematic examination, although fundamentalism is evoked briefly and in passing in several different sections of the book. Whitaker does, however, dissect the anti-gay arguments of several English-language Islamist websites and the pronunciamentos of Yusuf al-Qaradawi (above left), an influential religious figure in the Arab world popularized by his regular appearances on Al-Jazeera TV.

But the book is also marred by several errors.

For example, Whitaker writes that the Lebanese gay group Helem “is the only specifically gay and lesbian organization functioning openly in an Arab country” -- thus overlooking ASWAT, the self-described “organization of Palestinian gay women,” which received an award for its work inside the Palestinian Authority from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in March 2006.

Whittaker characterizes the Iranian theocracy’s attitude toward the transgendered as “comparatively liberal” -- but he makes no mention of how an Iranian seeking sexual reassignment surgery must have an official document declaring themselves “mentally ill” before being allowed to have such an operation. Nor does he mention how Iran’s mullah-controlled psychologists routinely pressure homosexuals into sex-change operations -- to which some same-sexers reluctantly agree in order to avoid prosecution for homosexuality, a capital crime in Iran. The French public television network France 2 last year gave a detailed account of this phenomenon in a documentary with the telling title, “Changer de Sexe ou Mourir” (translation: “Change Sex or Die.”) And in August 2006, I interviewed for The Advocate a 24-year-old Iranian lesbian refugee named Maryam, now seeking asylum in France as a sexual refugee -- she told me that when, after her lesbian affair was revealed, she was forced to undergo six months of treatment from two women psychologists at the University of Shahid Beheshti, “they ordered me to have it [sex-change surgery]. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m Maryam, a girl, and I do not want to be a man!' The female doctor told me, ‘If you don’t change your sexuality and you continue unlawful acts, your future will be a death sentence.’”

Still, despite these caveats, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE is a valuable introduction to the difficulties of being homosexual in the Arab world, and one of the few recent books in English to discuss contemporary Arab same-sex relations from a sympathetic point of view.

One of the most useful chapters in the book is Whitaker’s Joseph_massad dissection and refutation of the arguments of Joseph Massad (left), a controversial Columbia University professor and author of a widely-circulated essay ( "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World," Public Culture, Spring, 2002) complaining that gay rights in Arab and Muslim countries is an imperialist ‘missionary’ project orchestrated by what he calls the “Gay International.”

In concluding his dissection of Massad, Whitaker writes that Massad and his acolytes present the debate “as a choice between cultural authenticity on the one hand and the adoption of all things Western on the other. In fact, neither is a realistic proposition. Exposure to foreign ideas and influences cannot be prevented, but nor are Arabs incapable of making critical judgments about them. Equally, Arab culture cannot be treated as a fossil; it is a culture in which real people lead real lives and it must be allowed to evolve to meet their needs. The issue, then, is not whether concepts such as ‘gay’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are foreign imports, but whether they serve a useful purpose. For Arabs who grow up disturbed by an inexplicable attraction towards members of their own sex, they can provide a framework for understanding. For families -- puzzled, troubled, and uninformed by their own society -- they offer a sensible alternative to regarding sons and daughters as sinful or mad.”

To which one can only say, Amen!

Visit Brian Whitaker's website al-Bab, an English-language window on the Arab world.

Posted by Direland at 12:48 PM | Permalink


Interesting post. I didn't know homosexuality was punishable by death. There must be a good amount of closet cases.

Posted by: Residential Tanning Beds | Jan 14, 2010 8:03:14 PM

this is not a good idea!

Posted by: psycholog | Dec 5, 2009 2:29:21 PM

Still, despite these caveats, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE is a valuable introduction to the difficulties of being homosexual in the Arab world, and one of the few recent books in English to discuss contemporary Arab same-sex relations from a sympathetic point of view.

Posted by: pharmacy no prescription | Oct 29, 2009 9:22:07 AM

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