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Thursday, July 30, 1998: The Living Channel

Equivocal Lifestyles

By Nur Sati

Sarkis The Famous Hairdresser
"Arab Men Always Active, Never Passive"
Gays In Israel Demand Equal Rights

the pink triangleAMMAN (AROL)-- The issue of male homosexuality in the Arab world remains a taboo and untapped subject away from national debate.

This tendency is not spoken about openly-- though male-male friction is acknowledged. Nor is it legally recognized in these conservative societies.

While the issue of recognizing male homosexuality is not totally different from other countries, male Arab homosexuality has indeed a different notion from that in the West.

Gay activities are frowned upon in Islam but a set of cultural and traditional taboos has played a role in the acquiescence of much of these sexual activities if confined to a certain set of moral conducts.

That is to say, homosexual behavior may be overlooked but experiencing feelings of an emotional nature beyond sex makes a man gay and hence, a potential outcast. In a society where the family bond, "honor" and image are extremely important, many tend to follow the dictates and norms of society, even if this means living in conflict with their inner feelings.

Sex vs. emotions
Many Arab men make a distinction between sex and emotional attachment. Bruce Dunne, author of an article titled Power and Sexuality in the Middle East, believes that sexual relations in the Middle East are about power. He writes: "Sexual relations in Middle Eastern societies have historically articulated social hierarchies, that is, dominant and subordinate social positions: adult men on top; women, boys and slaves below…Both dominant/subordinate and heterosexual/homosexual categorizations are structures of power."

Having pure, raw sex with another man and being the active partner doesn’t make a man gay. This notion of same-sex is also true in the West. It differs, however, with regard the application.

"Since the concept of same-sex relations does not exist in the Arab world, being ‘Gay’ is still considered to be a sexual behavior," says Outreach Director of the Gay and Lesbian Arab Society, Ramzi Zakharia, in an e-mail interview. But according to Western definition, "that limits it to 'homosexual' behavior, which does not mean that the person is Gay. Just because you sleep with a member of the same sex does not mean you are Gay... it just means that you are engaging in homosexual activity. Once a relationship develops beyond sex (i.e: love) this is when the term gay applies," adds akharia.

He believes that gays in the Arab world, unlike those in Western societies, "limit their activities to sex and rarely explore feelings beyond that," experience.

Impressions from a European
European-born Marcus, who has been in Jordan for two months, has already noticed a remarkable difference between the Kingdom and his native country. While he says that the men he has met generally shy away from emotional intimacy mostly because they experience inner conflicts, these same men are capable of justifying a purely sexual experience.

Having sex (discreetly) is alright, and sometimes even seen as an exploit. It is therefore justified.

Men holding hands or walking arm in arm are familiar scenes in Arab streets. In general men are more intimate with each other than they are in the West and a man without a woman at his side is not really seen as strange, Marcus observes.

These scenes would not draw the eyes of passersby, but the same man-to-man intimacy could be outrightly interepreted in the West as a gay relationship.

"It is much easier to meet men and be close to them here," Marcus says.

(This article focuses only on male homosexuality. This reporter tried to interview females and to tackle the issue of female homosexuality, without results. Arab and Jordanian women are quite reserved and inhibited on this issue, even anonymously, for fear of causing problems to their friends).

Marcus, 29, is gay. He is in the country for the first time learning Arabic. Marcus preferred not to use his real name. Although he says he feels more at ease about being gay in Jordan than he does in his home town, he did not want his colleagues at work to read his name.

Marcus says he feels comfortable approaching a man in Jordan with frankness about his desires. Even though the man may not be gay there is some sort of "understanding" at what is going on, and little or no offence would be taken.

Some men interviewed in Jordan, however, appeared offended at the mention of this topic and they even refused to bring up the issue in general. When they did finally speak about homosexual behavior and gays-- which they believed were the same-- they spoke with repulsion and with harshness.

But Marcus says he has not yet experienced anything of this sort and life for a gay in Jordan is much easier in some ways. Back in his home, a man cannot easily approach or look at another man. "We have the legal recognition but we have a social taboo," Marcus says.

Living a dual life
It may be easier to engage in homosexual behavior, but it certainly is not the case when emotions are involved. This Arab distinction of sex versus emotional attachment is largely derived out of a conflict with dualreligion and tradition. Arab men engage in homosexual behavior, and don’t cross the realm of being gay in order not to morally hurt themselves or their families. These Arab men would prefer (though not because they really want to) to fit into society’s mold and they justify their sexual preferences as "something men do", and not as "something I do because I am gay."

If these same people were living in Western societies, they would most probably be gay and not only engage in homosexual sex. In the West, those who are gay will cross the homosexual boundaries, even if that means staying in the closet. In the Arab world, only some do. Many, however, live a dual life.

Indeed, several gay Arab men living in the US have said that when they return to their homes for long visits, they adapt to societal expectations of them as men, become "hypocritical" and engage in only homosexual behavior, if they do at all.

"They (Arab men) do not face friends/families or even themselves with the truth of their identity. Rather, the majority will carry on with society's plans, get married, get the kids... and then either carry on sexual relations on the side... or vent out their sexual frustrations on Alcohol, Drugs, Spouse Abuse, and other negative and destructive behavior," according to Zakharia.

Homosexuality for Arabs contradicts and even undermines the male, patriarchal image as a "macho" in Arab societies.

A non-typical Arab male?
One 26-year-old Lebanese of Palestinian origin living in Canada explains his conflict, similar to the feelings of many others like him. The following was received from him by e-mail and is printed without editing. He did not want his name used:

I am a non-typical gay Arab male who grew up in Lebanon and then migrated to Canada. Non-typical, I say, because I find myself very different from the gay Arab men (gay men in general) that I know. And I know quite a few. I am able to find a trend in my behavior as I also recognize the common traits that I find in the men I am acquainted with. This leads me to believe that I am different and perhaps they are the norm.

In addressing my homosexuality I try to reconcile many things, namely religion, family, culture and image. Religion , in my mind, tells me not to over indulge. It also is a source of guilt and fear of God. I am Muslim but my friend tells me that my guilt is a Catholic guilt.

My parents raised me with a set of expectations that no matter how much I fight and how compromising my parents get, still is embedded in me. It is inherent that I must succeed. It is inherent no matter what my limitations are. Not to say that my parents will disown me or hurt me. They are very loving. Too loving sometimes. By too loving I mean that they foster dependence to a point that makes me feel controlled most of the time and safe the rest of the time.

Arab culture as I see it is two tier. One side is the culture itself which I love and want and am proud of, the other level is culture in the context of common society. Arabs are perhaps the most hypocritical ( in my view ) when it comes to values. The facade is that of religion and morality. Behind the closed doors is everything else. The two main things I pray one day will happen are that we will become assertive internationally and protect our rights, the other is that we will undo the sexism that we are notorious for.

The last aspect is image. This is personal. We can blame everyone but we must also look within. I look at myself honestly and I see a guy who does not entirely accept himself. This is the number one hindrance to change. I see myself being proud and then I see myself being quiet and complacent. I attribute that to me. I am not being up to the challenge of being gay. I see myself wanting a woman and children whenever I am acquainted with a girl who may be interested in me in the context of marriage.

As I said I am non-typical or I choose to feel this way. I try to reconcile heterosexual values with homosexual life. I go in circles and I find that it all boils down to me as a person. I have to be happy. I find what makes me feel happy, what fulfills me and the rest just falls into place.

In brief, growing up I was a naive and chronically introverted kid with a lot of imagination and no support or anyone to share with. I was never really able to conceive what sex was in its biological sense until I was in Canada and was reading a lot. I did not know about anal sex until I read about it. I never experimented with other boys. The closest I got to that was physical play such as wrestling with my friend.

How do you know the Earth is not flat until you are told it is not? When one looks at it, the Earth looks flat. Similarly society looks heterosexual.

This young man considers himself a non-typical Arab gay, but another young Arab man pointed out in a response to him that he was in fact typical:

I am a non-typical gay Arab male you're wrong. You ARE the typical Gay Arab male. Your post was very interesting. You reminded me what I was a few years ago, but also I realized that I didn't advance so much!. When I go home or when I am with my family, I am exactly like you.

Homosexual sex is not new. It has been around in the Arab world for a long time. The problem is love. "Once you decide to explore your identity beyond sexual activity, once you decide to reject your patriarchal role... this is when you get in trouble," Zakharia says.

In countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, society is slowly changing and emulating the West. With their proximity to Western culture and thought, and people being exposed to new concepts regarding gender roles and sexuality, platforms for debate on homosexuality are opening up.

In Lebanon, society is slowly shifting from a Patriarchal model to a "nuclear" family model; this year’s attempt to introduce civil marriage is a prime example. Other post-Colonialist countries in the region are following, such as Tunis, Zakharia says.

30.7.98 N.S.

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