Talking about ‘unspeakable love’
You mention that an Egyptian gay activist suggested you write a book on Arab homosexuality. Did you have other motivations for doing so?
When I tell people I’m a Middle East correspondent they usually assume I’m a war correspondent – which I’m not. It’s very irritating that so many people perceive the Middle East as a region of death and destruction and very little else.
Obviously journalists can’t ignore the big conflicts, but personally I have always made a point of writing about other aspects as much as possible, because it’s important to give a broader picture and to tell people things they don’t already know.
Most of the books being written about the Middle East these days are terribly predictable. Every month, I’m sent three or four by publishers hoping I’ll review them. They are usually about Iraq, Palestine, terrorism, etc., and they rarely have anything particularly new or interesting to say. I had toyed, off and on, with the idea of writing some kind of book myself but I didn’t want to simply churn out more of the usual stuff.
Many of the topics I have covered in the book are actually very familiar. It is not primarily a book about sex, nor even a ‘gay book’ in the usual sense. It discusses society, culture, religion, politics, reform and east-west conflicts but it approaches them from a totally different angle – through the issue of homosexuality – which may help people to view them in a different light.
The actual spark was the Queen Boat case and a conversation I had a year or so later with a gay activist in Cairo. My initial burst of excitement faded quite rapidly when I realised that in the Middle East homosexuality is possibly the most sensitive and controversial topic anyone can write about (at least if you’re not attacking it), so the thought of doing a whole book on it was pretty scary at first and I hesitated for quite a while.
In the end, there were several factors that persuaded me to go ahead. One was that western activists often treat gay rights in the Middle East as a self-contained issue, without much regard to the social and cultural background. I felt I could use my knowledge of the region to place it in its wider context.
I had also become interested in more general questions of reform in the region and thought the debate was too narrowly focused. Neither the Bush administration nor the Arab reformers were talking about sexual rights, except in terms of gender inequalities. One of my key arguments in the book is that sexual rights cannot be excluded from any sensible programme for reform.
Going back to the initial conversation in Cairo, I did suggest it would be better if the book came from an Arab writer, but there wasn’t much prospect of that. If it was going to be left to a foreigner to say these uncomfortable things, I thought I was at least a foreigner with a reasonable chance of being listened to. If people look at the other things I have written, for example, they can see that I’m not part of some ‘Crusader-Zionist conspiracy’.
My other qualification, I suppose, is that I do know what it’s like to experience same-sex attractions. That probably gave me a bit more insight and understanding but I never felt it was essential to the writing of the book. Of course, some people in the Middle East are bound to assume it was my only motivation – that I must have had a lover on the Queen Boat or something. If they want to imagine stuff like that, there’s nothing I can do to persuade them otherwise, so I’ll just have to live with it.
What were the greatest challenges and rewards you encountered while working on this book?
Well, you can’t just breeze in and say, “Hi, I want to interview some gay Arabs.” You have to ask around discreetly and arrange meetings – usually through third parties – in places where they can talk comfortably without worrying too much about being overheard. It takes a lot of time but, fortunately, because I travel to the Middle East quite a lot I was able to do the research bit by bit, over a period.
I think the biggest challenge was on the lesbian side. Several women were extremely helpful, but it’s difficult for a male writer to get very far beneath the surface in that area. Probably the most rewarding moment came towards the end, when two publishers were vying for the book.
As a journalist who has covered the Middle East for many years, did anything you uncovered while researching the book surprise you or was it all pretty much how you expected?
The biggest surprise came right at the start. I had heard the tales of Abu Nawas and old Baghdad, I had heard of gay men fleeing to Arab countries, such as Morocco, in the 19th and early 20th centuries to escape persecution in Europe, and I’d had sexual advances from men myself while travelling in the Middle East. It seems stupid now when I think about it, but I just didn’t realise that being homosexual was such a big problem there until the Queen Boat case came along. I guess that’s because of the taboo on talking about it.
Another thing that struck me particularly at the research stage was the terrible dilemma that so many young Arabs who are gay or lesbian face when their family presses them to marry and they have to decide whether to come out or play along with their family’s wishes. I knew about the system of arranged marriages, of course, but somehow I had never made the connection and wondered what happens, if the person concerned is gay or lesbian.
How can we penetrate the shroud of secrecy surrounding homosexuality if, as you point out, even activists often don't tell their parents?
The problem with coming out to the family is that families often react badly, so the question then is why they react badly. Most of the people I spoke to put it down to misinformation or a lack of information about homosexuality. Why don’t they have the information? Because the subject is taboo. Why is it taboo? The cycle is endless, because every answer points to yet another problem. The only solution I can see, really, is for people to chip away at it wherever they can until the cycle is finally broken.
How significant a development is the willingness of certain writers to explore, with increasing sympathy, homosexual themes in their books?
Anything that breaks the taboo is a step forward. Alaa al Aswani’s book, The Yacoubian Building, became a bestseller in Egypt but “bestseller” is a relative term. Arabic novels never sell vast numbers of copies. An Egyptian film version of the book is due to come out this year and it will be interesting to see what it’s like. I will be very surprised if the gay character is portrayed in the way he’s portrayed in the book. More generally, I can’t see a big change in popular attitudes until Arab newspapers and television start talking about homosexuality in a sensible way.
Is Lebanon likely to be the trailblazer for the rest of the Arab world?
If we set aside Jerusalem, which is a special case, Beirut is the only Arab city where anyone has paraded a rainbow flag in public. Lebanon is the only Arab country where a gay/lesbian/transsexual etc. organisation can function openly. I’ve heard people complain that Helem’s approach is very “western”, but the people running it are Lebanese. Regardless of what Helem actually does, the fact that it exists in an Arab country is hugely important in terms of breaking down taboos.
One of the interesting things I found in Beirut is that homosexuality seems to cut across the sectarian divide. You see gay Christians, Sunnis and Shias mixing socially, far more than would happen normally. At the same time, leaders of the various sects seem to set aside religious differences when they condemn homosexuality.
As far as the law in Lebanon is concerned, a campaign to legalise homosexuality, on its own, would inevitably run into religious opposition. Helem recognises that, so its campaign is part of a broader movement aimed at modernising the penal code, stripping out any parts of it that are not properly the concern of government, including the things people get up to in bed.
How optimistic are you about the chances for change in the foreseeable future?
Several gay Arabs told me they can see no hope for change in their countries. They also had the strange idea that places like Britain have always been a haven of tolerance. When I told them Britain had the death penalty for sodomy until 1861 and that same-sex relations were illegal until 1967, they were amazed. Also, the arguments against homosexuality that we hear in Arab countries today – that it’s unnatural, a threat to the national way of life, and so on – are almost identical to the arguments that were used in Britain during the 1950s. Change is definitely possible, even if the prospects look bleak at the moment.
The main factor affecting change is that we now live in an inter-connected world where people are increasingly exposed to new information and ideas, and different ways of looking at things. Change will come, and it’s probably starting among the educated younger generation in some Arab cities. The real questions are how long it will take – in Britain it took us 38 years to move from legalisation of homosexuality to official recognition of same-sex partnerships – and what can be done to help it along in the meantime.
You don’t really prescribe an agenda for change. Is this intentional?
Absolutely. The Americans have been busy prescribing agendas for change and look where that got them. It’s a matter for Arabs themselves to decide, according to local conditions. What works in one Arab country may not work in another.
What kind of reform is most urgently needed in order to promote sexual tolerance?
I put the same question to a gay Egyptian recently and he said he would start by sorting out the doctors and psychiatrists who think homosexuality is an illness and make money from pretending to “cure” it. God knows where they were trained, but they should be expelled from the profession.
Should the outside world get involved in this struggle? And, if so, how?
There’s no doubt that international pressure can have a positive effect. Last November, the UAE arrested a couple of dozen allegedly gay men and was apparently planning to “treat” them with hormone injections, but it backed off very quickly when the State Department complained. Unfortunately, international pressure can also have a negative effect. It’s important to find out what kind of help gay people in the country concerned actually want. Gay rights groups in the outside world are often tempted to wade straight in, and they can easily end up appearing Islamophobic.
On a personal front, are you concerned about the possible ferocity of the response from religious – and other – conservatives?
The book isn’t offensive in a Salman Rushdie kind of way. It’s respectful towards Islam but critical of Islamic scholars and their archaic views. If they kick up a fuss about that, they’ll only encourage more people to read it.
The response from a few Arabs and Muslims who read the book before publication was extremely positive – mostly along the lines that it’s high time somebody raised this issue in a serious way. Ali al-Ahmed from the Gulf Institute wrote a wonderful endorsement for the back cover. It was quite brave of him as a Saudi Shia to put his name to it, even though he lives in the United States. My general feeling is that once people have had a chance to read the book and digest its contents, we’ll see more of them willing to stick their necks out a bit and support what I’m saying.
You go into considerable – and interesting – theological detail in outlining the case for homosexuality. But do you think that reinterpreting theology will change attitudes, or shifting attitudes will cause people to rethink their theological positions?
I don’t particularly see Islamic scholars as a force for social change. If the experience of the Christian church is anything to judge by, some will eventually revise their view of scripture in the light of reality; others will stay where they are and ultimately be deserted by many of their followers.
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