Friday, April 07, 2006

Briton's book gives voice to gay Arabs

BEIRUT: When Salim, a 20-year-old Egyptian, told his family that he was gay, they packed him off for six months of psychiatric treatment. When Ali, a teenager from Lebanon, was discovered to be gay, his father broke a chair over his head and his brother threatened to kill him for tarnishing the family honor. Ali left home and no longer has any contact with his relatives.

When the family of another young Egyptian man found out their son was gay, they beat him and then sent him to a therapist. He convinced a young woman to pose as his girlfriend for a while, but once that ruse was up, his family beat him again, this time so harshly that he fled Egypt for the United States, where he applied for political asylum.

These are just a few among the many anecdotes that Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper in London, relates in his new, groundbreaking book, "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East."

Launched in Beirut on Wednesday night with a book signing at Zico House and a party at Walima, "Unspeakable Love" explores the experiences of young gay men and women in several countries throughout the region, including Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Whitaker filters their stories through the multiple lenses of social norms, cultural expressions, the media, politics and religion.

To his credit, Whitaker does not shy away from but rather dives into the murky questions surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East.

Is homosexuality a Western import and a sign of modernity's moral decay? How does that square with the Orientalist fantasy of the Middle East as a lush gay paradise? How do young people today distinguish between homosexuality as a practice and homosexuality as a self-proclaimed identity?

What are the various laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and how are they implemented in various parts of the region? What are the religious texts dealing with homosexuality, how have they been interpreted and - perhaps most crucially - why have they been interpreted as such?

And what, more basically, is the precise terminology at stake here in Arabic, with such expressions as shaadh (pervert or deviant), al-mithliyya al-jinsiyaa (sexual sameness) and the latter's shorthand, mithli and mithliyya, all in circulation at once?

Whitaker, 58, was motivated to write "Unspeakable Love" by the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in 2001, when police raided a Nile River boat that functioned as a floating nightclub and attracted a mainly male clientele. Not only were numerous men arrested and jailed, but the event was also one of the very few to bring issues of gay identity and practice into the mainstream Arab media.

Three things become palpably clear from reading the book.

The first is that social attitudes are the single-most mind-crushing factor for young men and women in Arab world who are trying to deal with the fact that they are attracted to members of the same sex. More so than legal statutes or religious edicts, the pressure to marry is what pushes many of these young men and women to the breaking point.

The second is that because not only homosexuality in particular but sexuality in general remain so stubbornly taboo in the Middle East, there is a dangerous dearth of reliable information, education and counseling available for gay men, lesbian women and their respective families.

Because sexuality is not discussed in the public domain, young people lack even the actual vocabulary - the words, the terms, the turns of phrase - to describe themselves and their actions in simultaneously civic and sexual terms.

A city like Beirut may have a thriving gay subculture, and it may even have a strong, impressive and unprecedented gay rights organization in Helem. But homophobia remains rampant - even among those who should know better - and homosexuality has yet to light the imagination of any prominent politician. Imagine what it would take to get gay marriage on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting or the current national dialogue in Lebanon. Lots of red flags waving and exclamation points popping there.

The third is that the push for gay rights in the region is very much tied to wider issues of social and political reform.

"It's not just about gay rights," says Whitaker. "It's about the whole issue of reform, and reform is not just about elections."

True reform will have to take a full range of factors into consideration, and "sexuality," he adds, "has to be a part of it."

Whitaker has three ideal readers in mind - Westerners interested in reform who need to look beyond voting structures, Arabs interested in reform who need to get over outmoded leftist strategies and young Arabs who are gay, ostracized and alone. For them, the book is perhaps most important because even if the names have been changed and the details have been deleted, it gives them a voice.

"I was basically trying to do a job of reporting, asking people about their lives," Whitaker explains. "There's no book that deals with the contemporary situation quite like this one." He lays a hand on the cover and pats it once. "There are literary histories and anthropological studies. But there are not books that talk to people about their daily lives."

Whitaker admits that he could spend the rest of his career researching the subject, but he says he would risk ending up being just "that guy writing those books." In fact, he hopes he doesn't ever have to write another book like "Unspeakable Love." In effect, he hopes that by its publication, the book will break the taboo.

While it is entirely conceivable that "Unspeakable Love" could have attracted the attention of a major publishing house in Europe or the U.S., Whitaker chose to go with Saqi Books because of its foothold in the region.

"This is where the issue matters," he explains.

It was also important for him to launch the book in Beirut before anywhere else. "I have been apprehensive about it being seen as another Western attack." He says he recently turned down an interview with CNN because he wanted to see how the local press would cover it first.

All of which begs the question: Will "Unspeakable Love" be translated to Arabic anytime soon? Speaking on the day before the launch, Whitaker sounded hypothetically optimistic.

"Obviously, yes," he laughed. "It would be a major development, a breakthrough, if it were to be translated to Arabic. I think the situation with books is similar to the situation with the press. People writing in the English language have a bit more freedom. I hope people will read it in English and tell their friends about it in Arabic. It's a pity it's not in Arabic, but it's a start."

By the time the launch rolled around on Wednesday, Whitaker's publishers were adamant. "Yes," they said. "An Arabic translation is in the works. It will be out by the end of the year." How's that for progress?

Brian Whitaker's "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East" is out now from Saqi Books. For more information, please see