This blog post was published on December 8 2004. §
Iraq’s underground culture
Here is a question I have been asked many times by the Dutch, ‘homosexuality in Iraq and in the Arab countries’, you know the Dutch are very open to talk about their sexuality in public and gays can marry here (come on Americans, if two people are happy together what is wrong with that ? and who cares?, let them marry), and Iraqis will not feel comfortable that I opened this subject because it’s not accepted in Iraq and one of the taboos there but the strange thing I ever read about Iraq and I didn�t knew it before is by “Wilfred Thesiger” the last English Victorian traveler who used to go in Iraqi marshes for many times in his book “Marshes Arabs” Thesiger said homosexuals among marshes Arabs are accepted by the tribes as any other people.
(Sorry from the Iraqi readers if they feel they are offended by this post but first lesson in freedom and democracy is “rights for everybody”)
Again I knew a few Iraqi homosexuals before and I have some homo friends here in Holland, they are extremely nice people.
here is an interview with an Iraqi homosexual :
*With a world on the brink of war, OutUK’s Adrian Gillan talks to gay Arabs and Iraqis about being gay in an Arab state and what it’s like for our lads in Baghdad. Is Saddam serious about killing queers and is his regime any worse than other Arab governments?
“I’ve always been discreet,” 28 year old gay Iraqi Zoo from Baghdad tells OutUK nervously, against a backdrop of war-mongering and in the wake of Amnesty’s recent reports of Saddam’s death threat against queers.
“Being gay is not acceptable anywhere in the Arab world, not just Iraq. Arabs are still very conservative and that’ll take decades to change — if ever.”
“However,” he continues, “there is little official reaction to homosexuality in Iraq so far as I know and I was unaware of any law pertaining to anything gay. If Saddam has indeed threatened death for homosexual behaviour, then I do not think it will be enforced.“
“To be honest, I haven’t witnessed or even heard about much overt gay abuse in Iraq,” explains Zoo of a complex, repressive social landscape where people turn blind eyes or are more likely to use such homophobic edicts as a weapon against political opponents, rather than to target queers.
So though it’s hardly a homo haven and no one wants a death threat hanging over them, Iraq probably isn’t the all-out homo hell some might like to paint, and is certainly no where near as fearful as many other Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
“In fact, there is even a place I know of in the heart of Baghdad,” says Zoo, though keen not to disclose too much and put others at risk.
“You can’t really call it a cruising ground. It’s just a very public area where you find all kinds of hotels and businesses. If you walk around and look, chances are someone will soon look back.”
*No need to drop a bomb on Saddam then?
“I don’t like Saddam and neither do most Iraqis,” claims Zoo, “but I think any attack on any country is an outright disaster because the only victims of war are the ordinary people. And this view has nothing to do with my sexuality. Nobody can predict whether or how the regime will change but even if it does, Iraq won’t turn into a paradise overnight — not for anyone.”
“Actually,” agrees Sahib who runs global online community GayArab, “I would certainly say Iraq is no worse than other Arab countries. Since the Gulf War, the Iraqi civilian population is rarely allowed internet access but of the few gay Iraqis I’ve encountered, none have mentioned anything about abuse.”
“There are though surely no ‘gay human rights’ in the Arab World,” he continues. “Gays are treated from good to bad depending on the situation and what country they are in at the time. Some Arab states are more lenient than others with less chance of social abuse, or punishment by law, if found out.”
*So what is it to be Arab? And how grounded is Arab homophobia in fundamentalist Islam?
“The ‘Arab World’ can be described in many different ways,” explains Sahib. “Most Arabic speaking cultures — including the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia — consider themselves Arabs. But some purists would only count those from the Arabian Gulf.” He continues: “The Arab World is not only the geographical and historical birthplace of Islam, but also of Christianity and Judaism.
Indeed, just as most Christians and Jews now live outside the Arab World in the Americas and Europe, so do most Muslims — in Asia.“
“And since the fall of the Ottoman Empire,” Sahib expands, “we have seen more secularisation in what were once traditionally Muslim Arab countries. The rule in Iraq is now mostly secular with Islamic law being enforced when it is in agreement with the current regime.”
“Many Arab countries have laws which prohibit homosexual behaviour,” he continues. “Some of these are Islamic, others based on social or cultural morals. And I suspect Saddam’s recent death threat is secular and will probably be enforced as it suits the regime — whether the accused is gay or not.”
“From an Islamic point of view,” he says, “there are at least two traditional death sentences for homosexual behaviour: hurling the people involved from a high place or collapsing a heavy wall on them. I know of a recent incident where several men accused of homosexual acts were beheaded in Saudi Arabia and some individuals in Afghanistan had a wall pushed over on them.”
“From a more secular point of view,” Sahib continues, “look at Egypt. It has no specific laws against homosexual behaviour but arrested over fifty gays recently and charged them with crimes against morality and such. Some were eventually freed but others are still incarcerated. And of those found at the party in question, only Egyptian citizens were arrested: Non-Egyptian Arabs and people from other parts of the world were not. So you can see how discriminately these laws are applied in such cases.”
*So how can queer Arabs express their sexuality these days?
“I must say the internet has been a godsend to the gay Arab population worldwide,” says online mogul Sahib. “Over the years, I have talked to many people on the verge of suicide who were simply overjoyed to find sites like ours. They had no idea there were any other gay Arabs out there at all.”
“And yes” — he concurs with Zoo — “just like anywhere else in the world, there are many known places to cruise for other men. And in practice Arab publics and police often turn a blind eye: it would not be surprising to find these same authorities enjoying cruising grounds or known bath houses themselves.”
“There is even a historic gay Arab tradition,” says Sahib. “For instance Iraq was once known as Mesopotamia and Baghdad was a cultural hub where poet Abu Nuwas (760–815 AD) wrote odes to wine and boys. Today it is not unusual to hear of gay Arabs who are accepted, protected and even celebrated for their talents — a famous hairdresser in Beirut, a singer in Saudi Arabia or an actor in Egypt.”
“And many gays in Arab countries have no desire to leave their homelands,” he continues. “Indeed, seeking asylum explicitly on sexual grounds would carry a very high cost — never being able to return to your homeland or see your family again. And those who happen to be gay and want to leave their country often do so to avoid marriage rather than to escape abuse or live a more open lifestyle.”
*So is it, for instance, any easier being gay in London’s Iraqi community than it is back in Baghdad?
“From a community and family view I would say it is just as hard,” says Sahib. “The morals are virtually the same. On the other hand, there are obviously more venues and outlets for gays in places like London than back home so that makes things a bit better, but they’d still feel the need to be discreet.”
A double life: better than none. And Sahib is actually keen to praise certain aspects of Arab culture in general: “Many of the morals in which the West claims superiority are mere hot air. In the Arab World, people are judged more by their actions and intentions, not by their words or appearance. Also gay Arabs themselves tend to act more like human beings who happen to be gay — not vice versa!”
And that’s not the only pluses for a gay Arab these days. Admits Sahib with a glint: “At least a quarter of those visiting our site are non-Arabs. Some have this Arabian Nights fantasy: a few Americans actually think we still live in tents and ride camels! Others just know what they like — or are simply curious.”