Morocco has been seen as an exotic, bohemian – licentious even – destination for gay men across the decades. The Guardian's Brian Whitaker reports on a country that is far less liberal for its natives than we might believe.
This article originally appeared in GT magazine, March 2008.
In the eyes of foreigners, Morocco has long been a place with a certain reputation. Paul Bowles, Francis Bacon, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Joe Orton are just a few of gay writers and artists whose names are associated with the country.
Even before that, Morocco was a place where wayward sons of the English gentry – like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited – could escape, perhaps to indulge their illicit pleasures but also to be quietly forgotten by their scandalised families.
Today, Morocco is a popular destination for gay holidaymakers. Stroll around the Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, or sit in one of the tourist restaurants overlooking the square, and the same-sex couples are hard to miss, though unlike Sebastian these are not gentlemen of private means but ordinary guys who probably arrived on Easyjet.
Though their pink pounds and pink euros may be eagerly accepted in the soukhs, Morocco's gay reputation is not one that the country relishes particularly nor, for that matter, deserves. Homosexuality is still a crime, with penalties of up to three years' imprisonment plus a fine for "lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex". For visiting foreigners the risk of arrest may be small, but it's a different story for Moroccans themselves.
Last November there was a party in Ksar el-Kebir, a large but run-down town 75 miles south of Tangier and well off the tourist track. It began on independence day – a festive occasion throughout the country – and continued for a second night. Videos – apparently filmed by one of the guests and later posted on YouTube showed a number of men lounging around, apparently drunk or stoned. In another clip, women and children can be seen watching, and there's a female tambourine player. A man in women's clothing, with a long white cloth draped over his head, dances briefly in a rather feminine fashion with a youth in jeans who has a green sash around his waist.
Maybe this is what they do at gay parties in Morocco, or maybe not. Either way, there was no evidence of sexual activity, gay or otherwise, on the videos – not even a kiss. Perhaps it was just a bit of harmless fun but, unfortunately for those involved, the Islamists who nowadays dominate the town of Ksar el-Kebir didn't think so, and rumours quickly spread that a "gay wedding" had taken place.
A petition was presented to the authorities demanding "an official investigation into the celebration of a homosexual marriage".
The main instigators behind the petition were two Islamist organisations, the opposition Justice and Development party which promotes "Islamic democracy" and the more radical Jamaa al-Adl wal-Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality Association), a technically banned organisation which seeks to impose Islamic law and establish a religious rule under a caliphate. Various other groups also signed the petition, including – bizarrely – a local human rights organisation (though it later changed its mind).
Angry denunciations of the party from preachers in the mosques also stirred up popular opinion – with the result that an angry crowd, reported to number at least 600, took to the streets demanding "justice, punishment and reparation". According to press reports, they tried to attack the owner of the house where the party was held and ransacked a shop belonging to a jeweller who was said to have attended. Riot police then set about the crowd with batons.
One newspaper in particular – al-Massae – which has rapidly built a mass circulation since it first went on sale a couple of years ago, whipped up opinion further with a series of inflammatory articles about the party and identified some of the people involved.
One of the main Arabic TV channels – the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya – joined the fray too, claiming that the party was "attended by scores of gays and lesbians" and "had many elements of a traditional Moroccan wedding".
"The 'bride', adorned with jewellery and full facial makeup, wore a green gown with a golden belt," al-Arabiya said. "His head was covered with a white scarf."
Its report continued: "For the second day's celebrations, which featured a musical performance, he changed into a yellow cloak. A black bull – one of the gifts to the newlyweds – was slain to the celebratory sounds of cheers and ululations. Afterwards, the 'bride' knelt, filled his glass with the bull's blood, and drank it, one of the guests reported."
Before long, "gay wedding" affair had reached the Moroccan parliament where MPs complained about the disintegration of Muslim values, with one Islamist member calling on the government to "combat those want to turn Morocco to a brothel".
Six of the partygoers, aged between 20 and 61, were duly arrested. In the midst of this moral panic they had little chance of a fair trial and on December 10 (which happened to be International Human Rights Day) they were convicted by a local court of violating article 489 of Morocco's penal code – the one that criminalises "lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex".
Three of them were jailed for six months and two for four months. A sixth person, who was also convicted for the unauthorised sale of alcohol, got 10 months.
According to one of their defence lawyers, no evidence was produced in court that a violation of article 489 had actually occurred; the judge convicted them purely on the basis of the YouTube video clips.
In January, following protests from human rights organisations, the court of appeal reduced some of the sentences but without overturning the convictions.
Amnesty International, which has adopted the men as prisoners of conscience, has called on the Moroccan government to repeal its laws against homosexuality. It is also concerned about the men's safety once they are released, given the public vilification they suffered before their arrest.
"The public controversy sparked by this case begs for an urgent review of the country's discriminatory laws which criminalise homosexuality," said Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme. "We urge the Moroccan government to drop the charges that contravene Morocco's obligations under international human rights law."
Why this particular party caused such a furore is still a mystery, but the hysteria surrounding it is reminiscent of another case, five years ago, when 14 young Moroccans – nine of them musicians in heavy metal bands - were accused of devil worship and jailed for "undermining the Muslim faith" and "possessing objects contrary to good morals". The "immoral" objects presented in court included several CDs, a skull-shaped ashtray and a black T-shirt with heavy metal symbols on it. The latter prompted a comment from the judge that "normal people go to concerts in a suit and tie".
On appeal, 11 of the 14 were acquitted and the remaining three had their sentences cut, allowing them to be released immediately.
Cases such as these reflect the conflicting forces in Morocco today: secularists and modernisers on one side, Islamists and traditionalists on the other, with many shades in between. Caught between them, and perhaps hoping to strike a balance, the authorities tend to respond in arbitrary ways, depending on how the wind blows.
There's also no doubt that unconventional behaviour – whether it's heavy metal music or homosexuality – provides an opportunity for the Islamists to stir up popular prejudices and mobilise support for their cause, especially if the behaviour can be portrayed as "western" or "un-Islamic". Given the somewhat repressive political climate, it is often easier to agitate over "moral" issues than more justifiable grievances such as official corruption and decades of mis-rule under the late king, Hassan II.
There may also be an unspoken subtext relating to the present king, Mohammed VI and questions about his sexuality – a matter that can't be discussed openly in Morocco. Before coming to the throne in 1999, he was sent for training with the European Commission in Brussels and was seen at gay clubs in the city. He eventually married at the age of 38 and now has two children.
Much as the religious elements may try to enforce "Islamic values", there are other pressures in the opposite direction. Morocco depends heavily on foreign tourism and has ambitious plans to increase it. Cut-price airlines have finally been allowed in and a new airport is nearing completion in Marrakesh. If the targets are ever to be met, gay visitors will form a significant part.
Marrakesh already has a smattering of gay-run and gay-friendly hotels – mostly converted from traditional "riad" houses in the old city. Of course, they don't fly rainbow flags or advertise the fact, but if you search their websites there are usually a few clues.
Meanwhile, the local police try to keep a lid on the sex trade, often in an arbitrary and inconsistent fashion. One result of this is that young gay Moroccans who consort with foreigners are automatically assumed to be prostitutes.
In one of Marrakesh's riad hotels, a Moroccan employee - let's call him Hassan – spends quiet evenings at the reception desk, browsing Gaydar on the computer. He calls up pictures of a "friend" he has been chatting with but never met, since he's far away in the Philippines.
Using Gaydar to meet other Moroccans is a risky business, Hassan says. "You have to be very careful. One of my friends has been in prison for the last 20 days. They caught him having oral sex in a car."
The hotel doesn't want any trouble, so there are strict rules forbidding any sexual contact between staff and guests.
"Sometimes I go without sex for three months."
The solution, Hassan says, is to save as much money as he can, then go for a holiday abroad – in Turkey or Thailand.