Time Out Beirut

Article originally published in Time Out Beirut, May 2006. Reproduced here with permission.

Unspeakable love

Veteran Middle East journalist Brian Whitaker’s groundbreaking new book tackles the still taboo issue of homosexuality in the Arab world, the first in any language to do so. Ramsay Short caught up with the writer at the book’s April launch in Beirut.

Brian Whitaker is a thin, unassuming man. If you saw him walking down the street you wouldn’t notice. But unlike the people who appear in his new book ‘Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East’ published by Dar al Saqi, he is at least free to be whoever he wants to be.

For homosexuals in this part of world, although Lebanon or more specifically Beirut is a little more lenient than other states, it is very different story. Often beaten by their families, ostracised by society, accused of bringing shame upon their households, the result is despair and sometimes tragedy.

‘That’s in part why I had to write this book’, Whitaker says. ‘Homosexuality is a subject that Arabs, even reform minded Arabs are reluctant to discuss. I’ve been covering the Middle East for six years now for The Guardian (a British newspaper) and if I was to write a book about the region I wanted to write one that would break new ground.

‘After the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in 2001 (when police raided a Nile River boat that was effectively a floating nightclub for gay men and numerous arrests were made) I realized there was a huge problem in the Middle East that demanded attention’.

‘Unspeakable Love’ does exactly what it intends, bringing attention to this issue with a consummate reporter’s eye, detailing instances of what it means to be gay or lesbian across the 22 countries in the Arab League, though it concentrates mainly on Lebanon and Egypt as two countries that provide the most different contrasts.

We hear of Salim in Egypt, for example, who was forced to see a psychiatrist when his family found out he was gay. The psychiatrist said homosexuality was a disease: ‘An illness is any deviation from normality’.

While in Lebanon we hear of the internationally renowned transsexual artist, a flamboyant openly gay male belly dancer and a popular television drag queen all of whom are celebrated by the masses.

Whitaker sensitively and engagingly tackles the subject in terms of the personal experiences of people he interviewed, examines the legal situation in countries that are mostly highly conservative, and reflects on the engulfing social mores that close down people’s understanding of their own individuality – be it being gay or having long hair and listening to Nirvana CDs.

But he is not afraid to criticise governments, or religious leaders for what is essentially backward thinking.

‘With all the discussion of reform in the Middle East, I felt that the Bush administration had not understood the region very well as a result of their obsession with elections, and when you look at sexual issues there are lots of things that are involved ¬– different interpretations of religion and the approach that governments have to the law’, Whitaker says. ‘This whole idea of regulating aspects of life by law is a major thing, and I wanted to challenge this attitude of governments’ controlling behaviour’.

This question of reform is one of the core arguments of ‘Unspeakable Love’. For Whitaker, 58, the development of sexual rights in the region is an indicator of how far broad-based reform across the board has reached.

‘It’s the same with religion, where the sort of mentality that regards homosexuality as the worst sin anybody has ever thought of also produces all the stuff we see in Saudi Arabia about the way women are treated, or the latest fatwa from Egypt banning people having statues in their houses.

It’s bonkers.’ In Lebanon, unlike Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states homosexuality has become increasingly open. Whitaker’s experiences here of talking to people, and with groups like gay rights organization Helem and their magazine Barra who actively promote freedoms for homosexuals (www.helem.net), bear witness to that.

‘Beirut is more open than anywhere else in the Middle East… That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of activity going on elsewhere, just that it’s more furtive’, he says.

The Lebanese capital does have a very progressive gay subculture. There are nightclubs, gay and lesbian DJs, writers, artists and even politicians. Yet there are still numerous examples of intolerance as Whitaker recounts.

Ali, who fled his family at age 18, was beaten with a chair while at home, imprisoned in his room for five days, locked in the boot of a car and told by his older brother, ‘I’m not sure you’re gay, but if I find out one day that you are gay, you’re dead. It’s not good for our family and our name’.

Despite such incidences Beirut was still the place to launch ‘Unspeakable Love’ says Whitaker and the proof is in the media coverage albeit more in the French and English language press than the Arabic.

It is the first book in any language to deal accurately without distorted information on the subject. For Western readers it will be an eye-opener.

For young gay people in the Arab world it will provide a wealth of human experience with which they can identify and know they are not alone. And Saqi have confirmed that the book will come out in Arabic by the end of the year – a bold and important step that may cause controversy but will certainly highlight the backwardness and hypocrisy of many Arab societies.

As Whitaker recounts in ‘Unspeakable Love’ even the Arabic terminology for homosexuality is not finalised. The Arabic language has no term for the word ‘gay’. ‘Homosexuality’ translates as al-mithliyya al jinsiyya or literally ‘sexual sameness’. Mithli has begun to be used by gays to describe themselves but the popular media still uses the rather more negative term shaadh meaning ‘queer’ or ‘pervert’.

‘I want people in the West to understand from this book that sexual rights need to be part of reform and democratisation’, he explains. ‘And I want to address the Arab reformers in the Middle East to say that okay, you want democracy but you cannot ignore this subject.

‘For me ‘Unspeakable Love’ will have succeeded if I never have to write about this issue again. I hope that other people will take it up here. I have a feeling that this is a beginning and that maybe in five years young Arab journalists will see this is a sexy subject to get into and something that is good for their career, something that is fairly radical to investigate or write about.

‘And when that happens I think we’ll start seeing a few changes.’ 

  • ‘Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East’ published by Dar al Saqi is out now or available from www.saqibooks.com.