LGBTQ Issues and Same-Sex Love (Homosexuality) in the Arab-Muslim World

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two men caught in bed together, Khamsa by Atai, 1721

Surveys among Muslims show that they are more than four times as likely to disapprove of homosexuality than people in Western countries. Many Arabs view homosexuality as a terrible sin, even heresy. In the United Arab Emirates, homosexuality is treated as a serious crime. In Egypt, gay men have been killed and tortured by police. Even some liberal Arabs have little tolerance for homosexuality. One Egyptian human rights activist told the New York Times, “No one has the right to be queer, because this is against human nature...Society will never accept it because it violates our religion, our beliefs.” According to a 2016 poll on social media by writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, 52 percent of British Muslims said homosexuality should be banned.

In the Arab world, homosexuality is often characterized as a Western disease, even one with colonial aspects to it. As an illustration of this some point to a scene in the novel “For Bread Alone” by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri in which a desperate young man who has just moved to the city from the countryside sells himself to an elderly Spaniard.

Homosexuals are sometimes referred to as men “who act like women.” Photographs of “women” from the Ottoman were often of men dressed up as women. Because Muslim women were not supposed to be seen by men outside their families, photographers sometimes asked men to pose as women.

Websites and Resources: Islam “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts

Secrecy Surrounding Same-Sex Sex in the Muslim-Arab World

A lot of Arabs reportedly engage in homosexual acts but are very secretive about it. Many Arab gays feel lonely, repressed and guilty. One Egyptian gay man told Newsweek, “When I first had these feeling I believed I was the only one. Then I met someone, and we thought we were the only two. Slowly we found our way into a community.”

According to the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Although homosexuality exists in the Islamic world, and the literature would indicate that it has always existed, no open, candid, or objective studies have been conducted. Instead it is a subject to which one refers casually or satirically. Some writers have held that Islam is more tolerant of homosexuality than Christianity traditionally has been, but it is extremely difficult to document this. It is true that people are not discriminated against in the job market on the basis of their sexual preference, but this is undoubtedly due to the fact that homosexuality is still practiced in almost complete secrecy and always in fear of exposure. Those publicly identified as homosexuals are often shunned, excluded, or ridiculed at social functions. To practice such unacceptable behavior privately is one thing, but to pronounce it publicly and defiantly would, under present conditions, certainly trigger a violent and perhaps catastrophic reaction. [Source:“Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

“In the Name of Allah” (“A Jihad for Love”) is a documentary by New York-based director Parvez Sharma about Muslim gays and lesbians in North America, Europe, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Many of those who appeared or talked in the film were found over the Internet and did not want to give their names out of fear of being persecuted . Sharia received several death threatened over the film.

Homosexuality and Islam

Muslims generally condemns or at least frown upon homosexuality. Conservatives think it deserves capital punishment. According to some interpretations of Islamic law, homosexuality is a worse offense than adultery and can be punished by death. One Egyptian Islamist told the New York Times, “We consider it strange how the laws of Western civilization are not alert to the danger of this crime, but encourage it in the name of freedom.”

In October 2005, the Iraqi Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuals but it was inexplicable removed a few month later. The influential television cleric Sheil Yussef Al-Qaradawi called homosexuals perverts but noted “there is disagreement over punishment.”

Some liberals assert there is nothing in the Qur’an that says homosexuality should be condemned or punished. One gay man in Cairo told the New York Times magazine, “There is nothing clear on homosexuality in the Qur’an. It reads that the man who does it should be hurt. What does it mean ‘to be hurt?’ In the Arabian peninsula they used a stick the size of this punish men. It’s not like thievery or adultery. And anyway the Prophet was promised boys in heaven. Not girls.”

Much of the scriptural basis for the intolerant views of homosexuality in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are based on the story of the Prophet Lot. The New York Times magazine said: “Ambiguities abound, and while there is no consensus on where Islam stands, popular and legalistic reinterpretations take liberties in selecting the bits that suit particular world views.” Conservatives Muslims regard public discussion of homosexuality to be an insult. Islamic nations have gone as far as trying to bar U.S. gay rights groups from attending a United Nations conference on AIDS.

According to the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: In Islam, homosexuality is believed to be the result of weak character, lack of religious teachings, sexual permissiveness, economic pressure, and circumstances. To most Muslims, it is a serious deviation from nature and an affront to human honor and dignity. The Qur'an, like the Christian and Jewish Scriptures, report the case of Sodom and Gomorrah and make it quite specific that the incident is one of males approaching males, deserting the women who had been specially created for them. Though Lût and his family were saved, He destroyed the rest of the people by showering them with brimstones (Holy Qur'an, XXVI, Nos. 165-173). [Source:“Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

Adding to the effect of these verses are others emphasizing that "those men who have intercourse with other men or animals" are cursed. Note that the focus here is on male rather than female homosexuality. Lesbian relationships are seldom, if ever, discussed in Islamic writings, almost as if such relationships did not exist. Hence, if it is unlikely for gays to come out of the closet, it is virtually unthinkable for lesbians to do so.

Islamic Position on Homosexuality

Heba G. Kotb wrote: Allah teaches that homosexual acts are sinful and punishable by God. This teaching comes not from human beings, but from the Creator of all humans. Allah considers homosexuality as a sexual deviation leading to a perverted act that goes against the natural order Allah intended for mankind. It is a corruption of the man’s sexuality and a crime against the opposite sex. Therefore, the Islamic shari’ah strictly prohibits the practice of this perverted act. This is mentioned in many places in the holy Allah. [Source: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D., A dissertation presented to Maimonides University, 2004]

A king looking at a picture of his son and his tutor who fell in love with him

The story of the people of the prophet Lut who were addicted to this practice, is the best example. Prophet Lut said to his people: “Verily, you do sodomy with men, and rob the wayfarer! And practice all wickedness in your meetings,” (29:29). And he said to them: “Of all the creatures of the world, will you approach males, and leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your wives? Nay, you are a trespassing people!” (26:165-166). But their answer to Prophet Lut, (peace be upon his soul): “Bring us the Wrath of Allah if you are telling us the Truth.” (29:29). And so Allah gave them the punishment they deserved: “And We rained on them a rain of torment. And how evil was the rain of those who had been warned,” (26:173).

Just as a person who has a sexual urge should not satisfy it by committing zina (fornication or adultery), a person who has this perverted thought should not act upon it. In order to maintain the purity of the Muslim society, most Muslim scholars have ruled that the punishment for this act should be the same as for zina (i.e. one hundred whiplashes for the man who has never married, and death by stoning for the married man). Some have even ruled that it should be death for both partners, because the Prophet, (PBUH), said: “Kill the doer and the one to whom it was done.”

Allah considers homosexuality to be the result of a choice. It is inconceivable that Allah made people homosexuals then declared it a crime and prescribed punishments for it in both this life and the next. To accept such a proposition is to accept that God is unjust. I It should be noted that Allah, in its final form, did not introduce anti-gay legislature to the world. The texts of the Torah are replete with clear condemnation of such practices.

Story of Lut (Lot) — Scriptural Basis of Islam’s Negative View on Same-Sex Love

The Qur’an describes how Allah punished the people of Lut (Lot) for their same-sex behavior. The story of the Prophet Lut is mentioned in several Qur’anic passages, especially Chapter 26:160-175 which reads: “The people of Lut rejected the apostles. Behold, their brother Lut said to them: “Will you not fear (God)? “I am to you an apostle worthy of all trust. “So fear God and obey me. “No reward do I ask of you for it: my reward is only from the lord of the Worlds. “Of all the creatures in the world, will you approach males, “And leave those whom God has created for you to be your mates? Nay, you are a people transgressing (all limits)!” They said: “If thou desist not, O Lut! You will assuredly be cast out!” He said: “I do detest your doings.” “O my Lord! Deliver me and my family from such things as they do!” So We delivered him and his family, all Except an old woman who lingered behind. But the rest We destroyed utterly. We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)! Verily in this is a Sign: but most of them do not believe. And verily thy Lord is He, the Exalted in Might Most Merciful.” [Source: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D., A dissertation presented to Maimonides University, 2004]

Heba G. Kotb wrote: From these passages we learn that God saved Lot and the righteous ones of his family, and rained on the rest a shower of brimstone, so they were utterly destroyed. This is mentioned in the Allah not only for the sake of information, but mainly to serve as a warning to anyone who dares to repeat such acts.

Allah believes that every human action leads to consequences. Good actions entail good results, and evil actions entail evil consequences. Some of these consequences may not become known for many years after a certain action. The consequences of some actions will become manifest only after death when one enters a new, everlasting life.... A common mistake among humans is that if they don’t see any negative consequences for their actions they consider it harmless. Human experience has taught us that a source of superior knowledge can be of tremendous benefit to humans.... God, the source of all knowledges, warns us of His punishment if people perpetrate homosexual acts. Let us pay attention and learn the easy way.

Some will say that a person may be born with homosexual tendencies. We say that everyone is a free agent. God lays before us two paths and has given us knowledge of where these paths lead. One is the path to which the devil calls us. We must avoid that. One is the path leading to paradise. We must stick to that one. Everyone experiences evil prompting from time to time. We must resist those with all our might. If one feels a tendency to do something that God prohibits, he or she should seek help from Allah Almighty our great creator, by making more prayers to him to help one to bypass the crisis, and by making the divine requests “doa’”, and also from a community of loving, caring, believers who would understand his or her difficulty and help him or her overcome it. A common ploy of the devil is to convince people that they cannot avoid sin. Then they do not even try. But Allah promises that the devil can have no lasting power over those who sincerely seek Allah (Qur’an 15:42). Finally, our bodies are given to us in trust from God. One should not use his or her body contrary to the user guide provided by its Maker. Consenting adults also need God’s consent.

Qu'ran and Homosexuality

A man exposing himself through a hole in a fence

Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century adventurer and writer, suggested the following Qu'ranic verses were relevant to homosexuality: SURA IV: 19-21: 19. But whoso rebels against God and His Apostle, and transgresses His bounds, He will make him enter into fire, and dwell therein for aye; and for him is shameful woe. 20. Against those of your women who commit adultery, call witnesses four in number from among yourselves; and if these bear witness, then keep the women in houses until death release them, or God shall make for them a way. 21. And if two (men) of you commit it, then hurt them both; but if they turn again and amend, leave them alone, verily, God is easily turned, compassionate. [Source: Qu'ran edition at Virginia Tech's etext collection, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

SURA VII: 78-84 [On Lot at Sodom]: 78. Then the earthquake took them, and in the morning they lay prone in their dwellings; 79. and he turned away from them and said, 'O my people! I did preach to you the message of my Lord, and I gave you good advice; but ye love not sincere advisers.' 80. And Lot, when he said to his people, 'Do ye approach an abomination which no one in all the world ever anticipated you in? 81. verily, ye approach men with lust rather than women- nay, ye are a people who exceed.' 82.But his people's answer only was to say, 'Turn them out of your village, verily, they are a people who pretend to purity.' 83. But we saved him and his people, except his wife, who was of those who lingered; 84. and we rained down upon them a rain;- see then how was the end of the sinners!

SURA XI: 77-84 [On Lot at Sodom]: 77. And when our messengers came to Lot, he was grieved for them; but his arm was straitened for them, and he said, 'This is a troublesome day!' 78. And his people came to him, rushing at him, for before that they used to work evil. He 'Said, 'O my people! here are my daughters, they are purer for you; then, fear God, and do not disgrace me through my guests;- is there not among you one right-thinking man?' 79. They said, 'Thou knowest that we have no claim on thy daughters; verily, thou knowest what we want!' 80. He said, 'Had I but power over you; or could I but resort to some strong column....!'

  1. (The angels) said, 'O Lot! verily, we are the messengers of thy Lord, they shall certainly not reach thee; then travel with thy people in the darkness of the night, and let none of you look round except thy wife: verily, there shall befall her what befalls them. Verily, their appointment is for the morning! and is not the morning nigh?' 82. And when our bidding came, we made their high parts their low parts. And we rained down upon them stones and baked clay one after another, 83. marked, from thy Lord, and these are not so far from the unjust! 84. And unto Midian (we sent) their brother Sho'haib. He said, 'O my people! serve God; ye have no god but Him, and give not short measure and weight. Verily, 'I see you well off; but, verily, I fear for you the torments of an encompassing day.

SURA XXVI: 160-174 [On Lot and Sodom]: 160. The people of Lot called the apostles liars; 161 when their brother Lot said to them, 'Do ye not fear? 162. verily, I am to you a faithful apostle; 163. then fear God and obey me. 164 I do not ask you for it any hire; my hire is only with the Lord of the worlds. 165 Do ye approach males of all the world 166 and leave what God your Lord has created for you of your wives? nay, but ye are people who transgress!' 167 They said, 'Surely, if thou dost not desist, O Lot! thou shalt be of those who are expelled!' 168 Said he, 'Verily, I am of those who hate your deed; 169 my Lord! save me and my people from what they do.' 170 And we saved him and his people all together, 171 except an old woman amongst those who lingered. 172 Then we destroyed the others; 173 and we rained down upon them a rain; and evil was the rain of those who were warned. 174 Verily, in that is a sign; but most of them will never be believers. 175 And, verily, thy Lord He is mighty, merciful, compassionate. SURA XXIX: 28-35 [On Lot and Sodom]: 28. And (remmber) Lot when he said to his people, 'Verily, ye approach an abomination which no one in all the world ever anticipated you in!

  1. What! do ye approach men? (or Do you commit sexual acts with men?) and stop folks on the highway? And approach in your assembly sin?' but the answer of his people was only to say, 'Bring us God's torment, if thou art of those who speak the truth!' 30. Said he, 'My Lord! help me against a people who do evil!' 31. And when our messengers came to Abraham with the glad tidings, they said, 'We are about to destroy the people of this city. Verily, the people thereof are wrong-doers.' 32. Said he, 'Verily, in it is Lot; they said, 'We know best who is therein; we shall of a surety save him and his people, except his wife, who is of those who linger.' 33. And when our messengers came to Lot, he was vexed for them, and his arm was straitened for them; and they said, 'Fear not, neither grieve; we are about to save thee and thy people, except thy wife, who is of those who linger. 34. Verily, we are about to send down upon the people of this city a horror from heaven, for that they have sinned; 35. and we have left therefrom a manifest sign unto a people who have sense.'

ON THE OTHER HAND: Although the Qu'ran does not have verse explicitly in favor of homosexuality, it does have verses which show awareness of male beauty. These are promises made to Muslim men who make it to Heaven. SURA LII:24: "And there shall wait on them [the Muslim men] young boys of their own, as fair as virgin pearls." SURA LXXVI:19: "They shall be attended by boys graced with eternal youth, who will seem like scattered pearls to the beholders."

Treatment and Persecution of Arab Homosexuals

When Muslim parents find out that a child is gay their first response is often shock, followed by seeking medical or psychological help. A Cairo psychiatrists that has dealt with fair number of such cases told the New York Times magazine, “Typically a family comes in with their son or daughter who has just announced that they are homosexual.”

The typical treatment is anti-depressants and counseling. In some rare cases electroshock therapy has been employed. A gay woman in Cairo told the New York Times magazine, “I’ve been to three psychiatrists, each time taken by my parents. The first two prescribed anti-depressants. They told me it was a phase, that I should ‘cheer up.’ The third prescribed electroshock therapy. I never went back.”

A few incidents of crackdowns on homosexuals I the Arab world have made the Western press. In August 2006, police in Saudi Arabia raided a wedding party in the town of Jizan and arrested 20 men for “impersonating women. In 2005, 26 men were arrested when a party in a desert region in the United Arab Emirates was raided. A government spokesman was quote dn the Khaleej Times. “Because they’ve put society at risk they will be given the necessary treatment, from make hormone injections to psychological therapies.” Arrests have also been made in Lebanon and Morocco, which are widely see as the most liberal Arab states.

Gay Scene and Crackdowns in Egypt

There used to be a fairly active gay scene in Cairo and Alexandria. There were gay clubs, bars, meeting places and online dating services in affluent neighborhoods in these cities. Egypt had a reputation of being the place to be if you were Arab and gay. On man told the New York Times, “You would walk in a Thursday night, and it was like you were in a gay bar in Europe.” [Source: Negar Azimi, New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2006]

In the early 2000s there was a major crackdown on homosexuality in Egypt. Gay websites and chatlines were shut down. Online dating became dangerous. Sometimes the “dates” were undercover police who arrested the men they met. There are no laws specifically outlawing homosexuality in Egypt . Some men were charged with “practicing debauchery with men,” a section of a penal code rooted in Islamic law.

The crack down on homosexuality was widely regarded as a ploy by the Mubarak government to placate Islamic conservatives and draw attention away from problems that people would otherwise blame on the government.

Queen Boat Incident in Egypt

Blue Nile river boat

On May 11, 2001 police raided the “Queen Boat”, a Nile River boat that served as a gay club and disco. Foreigners were released, but the Egyptians found there were imprisoned and their address books were confiscated and used to round up and arrest other men. Altogether 52 men were jailed and charged with crimes such as contempt for religion, false interpretation of the Qur’an, engaging in immoral acts and “practicing debauchery with men.” [Source: Negar Azimi, New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2006]

After the men were arrested they endured harsh interrogations and were forced to undergo humiliating anal exams to determine if they had had anal sex. In the Egyptian press there were stories about how they engaged in Satanic rituals and distributed pornography over the Internet. There was little public sympathy for the arrested men. One Cairo man told the Independent, “I think homosexuality is a disease. That’s why they’re on trial because they’re making disease.”

The trial of the 52 men was big news. Because the men were deemed a threat to the state, they were tried in a State Security Court. International human rights groups and legal activists complained, but didn’t offer much real support because they worried that being associating with gays would undermine their other efforts. In the end 23 were sentenced to prison terms up to five years. The rest were acquitted and then tried again. Of these 21 were convicted of “debauchery” and each was sentenced to three years in prison.

After these trials, gay bars and websites closed down and gay men were arrested at a rate of about one a weeks in Cairo. In January 2002, eight gay men were arrested in the Nile Delta town of Damanahur on charges similar to those used in Cairo. The local media said they were members of a “den of perverts.”

Homosexuality and the Death Penalty in Iran

Homosexuals face the death penalty in Iran. According to UNHCR report "Homosexuality is forbidden by Islamic law, and will be punished. Sodomy, defined as 'sexual intercourse with a male' is punishable by death if both parties 'are mature, of sound mind and have free will.'"

At least 14 people were killed for sodomy between 1990 and 2000. Charges against homosexual are often incorporated with other allegations such as espionage. One gay man who was seeking asylum in Japan told a Japanese newspaper, "If I tell someone in Iran that I am gay, my family will not wait for the government to kill me, a member of my own family, with almost 100 percent certainty, will kill me and no one will ask why."

The Shar Theater in Tehran used to be a sometime hang out for transvestites dressed in Islamic garb. In the early 2000s, one ayatollah ruled that sex-change operations were okay under certain conditions.

Homosexuals in Turkey

Homosexuality has long been a fixture of Turkish culture. In Ottoman times, sultans employed groups of “celtokci” (“pretty boys”) for their amusement and even brought them along on military campaigns. Today, the discussion of homosexuality is a taboo subject in Turkey, where machismo is held in high regard, but behind the scenes, homosexual relationships are often tolerated.

Turkish men have a reputation for being so highly sexed, they themselves sometimes say, they will fuck anything. There is a Turkish expression that says it is okay for a man to screw a women, a man or a sheep; just as long as he is the one that is doing the fucking. A lot of ex-patriot gay men end up in Istanbul. I know one American man, who it turns was related to a U.S. Senator, who hired a couple of male servants on the basis of their penis size.

Although homosexuality is not technically illegal there are a number of laws that are used to prosecute gays. There are few openly gay clubs. Most activity is discrete. There is a lot of hate and prejudice directed at homosexuals. Some people blamed the 1999 earthquake on “those transvestites.” Once passengers on a gay-oriented cruise ship were upset when Turkish police prevented them from visiting the ancient ruins at Ephesus.

Transsexual Prostitutes, Homosexuals and the Police in Turkey

In the 1990s, there were about 2,000 transvestites in Istanbul who made their living performing in night clubs or working as prostitutes. One of Turkey’s best known classical music singers, Bulent Ersoy, is a transsexual and a fixture of Turkish television. Many transsexuals become prostitutes because they can’t find work doing anything else.

In the 1990s, transsexual prostitutes had more customers and charged higher prices than regular prostitutes. They used to hang out in Beyoglu District in Istanbul, soliciting customers until they were driven away by police in 1996 and forced to work on the E-5 highway which links Istanbul with Ankara.

Police in Turkey have been accused of routinely detaining and beating prostitutes, gays and transsexuals, cutting their phone lines, and chopping down their doors with axes during raids. One transvestite prostitute told National Geographic, “It doesn’t matter whether you are silent or outspoken. If you are different you will be crushed.” He said he was arrested several times for prostitution and beaten each time by a policeman who was thoughtful enough to ask what color hose he wanted to be struck with.

The “purification” campaign that drove the transvestite prostitutes from Beyoglu to the E-5 highway was organized by a police chief known as the “Hose Man,” because of his reputation for beating victims with a rubber hose. At least four transvestites died and other were seriously injured when baton-weidling police forced them to run into traffic on the E-5 highway. One transvestite told the Washington Post, “There is a systematic campaign to wipe us out.”

Gay Scene in Beirut

Parvez Sharma wrote in the Daily Beast: “In 2010, I stood outside a nightclub called Acid, perched on a Beirut cliff. It was Ramadan, and Acid was one of the precious few openly gay nightclubs in all of the Arab Middle East. I shared a cigarette with a friend called Babak as a car with Saudi tags rolled up. “That’s a rich Saudi prince!” Babak said. He often comes here to cruise! You have no idea how many rich Saudi fuckers come here. We Beirutis must screw well! The Saudis? They walk around like they are so butch but once naked they are all bottoms.” [Source: Parvez Sharma, Daily Beast, June 16, 2016, Parvez Sharma is the director and producer of A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca /^]

“Babak was the twentysomething founder of Bear Arabia who organized “Bear” tours of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for western gay men keen to sample the delights of the region. Bears, for those unfamiliar with Western homosexuality, are the gay men who do not confirm to “body fascist” stereotypes and flaunt the hair on their bodies and the ample meat on their bones. Or as my husband Keith liked to say, “They are just gay men who have given up.” /^\

“I was in Beirut to do open screenings of my first film for the first time in an Arab capital. It felt like a special moment. Babak, who I would call an activist like any other, was furious at the time because a New York Times article had come out labeling the city the Provincetown of the Middle East. To me it seemed absurd. From our vantage point we were looking at the expanse of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb. That was Hezbollah land, bombed to smithereens in 2006. This remained a deeply divided city. /^\

“On that journey, I hooked up with a handsome man who later confided in me that he was a member of Hezbollah’s social media division. We’d met on Manjam, a gay hookup website. He was married, with three kids. When we were finished, he performed the elaborate, obligatory post-sex cleansing ritual called the ghusl at almost 4:30 in the morning.” /^\

Laws regarding same-sex sexuality in Africa: Same-sex Sexual Activity Legal: 1) Same-sex Marriage Legal (purple): 2) Other type of Partnership (or Unregistered Cohabitation) Recognized (Blue): No Recognition of Same-sex couples (gray): 3) Same-sex Sexual Activity Illegal (yellow): 4) Not Enforced or unclear (orange): Penalty: 5) Life in Prison (reddish orange): 7) Death Penalty (dark, rusty red)

Cruising in Jordan and Tunisia

Yotam Feldman wrote: “At twilight, the labyrinthine paths of the ancient Roman theater in Amman begin to fill up. Men who have come alone stand in waiting postures, impatient, casting glances this way and that. Others congregate by the wall or on benches, not letting the patrolling police bother them. Occasionally a couple disappears into a clump of bushes or into one of the niches. Many tourists might be confused by the scene, but a gay tourist will get it immediately. Most of the men who approach the tourists are selling sex for money, sometimes mediated by a pimp lurking in another corner of the theater. Relations with those who are not engaged in prostitution also sometimes have a character that makes it impossible to be oblivious to economic power relations. The tourist will invite them for drinks or dinner, for example, or will pay for the hotel room to which they will go, perhaps, at the end of the evening.

“There are other places, too, for those seeking cross-border relations: Thakafa Street (thakafa means “culture” in Arabic) in the Shmeisani quarter is a cruising site for a higher-level crowd. Strolling on the well-lit street, amid the ubiquitous campaign posters for the parliamentary elections, are families with children, groups of students and also gay men (mostly young) who are trying to spot a new face in the city’s small, stifling community. The searchers can be identified by their long pauses every few steps or by their many sidelong glances. Iman, a young literature student of Palestinian origin, whose family comes from Hebron, is here with friends to cruise Thakafa Street – “Not necessarily to look for anything, but if the opportunity arises, why not?” He is not ashamed to say that he’s looking mainly for foreigners. “In a small place like Amman, people we don’t know, with whom we haven’t yet slept, are a refreshing innovation. You can find tourists here from different countries – Americans and Europeans – and also many from Arab states, and occasionally also Israelis.” Just that morning, Iman relates, he met, via the Internet, a Saudi student who was in the city for a short visit. “It’s been a long time since I met someone so uptight,” he says. “He didn’t stop shaking until we entered the hotel room. Anyway, I won’t see him again.”

I”n the evening, Iman and his friends hang out at Books@Cafe, a coffee shop that is considered “gay-friendly” and whose owner acts as an adviser and mentor to his clients. He tells of efforts by the young people to create a sense of community. Two of them, he says, tried recently to put out a magazine for gays, but quickly found themselves in trouble with the authorities, who threatened them with legal proceedings. They shelved the idea. We meet one of them later in the evening, together with a group of his friends, in the gay bar RGB, a relatively new establishment. It’s not very big – five wooden tables around which two groups of young men are milling. Sitting at one of the tables are two women, a couple, who have come from the lesbian bar that opened recently not far from RGB.

Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856 – 1931), a German photographer know for his often nude pictures of Arab and Italian boys and young men

Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai. Holders of two passports also visit Beirut, which they say can compete with Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and Damascus, where the gay scene is more secretive. This is not sex tourism, all the travelers who were interviewed for this article emphasized, certainly not in the narrow sense of obtaining sex in return for money. The fear of being exposed as an Israeli heightens the thrill, some of the visitors say. “It’s a state of consciousness, which allows you to overcome the usual inhibitions. The erotic yearning mobilizes additional forces,” says Arnon, 35, who works for a human rights organization and makes frequent visits to Arab countries.

“Very quickly. There are always these types who approach you. For example, in Tunis – you are sitting in a cafe and someone makes eyes at you, comes over and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you from? Are you married?’ ‘Would you like to go someplace?’ You don’t necessarily go straight to the hotel. Usually they want to go out, want you to take them drinking, to a discotheque.” And it’s at this stage that the economic dependence is created?

“In the background, there is always the question of what they will get out of it in material terms. It’s not that you are going to send them a hundred dollars a month for the rest of their lives, but relations of dependence form. Some of them told me that their dream is to leave Tunis and live in the West. They asked if I could write a letter to my consul general that will make it possible for them to get a visa. They asked that after 25 minutes of conversation.”

“It is the anti-erotic element that bothers me. In Tunisia, for example, someone I met invited me to his cousin’s home. I went with him, even though I did not necessarily want sexual contact. I understood that the sexual thing was the payment I would make in order to see his house. We got a cab and drove out to a kind of suburb. It was a large house, what’s known in Israel as an Arab villa, made of concrete, on which construction was completed but hadn’t yet been quite whitewashed or furnished, or maybe would never be whitewashed because the money has run out. The uncle was sitting in the courtyard, holding prayer beads and smoking. We said hello, and the man introduced me in Arabic and spoke with him.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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