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Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Middle East – The New Gay Frontier?

A post card from the 19th century showing the ...Image via Wikipedia

Source: The New Gay

By Kareem

The Middle East gets a really bad wrap. A product of backwards colonial policies and a general ignorance on the part of many people in the world, most associate this region with wars, terrorists, conservative fundamentalists, Muslim extremists, and close-minded societies. Some people only know the area for its connections with the two Gulf wars and the War on Terror in Afghanistan (which is not even actually part of the Middle East). To many Americans, the Middle East and North Africa regions are characterized by oppressed women in veils, turbaned and bearded jihadist fighters sitting in caves plotting world domination and destruction, and, in general, societies that despise Western civilization and America in particular. This romanticizing of the “Evil Arab/Muslim” has reached a height of such massive naivete that there are now movements out there to quell this spreading unintelligence, especially in America. These have taken the form of various films, documentaries, and books such as Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen and various publications by Edward Said. Simply browsing through these works, it is astounding to see how negative stereotypes of Arabs and the Middle East have been hammered into our minds. From Disney characters to basic education surrounding current events in the Middle East, America’s perspective on the region, via the media and popular culture, has been cast in shadow, suspicion, and fear. Most Americans can’t find Iraq on a map and many have either never heard of Palestine or think it is a legitimate part of Israel. This callowness is disgraceful and exceptionally embarrassing. For a country that claims to be at the pinnacle of education in the world, this is unacceptable.

It was a result of this general incomprehension that I become interested in the Middle East. When I left for college, I had initially set out to learn Chinese. After experiencing the overcrowded Chinese language classrooms at my alma mater, I went back to my academic adviser with a different idea. I would enroll in their new Middle East program and learn Arabic. I had never been to the Middle East, but as a kid, I had had a huge crush on Disney’s Aladdin (one I would later regret). I even had Aladdin bedsheets, with Aladdin’s beautifully drawn pectoral muscles showcased on the pillowcases (and my parents wondered why I never wanted to get out of bed!). I had grown up in a small town, in a Christian family, and with little knowledge of Middle Eastern or Muslim society or culture. I had never been to a mosque, never eaten hummus, and had dressed as Jafar for Halloween in fifth grade. It was with this limited, narrow view of anything Middle Eastern that I started learning a language that would come to define my personal, academic, and professional interests.

And yet, while my desire to learn more about the region grew and my linguistic ability to speak Arabic continued to develop, I found more and more people were confused as to why I wanted to learn the language of such a negatively perceived part of the world. My parents would plead with me to take up French or Italian instead. What could I possibly see in a region that was becoming labeled as the place where those terrorists came from that blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Even after the novelty of learning a new language and culture wore off, I was determined to prove that the Middle East was nothing like everyone made it out to be. Not even a year into language training, I had met some of the most incredible individuals I had ever met before, all hailing from the Middle East. It was with this spirit of curiosity and stereotypes-be-damned attitude that I sought out any way to get myself over to the Middle East. It was the first time I can ever say I had a calling for something.

But my friends and family were still confused. Wouldn’t it be easier, especially for a young gay man, to study somewhere more “open,” such as Europe? Wouldn’t it be dangerous as a gay man to travel and live in the war-torn sandy hinterlands of Africa and southwest Asia? Even as I boarded the plane for my first trip to the region, a slight sense of hesitation crept into my consciousness. What was I really doing? And what did I really expect, as a homosexual westerner, to get out of traveling, studying, and living in the Middle East?

Little did I know that the experiences that I had in several of the countries of the Middle East would defy expectation. I soon found out that, much like all other parts of Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern society, homosexuality has been stigmatized in Western culture and extremely misconstrued. As the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was claiming that there were no gays in Iran, I was enjoying an amazing drag show at a club in Hammamet, Tunisia, on one of the most holy days in Islam: Eid El-Fitr, the holiday that ends the month of Ramadan. While various religious clerics and governments blasted homosexuality as an unforgivable sin of society, the real Middle East, the everyday people that make up some of the most culturally vibrant societies in the world, were embracing my sexuality, yet in their own in way.

This isn’t to say that the Middle East isn’t a sexuality repressed and oppressed region: there are various factors that I’ll point out in following articles that prove otherwise. If anything, though, I found that the definitions westerners use for sexuality and cultural expression are not applicable to the Middle East. To understand the situation of gays and lesbians in the region (and I don’t presume to having such an understanding), one must throw out the traditional western views on homosexuality and sexual expression. Forget tops. Forget bottoms. In a region where sexuality, for the most part, is so utterly taboo that it is kept behind closed doors, it is important to take a fresh view in order to try and understand how Middle Eastern sexuality works. In many cases, it can be argued that, like most of the world, sexual expression varies country to country and not by region. I will be utilizing this view in my coming posts. It is also important to remember that, much like the rest of the world, despite what the media decides to show, this region is modernizing and at an incredible rate.

Please know that you will not find a city in the Middle East without an exploding cellphone and internet culture. You will not find a city in the Middle East with a skyline that isn’t peppered with aging satellite dishes atop every building. And you will not find a city in the Middle East without homosexuals. Through my next posts, I hope to shed more light on homosexuality in the Middle East, on being a western gay man in the Middle East, and what Americans and American homosexuals can learn from their brothers and sisters in this intensely rich and historic part of the world.

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