Image by philippe leroyer via FlickrSource: FW
By Iman Al-Ghafari
The topic of same-sex relations has rarely been addressed in the Arab culture in general and in the Syrian society in particular. It always came accross as ‘an unnatural’ expression of love. Very few researchers or writers in the Arab world have tried to discuss the topic, without making it seem odd and ‘queer’ in the negative sense of the word. The topic is mainly treated as a ‘Western thing’ that is alien to Arab culture and to what is regarded as ‘our tradition’. A closer look at the components of Arab culture, however, shows that intimate same-sex relations are not-so foreign. Hence, it is essential to examine some social, religious and cultural codes that validate same-sex relations within the context of friendship, and frown upon them within the context of love.
Same sex friendships are usually seen in positive light as long as the relation does not become so intimate in a manner that transcends the typical definition of love. In mainstream culture, which is predominantly, a heterosexual one, males are expected to fall in love with the members of the opposite sex. When they grow up, females are expect-ed to marry a male. Hence, the hetero-sexual assumption that exists almost everywhere deprives sexual minorities the chance to assert any difference from the generalized norm, lest they should be labelled as deviant, or freak. Any presumed deviation from the norm would certainly alienate them from the rest of the community that values sameness at all levels, except this one. In Arab societies, the separation between sexes in adulthood conveys an unsaid message that the relationship between males and females must always have sexual connotations. Hence, to the typical viewer, the sight of a male and a female together in a private or a public place would bring assumptions of a potential heterosexual relationship.
Some feminist writings attribute the roots of sexuality to the story of Adam and Eve, and its heterosexual connotations, which largely stand behind the concept of seduction as it exits nowadays. The framework of the story has provided many of the most important symbols in Western culture and in the Arab culture as well. The idea of the Fall from Heaven which is associated in many cultures with the seductive role of Eve does not stem from religious truths, as much as it stems from people’s misinterpretation of the female body and human sexuality. Eve is held to be responsible for seducing Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, in a manner that makes a woman regard herself as a seductive sexual object created to satisfy the lusts of men. It also makes man regard himself as a helpless creature who cannot resist the temptation of women. Despite the fact that the relationship between Adam and Eve was condemned in Heaven, associated with the original sin, it was later naturalized on earth as the only blessed norm.
In almost all Arabic movies, the male hero is expected to fall in love with the female heroine, and the female is expected to betray her female friend by either stealing her male lover, or marrying her husband. When the Egyptian movie, Yacoubian Building was shown in the Syrian cinema, the relationship between two men seemed rather vague and incomprehensible to many viewers. In his orginal book, Alaa al-Aswani claims ,“Gays, like pickpockets and other outlaws, create their own private language which enables them to communicate indecipherably amongst other people”. In this context, the movie failed to make such a language meaningful to the Syrian audience. Consequently, the fact that the gay lover was crying over the loss of his partner, who departed with his wife to their village after the tragic death of their son, sounded rather funny and unconvincing to many Syrian viewers who failed to sympathize with his strong emotions. This could be attributed to fact that the relationship between a rich single gay and a poor ‘bi-sexual’ man seemed to be based on exploitation, rather than on true love and harmony. Besides, the fact that the rich gay is half French asserted the misconception that homosexuality is a ‘foreign thing’. Moreover, in most Syrian soap operas, female friends are portrayed as spending their time discussing their affairs with men and how to attract a wealthy male suitor. The same applies to male friends who are mostly seen spending their time trying to become eligible for the right woman by acquiring a house and a car. All discussions of female-female and male-male relations have been treated from a heterosexual perspective that reflects the common bias, prejudice and misunderstandings that surround intimate same-sex relations. Nizar Qabbani was probably the only Syrian poet who dealt with this issue from a more ‘tolerant’ perspective in “The Evil Poem,” discussing sensuality of a relationship between two female lovers in vibrant sexual terms. It was described as an erotic poem that was appealing to male and female readers alike. However, in Touqous al-isharat wa al-tahawoulat (Rituals of Signs and Metamorphosis) by the Syrian play-write Saadallah Wannous, the relationship between two men is seen in a negative manner as a violation of one’s true masculinity. In the sub-plot of the play, a young man entangled in a homosexual relationship commits suicide in despair over his rejected love.
It is clear that the relation between love, friendship, and sexuality have been studied as separate and different in nature. Hence, love is seen as only existing between a man and a woman, because the literary canon is rich with impressive romantic stories, such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, “Qays and Laila”, and “Antara and Abla.” There are no similar stories, however, of ‘Romeo and Antony’, ‘Juliet and Cleopatra’, or even ‘Abla and Cleopatra’. This could be attributed to the dominant assumption that same-sex relations are necessarily void of passion. Hence, close same-sex friendships are tolerated as long as they do not turn into love stories. However, friendships between members of the opposite sex are seen as leading towards love and ultimately to marriage. Nevertheless, strong feelings between members of the same sex are not taken into real consideration, due to the implicit realization that such close ties will not lead to marriage, which in itself signifies social acceptance and recognition. This reveals the need for discussing same-sex marriages or partnerships that have taken place in several places of the world, but are still frowned upon in many conservative societies.
Nowadays, young people are more exposed to the world than previous generations. The cyberspace became ‘a safe haven’ for silenced groups to discuss their dreams and worries, and to justify their invisible existence in a world that does not recognize them. Hence, on the Internet, one can find a web site called Syrian Same-Sex Society in which anonymous persons try to discuss some of the problems facing same-sex lovers. Many legitimate questions are left unanswered, because these are faint and timid voices in a virtual world. For example, an anonymous gay man says that the ‘normal’ male can get married when he wants to have sex with a woman, but what can the gay male do in such a case? Besides, most of the articles in Arabic show the misconceptions that surround people’s understanding of the nature of desire. In an online article, a writer tries to find a ‘scientific explanation’ to same-sex desire based on the food that people eat. According to this article, people need to change their eating habits to become ‘normal’. Therefore, men are encouraged to eat more meat to retain their masculinity and consequently their heterosexuality. However, women are encouraged to eat more vegetables to retain their femininity and consequently their presumed desire for the opposite sex. Of course, such an equation does not make any sense in a world in which many gay men do eat meat, and many lesbians are more or less vegetarian. It shows to a certain extent the ignorance and the internalized fear that engulfs people’s definitions and understanding of their own identities.
All the above publications reveal the dire need for human sexuality studies that would provide students with knowledge about the processes and variations in sexual functions and re-production, intimate relationships, sexual and gender role development, and the social, cultural, historical and moral contexts of sex and love. Education is indeed a vital part of achieving understanding and tolerance of what is seen in a homophobic light as a ‘for-bidden love’. Despite the fact that social sciences describe many types of gender identities, same-sex relations are still regarded as an act that may fulfill a temporary desire or a need, but it does not constitute an identity. Hence, attention must be paid to issues of sexuality and to the difference between reproductive sex, and other unacknowledged forms of same-sex relations that are entangled between friendship and love.