In the Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen, the country’s only serious cultural magazine has been shut down by authorities because of an article that characterizes homosexuality as “part and parcel of our society” and advocates gay rights.
The magazine, Al Thaqafiya, which is government-funded, became the subject of a wave of verbal fireworks and violent threats and exhortations this month from members of the nation’s parliament, religious leaders, and others after it published a film review by Yemeni filmmaker Hamid Aqbi, who now lives in Paris.
Aqbi’s review discussed a new Egyptian film, “Heena Maysara” (“Till things get better”), which contains a lesbian love scene.
In his review of the film, Aqbi not only described homosexuality as “part and parcel of our society” but “called on the parliament to extend more rights to gay people and went as far as to suggest that the Yemeni government should consider allowing gay marriages,” according to the website MidEast News Source.
As a result, on April 7, after an uproar among lawmakers about Aqbi’s article, Yemen’s parliament sent a memo to the Ministry of Communications demanding that the government shut down the magazine and investigate those responsible. Al Thaqafiya subsequently ceased publication at the insistence of authorities, and its editorial team became the target of an official investigation.
Aqbi has been the subject of death threats as a result of his article, and he has promised to take legal action against one member of the Yemeni parliament, Muhammad Al-Hizmi, whom Aqbi accuses of inciting people to murder him. Yemeni websites, which are rigorously monitored and controlled by the government, have been filled with denunciations of Aqbi and calls for his execution for “promoting pornography.” One forum even urged “our terrorist brothers” to “prepare one of their suicide operatives to wipe this malignant man off the face of the earth.”
Yemeni journalist Mohammed Al-Qadhi, who is based in Sana’a, the nation’s capital, said, “In Yemen, there is no gay community, because according to Islamic Sharia it’s prohibited. It’s a very conservative society and no one will admit that they’re gay.”
According to MidEast News Source, Al-Qadhi “speculates that the editors of Al Thaqafiya apparently overlooked the article and probably did not notice how explosive its content was; otherwise it never would have gone in.”
Reviewer Aqbi told the German news agency DPA, “Those who are instigating these lies think they are agents of God on Earth. These are the same people who permit child marriages. They are blocking a law to limit the age of marriage and another law that prevents carrying weapons without legal justification or a license. They’re against women’s freedom and they are silent when it comes to government corruption.”
He added, “I believe that it’s the right of any person anywhere to choose their way of life and to enjoy personal freedoms. I don’t think this warrants me being labeled a heretic and killing me.”
Writing on his excellent blog on the Arab world, Al Bab (al-bab.com), Brian Whitaker, former Middle East correspondent of the UK’s Guardian and author of “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East,” noted, “Homosexual acts are illegal in Yemen and in theory can result in execution. On the whole, the authorities are preoccupied with more pressing issues but, with little government control over much of the country, gay people are at risk from other elements taking matters into their own hands.”
Elaborating on that point, Whitaker wrote, “In 2008, three young men were killed by militants in Shabwa province on suspicion of being gay. One of them, 22-year-old Said Abdullah Hannan, was shot dead in the street in front of the main market in Jaar.”
The film review in which Aqbi made his pro-gay comments discussed a new work by one of Egypt’s leading younger directors, Khaled Youssef, a protégé of the late Youssef Chahine, who was considered Egypt’s foremost filmmaker. Chahine, known as “the pioneer of social realism” in Egyptian cinema, made several films that addressed homosexuality, most notably “Wadan Bonaparte” (“Adieu, Bonaparte,” 1985). Set in the period of the Napoleonic expedition into Egypt, the film explores the complex relationships between East and West through the prism of a homosexual French general falling in love with a local Egyptian man.
Chahine’s protégé Youssef’s “Heena Maysara,” released in Yemen in January, is set in a Cairo shantytown and tackles issues of poverty, crime, and physical and sexual abuse. The film stars two popular Egyptian actresses, Ghada Abdel-Razeq and Sumaya Al-Khashab, who portray a lesbian encounter. In the most controversial scene, Abdel-Razeq, who plays a lesbian, tries to seduce Khashab. The scene shows Abdel-Razeq hitting on Khashab — who plays a prostitute named Nahed — and kissing her.
According to an article on the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television network’s website, “Religious scholars in Egypt are outraged by a lesbian scene in the new movie, telling audiences to stay away from the sinful flick and calling for the director and actresses to be prosecuted.”
A prominent Egyptian preacher and Islamic Studies professor at Cairo University, Dr. Abdel-Sabour Shahin, accused the movie of spreading homosexuality and promoting debauchery. Claiming the movie is part of “a Zionist and American conspiracy” to destroy the moral fabric of society, he called on authorities to prosecute director Youssef and the two actresses who played the lesbian scene on the big screen.
Youssef, however, is not the only Egyptian film director to recently tackle the issue of homosexuality. A 2006 hit, “The Yacoubian Building” by director Marwan Hamed, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Alaa Al-Aswany, includes a homosexual affair between a newspaper editor and a soldier. The film has become a staple of Sundance Channel programming here in the US.