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Friday, 17 September 2010

In Iraq, gay death and gay life

Source: Gay City News

By Michael T Luongo
  • Second in a Four-Part Series (Part One)
There were bullet holes across his chest when I found him in the room.

They were merely a decoration on his black T-shirt, tight against his broad shoulders and puffy biceps. He reminded me of a “Sopranos” character, with the fake bullet holes surrounding the word Mafia. He was only 25, but his gelled hair was thinning, a soul patch adorning a scruffy face.

He seemed afraid to look directly at me, tight-gripped hands wringing, his nervousness compounded by the time he was left alone to think as he awaited my tardy arrival. An improvised explosive device, or IED, was found near my hotel, and I was nearly an hour late.

We met in the Baghdad office of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a coalition run by Yanar Mohammed, who has been active in helping persecuted gays. She was overseas during my visit, but her staff helped me interview men, some of whom lived in Sadr City, a poor, largely Shia Muslim area of Baghdad at the heart of the insurgency, and named for militia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr’s father. Many on her staff lived there and had gay friends.

Mohammed (anyone identified by first name only in this series has been given a pseudonym, to protect their privacy and safety), the young man I was meeting, had just secured a visa that would get him out of the country within a week of our interview.

An organization that mostly serves women, many widowed, who have suffered horrifically since the US invasion, OWFI has an open door policy to anyone needing assistance. With my limited knowledge of Arabic, I noticed that the staff used the polite term “mithlee” for homosexual, rather than more offensive labels common among Iraqis.

I met with men on the Sadr City death lists, the postings placed throughout this part of Baghdad by Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Mohammed was on the list for many reasons, not just his sexuality; the calculus that determines death sentences in Baghdad is jumbled and terrifyingly far-reaching.

My interviews at the women’s center were difficult not only because many men were reluctant to fully explain why they faced persecution, but also because of the OWFI’s office layout. There was no privacy as people watched interviews; little children sometimes played in the room, climbing into my lap as I tried to make sense of a cacophony of languages — English, Arabic, and Kurdish.

A loud air-cooler made hearing difficult, but the power repeatedly blacked out, easing the burden until the Badhdad heat became overwhelming. Still, the welcoming staff made the OWFI one of my favorite places in Baghdad.

Mohammed told me he loves Americans, showing me a cell phone picture of himself with American soldiers. It’s part of what sparked having his name put on the death list. As I tried to dig deeper, he paused, sighed, and told me, “because I drank and stayed out late” and because of his tight Western clothes that showed off the body he built up at a gym eventually shut by the militias as un-Islamic.

Members of the Mahdi Army “phoned me and threatened me,” he said, his words translated by others in the room. Though he never told me why, the militia killed his brother, and his panicked family sent him into hiding. Mohammed told me the name of his brother’s killer, someone the women’s group is familiar with. On another visit, I watched a video of the killer.

I came to learn that in Baghdad people know the murderers in their midst, but can do nothing to stop them. Because of the numerous grounds on which murder victims are singled out, it is quite possible that the number of gay killings has been undercounted, with families saying other motivations were at play.

Mohammed was almost kidnapped during a Mahdi Army visit to his house. “Many of us are on the lists,” he told me of his group of friends, and “there are many guys who look like Mahdi Army, and they come to my home. They ask who is this guy, why does he visit you,” about one of his friends. “Twelve friends are on the list, twelve names, and that people must kill me. I had one friend who had a car come up beside him, and they shot him and they killed him. Another friend was kidnapped, and we do not know what has happened. Still we have not heard from him. I leave my neighborhood, because it is dangerous.”

He looked down again at his twisted hands.

Mohammed was brought to the women’s center by a neighborhood friend, Nadeem, who told me the full story of the murdered friend, killed in front of a Sadr City café popular with gay men, strafed by machine gun fire by men on motorcycles. Nadeem pulled up the cuffs of his jeans and showed me markings on his legs, made, he said, by the gravel forced up by the motorcycle wheels. Sensing that I was skeptical, he pointed at his eyes and shouted, “I saw it with my own eyes!” again and again.

“All the people in the coffee shop went back to their house,” Nadeem continued. “All the people, they go, afraid of the Mahdi Army, afraid for all the people. They are doing with the army and the government, because all the people in the government are with the Islamic party.” Sometime after midnight the day of the machine gun attack, he said, the café, by then empty, was firebombed.

Nadeem, who was often at the women’s center, was in his early 20s, skinny, and with his spiky hair, funky clothes, and flamboyant manner, he could have been a member of an Iraqi boyband. Sometimes, he wore tight jeans, and at others, unbelted loose pants that rode low enough to show off his underwear. His wrists were always adorned with gold chains. That’s fashion to die for in Sadr City, and he said gay neighbors who dressed like that had been murdered.

He pantomimed how he got ready to leave his house, showing how he would wear plain clothing on the streets and then, after arriving at the center, change into fashionable Western clothes and gel his hair, washing it out before returning home.

Nadeem never specifically said he was gay, but spoke freely of his gay friends and of frequenting Sadr City cafés popular with gays. He explained that the firebombed café was rebuilt, but gay men are afraid to return. “I will visit and take pictures on my phone,” he said. It was a simple café, with one window and a single chair on the street, so small, “it don’t have a name [and] is a secret,” except to “every gay in Tharwa City,” Nadeem said, using another name for Sadr City, which is also known as Revolution City, so called because it was constructed after the1950s overthrow of the monarchy.

“Because it is a small area and three million people,” the café’s secret did not last. The density of Sadr City, with its conservative, insular norms, makes it a dangerous place for gays and others who embrace Western ways, even as more secular parts of Baghdad have opened their arms to nightlife.

Ali, who works at the women’s center, told me, “Sadr City is very small, the culture, everyone knows what someone else is doing. People ask, ‘What is this friend doing? Is this friend gay or not?’” Looking at Mohammed, he added that the Mahdi Army has “spies with the youth to know who is gay.”

Even as he recounted his death threats and his brother’s murder, Mohammed remained largely reserved. But at the mention of the Mahdi Army spies, he suddenly became more emotional. “Many eyes, many neighbors,” he told me, adding, “They see everything, they see every home and now they go inside the government. They have a good license to kill. They kill the puppies because they are gay, because of the occasions, because of the parties from the new year.”

He made a starling assertion, one echoed by Hassan, the Iraqi LGBT contact, but labeled impossible by officials I interviewed from foreign governments — that the murders are now spearheaded by the Sawa, also known as the Awakening, the US-backed Sunni militia that has challenged the power of both the Shia Mahdi Army and the Sunni Al-Queda. “It was the Mahdi Army” doing the killings, Mohammed said, “but now the new cover is the Sawa. They are now the ones killing.”

With chaotic side conversations going on around me, I almost didn’t hear his comment that “they call my mother and told her I was to be killed because I was gay.” His family, he said, wants “their son to be outside Iraq. To be free, to feel free.”

As the interview concluded, Mohammed told me, “Nobody in my country cares about my case, so I leave.” It came out as a polite but sad plea. As he stood up, I noticed how brawny he is and remarked that if I were to run into him, I would be afraid he could beat me up. Muscles, he said, are no protection from bullets. If the killers see “me face to face, they shoot me with a gun and they run.”

When I told Yanar in an email about the difficulty in getting Mohammed and others to talk directly about being gay, she responded, “Men in our culture would never admit to being gay… In six years of work in OWFI, only two Iraqi men told me — in private — that they are gay.”

She added that Iraqi male bisexuality has a familiar paradox: “They would not admit that both guys who have sex are equally gay. It is a macho culture which respects the male part of the intercourse.” That attitude seems to fuel the rapes gay men suffer at security checkpoints.

A beautiful black woman from the Sudan working at OWFI, herself a war refugee who reminded me of the model Iman, told me about a male prostitute who had shown up asking for shelter. Veiled and trying to hide her emotions, she couldn’t help tearing up as she described how he was covered in blood, desperate for his life.

“He was taken by four men and raped and beaten,” in the neighborhood of Bedowin, which is known for male and female prostitution. She washed the blood off him, bandaged him, and the group sheltered him for a few days. After that, he returned to Bedowin. “Why would he go back there?” she said.

The staff also told me of male sexual slavery and the harvesting of body parts. One orphaned boy of 15 was adopted by a government official. “He secluded him for prostitution,” sometimes “dressing him up as a girl, and everybody came to him for sex. He was obliged to work as a slave” an OWFI staffer told me, emphasizing that the official was from Babylon, a city that I found many Iraqis equate with homosexuality. Its modern name is Hilla, with residents described as Hili. Ali Hili of Iraqi LGBT purposely incorporates this reference to Babylon in the name he created to protect his true identity; it is a signifier gay Iraqis will understand.

The boy’s fate could have proved more dire down the road. “He wants to sell him, his heart and other parts of the body, his kidney,” the staffer told me of the government official’s intentions.” No one would care if another gay prostitute wound up dead, he said.

But the adopted youth, along with two others forced into sexual slavery, escaped. “One of them was killed, and one of them, he used a sham passport and he fled to Syria,” I was told.

Several months later, I visited Syria and learned from locals that about 9,000 gay Iraqi male refugees are living in Damascus, half with their families who were escaping Iraq’s violence, the rest who went there alone solely to escape gay persecution. That figure, however, represents a tiny percentage of the nearly one million Iraqi refugees who have resettled there.

A Very Different View

He came into the hotel restaurant, calm and confident. He was 24, handsome with a generous smile, short, curly brown hair, and a toned body. His clothing was simple, nothing fashionable. The youngest of a large professional family, he worked in the computer field and was applying to graduate schools in the US and Europe.

Haider and I met on Manjam, the gay cruising website, a tool I have used before to connect with gay Iraqi men, though I make clear my intentions are journalistic. Haider was very interested in meeting, worried about what was happening to gay men in Baghdad. “I’ll help you and support you as much as I can,” he said in one message, telling me later, “I hope to establish a website and a small office that can help the gays to face their problems and make their lives more better.”

His worries did not seem personal; he described himself as masculine and said he fell under the radar of suspicion about his sexuality. “The gays are safer than the she-males,” he said, using a term for transgenders I heard often in Baghdad. “I don’t like to talk about them because they are killed every day at the checkpoints. Every day we must pass through eight checkpoints, so when they see someone with woman’s face and color, and they will cut him and punish him and maybe have sex with him.”

Effeminate gay men and transgender Iraqis suffer similar problems, forced into sexual encounters in trucks or trailers at the checkpoints. Usually, “it is oral sex,” Haider explained, sometimes at gunpoint. If a gay man “is afraid and having long hair and clothes that are not normal, then he will be having many problems at the checkpoint.” Haider told me of a friend who fought back, making it “difficult to rape him.”

But for Haider, “nothing” happens at the checkpoint. The guards assume he is straight, and he passes without incident. His family has no suspicions about his orientation. In fact, since our meeting took place during Ramadan, when sexual activity is supposed to be curtailed, his brother was worried he was clandestinely meeting a girl the day I interviewed him. Haider explained that his closeness with his family is the major source of his conflict about being gay.

“I hope someday to face my father and my mother and tell them that I am gay and cannot get married, but I find it now very difficult,” he said. He fears getting older, that one day he might essentially have to give up being gay. Wistfully, he asked me, “They tell me when you are gay and you get married, you leave the gay community. Is that true?”

It was Manjam that helped him enter the community, when he turned 18. His close friends are much like him — good-looking, masculine men from large, educated families who enjoy nightlife. One of Haider’s friends came out to his parents, but the others also worry that as they age they will marry to appease their families. Two of his friends married, but are now divorced.

Haider and his friends have traveled to meet gay men in other parts of the country — he mentioned gay parties in Erbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq, and even in the religious city of Karbala. His goal is to create coming-out resources to strengthen the community, yet he knew nothing of the Iraqi LGBT safe houses, nor was he aware of the Human Rights Watch Report on gay killings in Iraq.

He talked about friendship networks sheltering individual gay men, but nothing more formal than that. One of the men his friends helped rescue was a gay Syrian with long hair. “He stayed with our friends for two weeks, to be safe,” Haider said, adding, “When I see him out at the party, I ask him, ‘How did you come here to the party? It is so dangerous.’”

Haider told me of his first love, a man he never met in person, who was a translator for the Iraqi Army. In 2004, they chatted for several months online. He was on his way to Baghdad for their first meeting when “his car was destroyed by a bomb.” Haider looked away, his face sad with nostalgia. “I miss him,” Haider said, adding that every Iraqi loved someone who died in the war.

But war has also brought Haider closer to gay America. He told me I was not the first gay journalist to contact him on Manjam, mentioning a reporter based in San Francisco. “But it is difficult, he is far from us,” he explained.

Haider also befriended a gay US soldier guarding his neighborhood police station, the playful taunting by other American personnel the clue to the GI’s orientation. “I immediately told him, and he told me,” Haider said of their mutual coming out.

Haider has seen “Brokeback Mountain” on a pirated DVD, and was moved by “Touch of Pink,” a Canadian-British film about a gay Muslim man pressured to marry. He also mentioned “Shelter” and “Dante’s Cove” from HereTV, which he finds on the Internet, a form of communication forbidden under Saddam. I later sent him DVDs through my friend Amanda, who moved to Baghdad after we traveled there.

Haider promised to bring me to the ShiSha Café, the idea of showing off Baghdad nightlife animating him. The capital city, he said, is a place “to be just for yourself, to be having fun, to be going out. Baghdad is beautiful in the night.”

Glamour, Politics & Death

“Where are you?” was the surprising text. I stared down at the small screen in my lap and quickly clicked out, “In the parking lot.” I was early. Never before had I met an Iraqi concerned about time. I knew this interview would be different.

My appointment was with Maysoon Al-Damluji, a member of the Iraqi Parliament from the secular Iraqi National List, or Iraqiya, headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The party won the most seats in the March 2010 elections, though Iraq’s new government has still not formed. Al-Damluji is a liberal, secular politician, a leading women’s rights activist, insistent that Ramadan was not stopping her from working — or eating.

I tried contacting other government officials, including Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael Salim, about the gay killings, but Al-Damluji is the only one I could arrange a meeting with. It’s hard to know if it was Ramadan, the controversial topic, or faulty Iraqi communication that kept me from garnering more interviews.

Al-Damluji sat on the sofa across from me with her hands demurely crossed, breaking them apart to draw on thin Davidoff cigarettes. She struck me as elegant and worldly, and I imagine she was stunning when she was young.

In the room with us, behind me at a desk, was another female politician. Her thick black hair was in a Bettie Page, and she wore a gleaming white, structured Dior-esque suit, giving a sense of 1940s Arab glamour, a circular mural behind her like a glowing halo. This woman spoke no English, but smiled and nodded frequently, and I would turn to her to include her in the conversation.

Several men attended to them, one serving us tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee, spiced with cardamom. Another man, tall, in a dark suit, self-effacingly stepped into the office with a limp. When he entered, I held a gasp — his face looked as if it had been smashed in half and crudely put back together.

Al-Damluji and I have many friends in common, based on her former role as deputy minister of Culture. Despite her liberalism, what she said about LGBT rights will likely shock Westerners; gays, she believes, should return to the closet.

“Homosexuality exists in every society,” she said. “It is not a new thing, but in this part of the world homosexuals have had to remain discreet, and I understand that they have their own communities. However, as I said, they are discreet and they don’t come out. What has happened recently is that for some reason, they have come out and forming nightclubs and such likes. I don’t think the time is ripe for this kind of action now. I am concerned about the safety of all human beings. I mean I am sorry that it happens, but I do hope that they remain discreet until things become different.”

When I asked her opinion of the murders, she said, “I am against killing, full stop,” and looked at me as if it were a strange question. When I reminded her that plenty of Iraqis, even those with political power, favor the killings, we both laughed nervously. “Well not me, not me, I am sorry,” she said.

Al-Damluji was the first Iraqi I met who had seen the Human Rights Watch report covered in Arabic media.

A few decades ago, she explained, “there were a number of well known poets and people who were in the front line who were also known as homosexuals. There was more toleration in the ’40s — maybe ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s — than there is now. This is not only in Iraq, this is throughout the Arab world.” After naming some of the openly gay artists from the past, she said, “This kind of thing is not tolerated these days, and as I say I do care about the safety of all, including homosexuals. I really hope they remain discreet.”

When I told her I was curious how she was even comfortable talking about the issue, Al-Damluji responded, “I don’t feel comfortable. But the reason I do talk about it, not feeling comfortable, is that one has to give another image of Iraqis. Not everyone is a madman with an axe, trying to kill a homosexual.”

Gay issues, she said, have created a stigma regarding all human rights work in Iraq. “Every time we speak about human rights, we are accused of supporting homosexuality,” she said. “It has to be separated, otherwise we lose all human rights.”

Prior to my trip, in May 2009, I met with Jared Polis, the openly gay Democratic congressman from Colorado, who was just back from his own visit to Baghdad. He told me he spoke with Iraqi politicians about the gay murders, but contacts from foreign governments working in Baghdad’s Green Zone told me they’re not confident that American politicians can make much headway in seriously addressing the issue with their Iraqi counterparts.

“Iraqis that I bring it up with visibly get uncomfortable,” one foreign government worker investigating the killings told me. “They just want to get through that part.” He tries to impress on them that the issue “got a lot of publicity… in the Western press,” and that “it does reflect badly on Iraq, even though it is a small portion of the people.”

The Human Rights Watch report said that hundreds of gay men have been the victims of targeted killings; the London-based Iraqi LGBT pegs the number at nearly 700 in recent years. My visit to Iraq came at a time when the bombing of a government ministry killed more than 100 people in a single day.

“Why are you focused on this issue?’” my foreign government source told me Iraqi politicians say, when “we have a number of problems in Iraq. This affects a very small minority of individuals… You’re focusing all your efforts, a great deal of your efforts, on this issue, when we have bombs going off, we have two million widows.”

The foreign government worker understands this perspective, but nonetheless remains shaken by the gay murders. “What caught our attention was the gruesomeness of those kinds of attacks,” he told me, revulsion crossing his face, making it hard for him to speak. Though he emphasized that you never “get desensitized to violence,” he explained, “When a car bomb goes off and people die, you read about it and you kind of move on. When you read a report about individuals taping shut the anus of someone and watching them — ” The man stopped, as if he couldn’t describe the things he has been told, before saying, “ — that kind of has, viscerally, an impact on you.”

But the same man told me Gay City News readers shouldn’t expect miracles in Iraq. Foreign governments don’t have much influence, even if we might think the opposite looking in from afar. “I think that the gay press,” he told me, and “even the mainstream press, to a certain extent, and the centers for policy expect us to be able to march into the prime minister’s office and say this is bad, you’ve got to stop the violence, where as in reality, in our view, that would have a pretty negative backlash and actually hurt the people that we are trying to protect. So we’ve taken a much more low-key and under-the-radar approach in talking to the key officials.”

I heard this repeated throughout Iraq. I interviewed an American woman working in the north of Iraq who contributed to the Human Rights Watch report. She said she was shocked by staff working for her on that research who, after collecting information for the report, made comments indicating that they were repulsed by learning of gay life in Iraq.

One Iraqi, who gave me extensive help and knows many closeted men through his work in the cultural sphere, wanted to make clear his opinion on gays. “I must be frank with you,” he said. “I am not in favor of open homosexuality in my country, but I don’t think people should be killed for who they are. You must approach it from a human rights perspective, not gay rights. It is not that way in this country.”

He also offered a warning: “There are many in government who would want you killed for looking at this. They will tell you they are against the killings to your face, but then they would say something different. And remember in your own country, if politicians could have people killed for being gay, they would.”

He mentioned the police bashings in a Fort Worth gay bar that happened around the time of my Iraq trip, and he also joked about former Senator Larry Craig’s problems at the Minneapolis airport. “Gay Iraqi politicians are the worst on the topic,” he said, breaking into laughter when I asked for names of some of them to interview.

In Maysoon Al-Damluji’s office, we discussed a mutual friend, a ballet dancer seeking asylum in the US after the murder of many of her friends and family. Cultural figures like politicians are often the targets of killings. “There was a time when I used to get threats almost every single day,” Al-Damluji said. “But you learn to become fatalistic when you live in this part of the world.”

I told her I take the same view about being a visiting journalist in Baghdad.

“Well I know,” she said, “coming to Iraq and talking about homosexuality.”

Nervous laughter hit both of us as we said goodbye.

In the next issue’s installment, Michael T. Luongo visits Sadr City and safe houses for gay men and encounters both spies and Baghdad’s nightlife scene.

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