Brian Whitaker – "Unspeakable Love"

Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East

Homosexuality in the Middle East is still largely a taboo subject. Now Brian Whitaker, the Guardian's Middle East editor, has written a book about it. Anne Françoise Weber has read it

​​Shortly after he had admitted to himself and a few friends that he was gay, Ghaith, a Syrian student, went to see a psychiatrist. He just wanted to have it confirmed that homosexuality was not an illness. But the doctor didn't only insult him, he informed Ghaith's mother; the matter turned into a family scandal.

Ghaith's story is only one of many which Brian Whitaker tells in his book "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East."

The stories illustrate the battles which homosexuals in this part of the world have to fight: against repressive laws, religious prohibitions, ignorance, and above all social rejection.

Police raids and quite toleration

Whitaker, who is the Middle East editor of the British daily paper The Guardian, avoids generalisation. In the three countries on which he concentrates – Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – he describes very different ways of dealing with homosexuality. For example, although there are no laws forbidding homosexuality in Egypt, in the last few years gays there have been increasingly hunted down in police raids and undercover agents.

In Lebanon meanwhile, "unnatural sexual acts" are illegal, but an organisation called Helem, which defends the rights of gays, lesbians, trans- and bisexuals, is quietly tolerated.

And in Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is theoretically subject to the death penalty, but gay parties take place in private homes, where people seem to be fairly safe from the police. However, it should be noted that Whitaker's information from Saudi Arabia is the sketchiest of the three, and much of it comes at second hand.

Whitaker also tries to paint a differentiated portrait of Islam, quoting plenty of sources, and including internet links which can be directly accessed on his internet site about the Arab world, www.al-bab.com. He makes it clear that there are few places in the Koran which say anything about homosexuality, and that the competing schools of legal interpretation attach different levels of importance to the Hadith, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed.

Mutual fantasies

His many comparisons – for example with Christianity, or with British law, where homosexuality was only made legal in 1967 – help to make the attitudes of the Arab and Muslim world to homosexuality seem less extraordinary. Interestingly, he notes that homosexuality is fantasised about as a part of the "other" culture – whether it's orientalists in the West who imagine homosexual orgies in harems and Turkish baths, or Islamists in the Muslim world who see the West as the home of "unnatural" and uncontrolled sexuality.

According to Whitaker, Arabic literature and film sometimes include hints of homosexual practices, but full-scale portraits of gays and lesbians are found only rarely – for example in the successful novel "The Yacoubian Building" by Alaa al-Aswani, which Whitaker refers to several times.

As Whitaker says in his title, homosexual love in the Arab world is often "unspeakable". It's not so much the homosexual practices themselves which are the problem as their visibility. After Ghaith's involuntary outing to his family, his brother-in-law said to him, "I don't care about you or what you do, but if I ever hear anyone say my brother-in-law is gay, I'm going to divorce your sister."

But Whitaker does not agree with those who don't see the need for any action on the issue, who believe that homosexual acts are possible in private in the Arab world, and that establishing a gay or lesbian identity does not fit with Arab culture.

When he presented the book in Beirut, Brian Whittaker argued that, to improve the situation of lesbians and gays in the Middle East, the most important thing would to give people more information about homosexuality. Even if the situation of lesbians is rather less dealt with in the book than that of male homosexuals, Brian Whitaker has certainly made a significant contribution to this process of education – especially since a translation into Arabic is planned.

Anne Françoise Weber

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Brian Whitaker, "Unspeakable Love" – Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, Saqi Books, London 2006

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