"The Homosexualization of the World"
The essay "The Homosexualization of the World" describes a contemporary voyage of exploration by two men from quite foreign cultural backgrounds.
The Lebanese writer Rashid al-Daif spent a few weeks in Berlin, accompanied by the German author Joachim Helfer, who subsequently paid a return visit to his colleague in Beirut.
This encounter, which took place within the framework of the Goethe Institute's intercultural exchange project "West-Eastern Divan," was particularly volatile, as its focal point was the topic of homosexuality.
Focus on homosexuality
In preliminary discussions, it was explicitly made clear to Al-Daif that his German exchange partner was homosexual. One would have expected careful restraint and diplomatic understatement in a publicly held dialogue between the West and the Arab world on issues of sexual lifestyles and gender roles – especially from intellectually schooled authors such as Al-Daif and Helfer.
It is therefore all the more remarkable how open, direct, and even blunt the authors deal with these issues in their writings. They come straight to the point and deal with what Al-Daif refers to as the "battleground between Arab tradition and Western modernism," namely, sexual morals.
The essay is a captivating read, as the topic of same-sex love is dealt with through the concrete example of Joachim Helfer himself.
The essay came into being in two stages. After the visit to Berlin and the reciprocal visit to Beirut, Al-Daif composed an essay that did not concern Helfer as an author, but instead expressly addressed his homosexuality. The work was published in Arabic under the title "How the German came to Reason." In turn, Helfer responded with a running commentary. The resulting text takes on the form of a dialogue, yet without ever being a real dialogue.
Helfer was bravely open in providing information on his private life and speaks without reservation on his sexual orientation. He is firmly opposed to ascribing gender roles and defamatory views (e.g. homosexual = penetratable = feminine = inferior).
Discrimination in the Arab world
For his part, Al-Daif, who teaches at the Beirut University and is regarded as a leftist, enlightened writer, was astonished to realize how deeply rooted he is in Arab tradition, in which the roles of men and women appear unalterable.
Unfortunately, the ban on homosexuality and the discrimination of homosexuals still remains the norm in the Arab world. Homosexuality is a taboo topic and sexual relations have an extremely patriarchal character, even in a metropolis like Beirut.
Al-Daif also shares many of the prejudices against homosexuals (and doesn't attempt to hide them). Yet, the more he learned about Helfer's lifestyle, who has lived in a steady relationship for twenty years with a man far older than himself, the more Al-Daif felt compelled to rethink his viewpoint.
The book also deals with how difficult it is for Al-Daif to break through traditional moral standards and try to see things from Helfer's position.
On the other hand, Al-Daif also criticizes the Western lifestyle, which he feels as being far too libertine. He sees the danger of a growing collapse, even disappearance, of Western society. For Al-Daif, same-sex marriage is the symbol par excellence for the crisis of Western culture.
Unfortunately, the book loses itself in parts by becoming far too personal, including spreading itself too thin or becoming pathetically florid, as when the text turns to Helfer's "love sickness" and his search for a "dream boy."
Helfer's meandering sentences strike the reader as disconcerting and his polemic style often seem sermonizing. In responding to Al-Daif's initial essay, he sometimes overshoots his mark, as when he tries to interpret every little thing and even employs insinuation in his attempt at justification.
This is where the main weakness of the book's conception comes to light – it is not a true dialogue in which the partners can react to each other's preceding statements.
Nonetheless, the reader is left with a positive impression. We learn a great deal about the chasm that remains to be bridged between two very different cultures, as well as discovering something about the desperate situation of homosexuals and women in Lebanon, who want to free themselves from traditionally prescribed roles.
It also becomes clear to the reader how relatively new equal rights and freedom are in Western societies and that we must continue to defend them.
The book concludes with a surprising climax, which won't be revealed here. While in Beirut, Helfer experienced something of a minor sensation. There is measure of fate in what the German writer experiences in his encounter with a deeply antagonistic world, and which turns his life on its head.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by John Bergeron