Secret Liaisons in the Middle East

Every city is different on a gay writer’s eye-opening tour

| November-December 2010

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    ©Ian Phillips / www.i2iart.com

  • Secret Liaisons Image

 

“Let me see them.” My friend smiled at me as we chatted about the place I had visited a little over a week before. We glanced furtively around the French-style café where we were seated at a window overlooking a floodlit garden surrounded by a stone wall.

What I was about to show him were simple things, but illegal to possess in his country. They were Israeli shekels. Khaled was animated as I pulled out the 20-shekel bill, printed on plastic paper, a see-through Star of David on one side. A few coins clanked against the polished wood surface of the table. He held them in his hand, remarking on the material. “Israel is a place I have always wanted to go to” was his thoughtful response, an expression of longing coming over his face. But we were in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, which has been at war with its southern neighbor off and on for decades. He would never be allowed to go there. Even if he found a way, he could face arrest there or on his return home.

Over two months later, this quiet event was recapitulated in a public way in Israel. I was speaking to a crowd of Israeli men at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tel Aviv when the subject became gays in Lebanon. “We’ve heard there is better nightlife there than here,” one man said, wanting to know about the bars and clubs. The comment shocked some of those in the audience. Beirut was as forbidden to him as Tel Aviv was to Khaled. All the men in the room suddenly leaned forward attentively, wondering what the Lebanese capital, once the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan city, would be like.



The same man came to chat with me after the talk. “During the Lebanon war,” he said, referring to the fight between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, “I made a profile on Gaydar and started to talk to gay men in Beirut. . . . Some men were mad at me because I was Israeli, but some were glad I wanted to know about them.”

Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that gay people have the answers, that our special condition oversteps boundaries, overcoming the political, religious, and social barriers that keep nations at war with their neighbors. But at times I felt tempted to conclude that this was the case during my recent tours of the Middle East for the Arabic edition of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a collection of memoirs by gay Muslim and non-­Muslim men, which I edited.