A few years ago, I spent a month in Damascus. I arrived late in the evening but was so eager to see a city I’d long wished to visit — getting a visa had proved nightmarish — that I soon found myself in a little coffee shop round the corner from my budget hotel. I was well aware of Syrians’ reputation for being extraordinarily welcoming and friendly, even by Arab standards; but even I wasn’t quite prepared for the frank opening salvo from the handsome young guy sitting next to me. ‘Are you active or passive?’ he asked me.
It turned out that the coffee shop — packed with men of all ages and types, from English-speaking teenagers to elderly Bedouins — was a pick-up joint. Two other nearby ramshackle coffee shops served the same function, as did the only (packed) local bar. The city’s public parks, moreover, were 24-hour cruising areas, resembling nothing if not Russell Square in its 1980s heyday.
It would be tempting to describe all this as a thriving ‘gay scene’, but it would be foolish to do so. It’s an error often made by Westerners who report on homosexuality in the contemporary Arab world through the rose-tinted prism of their western ideals.
To that list can, alas, now be added a 40-year-old American studying in Britain, Tom MacMaster, who this week was exposed as the hoaxer posing as a Syrian blogger under the name ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’. MacMaster’s antics came to light when his IP address was traced back to the UK. However, for anyone who knows the Damascus scene he was purporting to describe, or has even the vaguest understanding of how homosexuality plays out in the Arab world, there was a much more obvious giveaway. Homosexuals, in fact, enjoy extraordinary freedoms in Damascus, as they do elsewhere in the region, but only so long as they follow a golden rule: don’t define homosexuality in western gay terms.
For all its considerable faults, the Syrian regime does have one saving grace, namely its secularism. Its driving force, that is to say, is not the need to morally subjugate the population, which is what drives the Islamists, but solely the retention of power. Because the gay scene isn’t politicised, it isn’t a threat; and the army of secret police can therefore politely look the other way. None of the men I spoke to in the Damascus coffee shop had ever been harassed, and they all scoffed at the idea — heavily promoted by gay-rights campaigners in the West — that they are persecuted.
At the same time, none considered himself ‘gay’ in the sense that he harboured a burning inclination to transform what he did in the bedroom into an all-defining lifestyle choice and personal identikit. For them, the personal was not political. All this is perfectly in keeping with the region’s long and rich history of tolerated homosexuality. In stark contrast to the West, it includes not a single example of anyone being executed for the act, and for centuries it was the reciters of pederastic poetry who were indulged by the royal courts. The only crime is getting caught, and that doesn’t happen unless you are so blatant as to cause a social scandal.
But if secularism is the explanation for Syria’s happy set-up, elsewhere, paradoxically, it’s Islam’s continuing stranglehold that, if anything, allows homosexuality to flourish even more — again, so long as it’s not politically manifested as a distinct way of life or defined in western gay terms. So obsessed are the Islamists with discouraging the social mixing of the sexes that they have, by default, created highly charged homosocial environments.
Take, for instance, Saudi Arabia, where in the complete absence of available girls the malls are packed with boys cruising other boys. It’s routinely reported that the Wahhabi kingdom executed three homosexuals a decade or so ago but, as the Arabic text of the government press release made clear, the men were in fact beheaded for raping young boys: hardly the same thing. The kingdom’s all-boys schools and universities, indeed, have such an entrenched tradition of homosexuality that they put the English boarding schools and Oxbridge of the 19th century to shame. Younger boyfriends are doted on and are proudly introduced as al walid hagi, ‘the boy who belongs to me’.
Western-based gay rights organisations loathe this set-up as a kind of crude hypocrisy. But they have no constituency to speak of in the Arab world, apart from a few dozen westernised queens in Beirut. Sadly, that doesn’t stop them from relentlessly trying to impose on the Arab world their western gay lifestyle choices. The effect, though, is not what is desired.
For a start, it achieves what the reactionaries could only dream of achieving: reducing the number of practising homosexuals. Once homosexuality is defined and dragged out of the closet in western terms, nobody wants to have anything to do with it. Moreover, gay activists give credence to the reactionaries’ argument that homosexuality is something foreign, precisely because it is defined in western gay terms; and it also gives Middle Eastern regimes an excuse to round up self-identified gay men who can be associated with that foreignness. It came as no surprise this week that state Syrian TV, in the midst of the Gay Girl in Damascus scandal, reportedly blamed (and without apparent irony) homosexuals for the uprising in the country.
It’s another example of how futile it is to see the region through the prism of western-style democracy and individual rights, and how trying to impose radical change very suddenly on a people who do not want it only makes things worse. A more basic question, of course, is whether the ghettoised western gay lifestyle is really something that anyone should take as a role model, but that is never asked by those who insist on imposing on other cultures a concept they only invented a few decades ago. Why on earth would Arabs not want to live like us, with our prejudices and hang-ups and strict definitions of what is and is not normal, acceptable and desirable?
John R. Bradley is the author of Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East (2010).