Monday, February 18, 2008

Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East

Reuters has published an interesting and hopeful story about the increasing number of gay men and lesbians in Africa and the Middle East who are coming out via the Internet.

Following are excerpts from this article, accompanied by images from The Road to Love (Tarik El Hob),* director Remi Lange’s 2002 film that is not only a romantic tale of self discovery but perhaps the first film to explore homosexuality in the Islamic world.

Gay Africans and Arabs Come Out Online
By Andrew Heavens
February 17, 2008

When Ali started blogging that he was Sudanese and gay, he did not realize he was joining a band of African and Middle Eastern gays and lesbians who, in the face of hostility and repression, have come out online.

But within days the messages started coming in to “Keep up the good work,” wrote Dubai-based Weblogger ‘Gay by nature’. “Be proud and blog the way you like,” wrote Kuwait’s gayboyweekly. Close behind came comments, posts and links purporting to be from almost half the countries in the Arab League, including Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain and Morocco.

Ali, who lists his home town as Khartoum but lives in Qatar, had plugged into a small, self-supporting network of people who have launched Web sites about their sexuality, while keeping their full identity secret. Caution is crucial - homosexual acts are illegal in most countries in Africa and the Middle East, with penalties ranging from long-term imprisonment to execution.

“The whole idea started as a diary. I wanted to write what’s on my mind and mainly about homosexuality,” he told Reuters in an e-mail. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect this much response.”

In the current climate, bloggers say they are achieving a lot just by stating their nationality and sexual orientation.

“If you haven’t heard or seen any gays in Sudan then allow me to tell you ‘You Don’t live In The Real World then,’” Ali wrote in a message to other Sudanese bloggers. “I’m Sudanese and Proud Gay Also.”

. . . That limited form of coming out has earned the bloggers abuse or criticism via their blogs’ comment pages or e-mails. “Faggot queen,” wrote a commentator called ‘blake’ on Kenya’s ‘Rants and raves’. “I will put my loathing for you faggots aside momentarily, due to the suffering caused by the political situation,” referring to the country’s post-election violence. Some are more measured: “The fact that you are a gay Sudanese and proudly posting about it in itself is just not natural,” a reader called ‘sudani’ posted on Ali’s blog.

Some of the bloggers use the diary-style format to share the ups and downs of gay life – the dilemma of whether to come out to friends and relatives, the risks of meeting in known gay bars, or, according to blogger “. . . and then God created Men!” the joys of the Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh.

Others have turned their blogs into news outlets, focusing on reports of persecution in their region and beyond.

. . . The total number of gay bloggers in the region is still relatively small, say the few Web sites that monitor the scene. “It is the rare soul who is willing to go up against such blind and violent ignorance and advocate for gay rights and respect,” said Richard Ammon of which tracks gay news and Web sites throughout the world.

. . . The overall coverage may be erratic, but pockets of gay blogging activity are starting to emerge. There are blogs bridging the Arabic-speaking world from Morocco in the west to the United Arab Emirates in the east. There is a self-sustaining circle of gay bloggers in Kenya and Uganda together with a handful of sites put up by gay Nigerians.

And then there is South Africa, where the constitutional recognition of gay rights has encouraged many bloggers to come wholly into the open.

“I don’t preserve my anonymity at all. I am embracing our constitution which gives us the right to freedom of speech . . . There is nothing wrong that I am doing,” said Matuba Mahlatjie of the blog
My Haven.

Beyond the blogging scene, the Internet’s chat rooms and community sites have also become one of the safest ways for gay Africans and Arabs to meet, away from the gaze of a hostile society.

“That is what I did at first, I mean, I looked around for others until I found others,” said Gug, the writer behind the blog GayUganda.

“Oh yes, I do love the Internet, and I guess it is a tool that has made us gay Ugandans and Africans get out of our villages and realize that the parish priest’s homophobia is not universal opinion. Surprise, surprise!”

To read Andrew Heavens’ article in its entirety, click here.


* In 2005 I used The Road to Love as part of a CPCSM film discussion series, and noted that the film follows the journey of Karim, an Arab student filmmaker in Paris, who, intrigued by a television report on the history of male-male Islamic marriage in the Egyptian village of Siwa, decides to make a documentary on homosexuality in Arab culture. In the process, he meets Farid, an openly gay flight attendant who not only feels at ease with his sexuality but also suspects something about Karim that Karim is not willing to acknowledge. The formal video interview leads to an informal friendship between the two men, culminating in a shared trip to Morocco, where the exact nature of their relationship is finally resolved.

Following is how Bright Lights Film Journal describes The Road to Love:

Set in the Arab communities of Paris, The Road to Love opens with straight sociology student Karim (Karim Tarek) puzzling over what to do for a class project, finally deciding on a documentary about homosexuality in the Arab world. He interviews various gay men, from a Tunisian guy who likes being painted with henna (“I want my lovers to turn me into a living work of art”) to Mohammed, who explains that for Arabs, the macho inserter is okay, the passive acceptor is not. What Karim uncovers — tidbits like the fact that marriage between young Egyptian men existed until the second half of the 20th century — seems to hold more than academic interest. He’s given a present by one of his interviewees, Farid (Farid Tali) — a book by Jean Genet with a revealing inscription that frees him from his girlfriend when she discovers it. Soon Karim and Farid are traveling to Morocco and pay a pilgrimage visit to Genet’s grave. Shot in a deceptive verite style that gives it the loose feel of a home movie, The Road to Love has its share of sweet moments, but a slight story and too leisurely pacing ultimately conspire to limit its interest.

The following lyrics are from the theme song of The Road to Love:

Two men are on the road to love,
Walking handing in hand,
Without looking at girls
Whom some men undress.

The two men are talking about today
And about yesterday and tomorrow.
People don’t say anything,
But they guess that under the sun,
Even if the girls are gorgeous,
There are men who love men.

Two men are going their own sweet way.
They are still holding hands,
Like those who at the corner of a street,
Exchange glances, caresses, desires.

"TARIK EL HOB" music video by labaleine69

Recommended Off-site Links:
Africa and Homosexuality
Homosexuality in the Middle East
Being Gay, Christian, and African
Outcast Heroes: The Story of Gay Muslims
Gay and Lesbian Arab Society
Phil Hall’s review of The Road to Love
Erik Lundegaard’s review of The Road to Love

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
The Blood-Soaked Thread

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