Speak of Loves: Arab Gay & Lesbian Life

October 9, 2013

Unspeakable Love by Brian Whitaker | University of California Press, 2006

Review by Siwar Masannat


In Unspeakable Love, Brain Whitaker has dared to venture into the world of “Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East”. The book mostly deals with Arab countries and three of the 22 in some detail: Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Whitaker offers a generally informative background for the book, and in some ways, draws an acceptably adequate picture of the diverse sensibilities that have shaped the (alas) limited discourse around Arab sexuality and homosexuality.

The book contains accounts from gay and lesbian Arabs across the Middle East, most of which are harrowing stories of being outed, arrested, abused, or disavowed by various components of their environment. Whitaker attempts to convey the precarious double life gay and lesbian Arabs are forced to lead, and discusses in detail the differences, as subtle or large these might be, between the conditions of gay and lesbian Arabs living in different countries. Specifically in the case of Saudi Arabia, he explicitly and consistently tries to move away from a sensationalist “Western” depiction of the situation in favor of a balanced approach.

Whitaker bolsters his inquiry by relying on a historical context compiled from various sources; he discusses different countries’ legal systems and their societies’ perceptions of honor and sexuality; the Quran, hadiths, the Bible, as well as a spectrum of religious interpretations of sexual diversity and its relation to “sinfulness”; current and early Arabic literature; Orientalist scholarship on Arab societies, sexualities, and sexual behaviors; as well as current Arab and western views (both stereotypical and balanced) of contemporary identities and environments.

Whitaker synthesizes how notions of honor and sexuality inform the understanding of sexuality in Arab countries quite successfully. Even though he does not broach the concept of “honor” in depth, he acknowledges the spectrum of opinions and reactions to homosexuality within individual and collective Arab countries and societies. And, he correctly associates the outdated concept of “family honor” represented by women’s bodies with violence toward gay male family members:

“The threats directed against Ali by his brother, and the accusation that he was besmirching the family’s name, reflect a concept of “honor” that is found in those parts of the Middle East where old-fashioned social values still prevail. Preserving the family honor requires brothers to kill an unmarried sister if she becomes pregnant (even if—as has happened in some cases—her pregnancy is the result of being raped by one of her own family).”(19)

In this manner, and in other parts of the book, he also implicitly delineates the problematic notion of sexual penetration as a demeaning act exercised by a dominant, masculine male over a lesser “passive” other, thus highlighting the image of the “exclusively top partner” as masculine and heterosexual, and men as “superior” to women. It is worth noting that this is the underlying assumption behind Joseph Massad’s argument against the “imperialist homo/hetero binary”, as he focuses on the (in)visibility of the “top”, masculine partner, and therefore the imposition of “homosexuality” on this identity.

Massad speaks from a privileged, phallocentric, and “theoretical” point of view that brashly overlooks the diverse needs of Arab LGBTQ communities and individuals

In discussing the relation of Arab countries to the rest of the world, Whitaker correctly identifies two important issues often absent from most discussions of queer Arab identities. The first is the fact that “acceptance of homosexuality in other parts of the world is a fairly recent development” and that “attitudes found in the Arab countries now were commonplace in many parts of the world fifty years ago” (114). Secondly, he correctly recognizes the orientalist historical perception of the “sexually-decadent Orient” that is now ironically reversed in the current dialogue of Arab society and sexuality. Whitaker also briefly discusses the (probably universal) relative invisibility of lesbian identities compared to gay identities within Arab countries, citing how same-sex relationships for women are often only defined within the context of an erotic encounter due to the absence of an eligible male sexual partner.

Two serious and glaring shortcomings plague Unspeakable Love. The first, and most disturbing—especially considering Whitaker is writing in support of human rights and equality—is the shallow discussion of homosexuality in Palestine. His discussion of Palestinian gay identities completely, and disturbingly, avoids broaching the gravity of the systematic racist Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and extreme restrictions Israel imposes on their mobility and everyday lives. To me, at least, it seems that a discussion of marginalized identities and their persecution should never trivialize systematic, daily racism. Whitaker briefly mentions:

“A further difficulty for Palestinians is that in the highly-charged atmosphere of the conflict with Israel, their sexuality tends to become caught up in politics…This generalized view equating homosexuality with treachery makes it extremely dangerous for Palestinians to return home after fleeing to Israel.”(37-38)

It is contextually fallacious in a discussion of Arab, and specifically Palestinian LGBTQ issues, to completely ignore Israel’s systematic and persistent “pinkwashing” campaigns 

Whitaker only briefly mentions how “[t]here is little doubt that some—though by no means all—gay Palestinians are forced by their precarious existence to work for Israeli intelligence” (38) and that “they can easily become targets for exploitation by Israeli men”(39). This watered-down rhetoric is especially disconcerting as it contrasts with a rather horrible and detailed account of the Palestinian authorities abusing and torturing a gay man, quoted from the Zionist-leaning magazine, The New Republic. In my mind, no possible humane excuse or justification can exist for the torture anecdote narrated, which I have no doubt the Palestinian authorities are capable of committing; however, the extremely difficult and complex political situation gay and lesbian Palestinians are implicated with may not be summed up so cleanly.

Furthermore, perpetuating the image of Israel as the “LGBTQ haven” for all diverse identities in the Middle East is inaccurate. It is contextually fallacious in a discussion of Arab, and specifically Palestinian LGBTQ issues, to completely ignore Israel’s systematic and persistent “pinkwashing” campaigns that shamelessly exploit and commercialize the male gay identity for political PR gains, while persecuting and marginalizing other identities based on race and national origin.

Whitaker published Unspeakable Love in 2006, before some relevant changes in the global and Arab LGBTQ rights milieu have occurred. For instance, 2007 saw the independent formation of Al Qaws, a Queer Palestinian organization whose leading activists separated from the Israeli Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. As Linah Al Assafin mentions in Electronic Intifada, “[t]his move reflected a political development in Palestinian society…[r]ather than working within Israeli organizations, the activists became more politicized and independent.” Al-Qaws actively acknowledges the diversity of Palestinian identities, and explicitly (kindly) warns against homogenizing them when “reporting” about Palestinian LGBTQ affairs. The last few years have also witnessed important events within some international LGBTQ communities, such as the necessary revoking of a ban on freedom of expression in the US and explicit declarations of solidarity as some groups, such as Queers against Israeli Apartheid, publicly denounced Israel’s breaches of human rights.

Whitaker’s other major shortcoming is a too-sympathetic view towards representations of gay identities in contemporary Arab literature, specifically Ala’Al Aswani’s Yacoubian Buidling, which propagates stereotypical and downright offensive images of women and gay identities. Al Aswany conspicuously fails in critiquing society’s sexist tendencies in examining and judging women’s and gay men’s bodies. His representations, as attempts of witness of society’s cruelty, lack depth and a humane dimension reinforcing sexist and homophobic stereotypes instead of resisting them. A good review by Omar Qaddour can be found (in Arabic) here.

Whitaker himself seems incapable of envisioning an independent, Arab activist LGBTQ identity outside of western influence or funding

On another note, Whitaker culminates his arguments in a rather good critique of Joseph Massad’s discussion of sexual identity politics in the Middle East, and how, in Massad’s point of view, it renders the “Gay International” and Arab LGBTQ activists working alongside it, facilitators of an “Imperialist Binary of Heter/Homo Sexuality”. Whitaker is (perhaps rightly) adamant in defending the “Gay International” in a manner that addresses Massad’s specific arguments, as it is true that Massad speaks from a privileged, phallocentric, and “theoretical” point of view that brashly overlooks the diverse needs of Arab LGBTQ communities and individuals.

However, Whitaker himself seems incapable of envisioning an independent, Arab activist LGBTQ identity outside of western influence or funding. He, ironically in a manner similar to Massad’s, fails to recognize the political diversity of the “Gay International” itself, and how allies aware of human rights breaches by Israel or western entities within the Arab world are better equipped than their non-aware counterparts to support Arab LGBTQ movements.

Unspeakable Love is a book that dissects the local and international rhetoric of homophobia in the Middle East and abroad (after all, Islamist homophobic and conservative, American, Judeo-Christian rhetoric(s) are constructed similarly, if not identically) quite adequately. It is a satisfactory read for those interested in LGBTQ rights and still “generally” relevant after seven years since its publication.

*Feature image borrowed from Al Qaws’ Facebook page

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