May 04, 2006
Unspeakable Love: Gay MENA Culture Reviewed
I've just posted a review of Brian Whitaker's Unspeakable Love, a survey of gay and lesbian life in the Middle East. Although his book-blog says it's been out in Beirut since April 5, today was the first time I saw a copy in stores - Virgin had a ton of them, prominently displayed (albeit not as prominently as Walid bin Talal's puff bio).
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Dont tell me Aqoul is one of those sites. Agh! Can someone please explain to me why Westerners are so enchanted with the sexual practicies of the Oriental? There is nothing that peeks their interest more. It is strange that Muslims are said to put a high premium of virginity but I dont think that is the case considering that one of Jesus's virtues is that he has never been with a woman.
Posted by: Bikhair at May 4, 2006 02:30 PM
as it happens, brian whitaker (the middle east editor of "the guardian") is one of aqoul's long-time readers and sent us a copy of the book for review. tom was the one who had time to do the work. nothing more, nothing less.
btw, neither the book nor the review have anything to do with the "west" being "enchanted with the sexual practices of the oriental". did you even read the review? would it have made a difference if one of aqoul's own "orientals" had written it?
Posted by: raf* at May 4, 2006 02:48 PM
Bikhair: Careful careful. Commenters who don't use qualifiers or definitions often get into hot water around here.
Posted by: eerie at May 4, 2006 02:50 PM
Not a hell of a lot in the book to inflame the over-eager Western imagination, I fear. A few pages of technical discussion of exactly what is or isn't haram in a rough consensus Islamic view, and that's about it.
A lot about people trying to live within a system that can't admit that they exist, though, and the compromises they make or have forced upon them.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at May 4, 2006 03:02 PM
Well, bikhair as Raf said, we were asked to review the book.
That being said, what's your bloody discomfort? Admitting Whitaker is covering a certain reality? Afraid for yourself?
Whatever your issue is, you can bloody well grow up as you should have seen by now the authors here are both Western and "Oriental" (as you quaintly phrase it), I think we have quite enough street cred to review such works without your idiotic knee-jerking whinging on.
But as to your question:
Agh! Can someone please explain to me why Westerners are so enchanted with the sexual practicies of the Oriental?
For the same reason Orientals are so enchanted with the fucking around of Occidentals.
Sex interests the human being, and what the foreigner does sexually has a mystique.
Goes both ways dearie, as any Occidental who has spent much time in the Orient can attest.
There is nothing that peeks their interest more.
Peaks. But no, actually violence and terror at presently far out-excite mere questions of sex.
It is strange that Muslims are said to put a high premium of virginity but I dont think that is the case considering that one of Jesus's virtues is that he has never been with a woman.
Not particularly, lots of different groups, religious or otherwise, have put high premia on virginity. However, the modern West does not any more, except some of the particularly religious.
A difference, differences, however transitional, get commented on. Rather than blindly lashing out, you can ponder the lesson. Or you can fuck off, I frankly don't care, but pondering may be more personally useful.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 4, 2006 03:02 PM
Posted by: Tom Scudder at May 4, 2006 03:04 PM
Quite right, undermining my own snottiness I am. BTW, made the title a bit clearer.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 4, 2006 03:06 PM
I actually thought BW did well to avoid any Tottenesque fascination with the Orient and naive overstatement of the inane. His matter of fact journalistis style, albeit one that makes for dry reading, manages to communicate facts well without sounding condescending or jejune.
Bikhair It is strange that Muslims are said to put a high premium of virginity but I dont think that is the case considering that one of Jesus's virtues is that he has never been with a woman.
That is a truly truly stupid statement, you are in denial mate, you confuse Christian heritage with practice. The high premium on virginity in the Islamic world (at least in comparison with the West) is indisputable.
Posted by: Meph at May 4, 2006 03:59 PM
That is a truly truly stupid statement, you are in denial mate, you confuse Christian heritage with practice.
Indeed, she does. At least modern Western practice. But I agree, Whitaker's book manages an excellent, factual view - although it really is a book about Lebanon (Bierut) and Egypt (Cairo) with some Saudi asides.
Understandable, the limitation, but a mild disappiontment to me. I also, personally, was bored by the literary discussion, but I am an ill-lettered barbarian.
All in all, if one can leave aside knee-jerking reaction, the book can be an informative read, even if you're a resident of said regions. While Whitaker might be characterised as 'pro-gay' in the sense of not being anti, the mere information provided about the practices in region is value neutral in most respects.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 4, 2006 04:07 PM
"The high premium on virginity in the Islamic world (at least in comparison with the West) is indisputable."
I think such things tend to track economic and educational development and sophistication; today most Muslim societies are less developed.
Muhammad married a widow in the merchant community (hardly a virgin) and accepted polygamy and got married himself several times; medieval and early modern Catholic saint books meanwhile venerated "virgin and martyr" with totemistic zeal seen in rural MENA societies, and celebrated saintly married couples who took vows of sexless marriages.
And dont even ask about St Maria Goretti.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 4, 2006 06:53 PM
Muhammad married a widow in the merchant community (hardly a virgin) and accepted polygamy and got married himself several times
The non-virginity of a widow is not on a par with the non-virginity of a woman who has never been married. In Saudi Arabia for example, the remarriage of divorcees and widows is much more commonplace than in the less conservative societies of Egypt or Sudan. True, sex (within wedlock) as such is much more celebrated or at least less demonised (no Islamic cleric or jurist must forswear marriage in order to be admitted to any form of clergy) but the premium on virginity pre any marriage has always been present in Muslim societies.
Posted by: Meph at May 4, 2006 07:08 PM
What I meant was that absolute forbearance from sex permanently is not a premium; in certain older and current Xtian tradition and practice, permanent virginity is celebrated, not merely virginity.
Of course, there's a premium on virginity in most Muslim societies, related to both the religion and older cultures as well, but how strongly it is taken seriously may depend on the level of social development. E.g., not a virgin in a small town in Palestine, she may die; in parts of Cairo, it may be malicious gossip.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 4, 2006 09:17 PM
And suddenly, countless Middle Easterners simultaneously exclaimed: "what am I, a rug?"
Posted by: blown cue at May 5, 2006 06:16 PM
Meph's right there's a real obsession about virginity pre any marriage in Muslim societies in general. But Matthew's right too when he says that the discriminating factor here is socio-economic development, not religion. I spent enough time in rural Spain to know that in some places they can be sexually much more conservative than, say, in urban centers in Tunisia or to a lesser degree, Morocco. 40 years ago, under Franco when the level of Spanish development was on par with North Africa's, sexual mores were pretty much the same, with even girls having to cover up young. I also spent enough time among Christian Palestinians to know that sexually speaking they were so much more conservative than any urbane North African. Mind you, virginity counted a lot even in France until the 1968 sexual revolution...
Posted by: Shaheen at May 7, 2006 03:11 AM
With respect to Shaheen obs, I have to agree - indeed the conservatism of Xian Arabs (ex the Beiruti Maronis Leb Tarts) startled me in many ways - esp. in comparison with the rather more relaxed urban attitudes in the Maghreb.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 7, 2006 03:32 AM
You don't even need that exception, L. The Lebs might have a different dress code, but a lot of the underlying attitudes remain pretty similar.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at May 7, 2006 04:07 AM
I would add in favor of the socio-economic argument that you can also observe important differences of behavior relating to sexuality/virginity and other conservatisms within the very same societies among Arabs as the more intellectual and/or wealthy tend to be more liberal on those issues. That's even more visible among Maghrebis who tend to have extensive contacts with Europe when they can afford it and like to adopt western-looking codes with time.
Posted by: Shaheen at May 7, 2006 04:38 PM
I see this has become a sort of love-fest for maghrebines. On the scale of things, they are not really that different. I don't believe they are any more 'western'. Except in direction, of course.
Posted by: Ali K at May 7, 2006 10:46 PM
There are differences.
More Western, perhaps not. But take it from Shahine, a native of the region, if not me, there are real differences.
Of course not as much as the sniggering leering of the Eastern brothers would have it either.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 7, 2006 11:38 PM
Not a love fest, really. Sheikh Lounsbury is perfectly right when he says that there are some real differences between Maghrebis and Mashreqis, while at the same those differences are not as many or as important as many Mashreqis think. For example, it's a fact that Maghrebis are definitely more permeable to European attitudes in general. Not because they're more western (they're not) or because they identify more with the West (they don't). But with much more exposure and less nationalist sensitivities, it simply is more visible and more widespread. There's no love in saying that as it isn't necessarily a good or a bad thing.
It has its pros: it brings new dynamics and new ideas to the region, to much of its elite in particular, and the region badly needs that. Even though the European model is far from being perfect, it's less dysfunctional than almost anything Arabs have. Speaking about the current topic for example, European sexual liberalism is a good import and I certainly hope it becomes mainstream because the current conservatism is a source of oh so many problems. Maghrebis do share that obsession about virginity and other conservatisms that Middle Easterners have, no doubt about that. But freer sexual mores are definitely gaining ground, very slowly but surely, along with socio-economic development, among the wealthiest and the youngest first.
Those more permeable attitude have their cons though: they often stem from inferiority complexes. This is not specific to Maghrebis, as Mashreqis do have such complexes too (let's not even mention the Gulf), but as I said above, there are more nationalist sensitivities ad less exposure in the Middle-East. Those complexes translate in a non critical aping of many things coming from Europe, not always understanding the underlying foundations, copying even negative aspects, undervaluing Arabs' own achievements and products, and actually lacking innovative or adapted borrowings. Bear in mind we're talking continental Europe here, and France in particular. European dirigism, lack of liberalism, the sugar that Europeans are experts at coating their rampant xenophobia with, are definitely bad imports. Those do not help the region move forward in creating dynamic economies and societies.
Posted by: Shaheen at May 8, 2006 01:54 AM
Would you say that these differences originally stemmed from the region's ties with france?
Posted by: Ali K at May 8, 2006 12:28 PM
Of course, there's the French element but it's not just that. The course of the last two centuries has been quite different for the different areas of the Arab world. Algeria and Tunisia had parted (against their will unlike the M-E, by way of French conquest) from the Ottoman empire for decades already when the M-E was still part of it. Morocco, despite very close ties with the Ottoman empire, was never part of it. Then those countries were still to be under French occupation for some time after most of the M-E became independant. That played an important role in the sense that Arab nationalism never has had as much success in the Maghreb as in the M-E, because by then the Maghreb wasn't defining itself against the Turks, it was defining itself in opposition to the French. The Turks never became an issue, they were "us", Muslims. They have mixed a lot with the population btw (costal areas in Tunisia for example still have plenty of Hanafis). Even when Arab nationalism started seriously gaining ground, after the 60s and the Arab-Israeli 1967 war, it wasn't as "ethnic" as in the M-E. Mind you, most Berbers do not identify only as Berbers, they identify as Arabs as well even when Arabic is not their first language. So it was in fact Muslim identity that played a role in North Africa's struggle for independence. Then, none of the Maghreb states was a field of any of the Arab Israeli battles until the 80s and there was no big Palestinian refugee influx. This conflict in particular has had a great influence on the way Arab mentalities recently evolved. So that and the more European-like (often fascist) ethnic nationalism that the M-E had imported made national sensitivities and the way they're displayed different in many ways.
Then, you have the emigration. North Africa exported around 10% of its population to Europe for economic reasons over the last few decades. No oil, no state restrictions, and Europe was close and offered "less bad" conditions for the low-skilled pool of workers than in any other place. Except for Lebanon maybe, there's no other region in the Arab world which has had as much contact with the West. You'd certainly have a hard time finding a single North African who doesn't have several family members in Europe, so the contact with Europe is much more extensive than with the East. If you go to the Maghreb during the summer, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants or their descendants going there on vacation, on top of the millions of European tourists who go to Tunisia and Morocco every year, you'd see how much the human landscape changes.
Ahem. I think we might have gone a bit off-topic here.
Posted by: Shaheen at May 8, 2006 07:57 PM
Off topic is impossible here at Aqoul.
And let me echo your comments re Maghreb and society.
It strikes me personally that the combined reality of a different sense of ethnicity than the East, less survival of tribes (when I worked in the East I recall when living in Amman a Maghrebi friend came to visit - she found Jordanians really wierdly tribal) and associated social structures, the cultural influence of the Maghrebine and their descendants in Europe, etc to be fairly powerful drivers of social change.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 9, 2006 12:05 AM
she found Jordanians really wierdly tribal
Heh, you're already at the doorsteps of the Gulf (Iraq included) in Jordan. Bedouins ya3ni.
Posted by: Shaheen at May 10, 2006 10:32 PM
However, it was the contrast of urban cultures. Amman still has qabila gatherings. Suggest the same to Casaouie residents and you'll get a look like "oh yeah, and we still ride camels...."
What I found interesting was the reflexive differences.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 10, 2006 10:45 PM
Well, Amman was hardly more than a village 100 years ago. Take Damascus, and the picture is very different.
I'm not saying there are no East-West differences, but Amman and most of the Gulf cities are simply so young and the countries so recently (and rapidly!) urbanized -- couldn't that be the main explanation for tribalism in an urban setting?
Posted by: alle at May 11, 2006 01:52 AM
Casablanca was nothing more than a village prior to the French invasion and didn't become a real city until well into the protectorate.
Of course, it did eventually attract Moroccans of an urban culture (from the old imperial cities), but most inhabitants came from non-urban and non-urbane backgrounds.
So, no. I'd say the differences lie elsewhere.
French influence? Perhaps, in the Maghreb it strikes me the French broke the back of the tribes, the British coopted.
But I would lay the real developments in the post-colonial era - all three Maghrebi states had strong, central state apparatus that did not, as compared to Jordan, the Gulf, need the tribes.
More interesting, comparing Iraq and the Maghreb, but I don't have as good a feel for Iraqi cultural development.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 11, 2006 02:17 AM
i am 27 m . iw ant to know about the homosexuality . is good or bad
Posted by: arman at October 22, 2006 01:44 AM
hello, i am 27 m . i w ant to know about the homosexuality . is good or bad
At 27 meters, just about anything would be wild.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 22, 2006 04:25 AM
That reminds me - the book should be coming out in the States pretty soon (and I wonder what's happened with the Arabic version).
Posted by: Tom Scudder at October 22, 2006 05:58 AM
Moslems are supposed to be educated in religious schools for boys (madrassas) at the age of puberty, when friendships and eroticism develops, and brainwashed with an extremely homophobic religious discourse in the same time.
Is it any wonder that Alli Atta was a sexophobe? Is it any wonder that those "virgins" are qualified psychopats? Maybe their dreams were to avoid men and women and to wait only for those mirrific boys that Allah will offer them for guidance and more...in the "next" world!
Posted by: anton at November 3, 2006 08:11 PM