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July 2007 Email this to a friend
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Arabian Nights
As the world discovers gay sex thriving in fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, can the good times last?
By Bill Andriette

Saudi Arabia as, ahem, Gay Mecca? The answer is "yes," if you define a holy place for homosexuals in terms of open same-sex affection, a demographic curve bulging with horny young people, ample opportunity for cruising, freedom to follow your bliss in the privacy of home-- all with, really, just a tiny risk of beheading.

An active Saudi homosexual scene-- bubbling over in cafes, barbershops, the toilets at girls' schools, and on the internet-- has caught the notice of journalists, even while reports of arrests, floggings, and executions for homosexual crimes trickle out of the autocratic kingdom.

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In a fascinating account in the May Atlantic Monthly, Nadya Labi described open street cruising in Jeddah, private drag parties, and men hooking up online-- either because sodomy was their sexual summum bonum, or as a handy backup when wives were menstruating or pregnant. In order to find sources for her story, reporter Labi-- an American woman-- posed online as a Saudi man with a yen to get fucked-- and soon had to fend off a cyber onslaught of admirers.

Saudi Arabia is among the world's most repressive societies, where notions of propriety require women to wear veils outside the home. An active gay scene seems a radical contradiction.

"You talk to people who've never been to Saudi Arabia," Labi tells The Guide, "and they're shocked, they're like, 'Wait a minute, isn't sodomy punishable by death?' But you talk to anyone who's really travelled in the Middle East or gone to Saudi Arabia and they have a different understanding. It's almost even a stereotype about Saudi [Arabia] that there's a vibrant gay culture there."

Homosexuality and Islam are not necessarily mortal foes. A "people of the book," Muslims have to grapple with the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah as much as Jews and Christians. But that story admits of varying interpretations. Homoerotic roots run deep around the Mediterranean. Mohammed knew his audience well enough to promise the faithful a paradise with not only virgins but beautiful boys as cupbearers of wine. The Koran prescribes the punishment for heterosexual relations outside marriage, but is vague-- even arguably forgiving-- about homoerotics. That ambiguity opened a space for a sophisticated centuries-long discussion about the ethics of same-sex love, together with a body of on-topic poetry that rivals that of ancient Greece and Rome. Abu Nuwas-- hailing from Baghdad in its glory days circa 800-- was a literary bad-boy even in his own time, and penned some of his verses in prison. But he couldn't have been speaking just for himself in his ode to the tubs: "In the bath-house, the mysteries concealed by trousers / are revealed to you. / All becomes radiantly manifest. / Feast your eyes without restraint! / You see handsome butts and shapely trim chests, / You hear the murmuring of pious formulas, / One lad to another: 'God is Great!' 'Praise be to God!' / Ah, what a palace of pleasure is the bathhouse!" [Translation thanks to Jaafar Abu Tarab from his Carousing with Gazelles.]

Yet in the waxing and waning of Islamic openness to same-sex love, Saudi Arabia would appear as the slimmest of crescent moons.

Baths were never an institution among the Arabian peninsula's nomadic Bedouins, and the rise of Wahabism among them in 18th century meant an attack on Islamic sensuality in all its forms-- religious, decorative, musical, and erotic. The Saudi royal family is defined by this variety of puritanical Sunni Islam that's as harsh as the desert of which it was a prickly bloom. Traditional sharia-- the body of Islamic law-- grounds the kingdom's legal code, and the death penalty that it provides for sodomy is periodically imposed-- indeed, as recently as last February.

That case seems to have involved a man convicted of sex with a youth and other crimes. In January 2002, three men were executed in the city of Abha who, according to the interior ministry, "committed acts of sodomy, married each other, seduced young men, and attacked those who rebuked them." As in other cases of execution for homosex in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Iran, the details are uncertain-- though reports are that boys, videotape, and blackmail were involved-- allegations that could have been colored by torture.

In March 2005, more than 100 men were arrested for dancing and "behaving like women" at a "gay wedding," according to the Saudi paper Al-Wifaq. Many were sentenced to terms ranging from six months to a year, with four alleged ringleaders receiving two years and 2000 lashes. Similar arrests recurred last summer.

Carried out in town squares by sword, beheading is the image that sticks in Western minds when the topic turns to homosex and Saudi Arabia. Accounts vary as to whether prisoners are drugged before execution; in the amputations of hands or feet that can be punishment for theft, anesthetic is reportedly given first. According the CIA's country study on the kingdom, in Saudi flogging "the skin [is] not broken," but some who've suffered the penalty disagree. In sentences involving hundreds or thousands of lashings, their infliction is usually staggered over time, lest that lesser penalty become simply an execution tortuously drawn-out.

With so much hanging over the head of sodomites, that same-sex love thrives in Saudi Arabia suggests something about its inevitability in human affairs-- sort of what's revealed about the tenacity of life when new forms are discovered around sulfur-spewing submarine volcanic vents or deep in Antarctic ice.

Homogrown

The space for homosex in Saudi Arabia was not brought to you by Stonewall. There's no gay movement, nor parades nor bars, and chatrooms for hooking up convey a certain reserve. As more Saudis go abroad for school or work and then return, they carry back some alien cultural pollen-- in some cases a dusting of gay identity. But Saudi Arabia was never a European colony, nor is it a tourist destination. Rumors are some members of the royal family are personally interested in avoiding a serious anti-gay crackdown. Still the kingdom's homosexual life can't so readily, as in Cairo or Beirut, be attributed to a decadent Westernized elite.

Rather, homosexuality flourishes in Saudi not a little bit because of how nicely it plays with puritanical Islam's particular sexual bugbears.

Saudi society worries obsessively about sex-- like the West, except differently. Outside the family, segregation of the sexes is the rule. Helping maintain decorum are the white-robed, stick-bearing mutawwa'in-- religious police from the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. For a man or youth, being seen with an unrelated girl or woman in public is risky, and open heterosexual courting or affection forbidden. Sexes can mingle in the "family" zones in shopping malls-- but the mutawwa'in can demand proof of a blood relationship. A man wearing long hair or jewelry, or a boy and girl caught out together on a date risk getting hauled into the police.

"The whole weird sexual setup," says Liam O Domhnall, an American who has taught English in the kingdom for seven years, "is really designed to protect marriageable females from what's considered the insatiable animal sexual desire of unmarried men."

With all the intense heterosexual suspicion, same-sex affection enjoys a veil of innocence.

"We have more freedom here than straight couples. After all, they can't kiss in public like we can, or stroll down the street holding one another's hand," a 23-year-old self-identified gay man told the British Independent.

"It's a lot easier to be gay than straight here," echoes a 26-year-old artist in Labi's Atlantic piece. "If you go out with a girl," the man says, "people will start to ask her questions. But if I have a [same-sex] date upstairs and my family is downstairs, they won't even come up."

"When I was new here, I was worried when six or seven cars would follow me as I walked down the street," the Atlantic quotes Jamie (all names were changed), a 31-year-old Filipino who works as a florist in Jeddah. "Especially if you're pretty like me, they won't stop chasing you."

"You can be cruised anywhere in Saudi Arabia, any time of the day," says another of Labi's sources, a 42-year-old gay-identified Saudi-American who also lives in Jeddah.

Foreign men who work there are routinely approached for sex with a forthrightness that would be surprising on the streets of Chelsea or the Castro.

Even by Middle Eastern standards, the Saudi obsession of sexual separation helps makes the space for same-sex connection all the less inhibited.

Labi tells the story of Talal, a man who left Damascus, Syria in part to escape from under the thumb of his family after his father caught him at age 17 having sex with a male friend. Talal got grounded for two months and had to assure his family that his attraction to men had passed. When he announced he was taking a job in Riyadh his father warned him, "You know all Saudis like boys, and you are white. Take care." Talal found that his father's fears were justified. Even though it's in the middle of the country, far from the more liberal coasts, Riyadh, says Talal, is "gay heaven."

It's sometimes gender-nonconformity rather than homosex per se that's on the mutawwa'in's radar. Labi discusses the case of Marcos, a Filipino guest worker who lives in Jeddah and works in the fashion industry. In 1996 he was arrested when police raided a party featuring a drag show. The police separated out the showgirls from the other partygoers.

"At the first of the three ensuing trials," Labi writes, "Marcos and the 23 other Filipinos who'd been detained were confronted with the evidence from the party: plastic bags full of makeup, shoes, wigs, and pictures of the defendants dressed like women. When the Filipinos were returned to their cells, they began arguing about who had looked the hottest in the photos."

Marcos and 23 other Filipinos were detained, and there were three trials. Marcos spent nine months in prison and received 200 lashes before being deported. But he chose to return-- and had no problems doing so, even under the same name. His well-paid work in Saudi fashion and the perks its brings are irresistible. "Guys romp around and parade in front of you," Marcos tells Labi "They will seduce you. It's up to you how many you want, every day."

While homosexuality among women suffers-- or enjoys-- greater invisibility-- it flourishes as well. A few years ago, Okaz, a Jeddah daily, ran an exposé on alleged "endemic" lesbianism among schoolgirls. Citing the wife of the Prophet that "there should be no shyness in religion," the paper told of girls shunning classmates who refused advances and using school toilets for sex. Teachers bemoaned their helplessness against the girls' incorrigibility.

In the Atlantic, Labi's only source willing to speak of a lesbian relationship was Yasmin, a 21-year-old student in Riyadh who had a brief sexual affair with a girlfriend. She told Labi that one of the buildings at her college has the reputation as a lesbian enclave. "The building has large bathroom stalls," Labi writes, "which provide privacy, and walls covered with graffiti offering romantic and religious advice; tips include 'She doesn't really love you no matter what she tells you' and 'Before you engage in anything with [her] remember: God is watching you.'" Yasmin relates, in what's a familiar refrain, "It's easier to be a lesbian. There's an overwhelming number of people who turn to lesbianism."

Sodomy's not alone

With manifold and niggling controls on behavior, homosex joins activities such as drinking scotch, watching porn, smoking, or socializing with unrelated members of the opposite sex-- practices no longer rare in Saudi Arabia, but still outside the public eye. Not only out of sight, but in a way, outside of consciousness, as if a sort of sleepwalking that doesn't have to be fitted onto any ideological map.

In some ways, the schizophrenia works fine. "It's not a neurotic culture," says O Domhnall. "People don't torment themselves internally and feel guilty about things." Shame rather seems the operating impulse-- horror at getting exposed. With questions of appearances all- important, what goes on in private enjoys considerable protection. The sanctity of the home is a main relief valve.

"One of my students once mentioned his girlfriend," O Domhnall recalls, "and I said, 'Wait you can't have a girlfriend.' And his response was, 'Teacher, in my house I can do anything I want.'"

Within the home, women's veils come off-- but that's because the home itself is shrouded, usually literally protected by wall, gate, and shutters. For outsiders, access to that private domain is restricted-- in his seven years working in the kingdom, O Domhnall says he's been invited only once into one Saudi home-- that of a man originally from Palestine.

Entry ramps onto Homo Highway

When it comes to Islam's sodomy taboo, certain circumstances help ease the pain, the way surprise parties give dieters excuse to eat cake.

By convention not necessarily enshrined in Sharia, a man who plays the role of top in homosex has less to answer for-- or at least departs less from the sanctioned role of male as penetrator. When she was fishing for sources in a gay-frequented chat room the Atlantic's Labi found she could maximize interest by choosing a screen-name implying a readiness to bottom. As "Jedbut," Labi found herself the center of attention. A preponderance of tops distinguishes the Saudi gay scene from Western ones-- which may reflect cultural preferences, a different range of people plying the homosexual field, fear of crossing a fraught threshold, or just a convenient fiction since-- outside the co- conspirators-- no one need ever know the details.

Homosex involving younger people also gets cut some slack. Partly it's a recognition that the strictures on heterosexual liaison don't offer many other releases. Partly it's a matter, in the case of males, of boys being deemed less constrained by masculine obligations. With more than half the kingdom's native population younger than 25, these are likely significant factors. By the demographics, Saudi Arabia is where the baby boom put the West in the mid-1960s-- a time of explosive sexual and political change.

A 2004 report by John R. Bradley in the UK Independent cites Ahmed, 19, a college student in Jeddah, who relates that: "there was no shame in having a boyfriend in his private high school. Although he firmly rejected the label 'gay,' he admitted that he now has a 'special friend' in college, too. 'It's those who don't have a boy who are ashamed to admit it. We introduce our boy to our friends as al walid hagi [the boy who belongs to me]. At the beginning of term, we always check out the new boys to see which are the most helu [sweet] and think of ways to get to know them.'"

"Let's say there's a group of men sitting around in a cafe," the Atlantic quotes an American teacher. "If a smooth-faced boy walks by, they all stop and make approving comments. They're just noting, 'That's a hot little number.'"

Being foreign is another gap across which homoerotic desire readily sparks. Saudi has more than one guest-worker for every four native citizens-- outsiders at mostly the low end of the labor market. Not only is the exotic often a turn-on in itself, but non-Saudi sex partners carry with them a protective moat from family and clan. The gossip among teachers at his Saudi military installation, O Domhnall reports, is that the "cadets were all fucking the Bangladeshi and Filipino street sweepers."

Region's the reason?

Saudi homosexual dynamics may themselves seem curiously exotic, but they recall a long- standing Mediterranean pattern, familiar from ancient Greece and Rome. The organizing principle is a focus on the costs, complications, and opportunities of heterosexual relations, which are policed most because they are the most consequential. Heterosexuality means children, the risk to women of bearing them, and involves inter- family entanglement. The rise of the House of Saud can be charted in terms of both military conquests and careful handling of the British-- and also by savvily arranged clan alliances sealed by marriage. Same-sex liaisons are free and easy by comparison. In what's-- oil aside-- a resource-poor land, homoerotics may be welcome for easing delay in marriage and minimizing new mouths-- likely a factor in the origins of Greek pederasty. But a warrior culture and a necessary sexual division of labor abhors bending gender. The Islamic discourse on the ethics of same-sex love shares these concerns with Greco- Roman writers-- with their fear over the pleasures of men's erotic submission, leanings toward pederasty, at least a literary privileging of a chaste love, and a sense that what goes on with outsiders is off-ledger. Whatever sharia says, these are elements notable, too, in Saudi Arabia.

Now is perhaps a golden queer moment in the kingdom, like it was for street cruising and tearooms in the West during 1960s and 70s. Repression is decreasing and awareness not yet widespread enough to provoke a reaction. Articles in the Western media may disrupt the balance. But for now, heterosexuals are benefiting, too, with boys and girls texting and bluetoothing by cellphone to arrange secret rendezvous in malls' family zones. These could be signs of progressing from Saudi's hidebound nomadic past that little serves the modern, petrodollar present. Or, with unemployment at around 20 percent and the population explosion straining the economy-- these could be signs the entire Saudi system is breaking down.

"The government is obsessively concerned about public appearances, and there's a very strong tradition of keeping the nose out of what happens within people's home and outside of public sight," O Domhnall tells The Guide. "Weird things are happening because people can now connect from inside private space to inside private space, avoiding any public interaction." Satellite TV, a losing battle for internet censorship, and cellphones are all routing around official strictures.

"It could go lots of different ways," Labi suggests. "The men who considered themselves gay who I spoke with in Saudi Arabia were worried about what public recognition of this culture might mean for them. They wondered if breaking open what's very much a taboo subject might result in a backlash. And so they were very critical what they viewed of Westerners and their emphasis on visibility as a way to gain gay rights. There were very few Saudis I spoke to who were looking for that kind of movement because they felt they had a very good life."

As Saudis increasingly encounter "gay," what will happen? "Once you see how something is done in a different culture," notes Labi, "and you see how your own practices are reflected in the eyes of outsiders, you somehow begin to think differently."

That intercultural contact and free markets in ideas and images assure cultural diversity and minority rights is one of the West's great contemporary conceits. A centuries-long tradition of same-sex love was stamped out in Japan early in the 20th century owing to the country's enforced encounter with the West. A certain Saudi innocence about homosex may meet a similar fate, and embolden an avowed fundamentalist hard-line.

With its gleaming malls and SUVs cruising along Californiaesque highways, Saudi Arabia has glued the trappings of modernity and luxury uneasily over Bedouin sands. "The most westernized people I knew there in general supported the status quo on the theory that if it weren't for the royal family keeping the lid on things, a genuinely puritanical Taliban regime would be likely to follow," says O Domhnall. Saudi's bored, young, often unemployed masses may act like they want more liberalization, but there's little political or cultural language in which to express those frustrations-- which instead tend to be flow in fundamentalist directions.

Watch your back, and Saudi Arabia may seem today like Gay Mecca. But the very phrase would turn fundamentalists apoplectic. Tomorrow risks a stark choice between the two terms.

Author Profile:  Bill Andriette
Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide
Email: theguide@guidemag.com


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