It's a dark night in Beirut, the San Francisco of the Middle East. This darkness is powerful. It represents Beirut's past, its present, and its bleak future. But tonight it also represents the state of gay people in this Middle Eastern city by the sea.
Hassan, whose name I have changed to protect his privacy, even though there are thousands of Ahmeds in Lebanon, is sipping on a gin and tonic, and in doing so he powerfully defies his religion. He grew up in a Muslim household, but to him, religion has turned its back on him, because, you see, Hassan is gay. A gay Muslim. In Beirut. Shocking.
Hassan tells me how hard it is to come out in Beirut. This story is very specific to the Arab world, because everywhere else on this planet, it's so easy to come out. We are sitting in Bardo, a gay bar in Hamra. Madonna and Fairuz sing a song together, embodying the endless contrasts that the New York City of the Middle East represents. Hassan is a graphic designer by day and a belly dancer by night, as are all Arab gay men. When he first told his parents he is gay, they were upset. His mother even cried. In this conservative country it is the last thing a parent wants to hear.
Beirut's tumultuous history has meant that gay people have been ostracized for years. I will now make a comment about how war often affects gay people more, but I won't offer any actual evidence for it. I want you to feel how much suffering these people have gone through, and I'll use the war to make you feel bad for them. So, yeah. War is very tough on homosexuals.
Hamed Sinno, the openly gay frontman of the Lebanese band Mashrou3 Leila, is gay. His gay voice represents the entire Arab world. Through his gay songs he captures the angst of the youth, singing about things no one gay has ever sung about in a gay way. One of the band's most famous songs is called "Shim el Yasmeen," a gay song about gay love. Hamed Sinno is gay. Beirut is the Provincetown of the Middle East.
In the clumsy offices of Helem, Samir looks up from behind his desk, surrounded by rainbow flags. The flags, powerful symbols of gayness in the West, have now been adapted by this NGO, the first gay one of its kind in the Middle East. It's a sign that Helem is a safe space. You almost feel like it is a safe space in the United States. What does Helem do exactly? I did not care to find out. The mere fact that they exist was enough of a statement, because, after all, it's so hard to be gay in Beirut, the Mykonos of the Arab world.
Samir tells me about Article 534, a clause in the Penal Code (Samir doesn't even laugh when saying "penal") of Lebanon that dates back to the days when Lebanon was under Ottoman control. One can imagine that every year, thousands of gays are arrested under that law. I can't confirm or deny that number, so let's just go with it. Samir explains that it is very hard to be gay in Beirut.
After our meeting, he takes me to a sauna on the outskirts of Beirut. On our way, we drive by buildings still riddled with bullets, a daily reminder of the war and how hard it is on homosexuals. Samir tells me about how, a few months ago, the police raided a cinema where gay men used to go to have sex. This is horrifying in two ways. First, how dare the police infringe on the basic human rights of a human being? Second, how filthy Arab sexuality is, where men have sex with other men in movie theaters!
Once we get to the sauna, Samir tells me about how condoms are not used inside. This excites me and scares me at the same time. What a delightful mix of emotions this country brings. Inside, men have sex with men in a scene out of a gay A Thousand and One Nights. A gorgeous Lawrence of Arabia comes up to me wearing only a towel. I have been in exactly the same situation in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona, but this one is different because of the untamed sexuality of Arab men.
Later that night, I'm walking downtown, where it is not uncommon to see military men walking around with their guns. There is no reason for me to share this fact other than to remind you that Beirut is a terrifying place to live. Outside Beirut it's a different story for gay people, but I will not write about it, because that would require actual investigative journalism, and who has time for that? I don't. I have a plane to catch, and I still need to tell you about all the Hezbollah flags I saw on the way to the airport.
On the way to the airport, I saw lots of Hezbollah flags. Pictures of martyrs look down on you, and your wildest Arab fantasies can come to life, until your realize the horrifying fact that they would cut off your penis (or so I imagine). I get on the plane with a full understanding of what it is like to be gay in Beirut, after having spent 48 hours in this, the London of the Middle East.
There are no lesbians in Beirut.
This blog post originally appeared on Raja's personal blog, ohmyhappiness.