two men caught in bed together, Khamsa by Atai, 1721

Surveys among Muslims show that they are more than four times as likely to disapprove of homosexuality than people in Western countries. Many Arabs view homosexuality as a terrible sin, even heresy. In the United Arab Emirates, homosexuality is treated as a serious crime. In Egypt, gay men have been killed and tortured by police. Even some liberal Arabs have little tolerance for homosexuality. One Egyptian human rights activist told the New York Times, “No one has the right to be queer, because this is against human nature...Society will never accept it because it violates our religion, our beliefs.” According to a 2016 poll on social media by writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, 52 percent of British Muslims said homosexuality should be banned.

In the Arab world, homosexuality is often characterized as a Western disease, even one with colonial aspects to it. As an illustration of this some point to a scene in the novel “For Bread Alone” by Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri in which a desperate young man who has just moved to the city from the countryside sells himself to an elderly Spaniard.

A lot of Arabs reportedly engage in homosexual acts but are very secretive about it. Many Arab gays feel lonely, repressed and guilty. One Egyptian gay man told Newsweek, “When I first had these feeling I believed I was the only one. Then I met someone, and we thought we were the only two. Slowly we found our way into a community.”

Homosexuals are sometimes referred to as men “who act like women.” Photographs of “women” from the Ottoman were often of men dressed up as women. Because Muslim women were not supposed to be seen by men outside their families, photographers sometimes asked men to pose as women.

“In the Name of Allah” (“A Jihad for Love”) is a documentary by New York-based director Parvez Sharma about Muslim gays and lesbians in North America, Europe, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Many of those who appeared or talked in the film were found over the Internet and did not want to give their names out of fear of being persecuted . Sharia received several death threatened over the film.

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam;

Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Arab Cultural Awareness ; Arab Cultural Center ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA ; Arab American Institute ; Introduction to the Arabic Language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ;

Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia;

Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Arab Cultural Awareness ; Arab Cultural Center ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA ; Arab American Institute ; Introduction to the Arabic Language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

Homosexuality and Islam

Muslims generally condemns or at least frown upon homosexuality. Conservatives think it deserves capital punishment. According to some interpretations of Islamic law, homosexuality is a worse offense than adultery and can be punished by death. One Egyptian Islamist told the New York Times, “We consider it strange how the laws of Western civilization are not alert to the danger of this crime, but encourage it in the name of freedom.”

In October 2005, the Iraqi Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuals but it was inexplicable removed a few month later. The influential television cleric Sheil Yussef Al-Qaradawi called homosexuals perverts but noted “there is disagreement over punishment.”

Some liberals assert there is nothing in the Qur’an that says homosexuality should be condemned or punished. One gay man in Cairo told the New York Times magazine, “There is nothing clear on homosexuality in the Qur’an. It reads that the man who does it should be hurt. What does it mean ‘to be hurt?’ In the Arabian peninsula they used a stick the size of this punish men. It’s not like thievery or adultery. And anyway the Prophet was promised boys in heaven. Not girls.”

Much of the scriptural basis for the intolerant views of homosexuality in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are based on the story of the Prophet Lot. The New York Times magazine said: “Ambiguities abound, and while there is no consensus on where Islam stands, popular and legalistic reinterpretations take liberties in selecting the bits that suit particular world views.” Conservatives Muslims regard public discussion of homosexuality to be an insult. Islamic nations have gone as far as trying to bar U.S. gay rights groups from attending a United Nations conference on AIDS.

Treatment and Persecution of Arab Homosexuals

When Muslim parents find out that a child is gay their first response is often shock, followed by seeking medical or psychological help. A Cairo psychiatrists that has dealt with fair number of such cases told the New York Times magazine, “Typically a family comes in with their son or daughter who has just announced that they are homosexual.”

The typical treatment is anti-depressants and counseling. In some rare cases electroshock therapy has been employed. A gay woman in Cairo told the New York Times magazine, “I’ve been to three psychiatrists, each time taken by my parents. The first two prescribed anti-depressants. They told me it was a phase, that I should ‘cheer up.’ The third prescribed electroshock therapy. I never went back.”

A few incidents of crackdowns on homosexuals I the Arab world have made the Western press. In August 2006, police in Saudi Arabia raided a wedding party in the town of Jizan and arrested 20 men for “impersonating women. In 2005, 26 men were arrested when a party in a desert region in the United Arab Emirates was raided. A government spokesman was quote dn the Khaleej Times. “Because they’ve put society at risk they will be given the necessary treatment, from make hormone injections to psychological therapies.” Arrests have also been made in Lebanon and Morocco, which are widely see as the most liberal Arab states.

Qu'ran and Homosexuality

A king looking at a picture of his son and his tutor who fell in love with him

Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century adventurer and writer, suggested the following Qu'ranic verses were relevant to homosexuality: SURA IV: 19-21: 19. But whoso rebels against God and His Apostle, and transgresses His bounds, He will make him enter into fire, and dwell therein for aye; and for him is shameful woe. 20. Against those of your women who commit adultery, call witnesses four in number from among yourselves; and if these bear witness, then keep the women in houses until death release them, or God shall make for them a way. 21. And if two (men) of you commit it, then hurt them both; but if they turn again and amend, leave them alone, verily, God is easily turned, compassionate. [Source: Qu'ran edition at Virginia Tech's etext collection, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook,]

SURA VII: 78-84 [On Lot at Sodom]: 78. Then the earthquake took them, and in the morning they lay prone in their dwellings; 79. and he turned away from them and said, 'O my people! I did preach to you the message of my Lord, and I gave you good advice; but ye love not sincere advisers.' 80. And Lot, when he said to his people, 'Do ye approach an abomination which no one in all the world ever anticipated you in? 81. verily, ye approach men with lust rather than women- nay, ye are a people who exceed.' 82.But his people's answer only was to say, 'Turn them out of your village, verily, they are a people who pretend to purity.' 83. But we saved him and his people, except his wife, who was of those who lingered; 84. and we rained down upon them a rain;- see then how was the end of the sinners!

SURA XI: 77-84 [On Lot at Sodom]: 77. And when our messengers came to Lot, he was grieved for them; but his arm was straitened for them, and he said, 'This is a troublesome day!' 78. And his people came to him, rushing at him, for before that they used to work evil. He 'Said, 'O my people! here are my daughters, they are purer for you; then, fear God, and do not disgrace me through my guests;- is there not among you one right-thinking man?' 79. They said, 'Thou knowest that we have no claim on thy daughters; verily, thou knowest what we want!' 80. He said, 'Had I but power over you; or could I but resort to some strong column....!'

  1. (The angels) said, 'O Lot! verily, we are the messengers of thy Lord, they shall certainly not reach thee; then travel with thy people in the darkness of the night, and let none of you look round except thy wife: verily, there shall befall her what befalls them. Verily, their appointment is for the morning! and is not the morning nigh?' 82. And when our bidding came, we made their high parts their low parts. And we rained down upon them stones and baked clay one after another, 83. marked, from thy Lord, and these are not so far from the unjust! 84. And unto Midian (we sent) their brother Sho'haib. He said, 'O my people! serve God; ye have no god but Him, and give not short measure and weight. Verily, 'I see you well off; but, verily, I fear for you the torments of an encompassing day.

A man exposing himself through a hole in a fence

SURA XXVI: 160-174 [On Lot and Sodom]: 160. The people of Lot called the apostles liars; 161 when their brother Lot said to them, 'Do ye not fear? 162. verily, I am to you a faithful apostle; 163. then fear God and obey me. 164 I do not ask you for it any hire; my hire is only with the Lord of the worlds. 165 Do ye approach males of all the world 166 and leave what God your Lord has created for you of your wives? nay, but ye are people who transgress!' 167 They said, 'Surely, if thou dost not desist, O Lot! thou shalt be of those who are expelled!' 168 Said he, 'Verily, I am of those who hate your deed; 169 my Lord! save me and my people from what they do.' 170 And we saved him and his people all together, 171 except an old woman amongst those who lingered. 172 Then we destroyed the others; 173 and we rained down upon them a rain; and evil was the rain of those who were warned. 174 Verily, in that is a sign; but most of them will never be believers. 175 And, verily, thy Lord He is mighty, merciful, compassionate. SURA XXIX: 28-35 [On Lot and Sodom]: 28. And (remmber) Lot when he said to his people, 'Verily, ye approach an abomination which no one in all the world ever anticipated you in! 29. What! do ye approach men? (or Do you commit sexual acts with men?) and stop folks on the highway? And approach in your assembly sin?' but the answer of his people was only to say, 'Bring us God's torment, if thou art of those who speak the truth!' 30. Said he, 'My Lord! help me against a people who do evil!' 31. And when our messengers came to Abraham with the glad tidings, they said, 'We are about to destroy the people of this city. Verily, the people thereof are wrong-doers.' 32. Said he, 'Verily, in it is Lot; they said, 'We know best who is therein; we shall of a surety save him and his people, except his wife, who is of those who linger.' 33. And when our messengers came to Lot, he was vexed for them, and his arm was straitened for them; and they said, 'Fear not, neither grieve; we are about to save thee and thy people, except thy wife, who is of those who linger. 34. Verily, we are about to send down upon the people of this city a horror from heaven, for that they have sinned; 35. and we have left therefrom a manifest sign unto a people who have sense.'

ON THE OTHER HAND: Although the Qu'ran does not have verse explicitly in favor of homosexuality, it does have verses which show awareness of male beauty. These are promises made to Muslim men who make it to Heaven. SURA LII:24: "And there shall wait on them [the Muslim men] young boys of their own, as fair as virgin pearls." SURA LXXVI:19: "They shall be attended by boys graced with eternal youth, who will seem like scattered pearls to the beholders."

Lesbian Love in A Turkish Bath, 1560

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592) was a Flemish diplomat and man of letters who was made ambassador to Constantinople by Ferdinand I of Austria. Although he is not well known today, he was still popular in the 19th century and is credited with introducing the lilac and the tulip to western Europe. Charles Thornton Forster and F.H. Blackburne Daniell wrote in their 1881 biography: "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hardly any author was so popular as Busbecq. More than twenty editions of his letters were published in the literary capitals of Europe... He was eminently what is called a 'many-sided man'; nothing is above him, nothing beneath him. His political information is important to the soberest historians, his gossiping details would gladden a Macaulay."

The following letter is part of one of his long letters about Ottoman life and manners: Constantinople, 1560: “The great mass of women use the public baths for females, and assemble there in large numbers. Among them are found many girls of exquisite beauty, who have been brought together from different quarters of the globe by various chances of fortune; so cases occur of women falling in love with one another at these baths, in much the same fashion as young men fall in love with maidens in our own country. Thus you see a Turk's precautions are sometimes of no avail, and when he has succeeded in keeping his wives from a male lover, he is still in danger from a female rival! The women become deeply attached to each other, and the baths supply them with opportunities of meeting. Some therefore keep their women away from them as much as possible, but they cannot do so altogether, as the law allows them to go there. This evil affects only the common people; the richer classes bathe at home. [Source: Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522 - 1592): “Lesbian Love in A Turkish Bath, 1560", Life & Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, C. Kegan Paul & Co., London, 1881, pp. 231 - 232, Internet Archive, from Letters Magazine]

“It happened that in a gathering of this kind, an elderly woman fell in love with a girl, the daughter of an inhabitant of Constantinople, a man of small means. When her courtship and flatteries were not attended with the success her mad passion demanded, she ventured on a course, which to our notions appears almost incredible. Changing her dress, she pretended she was a man, and hired a house near where the girl's father lived, representing herself as one of the slaves of the Sultan, belonging to the class of cavasses; and it was not long before she took advantage of her position as a neighbour, cultivated the father's acquaintance, and asked for his daughter in marriage. Need I say more? The proposal appearing to be satisfactory, the father readily consents, and promises a dowry proportionate to his means. The wedding-day was fixed, and then this charming bridegroom enters the chamber of the bride, takes off her veil, and begins to chat with her. She recognises at once her old acquaintance, screams out, and calls back her father and mother, who discover that they have given their daughter in marriage to a woman instead of a man.

“The next day they bring her before the Aga of the Janissaries, who was governing the city in the Sultan's absence. He tells her that an old woman like her ought to know better than to attempt so mad a freak, and asks, if she is not ashamed of herself? She replies, "Tush! You know not the might of love, and God grant that you may never experience its power." At this the Aga could not restrain his laughter; and ordered her to be carried off at once, and drowned in the sea. Thus the strange passion of this old woman brought her to a bad end.”

Gay Scene and Crackdowns in Egypt

There used to be a fairly active gay scene in Cairo and Alexandria. There were gay clubs, bars, meeting places and online dating services in affluent neighborhoods in these cities. Egypt had a reputation of being the place to be if you were Arab and gay. On man told the New York Times, “You would walk in a Thursday night, and it was like you were in a gay bar in Europe.” [Source: Negar Azimi, New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2006]

In the early 2000s there was a major crackdown on homosexuality in Egypt. Gay websites and chatlines were shut down. Online dating became dangerous. Sometimes the “dates” were undercover police who arrested the men they met. There are no laws specifically outlawing homosexuality in Egypt . Some men were charged with “practicing debauchery with men,” a section of a penal code rooted in Islamic law.

The crack down on homosexuality was widely regarded as a ploy by the Mubarak government to placate Islamic conservatives and draw attention away from problems that people would otherwise blame on the government.

Queen Boat Incident in Egypt

Blue Nile river boat

On May 11, 2001 police raided the “Queen Boat”, a Nile River boat that served as a gay club and disco. Foreigners were released, but the Egyptians found there were imprisoned and their address books were confiscated and used to round up and arrest other men. Altogether 52 men were jailed and charged with crimes such as contempt for religion, false interpretation of the Qur’an, engaging in immoral acts and “practicing debauchery with men.” [Source: Negar Azimi, New York Times Magazine, December 9, 2006]

After the men were arrested they endured harsh interrogations and were forced to undergo humiliating anal exams to determine if they had had anal sex. In the Egyptian press there were stories about how they engaged in Satanic rituals and distributed pornography over the Internet. There was little public sympathy for the arrested men. One Cairo man told the Independent, “I think homosexuality is a disease. That’s why they’re on trial because they’re making disease.”

The trial of the 52 men was big news. Because the men were deemed a threat to the state, they were tried in a State Security Court. International human rights groups and legal activists complained, but didn’t offer much real support because they worried that being associating with gays would undermine their other efforts. In the end 23 were sentenced to prison terms up to five years. The rest were acquitted and then tried again. Of these 21 were convicted of “debauchery” and each was sentenced to three years in prison.

After these trials, gay bars and websites closed down and gay men were arrested at a rate of about one a weeks in Cairo. In January 2002, eight gay men were arrested in the Nile Delta town of Damanahur on charges similar to those used in Cairo. The local media said they were members of a “den of perverts.”

Homosexuality and the Death Penalty in Iran

Homosexuals face the death penalty in Iran. According to UNHCR report "Homosexuality is forbidden by Islamic law, and will be punished. Sodomy, defined as 'sexual intercourse with a male' is punishable by death if both parties 'are mature, of sound mind and have free will.'"

At least 14 people were killed for sodomy between 1990 and 2000. Charges against homosexual are often incorporated with other allegations such as espionage. One gay man who was seeking asylum in Japan told a Japanese newspaper, "If I tell someone in Iran that I am gay, my family will not wait for the government to kill me, a member of my own family, with almost 100 percent certainty, will kill me and no one will ask why."

The Shar Theater in Tehran used to be a sometime hang out for transvestites dressed in Islamic garb. In the early 2000s, one ayatollah ruled that sex-change operations were okay under certain conditions.

Homosexuals in Turkey

Homosexuality has long been a fixture of Turkish culture. In Ottoman times, sultans employed groups of “celtokci” (“pretty boys”) for their amusement and even brought them along on military campaigns. Today, the discussion of homosexuality is a taboo subject in Turkey, where machismo is held in high regard, but behind the scenes, homosexual relationships are often tolerated.

Turkish men have a reputation for being so highly sexed, they themselves sometimes say, they will fuck anything. There is a Turkish expression that says it is okay for a man to screw a women, a man or a sheep; just as long as he is the one that is doing the fucking. A lot of ex-patriot gay men end up in Istanbul. I know one American man, who it turns was related to a U.S. Senator, who hired a couple of male servants on the basis of their penis size.

Although homosexuality is not technically illegal there are a number of laws that are used to prosecute gays. There are few openly gay clubs. Most activity is discrete. There is a lot of hate and prejudice directed at homosexuals. Some people blamed the 1999 earthquake on “those transvestites.” Once passengers on a gay-oriented cruise ship were upset when Turkish police prevented them from visiting the ancient ruins at Ephesus.

Laws regarding same-sex sexuality in Asia: Same-sex intercourse legal 1) Marriage (blue) 2) Marriage recognized, but not performed (Purple); 3) Civil unions and registered partnerships (dark blue); 4) Unregistered cohabitation (light blue); 5) Same-sex unions not recognized (gray); Laws restricting freedom of expression and association 6) Same-sex intercourse illegal (beige); 7) Illegal, although no arrests for same-sex intercourse for the last three years/moratorium (yellow); 8) Imprisonment (orange); 9) Up to life imprisonment (Red); 10) Up to death (brown) Rings indicate areas where local judges have granted/denied marriages or imposed the death penalty in a jurisdiction where that is not otherwise the law and/or areas with a case-by-case application. 1May include recent laws or court decisions which have created legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but which have not entered into effect yet

Transsexual Prostitutes, Homosexuals and the Police in Turkey

In the 1990s, there were about 2,000 transvestites in Istanbul who made their living performing in night clubs or working as prostitutes. One of Turkey’s best known classical music singers, Bulent Ersoy, is a transsexual and a fixture of Turkish television. Many transsexuals become prostitutes because they can’t find work doing anything else.

In the 1990s, transsexual prostitutes had more customers and charged higher prices than regular prostitutes. They used to hang out in Beyoglu District in Istanbul, soliciting customers until they were driven away by police in 1996 and forced to work on the E-5 highway which links Istanbul with Ankara.

Police in Turkey have been accused of routinely detaining and beating prostitutes, gays and transsexuals, cutting their phone lines, and chopping down their doors with axes during raids. One transvestite prostitute told National Geographic, “It doesn’t matter whether you are silent or outspoken. If you are different you will be crushed.” He said he was arrested several times for prostitution and beaten each time by a policeman who was thoughtful enough to ask what color hose he wanted to be struck with.

The “purification” campaign that drove the transvestite prostitutes from Beyoglu to the E-5 highway was organized by a police chief known as the “Hose Man,” because of his reputation for beating victims with a rubber hose. At least four transvestites died and other were seriously injured when baton-weidling police forced them to run into traffic on the E-5 highway. One transvestite told the Washington Post, “There is a systematic campaign to wipe us out.”

Gay Scene in Beirut

Parvez Sharma wrote in the Daily Beast: “In 2010, I stood outside a nightclub called Acid, perched on a Beirut cliff. It was Ramadan, and Acid was one of the precious few openly gay nightclubs in all of the Arab Middle East. I shared a cigarette with a friend called Babak as a car with Saudi tags rolled up. “That’s a rich Saudi prince!” Babak said. He often comes here to cruise! You have no idea how many rich Saudi fuckers come here. We Beirutis must screw well! The Saudis? They walk around like they are so butch but once naked they are all bottoms.” [Source: Parvez Sharma, Daily Beast, June 16, 2016, Parvez Sharma is the director and producer of A Jihad for Love and A Sinner in Mecca /^]

“Babak was the twentysomething founder of Bear Arabia who organized “Bear” tours of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for western gay men keen to sample the delights of the region. Bears, for those unfamiliar with Western homosexuality, are the gay men who do not confirm to “body fascist” stereotypes and flaunt the hair on their bodies and the ample meat on their bones. Or as my husband Keith liked to say, “They are just gay men who have given up.” /^\

“I was in Beirut to do open screenings of my first film for the first time in an Arab capital. It felt like a special moment. Babak, who I would call an activist like any other, was furious at the time because a New York Times article had come out labeling the city the Provincetown of the Middle East. To me it seemed absurd. From our vantage point we were looking at the expanse of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb. That was Hezbollah land, bombed to smithereens in 2006. This remained a deeply divided city. /^\

“On that journey, I hooked up with a handsome man who later confided in me that he was a member of Hezbollah’s social media division. We’d met on Manjam, a gay hookup website. He was married, with three kids. When we were finished, he performed the elaborate, obligatory post-sex cleansing ritual called the ghusl at almost 4:30 in the morning.” /^\

Laws regarding same-sex sexuality in Africa: Same-sex Sexual Activity Legal: 1) Same-sex Marriage Legal (purple): 2) Other type of Partnership (or Unregistered Cohabitation) Recognized (Blue): No Recognition of Same-sex couples (gray): 3) Same-sex Sexual Activity Illegal (yellow): 4) Not Enforced or unclear (orange): Penalty: 5) Life in Prison (reddish orange): 7) Death Penalty (dark, rusty red)

Cruising in Jordan and Tunisia

Yotam Feldman wrote: “At twilight, the labyrinthine paths of the ancient Roman theater in Amman begin to fill up. Men who have come alone stand in waiting postures, impatient, casting glances this way and that. Others congregate by the wall or on benches, not letting the patrolling police bother them. Occasionally a couple disappears into a clump of bushes or into one of the niches. Many tourists might be confused by the scene, but a gay tourist will get it immediately. Most of the men who approach the tourists are selling sex for money, sometimes mediated by a pimp lurking in another corner of the theater. Relations with those who are not engaged in prostitution also sometimes have a character that makes it impossible to be oblivious to economic power relations. The tourist will invite them for drinks or dinner, for example, or will pay for the hotel room to which they will go, perhaps, at the end of the evening.

“There are other places, too, for those seeking cross-border relations: Thakafa Street (thakafa means “culture” in Arabic) in the Shmeisani quarter is a cruising site for a higher-level crowd. Strolling on the well-lit street, amid the ubiquitous campaign posters for the parliamentary elections, are families with children, groups of students and also gay men (mostly young) who are trying to spot a new face in the city’s small, stifling community. The searchers can be identified by their long pauses every few steps or by their many sidelong glances. Iman, a young literature student of Palestinian origin, whose family comes from Hebron, is here with friends to cruise Thakafa Street – “Not necessarily to look for anything, but if the opportunity arises, why not?” He is not ashamed to say that he’s looking mainly for foreigners. “In a small place like Amman, people we don’t know, with whom we haven’t yet slept, are a refreshing innovation. You can find tourists here from different countries – Americans and Europeans – and also many from Arab states, and occasionally also Israelis.” Just that morning, Iman relates, he met, via the Internet, a Saudi student who was in the city for a short visit. “It’s been a long time since I met someone so uptight,” he says. “He didn’t stop shaking until we entered the hotel room. Anyway, I won’t see him again.”

I”n the evening, Iman and his friends hang out at Books@Cafe, a coffee shop that is considered “gay-friendly” and whose owner acts as an adviser and mentor to his clients. He tells of efforts by the young people to create a sense of community. Two of them, he says, tried recently to put out a magazine for gays, but quickly found themselves in trouble with the authorities, who threatened them with legal proceedings. They shelved the idea. We meet one of them later in the evening, together with a group of his friends, in the gay bar RGB, a relatively new establishment. It’s not very big – five wooden tables around which two groups of young men are milling. Sitting at one of the tables are two women, a couple, who have come from the lesbian bar that opened recently not far from RGB.

Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856 – 1931), a German photographer know for his often nude pictures of Arab and Italian boys and young men

Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai. Holders of two passports also visit Beirut, which they say can compete with Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and Damascus, where the gay scene is more secretive. This is not sex tourism, all the travelers who were interviewed for this article emphasized, certainly not in the narrow sense of obtaining sex in return for money. The fear of being exposed as an Israeli heightens the thrill, some of the visitors say. “It’s a state of consciousness, which allows you to overcome the usual inhibitions. The erotic yearning mobilizes additional forces,” says Arnon, 35, who works for a human rights organization and makes frequent visits to Arab countries.

“Very quickly. There are always these types who approach you. For example, in Tunis – you are sitting in a cafe and someone makes eyes at you, comes over and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you from? Are you married?’ ‘Would you like to go someplace?’ You don’t necessarily go straight to the hotel. Usually they want to go out, want you to take them drinking, to a discotheque.” And it’s at this stage that the economic dependence is created?

“In the background, there is always the question of what they will get out of it in material terms. It’s not that you are going to send them a hundred dollars a month for the rest of their lives, but relations of dependence form. Some of them told me that their dream is to leave Tunis and live in the West. They asked if I could write a letter to my consul general that will make it possible for them to get a visa. They asked that after 25 minutes of conversation.”

“It is the anti-erotic element that bothers me. In Tunisia, for example, someone I met invited me to his cousin’s home. I went with him, even though I did not necessarily want sexual contact. I understood that the sexual thing was the payment I would make in order to see his house. We got a cab and drove out to a kind of suburb. It was a large house, what’s known in Israel as an Arab villa, made of concrete, on which construction was completed but hadn’t yet been quite whitewashed or furnished, or maybe would never be whitewashed because the money has run out. The uncle was sitting in the courtyard, holding prayer beads and smoking. We said hello, and the man introduced me in Arabic and spoke with him.”

Attraction of European Gay Men to the Arab World

T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — wrote in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”; “They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed.”

Yotam Feldman wrote: “The fantasy that lured Western travelers to the Arab world is not new. In the 19th century, writers and other creative artists, Europeans in general and Frenchmen in particular, were drawn to the Levant under the auspices of colonialism. On their return they described places where men slept with other men without being categorized as homosexuals, as in the West.

“What connected me to the East was French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Arnon says. “Roland Barthes connected me to Morocco, and Flaubert to Tunisia. My image was of a place where almost every man could find himself in a sexual situation with another man, because you don’t have the Catholic prohibition on sexual contact between males. That is further intensified for a Western man, for whom all the barriers are lifted, in part by material incentives. It is not confined to a bar or a park. The horizon of possibilities is far more dynamic, and it is not just about those who declare themselves gay. It can also be a married man – anyone, really.”

Richard Burton on 19th Century Muslim Homosexuality

Gloeden photo

Richard Burton's ten-volume translation of the “The Arabian Nights” was followed by a 'Terminal Essay', which deals with a number of interpretative issues. Section D addressed "pederasty" (sexual activity involving a man and a boy). This essay represents one of the earliest modern efforts to collect cultural and historical information about "homosexuality", a word that Burton doesn’t use and refers to instead with words like "vice" and "inversion".

Burton wrote: “In 1845, when Sir Charles Napier had conquered and annexed Sind... It was reported to him that Karàchi, a townlet of some two thousand souls and distant not more than a mile from camp, supported no less than three lupanars or bordels, in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former demanding nearly a double price,[l] lay for hire. Being then the only British officer who could speak Sindi, I was asked indirectly to make enquiries and to report upon the subject.

“There exists what I shall call a 'Sotadic Zone,' .... including meridional France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and Greece, with the coast-regions of Africa from Marocco to Egypt. Running eastward the Sotadic Zone narrows, embracing Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Chaldaea, Afghanistan, Sind, the Punjab and Kashmir....Within the Sotadic Zone the Vice is popular and endemic, held at the worst to be a mere peccadillo, whilst the races to the North and South of the limits here defined practise it only sporadically amid the opprobrium of their fellows who, as a rule, are physically incapable of performing the operation and look upon it with the liveliest disgust.

“Pederasty is forbidden by the Qur’an. In chapter iv. 20 we read; 'And if two (men) among you commit the crime, then punish them both,' the penalty being some hurt or damage by public reproach, insult or scourging. There are four distinct references to Lot and the Sodomites in chapters vii. 78; xi 77-84; xxvi. 160-174 and xxix. 28-35.

“As in Morocco so the Vice prevails throughout the old regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and all the cities of the South Mediterranean seaboard, whilst it is unknown to the Nubians, the Berbers and the wilder tribes dwelling inland. Proceeding Eastward we reach Egypt, that classical region of all abominations which, marvellous to relate, flourished in closest contact with men leading the purest of lives, models of moderation and morality, of religion and virtue. Amongst the ancient Copts Le Vice was part and portion of the Ritual and was represented by two male partridges alternately copulating (Interp. in Priapi Carm. xvii).

“The Badawi Arab is wholly pure of Le Vice; yet San'a the capital of Al-Yaman and other centres of population have long been and still are thoroughly infected. History tells us of Zu Shanatir, tyrant of 'Arabia Felix,' in 478, A.D. who used to entice young men into his palace and cause them after use to be cast out of the windows: this unkindly ruler was at last poinarded by the youth Zerash, known from his long ringlets as 'Zu Nowas.'

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“A favourite Persian punishment for strangers caught in the Harem or Gynaeceum is to strip and throw them and expose them to the embraces of the grooms and negro slaves. I once asked a Shirazi how penetration was possible if the patient resisted with all the force of the sphincter muscle: he smiled and said, 'Ah, we Persians know a trick to get over that; we apply a sharpened tent-peg to the crupper-bone (os coccygis) and knock till he opens.'

“ The Afghans are commercial travellers on a large scale and each caravan is accompanied by a number of boys and lads almost in woman's attire with kohl'd eyes and rouged cheeks, long tresses and henna'd fingers and toes, riding luxuriously in Kajawas or camel-panniers: they are called Kuch-i safari, or travelling wives, and the husbands trudge patiently by their sides.

“Resuming our way Eastward we find the Sikhs and the Moslems of the Panjab much addicted to Le Vice, although the Himalayan tribes to the north and those lying south, the Rajputs and Marathas, ignore it. The same may be said of the Kashmirians who add another Kappa to the tria Kakista, Kappadocians, Kretans, and Kilicians...M. Louis Daville describes the infamies of Lajore and Lakhanu where he found men dressed as women, with flowing locks under crowns of flowers, imitating the feminine walk and gestures, voice and fashion of speech, and ogling their admirers with all the coquetry of bayadères. Victor Jacquemont's Journal de Voyage describes the pederasty of Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of the Panjab,' and his pathic Gulab Singh whom the English inflicted upon Cashmir as ruler by way of paying for his treason. Yet the Hindus, I repeat, hold pederasty in abhorrence and are as much scandalized by being called Gand-mara (anus-beater) or Gandu (anuser)

“One case of pederasty came to light and that after a tragical fashion some years afterwards. A young Brahman had connection with a soldier comrade of low caste and this had continued till, in an unhappy hour, the Pariah patient ventured to become the agent. The latter, in Arab Al-Fa'il = the 'doer,' is not an object of contempt like Al-Maful = the 'done'; and the high-caste sepoy, stung by remorse and revenge, loaded his musket and deliberately shot his paramour. He was hanged by court martial at Hyderabad and, when his last wishes were asked he begged in vain to be suspended by the feet; the idea being that his soul, polluted by exiting 'below the waist,' would be doomed to endless transmigrations through the lowest forms of life.”

Homosexuality in Arabian Nights

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On homosexuality in Arabian Night (1001 Nights, the Middle Eastern literary classic), Burton wrote: “The pederasty of The Nights may briefly be distributed into three categories. The first is the funny form, as the unseemly practical joke of masterful Queen Budur (vol. iii. 300-306) and the not less hardi jest of the slave-princess Zumurrud (vol. iv. 226). The second is in the grimmest and most earnest phase of the perversion, for instance where Abu Nowas [70] debauches the three youths (vol. v. 64-69); whilst in the third form it is wisely and learnedly discussed, to be severely blamed, by the Shaykhah or Reverend Woman (vol. v. 154). 70 Of this peculiar character Ibn Khallikan remarks (ii. 43), 'There were four poets whose works clearly contraried their character. Abu al-Atahiyah wrote plous poems himself being an atheist, Abu Hukayma's verses proved his lmpotence, yet he was more salacious than a he-goat; Muhammad ibn Hazim pralsed contentments yet he was greedier than a dog; and Abu Nowas hymned the Joys of sodomy, yet he was more sassionate for women than a baboon.'

“Arab enjoys the startling and lively contrast of extreme virtue and horrible vice placed in juxtaposition. Those who have read through these ten volumes will agree with me that the proportion of offensive matter bears a very small ratio to the mass of the work. In an age saturated with cant and hypocrisy, here and there a venal pen will mourn over the 'Pornography' of The Nights, dwell upon the 'Ethics of Dirt' and the 'Garbage of the Brothel'; and will lament the 'wanton dissemination (!) of ancient and filthy fiction.'

“ This self-constituted Censor morum reads Aristophanes and Plato, Horace and Virgil, perhaps even Martial and Petronius, because 'veiled in the decent obscurity of a learned language;' he allows men Latinè loqui; but he is scandalized at stumbling-blocks much less important in plain English. To be consistent he must begin by bowdlerizing not only the classics, with which boys' and youths' minds and memories are soaked and saturated at schools and colleges, but also Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Rabelais; Burton, Sterne, Swift and a long list of works which are yearly reprinted and republished without a word of protest. Lastly, why does not this inconsistent puritan purge the Old Testament of its allusions to human ordure and the pudenda; to carnal copulation and impudent whoredom, to adultery and fornication, to onanism, sodomz, and bestiality?”

Rumi on Male Friendship

The great 13th century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi wrote:
" Every form you see has its archetype in the placeless world....
From the moment you came into the world of being
A ladder was placed before you that you might escape (ascend ) .
First you were mineral, later you turned to plant,
[101]Then you became an animal: how should this be a secret to you ?
Afterwards you were made man, with knowledge, reason, faith;
Behold the body, which is a portion of the dustpit, how perfect it has grownig
When you have travelled on from man, you will doubtless become an angel;
After that you are done with earth: your station is in heaven.
Pass again even from angelhood: enter thatocean,
That your drop may become a sea which is a hundred seas of ' Oman.' "
From the Divani Shamsi Tabriz of Jalalu-ddin Rumi, trans. by R. H. Nicholson.

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“Twere better that the spirit which wears not true love as a garment
Had not been: its being is but shame.
Be drunken in love, for love is all that exists.
Dismiss cares and be utterly clear of heart,
Like the face of a mirror, without image or picture.
When it becomes clear of images, all images are contained in it."
Happy the moment when we are seated in the palace, thou and I,
With two forms and with two figures, but with one soul, thou and I."

"Once a man came and knocked at the door of his friend.
His friend said, ' Who art thou, O faithfulone ? '
He said, "Tis I.' He answered, ' There is no admittance.
There is no room for the raw at my well-cooked feast.
Naught but fire of separation and absence
Can cook the raw one and free him from hypocrisy I
Since thy self has not yet left thee,
Thou must be burned in fiery flames.'
The poor man went away, and for one whole year
Journeyed burning with grief for his friend's absence.
His heart burned till it was cooked; then he went again
And drew near to the house of his friend.
He knocked at the door in fear and trepidation
Lest some careless word should fall from his lips.
His friend shouted, ' Who is that at the door? '
He answered, ' 'Tis thou who art at the door, O beloved I '
The friend said, ' Since 'tis I, let me come in,
There is not room for two I's in one house."'
[Source: the Masnavi of Jalalu-ddin Rumi, trans. by E. H. Whinfield]

Flowers Culled from Persian Gardens

The following are taken from Flowers culled from Persian Gardens (Manchester, 1872): "Everyone, whether he be abstemious or self indulgent is searching after the Friend. Every place may be the abode of love, whether it be a mosque or a synagogue.... On thy last day, though the cup be in thy hand, thou may'st be borne away to Paradise even from the corner of the tavern." — Hafiz.

"Neither of my own free will cast I myself into the fire; for the chain of affection was laid upon my neck. I was still at a distance when the fire began to glow, nor is this the moment that it was lighted up within me. Who shall impute it to me as a fault, that I am enchanted by my friend, that I am content in casting myself at his feet? " — Saadi

Saadi's Rose Garden:
"A youth there was of golden heart and nature,
Who loved a friend, his like in every feature;
[102] Once, as upon the ocean sailed the pair,
They chanced into a whirlpool unaware.
A fisherman made haste the first to save,
Ere his young life should meet a watery grave;
But crying from the raging surf, he said:
' Leave me, and seize my comrade's hand instead.'
E'en as he spoke the mortal swoon o'ertook him,
With that last utterance life and sense forsook him.

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“Learn not love's temper from that shallow pate
Who in the hour of fear forsakes his mate
True friends will ever act like him above
(Trust one who is experienced in love);
For Sadi knows full well the lover's part,
And Bagdad understands the Arab heart.
More than all else thy loved one shalt thou prize,
Else is the whole world hidden from thine eyes."
Lov'st thou a being formed of dust like thee
Peace and contentment from thy heart shall flee -
Waking, fair limbs and features shall torment thee;
Sleeping, thy love in dreams shall hold and haunt thee.
Under his feet thy head is bowed to earth;
Compared with him the world's a paltry crust;
If to thy loved one gold is nothing worth,
Why, then to thee is gold no more than dust
[105] Hardly a word for others canst thou find,
For no room's left for others in thy mind."

" Dear Friend, since thou hast passed the whole
Of one sweet night, till dawn, with me,
I were scarce mortal, could I spend
Another hour apart from thee.
The fear of death, for all of time
Hath left me since my soul partook
The water of true Life, that wells
In sweet abundance from thy brook."

Necin, or Nesim Bey, a Turko-Albanian poet, wrote:
"Whate'er, my friend, or false or true,
The world may tell thee, give no ear,
For to separate us, dear,
The world will say that one is two.
Who should seek to separate us
May he never cease to weep.
The rain at times may cease; but he
In Summer's warmth or Winter's sleep
May he never cease to weep."

Suleyman the Magnificent and his Vizier Ibrahim

Ottoman Sultan and the Great Vizier

In “The Story of Suleyman's attachment to his Vezir Ibrahim,” Stanley Lane-Poole wrote: "Suleyman, great as he was, shared his greatness with a second mind, to which his reign owed much of its brilliance. The Grand Vezir Ibrahim was the counterpart of the Grand Monarch Suleyman. He was the son of a sailor at Parga, and had been captured by corsairs, by whom he was sold to be the slave of a widow at Magnesia. Here he passed into the hands of the young prince Suleyman, then Governor of Magnesia, and soon his extraordinary talents and address brought him promotion.... From being Grand Falconer on the accession of Suleyman, he rose to be first minister and almost co-Sultan in 1523. [Source: “Turkey, Story of Nations series,” by Stanley Lane-Poole, p. 174]

"He was the object of the Sultan's tender regard: an emperor knows better than most men how solitary is life without friendship and love, and Suleyman loved this man more than a brother. Ibrahim was not only a friend, he was an entertaining and instructive companion. He read Persian, Greek and Italian; he knew how to open unknown worlds to the Sultan's mind, and Sulevman drank in his Vezir's wisdom with assiduity. They lived together: their meals were shared in common; even their beds were in the same room. The Sultan gave his sister in marriage to the sailor's son, and Ibrahim was at the summit of power."

Leaving Behind a Loved One in Baghdad

Writing about his male guide, who was supposed to have left his heart behind him in Baghdad, T. S. Buckingham wrote in "Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia,": " Amidst all this I was at a loss to conceive how the Dervish could find much enjoyment [in the expedition] while laboring under the strong passion which I supposed he must then be feeling for the object of his affections at Bagdad, whom he had quitted with so much reluctance. What was my surprise, however, on seeking an explanation of this seeming inconsistency, to find it was the son, and not the daughter, of his friend Elias who held so powerful a hold on his heart. I shrank back from the confession as a man would recoil from a serpent on which he had unexpectedly trodden . . . but in answer to enquiries naturally suggested by the subject he declared he would rather suffer death than do the slightest harm to so pure, so innocent, so heavenly a creature as this. [Source: T. S. Buckingham, "Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia," Travels, Etc., 2nd edition, vol. I, p 159]

"I took the greatest pains to ascertain by a severe and minute investigation, how far it might be possible to doubt of the purity of the passion by which this Affgan Dervish was possessed, and whether it deserved ta be classed with that [108] described as prevailing among the ancient Greeks; and the result fully satisfied me that both were the same. Ismael was, however, surprised beyond measure when I assured him that such a feeling was not known at all among the peoples of Europe."

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" The Dervish added a striking instance of the force of these attachments, and the sympathy which was felt in the sorrows to which they led, by the following fact from his own history. The place of his residence, and of his usual labor, was near the bridge of the Tigris, at the gate of the Mosque of the Vizier. While he sat here, about five or six years since, surrounded by several of his friends who came often to enjoy his conversation and beguile the tedium of his work, he observed, passing among the crowd, a young and beautiful Turkish boy, whose eyes met his, as if by destiny, and they remained fixedly gazing on each other for some time. The boy, after ' blushing like the first hue of a summer morning,' passed on, frequently turning back to look on the person who had regarded him so ardently. The Dervish felt his heart ' revolve within him,' for such was his expression, and a cold sweat came across his brow. He hung his head upon his graving-tool in dejection, and excused himself to those about him by saying he felt suddenly ill. Shortly afterwards the boy returned, and after walking to and fro several times, drawing nearer and nearer, as if [109] under the influence of some attracting charm, he came up to his observer and said, ' Is it really true, then, that you love me? ' ' This,' said Ismael, ' was a dagger in my heart; I could make no reply.' The friends who were near him, and now saw all explained, asked him if there had been any previous acquaintance existing between them. He assured them that they had never seen each other before. ' Then,' they replied, ' such an event must be from God.'

" The boy continued to remain for a while with this party, told with great frankness the name and rank of his parents, as well as the place of his residence, and promised to repeat his visit on the following day. He did this regularly for several months in succession, sitting for hours by the Dervish, and either singing to him or asking him interesting questions, to beguile his labors, until as Ismael expressed himself, ' though they were still two bodies they became one soul.' The youth at length fell sick, and was confined to his bed, during which time his lover, Ismael, discontinued entirely his usual occupations and abandoned himself completely to the care of his beloved. He watched the changes of his disease with more than the anxiety of a parent, and never quitted his bedside, night or day. Death at length separated them; but even when the stroke came the Dervish could not be prevailed on to quit the corpse. He constantly visited the grave that contained the remains of all he held dear on [110] earth, and planting myrtles and flowers there after the manner of the East, bedewed them daily with his tears. His friends sympathized powerfully in his distress, which he said ' continued to feed his grief ' until he pined away to absolute illness, and was near following the fate of him whom he deplored."

"From all this, added to many other examples of a similar kind, related as happening between persons who had often been pointed out to me in Arabia and Persia, I could no longer doubt the existence in the East of an affection for male youths, of as pure and honorable a kind as that which is felt in Europe for those of the other sex . . . and it would be as unjust to suppose that this necessarily implied impurity of desire as to contend that no one could admire a lovely countenance and a beautiful form in the other sex, and still be inspired with sentiments of the most Dure and honorable nature towards the object of his admiration."

"One powerful reason why this passion may exist in the East, while it is quite unknown in the West, is probably the seclusion of women in the former, and the freedom of access to them in the latter.... Had they [the Asiatics] the unrestrained intercourse which we enjoy with such superior beings as the virtuous and accomplished females of our own country they would find nothing in nature so deserving of their love as these."

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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