المقال بالعربي هنا
By El Dob Al-Akbar
Translated by Nour D.
Sitting Editor Salman Husain
Photo © Akram Zaatari, courtesy Hashem el Madani and Arab Image Foundation, Beirut
This piece was translated from Arabic to English, therefore a lot of the original language got lost in translation. The writer, who comes from city Zarqa – Jordan, is reflecting a reality he lived.
Jordanian society is living in a chronic state of denial when it comes to homosexuality. Our society deals with this issue as a crisis , and a completely foreign phenomenon in imitation of western culture, reminiscent of the hadeeth: “if they entered a lizard’s den, you will enter it likewise”. homophobia and bigotry are not unique to one country, but I will limit this conversation to the Jordanian society.
This state of denial is a state of illness that can only be cured by traveling in time and revisiting memories. But this trip to the past is not as easy as it seems at first sight. In fact, it is more like a digging process than a journey: digging into the collective memory of society, using the methods of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. This memory, as described by the Algerian scholar and thinker Mohammed Arkoun, resembles the geological strata of the Earth in terms of its accumulation and its attempt to conceal facts and historical events that, from time to time, can cause many societal shocks recorded by the specialists with an unknown source.
So, this article is about lost memories, or memories intentionally forgotten by our society that became; lost in the state of denial. Memories that were lived by my generation and those who were born in the 1980’s to, those who dared to explore their sexual orientation and practices in the late 90’s. These memories are not just my memories, nor can they even belong to one individual. They are rather shared by cities, neighborhoods, alleys and contiguous and intertwining houses. I grew up in Az-Zarqā (Zarqa) city, one of the largest cities in Jordan. It is often labelled as the city of camps and the capital of industrial-ville, the stronghold of the Muslim brotherhood, and the birthplace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi- one of the founders of Daesh. We grew up in the well-known neighborhood of Al-Ghuwayriah, a neighborhood that is associated with the gangs and violence.
Assuming that you do not know anything about this city and the neighborhood, except for what I have just mentioned, and were asked to predict, based on the above information, the shape, the dimensions and the sexual diversity of the residents of this area, what will you come up with? You are likely to say that this is a conservative society that only condones “legitimate” sexual relations and the historic bilateral division of sexual orientation. But the truth is the exact opposite.
I cannot fully address the topic of sexuality of this society in general within one conversation so I will limit my discussion to homosexuality and how it is represented. I will not even be able to discuss the diversity within homosexuality and will instead discuss homosexuality among males in this setting, as I am limited by the memories I have lived and experienced. I hope that this article will be the first in a series of articles presenting lesbian relationships in addition to male homosexuality.
Relationships between young males in our neighborhood were not just plutonic it was often more than that. Male friends were more like mates, even lovers. The habit of holding hands or fingers, clasping arms, hugging or kissing (cheeks or lips), sitting on a friend’s lap or even resting the head on his chest, and other habits, were very common between male youth. Moreover, listening to stories about homosexuality or watching movies about it-as rare as it was- was not deplored. I would also argue that the vast majority of teenagers have had fantasies about homosexuality, and that a large proportion of them have experienced the “minimum degree” of it. If we were able to look inside many of these young men and reveal their deepest secrets, we would find that many of them have gone as far as possible in their experiences. I remember that more than once, as teenagers, me and my peers experienced discussing homosexuality until we were at the pre-practical stage, and what may have held us back was disagreement about the nature of the roles, “top or bottom”, or arguing who would take the first turn in a sexual act. We used to talk a lot about the disadvantages of being with girls, about their silliness and naivety, their ignorance of the guys’ world and the guys’ feelings and concerns. We believed that a relationship between men is a thousand times better than heterosexual relationships. And this was not a male narcissism, or a result of the inability to approach girls-, it was much deeper than that. I often think of how many times a frustrated guy came back from being with a girl to vent about a negative experience to his closest male friend, as if he meant to say “I don’t need any girl in my life if I can be with you,” and how many times a guy was jealous over his male friend because the latter started a relationship with a girl. We used to have a renowned phrase regarding this point: “a boy’s love is meant to last forever, and a girl’s love will be forgotten”.
A handsome guy was often at the center of attention by other guys and everybody wanted to get closer to him by any means. Getting closer to such a guy was not just a means of approaching girls that he might attract, but a way to be close to him as well. Guys often flirted with him and expressed sexual gestures.
In the alleys of my city, we used to hear, and even know sometimes, that this person is “a top and attracted to young males”, and that one is a “bottom”, while this one is “feminine,” which according to society meant that he may have been biologically male, but mentally and psychologically female. These people existed in all neighborhoods and streets. my neighborhood, I recall ten people from ten different houses who were practicing “sodomy.”* One of the 10 was married.
As teenagers, we didn’t have a problem with homosexual practices in principle. Our problem was, or to be more accurate, society had a problem with being a “bottom” and not a “top.” This is an issue of control and power. People differentiated between being described as attracted to young males, or being a top, and being described as a bottom. Identifying as a top granted an individual privileges that even the greatest thugs in the city did not necessarily enjoy. This word had authority. The “top” was not disowned by his family for his sexuality; on the contrary, he was often the center of appreciation, respect and pride. But for the “bottom”, it was the total opposite. In a nutshell: nobody questioned whether or not homosexuality is a violation of nature*. Homosexuality was an accepted reality.
People frequently talked about how common the practice of “sodomy” is in the military and among bus and truck drivers, often taking place at the cinemas, billiard clubs, and bodybuilding centers. Our parents often warned us from enrolling in the army as privates, or to spend a long time at many of these places.
Here I recall the myth of a man named “K,” who was a boxing player and trainer in one of the most famous martial arts centers in Az-Zarqā. The legend goes that if you were handsome, and you wanted to register in that sports center, “K” would give you an offer that you couldn’t turn down; he would perform oral sex. This was not a myth, and in fact, it happened to some of my friends. “K” was a very well-known individual in the whole city of Az-Zarqā, and his story was one of the most famous stories in the city.
Relatives, neighbors, friends that I know, participated it and may still today practice what has been historically described as “sodomy.” Many are now married and continuously praying and fasting, while criticizing homosexuality and homosexuals. Many of them tried harassing me, or directly asking me to have sex. One of them explained his desire to have sex with me by saying that I, from his point of view, had “soft features and white skin.” This person grew up, got married and became a father. He also became a frequent mosque goer. Nowadays, and after surpassing 30 years of age , I meet him on many occasions, but he tries very hard to avoid me.
Many school teachers had sexual relations with their students. Sometimes, we used to see this with our own eyes. I was shocked by many teachers who confronted me by words and even gestures that affirmed to me that these rumors were in fact true.
It was also known that boys used to have sex in the school toilets, inside class rooms, and in the abandoned or deserted areas. The names and looks of many of those students are etched in my memories.
As for the Muslim clerics, their commitment and preaching to what is said by Allah and the prophet didn’t prevent them from practicing “sodomy”. On many occasions, I was warned by some relatives and friends against talking to a certain cleric because “homosexuality was running in his blood.”
The Hashemite Plaza in Amman was a place for many Az-Zarqā guys who were seeking intimate relations with men, away from the gaze of their unaccepting community.
On the topic of the Hashemite Plaza, I can’t resist the need to tell a story that takes place in Al-Ghuwayriah, a story known by all those who lived in that area at that specific time. It’s the story of the “Sudanese guys.” In the early 90’s, a group of Sudanese men started flocking to Az-Zarqā city seeking jobs. Al-Ghuwayriah neighbourhood was full of them. In our block alone, three men lived in the house next to our’s. Residents of the block noticed that a large number of Al-Ghuwayriah youngsters (some of them married) were frequent visitors of the Sudanese. I was surprised seeing guys, with whom I was close and had known nothing of their sexual orientation or sexuality, going to the Sudanese house. But it was not a riddle for me and my peers as we soon discovered that those Sudanese men were gay, and that the visitors went to them to fulfill their sexual needs. Also, my friends and I were harassed many times by them.
One day, I decided to leave no stone unturned, so I waited for one for the Sudanese guys to arrive. I climbed to the roof of our house to try to get a full view, and saw that there was the Sudanese guy heading to the toilet (the house was only a single room with an external toilet), a Jordanian guy taking off his pants, and the Sudanese man subsequently returning to the room and closing the door. I immediately ran to my friends telling them what I saw. A few months later, the police raided the Sudanese houses in Al-Ghuwayriah. They were never seen in the area ever since. As far as I know, nothing was mentioned in the media regarding this story, but it is still a famous widespread tale in the city of Az-Zarqā and in Al-Ghuwayriah neighborhood in specific. This raises a question: why did the guys like to go to the Sudanese house? Perhaps their fascination with the foreigners who were there only temporarily gave them that space, rather than sexually engaging with permanent residents.
The events, the stories and the facts that I have disclosed are not imaginary. All those who lived at that period and in that environment know the reality of what I have narrated. The purpose of writing it as an article is to remind this society, living in a state of denial, that homosexuality is not a foreign product or a western conspiracy against Islam. It is not a crisis. Homosexuality is a legitimate part of our societies, and the attempt to eliminate it is doomed to failure.
Nothing has changed in this society. It is still as it has always been. One difference is the emergence of social media, which has allowed many homosexuals to express themselves and come out through the online sphere. Accordingly, phrases like “they did not exist in the past”, “they are increasing” or “where did they come from”, phrases used by people to describe homosexuals and their activities in online spaces are absurd and false.This article is the proof of this absurdity.
* Practicing homosexuality, anal sex
* As this is often the perceived grievance with homosexuality in the MENA region