Lior risked the alleys of occupied Baghdad, Arnon met someone in Tunisia and Russell toured a cruising park in Damascus. This isn't sex tourism, insist gay Israelis who are seeking their own form of coexistence.
AMMAN - 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."
In 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.
Marwan, a successful young Palestinian entrepreneur, originally from Jerusalem, who is at RGB almost every evening, says he is not concerned by the implications of the ties between Jordanians and tourists. "The westernization and Jordan's economic dependence on the West are facts of life. The tourists, on the other hand, also alleviate our distress."
At the same time, he regrets the fact that forging genuine relations is impossible under these conditions. "The end is more or less inevitable - the tourist will leave and we will probably never talk again. It is also unfortunate that it is impossible to find a place for meaningful encounters - all my recent encounters were in hotel rooms or in my car. Sometimes I feel a little like a prostitute."
The anti-erotic element
"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." - T.E. Lawrence, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom"
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.
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."
And were your expectations fulfilled?
"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."
What was your reply?
"I think I left it open. I said it's an interesting idea, maybe I will try."
Does this put a damper on the experience?
"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."
Was the uncle surprised to see a Western tourist in his courtyard?
"Not in the least. Maybe he was thinking that this was exactly what he did with the French who were there 50 years ago. He was completely at ease. Inside we met the cousin - 'ahalan wasahalan' - and then okay, let's go to my room. We entered a room, which may or may not have been his, where there were two wooden beds and a poster of a Hollywood star on the wall. The small talk continued, the same conversation that is repeated on every trip. At a certain point he decides to turn off the light and starts to lean over me. After our pants are lowered the cousin opens the door and turns on the light. I thought there was going to be trouble, maybe he would be appalled, or maybe he would want to join, I don't know, but he only asked him something, took a pack of cigarettes from him, and left."
Does the political dimension make such encounters highly charged?
"From my point of view, that dimension is critical, because if you leave only the sexual core, nothing would exist. It all comes from anthropological curiosity, political power relations, attraction to him as the representation of something, through my Israeliness and Jewishness. It is absolutely a type of conquest or operation in enemy territory and a speedy withdrawal. I came, I experienced a few things, I pulled out. The moment I have collected intelligence, withdrawal back to the hotel as quickly as possible."
Every trip is political
"The association between the Orient and sex is remarkably persistent. The Middle East is resistant, as any virgin would be, but the male scholar wins the prize by bursting open, penetrating the Gordian knot ... 'Harmony' is the result of the conquest of maidenly coyness."
- Edward Said, "Orientalism"
Lior Kay, 32, one of the founders of the gay forum called Red-Pink in the Hadash Arab-Jewish party, has paid many visits to Arab states, including Iraq. He finds a direct link between his experiences as a gay man in Tel Aviv and his adventures abroad. "There is something very international about being gay," he says. "Gays have a tool that allows them to enter deep into communities that are rooted in the local culture. When you come to someone for a one-night stand, you learn about all kinds of things. You can see the house, meet the friends, have breakfast with them. There is this very deep desire to get to know, even if it is only for one night - things that don't necessarily happen to tourists.
"I, for example, like parks more than pubs, because there is an experience of disclosure there. You meet people who are outside the mainstream. In parks there are people who have no vested interests. We forget that there are people who do not have vested interests. That's what I do in Jordan, for example, just talk with people who are wandering around the amphitheater."
Kay entered Iraq in February 2004 on a U.S. passport, eight months after the start of the occupation. "On Friday I took a bus from Tel Aviv to Beit She'an. I hitchhiked to the border and then took a taxi to Amman, where I got a taxi to Baghdad. It was a 12-hour trip. We made a night stop in the desert and waited for the dawn, because it was dangerous to enter the Sunni triangle in the dark."
There were hardly any tourists in Iraq at the time, he says. He walked around the city and talked to people, but was afraid to look for men.
Are these visits also related to your political attitudes?
"For me, all the trips are political and also social, in the sense that I see up close how people live. In many places I saw the anger at the West's pillage of resources, and of course at the Israeli occupation. The trips lent color to my political approach. You have to read books and studies and quotes by Brecht, but you also need color and aroma and soul to determine your political identity."
What is the negative side of being political in this context?
"There is a feeling of a stereotype that is at work on both sides. The fantasy of the West that likes what's available and hot, and the people who live there, who hope to latch on to the tourists to get out of the disgusting cycle of poverty. Sex in these countries has a very clear economic element: a relationship of exploiter and exploited. Sometimes there is a feeling that you can go with almost anyone you meet, that they want you not because of your personality but because of these relations."
Where is that reflected?
"Everywhere, and first of all in bed. Even the active and passive thing - very often they will not agree to be passive with a Jew. There is definitely a matter of honor."
Do experiences in these countries challenge some of the images of homosexuality?
"Yes. We know the Western definition of the gay person - someone like Oscar Wilde - but in the Arab countries it is formulated in different codes of their culture. There is also liberation from the usual image of the body - less of the Western worship of youth. Many of the normative rules of the West do not apply there. Here we have the gyms, the hair removal; there it is a little less orderly, there are more possibilities."
Legislation is now being formulated that will strip Israelis of their citizenship if they visit Arab countries with which Israel does not have an agreement. Is it possible that you will no longer be able to travel there?
"I am a law-abiding citizen, but I don't know how far my instinct for adventure will be repressed by that. Especially when it's a flagrantly undemocratic law which is aimed, I think, less at people like me than at Knesset members whose activity might create a chance for peace."
Assad watches the men
"I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile."
- From "In the Tavernas," by Constantin Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard
Russell, an American who immigrated to Israel in 1982, first visited Syria in 1993, entering the country on an American passport. His first encounter with the gay community of Damascus was a chance one. "I went into a pizzeria in Damascus. There was only one empty seat. The young Syrian who was sitting next to me asked where I was from, and we got into a conversation. It turned out that he was in charge of renovating the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus.
"Even though the norms are very different in Syria - for example, it is routine for men to walk hand in hand in the street, and usually it doesn't mean a thing - he somehow tuned me in and quickly started to pour out his heart. I asked him what was happening and where it was happening. He said it was done with a very low profile, a very traditional approach. The fear is less of the authorities, who monitor everything that goes on in the country, including gays, than of family and friends. He told me that people got together in homes, that there was a kind of group of gays who met every so often, and that there was sometimes sex with married men, too, but that there was no true gay life."
And besides the homes, are there other meeting places?
"In contrast to other Arab states, nothing happens in the hamams [public baths], but there are parks."
Russell's host took him to a park. "He told me it was the cruising park of Damascus and that everyone went there, of all ages, for money and not for money. In the middle of the park there is a huge statue of Assad, who seems to be watching all the men. We walked around a little, said hello to a few people, and left."
What was the atmosphere like?
"Dark and not very pleasant, not friendly. I didn't feel that I could have hooked up with someone if I had found anyone. I also drew a lot of attention - suddenly there was this new face, white with blue eyes. A tourist in Independence Park [in Jerusalem] might be an attraction, but not a big deal."
Did you get an unpleasant economic feeling from your encounters with men in Arab countries?
"Not necessarily. I've been to Jordan 200 times. If you go to Book@Cafe and want to meet someone, you can put out feelers immediately. If it is someone who speaks English and is well dressed, you know he is not after your money. People who are after money will go to the theater area, where the refugees hang out and where there are more needy people. Of course, it differs from one country to another - Dubai is one big brothel, filled with foreign workers, most of the population is not Arabic, and you don't walk three meters without someone stopping you, whether it's in a mall or in Starbucks, it makes no difference."
No consideration for Edward Said
"Here it's quite well accepted. One admits one's sodomy and talks about it at the dinner table. Sometimes one denies it a bit, then everyone yells at you and it ends up getting admitted. Traveling for our learning experience and charged with a mission by the government, we see it as our duty to give in to this mode of ejaculation." - Gustave Flaubert, "Flaubert in Egypt," translated by Francis Steegmuller
Yair Kedar, who was the editor of the travel magazine Masa Aher from 2003 to 2005, first visited Egypt in 1991, when he was 22. "I went with a gay French friend and an Italian-speaking Korean clergyman who joined us through a travel agency," he says. Kedar started to look for the gay scene where he had been told it was happening: hotel lobbies.
"You are in a very large hotel lobby, in the Hilton, say, and you sit down on a sofa and scan the place. Someone sits down next to you and you start to talk about the weather - 'It's really hot today.' 'Where are you from?' 'What do you do?' 'Have you been to the pyramids?' And then he asks you if you would like to have a cup of coffee, and adds, 'Just the two of us.' And from there things develop.
"There is also the boardwalk along the Nile, which is a good catching place, these liminal places along the water, where culture ends. You wander around in the evening, there are groups of two-three guys and they start to talk to you, and suggest that they go with you and visit the room."
Do you feel guilty because gay tourism is also sex tourism, in the negative sense?
"That is a moral dilemma, because the visits also derive from good reasons. Is there a conflict between what they are selling and the regimes in these countries, and the economic dimension that permeates the sexual relations? There is a big contradiction. But I see these contradictions in other places, too. There were travelers whom I spoke to as editor of Masa Aher, and at first they would tell me, 'I was at the volcano, I was on a trek, I was here and there,' and then, when things warmed up, they would tell me what they did at night - 12-year-old girls in Colombia and Thailand."
Is there something distinctive about the gay experience in places like this?
"There is a similarity between gay cruising and tourism: you are sold something that looks terrific from the outside by hiding the moral problem it entails - in that something is promised that cannot be fulfilled. In both cases there is a large dimension of guilt. On the other hand, I always thought that homosexuality is a great treasure that enables you to meet people and embark on new voyages with them. It's intriguing, and you acquire experiences, until at a certain age you discover that you are becoming less patient and less inquisitive."
Benny Ziffer, the editor of the weekly Culture and Literature supplement of Haaretz (Hebrew edition), has written a great deal, in books and articles, about his erotic experiences in Arab countries. He says he chooses to ignore the feeling of guilt that accrues to the economic relations.
"You walk in Alexandria and people offer themselves to you in return for shawarma. If I were political and Marxist, I would not do anything. If someone offers you something like that, you have to cry out to the high heavens. I am doing something bad: I am fulfilling a desire at the expense of these unfortunates. These relations of power are ancient, you know, it was the pattern in the colonial period. People who were nothing in France became great lords in these countries, because they could control the people."
How do you justify it to yourself?
"Maybe in my writing I purify myself, maybe by saying it now. I always travel in order to write, and I have always written; I can't bring myself to travel just like that - and I am not original in this, I did not invent it. I go to Egypt with the official goal of writing about bookstores, but the real inner goal is for something to happen from the erotic point of view, otherwise I will be very disappointed."
Don't political relations interfere, in a period when there is critical talk about the East that was created by the writers you read?
"I immerse myself in the erotic and literary East alike, without taking account of orientalism and without taking account of Edward Said. I have my life and my experiences and my things."W