Louie wants to be a famous film director. Or an in-demand wedding photographer. Or at least be able to help his father repay debts.
In any case, the whole story began when he wanted to see the sea. He paid someone 300 shekels (about $88) to get him through a breach in the fence, and from there he got straight to the beach in Nahariya, in northern Israel. His plan was to spend a few hours opposite the waves and then head back home. At the beach a group of Jewish youths taunted the teenager, tried to draw him into a confrontation. One of them boasted about being a criminal. Louie didn’t know the word for “criminal” in Hebrew. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t frightened.
The teenagers were impressed. Said Louie looked like a real man. One of them, the son of a building contractor well-known locally, said his father was looking for workers. Louie wasn’t necessarily looking for a job, but wanted to see where things would lead.
In the kid’s house in Nahariya, Louie had the feeling that the father, the contractor, was looking at him oddly. He asked Louie: What can you do? Louie didn’t answer. The only thing he liked doing was taking pictures. Birds, horses, landscapes. The contractor said it didn’t matter; Louie would learn. He suggested that he spend the night there and in the morning start working with him on renovations. Paint, whitewash, plaster, nothing too complicated. Louie nodded yes. The contractor’s wife set him up with a bed in the basement.
At night the contractor came downstairs, and asked Louie if he’d mind if he showered there. It’s your house, Louie replied. The contractor toweled himself off and got into Louie’s bed. “I told him, ‘Do whatever you need to do. I’m just lying here,’” Louie recalls now.
It was his first time. He was about 16, maybe a little more or a little less; he doesn’t remember. The next day he began to work. So it went for two years.
“But he didn’t come to me every night,” Louie explains. “It happened maybe four, five times.”
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When he’d made enough money, he bought his first Canon camera, and what he saved he sent home. At 18, Louie decided enough was enough, it was time to move ahead. He told the contractor he was leaving, and also parted from his family in the territories, and went to study film in an Arab country. Betwixt and between he worked in a photography shop, traveled and enjoyed secret, pleasurable experiences in countries where such things are forbidden. Finally he returned to his parents in the northern West Bank with a degree, a full portfolio and the air of having experienced life abroad.
Life smiled at Louie – as much as life can smile in an oppressive city bursting with refugee camps. He helped produce video clips for singers, became expert at editing and made a living from taking photos for models’ portfolios and at local social events. He had few opportunities to fulfill his sexual desires and even toyed with the idea of marrying a woman. On one occasion he yielded to temptation and took his partner to an empty apartment in another city, and since then – he assumed – neither of them had mentioned it to anyone.
Then one day last spring a distant relative called and said he wanted to meet with him. Louie figured it was a job offer, or maybe a request for him to do some pro bono photography, as a gesture. The blackmail attempt came as a surprise. I know you hang around with men, the relative said, and if you don’t pay me, your family will know, too. Louie denied the claim and tried playing it cool, insisting it was a lie. But the relative related exact details about the place and date of that one fateful tryst. There was no point in pretending any longer.
His family doesn’t know about his sexual orientation, but his secret is liable to be revealed at any moment. And in Israel, employers won’t take the risk of hiring him without a work permit. Can Louie be saved?
Louie admitted, truthfully, that he had no money. Banquet halls were shut down at the time because of the coronavirus pandemic; his sources of income had dried up and his savings were depleted. A loan from his parents was out of the question. His father, a truck driver, had recently been compelled to retire because his vision had deteriorated badly. His mother had never had a job, and his older sister, a kindergarten teacher, had postponed treatment of a chronic leg injury due to lack of time and money, and was today at home with a shattered shin. But the relative kept threatening.
Louie felt that life was closing in on him. He went back to the fence and looked for the breach again.
Today he is 23. I met him while working on an article about members of the Palestinian LGBT community who fled from the territories to Israel and found themselves vulnerable to threats on both sides of the fence. Some told of being persecuted by their family or being arrested by the Palestinian police and being beaten, tortured and even raped – due to the suspicion that they had given information to Israeli security authorities during their forays here. Others broke off contact with their families in the hope of establishing a normal life in Israel, but were pushed into abject poverty, crime and, in some cases, prostitution. The reason: Israel forbids them from working here, even in isolated cases in which it issues temporary residence permits to LGBT Palestinians on humanitarian grounds.
For his part, Louie is currently fluctuating between these two possible scenarios. His family in the West Bank still doesn’t know about his sexual orientation, but his secret is liable to be revealed at any moment. And in Israel, employers won’t take the risk of employing him without a work permit. Can Louie be saved?
I got to him through an acquaintance who was helping me in my journalistic efforts – a humanities professor who has an interest, not un-erotic, in being in contact with young people like Louie. If you want an idea for a good story, the professor told me in August, go to Nahariya – and made a remark in passing about the young man’s attractive appearance.
Outside is not an option
I approach an old, rundown apartment building near the central bus station in Nahariya, top floor, no elevator. The door is opened by a tall, stocky man wearing a cap. He invites me in. His relatively fluent Hebrew attests that he’s been here for some years. However, the hairline revealed when he takes off the cap calls for a reevaluation of his age. It’s not Louie.
The man introduces himself. He’s 38, also from the West Bank, and he has been working in Israel on and off for the past decade, mostly in construction, with proper authorization and a permit. He’s married and is a father – minimal conditions for a work permit. The apartment is dark. A narrow foyer leads into a bedroom, the only room.
Louie is lying on the bed, next to the window. He leaps up quickly and puts on pants and a shirt. The contractor – the same Jewish contractor from years ago – had recruited both of them for work and housed them together. Today, though, they’re not needed.
In fact, the two men have been waiting for a call from the contractor for a few days. Wandering around outside isn’t an option, mainly because Louie lacks the right documents, and anyway it’s too hot. The room is actually air-conditioned, but it is nonetheless damp and stifling, with its closed blinds, leaky air conditioner and dampness seeping from the small, cramped space that holds, somehow, as a toilet and shower.
I don’t suggest opening a window. Maybe they’re in hiding; maybe this is how they were asked to wait. Yet, it’s impossible to say that the atmosphere is gloomy. On the table stuck between the bed and the window are a bottle of vodka, cans of Red Bull and sunflower seeds. Louie and the other worker tell me to help myself. They’re both from the same area in the territories and have known each other for some time.
Louie relates that the worker used to court him, carefully but persistently, and bombarded him with Facebook posts. Louie didn’t respond. He’s leery of interactions like that with other Palestinians, particularly with neighbors from the same part of the West Bank (besides which, the other man is too old for him and unattractive, in Louie’s eyes – but he tells me that later, when we’re alone).
In any event, circumstances have now led them to share a bed. They both give me basic, concise accounts of their life stories. The other worker tells about his rocky marriage and about the children he misses; Louie shows me YouTube clips he helped create.
The door opens. The contractor has dropped by. He looks to be about 60. His shirt is stained with whitewash splotches and his shoes are tattered, but his face is smooth and shiny in a way that contrasts absurdly with the usual look of a manual laborer. He’s only come to check up on them and promises that tomorrow, the day after at the latest, there will be work for them.
The other worker offers to make coffee for their guests, although he and Louie stick to the vodka and already look quite drunk. They exchange jokes in Arabic that sound dirty. The contractor and I fill in gaps about each other. Turns out that the older man’s wife left him recently, but not necessarily because she found out about his exploits with vulnerable boys. He, for his part, lost no time in remarrying. Not as a cover story, he emphasizes: He really is attracted to women, too.
The contractor has a whole theory about Arabs and their sexual orientation. In his view, if they are the side that penetrates in the act with another man, that doesn’t make them homosexuals, certainly not in their eyes. Which is why they aren’t deterred from engaging in sex with a man like him, who is their benefactor, their patron and helps them live with dignity. Win-win.
“But I don’t help them just for that, right?” the contractor says, casting a glance at Louie, patting him chummily on his upper thigh. Louie smiles nervously. “Tell me, how can anyone resist these guys?” the Israeli says to me, his teeth too white, his necklace clinking against his chest. I’m not comfortable with the ethno-sexual alliance he tries to establish between us here, in front of everyone.
Three weeks later, Louie left the apartment angrily. He texted me that he intended to return to the territories, because his fellow worker is a “big liar.” Also his employer “laughed at me.” The lie: the other worker’s repeated promises that Louie would be able to work alongside him at odd jobs, even though in practice that had only happened for a few hours on three days; the rest of the time Louie had waited idly in the apartment. The laughter: the repeated harassments of Louie by the contractor, who expected Louie to reward him – in the way he had done previously – for providing him with housing and giving him a few jobs.
So Louie spent the second lockdown, during this past autumn, in his parents’ home. From there he texted that he was bored, that things were bad in the house and that if his father did not quickly raise 2,000 shekels (about $588) to repay a loan he had taken, they might not be able to go on living there. His father urged him to find work in Israel, but added emphatically that if there was nothing definite on the agenda there was no point in going back there. Nevertheless, the moment the coronavirus restrictions grew laxer, Louie went back.
A report issued last year by HIAS states that 'the Shin Bet recruits gay Palestinians by means of blackmail and threatening to expose their sexual identity.'
At first he stayed with a friend of the contractor’s, an environmental activist, an affluent man of 50-plus, who lived in settlement in one of the so-called “consensus” zones. “He said: ‘Come and stay with me, I’ll look after you,’” Louie says. And that’s just what the man did – and not only in terms of providing Louie with a temporary roof over his head. The activist also gave him a tidy sum of money so he could get himself organized during the first few days. As a grant, apparently, without expecting anything in return.
When Louie talks about the men who put him up, whether for two weeks or one night – both those who demand rough, “technical” sex, and those who make do with a passing caress – he always describes each of them as “my friend.” And just as friendship for him is a rather deceptive notion, sometimes denuded of its fundamental elements (intimacy, mutuality), so, too, “attractiveness” has unavoidably taken on an abstract meaning for him.
“I don’t look at the face or the body,” he says, “I look at the heart.” Accordingly, even when Louie talks about encounters that sound unpleasant and exploitative, he denies that the men are really like that. “He’s a good guy,” he usually says about them, sometimes adding, “truly good.”
Simplistic as this description may sound, it can’t be totally dismissed. Louie is a victim of unfortunate circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that all the men he chances to meet exploit him. Between the predators and the benefactors, between those who perceive him as an object and those who treat him as a subject – there is a large, gray area of intentions and yearnings, which are sometimes contradictory and sometimes mutually harmonious. An authentic desire to help that undergoes eroticization. Altruism wrapped in colonialism. A desperate longing for contact mixed with exotic enchantment. And also a way to display communal solidarity that’s tinged with orientalism.
Through the environmental activist Louie met the musician. It’s at his place that Louie spent most of his time in central Israel. The musician’s jam-packed yard, a kind of snippet of jungle that was ripped out and transplanted to the heart of Metropolitan Tel Aviv, showcases the entire range of his skills and hobbies. Handmade artworks are scattered outside, and the vegetation is exotic and odd.
The musician is younger than both the environmental activist and the contractor. About 45, he’s both compact and thickset, someone who lives openly and peacefully as a gay person, and in general gives the impression of being a pleasant, positive guy, at least on the basis of a quick meeting in his dazzling yard. Annoying pecking noises – annoying to urban ears, at least – disturb the peaceful atmosphere. The musician says they’re parakeets, invasive birds that are exploiting his giving trees. He suggests that we go inside.
His living area is small and narrow, mostly occupied by instruments. For the past few weeks he’s been sharing his bed, similarly narrow, with Louie.
“He wants me to stay with him always, for us to be together,” Louie told me as we left, and added, without my having asked, that physicality is not a condition for his being there. “He’s only into sleeping together and cuddling.”
Louie is grateful to the musician but also wants to stand on his own two feet. I took him for an impromptu job interview at a high-rise construction site in central Tel Aviv. He looked at the scaffolding with reservation and apprehension. He’s ready to work hard but not sure it should be as a construction worker. And, in fact, what do these scrawny shoulders have in common with the huge bricks that have to be carried around at the site across from us? I felt I’d disappointed him. He didn’t want to disappoint me. We went in anyway.
The foreman asked what he knows how to do; Louie listed his skills. Tiling, whitewashing, plastering. He even gave the right answer to a trick question about the trowel. The foreman said he’s actually short of good hands for the finish stage, and asked Louie if he has permits. Louie said he’s still working on it. The foreman lost interest. He won’t risk a 50,000-shekel ($15,000) fine.
Anything but ‘zero-zero’
We’re at my place. It’s afternoon, and Louie says in a faint voice that he hasn’t eaten all day. I make him grilled cheese. He gobbles it down in a second and denies that he’s still hungry. I also serve him a dish of “Israeli couscous” from yesterday. He eats it immediately. Louie explains that as a single man he has no chance of getting a work permit by the official route. His only option is to go to one of the wheeler-dealers in his city, who will (illegally) issue him a permit as a secondary contractor. He calls the guy in my presence. The man wants 2,500 shekels for the procedure. Louie doesn’t have it.
I suggest another option to him: to go to the welfare department of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, in the West Bank, and declare that he’s under threat there because of his sexual identity. True, he won’t get a work permit even if his application for a temporary permit on humanitarian grounds is approved, but he will get permission to reside in Israel that will remove the “illegal migrant” label he bears that deters employers, and with good reason. But Louie won’t hear of it.
“I don’t want a zero-zero permit,” he says. In Palestinian lingo, “zero-zero” refers to a “stay permit” – meaning it allows one to remain in Israel during all hours of the day (from 00:00-00:00, midnight to midnight), as opposed to standard work permits that are limited (5 A.M. to 4 P.M., for example). The problem is that the maximum, 24-hour permit makes the Palestinian Authority suspicious. The assumption may be that the holder of such a permit is an intelligence asset for Israel – a collaborator – and therefore the state is protecting him. (The fact that that status is an internal Israeli classification doesn’t reassure Louie; he’s certain the Civil Administration’s computers are synchronized with those of the PA.)
In any event, when it comes to LGBT people with a so-called zero-zero permit, the suspicions on the Palestinian side are augmented. The LGBT identity is perceived as an Achilles’ heel and a possible lever for the Israelis to exert pressure that might induce gay individuals to betray their nation. That theory did not originate in a vacuum. A report issued last year by the local branch of the international refugee organization HIAS states that “the Shin Bet [security service] recruits gay Palestinians by means of blackmail and threatening to expose their sexual identity.”
That conclusion is based, in part, on a 2014 letter written by veterans of the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence Unit 8200, protesting that the army’s mode of collecting information “harms innocent people. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving certain elements of that society against each other.”
The HIAS report contains an interview with an officer who served in Unit 8200, who explains that Israeli authorities “look for weaknesses that can be tapped for recruitment purposes, and weaknesses include sexual inclination. In wiretapping courses you learn Arabic words for ‘gay’; there’s slang and a whole lexicon of words that are taught, which are meant to turn on a red light: The listener has to pass that information on.”
Louie recently got a phone call from someone who said he was an “Israeli officer” and who suggested, in fluent Arabic, that he work for him in collecting information. But in his case the recruitment attempt entailed a monetary incentive, not threats; in fact, Louie’s sexual orientation wasn’t even hinted at in the conversation. Louie told the “officer” that he had to think about it. He figures he’ll decline the offer, despite his desperate economic situation.
Louie uses a gay dating app – which he uninstalls whenever he returns to the territories. In his profile he offers to do massages; he says he’s a massage whiz. He asks me how much he should charge for the service. I tell him 500 shekels and immediately regret saying anything. Someone quite elderly sends him a message: “Would you go along with more than a massage?” Louie says he would go. I peek over his shoulder at the correspondence and see that he has one option in Park Tzameret – an ultra-wealthy Tel Aviv high-rise development – and another in Bat Yam. Louie doesn’t differentiate between them and I don’t intend to weigh in. I’m still eating myself up about the 500 shekels before.
Louie goes into the bathroom to wash his face and dampen his hair. From his backpack he takes out a hair drier and face cream. “How do I look? Less Arab than before?” he laughs and asks what my address is. A taxi is being sent for him.
Don’t do things you don’t want to do, I wrote him. He replied with a sad emoji. 'What can I do, I have to live,' he wrote and added a weeping emoji. 'Why is my life like this?' Another sad emoji, another weeping emoji.
A few hours later he posted a story on Instagram showing the Bat Yam skyline. At night he texted me that he was sleeping there, “at a friend’s place.” I asked him how old the friend is. Louie replied that he’s 56 and added, “old, right?” The friend, he wrote, “works in a court.” A lawyer? “Bigger than a lawyer,” he replied. A judge? Louie thinks so. Don’t do things you don’t want to do, I wrote him. He replied with a sad emoji. “What can I do, I have to live,” he wrote and added a weeping emoji. “Why is my life like this?” Another sad emoji, another weeping emoji. I cried with him with my own emojis.
Love in Bat Yam
The next day Louie was actually in a terrific mood. He told the humanities professor, at whose place he would be spending the next few days, that he had found love in a Bat Yam residential high-rise. Still, the “affair” didn’t last long. Not even a whole day. Maybe because the wife and children of the “judge” returned home? The professor’s impression is that Louie doesn’t take such incidents to heart. For him they’re a matter of survival, although there’s also an element of adventure. The professor thinks Louie will soon tire of them.
“It wears you down to give a different person a massage every day,” he says, clarifying that the relations between him and Louie are such that the latter sleeps in the living room and he doesn’t expect anything from him in return. He does it, he says, out of a feeling of “gay brotherhood.”
Nevertheless, the professor doesn’t deny that he takes a certain pleasure in the sexual atmosphere hovering above their relations. He also knows, at some level or other, the contractor, the musician and the environmental activist who have hosted Louie in recent weeks. “Who slept with whom I don’t know, but one thing I can tell you with certainty: Men of my age are erotic in the Arab milieu. Young guys enjoy having sex with them.”
I asked him whether there wasn’t actually a tacit give-and-take arrangement at play. “That’s the question of a Westerner, who right off looks for the vested interest and the benefit,” he replied. “The East doesn’t think in those terms. In general it’s true that money is an erotic vehicle, particularly for the poor.”
That’s exactly the point, I insisted: Louie doesn’t always have a choice. “True, he’s in a crisis now,” the professor said. “This is not a case that necessarily attests to the general situation. He needs to get through the day somehow, it’s hard to say whether he enjoys all these encounters.”
The day before, he added, they had a “magical evening” together, communing together on the roof. Louie recalled sweet memories of his time as a student abroad. The professor raised the possibility of his leaving the country good. If Louie were to apply to the UN refugee agency and say he was under threat in the territories, the professor explained, it’s possible that in another two or so years he would be taken in by a third country. Maybe Canada, maybe Norway. But Louie says there’s nothing for him in those places. He doesn’t know a soul there.
“He’s at a dead end,” the professor said to me later. “People like us live in an environment with multiple solutions. But in his case it’s either a writ of divorce from his home or forgoing his self. And if he doesn’t choose, others will choose for him. In the end the police will catch up with him, you know.”
Thousands of followers
Louie and I are in the car. I’m taking him back to the musician’s house. The traffic jam doesn’t bother him; he enjoys the trip. Every traffic island with carefully tended vegetation elicits cries of admiration about “what a gorgeous city Tel Aviv is.” We pass the Azrieli Towers. Louie has to take a picture. He hasn’t seen them since his last visit to Israel, five years ago.
The Diamond Exchange compound is altogether a new experience for him. Louie leans his cellphone against the windshield, turns up the volume of a song on Galgalatz, Army Radio’s music station, uses a soft filter on the camera, adds a stylized caption and uploads a clip.
Ramat Gan never knew it looked like this. When it comes to technology, Louie is cutting edge. He has tens of thousands of followers on his business page on Facebook and another few thousand on Instagram and Snapchat.
Culturally, it’s a whole different story. It turns out that when I told Louie I was “married plus two,” he was certain I had a wife. He has a hard time understanding how gay couples can have children. From his point of view, words like “surrogate” and “egg donor” are beyond reach, verbally and conceptually.
The next day he went to Jaffa to look for work. Toward evening he sent me a photo from the promenade there. He’s waiting for replies and doesn’t yet know where he’ll spend the night. In the meantime, at least he can see the sea.