Opinion

Arabs Are Still in Shock About the LGBT Community

I confess, with all due respect: Instinctively, I’m still put off by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But in my mind I accept them

A couple kissing at the annual Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, June 9, 2017.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

I’ve experienced what they call “culture shock” several times during my life. I'm not talking about spotting a luxury car abroad, the kind that has never been seen in Israel. Nor about a visit to amazing museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum. Every visit to those museums provided an amazing spiritual experience – a sad experience, too, in the latter two cases, since they have the finest archaeological findings of the East, which were stolen by the imperialists. For me, though, that wasn’t culture shock.

My first case of culture shock came when I moved from a junior high school in my Arab village to a high school in Hadera. There were difficulties there stemming from differences in language and culture, but most of the shock came from the way they presented the history of the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict: exactly the opposite of what I knew and believed.

Another culture shock came when I first heard the term “vegetarian.” How was that possible? In those days, eating meat was just something you didn’t think about; today, I’m closer to vegetarianism than to eating meat.

Another culture shock arrived the first time someone told me (in an American-Jewish home hosting me in 1987): Go outside to smoke. Is that how you “humiliate” a guest? We should remember that not only was it impossible to imagine such behavior in Arab society at the time, in those days they used to give cigarettes to guests on festive occasions (and on occasions of mourning). Smoking was part of the hospitality.

When I started studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I already had experience dealing with Jewish society. As a result, the transition was a continuation of what had happened in high school: broader and less intimate.

The biggest culture shock came when a female Arab student from northern Israel told me that she was a lesbian. She was beautiful, with huge, gray-green, almond-shaped eyes. To me and the other male students, she was the very embodiment of a sexy woman. But I noticed, as did many others, that she politely but firmly rejected all our attempts at courtship. I tended to interpret this as being from the fact that she was Christian and I was Muslim, although she never demonstrated any interest in religion. She also dressed in a way that seemed strange to me – in “masculine” clothing – and was never seen in a skirt or dress.

When I could stand it no longer, I decided to deviate from the delicate wooing practices that were customary at the time: I approached her and asked her to go dancing. She accepted. But the moment I renewed my courtship attempts, I was rejected – gently, but still, there was little room for doubt.

On the way home, I sought an explanation. After she complimented me, she told me she was a lesbian. What? A lesbian. What’s that? "I’m attracted to women," she replied.

This was a profound shock, and as the Arab poet, famed fighter and womanizer Udai bin Rabia (Al-Zeer Salem) said when he found out his brother King Kulaib had been murdered: If only the sky would fall on those beneath it, or the ground would shake and erase everything on it. To me, it was against all the laws of nature and morality – disgusting, abominable, corrupting. I cut off all contact with her. Later during my studies, I met another Arab student who was a lesbian, but I was “forced” to stay in touch with her: She was (and still is) a gifted musician, with a divine voice, and the love of music overcame my revulsion.

Many years have passed. My hair has grayed and my strength is almost exhausted, but my vision has broadened. I confess, with all due respect: Instinctively, I’m still put off by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but in my mind I accept them. I have friends from the community.

Last week, the Gay Pride Parade took place in Tel Aviv. MK Esawi Freige (Meretz) was among the leaders of Arab society participating in it. On Facebook, I saw a photograph of him standing together with his female colleagues from the party, Zehava Galon and Tamar Zandberg. Reactions to the post ranged from praise for his courage in participating, to condemnation of the fact that he didn’t make a speech and (apparently) didn’t sign any declaration. In short, he didn’t behave like his colleagues.

Members of the LGBT community should relax. Freij took nothing less than a giant step by attending. He lives in the Arab town of Kafr Qasem, not north Tel Aviv. He belongs to a society that is more religious than Jewish society, whose attitude toward same-sex couples is more rigid. Many of his neighbors consider the LGBT community perverts who don’t deserve to live. And there’s no need to tell you what happens to members of the LGBT community in Arab countries.

Add the fact that this is a society with tremendous sexual deprivations and frustrations, one result of which is the abominable custom of murdering women on the grounds of so-called family honor. And it is worth remembering that the rest of the Arab leadership in Israel has remained totally silent on the issue. Please remember, we are "straight" people who grew up in a macho society. Even when we accept you, we’re still in shock.