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22 September 2009, 12:00 pm 3 Comments

Being Single Is...: A Dream Come True?

This post was submitted by Kareem

Martyr's Square, Beirut, Lebanon, 2008

Martyr's Square, Beirut, Lebanon, 2008

Lebanon defies stereotypes. Simply put, this country is infectious. The antithesis of the Middle Eastern stereotype of sand dunes and camels, Lebanon is mostly lush green mountains and valleys dotted with incredible cedar trees, olive groves, and vineyards, all with the backdrop of the strikingly blue Mediterranean to the west. Once called the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon unfortunately has been plagued by violence and tribal-like unrest since its civil war that lasted from 1975-1990. Any tensions hung over from the decade and a half of conflict broke free during the 2006 Summer War between Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiia opposition group, and Israel.

Yet despite the quarter century of country-wide conflict, Lebanon is at the forefront of gay rights in the Middle East. No other country even comes close. Like most Middle Eastern countries, homosexuality is technically considered illegal, but barely enforced. What sets Lebanon apart from the rest is the organization Helem, the first and only Middle East LGBT organization. Meaning “dream,” Helem was founded in the capital city of Beirut in order to further the rights of Lebanese homosexuals, as well as gay communities in other Arab countries. As stated on its website, it is an official, legal organization under Lebanese law, a feat almost unheard of in other Middle Eastern countries. With a regular publication, “Barra,” and various programs that aim to help and protect gays in Lebanon and the Middle East, Helem is making leaps and bounds in raising awareness of LGBT rights and issues in Beirut and elsewhere, including publishing guidebooks for parents with LGBT children translated into Arabic and psychological counseling and HIV testing at their community center in Beirut. This is quite shocking in a region where to even speak about homosexuality is completely taboo.

In general, Lebanon is the exception when it comes to openness in society. Walking down a street in downtown Beirut, you will find young women in spaghetti strap tops and designer jeans, passing robed Shiia clerics, passing blonde European tourists, passing groups of men clad in Hezbollah T-shirts. Lebanon recognizes seventeen religions in a country smaller than California. There are Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiia Muslims, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Baha’is, and even some Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. There are mosques built next to malls built next to churches built next to dance clubs.

Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, and I think that it is because of this diversity that opportunities for sexual openness came about. The number of bars and clubs in Beirut match, if not exceed, the number of similar establishments in big European and American cities. Not only are most bars and clubs gay friendly (ambiguous, almost), but there are more and more gay-oriented clubs and spots becoming available to gays in Lebanon. A recent New York Times article specifically highlights Beirut as a gay traveler’s destination. The article mentions one club in particular, Acid, located in the hilly Beirut district of Sin el-Fil, as the one, true gay bar of the Middle East. Having traveled to Beirut and experienced Acid myself, I completely agree.

Like most clubs in Beirut, Acid doesn’t really start to fill up until, at the earliest, 2 am. As an avid morning person, the prospect of a night out at Acid would require every ounce of strength I could muster. Located on a bend of a tall hill overlooking the twinkling city and still waters of the Mediterranean, one feels like they are reaching the top of a biblical mountain in order to receive a divine commandment. And that commandment is to have the most fun night of your life.  Entering the enormous club, you think you have stepped into the hottest dance party in New York or Paris. Leaving religion at the door, LGBT’s from every corner of the country come to this one spot to mix, meet, and dance until late into the morning, long past sunrise. An open bar and some of the best dj’s in the region make Acid one of the most popular spots for both gay and straight Lebanese.

As Beirut throbs to the cacophony of inter-faith gay mixing at Acid and other bars, along with the chants from Helem’s gay rights advocates, rural Lebanon is a much different place. While the city is generally open to those with different beliefs and lifestyles, drive two hours northwest into the Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria, and you will find broad highways and country roads littered with billboards and posters of Hezbollah martyrs and prominent Lebanese and Iranian clerics. Once through the vinyards and mountains that act a sort of geographic barrier between urban and rural Lebanon, one discovers a completely different country led by conservatives and grappling with life in areas affected by years of war with neighboring Syria and Lebanon. While Lebanon’s cities may be becoming the answer for the country’s gays, it’s countryside, like most other parts of the world, still lags in terms of proper education and opportunities for community and diversity. Many extremist organizations, like Hezbollah, are feeding off this backwardness and while they may not be able to stop Acid or it’s never-ending flow of mixed drinks, it can most certainly influence those who have no access to the opportunities provided to the urban elite on Lebanon’s coast. This growing rift between urban and rural Lebanon could result in a change of politics in both the cities and countryside, as Hezbollah and other conservative political organizations vie for more and more prominent posts in Lebanon’s confusing coalition government, and for more rights in its fragile constitution. The growing influence of such institutions could very well determine Lebanon’s long-term future, whether that be the continued refuge for many gays across the Arab world or a mini Arab Iran, bound by Islamic law (sharia) and strict social laws.

I left Lebanon over a year ago and I still cannot get it out of my mind. It is the exception in the Middle East. I think it is safe to say that Beirut, if anything, can almost definitely be called an oasis for gays in the mostly closeted Levant. But will this openness, thanks to Lebanon’s diverse society and plethora of religions, last? With the growing influence of Syria and Iran, both countries where homosexuality is not just outlawed, but strictly and many times violently repressed,  Lebanon is at a crossroads. Will it continue to be the beacon of hope for those sexually repressed in their own countries, or will it fall, it’s urban liberal joie de vivre a thing of the past, a geopolitical Abu Nuwas?

Allahu ‘alem (God only knows).

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  • Nathan said:

    Does Israel not count as part of the Middle East? Surely one can acknowledge its liberalism on LGBT issues while still criticizing its record on various other matters.

    Otherwise, this has been a fantastic series. You’ve done a great job of exploring LGBT life in a part of the world that I’m none too familiar with.

  • Asaf said:

    I agree with Nathan. Without diving into Israel’s political conflicts, it is possible to identify several LGBT organizations such as the Jerusalem Open House (support groups + free HIV testing, JOH also organizes the pride march) and Aswat (Palestinian LGBTs). Furthermore, although gay marriage is not performed in the country, it is recognized legally if performed elsewhere. Tel Aviv is very comparable to Beirut in its openly liberal and tolerant attitude – though again, as you point out, the attitude towards homosexuality is very different in more rural areas (and even Jerusalem).

  • Kareem said:

    Israel/Palestine is absolutely a part of the Middle East and I would love to write about LGBT issues there, possibly in the future.

    When I set out to write about the Middle East, I thought a three part series would work by highlighting three countries that basically span the geographic Middle East (Morocco is the western most point, with Egypt in the center, and Lebanon to the east). If I was to profile every country in the Middle East, that would take upward of twenty some articles.

    And having been to Israel, specifically Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I definitely agree with both of you. Also: Israelis are ridiculously hot.