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8 September 2009, 12:00 pm 6 Comments

Being Single Is...: Maroc and Roll – The Modernization of a Kingdom

This post was submitted by Kareem

Sunset over the Djemma el-Fnaa, Marrakech, Morocco, 2006

Sunset over the Djemma el-Fnaa, Marrakech, Morocco, 2006

Sadj” is the colloquial Arabic word for “gay” in most countries of the Middle East. While a more appropriate adjective “mithli” (“like me, similar, same-(sex)”) has found its way into the elite academic vernacular of contemporary Arab society, “sadj” is the term I heard most during my travels in the Middle East. Meaning, roughly, “peculiar” or “strange,” sadj is the easy way to classify a homosexual in the Arab world. The concept of homosexuality, of intimate and romantic same-sex relations, is still so taboo, that there is no need to delve farther than that one word. Forget butch or fem or any other adjectives you’ve come to appreciate as descriptive markers in Western gay society: sadj pretty much covers all the bases. More a result of culture than of religion (but now, unfortunately, reinforced by the three dominant monotheistic religions of the region), homosexuality in the Middle East nowadays is something people don’t particularly care to talk about. In some more progressive parts of the region, people understand and recognize that these “sadjeeyeen” exist, but there is no need to discuss them. Morocco is one of these places.

If you juxtapose Morocco (Maroc, in French) against many other countries in the Arab world, such as Sudan or Iraq, the sliver of North Africa looks likes a calm oasis for Middle Eastern gays and lesbians. While sporadic acts of violence against homosexuals is definitely a threat, they pale in comparison to the recent violence that has flared in post-invasion Iraq. And while many Moroccans are just as torn on the issue as most Arabs across the Middle East, Morocco tends to be a more lenient society overall than other North African countries. Morocco itself is a patchwork of cultures and languages, ranging from Berber to Spanish, Portuguese to Arab, and French to Senegalese and sub-saharan African. Most Moroccans are descendants of the Berbers, the original inhabitants of the the “maghreb” region of North Africa, including the current Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed VI. Throw in there a mix of all the ethnicities listed above and you have a country steeped in cultural diversity and plurality. In my opinion, this kind of melting pot of cultures, minorities, languages, and religions is the ideal environment for the acceptance of homosexuals. Look at the United States or Britain: two countries with relatively accepting social policies with historically large immigrant populations. Currently Morocco has the potential to reach the level of acceptance needed for an open society that embraces homosexuals, but with the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, as well as a cultural revival aiming to bring Morocco back to the seventh century and the time of the Prophet Muhammad, homosexuals (at least Moroccan homosexuals) continue to be looked at, thankfully in a mostly nonviolent manner, as taboo: as “sadj.

This doesn’t mean that Morocco is anti-gay. On the contrary, the country has come a long way under the auspices of the current royal regime. In 2005, King Muhammad VI endorsed a grand, sweeping reform of the mudawana, or Moroccan family code, that extended much needed basic human rights to Morocco’s women and children, much to the chagrin of many fundamentalists. In addition to the family law reforms, King Muhammad VI has expanded (if only by a small measure) the power of Morocco’s parliament and has endorsed the idea of more powerful multiparty political system. While Morocco’s monarchy is not going anywhere anytime soon (the king is considered a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), many in Morocco are becoming more and more impatient with the royal house. And while most homes and shops are equipped with portraits of their youthful king, it is common to find many Moroccans who would rather see the throne abolished, to be replaced by a more democratic system or an Islamist-led regime. New rumors about the king emerge everyday and can result in a strict response from the Moroccan government if leaked to the press or published online. The most entertaining, and personally interesting, rumor I stumbled across during my time in Morocco is that the king himself may be homosexual. Young, in his forties, and an avid water sportsman, many street vendors sell smiling photos of the king on vacation jet skiing in the south of France. Very rarely do you see pictures of the Moroccan ruler with his young wife or child. One of the juiciest rumors came this past summer, when it became known that the Moroccan king had decided to take a vacation to a private chateau outside of Paris, sans his wife or child, and, presumably, in the company of men. Could the Moroccan king be gay? For most traditional Moroccans, this would result in a blasphemy so intense it could threaten the throne itself. The idea of a gay member of the Prophet Mohammad’s lineage would be disastrous for the royal family and Morocco’s system of constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, we may never know. Any questioning the king’s sexuality would almost certainly result in a swift backlash by the royal house and the Moroccan authorities. It is important to note that this type of response by the Moroccan government is not reserved for questioning their ruler’s personal life alone, almost any publicized opinion of the king can result in imprisonment or trial.

The king aside, Moroccan society, especially urban communities, are becoming slightly more open to homosexuals in their presence, if not the accepting of the actual concept itself. Marrakech, for example, is the largest city in southern Morocco and the tourist hub of the country. Known for its pink hued buildings, winding “souks” (markets) and djemma el-fnaa, or Square of the Dead, once used to display the executions of prisoners but now used for outdoor food stalls and entertainment, Marrakech is the Morocco many think of when considering the country for a vacation. With the desert to one side and the looming High Atlas mountains to the other, Marrakech is truly a magical city. This is made more so by its recent transition into a more decadent venue. Bars and clubs are springing up across the new city, inviting Moroccans to sit back, sip a beer (another taboo across much of the Middle East) and socialize with singles outside of the home and immediate community. Across town, in the old city, gay Europeans are coming in droves to buy up expensive real estate to renovate traditional Moroccan riads, or courtyard homes, into summer homes. Many rural Moroccan gays are leaving their villages and farms to settle into apartments and homes in Morocco’s new flashy vacation city. Walking through the djemma el-fnaa one evening, I met several gay Moroccan men, all out enjoying themselves and their new found urban freedom. This new liberalism has even resulted in the publication of a “Hedonists Guide to Marrakech”, part of a series of tour books usually reserved for larger, more European destinations. Agadir, Casablanca, and Fez, three other Moroccan cities, are also working to catch up with Marrakech’s success, expanding their new cities and allowing the construction of discotheques, bars, and other places that encourage mingling amongst the Moroccan youth.

In short, Morocco is no France or Spain. To be openly homosexual is still dangerous, if more to one’s reputation and family honor than to one’s physical safety as in other Middle Eastern countries. While the king still calls all the shots and the press is heavily censured, the diverse history of the Moroccan people is creating a moderate atmosphere in a conservative neighborhood of the world. More and more Moroccan gays are finding it easier to meet each other and live their lives, especially in cities such as Marrakech. Gay travelers are finding an option in the Middle East to experience Arab culture and not fear for their safety, although modesty is absolutely required when in public. And while the Moroccan dialect still uses words such as “sadj” to describe homosexuals, many are finding themselves apathetic and, in some rare cases, open to same-sex relations. After returning home from living in Morocco, I called my host brother to tell him that I am gay. I was almost more nervous than when I came out to my parents. I expected immediate rejection from my host family, a crumbling of cross cultural relations I had nurtured over the past year. To my surprise my host brother and other Moroccan friends completely embraced my sexuality. “Who cares?” my host brother exclaimed, “You are my brother, and I love you for who you are.”

I only hope that this feeling of acceptance and openness will become more and more widespread in Morocco in the years to come.

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  • Jad said:

    You have a quite totalizing view of the “middle east.”
    Sadj is something North Africa and generally not used in Egypt, the Levant or the Gulf. Also, how you equate “modernization of a kingdom” overlooks and privileges your own idea of what “gay” is and how conceptions of rights are understood. This is coming from someone who is gay by the way.

  • Kareem said:

    Jad – I understand where you come from. It is hard to categorize any one word as belonging to “Arabic” when the language is diglossic and made up of various dialects and language communities. I actually encountered the phrase “sadj” a lot in the Middle East, but mostly in Egypt and Lebanon. As a former linguistic anthropology major, I’m very interested in the words/phrases you have come across in your own experience.

    Also, in terms of my own idea of “gay” and the concept of rights: I completely agree. It is difficult to discuss homosexuality in the Arab/Middle East context when the concepts of sexuality are so fluid and varying in Middle Eastern cultures. I hope to touch on this more in future posts.

  • David said:

    Interesting post. I have never been anywhere in the world where I encountered as many gay propositions as in Islamic countries nor any where so few were openly gay.

  • fernando simal said:

    ante todo quiero decir, que conozco marruecos hace mas de 40 años, y en los ultimos 10 años, ha cojido velocidad del sonido.Pero la homosexualidad sigue siendo un tema tabu, por supuesto que no tanto como hace 20 años, pero cuanto hemos tardado en españa en dejar de ser tabu, y todavia no lo hemos conseguido hay ejemplos, no violentos, pero hay ejemplos.Por lo tanto dejemos que internet, deje a la juventud mirarse en si mismo, y en una generacion marruecos se podra homologar a europa en este sentido y siempre que HM LE ROI, se sepa rodear de buenos asesores el status cultural, social ecinomico y sesual no tiene nada que ver con la religion

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