By Diamond Walid
Diamond Walid is the pen-name of a Lebanese-Croatian TV producer and writer, based in Beirut
Beirut has been labelled the Paris, sometimes the Switzerland, of the Middle East. According to one recent New York Times article, it is now the region's Provincetown (the Cape Cod resort favoured by gay visitors). This ever-changing city seems to have become a mirror where people project their own fantasies.
Comparing Beirut with another city, whether Paris, Rome or Provincetown is a denial of its uniqueness. Beirut's gay culture is also unique and specific. As a gay man who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, I know that notions such as "gay", "straight", "public displays of affection" and "homophobia" can take on completely different forms and meanings in this part of the world. Yet there was no mention of these nuances in the New York Times article, obviously built on a series of denials.
"When I go out from Bardo [a gay-friendly restaurant] I always feel at ease hugging my friends – of course in a decent way – in front of the police. This is the kind of change I am talking about," Raed is quoted as saying. No mention of the fact that Lebanon, like all countries of the region, is a place where men often touch, kiss and hold each other's hands in public, whether gay, straight, policemen or not (whereas in New York, holding hands can apparently cost you your life). Or the fact that Lebanese heterosexual couples do not necessarily show more public affection than gay ones, also for reasons of "decency". If any "change" has recently occurred, it is only in the fantasies of some.
Reading this article, it seems as though gay culture in Lebanon was non-existent until the clubs it mentions opened or the Mr Bear Arabia election took place. In reality, one could go back to the Phoenicians to find same-sex relations an integral part of local culture. In more recent years, and even during the civil war (1975-90), gay men and women have gathered and partied in many public places, more or less visible but nonetheless vibrant.
The author not only denies local gay culture its history, but also its real space. Most of the venues cited in the article are hangouts for the Beiruti moneyed élite. In some, you will not be admitted if you don't come with an expensive car or wear certain fashion brands. Thankfully, the vast majority of the Lebanese don't belong to this obnoxious crowd. The less affluent gay population meets in different places, doesn't talk about its escapades in the Marais or Soho, doesn't always speak English or French or watch Sex and the City. In fact, it seems to have its own world, much larger and more open than the one described in the article.
The story of Paradise Beach is a telling example. This large public beach in the city of Byblos was very popular with working-class gay men from different cities and religions. A colourful place where gay men mingled and flirted more freely than elsewhere. Until the day the beach was privatised and turned into a luxury resort, with a strict admittance policy. However, a small strip of land was still left unsold and frequented by the working-class gays. The sight was amusing: the resort's stiff and bourgeois crowds – gay and straight alike – eyeing with utter shock their flamboyant neighbours. Today there are no more public gay beaches left in Lebanon.
The article also denies other Arab countries their own gay cultures. Many western journalists sum up Arab gay realities with sentences like: "Saudi Arabia: homosexuality punishable by death", "Iraq: gay men killed." Full stop. But gay men are also killed in "civilised" western countries. While homophobia is certainly a problem in Arab countries, like anywhere else, it never overshadows the thriving and lively local gay cultures. Yet no one talks about these cultures. "Cairo: bad", "Damascus: bad", we're told by Ricardo, the Spaniard in the article. Even Dubya and his "Axis of Evil" would envy such eloquence.
How ironic that many Lebanese gay men, including myself, actually feel more comfortable in places like Damascus or Amman and go there often in order to escape the Beiruti agitation. There might be no Kylie Minogue nights there, but on the other hand there is a lot less snobbery and less fuss about homosexuality. My friend Ali recently went to Jordan to be wedded to his boyfriend by a Muslim cleric and then spent his honeymoon in Damascus. The advantage of such trips also comes in finding an anonymity one is denied at home.
But even Amman seems to have its "globalised" gay crowd. Watching Ugly Betty and wearing D&G is what gay culture is about, these people seem to say, along with the NYT article and many gay men across the global village. I can still remember how discovering Steven, the gay character in Dynasty, during my childhood in the 1980s, opened a whole new perspective for me. It is another matter altogether to equate this mass consumption with gay culture, or even with gay rights advocacy. Just as Beirut's old neighbourhoods are being gentrified, its "superb architecture" (sic) being torn down to make way for soulless, surveillance-camera-equipped skyscrapers, its local gay culture is facing the challenge of McDonaldisation.
How long before writers start describing Beirut as a new Bangkok – rather than a Provincetown?Will sex tourism advance its population's gay rights or social wellbeing? In the meantime, Beirut is certainly turning back into the playground of multinational companies, regional interests and greedy entrepreneurs ("I can see a future for us here", one businessman says in the article).
The NYT article falls into the category of the infomercial, tailor-made for a certain clientele, and it has every right to. However, it is typical of much reporting about the Arab world, perpetuating tired stereotypes: Arabs are homophobes, except for the "westernised" ones, Arabs are "sexy savages". In doing so, not only is it extending the cultural gap further, but it is also exposing a much wider divide: the one between the haves and the have-nots.