With Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Love in the Middle East Brian Whittaker has given us a highly readable and informative book devoted to an aspect of queer and middle eastern studies that is often ignored.
Whittaker explores the many ways nationality effects the formation of gay and lesbian identity and culture. One of the first things he points out is how similar the Arab-Islamist view of homosexuality is to that of Britain or America. In Arab nations, homosexuality is thought to be associated, and at times confused with, pedophilia, transvestitism, transsexualism, moral corruption, prostitution, devil worship, and treason. It is often described as a western illness that is passed from person to person like a virus, and can be cured through psychiatric care and treatments like electro-shock. At the same time it is also considered a choice, one brought to the Arab world through western imperialism. Along these lines, many believe same sex attraction does not occur naturally in Muslim nations, and is nothing but a corruption imported by the west.
All these assumptions add up to a life of fear, hiding, and isolation for queer people in the Middle East. Each chapter of Unspeakable Love tackles one aspect of queer life in the region. For example, chapter one explores how strong familial and social ties keep many men and women “in the closet” for fear of dishonoring their entire family. Chapter two looks at how gay people create community in a land where homosexual acts are illegal, through the throwing of private parties (often raided as gay clubs were once raided in the USA,) internet outreach, and by adorning specific clothing that serve to signal particular desires to those who know how to recognize them. Gays in the media and literature, in history, and in religion are also discussed at length.
One thing I was surprised to learn about was the quiet acceptance of same gender sexual relations between young women in some Arab nations. With so much of Arab social interaction segregated by gender it is not unusual for women, allowed no other outlet, to develop close sexual relationships with one other. Since the segregation is a way of policing heterosexuality, as long as a young woman’s sexual feelings are not aimed at an inappropriate man, I.E . a man other than her husband, Arab society does not find the behavior threatening. Given the obligatory nature of marriage in the Arab world, lesbian activities are viewed as a temporary substitute for hetero-sex, assuming her sexual desires will be transferred to her husband upon marrying. By no means is this universal across the Arab world. Lesbians often face as much persecution as gay males. But if you are gay and male you have a far better chance of being tortured, blackmailed, or executed for the transgression.
For all the information Whittaker manages to pack into Unspeakable Love‘s 224 pages, the book rarely drags. For each fact that is explored, Whittaker provides a person and a story to illustrate it. It keeps this research piece alive and popping.
Probably hardest of all, Whittaker manages to be optimistic in writing his conclusion, theorizing that in a global economy which requires extended exposure to new countries and cultures in order to maintain a buoyant national economy, Arab nations will be unable to prevent citizens from absorbing foreign attitudes, ways of life, and ideas of justice. His hope is that international campaigns for human rights will take up gay and lesbian rights as a cause, and fight for the liberation of all homosexuals who live in countries that persecute them.
I walked away from this work feeling as though my brain had physically expanded, and in my opinion, that’s the single best feeling you can have at the end of a book.