In an excerpt from his essay “I, ,the fag'”, Syrian author Raeef al-Shalabi reflects on an inner struggle that helped to position himself as a gay man and ultimately to think about human rights in a new way.
Everything began to lose meaning: I was worn out by lying and loneliness took hold of me, becoming my living nightmare. I would wake up in the morning wishing I had died in my sleep. I hit rock bottom when I swallowed thirty-seven Ambien sleeping pills, before being overcome by the fear of death and the image of my mother hearing that her only son had killed himself at the age of twenty-six in a distant land.
I returned to Syria a few months after that dreadful night, and without much thought or reflection (or perhaps after a lifetime’s worth), I took the first opportunity I had to go to Beirut and look for a young Palestinian man I had once met there, and whom I had later heard was openly gay. I found him and told him “about myself” in a few sentences that I spoke extremely slowly, enunciating the words in a drawl that slurred my speech. I felt as if the weight of tons of boulders had been lifted from my chest and shoulders.
Amer (that was his name) introduced me to his friends, and they in turn introduced me to theirs. I began to go with them to new bars for middle-class gays and lesbians. I recall them now as normal, polite, well-mannered people, even unsophisticated, but at the time I experienced them as extraordinary for how liberated and different they were. There were Lebanese from all regions and all sects, mostly from similar class backgrounds, but on crowded, raucous nights they might come from dissimilar backgrounds. There were Syrians and Palestinians, some of them working class, both gay and straight, working at the bar alongside their Lebanese counterparts, and affluent or middle-class customers who were regulars there. Then there were the lovers of Beirut and its seasonal visitors—Jordanians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Gulfies—and foreign tourists from all over the world.
Everyone did their best to look elegant and beautiful; the atmosphere was playful and enjoyable but not vulgar, at least according to the standards of globalized bourgeois society. In between encountering two girls on their third date, and getting to know a male couple who had been lovers for fifteen years, you really felt for a few moments that you were in a different Arab world that was not governed by pathetic sexual mores, that homosexuality was no longer “an issue” to begin with, and what consenting adults of sound mind did amongst themselves without hurting others was nobody else’s business. For a few moments, you felt like you could be just the way you were. That you could breathe.
It would be years before I was openly gay in front of a straight person. If I was told back then that one day I would be speaking openly about the details of my sexuality, I would have considered it a joke or a kind of annoying hallucination. Until recently, I wished only to be left alone. I just wanted a small space free of lies and pretending. In it, my gay universe would overlap with a few straight people I loved whom I could count on, and through whom I could obtain the bare minimum of friendship, love, and self-worth needed to sustain me. In exchange, I accepted having to live according to “the rules of the game” outside this space. My liberation was minimal, with only the goal of surviving as an individual. I showed no concern for gays and lesbians other than myself, nor for the “issue” of homosexuality to begin with.
I look back on my attitude now and realize the sheer extent of pessimism that underlay it. For a person to struggle for a cause that can put their life, reputation, and the happiness of those closest to them in danger, they must believe above all else that their struggle is not in vain. They have to feel at their core that risking everything will lead to a more decent life and a freer, more just society. I had none of this at the time; on the contrary, I was certain that those Lebanese bars were the maximum one could hope for on this patch of the planet, and that it was better to let things carry on the way they had been for thousands of years, behind unspeaking walls and sheltered by the unspoken, without any naive illusions about coming out, equality, and the language of legal rights. Just as the earth revolves around the mighty, dazzling sun, so too did my pessimism revolve around the people who most embodied authority, vanity, violence, privilege, and cheap hatred always and forever trained upon my neck: the straight man, “majestic and noble” in the image of God, as the Quran says. Truth be told, I did not reveal that I was gay to any straight Syrian man until just a few months before writing this. I firmly believed that if I did, I would be confronted by a vicious jackal who was proud of his hatred, or a fox that substituted hatred for derision and ridicule.
“There are only two kinds of straight men,” says Brian Kinney, protagonist of the American TV series Queer as Folk, depicting the lives of five gay men in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. “Those that hate you to your face, and those that hate you behind your back.”
Alongside this pessimism of mine was something else: a deeply buried desire to assimilate. It was an involuntary instinct that drove me to conduct myself according to “the rules of the game” in the hope of gaining people’s sympathy. When I contemplate the first few years after I accepted myself as gay, I realize that I still felt a mix of shame and inferiority for my sexuality. It was as if I had accepted a deformity within myself, and was trying hard to lessen its impact on my daily life. I could not be straight, so I wanted to be the closest possible thing: a gay man whose homosexuality was barely perceptible by the straight world, one who would not bother straight society by talking about his sexuality; a gay man who would not turn being gay into “a cause,” but would instead strive to prove to society that he was a good person in spite of his gayness.
At the core of all this lay the question of masculinity. I had already spent what felt like a lifetime trying to escape what I considered my early failure in performing my masculinity before society. Ironically, it was only after I accepted myself as gay that I realized I had in fact been successful at it. In the bars of Beirut and at parties in Damascus, as well as on dating apps that were popular at the time, I was welcomed by men who were extremely fixated on their masculinity, who took me in as one of them, and was overjoyed and delighted to discover that according to the many cliques and categories that filled the gay universe, I was classified as a “manly” guy.
Many dimwitted homophobes will not understand this, because they assume that a gay man is by definition “feminine” in the first place. But in reality, there are a huge number of men attracted to the same sex about whom one could say, in one context or another, that they do not “look gay.” And it is a feature that many of these men are proud of. “Manly,” “straight-acting,” “macho,” “discreet,” “doesn’t look like one”: these were all terms in circulation among gay men as positive attributes to be aspired to, ones they should look for in a partner. A mix of attitudes probably lies behind this: a social taste formed over history that links the beauty and attractiveness of a man to his “power” and “virility,” deep psychological scars carried by men from childhood and adolescence that drive them to focus on their masculinity and perhaps even become obsessed by it, and a clearly pragmatic intention to avoid the wrath and backlash of society.
I do not know for sure, nor do I have anything other than my personal impressions of the matter, but what is certain is that this combination reproduces the oppressive masculine-feminine binary within the LGBT scene, and creates for many gay men who consider themselves “masculine” something that oscillates between discomfort, coldness, rejection, disdain, and open hatred for those fellow gays that they consider “effeminate,” “fairies,” “shady,” or simply “women.” Instead of declaring allegiance to the same struggle that would place them alongside these men, many of those who proudly flaunt their masculinity believe they can avoid any oppression through their stereotypical lifestyle. In some extreme cases, they may even believe the problem lies with these tantat, or fairies, whose effeminate nature tarnishes the image of the gay community and prevents its acceptance by the straight world, and not with society to begin with.
I never consciously adopted views like these, but I was always very fixated on my masculinity, and preferred to distance myself from any person who might draw stares from others. When I am honest with myself, I realize that this stance of mine contained a kind of spiritual dissimulation, as well as a bit of… complicity.
It was only when looking back that I became aware of my pessimism and my tendency to want to assimilate during those years that pessimism had total control over me. On the other hand, I was well aware that a third kind of logic was also pushing me away from being interested in gay people and their lived reality as a social and political issue. Let us call it the logic of deferring for the sake of priorities.
Since my early visits to Beirut’s bars and its “alternative scene,” I had come to know a particular subset of people from the LGBT community: young men and women who were open about their sexuality in front of everyone. They were activists in organizations and participated in demonstrations to draw attention to issues of freedom and equality based on sexual orientation and gender. I was at once impressed and unconvinced about the importance of their activism in the Arab context. I used to ask them with a mix of sarcasm and seriousness about the point of fighting for gay rights in a region where nobody had rights—neither straight men nor women, neither majorities nor minorities. Did it not make more sense to fight for the rights of all human beings, for the sake of what they all had in common, while deferring the battle for sexual freedoms to a later stage? Had not the queer movement won its biggest victories in countries where democracy, the rule of law, and the vocabulary of political and civil rights had already taken root? Was it not therefore preferable to concentrate our efforts on making those broader advances before engaging in a narrower struggle for a particular demographic for which we had nearly no allies?
At the time, when I thought of gays in Syria and the region, the only people that came to mind were those who resembled me and those I hung out with: young, middle-class men and women, university students, urban residents, who perhaps spoke a bit of English and followed the music, TV shows, and films produced by global pop culture. “Globalized” youth, in other words, who were able to engage with and take inspiration from the stories of the struggle for gay rights around the world, because they were fundamentally victims of the same Victorian sexual morality that this struggle had risen up against.
I knew of course that homosexuality as a sexual preference and practice existed everywhere outside this segment of society, among both men and women, among the poor and the less poor, in the walled cities of Damascus and Aleppo and in all the country’s other cities, provinces, and villages. But I always wondered if those who engaged in homosexual acts in those environments cared about their “rights” as gays, whether they identified as gay or even knew the word “gay” in the first place. In fact, I was convinced that to speak of gay rights was highly elitist and meant nothing to gay people from “the masses.” This reinforced my conviction that it was not only premature to raise the issue, but that it could also hurt gays and lesbians by making them the target of conservative forces that would otherwise not pay attention to them.
Those were my convictions... until a short while ago.
Those ideas and inclinations never quite left me completely; in one way or another, they are still lodged deep down inside. They wrestle with me and I wrestle them back; they seep out of me surreptitiously to influence a passing word, an involuntary reaction, or some fleeting behavior of mine. In moments of calm and quiet, they engage in dialogue with me, gently yet resolutely.
There still remains a hard kernel of pessimism within me, or to be more precise, a hard kernel that makes me instinctively wary. I cannot help but feel uncomfortable if I find myself in a public setting with a group of gays who obviously “look gay.” I cannot help but feel annoyed with myself when I hear a recording of my voice and feel it does not sound “masculine” and rough enough. My sense of caution is added to my assimilationist tendency and I often cannot differentiate between them. Whenever I hear of positive steps toward freedom, dignity, and equality for one of my kind in any part of the world, I do not allow myself to feel very reassured. I keep reminding myself how gays in 1920s Germany had their associations and clubs, how they enjoyed a large degree of freedom and the ability to come out into the public sphere, and yet how they were led to the gas chambers just a few years later.
If I am introduced to a straight man for the first time, I automatically presume him to be a source of potential harm and try to protect myself by adhering even more closely to performing my masculinity according to “the rules of the game.” If I meet any of my gay or lesbian activist friends, I argue that the issue of gay rights cannot be separated from the causes of all humans. I also persistently (and perhaps annoyingly) question whether their discourse of liberation is making enough of an effort to fully reflect the reality of all those they are supposed to be representing.
And yet, despite all this, I have changed. What changed me was that human earthquake that struck Syria starting in 2011, when it broke down the walls of my small world and pushed me little by little to other, new worlds. First of all, I discovered that there were straight Syrians who understood the question of homosexuality and defended its existence in front of the entire world. Most of them were courageous women activists, but some were also men rising up against patriarchal, repressive notions of masculinity. I followed some of their discussions online and felt a budding optimism growing inside me, one that resembled the more general optimism that accompanied the demonstrations in Syria. I understood at that moment that after a certain point the pessimism of the oppressed becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of the oppressor. I realized that we had allies ready to raise their voices in our defense, and felt ashamed of myself when I contrasted my caution and silence with their boldness and readiness to speak out.
After that, and without any kind of intention or planning, I started to be introduced to Syrians of another kind; to Khaled, Zaki, Muhammad, Wisam, Abdallah, Nuha, Hanan, Lina, and many others. I wonder now if it is precise to label them as gay and lesbian; they were that of course, but like all human beings they were also so much more than their sexual orientation. They varied in their personalities, their circumstances and backgrounds. They were spread all over: in Homs, Ghouta, Yarmouk, Raqqa, Aleppo, and among the clusters of refugees and afterwards the exiles in Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe. I came to know most of them through a connection that had nothing to do with our common sexuality: that of our shared support for the revolution and our involvement in fighting its struggles in one way or another. It was only afterwards that we discovered the other thing we had in common, the way you slowly, painstakingly decipher a secret code with great precision. Among them were the bold, those who were openly gay to a relatively large circle of people, as well as the careful ones, content with a very small space in which they could be themselves.
All of them, however, were fully conscious of the reality of who they were. They were comfortable with it and invested in defending its legitimacy. In contrast to the people I had met previously in the bars of Beirut, the majority of these gays were products of their local environments, deeply engaged in the issues specific to their regions, localities, and small villages. They spoke of their dreams, escapades, and romantic relationships in their local dialects without any alteration. And because this is how they were, they did not agonize over the legitimacy of their desire as gays for freedom, dignity, and equality or how “representative” it was. This was not a complex, theoretical question for them, but just sound logic. In other words, they were rooted locally while having a global outlook, without any kind of pretentiousness or affectation, and without any need to explain things or consider them tricky or not self-evident.
I spent my childhood in utter loneliness, a loneliness I didn’t even have the luxury of comprehending. Only after I got to know these young men and women did I begin to feel for the first time that I was not alone. I started to care about LGBT issues basically because I came to love these friends. I formed a bond with them built on the secrets we shared, on the existential terror that had been with us for so long that it had become a part of us, on the lashes from our childhood and adolescence that had left deep bruises on our flesh and even deeper traumas underneath. The bond was built on our discovery that those closest to us were capable of turning into the meanest and most hurtful people.
When some of these friendships shifted from the virtual world into the real one, in Beirut, then Turkey, and then Germany, my social circle expanded through them to include young people I would have recoiled and fled from immediately had I met them earlier, just for looking like “stereotypical” gays. I realized that these gays were the bravest and toughest among us, and I grasped what it meant for one of them to live in danger of being murdered, beaten, arrested, or humiliated just for walking down the street. I saw how they confronted all these dangers and often turned them into a wellspring of jokes that never dried up. They made fun of their lives, of authority, of people with scowling faces and of everything they rigidly held sacred. They even made fun of themselves, and I envied them when I discovered that unlike me, they had not stubbornly suppressed who they naturally were ever since childhood, that in a single instant they could be free, that they could forget… and dance!
Ultimately, I resolved to write this text mainly as a letter to these friends, and to anyone in the gay and lesbian communities in our happy Arab world that may read it, for I have come to fully understand how coming out and telling each other our stories, whether amongst comrades or between strangers, can generate the tremendous strength needed to remain steadfast and carry on. I wanted to speak about the cockroach living inside me in the hope that my opening up will help someone else overcome his loneliness, his fear, his hatred of himself, his obsession with his masculinity, and even his desire to take sleeping pills to end his life. No, we are not cockroaches, we are not devils, we are not sick, and we are not child molesters. We are not collaborators with the West, or with Zionism or Masonry or the Bogeyman. If there is a God, then doubtless it is he who created us like this, and down with all the doctrines and dogmas that say otherwise. And if there is no God, then in any case we are not hurting anyone by what we do consensually with each other. And when we are killed in the street or thrown from high buildings, or arrested and taken to police stations where the dignity of our bodies is violated, we will not say, “But we are human beings even though we are gay!” Instead we will say, “Yes, we are gay, and we have rights!”
When we fight to stay alive, our fight is by definition a priority for all, for the freedom, justice, and rights of all human beings, because those that violate us legitimize by practicing on us their violation of all, before they pounce on everyone else. I did not want to write all this to convince the foolish and wicked that hate us; should this text actually be printed, I do not expect anything but an avalanche of insults and accusations of being an apostate and criminal. I have written it to speak through it to my own kind.
And now that I have reached the end of this long text, and after baring the most sensitive details of my life, all that remains is for me to admit that my real name is not Raeef and I am not from the Shalabi family. But I have a father who is nearly eighty, who sees me as the light of his life. Every time I thought of him while writing this, I could feel claws and fangs emerging from the table and chair and sinking themselves into my heart and entrails. No, I will not break the heart of my father, who has dedicated his life to my happiness. I will not tell him who I really am and endanger his health, and risk his love and his pride in me. I will bitterly mourn him the day he dies and my grief will be twofold: the grief at losing him, and at how long he remained unaware of the most important story of my life.
But I will not take a chance and see him shocked and heartbroken or see him enraged and reacting harshly and cruelly. Only with him, and only for his sake will I live with this strange mix of subterfuge and lies that the ancient Arabs called taqiya, or dissimulation, where you pretend to deny your true creed in order to survive. After him and with anyone else, however, there will be no alternative to the truth. For none of us.
This text is an excerpt from the essay "I, ,the fag'" published on ajumhuriya.net in November 2018.
Translation from Arabic: Suneela Mubayi earned her Ph.D. in Arabic literature at NYU where she completed a thesis on the vagabond and marginal poets between classical and modern Arabic poetry. She also taught Arabic literature at Cambridge University. She has translated prose and verse between Arabic, English, and Urdu, which have been published in Banipal, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Jadaliyya, and elsewhere. She wishes to re-establish the position of Arabic as a vehicular language of the global South.
Curation: Sandra Hetzl (born 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina.
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.