The Middle East in the 21st century is a boiling cauldron of political and social change. Rebellions and revolutions have taken down long ruling dictators and corrupt governments. But the transition to Arab democracy is fraught with conflicting issues, mainly how to define and integrate the new democracy with the deep influence of Islam in the various cultures. In this swirling flow of human events, homosexual individuals are not sure where they will land, on their feet with tolerance or further marginalized to the fringes of society.
One gay man’s response has been to abandon his native Syria and its current upheaval state and live in Turkey where he finds support from the LGBT community but still leaves him a man without a country. GlobalGayz interviewed him in Istanbul in April 2012.
Adad the Man: in Search of a Home
Adad is a gay Syrian man, 34 years old, living in Turkey temporarily until June 2012 when his visitor permit runs out. He will leave Turkey and then re-enter in order to renew his visa, or he will consider traveling on to another country in the Arab League where he can enter without a visa, such as Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon.
He is currently a man without a country, forced from Syria by a dangerous revolution, family disagreements as well as military threats, not so much for his being gay but for trying to make a political statement of defiance toward the Assad regime that’s currently slaughtering thousands of it own citizens.
Adad’s views became known through his two pseudonymous web blogs which advocate for human and gay rights against the government treatment of gays as well as the brutality and corruption of the currently leaders. His opinions are not just targeted at the government but against any hypocrisy, duplicity, dishonesty and lack of integrity.
An Unsettled life
Adad’s life could hardly be more unsettled at this time. He is trying to live a life of truth, justice, social equality and openness as a gay being. Currently he finds little of these. Turkey is not his home and he feels emotionally isolated because of the language barrier; he does not speak Turkish. Rather, his languages are predominantly English and Arabic (he earns a living as a translator).
As a gay man who seeks sexual and emotional intimacy in Turkey it can only offer him a limited response to his needs. Although Turkey is considerably more tolerant of LGBT life than most other Middle East countries (along with Israel and Lebanon) it is still a culture steeped in homophobic discrimination.
In Syria there is virtually no security left for him even though most (not all) of his family are accepting of his sexual orientation. His military-career uncles have tried for years to coerce him into marriage and a myopic nationalist viewpoint. Resisting their pressure has alienated him and made him a suspect for anti-governmental activity.
As well, he has in the past been detained by the Syrian police on suspicion for immoral (gay) behavior but he was not cowed by them and demanded their names and identity badge numbers. Homosexuality is not a crime in Syria and Adad was very aware that the police action toward him was merely harassment so he was not afraid to defend himself.
Nevertheless, he feels the effects of PTSD symptoms that result from the stress of his circumstances, in addition to his worry about his mother’s cancer and the strain of earning money from pick-up jobs. (In his twenties he was studying medicine but gave it up as he felt that career would limit his freedom as an individual and as a gay man in Syria.)
Adad observed that before the Syrian revolution started in March 2011 Syrian people were generally tolerant of homosexuality even while being homophobic. If you minded your own business and did not turn gay issues into political issues and did not make a public nuisance people tended to leave you alone, he said.
“They have too many of their own affairs to deal with such as family problems, working to scrape by, fear of government spies reporting on the them.” A gay family member was usually upsetting at first but life had more important things that mattered–food, security, safety, earning income, children’s school lessons and not drawing attention to yourself or your family.
Violent hate crimes were virtually unheard of in Syria; an honor killing of a gay family member has never happened in Adad’s awareness. Violence of any kind brings police attention, which people do not want. Discovering someone’s (other than a family member) sexual secret more often led to actual or attempted blackmail, which was a greater crime than being homosexual.
From time to time at the whim a a police chief, there might be a police raid on a gay club or party or the on the one gay bar (“Muslims don’t drink!”) in Damascus. Adad said that generally in recent years the police have left the gay community alone. “It was great”, he said in describing the years from about 2006 to 2010.
But then a new police chief felt the need to prove his effectiveness, not against widespread corruption in the government or the civil service, but against the meager gay community for imagined immoral behavior against the natural order.
However, that fervent action only lasted for a few months in late 2010 when things went back to normal “tolerance within reason” and gay friends continued to meet and greet each other in certain cafes and private small parties.
Not that the police stopped watching. When Adad was detained by the police a second time the officer in charge, probably trying to intimidate him, displayed a large information book with names and photos taken from online social network websites of allegedly gay people in Syria (and elsewhere) along with their profiles and friends.
Adad suspects he was questioned because an international human rights website, AsylumLaw.com, had quoted him from a commentary he had written for an online news site. Despite his successful defiance he understood from this police action that it was a stern warning to stick to gay life and away from political issues. In his usual style he was resistant and was not going to succumb to the threat: “I know the law; I know my rights and I argued back that I was not interested in politics (or religion) in any way.”
However, he did heed the writing on the wall. Today he is no longer interested in politics, disdaining that whole arena of “corrupt” human affairs as a waste of his time and about which he can have no effect in Syria. “My blog is about real life gay stories of Syrians who only want to live in peace, including my own. My second blog is a gay guide to Syria that lists gay friendly places.”
When asked if he has had any trouble from naming gay venues on his website he said “no, as long as there is not trouble stirring we are mostly free to go about our own affairs but they still try to scare us and warn us against any big parties or public showings.”
Out of all this, Adad feels it’s no way to live. To feel shadowed and controlled by others who want to limit personal choice is an incomplete life, a life of half truths and masks. His (legal) move to Turkey was a step toward freedom, a sort of halfway house away from a totalitarian society, despite Turkey’s own version of homophobia.
“It’s far from utopia here but at least here they have somewhat fair elections and the gay community is allowed to organize into rights groups and to have public gay demonstrations.” (Currently there are vigorous Turkish LGBT protests against police harassment of transgender people.)
Asked where he would want to live: “of course I want to live in my home culture near my family but that will not happen any time soon; perhaps in a country where gay people are given some feeling of rights and equality, like France or Germany.”
Across the broad swath of Muslim countries in east and west Asia there is not one that offers anything close to the legislated rights and protections offered in western Europe and North America. Adad would choose Canada over America because “the States are still discriminatory against minorities; freedom and democracy are fine words–if you are straight, born-again and white with money. Look at the hatred toward gays from so many fundamentalists who pretend to be Christians; the hypocrisy–of devout Muslims too-is hard for me to swallow.”
Soon after the short-lived police gay party busts and detentions ended in December 2010, (why they ended is a mystery to Adad; perhaps in anticipation of bigger things to come), the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Syria as the mostly unarmed populace rose up against the heavily armed government. In March 2011 the big boys were not in any mood to negotiate with the rebellious “terrorists”, as the Assad leaders called them.
As the world now watches in horror, thousands of civilians are being murdered even in small villages; the carnage continues as of April 2012. Curiously, however, Adad reported that even after the revolution started the gay community seemed to be left alone and not specifically targeted as a moral or security risk, even as the government vilified the opposition forces as ‘homosexual revolutionaries’ needing to be put down. Using the sexual label is a feeble effort to demonize the rebels in a false and shallow way in the minds of Assad supporters–of which there are many despite thousands of killings.
During the first eight months of the uprising Adad was very cautious and stayed low key sensing the danger he was in as a ‘person of interest’ to the police. It was soon after the second police ‘visit’ that he left for Turkey. in December 2011. “This was no longer just a warning; it was a real danger for me.”
Now out of immediate harm’s way, he is not as confident in the traditional ‘soft’ attitude of Syrians toward gays. The unending brutality and violence and carnage has effected everyone. “No one can feel safe. Life is a daily fear for one’s family. You know when people are afraid they are less tolerant and protective, more closed in. So I worry about gay friends who may be reported as different, as suspicious. If arrested on false charge they may not be able to argue their way out like I did. This is war time.”
Once easy tolerance of single men is now turning into suspicion. Being gay has always been a reason for firing someone from their job and that is increased now out of fear; the authorities may suspect an otherwise innocent employer if he is found to have a gay person working for him. (The single life is an ‘odd’ life in Syria that brings suspicion, which leads most gay Syrian men and women to marry and make a customary family.)
However, as a small respite in his personal diaspora he has found the gay community in Istanbul to be friendly and appreciative of his situation. Being gay he thinks cuts through barriers such as culture, language, religion and social status. “There is a personal level here, a camaraderie of community where we all have experienced being outsiders together. We understand the world from a special experience and point of view. That is good here.”
By Richard Ammon,
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