Intro: There’s not much information or insight into gay Jordan on the Internet despite the country being a moderate Muslim country where homosexuality is not vehemently persecuted. After a week-long visit to Amman, the capital, there was more understanding of the scene, but not much is observable. Two interviews with native gay Jordanians and a ‘cruise’ around the city provided some insight into the furtive gay ‘community’ in this huge metropolis.
By Richard Ammon
The search for gay Jordan hardly begins on the streets of Amman or Aqaba or any of the very ancient towns in this dry sun-baked country. Like the dust of history that has buried much truth about past empires, the layers of Byzantine, Christian and Islamic cultures have pressed the truth of human sexuality underground, behind closed doors and into the technical catacombs of the Internet in modern day Jordan.
There are the occasional cruising places such as parks or luxury hotel bars, but this is not where gay Jordan thrives and meets for the most part.
The face and fun of LGB individuals living in the Jordanian culture was revealed in a couple of interviews I had in hot Amman, the capital. Hot as in 95 degree weather, not men although once inside the ‘system’ tempting and playful friends can be found, from bears to ballet lovers. As usual in a Muslim country lesbian life is not virtually invisible, it is completely invisible. An outsider–or even native inquirer–can hardly find a woman to talk about such things, especially since any woman with lesbian feelings will almost certainly be married with kids.
It’s 1:30 in the morning and the cafes in the trendy Schmeisani district are still buzzing with cafe patrons sipping coffee and tea and sucking on ‘hubbly-bubbly’ water pipes as they talk to friends and look at strangers among the dozen or so venues on this short trendy street.
The fancy cars parked on both sides indicate these are not all Jordanian folks lounging about. There are numerous cars (Benz, Land Rovers, Chryslers, etc) with license plates from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, Iraq (about 1.3 million Iraqis escaped the war) and Jordan. Some Israelis come to Amman by obtaining a temporary local license plate as a disguise.
This mix of visitors from stricter Muslim countries to the south includes those who come both for business and/or for their pleasure and privacy, far from home where non-marital sexuality is stigmatized and condemned.
Not that Jordan is a hotbed of sexuality, but this teeming city of well over three million people provides anonymity and opportunity for the whole spectrum of human pursuits. Needless to say, among the crowd are various gay men who have come to check out this evening’s version of the cafe crowd.
Woven quietly into the tapestry of Bedouin-Jordanian and Palestinian-Jordanian businessmen, Middle East visitors and immigrants, southeast Asian domestic workers and Palestinian citizens (and camp refugees who have sneaked outside the fences) are men (and probably women, secretly) who seek their own kind of love, sex and community.
Pointing all this out to my novice eyes is my host for the evening, Mohammad (Mohd) a Jordanian of Palestinian heritage whose family has been in Jordan for three generations—since Palestine and Israel went to war in 1948.
Mohd is a 28 year-old self-proclaimed “bear lover” who greets several of his friends among the café crowd as we sit in the warm summer air. “This is one of the best places for gays to come and check out each other but unless you know each other it’s impossible to tell who’s gay or not. Straight men here kiss each other–it’s nice but confusing!”
Looking across the crowds at the cafés Mohd’s point is obvious, as good friends make contact; they hold hands, lean on each other, kiss hello and good bye.
Out for the Evening
The evening started with an open-air orchestral concert given by Palestinian Jordanian student musicians from Amman’s conservatory, conducted by a blond-haired woman, as a fundraiser for Lebanese suffering in the war (summer 2006) with Israel.
The venue was the spectacular restored Roman amphitheater in the old town, a great stone-tiered half-circle seating 6000 people built originally for religious and theatrical purposes about 150 CE as part of Rome’s largest forum in the Middle East.
Sitting high up in the third level offered a stunning and contrasting view of the old and new—including a bizarre mix of Beethoven’s music, car horns and sirens from the streets, jet planes overhead, fireworks on the next hill, and cell phones and catcall whistles from some rowdy customers not accustomed to concert behavior.
After the cacophony of the concert Mohd and I walked across the old forum plaza with its tall granite columns and pavement stones worn smooth over the millennia. “This is also a place where a few guys come to pick up each other, but only for sex, not for friendship or anything lasting. It’s not such a nice place other than for curiosity,” explained Mohd as we hailed a taxi. We laughed as we wondered how many Romans, Byzantines, Christians and Turks over the centuries also cruised along this place.
There are no gay organizations, publications, bathhouses, beaches or fully gay venues in Amman. There are a couple of gay-friendly places such Books@Cafe bookstore/café in the old town but it’s also very mixed since straight people enjoy its ambience, food and drinks.
Virtual Gay Community
Most of gay Jordan centers around the virtual community created by the Internet. It is here where gay life begins for many men and–presumably–lesbian women in this Kingdom. Chat rooms and groups and other forms of messaging are the highway to contact here. Once connected they network with new and old companions in wide overlapping circles of friends who, in turn, talk in other circles.
There is no Internet restriction here as in Saudi Arabia. There are no sex police as in Egypt and Iran. Similar to Lebanon Jordan is a moderate Muslim country that allows it citizens a generous amount of personal freedom to associate and communicate socially, discreetly sexually, religiously and modestly politically. There is the appearance of a free press.
In addition to the friendship networks and the Internet there is gaydar, which is everywhere anytime but not always reliable.
But Mohd’s life doesn’t revolve around gay men. He works a full time job as a travel agent and attends to his family. At 28 he lives with his upper-middle class parents (father is a lawyer) and a straight brother (with whom he shares one bedroom) and a straight sister. As moderate Muslims, they live in the upscale Schmeisani area in a three bedroom apartment furnished with stylish furniture and modern household and technical conveniences.
For five years Mohd was in a relationship with a boyfriend, Ari. They met through a mutual friend, a common way of meeting here. Things went well enough during that time to keep them together. But ‘together’ is hardly the best word to describe them as a couple. Ari was married with three kids and lived in another town, the ancient city of Jerash, almost an hour’s drive from Amman. For those years no one in either of their families suspected (openly) they were an item.
“If my parents knew I was gay they would divorce me from the family. Tell me not to call or see them again,” he said with a pained edge in his voice. As usual, they have urged Mohd to get married and have children even though in his younger years, not dating women was seen by his family as honorable restraint.
But as he has grown into his upper 20s Mohd has maintained his clear intention of never getting married and has had strong words with his father about the matter, insisting that he have a choice in his life not to be with women–much to the consternation of his father who never questioned his religious and social obligations.
Puzzled by Mohd’s ‘decision’ his father asked Mohd if he were gay, sick, genitally defective, into drugs or something else that bothered him. Mohd denied all these and reiterated his will and freedom to choose his own life. He also reminded his father that he has a brother and sister who will one day marry and have children–grandchildren–and will move away to take care of their own families. Mohd reminded his father that even if he finds his own flat, which he intends in a year or two, he will be nearby and can continue to help his parents as they age.
Ari and Mohd carried on their secret successfully with carefully planned liaisons at their homes when family members were not home or occasionally renting a hotel room. “We were together for about five evenings a week. At first our families were a little suspicious, especially since Ari is 14 years older, which is unusual for best friends.
“But we just kept being friends and we introduced each other to our families and also the two families. It was nice because they enjoyed each other and also became friends, so that helped solved their questions.” Once, Ari’s wife made a joke about Mohd being Ari’s ‘second wife’. How close she was to the truth she will never know.
However, after an indiscreet drinking session (forbidden in public) one night a year ago Ari was taken into police custody for a night and felt humiliated and embarrassed. Praying to God to get him out (Mohd paid his fine and got him released) Ari turned to Mohd and said his gay life and drinking were now ended. Turning to religion, Ari no longer engages with Mohd and goes to prayer several times a day in his mosque.
Resilient, Mohd has moved on to his other friends and to work and his family. “But I would still like to be with him, but I don’t call,” he said wistfully but cheerfully.
He prefers Palestinian Jordanian friends. When asked why, he said they are more loyal than Bedouin ethnic Jordanians. “If you have some trouble, my Palestinian friends will be there to help me. The Jordanians will not stay true.” Part of this tribal separation is found in the history of Palestine and Jordan, which is complex and overlaid with conflict and conquest, religion and culture, discrimination and mistrust.
Fifty years ago the Palestinians made up about 75% of the population in the Trans-Jordan region, only 25% were indigenous Bedouin Jordanians. Even the current King is descended from a Saudi family.
Almost all Mohd’s gay friends are married. Even the longest term couple he knows, together for two years, are both married and don’t live with each other. Those who are not married live with their parents and then, perhaps in their fifties when their parents pass away, will likely continue to live in the same home and experience a measure of freedom to decide their future.
But even then it would be unusual for him to bring home a partner to live with him. After all, what would the neighbors think; even a rumor of being gay can can carry heavy social burden.
Toward the end of the evening, Mohd half jokingly reflected, to my surprise, “maybe when I am older, I will quit being gay and go back to God.” Considering the possibility for true gay love, enduring intimacy and domestic companionship in the Muslim Arab world, such a resignation is not surprising but is nevertheless sadly poignant.
Much of what Mohd had to say about the scene here was verified and similar to Salem’s experience of living gay in Jordan. Salem works for an international enterprise non-profit company that raises funds to support small business ventures around the world. His area of consulting is the Middle East. Trying to find a time to talk with Salem is like talking to an athlete in mid-training—on the move and in motion.
At 29, he has traveled many times to western and Arabic countries and talked to countless people about projects and business organization. When he said he had a lover of three years I though he was going to say they met in some far-off land under exotic circumstances.
They met online, in the catacombs of gay chat rooms that cross borders as easily as birds. Not surprising, Raj, who is 42, is from far-off India but lives in California. The story of their connecting is full of romantic urgency and careful timing. Given both of their work schedules it includes flying thousands of miles away from each other. Salem laughed with embarrassed delight as he described their ‘first time’ at a hotel in the Jordan Valley nears the Dead Sea.
Raj was on the eve of going back to the States from Israel and insisted, after a couple of weeks of reciprocally scrutinizing messages, that they meet the next day, no matter what. In the throes of passion they also discovered in each other compatible soul mates.
They began dating, arranging their lives around long distance flights, hotel rooms and gyms, evening walks, museum visits, intimate dinners, along park paths energized by a continuous trail of ‘significant’ e-mails expressing love and longing. After a year of familiarizing and bonding they exchanged rings in their own private ceremony at a resort in California overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Since then they have visited back and forth across the continents regularly, about every three months. “Of course we negotiated a sexually open relationship. Both of us had tried closed long-distance relationships before but that was too difficult and frustrating. We’re both old enough to know better now,” said Salem.
Living Well in Amman
Salem is different from many gays in Jordan. At 29 he is not married and is out to half of his family but not yet out to his parents. He has his own large 3-bedroom apartment in central Amman, which he co-owns with a straight girl friend (who doesn’t live there).
His generous work salary has allowed him to decorate it in luxury style (“very modern, the way I always wanted”, he said) that has increased its worth about 40% more than he paid for it a year ago. His long-range plan is to buy several such apartments and decorate them in a similar quality style and rent them to foreign business men and families who can afford the upscale rent (about US$2300 per month.) By the time he is 35 he hopes to have the financial independence to choose to work or not.
Salem’s aspiration reflects the moderate prosperity that Jordan currently enjoys. Unlike several of its unstable neighbors, the Kingdom of Jordan, with respected monarchs who delicately balance Western and Middle Eastern affairs, has benefited from the peace accord it signed in 1994 with Israel, which resulted in avoiding the warring and political problems that have politically and economically undermined international investor confidence elsewhere in the area.
Driving around Amman a visitor can readily see many private and public construction projects underway including an enormous suspension bridge connecting two vital hills in the city center. (Since the city’s founding about 3000 years ago atop a couple of hills the sprawl now includes about 20 hills. Straight roads are rare as the streets wind back and forth climbing up and down the numerous slopes and canyons.)
There is a sizable middle and upper class lifestyle here that sports comfortable luxury homes, fancy cars and fine clothes. Curiously, one of the forces of this prosperity is the population of Iraqis who fled the current war and relocated in Jordan bringing with them untold millions in assets.
One source told me that for US$200,000 an Iraqi can buy citizenship here thus avoiding the need to return to that war-ravaged country. A further debatable result of this influx is the surge in property values that has benefited some and hindered others. In the past three years the cost of real estate has nearly doubled.
International Love and Life
For business reasons Salem and his family lived in several countries while he was growing up so Salem has a wider range of awareness than one who has not lived outside the Jordanian culture. He is very aware of the ‘gay lib’ in Europe and America and intends to incorporate some aspects of that style in his and Raj’s future life together.
He agreed that outwardly the scene is virtually invisible and whose presence on the streets can be discerned only with strong gaydar (aside from the obvious money-boys downtown by the Roman theater). No self-respecting man or woman would dress ‘gay’ or want to be publicly suspected by their appearance.
The overwhelming social mood is homophobic even though gay bashing is unheard of. Salem explained, “like anywhere, you learn early what’s acceptable or not to your family and social peers. I think upper class people have more choices if they are gay. Of course parents never like to have gay children, but some of my family are okay with it. It’s a generational change and also an educational thing too. They know about these things. And if it became too impossible here I would arrange to live abroad, somewhere with Raj.”
The obvious way to avoid public scrutiny is to remain very private and circumspect in demeanor and behavior. This means the gay scene happens behind closed doors, in hotels sometimes but more often behind the security walls around private homes.
Salem said he regularly hosts or is a guest at private parties. In an e-mail comment he said, “last night I was invited to a friend’s flat where he did a full drag show for us wearing two costumes–Egyptian and Lebanese. We were a group of about 25 people. What fun! Unfortunately all behind doors! This place is too exotic.” Salem also hosts gatherings for mixed (gay and straight) people who hardly give thought to sexual orientation as they mingle and talk—much like the crowd I saw one balmy evening at Books@Café.
Books @ Cafe
Books@ Café is the closest thing one will find in Amman to a LGBT hangout but there is no sign or signal of this other than, perhaps, the painted silhouette on an interior wall of two women dancing together.
At Books@Cafe the evening crowd was, on my visit, a very mixed middle-class, international crowd, with not a single head scarf on any woman. Overheard were numerous conversations in English (with accents) at tables of six or four or two.
Slowing down to look more closely one could see among the gatherings (there are two separate outdoor patio areas) two or three men and women at their own tables chatting closely.
Same-gender companions do not of course signify sexual orientation, but primary-couple energy is subtly different than just-friends energy such as the distance between them and the amount and quality of touching. Not a big deal but obvious to a knowing observer. There were several gay couples and groups at the café that night. But that was it–conversation and coffee. There was no hint of cruising or wandering around schmoozing with the crowd. No organizing. No after-hours rainbow bar or disco with bare-chested dancers.
Even the popular Turkish bath Al-Pasha does not hint of M4M dynamics as numerous heavy straight men (based on my best gaydar reading) covered in long baggy shorts around their round bellies go for a steam bath, Jacuzzi dip, scrub down and massage (by other heavy and hairy straight men).
But the place is clean, efficient and offers fruit juice as one looks around at the marble and stone archways and domed ceilings with tiny round openings.
So the story of gay Jordan begins and ends discreetly. Nothing will change anytime soon. Like colored stones in the bed of a stream, queer folks here allow the cultural current to flow around and over them without revealing their place or presence. Survival is comfortable even if somewhat frustrated.
Mohd knows where to sit and have coffee and scan with shrewd eyes for the man of his dreams. Salem knows whom to ring up or e-mail to create a party. All done quietly and safely, as it has been for a long time.
Where the Boys Are
There once was a an internet group called AmmanRainbow but it is no longer alive. It once showed promise as “a moderated group to bring gays and lesbians in Jordan together.” At one time there were about 95 members. Alas , no more.
Here are some postings from that defunct site. (I post them as examples of existing real-life in Jordan.) “As for me, wrote one member, “everything in my life right now is up side down…my family found out about my sexuality and they are not taking it easy at all…it’s been a while now (since Feb) and still no progress in them accepting it , it’s even getting worse day by day. I’m lost and tired emotionally and just don’t know what to do next.” In gentle response came this reply: “from my experience in life (as i am 90 years old) i discovered that what is getting worse will be better later… your, family will accept that sooner or later… you are a part of this family.”
Another poster tried to lighten things a bit about the issue: “Good morning my dearest of the Ammanized Pink Generation. I can’t tell you that it is easy, but for someone that has gone through the same, all I can do is salute your resilience. Be strong man as all of us know that it is dreadfully difficult. I agree. We all need therapy from this! We need a plane load of psychologists to deal with our issues. I say enough with the pain!”
But there is hope and strength in the messages as well. This upbeat message was recently posted: “I guess those strong feelings are what helped me realized my sexuality and face my fears. Once I realized it, I instantly accepted myself and knew what the kind of life I want to live. Now I am blessed 3 times. Once for being man, a second time for being able to love another man, and a third time for having the best man ever to be my bf, lover in my life.” (See full posting)
In response to this ‘blessed’ posting GlobalGayz invited the writer to share some further thoughts about his life and sexuality as a gay Jordanian. His replies follow:
Thanks for your questions; I will answer them from my perspective below.
How does your sexuality affect your life as a Jordanian?
This is a big question. I guess that my sexuality had a huge impact on my life and the way I deal with people around me. I am not sure if it is because of the Jordanian society or it is being gay itself. I mean our sexuality dictates many aspects of our lives. It isn’t just a preference that a lot of people like to think of it because it does affect your choices in friends, your interests in people, and your relationship with them.
For me, before coming out, I wasn’t aware of the effect of my sexuality on my life. I stayed in denial for so long till I reached my 24 years old. It was a combination of not knowing what gay mean, and whether it applies on me or not, and the fear of facing those feelings of attraction I have for other men.
Now I do realize its effects. In my college years and some years after that, I was madly in love with my straight best friend. I couldn’t draw the line between whether my feelings towards him were based on strong friendship feelings or that it means much more than that although at some points it was so clear to me that I do love him. I used to tell myself “If this isn’t love, then what is it?”
Now I also realize that a big part of why I wasn’t able to mix right at school with my fellow male guys has to do with my sexuality. What really brings men togather is women and sex talk and I have no interest in that what’s so ever. I now see that my sexuality was an obstacle in me building strong relationships with my male school mates.
How does it affect your friendships with people who know/don’t know about your sexuality?
After I faced my denial, I had a big decision to make. Whether to keep it to myself and never to act on it, or share it with my best friend and let him help me. For months I kept struggling with that decision. It was so scary to me thinking of what would happen if he knew that I am gay and have been attracted to him all that long.
After a couple of months, I made the decision. It was one of the hardest moments of my life because it was the first time I say that I am gay outside my own head. He got shocked, and thought that I am confused, but did feel my fear and pain. He stood beside me, and helped me gain ore confidence in coming out to other people. Although he was against the idea because he knows how risky it is, but I wanted to share it with my other close friends.
I came out to most of my close friends. It was never easy. Everyone reacted in a different way, but all showed much love to me. What happened has only brought us closer. I gained more respect and trust from them because they knew that I gave them that by telling them.
Now I find it hard to build new friendship with staight people. It is because I don’t like to cover a huge part of my life for those who I feel close to, and it is not easy to keep on trusting new people and tell them about my sexuality in a conservative society that considers homosexuality as an immoral behaviour.
In the other hand, starting dating gay people and meeting them. I have gained many new friendships. It was like finally meeting people like me. People who understand. People who has been through the same. People who has struggled and still do because of their sexuality. Gay friends have added much value and more joy to my life.
How does it affect your relationships to your family?
I am one of the very few Jordanians who actually came out to his parents. I knew that they would never abandon me. I trusted their love. But I feared the impact of my sexuality on them. It really scared me. I knew that it would hurt them badly, and I believe it did, but I believed that it is their right to know the truth. I knew that they would handle it the same way I did.
It was so scary, but they showed me much love and support. They went into a denial phase which is common. For a year or so they barely _mentioned it. For sometime, I felt that I have done nothing by coming out to them. I thought that they just forget what happened that night.
But then they came around. They seem to be okay with it now. They know about my boyfriend, and seem to like him as well.
How does it affect my relationship with them? It gave me more confidence in their love. Now I feel more secure than ever, because I know that whenever I fall, there are 2 people who love me unconditionally and are willing to do anything to make me happy.
Does it serve or restrict your authenticity/ honesty/integrity/personal freedom/emotional needs/physical desires?
From what I said above, I guess that you can tell how it restricts my honesty and itegrity among people who don’t know about my sexual preference. I have to hide it, to lie, to cover and to pretend.
Personal freedom? As long as I practice it in secrecy, then it is _okay.
Emotional needs? They are all fulfilled now. Thanks to my loving and caring boyfriend, my family and friends.
That is all about me. I am sure others would give you different accounts.
Legal status of Jordan’s gays (from Gay Rights Info web site):
Jordan can be considered as one of the more liberal Arab countries. There is no sharia law and, unusually, homosexuality is not officially illegal. The gay scene such as it is is low-profile, subdued, and much less visible than that of Israel and Lebanon. There is no gay rights movement.
Legal status of homosexuality:
Jordan has no sodomy laws; the age of sexual consent is 16 for all. It punishes sexual intercourse with persons under the age of 16 (male or female) with forced labor for three to five years, while the punishment for sex with a male or female under the age of 13 can receive no less than five years imprisonment.