Unspeakable Love: Gay and lesbian Life in the Middle East

Brian Whitaker

29th Jan 2012

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Publisher: Saqi Books

Date Published: 27th Jun 2011

Reviewed by

When Egyptian police launched a raid on a floating disco in Cairo ten years ago, they would have had little idea that their actions would spark off an international media frenzy and bring the issue of LGBT rights in the Middle East into the glare of the world’s press once again.

The Queen Boat, a cruise ship converted to a nightclub moored to the banks of the Nile, was one of the few establishments where gay Egyptians could go to meet, talk and relax. But, on 12 May 2001, Cairo’s notorious vice squad raided the club and arrested 52 men “found without female partners”.

Of those arrested, 50 were charged with “offending religion and practicing debauchery” and the incident brought the issue of homosexuality in the Arab world into sharp relief once again.

Egypt’s authorities handed out jail sentences, publicly naming those involved and making them pariahs in their own communities in spite of huge international outrage over the arrests.

The Queen Boat features heavily in Brian Whitaker’s excellent study of gay and lesbian life in the Middle East, and the veteran Guardian journalist uses this incident and other examples to give the reader some fascinating insights into the subject.

Meticulously researched and clearly argues, Unspeakable Love looks at how gay communities across the region are forced to live daily faced with the contempt, disdain and even hatred of those closest to them.

Whitaker gives a subtly nuanced view of LGBT life across the Middle East. He shows that, while the Arab world criminalises homosexuality and views it as blasphemy, attitudes do vary considerably from country to country, a fact ignored by many western media sources.

While in Egypt, a dedicated “vice squad” is detailed to find and entrap gay Egyptians over the internet and in person, Lebanon’s authorities take a more liberal view on the matter. Homosexuality is still punishable by Lebanese law, but in some areas of the country, the police will not arrest or prosecute openly gay members of the community.

Lebanon is also home to the first LGBT advocacy organization actually based in the Middle East, Helem. The group, whose name is an abbreviation of Himayah lubnaniyah li’l-mithaliyin (Lebanese protection for homosexuals), aims for the liberation of gays, lesbians and transgender individuals in Lebanese society and in the wider Arab world.

Unspeakable Love details how Helem has gained some acceptance and even admiration in Lebanon for the help it offered refugees from south Lebanon in the 2006 war with Israel and for the group’s work on HIV/AIDS awareness.

However, in spite of these limited successes, the author is careful to point out that little appears to have changed for LGBT communities across the Arab world in the wake of the uprisings of the “Arab Spring”: governments may have changed, but conservative attitudes and the prevailing interpretations of Islamic law mean many in the Middle East are simply unable to accept homosexuality or its presence in Muslim countries.

Unspeakable Love, first published in 2009, is still highly topical and is an enlightening guide to a subject rarely discussed in the press, even with the current focus on the region.

Whitaker is erudite and compassionate in his investigation, and gives well-argued insights into the problems facing gays and lesbians in the Arab world.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the author’s look at Islam’s treatment of homosexuality: through careful study of the Qur’an and the sources of Islamic law, Whitaker finds little real basis in the sources of Islamic jurisprudence for homophobia in the Middle East today.

Unspeakable Love deals admirably with a subject that still hardly dares speak its name in the Arab world, and should be required reading not just for those interested in LGBT rights, but even in human rights in the Middle East at large.  

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