Story and photo by Laura Finaldi
AMMAN, Jordan – As the sun begins to set on Rainbow Street, a 28-year-old Ammani graphic designer checks his BlackBerry and tap tap taps on his computer from a seat at the end of the bar. Alone, he waits for friends and bides his time with tea and a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights.
At first glance, he fits into the culture at this café and club: Handsome and slim with shiny black hair, he’s wearing a neat, button-down shirt and trendy jeans. But he stands apart from his contemporaries in one significant way. He is willing to admit he’s gay in a place that does not, and will not, accept him.
“I’m always [at this bar] with my gay friends. Sometimes two of them are looking really gay, and if I see a family member I have to hide from them,” said the designer, who spoke on condition of not offering his name for fear of hostile and dangerous repercussions. “They will make troubles because everyone here likes to talk.
“I’m afraid,” he added – “always.”
While the topic of homosexuality is at least tolerated in Jordan above the whispers it’s relegated to elsewhere in the Middle East, being openly gay is not an option here. Cultural mores deem homosexuality abhorrent and unnatural. To live that way means existing in a sort of exile from the general population. To open up would be worse, dishonoring one’s family. Here, there is no greater offense.
“In Jordan, there is a very negative attitude towards homosexuality, and those who are [gay] are looked down upon,” said Musa Shteiwi, an expert on ethnic and minority relations in the Middle East at the University of Jordan. “I don’t think society is ready to accept the culture of homosexuality.”
Yet, there are at least subtle signs that things could be changing.
A 2012 book called “3aroos Amman” by Fadi Zaghmout involves a homosexual character who was driven to marry a woman despite being gay. He says younger people are buying the book in high numbers, and passing it around among each other. Jordan’s JO, a lifestyle and culture magazine that trumpets its “groundbreaking” and “fresh” approach, published an article in 2009 entitled “Sex in the City?” about the gay scene in more cosmopolitan Beirut. The second part of its headline reads: “OK, the ‘city’ isn’t New York this time – it’s Beirut. But the Paris of the Middle East is going through its own crisis of sexuality now – and Amman could well be next.”
To acknowledge the gay scene here, even in small mentions like these, is to begin to normalize it, experts say. But theory does not yet reflect reality: gays and lesbians in Jordan are still forced to exist off the grid.
“[The gay people] are very strict with who goes into that community and whether or not that new person is really gay or not or if they will get exposed or not,” said Ashraf Alqudah, a clinical psychologist at the University of Jordan. “They don’t want to be publicly exposed. The ramifications of that are huge. They can lose dignity, respect. They just can lose a lot.”
NOT A CRIME, BUT GAYS ARE TREATED AS CRIMINALS
No Jordanian law explicitly prohibits homosexuality. Offenders will not be thrown into jail for being gay. But to admit to homosexuality is to subject oneself, still, to public humiliation, beatings and even death by those who find it unnatural and in violation of the will of their god. Furthermore, because Jordan is an Islamic country, and Islam unequivocally views homosexuality as a sin, it is, by default, seen as a crime. Therefore, people who engage in the lifestyle have no choice but to keep it quiet. As a result, there are no available figures or data to suggest how large the population is, or how it might have changed over time.
“Many of the gay people are closeted. They have bad feelings in their heads” about what will happen to them, said Zaghmout, who wrote his novel with the hope that he could spark discussion about the acceptance of homosexuality. And while he admits things are getting looser for gays in Amman, he doesn’t believe much has changed beyond the borders of this capital city of 2.5 million. “I don’t know if it has evolved in other places than in Amman. More people are coming out, and more people are knowing about the issue, but not to the extent that they should.”
Others, such as Shteiwi, are seeing a shift – if only in one demographic here. “I think [the perception] might be changing among the upper class, especially those who have been educated about sexuality and gender,” he said.
In many cases, experts agree, the extent to which a person is accepted depends on his or her gender. In Jordan, men have more freedom than women. So if a male who comes out is rejected by society, he can escape Jordan, if necessary. But for women, the punishment is much more severe. Since even a heterosexual relationship in which sex is involved out of wedlock is not allowed for women, coming out as a lesbian is a particularly dangerous risk that could result in disfigurement and death.
“The closer to the culture the family is, the more likely the woman or the girl will be killed,” Alqudah said. “Killing is not an option in religion. But it is the first option in the culture. Most of the time [a lesbian] will just be imprisoned at home until she gets married.”
ThursGAY AND OTHER ATTEMPTS TO MEET UP
At Books@Cafe, a bar just off Rainbow Street near Amman’s first circle, men sit across from one another at small tables, sharing an arjelah – the Arabic version of hookah pipes.
Here, it is “OK to be gay,” said a waitress, earnestly.
But the 28-year-old graphic designer, still there with his smokes and drink, said that’s not always true.
As an alternative, he sometimes tries to come up with other places for him and his friends to express themselves safely. “At my place, every Thursday [we have a party]. It’s called ‘ThursGAY,’” he said. Usually about 10 people show up.
His friend, a 23-year-old male freelance makeup artist, hair stylist and costume designer who is also gay, said he, too, tries to be with others in the lifestyle. He meets people on networking sites such as Manjam, GayRomeo and Grindr to find people like him with the ultimate goal of coming together. To be with each other – either in the shrouded confidentiality of a private home, or in the anonymity of a chat room online – is to feel part of a community, which is a critical component of keeping one’s sanity in such a hostile place, they said.
“Mainly, there’s groups, or families. They take care of each other, they stand by each other, they help each other get hooked up,” the 23-year-old said.
He stopped speaking, though, interrupted by the entrance of a friend. The tall, thin man with a chopped trendy haircut, striped sweater and skinny jeans was apprised on the conversation, but showed no signs of wanting to participate.
“I’m not gay,” he said abruptly.
“Yeah, and your mom’s a virgin,” the graphic designer said. The two exchanged a giddy laugh and took sips from their cups of tea.