Whitaker, Brian, “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.” University of California Press, 2006.
“Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. I suppose one of the reasons I found it so fascinating is because I spent so many years of my life in that section of the world. Brian Whitaker has dome an admirable job in collecting research for this book which reads quickly and says much.
At this time in the mind of America, the Arabs have gained a new minority status, especially because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Arab world has always been one of mystery to the Western man. Information on homosexuality there has always been shrouded from us Whitaker opens the door on that part of the world and lets us look inside of those countries that consider being gay a major crime, not just against humanity but against the Moslem religion It has always been a taboo subject in Arab countries. The press, when it does write about it, calls homosexuality “shameless and Moslems say it is “heinous”. In a world where diversity has finally begun to come into its own, the Arab countries are moving the other way.
What gave Whitaker the “inspiration” to write “Unspeakable Love” was the now famous incident in 2001 when Egyptian police raided a boat on the Nile River and arrested many men. Both the arrest and the ensuing trials caused many lives to be ruined and attracted worldwide attention. Shortly afterwards, Whitaker met two of the men who had been closely involved in the case and what began as a feature article grew into this wonderful book. The incidents of the boat raid and arrests and imprisonments raised the issue of homosexuality in the entire Arab world. Quite naturally it would have been impossible to cover all of the twenty-two countries of the Arab League so Whitaker has concentrated on the issues that are common to all of the countries. The basic problem is that the Arab nations do not even acknowledge that homosexuality even exists today. In the past, homosexuality was by and large ignored or people looked the other way but this is still intolerance. If a person’s sexuality departs what is considered the “norm”, he can have no legal rights and is forced to live a secret life, constantly afraid of discovery and blackmail. The fact that sexual issues in the Arab world become a part of international politics makes the situation even more difficult and is regarded as a barrier to social progress. Because sexuality is not regarded rationally except as a means for procreation, reform and open discussion are impossible. Worst of all is that there is pessimism among the Arab gay men and women that there is any change in the offing. It is a dismal conclusion but unfortunately this is what the author was able to surmise from the research that he did.
Whitaker seems to express some hope that things will change however. It also appears that tradition and family honor are the major issues that stand in the way of acceptance of gays in the Arab world. I must Say that the book held me captive as I turned the pages. I have known “gay” Arabs—basically Palestinians—and I have heard their stories. Again, I was amazed at how brutal man can be because of what he does not understand. Whitaker’s details are both accurate and highly disturbing but his book does give us a good deal of insight into the nature of social pressure as well as the sense of being alone that Arab homosexuals feel. If you are interested in reform, this is an ideal book to read. The Arab nations that wish to move forward into the modern world must realize that the enslavement of any singular group is inhumane and modernity can only come with enlightenment. Anxiety, fear and trauma are what should be the taboos, not men loving men and women loving women.