Behind the scenes: LGBT Characters in Middle Eastern Literature
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It’s painful and in some cases even dangerous being gay in the Arab world. Maintaining socio-cultural norms and keeping up appearances in public is of utmost importance. The result is that Arab and Muslim societies are for the most part LGBT-phobic. But homosexuality and its history in the Arab and Muslim world has been far from a straightforward issue—though it becomes, of course, a straightforward issue when it results in persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, and even execution.
Historically, Arabic-Islamic cultures have sometimes celebrated homosexuality, and there are sources documenting this, as shown in the scholar Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800. Gay men fleeing persecution in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries often ended up in Morocco, and in the 20th century Tangiers became a destination for gay and bisexual men, many of whom were writers, such as André Gide, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Paul Bowles, Joe Orton, and Gore Vidal.
More recently, governments have used morality as an excuse to persecute gays in order to appease growing Islamist movements, but often it is the attitude of families and society at large that is the most difficult hurdle for gay people to deal with, writes Brian Whitaker in a recent article in the Guardian. At the same time, the Lebanese LGBT organization Helem, the first of its kind in the Arab region, is more than 15 years old, and the first gay pride event was held in Beirut in 2017.
In literature from the greater Middle East, gay characters have had varying degrees of presence. They're increasingly making appearances in contemporary literature. This reading list offers a few examples of non-fiction books for historical and sociological context and a round-up, by no means exhaustive—feel free to add other examples in the comments section—of novels with gay people as main characters, or in the periphery.
Banner image courtesy Helem