My Gay Adventures in the Middle East


It was one of those balmy Beirut summer evenings, the smell of Nargila smoke mingling intoxicatingly with the car fumes along the corniche, I had strolled alone as I almost always do when visiting the dysfunctional Lebanese capital.

My evening amble had started in romantic enough fashion around the spot that, on Valentine’s Day 2007 the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was blown to kingdom come in a truck bomb explosion that had left little to chance.Rafic had been known as Mr. Lebanon and not because he had won a pageant like beauty contest wearing skinny gold shorts, alas, but because he pretty much owned Lebanon, and, as is very well known, Lebanon cannot be owned by a Lebanese.

As is my good fortune I had also walked this very same route that year only a couple of weeks prior to the assassination and again shortly after, debris and blast damage not looking nearly as out of place in the scarred urban landscape as it should.

This walk is always one of pondering my past visits and while I have never lived in the city I have been a frequent visitor since the early nineties, so much has changed and yet so much never seems to in Beirut. I pass the military beach club where a few hours after arriving on my first ever visit soldiers surrounded me screaming, I carefully made it clear they really needn’t get so excited I was only pointing my camera through the broken chain link fence at the privileged surrounded by the poverty, a Syrian tank barrel poked ominously from between billboards advertising Cross Fire walking boots on the other side of the street, my art and irony lost on these guys but they cleverly figured I was not much of a threat and let me go and I mosey along past the Luna tic Park where the fabulous Ferris wheel has defied all logic and survived, no doubt those rusting bucket seats can tell some stories.

As I cast a flirtatious glance at Dalieh, Beirut’s last remaining virgin, a slab of rock anxiously waiting to be violated by the money hungry property developers, a softly spoken man with neatly trimmed beard sidles up beside me and says hello, you know how much they cost he said without waiting for me to reply to his friendliness, pointing across the traffic clogged street at the empty apartment block, nope I said and so he told me, we walked and talked, chit chat as is not entirely uncommon in the Middle East, we soon tired of the Beirut property scene and seamlessly segwayed  into the Beirut cruising scene.

Dalieh and the Pigeon Rocks

I am Arab, Muslim and gay he announced, you cannot believe how complicated my life is. I said I can almost imagine, he lived a lie needless to say and shared some of his frustrations, we took a seat on a park bench and drank tea from disposable plastic cups, there was some pinkness now creeping into the sky above the filthy Mediterranean seascape, you’re not gay are you he said, nope I said, hmm he replied and perhaps a little disappointed I would like to believe, the trouble with you British he said, now the trouble with the British is a conversation I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine,  (or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.

Hmm now this was not exactly what I expected but it did give me pause for thought, and no, not really about the gender and sexuality roles gently forced upon me by my conservative British upbringing but about a previous encounter some years earlier the sordid details of which I will go into with another post in the future.

I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.

More from my time in Syria here: Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal

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25 thoughts on “My Gay Adventures in the Middle East

  1. It seems sexuality is all smoke and mirrors in much of the Middle East. During all the years I visited and lived in Turkey, I was constantly bewildered by the ambiguity. So I never played the game because I never understood the rules.

  2. I ended up Googling the “Dahlieh in Beirut” and what an interesting thing to learn. That illegal privatization and development can actually take place and so rampantly. A huge difference, to my way of thinking, from what happens in the states. Though, with the recent scandal over Standing Rock and the protest over the Dakota pipeline suggests that we aren’t above our own ‘legalized’ theft problems.

  3. @Kirizar — People the world over face the same restraints and differences; In the USA, it’s just less obvious in some ways. On the other hand, there is still sufficient freedom in America to cherish, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else with the same ease of mind I enjoy here.
    Interesting thoughts on this blog for open discussion, John…

  4. AirGap Anonymity Collective

    Reblogged this on AirGap Anonymity Collective and commented:
    You’re not gay are you he said. Nope I said. “Hmm” he replied. The trouble with you British he said (now the trouble with the British is a conversation that I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.

  5. AirGap Anonymity Collective

    That’s a great story mate … I paraphrased an element of it for the reblog, is that ok?

    You’re not gay are you he said. Nope I said. “Hmm” he replied. The trouble with you British he said (now the trouble with the British is a conversation that I have more frequently in the Middle East than you can possibly imagine or maybe you can) the trouble with you British is when you say you are not gay, you are not gay.

    and the tweet etc ….

    “”The trouble with you #British is when you say you are not #gay, you are not gay” via @JohnWreford #Beirut #Lebanon


  6. I lived in the Arabian Gulf for 8 years and found sexual orientation among Arab males to be very fluid, as they often used the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the term ‘bisexual’ was yet another idea forced on them by a Western culture that’s obsessed with labeling all behavior in order to maintain control and isolate folks. Men in Arab cultures seem to enjoy the freedom to walk a quite flexible path due to the fact that they are mostly free to go out and sow their wild oats while the women are kept at home with the younger children. Since Arab men aren’t allowed to mix with women who aren’t related, they are, to some extent, forced to share each other’s companionship and the comfort that comes from the familiar. It’s a fascinating part of the world!

  7. John, I love your stories and images. I have never been to the Middle East or Eastern Europe, but your photos make me fell at home in a way. Your street scenes remind me of the Lower East Side, New York City, where I lived in the late-80s as a squatter. People referred to anything below Avenue A as a war zone, with so many empty and half-burned, gutted out buildings – occupied by artists and activists and musicians and junkies. It was an adventure to be sure, and the lifestyle felt loaded with purpose and danger and aliveness and connection. No matter where I am since that time, I have always had an affinity for those places that are gritty and on the edge, the places people do not want to see, where subcultures thrive in the cracks. Thank you so much for your beautiful work and the deep humanity it reflects.

    1. Thank you Holly for such beautiful words. I guess some of us are just drawn to some places. Its a long way to travel but I hope one day you get the chance to discover some places in my neck of the woods, I may dwell on some of the seedier aspects but its not all doom and gloom! I would love to read and see images of those days in the Lower East Side. That said you share some wonderful images of Arizona and bring a smile to my face on a regular basis. Thank you so much.

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