My Gay Adventures in the Middle East

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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.

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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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Yasmine Hamdan: Beirut Punk

Yasmine Hamdan: Beirut Punk

Sitting with Yasmine Hamdan on the stairs at the entrance to an Istanbul jazz club, it’s a cold winter Sunday and the last rays of sun are slipping through the glass of the door, Yasmine is performing later that evening and her band are sound checking inside, we chat about Beirut and Damascus, cities tied by so many threads, one who’s heart was not so long ago broken and one who’s heart is currently being broken, without doubt Yasmine is one of my favorite Arabic singers and has recently appeared in the new Jim Jarmusch film, far and away the coolest living director, that and the fact the film is set in Tangiers should be the subject of our conversation but sadly it’s the tragedy in Syria that keeps us occupied, I take a few pictures, I can’t help thinking there’s a melancholy in her eyes that’s perhaps not related to the conversation, either way the mood is soon lifted and we head into the sound check.
The women of the Middle East get a pretty bad press one way or another but to me Yasmine seems very familiar, feisty, opinionated and independent and reminds me of many of my friends although her talent is clearly above and beyond, yet on stage her rapport with the audience seems a little on the shy side but once singing she is heart stopping and like those she admires is prepared to go against the grain, from Asmahan the Syrian Druze who dared to challenge Umm Kulthum for the divaship of the Arabic world in the 1940’s to Radiohead, her music often hypnotic and a voice smoky as Arghileh charcoal but at heart she is a Beirut punk and she is what the Middle East is all about, not a bit like you think it is.