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Unveiling Gay Meknes

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 2:22 PM  RssIcon

 Unveiling Gay Meknes, Morocco by Curtis Valasek

As soon as I decided to study abroad in Morocco, I began my preliminary research into the sexual atmosphere of the country since I was (and still am) a gay male entering a Muslim country. Ignorance surely bred fear during those eight months of mental preparation for my mere four month trip, but fear also served as my great motivator. I read many a document that stated and re-iterated the cultural and deep-set religious antipathy toward homosexuality, yet at the same time I discovered an equal amount of documents that mentioned an underground gay culture or, at least, an undertone of homoerotic tension. I found even more testimonials of the strenuous life LGBT individuals face daily in their balancing act of Islam and cultural mores with inner-desires, especially those of love. Essentially, I had decided that my trip to Morocco would be a very celibate and careful one of religious and cultural exploration; one where I would simply observe and only participate when invited to do so without making a complete fool of myself. My earliest thoughts about these months in Meknès, Morocco can be summed up by a conversation I had on the bus ride from Malaga to Granada, Spain during my orientation week. My bus partner, [Shaina], countered all my doubtful caution by stating simply: “And maybe Morocco will surprise you and we’re all wrong.”
          Well, let her words be an example of foreshadow, because if having a Moroccan boyfriend doesn’t negate all my previous ideas and fulfill her prophecy, then I don’t know what would. Now, the route to having a Moroccan boyfriend didn’t really come upon me in any way I would have thought it could during my months of planning for the trip; truly, the boyfriend development happened by surprise, as [Shaina] had said. Starting in Granada, I made it very clear to the twenty-two other Americans in my group that I was the “token gay” member when I suggested a gay Granada bar crawl on the third night there; not really a slow revelation of my homosexuality, as I had planned to attempt. Yet, their positive reception of this information truly helped me open up to them as group members and it also allowed me to express my concern about my overtly gay nature in Morocco, since I was then still fearful. My arrival in Morocco during the month of Ramadhan and my own personal choice to forgo all alcohol while in Morocco made the first twenty days of my Moroccan life quite sobering (especially since I had just turned twenty-one only three months before leaving). Even during these religiously strict days, when one fasts and prays fervently from sun up to sun down, I began to notice the ever-alluded to hypocrisies of the Arab world as the sun set each night. While during a typical Moroccan day the city life begins at ten in the morning and goes until eight or nine at night, during a Ramadhan night the city life begins at eight or nine and goes until one or two in the morning. This city life includes café outings centered around hookahs, festivals with rides, elaborate public story-telling, and free national concerts where rumors of the Kings arrival travel the auditorium. Also, blatantly visible during these nights of liberation and indulgence is Moroccan prostitution, both straight and gay, and I can count three incidences of male propositions to me during this holy month for the Muslim faith.
As the group noticed these contradicting ideas and lifestyles, we started to really read up on what other Moroccan visitors have said about the country that has become our new home. The well-known American expatriate author Paul Bowles provided the first written accounts concerning Moroccan hidden sexuality in his semi-autobiographical book The Sheltering Sky, and many sociologists, anthropologists, and academic researchers have followed his pioneering into the Arab world’s homoerotic tendencies. Collectively, they state that men-who-have-sex-with-men exist all throughout the society and documentation has shown that is has done so since the Roman period here, which I saw with my own eyes at the nearby ruins of Volubilis. Male-to-male prostitution also runs rampant, so much so that the southern cultural capital of Marrekech has earned a “red-light district” name among gay travel guides. No reading material, though, could mentally prepare me for the world I entered when I fabricated a research project about Moroccan single living to my Meknèssi hair stylist, [Nachid].
[Nachid] works a salon that serves both men and women (a very rare thing in Moroccan culture) and he voluntarily told me while he was giving me a pedicure (yes, I really am that gay) that he lives alone at age thirty-eight. Unless you live here or you know the intricacies of Muslim families, you don’t know how rare and bizarre it is to find a single individual over age thirty. My intrigue got of me, so I arranged a massage the following week followed by an interview for this “project” that I had to do for my thesis back in the States. He was overjoyed at the opportunity to talk about himself and be alone with me. So, after one of the best hour-long massages I might have ever had (take your minds out of the gutter) he took me on a tour of “gay” Meknès. Since this eye-opening excursion around the city I thought I already knew, I have met seven self-proclaimed gay individuals and have seen many a male friend with these Moroccan men “like us”; my count rests so far at fifteen. Allah has gone so far as to even bless me with a secret Moroccan boyfriend, [Tufiq], who I met at the American center’s Halloween party, but is also my university barista’s brother.
In a word, I attach Moroccan homosexuality to the concept of the hijab, or veil. This concept pertains originally to the religious situation women face in Morocco and the greater Muslim world in covering their hair and even possibly their face. Metaphorically, Moroccan gay men also veil and compartmentalize all this “private” life in order to protect themselves from societal harassment, just how women do the same in this culture. To the contrary, the present Moroccan culture doesn’t have a space for such an anomaly as a “gay” man or woman, so therefore it ignorantly imposes marriage on all members of society. One example, while all those who know [Nachid] personally know also that he has many male friends who frequently stay over night at his one-bedroom house, no one would assume automatically that he is gay just from the fact that he is a hair stylist, since most hair stylists in Morocco are also married men with children. Likewise, [Nachid’s] most frequent friend, [Ismail], is a married teacher of Classical Arabic with one child and [Ismail] has told me that his wife has no idea he also sleeps with [Nachid], who comes to dinner or tea from time to time at the family home.
Other experiences so far have raised my awareness of an interesting paradox in the thinking of most of the gay men I’ve met here: they still think their “lifestyle” is haram, or sin. I’ve had some disjointed conversations about gay sax here that slip into religious discussions, but quickly make a break from one or the other topic; they cannot mentally mix the two. Even when I directly asked one “undercover” Meknèssi, [Rahim], how he reconciles his life with his religion, he cut me off and said that we can only discuss Allah or “us,” but not both. The consensus among them favors separate lives either with or without a “cover-up” marriage and even my boyfriend here, [Tufiq], wants no one to know about us until he comes to the United States, which in all reality might be never. In fact, speaking of the future and my gay life in the America both excite and pain him. He has so much hope for a better life with more understanding and less daily stress that the often-disappointing wait for a visa leaves him all the more envious of the rainbow streets of gold I unintentionally paint for him. Still, when tell of my wish for his sister’s eventual acceptance of his sexuality he cannot fathom the idea and says that once he comes to America, he would have to stop communicating with his family due to their questions about his would-be lifestyle here.
Now, I cannot say that I am ignorant of having a hidden lifestyle, since my own religious parents cannot yet fully accept that their son will one day marry a husband, but I have had many a conversation with them about my sexuality. To the contrary, in Morocco, even the mention of the desire to marry during family gatherings receives the cultural taboo of hushuma, or public shame, despite that it is a tradition blessed by the Qur’an. Many a gay Moroccan will continue to live in the shadows of this society, in their secret bars and cafes, at their private parties, and using their hidden language of hook-ups and gossip. Many a gay Moroccan will marry and have children, but inshaa’allah (God willing) their second lives will never surface and receive the same consequences as the Queen Boat incident in Alexandria in 2006, where over seventy men in drag were sentenced to lashes and jail time without a fair trial. After all, Moroccan law has no provisionary rights to protect homosexuals; instead it has a law that punishes homosexual acts with hefty fines or up to ten years in prison.
Don’t think that this will remain the status quo, though. The advent of satellite television (with such channels as MTV Arabia, which also sponsors LOGO), the growth of internet use (even the production of Arab gay pornography), and the arrival of visitors like myself (no, I’m not first) will force the culture to evolve accordingly to incorporate the growing need for an LGBT voice in this westernized Arab country. Gays here also have their ever-faithful harem of gay-loving women, too, who would support a proud community in a moment. Eventually, the religious voices will also diversify as the Christian voice has done so in the western world. Already, this has been witnessed in such films as “The Bubble,” “The Beirut Appartment,” and Shavez Parma’s documentary “A Jihad for Love.” What started as a chance interview with the key to the gays of Meknès has unveiled to me this secretly vibrant life in Morocco. “I was blind, but now I see!”


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