“Our struggle is about more than sexuality”

Sometimes freelance journalism is just failure. This interview was recorded already in early August 2013 in Books@, the only openly gay café in Amman. Malia*, the blogger behind Mind the Pause met up with me to talk about her life as a lesbian women in Jordan. I still remember that she was one of two women with short hair that I have seen during all my stay in the Middle East. Ramadan is on. She orders a beer and lights a cigarette. Bad-ass woman. The interview went down fine, only problem: I lost the tape.

What followed were months of enquiry, desperate search and the attempt to re-do it over Skype (which gloriously failed). Everything just to realize now – 12 weeks later – that I had a complete handwritten transcript of it. The analog world wins.

 

What did it mean for you to come out in the Jordanian society?

It was much harder to come out at the time I did it, almost 15 years before. Since I am out socially and I never lost anyone. The first person I cam out to was my cousin, but generally people that I told never had a problem with it. Today I am still careful about it. It is more the gay men I know who have problems, especially when they display a certain feminine attitude. 15 years before the whole scene here in Amman was very small, we talk about a group of maybe 20 people. By now it is more usual that people come out to their peers and the scene became larger. It is a bubble as long as you’re in, it is able to protect you from the outside world.

Where do you find partners, when homosexuality is such a taboo?

It is easier for gay men to find sexual partners than for lesbians. Simply due to the fact that womenare living with their parents most of the time and therefore face restrictions. Usually he internet is a place for lesbians to meet and get to know new people. Or mutual partners meet as friends of friends. On the other hand it is much more accepted for women to stay non-married in contrast to men. Nobody gets very suspicious about a single women, which makes it again easier for lesbians to deal with their sexuality in daily life.

How is the legal situation for homosexuals?

Here in Jordan we do not have a law that prohibits gay and lesbian sex. That means, it is not illegal but not legal as well. The LGBTI scene in Jordan exists in a legal grey zone. Transsexuals in particular still face a lot of discrimination being considered as satanic. A common prejudice against lesbians is that social circumstances influenced us to be the way we are, that we can be turned around. Personally I do not feel a need for justification. I am just who I am. Being homosexual is not a choice but a part of human sexuality.

Would you recommend young people to come out in the Jordanian society today?

I think that people should come out to their friends and family. Someone you love will most likely understand and support you. Personally I never lost anyone because they knew about my sexuality. This is very different for women than it is for men. Men usually face more obstacles meeting with a partner in private. All stories of violence against homosexuals that I hear are mostly men. On the other hand a big obstacle of empowering young lesbians is that we – unlike the gay scene – have no public role models. But then again both gays and lesbians have a total lack of support groups. This might be the biggest challenge up to date: Not having a political movement for the rights of LGBTI issues. Unfortunately I cannot say that the past generation paved the way. I ask myself, what have I done to enable the younger generation in their struggle for rights?

You are exclusively engaged in the internet blogging on “Mind the Pause”. How important is new media for the LGBTI scene in a restricted society like the Jordanian one?

I think that the internet made a great difference for gay communities all over the world. But here it had a greater impact. People learn about their sexuality on the web, they discuss their identity in the virtual sphere before they talk to anyone in the real world. Speaking of myself I try to promote open conversations on my blog as well as personal thoughts. It is a place for the scene to engage in discussion but also an outlet for my private reflections.

The Ammani gay scene is lately getting very vibrant, speaking of gay parties and a gay magazine. Why seem Jordanian lesbians so little involved?

There is hardly something in Amman that one could call a truly lesbian scene. Everything that happens, takes place within small social circles. Of course lesbian parties exists but we are way more careful than men. Honestly, I believe the lesbian scene – if you want to call it like that – is very boring (laughs). We have an advantage which consists of society being more in favour of lesbians than of gays. They like us more because we are the “smaller threat” to social norms. We are maybe just better in hiding.

Do you feel you get enough support from women’s rights movements?

Of course women’s rights and the aims of the lesbian scene are very much linked. One reason of carrying out an “honour” killing might be the homosexuality of a girl. Another problem that women’s rights activist tackle and that influences lesbians massively is the law that women need to have a male guard until the age of thirty. Of course you cannot go out by yourself and meet your girlfriend like this. But it limits the freedom of all women, not only lesbians. In theory the feminist movement should support us. What I see here in Jordan is that only young women are doing so. Old feminist do not even know the right of their own body, so how can they take a stand for mine? This society is still very enclosed even if secular and liberal voices are existing. I believe that on the long run they will have an impact.

What do you think of movements such as Femen who strongly engage in the discussion of women’s rights in the Middle East?

Femen should be more responsible about what message they deliver to young feminists in other places. Here in the Arab World some kind of protests can become very dangerous for the participants. If they are still promoted to be a valid tool, I believe that Femen is acting very selfish and irresponsible. We have to find our own way here.

What would be the way you choose?

For me social change through art, music and education is better than angry activism. Also I do not like having a prioritising and enclosing agenda. We have to fight for individual and personal freedom in our society. We have to fight religion being so much implemented in social relations. It is not only about our concerns as lesbians, there is much more to it. We do not even have access to sexual education, how can we talk about educating people about homosexuality? I do not subscribe my struggle to my sexuality only and would not feel right in an organization that only serves gay and lesbian rights. The approach in changing our surrounding has to be more global. Regardless to that I strongly favour a support group for people who just came out. Having an organization like this would be very important for people.

How do you feel is the current attitude today towards more openness in Jordanian society?

I am not sure. Even in liberal places homosexual affection is widely considered as “public displayed indecency”. We had some busts in the recent months where people in bars, such as this one, where put up to 48 hours in jail. There was this gay bar right in front of a police station that hosted transvestite shows. You can imagine what a cultural shock this produced. It was shut down in 2007 and nothing new has come up since. Like I told you before, I never experienced aggression against me because of my sexuality, but there are of course reports of homosexual people getting harassed by police and by peer groups. Our struggle for more rights is not a public one so far. We have to take little steps.

* Name changed by the author

Rainbow in the Desert II – Feature in Männer Magazine

Finally the feature I did about the Jordanian gay scene is available online. It appeared as a print version in last month Männer Magazine. The photographer that collaborated in this project is the American photojournalist Aliza Zaira Reznick. You can read the whole piece (in German) as a PDF file by clicking on the link below. Make sure to check out the photos even if you cannot understand a single word, since I believe the work Alisa did is very much worth seeing.

M2013_09_Screen_Jordanien

Future reflections – A Rainbow in the Desert

What is it like to be gay in Amman? Together with the American photographer Alisa Reznick I tried to find an answer. We encountered four gay men, talked about the scene and their personal experiences of being gay in a conservative and religious country like Jordan.  The feature will be published in the next edition of Männer Magazin. For now you can already follow up on the interview of one of the main figures of the Ammani gay scene: Khalid, editor-in-chief of the only gay magazine in the Arab Middle East. A conversation about controversial bombs, coming outs and coexistance.

How would you like Jordanian people to perceive the gay community in Amman?

“Many people in the Middle East or the region look at gay people as sex addicts, drug addicts or party goers. Every part is true but not in that extreme sense. So for us as a gay magazine it is very tricky to leave a good impression. We try this is by simply doing a good job. When one sees the magazine, one sees creativity and work. And if you see good work that helps you get over your negative stereotypes: ”Yes, he’s gay but he’s producing really good photographs” or “they produce good articles”. People have to perceive us as educated, empowering and inspiring. I would love for people when they see the team’s work to be inspired.”

What position does Kali.Mag take in the scene?

Our community certainly is very much involved with the magazine. Everybody has his or her own share in it. If someone wants to write something, or tell their opinion they can easily do that – either personally or via email. The magazine tries to shy away from the negative image [of the gay community] and tries to set a new positive image.

With the magazine you’re constantly touching controversial issues? How is this important?

Being in the Middle East everything can be controversial. Because we’re not linked to politics, religion or even certain people sponsoring us we’re not restrained by anything. This is why we’re controversial, simply because it is very easy to be controversial in this country. The more we’re pushing the more people see us as empowering. No one saw a woman in Abdali wearing revealing clothes. So once we did it people saw that it is possible. They might start thinking that Amman might be an open minded city. This is what people want to fight. Our aim of being different, which is really not controversial, it’s just usual things that could be perceived more than normal in Europe or the US.

Did you every had difficulties because of being perceived so controversial?

This is our sixth year for the magazine. Five years before we did not have an office, or photographers, or writers. We had a small blog, very unprofessional , very immature work. [….] The difficulties we’re at the beginning when the magazine was coming out being titled as the first gay magazine in the Middle East. That was a huge title to put on a small immature magazine. We needed to raise up to that title. But at the beginning we did not write that much intense articles, that were that controversial.

Once the magazine started to grow big and gain more readers the responsibility comes. You have to be very careful in the words that you say, the topics you write about, the delicate things you put out there. But it is not taboo it is fun. It’s fun to mess with a very sensitive country. It makes it worth it. There is some sort of a pleasure of looking at the reaction. Like a controversial bomb. You’re throwing something and see people from afar how they’re reacting to it. But we realized that the more we push, the less people actually do anything. They just say this is too controversial for this country, but nothing happens. I think pushing taboos is a step ahead to break from boundaries. We can’t be prohibited. We have to be free for those who can’t be free. As a reader you want to dream when you open up a magazine. This is why you’re buying it. We try to make it look easier to be gay in Jordan. So that those who are not free can dream or feel that there’s hope for them too. It’s all about hope in the end.”

Kali.Mag is also covering a large scale of social topics that are under covered in the Jordanian media landscape, for example gentrification. How does that match the magazines aim?

“My.Kali is a gay magazine but the magazine started to appeal to non-gay people so we needed to meet that standard as well. Besides we ourselves also got tired about only focusing on gay related topics. It is for important for gay people to learn about something else than their own problems. They can read about LGBT related topics as well as social related issues that erupt around, like class and socio-economic issues. I get very bored from politics, but know that I know that I can put politics and social issues into photography and art I started to pay attention to those. We’re trying to make people read not gay related issues through artistic approaches and not to be centred around only gay related issues. Variety is always a plus.”

Who are your readers? How do keep up with them?

“I learn about who my readers through mails. A lot of people in Jordan do not like MyKali on Facebook, because the do not want to be outed in public. For those we have the possibility to keep up with what we do via email newsletters. The emails that we receive from abroad come from a big variety of countries, like Brazil, North America, Europe, Africa, India. They magazine also appeals to non-Middle Eastern readers.”

Do you wish that MyKali would go print?

“One part of the magazines identity is that is was online. I would love it if it is printed. I collect Vogue magazines for my whole life, I do not like flipping through magazines online. But I started to think that if a guy would buy MyKali and his brother or mother would find it he would instantly be outed. He would have had to hide it and I don’t want people to hide my magazine. It would be very impractical for gay people here if the magazine would be printed. The last that my magazine wants to do is outing people. It’s like if you’re owning porn. If you own a porn magazine that can be a shameful thing in the Middle East. Or if a guy has a fashion magazine, he will really easily be considered gay. We do not want people to judge our readers because of the magazine. It has to be the other way around. The magazines should be judged by it’s readers. We’re the once who are there for them. We do not want our readers to be in a ‘hot seat’.”

You are one of two publicly known gay men in Jordan. How did you come out and what was your experience of it?

“I never intended it to happen. It all happened by coincidence. It is a great feeling that you’re unique in that sense. But as a person you could loose focus on yourself, because you have to be that gay thing for people. I can’t be that gay thing all the time. It’s an image at the end. It is the magazine that they want to know about so I am trying to shy away as the editor and being myself as well. But it’s really a good feeling. I do not know if people hate me or like me. But what I know is that they appreciate the work that I do and this is the important thing. I do not want them to appreciate me, but my work. This is what I love knowing in the end that the magazine helps the readers. To be the editor-in-chief of the only gay magazine is a huge title to hold in the Middle East. You could easily be slaid for that title. But in Jordan it does not happen, because if I feel like I am safe.”

How did people in your direct environment react to your homosexuality?

“I came out in 2007, when me and my friend wanted to host a party. We did a small magazine to give away but nobody wanted to be on the cover. I put myself on the cover along with the work and writings of my friends. We put a small website with only the cover and the ticket. So that the people who were coming to that party would leave with the magazine as a gift. We sold tickets to people from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon who were coming out specially for this party. Two days before the launch of the party an English/Arabic online newspaper ran a huge article that said: “Revolution of the Homosexuals in Jordan”. As a photo they showed me on the cover of the magazine. That was the very first article in Jordan to be published about the LGTBI scene in Amman. The media never discussed that topic before. It was copied multiple times by tons of other newspapers and magazines. For me that became very intense because instantly I was outed which I never intended myself. I had to come out to my parents, my brothers and it was very difficult at the beginning. But then the magazine rose and we used that publicity to start our work. Luckily I never lost family but gained family by coming out.

I had another incident last year, when I was doing a photo shoot for an American magazine. It was not meant to be published or seen in Jordan because I knew that would be hard. Still somehow it was circulated at the university were I studied. This was a very intense time for me, because all my professors saw me in a swimsuit playing with a Barbie in heels, wearing a beard. Since I am a very visual person, I kept going through the interview and images, trying to understand how they will see me. It’s not very pleasant to see your half-nude pictures being looked at from your professors who are very conservative, wearing hijab. ”

Were do you see the Jordanian gay scene in 5 years?

“I wish for an organisation and more support from the public. But I do not see gay marriage and equality in that sense, because that would be pushing the boundaries to much, leading to a negative situation rather than a positive situation. People are getting more liberated in who they are, but I do not see serious development at the moment. Let’s not talk about the gay community but about Jordan in general: Jordan is very reluctant to change. The revolutions around the Middle East are happening because the people aim for change, while the people here are very comfortable with the way that things are. I can not talk on every ones behalf but I feel like people do not want things to escalate to a worse situation. Amman is a booming city, it’s growing very fast, it’s becoming something very fast. People try to keep up with their life here. If something sever happens, the country could go down very quickly. And same things with the gay people. They are comfortable with the way that things are. At first they were hating me for what I was doing, saying: “You’re outing us, you are labelling us, you’re letting people knowing about our lives.” Afterwards they start to understand and support the magazine. For know as they, I do not aim for big changes. Everybody is happy, everybody is safe. There are straight places, there are gay places, there are common places. We coexist and do not need to exploit the situation.”

The Art of Raising Hell

Nine quares metres full of noise. This is what a practice of the trash metal band Exile looks like. Hidden in a small garage somewhere in Webdeh the Jordanian metal scene is fairly alive.

Almost ten people gather in the little space between drumset, guitar amps and microphone stand. Nader Natsheh screams. His fingers slide over the fretboard of the guitar, moving faster than one can follow with the eyes.

Natsheh is the singer of one of the rare trash metal bands in Amman. Jordan is known to have a large underground metal scene but some subgenres, notably black metal, are still prohibited.

The alleged link with satanism does not go well with the religious ideas of the society. Showing off your Gorgoroth shirt might get you in jail – in case the police officer has a clue about was he is actually looking at.

The fear and misperception of metal is hard to keep up, when one watches the band performing. If they worshipped anyone it would be more likely the guitar brand Ibanez than satan.

„Most people do not understand this music“, a friend of the band says. „They think it is just noise.“

Metal instead is complex in both composing and playing. To perform certain classical metals riffs similar techniques like in jazz music are required.

Most of the band members played in metal bands for a great part of their lifes and feel inspired by famous European metal bands. If they would not have told, one could easily read it off their bandshirts.

Another band regularly practicing in the music garage is Asylum. So far they are the only trash metal band in Jordan featuring a female band member. The lady at the drums proofes that no man is needed for the double bass that makes walls shake.

Double bass is a technique that produces machine-gun like layers of sound. It requires great accurency in rhythm and stamina in holding a constant tempo.

During a break, the musicians gather in front of the little garage. Being asked how the metal scene in Jordan is doing, they answer: „There is no scene. Playing this music in public is prohibited. You can play a show in a small venue but never on an open air stage.“

„We perfomed live only three times“, tells Natsheh. Only one of the shows took place in Jordan, while the others were in Egypt and Turkey.

Compared to earlier years they see a greater acceptance of metal music and fans evolving. „Some years before you could not walk the streets looking like this“, tells one of them, pointing at his chest. „Now people get more used to it.“

Aliens mit Brüsten

Mit neunzehn Jahren hatte Abdallah* eine Begegnung dritter Art. Er stieß auf etwas, von dem er zwar gehört hatte, das er aber nicht verstand. Es war fremd, unanständig und es machte ihm Angst. Statt im Kornkreis fand die Begegnung auf dem harmlosen Weg zur Universität statt. Der junge Abdallah* wollte sich zusammen mit einem Freund für das kommende Semester einschreiben. Die Universität war verdammt groß und Abdallah* ein Landei. Er fand den Weg nicht.

Da passierte es. Jemand kam auf ihn zu und fragte: „Brauchen Sie Hilfe?“ Abdallah* begann Blut und Wasser zu schwitzen. Er wusste nicht was er tun sollte. Vor lauter Schreck bekam er kein Wort heraus. Stammelte. Vor ihm stand etwas, mit dem er noch nie in seinem Leben gesprochen hatte: Eine fremde Frau.

Heute sitzt Abdallah* in einem Büro einer großen jordanischen Tageszeitung. Um ihn herum lächelt die Königsfamilie von den Wänden. Er trägt Sonnenbrille. Während er spricht drehen seine Hände unentwegt einen Bleistift im Kreis. „Ich bin in einer sehr strengen muslimischen Gemeinde erzogen worden, in der es nicht üblich war mit anderen Frauen, außer der eigen Mutter, Großmutter und den Schwestern Kontakt zu haben“, erklärt er. „Mädchen waren für mich etwas Abstraktes.“

Seine Hände ruhen für einen Moment an seinem Brillengestell. „Mit siebzehn bin ich dann in die Muslimbruderschaft eingetreten. Das war das einzige, was man als junger Mann außerhalb der Familie machen konnte.“ Leider ist die Bruderschaft nicht besonders berühmt für ihren hohen Frauenanteil. Während westliche Jugendliche sich mehr mit Kiffen und den Brüsten ihrer Mitschülerinnen beschäftigen, sah Abdallah* nur Bärte. „Erst nach der Universität lief alles ganz normal mit mir“, sagt er. „Ich habe geheiratet und Kinder bekommen. Ich bin nicht merkwürdig.“

Ein anderes Zimmer, eine andere Generation. Ghaith sitzt auf dem Sofa und trinkt Whisky. Er ist Anfang zwanzig und Jungfrau. Seine Freundin möchte vor der Ehe keinen Sex haben. Dabei ist sie keine besonders religöse Person, erklärt er. Aber der soziale Druck ist so groß, dass die beiden sich lieber fügen, als das Risiko einzugehen etwas „Unanständiges“ zu tun. Das eigene schlechte Gewissen gegenüber der Familie, der Gesellschaft ist offenbar weit mächtiger als der eigene Sexualtrieb. Wie ist das so, eine Beziehung ohne Sex? „Irgendwie leer. Der Beziehung fehlt etwas Wesentliches. Ich glaube, deshalb sind sie nicht so ehrlich“, sagt Ghaith und schaut betreten ins sein Whiskyglas.

Auch außerhalb vorehelicher Betten kann man es spüren: Die Geschlechter sind einander fremd. Gespräche zwischen jungen Frauen und Männern auf der Straße sind voll von Gekicher, verbaler Unsicherheit. Wo der Körper des anderen ein schmutziges Tabu ist, kann auch emotionale und intellektuelle Nähe schwerlich wachsen. Junge Männer und Frauen umkreisen einander wie verletzte Tiere, immer mit einer Armeslänge Abstand, um im Notfall schnell einen Rückzieher machen zu können. Es hat sich nicht viel getan seit Abdallah* seinem Alien mit Brüsten begegnet ist. Besonders die weibliche Sexualität kennt keine anderen Figuren als die der Heiligen und der Schlampe. Zugekleistert mit Scham, Entfremdung und Misstrauen erstickt somit auch jeder Versuch dem anderen Geschlecht auf Augenhöhe zu begegnen.

„Was wir brauchen ist eine sexuelle Revolution“, sagt Ghaith. Einen Befreiungsschlag. „Das hätte nicht nur den Effekt, dass wir dann alle Sex haben könnten. Es geht um das Recht in meinem Privatleben nicht das akzeptieren zu müssen, was das Kollektiv diktiert.“ Vögeln als Gesellschaftskritik.

*Name auf Wunsch des Betroffenen nachträglich geändert.

Football can change your life

The Syrian refugee crisis demonstrates the global separation of labour. While German engineers from THW build infrastructure and maintain the construction of the camps, Brazil plays football.

Yes, you read that right. Brazil is going to send a group of professional football coaches to teach kids how to improve their falling edge. Together with Save the Children, they start a longterm football workshop especially for boys who dropped out school. Saying that those kids only experienced violence and war, football can bring them back a piece of normality.

José Antonio Mostacato, coach coordinator for the project, said that football helped him step out of the miserable situation of living in Brazilian favelas or slums.

“Football changed my life,” he told me, adding that “the biggest stars came out of the worst situations”.

Read my full article here.

Vaterland

Stell dir vor du bist zehn Jahre alt. Du hast immer in Jordanien gelebt. Du sprichst den lokalen arabischen Dialekt. In Ägpten bist du nie gewesen. Aber du hast davon gehört, denn deine Freunde in der Schule nennen dich “den Ägypter”. Warum? Weil dein Vater Äygpter ist und du damit keinen Anspruch auf die jordanische Staatsbürgerschaft hast. Die kann nämlich nur von Männern auf Kinder und Ehefrauen übertragen werden. Dass deine Mutter Jordanierin ist spielt kein Rolle. Das kleine blaue Passbuch des haschemitischen Königreich ist für dich unerreichbar.

In der Vergangenheit habe ich bereits für die Jordan Times über diese Schieflage in der jordanischen Verfassung geschrieben, die es Frauen nicht zulässt ihre Nationalität weiterzugeben. Heute erschien nun ein ausführlicher Artikel von mir darüber in dieStandard. Zu lesen ist er hier.

Stories from Jordan and the Middle East