How can LGBTQ relationships work in the Middle East?

MyKali investigates how love can flourish in the face of homophobia and oppression.

Out Loud, 2011 — Rami and Ziad, closeted lovers in Lebanon who were caught kissing and are marked for 
death for having brought shame to their families. Watch trailer

By Mo. K.

It is mind-boggling when you are trapped and unable to define where you stand when it comes to relationships. Our gay communities are divided into several categories. The ones that I’ve taken a notice of are:

1: Those who have no beliefs or intentions toward a real relationship, letting fun take its toll.
2: Those who have set their gay clock to 30–30, intending to marry a woman and live the “normal life” (what a horrible phrase).
3: Those who stay celibate for spiritual and religious reasons.
4: Those who have been stung by the thorns of bumpy relationships and have stopped labelling any status that they’re in; in other words, stopped believing.
5: And those who keep going back to the dating cycle and never give up till they find what they’re looking for, and most importantly, what they believe in.

To many, especially in the Middle East, gay relationships are considered a no go. It’s an ongoing curse, living on recurring wonderings of how, where and when. It’s very easy to give up on relationships when there’s nothing to look up to, no footsteps to follow in and an environment that doesn’t offer support. It’s very easy to let go.

The geographic location is not exactly what determines the success of a relationship. We’ve learned to adapt with our societies and we’ve learned how to function in the system.

The idea for this article came emerged from my own turmoil: a relationship, of sorts, undefined but all-consuming, that had been giving me anxiety for the six months since its initiation as a date. Many of my friends in America interpreted the situation in a particular way. “You live in the Middle East, and you guys can’t hold hands and kiss in public,” they said. “Of course it won’t go anywhere or last.”

As that idea slowly sunk into my poor head, it drenched me with misery. But a ray of hope slowly crept into the dark corners of my mind and made me question that interpretation. I have met, known and befriended gay couples who have been together for a very long time. I decided I had to run my own investigation: to unlock the secrets to how these relationships work in a society like our own.

I interviewed six people who’ve been in relationships that are successful: the shortest standing at nine months and the longest seven years. I expected groundbreaking answers and secrets that could make a book called ‘How to have a healthy gay relationship in the Middle East.’ It wasn’t quite like that, but I still felt like struck gold: one step away to finding to recipe.

I can’t deny that we live in a homophobic and judgmental society, which creates many restrictions for us. Many of our relationships encounter difficulties, especially from society and family. Regardless of these challenges, some of the couples I’ve interviewed have been living together for some time; others remain in their parents’ homes and meet each other outside. Some parents think that their son met the perfect roommate, or the neighbors next door think believe the lesbian couple are two sisters. Some are out to their families and have been fully accepted. Couples who share homes have been able to adapt quite effectively to the restrictions of societies.

This does, of course, involve a level of dissimulation: it’s necessary to lie to maintain the image. But what became more important for the people I spoke to was the success of the relationship and a continuous flow of communication creating mutual understanding between the two parties. We, thankfully, have a strong ability to adapt, even to the toughest situations.Our respondents had many things to say and shared some of their experiences, which the quotes below highlight.

It’s not as difficult as it is in other countries because we do have our outlets… they are not specifically ‘ours’ — but we have made them our own. 
Four-year relationship
I am out to my family and they know about my boyfriend and love him. He has a good relationship with my mother in particular. 
Seven-year relationship
Generally, I surround myself with open-minded people, people in Amman, not all but the ones in my life have been supportive, understanding and non-judgmental. 
Five-year relationship
My partner’s mother doesn’t like the idea that [her daughter] is a lesbian and is living with another girl. It’s one of our major argument topics. Another issue is that we have to lie to the neighbors and tell them that we’re sisters or cousins. Three-year relationship
It’s not bad, at least not for me. I don’t feel like people must accept my sexuality or anything like that. I keep it to myself.
Three and a half-year relationship
It’s working for us here in Jordan. We live together and own a house together. We have a married couple’s relationship. 
Three-year relationship
If it was fine in our culture we would be married by now.
Nine month relationship
This is more like a dream come true, to live with the person you love. 
Nine month relationship

As I went through all these wonderful transcripts, with their huge variety of dynamics, I was asking many of the same questions. How can I move forward in my relationship? What is the missing ingredient? What is the one universal issue that keeps a relationship succeeding rather than sinking or becoming static?

One particular answer seemed to be the key: communication and honesty. When I asked one of my respondents what was the best part about his relationship, he said, “trust and open communication are very important in any relationship.” What he said took a while to sink in. It was just simply and beautifully true; communication is the ingredient to any successful relationship and it is the mature thing to do to keep your relationship ascending. I knew that’s what I needed to amend my relationship situation or perhaps get it moving. “I think engaging, loving, caring and, of course, sexual! That’s how I would describe our relationship. It’s about taking care of and being there for each other,” said another respondent. And it wasn’t until then that I appreciated this project/article. It gave me what I needed.

I was initially going to write a queer piece about the differences between relationships in the Middle East and in the West. I am glad to have realized that the geographic location is not exactly what determines the success of a relationship. We’ve learned to adapt with our societies and we’ve learned how to function in the system.

We’ve learned to adapt with our societies and we’ve learned how to function in the system.

“The Jordanian community is one that teaches you many lessons. I’m sure all communities are the same, but I’ve only really experienced the Jordanian one,” one respondent said. “You really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and I mean that in a positive and negative way.”

One doesn’t need to hold hands with their partner in public for a relationship to succeed. One doesn’t need to publicly announce their sexuality to be able to have a relationship. Most definitely, one is able to love and have a companion even in the most difficult places to live. “One of the things that I would love to see happening is having our own home in Amman. It would be hard moving out from our parents’ houses as you know that people don’t expect that except if you are getting married,” one respondent said. “But we are planning to overcome this by living in another city for a couple of years and then buying a house in Jordan. We have to be patient.”

It is not until very recently that I summed up the courage and confronted my guy. I had to communicate and clarify the situation. I dreaded the idea of being alone and single again but my mind was set, “You have to do this, Mo.,” I told myself.

I, of course, had a very bad feeling about it. And I was right! It was clear that we were two people looking for two different things. What surprised me most, however, was my reaction. I thought I was going to go through depression or be very upset. After all, I did care about the guy and immensely liked him. But I was completely relaxed and calm. It was the mere idea of communicating and discussing the issue with him that gave me comfort. I am unsure what this means for the future, whether we will continue dating or never speak to each other again and act like complete strangers when we randomly bump into each in public, but I do know that I have learned quite a lesson: The secret to having a good relationship is communication. The secret to anything succeeding is communication. I will never view my situation with him as a failure.Whether he stays, as a date or a friend, or leaves, I am glad to have met him and to still know him. Therefore, if one day he reads this, I would want him to know that I am grateful for his honesty and for his friendship.

So is it good to be a gay couple in Jordan? And what makes it good?

“The question is neither here nor there, really,” said one respondent. “Nothing is good or bad, it’s working for us here in Jordan.”

One day, when each of us finds a partner, a girlfriend/boyfriend or a friend, we will communicate our feelings and we will learn from each other. We will learn to be together in conditions that are different than what one sees in the West. We will learn to live in the moment and how to progress with the moment. We will learn to have healthy relationships that can coexist in, yet not be displayed to, our societies. We will talk. We will communicate. We will figure out a solution together. We will fundamentally love and in consequence we will remain human.

This article was originally published in MyKali in January 2013.

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