I Might Have Become An Official Arab Diva

Adam Lichtenheld
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The door of the RGB Club pulsated with the blasts of house techno. As I pulled it open, I glanced down at my dusty knockoff Crocs and torn jeans and realized that I was far too underdressed.

“Stay close to me,” Amir said.

A self-proclaimed “bitch from hell,” Amir’s hairline receded back into a short, wavy mop of grey. An artist by trade, he had a penchant for telling long stories. His ramblings made me want to fly solo on this breezy October night, but it was my virgin run through a gay club, and I needed a companion.

RGB was a legend of sorts—the kind of place we local journalists hear about through vague anecdotes and quiet gossip. As a symbol of the flourishing gay scene in Amman—an intriguing contradiction to Jordan’s theocratic, conservative society—the club sparked my curiosity. Now, two hours after a friend had introduced me to Amir with the promise that he would escort me through “the underground,” I found myself surrounded by dapper divas and flamboyant drag queens, following a man I barely knew.

As we entered RGB, a group of men flashed by in tight jeans and tank tops, giving me the once-over. Amir started grooving next to me.

“I may be big, but I’m made of rubber!” he shouted.

He entered the dance floor, and I crept up to the bar and pointed to a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker. The butch female bartender, sporting a lip ring, flat haircut, and baggy T-shirt, poured a generous glass and shot me a look of silent disapproval. I didn’t fit in here, and she knew it. Before I could make an awkward comment, Amir pulled me out to the club’s patio, where flexing patrons chain-smoked and whispered incessantly between glances in my direction.

We sat down and Amir began speaking in muttered tones, all the while checking out new arrivals.

“You’re young, fresh meat.” he said, still scanning the patio. “Everyone wants a piece of you.”

Before I could reply, a sloshed drag queen approached and held out a limp hand.

I shook it cautiously. “I’m Adam,” I said, in Arabic.

“I’m bisexual,” she declared, in perfect English.

“Or bipolar,” Amir giggled. “Her name is Tita Viagra, but it’s ‘Tita Valium’ if she doesn’t put on a good show.”

I took their friendly banter as a cue to return inside. Back in the club’s melodious drumfire, I saw a man with carefully sculpted hair and eyeliner twirling a red-and-white checkered Bedouin kaffiyeh around his head. Behind him, a group of men danced and belted out lyrics to traditional Arabic tunes—the same songs adored by Muslim sheikhs who would never condone their behavior. I felt like I had discovered another world; one that is so fundamentally at odds with its mainstream counterpart that both would prefer to simply ignore each other.

In the West, we are led to believe that homosexuals in the Middle East are the untouchables of Islamic society. We hear about fatwas calling for gay slaughters in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s outlandish claim that his country is queer-free.

But in Amman, a growing community of gay solidarity is visible.

“In other parts of the Middle East, religious groups and even governments are hunting down and executing gay citizens. But Amman is very open,” explained Ahmed, the vivacious owner of RGB.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Jordan, but it’s not exactly legal, either. Gay citizens are protected by no specific rights. While King Abdullah II, the country’s cherished monarchic leader, is credited for fostering one of the Middle East’s most tolerant societies, vigilante honor killings are not uncommon. Under the country’s lenient penal code, perpetrators of these "honor killings" often receive reduced sentences, as the Jordanian parliament has rejected proposals to enact stiffer penalties as being “un-Islamic.”

But legality is usually the least of gay Jordanians’ concerns. In a culture that is heavily informed by tradition and religious conservatism, family honor trumps individual freedom, and the threat of being ostracized from one’s bloodline can be a far greater peril than political oppression. Consequently, it is society that determines the legitimacy of a person’s sexual orientation—not the law.

Of course, perceptions of homosexuality, and approval of it, are largely intertwined with social class. “The upper class in Amman tends to be open and accepting of the gay community. The lower class, being more isolated and traditional, is more intolerant,” Ahmed explained.

So for the rich, being openly gay is possible. But if you’re born into a poor family from the ghettos of East Amman?

“You’re dead,” he said.

The next day, my ears still ringing from the deafening disco din, I trudged up to the roof of Books@Cafe, a gay-friendly lounge filled with plush leather seats and bright wall hangings. The intoxicating aroma of shisha smoke crept in from tables filled with chatty, well-groomed Jordanians. I thought about how close geographically, yet how far culturally, this rooftop was to the tiny, rank dive where I usually spent my evenings puffing on a water pipe.

I met up with Khalid, a thin-faced 19-year old wearing a black fedora tipped to one side. A friend of Amir, he was a student of interior design and editor of My.Kali, an online LGBT forum that succeeded Jordan’s first-ever gay magazine, MK. MK had abandoned its first print issue after local newspapers published quotes from “professionals” decrying homosexuality as a “treatable disease” and plastered MK’s cover, which featured Khalid’s lean, shirtless body, on their front pages.

The scandal outed Khalid, like many of his gay friends, without his consent. “I still don’t feel comfortable talking about it with my family,” he admitted.

Our exchange was interrupted by a short, brown-haired girl named “Max,” who carried the unapologetic gaze of someone who might tell you to go to hell at any moment. A fellow writer for My.Kali, she joined us at the table and began telling her story.

“Obviously my parents can see that I’m a dyke,” she said. I was taken aback by her fluid use of American slang. It caused me to stammer slightly as I asked how her family responded.

“They took me to a shrink,” she snorted. “So I ran away and wandered around in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.” She eventually returned home at the pleading of her mother, with the request that she “keep her gayness to herself” to protect her family from public embarrassment.

“When you’re gay, you’re treated like a child,” Khalid says. “You have a stricter curfew, your family will watch you more, and there will be a lot of tension at home.”

To prove his point, Khalid introduced me to Omar, a lanky, friendly-faced doctor who towered over me even sitting down. Omar pulled out a celebrated source of mockery among the group: a two-page contract from his father that forbade him from even having a gay thought. As he sarcastically rattled off its conditions (“I promise to only be attracted to girls”), we all erupted in laughter.

Omar was accompanied by his friend Salma, who embodied the paradox between tradition and modernity. An open lesbian, Salma is forced by her parents to wear a hijab as a show of piety. According to Omar, she’s famous for whipping it off at RGB on the weekends.

“I hate religion,” she said.

As she lamented Islam’s condemnation of her haram (Arabic for “forbidden") lifestyle, my stomach flipped with the realization that I could hardly relate. As a foreigner, I live on the fringes of society by nature, but at my own discretion. “We live in a bubble,” Khalid had told me. As did I. But my bubble was built out of choice comforts, not proximity friends enduring the same perpetual struggle for acceptance. What did I know of being an outcast in my own country?

Later, as the sun dipped below the dusty horizon, I said my goodbyes and left the café. Outside, I wandered down Rainbow Street, the city’s popular nightlife district. With a steady upcropping of more gay-friendly venues, the area was beginning to live up to its name.

As I took in the surrounding view of Amman, its hills dotted with specks of light and the neon glow of mosques’ towering minarets, a scruffy, pleasant-looking passerby met my gaze and nodded slowly with acknowledgement. His pencil eyeliner triggered an instant recognition—he had been among the previous night’s crowd at RGB. I thought back to a comment someone had made earlier: “This is a close community. Everyone knows everyone. We’ve got each others’ backs.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if, somehow, this community now included me.

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