Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book Review: "Unspeakable Love"

I've been saying I'd review Brian Whitaker's Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East forever, but I haven't done it. I'm tired, but I'm going to do it now. So here goes:

There's a lot I like and don't like about the book. Firstly, I love Whitaker's writing style. He's very eloquent, and sometimes this leads to strikingly persuasive paragraphs. Here's one I liked on the Universal Declaration of Human rights, from chapter 4, "Rights and Wrongs", page 110:

The essential principle here is equality, and there is no room for selectively excluding some human beings on the pretext of local circumstances or cultural norms. Either the equality principle is accepted in whole or it is not; there are no half measures. The equal rights established by the declaration include an equal right to life, equal freedom from arbitrary arrest, equal freedom from torture and ill-treatment, equal freedom from torture and ill-treatment, equal freedom of expression and association, and equality before the law.

Despite this, and despite ample evidence of abuses in various parts of the world, the United Nations has been slow to grapple, with what, for a large number of it members, is a highly sensitive issue...
I think that's beautifully stated.

Unspeakable Love has repeatedly been called "groundbreaking", and in many ways it is. Never before has such a comprehensive study of gay civil rights been published, or so widely available to the public. The fact that it was the number 1 seller for a huge period of time at the Virgin Megastore in Beirut attests to the fact that a book such as this is long overdue. Brian Whitaker organizes this book expertly - information is easily accessible, easily understandable, and meticulously footnoted.

My favorite chapter is by far chapter 3, "Images and Realities". In this chapter, Whitaker analyzes media coverage of gay people in the Middle East. One of my favorite paragraphs, from page 72:


News media about same-sex marriage and gay clergy in the West tend to be reported factually and straightforwardly by the Arab media, often with quotes from opposing sides. Besides the stories dealing specifically with these topics, there were many others during the American presidential campaign of 2004 that mentioned gay rights as an election issue. The relatively calm tone of these reports in comparison with the more hysterical stories about local homosexuality may be partly explained by their reliance on Western news agencies. As with the nineteenth-century writings of Richard Burton, however, they can be read in different ways by different readers. They can be interpreted either as confirming Arab perceptions of Western decadence or as familiarizing readers with alternative views of sexual behaviour. The problem, though, is that the dearth of coverage about Arab homosexuality encourages the idea that it is entirely a foreign phenomenon.
Fantastic. Whitaker outlines here a major issue facing gay people in the Middle East: the push to portray them as foreign, thus making them at least non-Arab and non-Muslim, at worst traitors. If gay people are not seen as a true facet of Arab culture, then their rights are not something that needs to be addressed in Arab society. Whitaker, by laying out numerous examples of terrible media portrayals of gay people by the Arab media unfolds the institutionalized prejudice like a Chinese fan.

But now let's get into some of the things I don't like about the book. In the introduction, Whitaker states on pages 9-10:


There are twenty-two countries in the Arab League (if we include) Palestine, and to try to give a country-by-country picture would be both impractical and repetitive. Instead, I wanted to highlight the issues that are faced throughout the region, to a greater or lesser degree, by Arabs whose sexuality does not fit the public concepts of 'normal'. Most of the face-to-face research was done in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries that provide interesting contrasts. This was supplemented by a variety of other sources including news reports, correspondence by email, articles in magazines and academic journals, discussions published on websites, plus a review of the way homosexuality is treated in the Arabic media, in novels and in films.
First, I'm not sure if I agree with lumping modern Arab societies into one whole. The modern states are so different, and there has been an orientalist history of blurring the Arab people into one united, faceless mass. I mean, would you write a book on gay rights in the Western World, jumping from France to Britain to the U.S. to Poland to Greece to Australia? Actually, you might. I'm not sure there's actually an ideal way to approach such a book, and I don't fault Whitaker here. I just wanted to mention a possible drawback. If someone wrote a book just discussing each country individually, without pointing out trends, that would pose difficulties, too.

The problem I see is that, in effect, Whitaker ended up doing exactly what he promised he wouldn't do. He gets so involved in the legal issues facing gay people in Middle Eastern countries that he gets stuck in a country-by-country discussion of legality, which reads tediously. In many chapters, especially 2 and 4, Whitaker hops from country to country, trying to explain their individual situations. He he can't avoid this - it's impossible to put the legal structures of the Arab World, which are extremely complex and often very dissimilar - into a general thesis. Lebanon has no equivalent of Egypt's "Queen Boat" incident, just as Saudi Arabia has no equivalent to Lebanon's sectarian government. Essentially, Whitaker writes himself into a corner here; he spends so much time explaining political issues that he can't easily go back and discuss the social ones, which are much more important in the Arab World in the ways they affect gay people.

This is where the Western point of view really comes through in the book. Gay rights won't go anywhere in the Middle East unless gay people are more socially accepted first, roughly the opposite of the West. In America, there was Stonewall then Will and Grace. In the Middle East, the reverse is needed. A Stonewall in Egypt or Saudi Arabia will amount to bloodshed, with no real political gain. Whitaker consistently compares the movement the Arab World with the West, namely Britain, creating false parallels. He doesn't seem to consider that the Middle East might need a different form of activism than the West.

There is a vast amount of social issues that are never addressed in Unspeakable Love that are immediatly apparent to anyone who's lived in the Middle East. What about the thousands of men who marry and have sex with men on the side? The gay prostitutes on the corniches of Beirut, Aqaba, Manama, and Alexandria? Gender separation and sexism? The adopting of gender roles in the gay community? Class issues? Racial and Sunni/Shia schisms? The book says it's about "Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East", when really it only deals with politics, the media, and some insights on religion. Except for a discussion of family life, the book hardly touches on everyday gay life, at least for the majority of the people in the Middle East. When you finish the book, a lot seems to be missing.

For the interviews that Whitaker cites as research, his selection of people seems like a skimming of fat from a bucket of milk. They are almost all male, almost all in their twenties, and seem to be from higher classes of society. When I went to the book opening at the Zico House in Beirut in March, it was clear that Whitaker did not speak very good Arabic. He seems to have done all the interviews himself, which explains this problem: young, gay, wealthy men are the easiest segment of gay society for someone like Whitaker to find. They are more likely to speak English, have more social freedom, and go to places where a Westerner can find them. Unfortunately, they are hardly representative, and thus give a skewed view of gay life in the Middle East, as does the fact that they are from the Levant and Egypt, which are very different from the Gulf. The Levant and Egypt, sadly, dominate the book, leaving everyday gay life in the Gulf shadowed in uncertainty.

I don't want to come off as too negative about the book; I feel that there is a lot to be gained from reading it, especially chapter 3, and especially for Westerners who are unfamiliar with Middle Eastern politics. This book definitely has an important purpose there. However, a Beiruti friend of mine said he really liked chapters 1-4, but found the rest of the book tiresome, explaining that the book, in general, was interesting, but didn't tell him anything new about what was going on in the Middle East. I'm inclined to agree with him on the last part. If you're a gay person living in the Middle East, the book won't open your eyes to anything groundbreaking, or great analysis on how to help the movement for gay civil rights progress. It will, however, provide an amazing encyclopedia of modern gay history in the Arab World.

I'll finish with another paragraph I liked, from chapter 7 "Paths to Reform", page 212:

The debate is often presented as a choice between cultural authenticity on the one hand and the adoption of all things Western on the other. In fact, neither is a realistic proposition. Exposure to foreign ideas and influences cannot be prevented, but nor are Arabs incapable of making critical judgments about them. Equally, Arab culture cannot be treated as a fossil; it is a culture in which real people lead real lives and it must be allowed to evolve to meet their needs. The issue, then, is not whether concepts such as 'gay' and 'sexual orientation' are foreign imports but whether they serve a useful purpose. For Arabs who grow up disturbed by an inexplicable attraction towards members of their own sex, they can provide a framework for understanding. For families - puzzled, troubled and uninformed by their own society - they offer a sensible alternative to regarding sons and daughters as sinful or mad.
One more thing: I love the copper eyeshadow on the two men on the front cover. It's artistic, subtle, and beautiful. While politically, it might not have been the best choice to put men in eyeshadow on a book about gay rights in the Middle East, it added a gorgeous softness to the men's complexions.

5 Comments:

Blogger Red Tulips said...

VERY interesting. Thank you for the comprehensive book review.

Your site is continually just the best resource on the net for this kind of information!

July 30, 2006 6:58 AM  
Anonymous William said...

Some very interesting points here, both negative and positive! We've just posted a review as well, from a Western perspective though. Would love to know what you think!

January 31, 2012 6:23 PM  
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