Here’s What LGBT Life In The Middle East Is Really Like
“The film is the first time you can watch a movie that three gay Arabs are the heroes and not the victims”
There’s a powerful scene in the film “Oriented,” where the protagonist, Khader Abu Seir rides his bike through the small Arab port town of Jaffa, smiling, sailing past the open air cafes into the night.
Watching his fluid movement through the streets, freedom is the first word that comes to mind. Yet the message of freedom is not typically what the West associates with being gay and Arab. But “Oriented,” released on iTunes to coincide with this summer’s Pride celebrations, is not your typical take on the Arab world.The brainchild of Jewish director Jake Witzenfeld, Oriented offers a candid view of LGBT life in the Middle East.
As the Israeli-Gaza conflict escalates in 2014, viewers follow Khader and his friends Fadi Daeem and Naeem Jiryes, all Palestinian, through the daily complexities in their world; waiting out incessant air raids, navigating family dynamics, and the moral implications of dating Jewish men.
And while Khader and his friends are free in many ways, they are also bound: bound by living as a Palestinian in Israel; being gay within sometimes conservative Arab communities; and bound by being labeled something they are not simply because of their religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. After screening “Oriented” in more than 100 theaters internationally, we spoke to Khader over Skype from Tel Aviv.
What would surprise Western viewers about what it’s like to be gay and Arab?
Regardless of the fact that we’re gay, [the film is] an opportunity for the world to see that you cannot rely on some small terror unit and call them Islam, call all of them Arabs or think that we’re eating the same, drinking the same, and praying the same. [Oriented] is the first time you can watch a movie that three gay Arabs are the heroes and not the victims. Usually it’s their family trying to kill them, they’re running away, etc. This is the first time you can see open-minded, really educated people that speak at least three languages, Arab gay guys who are actually not so far from the Western [way of] life and can talk at the same eye level as Western people.
As an Arab living in Israel, how much do you identify with the larger Arab world, especially the gay community?
I identify with almost 80 percent of the Arab world because there is at least 20 percent that I cannot even relate to. I’m talking about fanatic Islam and I’m talking about Muslims that are homophobic. But 80 percent of the Arab world today are fighting the same fight that Europe and America are fighting, the common people who just want to live in peace. I can relate to that totally.
The film shows the dynamic of co-existing with your boyfriend who is Jewish. What were the difficulties you went through as a Jewish/Palestinian couple?
I think you will be affected by politics and things that are happening around you. But does that mean it should ruin your relationship or have a huge argument about it? I don’t need politics when I’m having sex. Love is love.
What would it mean for you if there was a recognized Palestinian state?
We don’t really know. I can say for sure just one thing: that would make my life so much easier or maybe so much harder. But I would have just one cause to fight, over my sexual and personal identity. But because I’m living under the occupation, because I’m living in Israel, I need to talk about two things: the fight of being proud saying that I’m Palestinian without judgment, without racism or without people thinking that I’m going to kill them. The second thing is the fight over my sexual identity in front of my community. I’m not sure that I’m going to see it in our generation, but maybe in the future.
You’ve talked about the idea of “privileged gays,” people that have the luxury of looking for surrogates, getting married and doing all of those things. Can you elaborate?
It is a luxury. These are people who are coming from privileged countries. I don’t underestimate their struggle, and I’m sure that it’s super-hard to have a child with a surrogate, or get married. But to me, it’s just something that I could dream of. Israel/Tel Aviv is well-known as the gay capital of the Middle East. But until today, we don’t have one law to protect us. We cannot get married in Israel. We cannot have a surrogate in Israel. As gays, we don’t have any rights inside the only democracy in the Middle East.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We cannot get married in Israel. We cannot have a surrogate in Israel. As gays, we don’t have any rights inside the only democracy in the Middle East.[/quote]
After something like what happened in Orlando, do you feel that people in the U.S. are still in a “privileged” position?
I think that everybody has their own fight. I was so sad when I saw what happened in Orlando because the guy who did it was a Muslim and said he was in ISIS. I started to see a lot of articles and Facebook statuses about Islam—we need to bomb them, destroy them all—coming from within the LGBT society. That was so sad because we are Muslims and we are part of the LGBT community and you are calling for killing all of us. For sure, somebody needs to destroy ISIS. I’m into that. I want that to happen but you cannot blame all of us. We should fight them together.
How do you, and I—the individual—go about fighting them?
We need to start from the understanding that ISIS are not representing all of Islam. We will not participate in this game of Donald Trump, ISIS and I don’t know who. We shouldn’t all go right wing and hate each other. I will not hate Christians. I will not hate Americans. I will not hate English people because they are not from the European Union anymore and going right. Our generation really wants peace. I think that the first step is to say no to this whole system, to the government, to the people who are trying to separate us by our ethnicities, colors, and I don’t know what.
How frustrating is it for you that the Western World immediately associates anything Arab with Isis?
It is frustrating. It’s generalizing everything and you cannot really be yourself anymore. I wish that I could live in a utopic world where I could say, “I’m just gay” or “I’m just human.” But today when the West is turning its back on Arabs and on Islam and on humanity, you start to be afraid.
Why is very little, if any, mention of religion in the film?
While I am Muslim and Fadi and Naeem are Christians, we don’t talk about it inside of our relationship because we are not those kind of boys. We are human. We are not religious people. But for me, it’s super-important for me to say I’m Muslim because I want to show the world, the sheiks, the Muslim fanatics, that we have LGBTs and gays inside our community, to understand that we are here and we are not afraid.
A lot of the film takes place in Jaffa, one of my favorite places. Can you describe what the area is like?
It’s our little island three to five minutes from Tel Aviv, super quiet, super beautiful, with an amazing, historical past. I will say it in the gay language: “Jaffa, give me life.” I am from Jaffa, born and raised and the fact that I could live openly out from the closet in Jaffa and nobody will assault me or attack me, that shows you how the community can use the idea of what it means being gay. Three days ago I was walking in the street and there were two boys, 12 or 13 years old and one of them started mocking me saying, “Look, he’s gay.” Both of them were Arab, and the other kid looked at him and was saying, ““Dude, what do you care? He can do with his life whatever he wants.” For me, that was the point I understood that I can change my city. I can change the world if I changed this situation.