Sara Sheridan is an historical novelist. Her latest book ‘Secret of the Sands’ HarperCollins (£7.99) includes (among a host of others) an openly gay character in 1830s Muscat.
Sara Says: In the last couple of hundred years it’s almost as if there’s been cultural swap when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality, between the West and the Middle East. As a huge, self-confessed swot I’m always interested in that kind of thing – cultural shifts are the meat and drink of understanding why we’ve ended up wherever we are. When Byron toured Turkey in the early 1800s he famously referred to the local bathing houses as ‘palaces of sherbet and sodomy’. These predilections continued further south into the Arabian Peninsula and in the same period another European traveller to Egypt wrote: ‘The inconceivable inclination which has dishonoured the Greeks and Persians of antiquity constitutes the delight, or, more properly speaking the infamy of the Egyptians... the contagion has seized the poor as well as the rich.; Later that century, Sir Richard Burton described in great detail a 'Sotadic Zone' (between the northern latitudes of 30 and 43 degrees) where same-sex activity was prevalent. I’m sure he thought it had something to do with the heat.
By comparison, homophobia was rife in 19th Century England and sodomy (or buggery as it is termed in the legal documents of the day) was punishable by hanging until 1861 and continued to carry a jail term until over a hundred years later (1967 in England and Wales, 1980 in Scotland, 1982 in N Ireland). These dates, it is often noted, broadly coincide with other liberal advances in human rights in anti-slavery legislation and the feminist movement, for example, and also the more general secularisation of our society.
In the Middle East the opposite movement has occurred and the general acceptance and tolerance noted by European travellers has disappeared. Last year this was highlighted in the UK press when a Saudi Prince murdered one of his servants, apparently in a bid to cover up their homosexual relationship. The homosexuality carried the death penalty and seemed as shocking to the Islamic press as the murder itself. As the coverage progressed it became clear that the fact that the Prince had lived abroad was also key. Homosexuality in the Middle East is viewed almost as a western disease. During the ‘Queen Boat’ case in Egypt in 2001, when 50 gay men were put on trial, the accused were reputed to have imported their ‘perverse’ practices from the west and from Israel. This ties in closely with the fact that many Arab nations have felt exploited by western powers ever since the abolition of slavery in post-Napoleonic Europe and the grappling for power and influence in the region that escalated when a use was discovered for Arabian oil. It’s easy to see that there is a prevalent view that only bad things come from abroad.
When I came to recreating the world of 1830s Muscat I wanted it to feel both louche and luxurious. In a society where the company of women is an entirely private affair (as it remains today in Arab cultures) it was socially acceptable to see men with their arms draped around each other. To this day, as in Europe, Arab men greet each other with kisses on the cheek. However, what has changed is the openness that was possible about the desire for same-sex relationships around 150 years ago. Historically, this still bears some caveats. For example, I’ve found no instances where men are recorded as being exclusively homosexual (though some, obviously, must have been) and most men were clearly expected to marry and produce children as part of their obligation to the family.
My main female character, Zena, is an Abyssinian slave girl and she is bought by a desperate father to tempt his gay son into some semblance of heterosexuality. Zena is put in ‘the master’s room’ like a pretty bird in a cage, and she immediately realises what is expected of her. Quickly she colludes with the master, arranging to sleep in his bed to keep his father happy. Later, he loses her at a game of backgammon (gambling being frowned on far more than buggery at that time in Oman) and she ends up travelling in the desert disguised as a slave boy. Later on that trip, when she is propositioned by a man, he is far more shocked by the fact that up close she is clearly a woman in disguise who is displaying an unheard of independent streak, than at any question of impropriety in coming onto a young boy. ‘Aren’t you married?’ Zena asks him. The man shrugs. This is, in his view, an entirely unrelated matter.
As in the Bible, there is very little in the Koran that condemns homosexuality and I hope that over time attitudes will change, not only with regard to homosexuality but also in terms of repression of women (of which there are and always have been horrifying examples) and slavery, or as it is today ‘indentured labour’ which remains rife in the region. There are a few chinks of light – not least the current unrest in Egypt (the first liberal revolution in the Middle East in my memory). Elsewhere, there is a movement in Arab states towards allowing women to vote (although not all have yet passed even this, very basic right). In Beirut in 2003, a handful openly gay people marched through the streets with a homemade rainbow flag in protest against the war in Iraq. It was the first time anything like that had happened in an Arab country. In another example, Lebanon now has an officially recognised gay and lesbian organisation known as Helem – again, the only one in an Arab country – as well as Barra, the first gay magazine in Arabic. I hope this marks a movement in the direction of tolerance and the possibility that people will be allowed to define their own personal morality rather than having to so cruelly imposed.
I Thank Sara for her insight into these things, and I hope that You will ALL read her Book.
This is stunning timing especially when Egypt is in such a state of rebellion of which many readers of this piece would obviously be fully up to Date with via all sorts of multimedia.
I wish you all well