My Iraqi conquest—in Denmark

When a 21-year-old American flees to Copenhagen to escape his country’s militarism, he finds himself drawn to his own quest for liberation: Getting his secret Iraqi lover to come out

BY Justin Ho

November 22 2004 1:00 AM ET

I left for Denmark two years ago hoping to get away from the bad qualities I associated with the United States: Bush, hubris, the Christian right. But then I fell for a closeted Iraqi and became obsessed with wanting him to be more open about his sexuality.However far I came, running from the U.S. government, the fact that I am fundamentally American is inescapable.I became an American in Copenhagen, in part, as a protest against the Bush administration’s strikes against Afghanistan, thus living up to the label from those on the right as an “anti-American, unpatriotic liberal”—words that more than a few of my classmates reserved for me when I shed my reputation as a wallflower and emerged as a vocal pacifist in the wake of 9/11. Having decamped to Denmark by the time the United States called its troops to arms in Iraq, I felt incredibly apologetic toward the sizeable Muslim community that I found in Copenhagen.Curiosity about one man’s response in particular was the thing that did me in: “I’m so sorry that my country is at war with yours—how can I make it up to you?” Thus I found myself, somewhere in a soup of guilty feelings because of the war in Iraq and the thrill of an illicit, almost self-destructive fling, in a torrid affair with my Iraqi barber.Amir was captivating. He was 32, which I guessed on my fourth try, starting from 27. I was 21 going on 22, and possibly more naive than I give myself credit for, despite having come out of a wrecked relationship with another 32-year-old and patting myself on the back for having learned valuable lessons in the cleanup. The chemistry between Amir and me was hot. It was hot from the moment he asked me to come to his apartment the first time under the auspices of “English lessons” right to the end. A touch on the shoulder would usually portend a quick make-out session in the back of his shop, just out of view of the storefront window where other residents of the immigrant neighborhood would pass by.One by one, I rationalized away the red flags: First, the language gap; then the educational gap, the cultural gap, the fact that he was deeply closeted and homophobic, and the fact that he had a giant picture of the daughter he’d left behind in Iraq hanging in plain sight of where we most frequently got bouncy. He was a man of few words with me because his English was bad and I knew no Arabic, and we both spoke only Danish gibberish.In Amir’s apartment there were periods when he would freeze and a silence would pass between us for minutes, only ending when his libido would return and pitch a tent for the night. He liked to keep the television on to an Arabic language station during our “English lessons”; I should have scolded him for being a slow study. I only wanted him more with every ounce of withholding affection and emotional unavailability that he could muster.The contrast between what little Amir could offer me and what was actually available in the gay-friendly Eden of Scandinavia was glaring. There were plenty of emotionally available Danish gay men in Copenhagen. With the exception of those from radical minority immigrant communities, the Danish people are overwhelmingly tolerant and receptive of their gay citizens and visitors. The coming-out process isn’t as divisive or even as disenfranchising or disinheriting as it is in the United States. And civil unions are becoming the norm in Denmark among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. As cohabitating straight couples become less likely to feel the need for a stamp of approval from the church to define themselves as partnered, there are no second thoughts about affording gay couples the same rights and privileges as those of the breeding sect. The progressive policies are the envy of anyone who feels that they exist under lock and key.But at the same time, this liberal utopian enclave has created a population of gays and lesbians who aren’t quite capable of relating to the struggle for equality that we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States. It’s an exaggeration to say that I felt alienated from the Danish population of gay men, regardless of how perplexed they were when I explained that the medieval social attitudes toward homosexuality in the United States. There was plenty of wishful, lustful thinking toward the blond, blue-eyed Calvin-Klein-runway stick figures who blended seamlessly into mainstream Danish society, appeared on Danish television as fully out political figures, and behaved no differently than straight Danish citizens because they were so out that they were in. In that, they were typical.Amir was my addiction to the opposite end of the spectrum. He had come to Denmark as a refugee of sorts. He said that he loved Denmark because of the freedom it afforded him, and he displayed every intention of embracing all the freedoms that our new home could offer, save one: his homosexuality. Perhaps it wasn’t so much Amir himself that I was drawn to but the potential for a codependency where I could be his liberator.It was only fair and just that as strangers in a foreign land, we would rely on one another for assimilation. But there were parts of Iraq that he could never leave behind. He was never integrated enough to abandon his roots in the conservative Iraqi community living in Copenhagen. If the United States government is overly optimistic in expecting to plant the seeds of democracy and prosperity in Iraq with minimal casualties, I was guilty of assuming that foreplay could bring him around to coming out within a homophobic Muslim community.On one occasion he received a phone call from his friends midcoitus. I’d gone to his apartment and left my bike locked in his shop. When he realized that his friends were coming to visit in 15 minutes, he tried to throw me out, but something got lost in the translation and I took him to mean that he was going out of town for two or three days and that he couldn’t get my bike back to me until then. In Denmark, where cycling is the primary means of transport (for ecofriendly reasons, not because they’re backward), bicycle dependence is nothing to mess with. What Amir had really meant was that he wouldn’t give me a key to his apartment, and that he’d like to see me again on Saturday, which was in two or three days.As we were arguing in broken English and even more broken Danish, his eyes started to water and he nearly crumbled. While Denmark would never condone any action taken against him for homosexual acts, alienation from his Middle Eastern microcosm would have been deadly. I never felt as powerful or as in command of someone else’s life as in that brief moment, standing in my briefs, holding my ground. For a few seconds I felt omnipotent, which is rare for someone 5 foot 7 on a good day and barely 135 pounds. But however omnipotent I felt, I started to realize that I could never be his rescuer. I could never supplant his dependence on his countrymen or make him fully realize his potential for independence. It was selfish for me to think I could anyway because my habitation in Denmark was finite.The affair dragged on for a couple of months. Amir learned to schedule our meetings with minimal interference from friends, and I continued to think that I provided an outlet for him that would make him more honest and introspective about his homosexual, or at the least, bi-curious tendencies. Somewhere in the process of resenting how difficult being gay in America is, I’d rather expected such a struggle would be a mark of character in a significant other. I knew how tremendously I would respect Amir when he finally came out to the Muslim community.I wanted my love to be tragic. I may not have enlisted in the Army nor rode around in a Hummer, but I felt like I was doing my part in enlightening Iraqis. In retrospect, however, it’s questionable how much enlightenment I was actually providing for my hairstylist with our nonverbal trysts behind drawn curtains.Eventually I gave up. Really, there wasn’t much of a relationship to break—just furtive glances among the snips and the trims, a few stares loaded with insinuation in the mirror, and the ensuing intimacy that knew no words because we couldn’t form sentences in each others’ languages.I took the cowardly approach and didn’t break up in person with Amir. I rationalized that decision by telling myself that there was no emotional attachment, on his part anyway, to justify lying to his face with an “I’m just not that into you” or with an apology along the lines of “I think we should see other people.” He did, in fact, already have a girlfriend to keep up appearances with his friends. So I just bailed, which I hope is not the option that President Bush chooses for Iraq.I didn’t stick around long enough to understand Amir, or to see him blossom into a flaming homosexual. I wanted him gay, and I wanted him all mine, and that wasn’t going to happen. I suffered the self-imposed consequence of growing a mullet until it was time to leave Denmark.For both Amir and me, as immigrants (even if only temporarily, on my part), there were parts of our souls that never left our homelands. Amir may have sacrificed a lot by moving to Denmark in the hope of beginning a new life, but his homophobia was too strong, too internalized, for me ever to consider him gay in the synonym-for-happy sense. I can only guess that in those flashes of silence when we were together he was riddled with guilt, doubt, and self-hatred.On the flip side, I had come to Denmark assuming that distance would steer me away from America’s meddlesome tendencies in foreign affairs, and yet I had enlisted Amir in my own Operation Iraqi Gay Homosexual campaign. The irony is—and the joke’s so funny that I’m still hemorrhaging inside—that taking action (or rather, getting action) was really just a smoke screen for preemptive masochism.Which is not to say that I didn’t realize a lot of the great attributes being an American confers while I was an Atlantic Ocean and North Sea away. Regardless of how much we may hate the direction the Administration is taking the country in, we can never abandon the part of us that is American. And it’s even more obvious for me, as a minority, an Asian-American, how the American undertones of our identity trump the label that might come before any hyphenate when we are in a place that is foreign to us.I can’t say that I appealed to my Asian sensibilities when I was overseas. The bold, almost pioneering, spirit (however misguided) with which I expected to eke out a new identity in Denmark is quite telling of the can-do attitude which Americans inherit almost at birth and which lures hopeful immigrants to the United States. It took an ocean to make me realize how much I cherished my mobility and my independence, which are the most American of privileges. I also stepped into the trap of manipulating optimism into overreaching expectation.If gays and lesbians seeking more personal freedoms abroad feel emboldened to change their national allegiance, it is worth remembering that it is the uniquely American characteristic within us that gives us the courage to do so. We may find it possible to escape the Administration, but it is futile to run from the American part of ourselves.

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