From Lebanon, in a Hurry

By Amita Parashar

Originally published on Advocate.com July 08 2009 12:00 AM ET

Soraya* remembers the day rockets blew up her parents' living room. During the Lebanese civil war, her family lived off charity with little food to eat. She knows that Lebanon still has pressing diplomatic issues and hopes that its citizens get the right to be protected from the atrocities of war she faced.

But she would trade in all those hopes for the right to tell her mother she is gay.

"If I told her I was gay, she would resent me, she would hate herself, she would cry for years because she believes it's a sickness and she would think it's her fault. What would I rather face? War or homophobia? I'll take war," she writes.

Her story is one of 41 written by queer women and trans people across Lebanon in the new book Bareed Mista3jil (a Lebanese Arabic phrase that means "Express Mail").

"We wanted to tell the stories of people who are not always present in Arab media," the book's editor, Nadine Moawad, said from New York. The book, which launched May 30 to a crowed of hundreds in Beirut, has already sold out its first run of 550. Over 50 copies have been ordered online from the United States alone.

Bareed Mista3Jil COVER XLRG | ADVOCATE.COM

The brave stories, written as letters, were culled from over 100 interviews through Meem, a 300-member national underground network supporting LBTQ women in Lebanon. The editors wanted the stories to represent Lebanon as they see it -- diverse and fragmented. The book reflects a variety of classes, religions, and coming-out stories, including one woman's very funny foray into a chat room -- "I found 'sexylesbian4u.' Oh, my God! I thought, a sexy lesbian for me! "

The book also speaks to a society that speaks three languages -- Arabic, English, and French. The book is available in Arabic and English, and is peppered with Lebanese phrases that are translated as footnotes.

Lebanon is "quite tolerant" of the LGBT community in certain well-traveled and educated circles, Moawad says. But she estimates those circles only represent 20% of the population, and gay and lesbian issues are still taboo in the rest of the country.

The Meem network was careful to remain invisible until it was able to proactively share its stories. "Now [Lebanon] has something we've produced that they can challenge, debate, and talk about," Moawad says. And the country is talking. Reviews in Arab newspapers have been largely positive, including one that called the book "groundbreaking."

Deliberately, the book contains no first or last names or writers or editors, partly to protect the identities of those involved. Moawad says the editors wanted the book to appear as if it had emerged from nowhere "because nobody knows about lesbian organizing that goes on in Lebanon."

Bareed Mista3Jil POSTER XLRG | ADVOCATE.COM

Moawad, who lives in Beirut and works for Lebanon's Feminist Collective, says that the LGBT community often mistakenly uses a "take it or leave it" approach to gain acceptance. Activists expect society to automatically celebrate members of their community, but the effort lies on both sides, she says. "We should also put our stories out there so people can see our perspectives."

The book's introduction argues against the view in many Eastern countries that homosexuality is a modern Western construct (in 2007, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously quipped that his country has no gay people). Fluid sexuality was widely accepted in the Arab world before colonization, as evidenced by celebrated poet Abu Nuwas, who wrote erotic celebrations of male sexual desire.

Despite Lebanon's ancient history, more recent times have not been so kind to LGBT people. Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code currently bans "unnatural sexual intercourse," punishable by imprisonment. Still, Lebanon enjoys a higher degree of free speech than its Middle Eastern neighbors, allowing its citizens to organize around LGBT rights through networks like Meem and Helem, a more visible activism group working to repeal Article 534.

As homophobic as Lebanese society can be, though, Moawad says, "it really needs and wants to listen to these stories."