By William Forster
Originally published on Advocate.com September 05 2012 8:59 AM ET
When many travelers think of the Middle East as a gay destination, Tel Aviv is most likely to come to mind. However, that has not always been the case. E. M. Forster went to Alexandria, Egypt, to have his first experience of gay love, and one of the most famous gay poets of the twentieth century, Constantine Cavafy, also hailed from that sprawling metropolis on the sea.
Recently however, a lot of the great gay destinations of the Middle East have not been getting good press. First, the unrest associated with the Arab spring has made stalwarts of gay travel destinations like Tunisia less appealing. Even hotspot Beirut, long known for its exciting nightlife and hunky men, has become less attractive as Helem, the area’s only LGBT organization reports that Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code (“sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is punishable for up to 1 year in prison) has been used recently to harass gay and bisexual men.
Every since the infamous Nile Queen incident (in which 52 gay Egyptian men were arrested and “examined” for dancing without women partners on a floating disco), Egypt is not nearly as open as it used to be. Iran and Saudia Arabia, whatever their cultural appeal to tourists, remain difficult to visit and are known to execute gay men. Iraq, once safe for homosexuals, since the U.S-led invasion has since seen some of the worst gay-bashing and murder of homosexual men in the Middle East.
There’s an outstanding destination for gay and straight tourists alike: Jordan. Like in many Muslim countries, homosexual acts and cross-dressing are considered “sinful” but they aren’t technically illegal. Even so, same-sex affection abounds in the public sphere, while public affection between members of the opposite sex is taboo. A gay couple can walk the street arm-in-arm or holding hands while a straight couple would get dirty looks. Men greet one another with kisses on the cheek (the Jordanian way is one on the right cheek and three to five on the left). Jordanian men even blow one another kisses. The nightlife is overwhelmingly gender segregated, so meeting Jordanians of the same sex is easy. Jordanians are wonderfully friendly people, and as you walk through the streets of Amman, you will hear shouts of “welcome.”
Amman, the capital, has some worthy attractions, most notably Roman ruins, especially the Roman Theater (at night the city’s main cruising area for gay men) and Jebel al-Qal’a, the ancient citadel which includes ruins of a temple to Hercules, a museum, and the remains of an Umayyad palace, along with stunning views of the modern urban sprawl of Amman.
Amman lacks a traditional gay party scene, but it is easy to meet gay men. You can find them on any number of gay sites, including Gay.com. Books@cafe, a delightfully stylish café that could just as well be in West Hollywood, is full of beautiful, muscular Jordanian men puffing away on their nargiles (water pipes). The city’s streets are filled with shopping opportunities: handicrafts and some of the best values in gold jewelry in the world.
The key to meeting gay Jordanian men is just to be open and friendly. A man who looks at you and smiles and compliments your looks and body may actually be straight, so it can be easy to get confused. All Jordanian men are quite open about appreciating male beauty. If he is gay and interested, I have found that most Jordanian gay men are quite direct, especially if you make them feel comfortable. Many of them directly seek out interactions with foreigners, partially out of genuine curiosity and interest — be prepared for a barrage of random personal questions about your life back home — and also because many gay Jordanian men feel safer propositioning foreigners.
Do Not Miss
As far as sightseeing, the real treasures of the country are beyond Amman. Petra is an utterly magical sight: a city carved into canyon walls of blood red and pink sandstone, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Jerash is a beautiful Roman site where they still stage live chariot races. Wadi Rum is a dramatic desert canyon inhabited by Bedouin (an ethnic group of desert dwellers) and formerly the haunt of T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). Other nature reserves, like the Dana Nature Reserve are lush and green and filled with wildlife. You can always relax by staying at one of the world-class resorts on the Dead Sea or going down to Aqaba, a town on the Red Sea, with accommodation to fit every budget — and some of the most dramatic underwater coral reefs in the world.
Food in Jordan is outstanding. The traditional Mediterranean diet of hummus, schwarma, olives, and salads is nourishing and healthy. Amman has fine dining, as does Madaba, a predominately Christian city near Amman where you can enjoy local wine. In Aqaba, you can sample local fresh seafood. Street food is always hot, fresh, sanitary, and a great value, too.
Many visitors go to Jordan from Israel, most going just to Petra on one-day coach tours. If ou do that, however, you will miss out on a great deal that the country has to offer. Border crossings from Israel can be a headache, or you can fly directly into Amman. Royal Jordanian often has discounted tickets and has a coach-class like we used to have on our domestic airlines.
Jordan is not a typical gay destination like Barcelona, but it is definitely worth visiting. You will be presently surprised in every way. Remember, traditional Muslim societies do not necessarily fear homosexual sex acts: they fear a gay identity. For Westerners who are gay and out, this attitude can come across as particularly offensive. But gay visitors need to remember Forster and that, at one time, the Middle East was a relative refuge for gay men who faced jail-time in Europe. Middle Eastern societies are in a state of flux and grappling with issues of modernity, globalization, and secularization. For many in the Middle East, sexuality and gender issues are yet another example of Western cultural imperialism. However, medieval Arabic love poetry idolized the beautiful young man; 1,001 Nights has many examples of homosexual liaisons. So step back, take a deep breath, leave you presuppositions on the plane, and open yourself to one of the gay-friendlyest closeted cultures in the world.