Flirting With Israel
BY Matthew Breen
August 13 2010 5:00 AM ET
“Is your friend just a friend?” asked a man behind me at the bazaar in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. I turned around to find one of my traveling companions popping in and out of tiny stalls in the market. Three Palestinian shopkeepers, guys in their 20s in jeans and T-shirts, were calling after him, and I knew right away what friend they were asking about.
Residents, tourists, and students as well as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim pilgrims were all making our ways through the bazaar in one of the oldest cities in the world. The stone-paved alleys were tight and labyrinthine, and colorful merchandise—some beautiful, some junk—spilled out onto the twisting path from shops and kiosks.
My tour group consisted of 14 gay men and one brave bisexual woman, and though we were decidedly unlike the others in the market, no one much cared, as far as we could tell. Except for a few savvy shopkeepers.
But I wasn’t with the others. I’d been tasked with retrieving the most errant of our group—an East African–born Muslim stylist from New York who evaluated the holy sites throughout Israel based on how “fabulous” they were—and getting him back to our rendezvous spot on time. Adhering to a schedule was not his forte, especially when there was shopping to be done. Rather than get him back on time, I followed him and we took our time looking at bedouin scarves, barrels full of fragrant spices, frankincense, and jewelry. And then, suddenly, I heard that unmistakable tone of knowing in the shopkeeper’s voice. He was asking if we were boyfriends.
“Yes, he’s just a friend,” my friend called back. “Give me a kiss,” he said, walking away but looking back over his shoulder with bedroom eyes. For a split second I pictured the two of us being shouted out of the bazaar, the godless homosexuals chased away by irate Palestinian shopkeepers. Instead, the men just laughed, and one made a kissing gesture toward my friend. They weren’t looking to play smear the queer; they were only flirting to make a sale.
My figurative—and literal—flirtation with Israel started much earlier, at LAX in the line for El Al. The airline is known for its tight security, and the questioning and bag searches were extremely thorough—particularly for me, a single man, a gentile, and with no family in Israel, flying alone. The fact that all the El Al security, to a man, were gorgeous, was a balm for the battery of questions. So what if it’s a cliché that Israel is populated with raven-haired, olive-skinned beauties and that the image of the studly young soldier is so plainly a part of a marketing campaign aimed at American gay men? I had no reason to question the truth of it yet, and I was enjoying the research.