Jan 28, 2016

The Gay Arab World

During the famous summer of 1981, when I was working in the college library, taking classes in Chaucer and Modern German Culture, going to see Clash of the Titans, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wolfen, Arthur, American Werewolf in London, Hell Night, and The Chosen, and finding subtext songs on the radio, the Film Club took a field trip to Madison Wisconsin for an Italian Film Festival, and I saw Pasolini's Arabian Nights.  









Somebody told me there was gay content.  Maybe a little.  But only as an aside in the main plot, where he searches for his lost girlfriend Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini). In the final scene, Zumurrud, disguised as a man, buys Nur-e-Din as "his" slave.  "He" orders the boy to strip and lie face down on the bed.  Preparing for a sexual assault, Nur-e-Din complies.  Then Zumurrud reveals her true identity.  Heterosexual love wins out over a threat of homoerotic assault.  I left the theater sick to my stomach.  My complete review is here.


I was amazed to discover, years later, that Pasolini was gay.  Homophobic, but gay nonetheless.

Throughout my childhood, movies about the Arab world provided few hints of a "good place." They were mostly adaptations of the Arabian Nights, replete with Sinbads and Aladdins and Ali Babas who get girls, even when they were played by gay actors like Kerwin Mathews (I hadn't yet seen Sabu's homoromantic Arabian adventures.)

TV offered only I Dream of Jeannie, a heterosexist fable, and Shazzan, about a boy and a girl trapped in an Arabian Nights world.  





I was not yet aware of the homoeroticism of Medieval Arab, Turkish, and Persian poets, such as Abu Nuwas: 


I die of love for him, perfect in every way,
Lost in the strains of wafting music.
My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body
And I do not wonder at his beauty.

Or of the Orientalist fervor that sent hundreds of gay Europeans, including Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, and Andre Gide, to North Africa in search of Arab lovers.









But there were tantalizing hints in books.  Sonia and Tim Gidal's Sons of the Desert was about two Bedouin boys. 

The Stone of Peace, by Karah Feder Tal, has a Jewish teenager running away from his kibbutz in the Negev and befriending the Bedouin Ahmad. 

James Forman's My Enemy, My Brother had another Jewish-Arab friendship.

And Passing Brave was a real-life adventure about two Americans, William Polk and William Mares, armed only with a knowledge of Classical Arabic, crossing the desert in search of a "good place." 

See also: The Egyptian Professor of Political Science