How do you say GAY in Arabic?

How do you say gay in Arabic? You just don’t. Because gays don’t exist, or rather shouldn’t exist. Arabic has no single word to express the condition of people who love people of the same sex, apart from the formal, obsolete word monthly, a literal translation of the Latin word homosexual.

Yet many words are used to address them, words of shame and anger, slur and abuse. The most common are khawal, which in the past defined men who dressed like women and performed in belly dance shows, and shaz, literally abnormal, unnatural and deviant.

It goes without saying that gay people in Arabic countries have been facing harsh times: no rights, no dignity, no public existence. I am a lesbian in Cairo, a real one, no jokes, no hoaxes. My privilege, I am a foreigner. I came back to Egypt a few months ago, with a quite short, unusual and difficult-to-manage hairstyle. From the very first day, I could not walk in the streets without attracting any insults, comments or taunts. The question enti wad walla bet ( are you a boy or a girl?) has become the leitmotif of my stay in Egypt. I have been told by women that girls are not allowed to wear such a masculine haircut; God prohibits it and suggests that women let their hair grow. I have been rejected from the feminine bandwagon, because i look like a boy, I have been bothered in the masculine one, because after all I am a girl.

In Egypt, as in many other countries of the West, gender and homosexuality are two issues hard to deal with; there is a spontaneous and inborn categorization of people sexual orientation according to their sex, simply men go with women and women go with men. But then it happens also that men go with men and in this case, as a topos of ancient civilisations, if the man remains active during the relation, he can still consider himself a macho man. As a result there is not space for other kind of love, expressions of gender or androgyny.

Since the 11th of May 2001, when on an ordinary night at the Queen Boat in Cairo, 52 Egyptian men were arrested on a charge of homosexuality (actually, the initial allegation was “contempt of heavinly religions and the creation of new Satan-worshipping cult”, infact in the Egyptian legal system there is not a single law condamning homosexuality), lifes of gay people in Egypt started to be harsher and harsher.

The Queen Boat night has been the worst egyptian sexual scandal in the history of the nation. After a year of tortures, investigation, brutal and obsolete anal examinations (based on Tardieu Theory dated 1857), 23 out of the 52 arrested that night have been found guilty of debauchery, according to the evidences. Evidences included: spontaneous claim (under violent beating and punishments), the results of the anal examination (an anus found to be shaped in an abonrmal way is a clear reason that that person must be gay and a passive one), the colour of the underwear dressed the night of the imprisonment
and last but not least, the length of the hair.

Since the old regime fell down, hundreds of Egyptians have occupied Midan Tahrir and the main streets of the Capital to ask for rights, political transparency and democratic elections. Minority groups have been enjoying this transitional period to break cover demanding for law that protect their dignity and their interests, but the time for gay people to go and fight for their rights has yet to come. Actually, it’s a little bit hard thinking about gay rights in Egypt, when the basic rights for women are denied. The machism and the patriarchalism that constitutes the Egyptian society are an obstacle to the development of a legal gay community, gays are seen as women, that is to say weak, sensitive and unable to accomplish any serious assignment. And if asking for rights and respect means too much now, the Cairene homosexual community is working to give help and support to the group itself.

The 25th of January Revolution doesn’t envolve gay people, doesn’t envolve women. What Egypt really needs is a sexual and a feminist revolt which could open the minds and sweep away years and years of sexism, religious prejudices and taboos.

One physician opined, “If the ubnah is prolonged, the person affected by it cannot be cured, in particular, if he is obviously feminine and effeminate and loves very much to be like a woman.”

The eighth- and ninth-century writers Abu Nuwas and Al-Jahiz used the word latah for homosexuals, and the latter writer even referred to ghulat al-latah, or ultra-homosexuals. Abu Nuwas also provided one of the more beautiful medieval Arabic references to homosexuality, asking “Would I choose seas over land?” in one of his poems. The sea is a metaphorical reference to the love of women, while land is the love of men, according to Lebanese-born political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil.

Many of the words referring to homosexuality in the Islamic world eventually faded into disuse, replaced by vague and derogatory terms. In Arabic, sadj, meaning peculiar, is now a common label for a homosexual person. Shudhudh jinsi, which means sexual perversion, became shorthand for homosexuality. Academics have led the recent movement to develop neutral terms for gay people. Arabic translators of Sigmund Freud’s work are credited with coining mithli, and a Moroccan magazine for gay people has taken the name. The movement has spread beyond Arabic-speaking countries. Turks, for example, refer to gay people as escinsel, —es means same, and cinsel refers to gender—or sometimes borrow the English word itself, referring to gay people as homoseksuel. The English word gay is also gaining currency across the Islamic world.

Leave a Comment