One evening in Jeddah after a sandstorm, I sat in the glass rotunda of a café on Tahlia Street. I’d spent many nights there, interviewing men who were too nervous about being caught with a woman to invite me to their apartments. In a country with no cinemas or clubs or bars, the family sections of cafés and restaurants are popular dating haunts, and during my time in Saudi Arabia, I saw many heterosexual couples talking quietly together, while the girl’s cover—her girlfriends—sat nearby.
On this occasion, I was accompanied by Misfir, 34, who was showing me how to navigate Paltalk, a Web site similar to the one where he met his boyfriend three and a half years ago. Misfir told me that “bottoms”—men willing to be penetrated—are in short supply, and he advised me that if I wanted to generate responses to my postings, I should come up with a screen name that hinted at such willingness. We settled on “jedbut,” and I logged on to the “Gulf Arab Love” chat room, introducing myself as a bottom.
Within minutes, I had more admirers than I could handle. They dispensed with small talk, asking for my “ASL”—age, size, and location—without preamble. “Jeddah_bythesea” cited his private dimensions and sent electronic “nudges” when I was slow to respond. “Jedbuilt” pressed me to continue the conversation by phone, but I was distracted by the flirty attentions of jed-to-heart.” However, jed-to-heart’s tone changed when I revealed I was a journalist:
JED-TO-HEART: I lie
jedbut: who do you lie to?
JED-TO-HEART: I lie in my work
JED-TO-HEART: with my family
JED-TO-HEART: but I’m gay
JED-TO-HEART: I can’t say I’m gay
jedbut: is that hard? to lie? do you tell people you like women?
JED-TO-HEART: that why I lie
jedbut: what do you think your family will do if they find out?
jedbut: are you married?
JED-TO-HEART: ohhhhhhhhhhhhh I think I will kill myselif
He went on to write that he kept his sexual preference a secret from just about everyone, including his wife of five years.
Back in Gulf Arab Love the next day, I encountered “Anajedtop,” who said he liked both men and women; he too was married. I told him I was a journalist, and we chatted for a bit. I asked him if we could meet. He was hesitant, but he seemed curious to find out whether I was for real. We arranged to get together that evening at the Starbucks on Tahlia Street. I waited for him in the family section, which opens out onto the mall and is surrounded by a screen of plants. A mall guard patrolled just outside. At first, Anajedtop avoided my eyes, directing his comments to my male interpreter. “I went in [the chat room] to get an idea of the bad people in those rooms so that God will keep me away from those kinds of things,” he said, his leg jiggling nervously. He abandoned this weak cover story as our conversation progressed.
He claimed to prefer women, though he admitted that few women frequent the Gulf Arab Love chat room. In the absence of women, he said, he’d “go with” a guy. “I go in and put up an offer,” he said. “I set the tone. I’m in control.” To be in control, for Anajedtop, meant to be on top. “It’s not in my nature to be a bottom,” he said. I asked him whether he was gay, and he responded, “No! A gay is against the norm. Anybody can be a top, but only a gay can be a bottom.” He added, “The worst thing is to be a bottom.”
The call to prayer sounded over a loudspeaker, and his leg began shaking more insistently; he put a hand on his knee in a futile attempt to still it. The guard hovered. “I’m worried the mutawwa'in might come,” Anajedtop said, and rushed off to catch the evening prayer.
In The History of Sexuality, a multivolume work published in the 1970s and ’80s, Michel Foucault proposed his famous thesis that Western academic, medical, and political discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries had produced the idea of the homosexual as a deviant type: In Western society, homosexuality changed from being a behavior (what you do) to an identity (who you are).
In the Middle East, however, homosexual behavior remained just that—an act, not an orientation. That is not to say that Middle Eastern men who had sex with other men were freely tolerated. But they were not automatically labeled deviant. The taxonomy revolved around the roles of top and bottom, with little stigma attaching to the top. “‘Sexuality’ is distinguished not between ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ but between taking pleasure and submitting to someone (being used for pleasure),” the sociologist Stephen O. Murray explains in the 1997 compilation Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. Being a bottom was shameful because it meant playing a woman’s role. A bottom was not locked into his inferior status, however; he could, and was expected to, leave the role behind as he grew older. “There may be a man, and he likes boys. The Saudis just look at this as, ‘He doesn’t like football,’” Dave, a gay American teacher who first moved to Saudi Arabia in 1978, told me. “It’s assumed that he is, as it were, the dominant partner, playing the man’s role, and there is no shame attached to it.” Nor is the dominant partner considered gay.
However much this may seem like sophistry, it is in keeping with a long-standing Muslim tradition of accommodating homosexual impulses, if not homosexual identity. In 19th-century Iran, a young beardless adolescent was considered an object of beauty—desired by men—who would grow naturally into an older bearded man who desired youthful males. There, as in much of the Islamic world, sexual practices were “not considered fixed into lifelong patterns of sexual orientation,” as Afsaneh Najmabadi demonstrates in her 2005 book, Women With Mustaches and Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. A man was expected to marry, and as long as he fulfilled his procreative obligations, the community didn’t probe his extracurricular activities.
A magazine editor in Jeddah told me that many boys in Mecca, where he grew up, have sexual relations with men, but they don’t see themselves as gay. Abubaker Bagader, a human-rights activist based in Jeddah, explained that homosexuality can be viewed as a phase. “Homosexuality is considered something one might pass by,” he said. “It’s to be understood as a stage of life, particularly at youth.” This view of sexual behavior, in combination with the strict segregation of the sexes, serves to foster homosexual acts, shifting the stigma onto bottoms and allowing older men to excuse their younger behavior—their time as bottoms—as mere youthful transgressions.
In Islamic Homosexualities, the anthropologist Will Roscoe shows that this “status-differentiated pattern”— whereby it’s OK to be a top but not a bottom—has its roots in Greco-Roman culture, and he emphasizes that the top-bottom power dynamic is commonly expressed in relations between older men and younger boys. Yasmin, the student who told me about the lesbian enclave at her college, said that her 16-year-old brother, along with many boys his age, has been targeted by his male elders as a sexual object. “It’s the land of sand and sodomites,” she said. “The older men take advantage of the little boys.” Dave, the American educator, puts it this way: “Let’s say there’s a group of men sitting around in a café. If a smooth-faced boy walks by, they all stop and make approving comments. They’re just noting, ‘That’s a hot little number.’”