Last edited: December 07, 2004

Twice Oppressed

The Daily Californian, November 3, 2003

By Mehammed Mack

At a recent film screening documenting the lives of gay Middle-Easterners, I ran into the startling story of Mahmoud (not his real name), a gay Palestinian seeking refuge in California. Let me, with as much fidelity as I can manage, relate the amazing chronology of his life:

Fifteen-year-old Mahmoud, living in Jerusalem as an Israeli-Palestinian, contained just as much homophobia and curiosity as was normal for his situation. One night, while watching a movie with his mother and best friend Hashim, he chanced onto his first gay experience: with the excuse of the cold, Mahmoud and friend nuzzled ever closer, and then kissed. Mom, who was already drowsy, went up to bed, and the boys got rid of their virginity.

At the time, both had Jewish girlfriends (not in any way as an alibi) whom they loved. Neither suspected their homosexuality, yet felt confirmed in it after that night, which would turn out to be the start of a seven-year relationship. Mahmoud’s parents, concerned for his professional well-being, pushed him to pursue higher education. He eventually matriculated at a prestigious Californian medical school.The Golden State, a progressive dream contemplated from the TV set, was to become Mahmoud’s new sanctuary.

The next priority became getting Hashim to the United States. His social status (poor and under-educated) inhibited their quest for a student visa, and the distance and bureaucracy started to wear down their relationship, culminating in a break-up after one year. They remained in monthly contact, and pretty soon Hashim had found another, a Jewish man 10 years his senior. Their love life started out well, but began to turn more and more abusive, prompting the parent’s suspicion.

After one particularly brutal fight, the older boyfriend called the Israeli police and complained that a Palestinian had attacked him. Hashim was summarily arrested and taken to headquarters for questioning. He repeatedly stated “we’re friends!” to dispel the nationalist motive sure to land him in jail. In private conference with the Jewish man, the police admitted a lack of evidence and left it to him to decide whether he wanted to prosecute, at which stage he made a crucial slip and revealed that Hashim was his boyfriend. With new ideas in mind, the police reinterrogated Hashim. He denied the charge of homosexuality outright, to which the investigators responded, “We know what you are!” The police offered Hashim two options: give us the names of every gay Palestinian you know, or we’ll tell your family about you. The Israeli police employ this tactic because gay Palestinians make the best collaborators: pressured into a vulnerable secrecy, they can be forced to perform any bidding if one threatens to “out” them. Rather than face banishment at home, he chose to implicate the homosexual community. Unwittingly, he mentioned Mahmoud’s name.

News of the “list” quickly reached Jerusalem’s Palestinian sector, and in short time Mahmoud’s parents found out he’d had a homosexual relationship. At a family gathering, Mahmoud’s uncles promised to “take care of the matter.” Initially, they pleaded with him to come back home and “talk.”

Later on, his sister called and prefaced what she was to say with “I love you no matter what you are.” “Don’t talk to your uncles,” she continued, “they’ve found out. Didn’t you get my letters?” Mahmoud, predictably, had not received a single one. Soon after, the uncles upended the house and rifled through his belongings, unearthing an old photo of Mahmoud and Hashim kissing. “We need to resolve this issue, it’s a shame on the family,” they declared, implying anything from arranged marriage to death. They tried again to coax him into coming home, broaching the topic of marriage; when Mahmoud declined, they let loose on him, calling him the Arabic equivalent of “faggot.” His mother, in her first intervention, told her son not to come back.

Mahmoud is currently applying for asylum in the United States; if he succeeds he will be only the second Israeli citizen to have done so (a half-Arab half-Jewish fisherman had complained of chronic mistreatment by port authorities and was granted asylum in the United States earlier this year). The Israeli government reacted with indignation at the first case, as it contradicted the democratic image it tirelessly lobbies for. Without doubt, Mahmoud’s story will cause similar consternation, forcing both Israel and Palestine to reassess their unwilling cooperation in creating a new kind of victim.

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