16 July 2004
“Captain, there are no homos in Baghdad.”
More than a year later, I can still hear that line clearly in my mind. It still makes me laugh when I say it aloud. Tamer “Tom” Muslawi told me that. He stated it firmly, as if it were a fact. Fish swim in water. Smoking causes cancer. There are no homos in Baghdad. This maxim quickly became a favorite among my housemates and it could often be heard quoted during late-night, laughter-filled bull sessions.
Tom had grown up in the affluent Al-Mansur section of Baghdad. In 1968, when he was 14, his family left Iraq when the Ba’athists seized power. They settled outside Detroit, along with thousands of others fleeing Mesopotamia. Thirty-five years later Tom had returned to work with the coalition as an interpreter with the Titan corporation, the firm employed by the U.S. Army to handle its translation needs. As was the case with so many returning Iraqi expatriates, the Baghdad of Tom’s mind was frozen more than three decades in the past. Everything was better back then, even, by some accounts, the weather. “I swear to God,” (pronounced “Eyeswaretagott”) Tom told me as we sat underneath a 120+ °F August sun, “it never used to get this hot before Saddam.”
This too was a fact in Tom’s mind. Saddam made summers in Iraq oppressively, unbearably hot…and there were no homos in Baghdad.
The genesis of that line came in response to my observation that I’d seen many Iraqi men walking down the street holding hands. I’d only been in country a week, but in my drives around the Iraqi capital I’d noticed grown, swarthy, sweaty men holding hands wherever I went. Further more, these men kissed each other dangerously close to the mouth upon greeting one another. Left check, right cheek, left cheek. Kiss, kiss, kiss. “Who knew there was such an openly gay sub-culture in the Middle East?” I said aloud back in my house in the Green Zone. Tom was one of my housemates. While others laughed at my somewhat tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended) remark, Tom got very serious. He leaned forward in his chair, cleared his throat, and uttered the line of the war. “Captain, there are no homos in Baghdad.” I came to really appreciate Tom’s sudden declarations, always prefaced respectfully by title. “Captain, I have meat pies!” he announced one time as he bounded through the door one afternoon after going outside the wire to do some shopping. On another occasion, he advised we would-be suitors against courting any beautiful Iraqi woman. “Gentlemen, they don’t put out like American girls. Eyeswaretagott.”
On this matter it seems Tom had something. Arab women, both Christian and Muslim, remain virgins until marriage. It is a matter of personal and family honor. This is true across the Middle East, from Iraq to Jordan to Egypt and beyond. Whether they choose to wear the veil or not, all…and I do mean 99.9% all…Arab women refrain from sex until their wedding night. The next morning, crimson sheets are presented to the groom’s mother as proof of the woman’s purity. (My mom would be happy if I simply remembered to send a card on Mother’s Day.) “You American guys are so lucky,” a taxi driver in Cairo recently told me. “We can’t have sex until we get married, and a man can’t get married until he owns a house and a car and has enough money in the bank to take care of his family. You know how expensive houses are in Cairo? I don’t think I’m ever going to…”
“Okay, we get it,” the American woman in the back of the cab with me interrupted. But he was right. American men are lucky. Imagine how different life in the U.S. would be if people actually seriously planned for marriage. Arabs fall in love with both the heart and the head. It seems we Americans prefer to focus on the former.
“Again! Again!” the Egyptian policeman shouted from atop his camel. I was standing next to the Sphinx with the woman from the cab. The smiling man silhouetted by the Great Pyramids was encouraging us to kiss one more time for his benefit. He tapped his ship of the desert with a riding crop to get it to move left a bit so he could see better. “Again! Again!” We somewhat self-consciously complied. Just a quick peck on the lips. The young, mustachioed voyeur applauded, before adjusting his white saucer cap in the sun. The camel uttered a lip-flapping grunt. “Again! Again! Do it again!” It suddenly became apparent that he was getting off on this. Poor guy. This was the most action he could hope to get.
With no young guys in the Middle East gettin’ any lovin’, maybe now you know why all the Arab men you see on TV look so angry. Maybe Israeli atrocities, American incursions, and corrupt dictatorships aren’t the problems at all. Maybe the solution to the Middle East crisis is a lot simpler.
Arab singles can’t even go on dates. When men and women do go out, it’s always done in groups. If the girls aren’t home by a reasonable hour, their brothers show up on the scene to find out why. Perhaps this complete lack of sexual activity with women is what makes Arab men so comfortable around each other. When one door shuts, another one opens. Arab men hold hands, they kiss cheeks, they even sing songs to each other. The other day I was in a health club in Amman when I came across two young men sitting nude in a hot tub. Both, strangely, were wearing sunglasses. One guy was crooning to the other. The only word I understood was “habibi” which means, “my love.” Had I asked them if they were gay, I’m sure they would have beaten me up. The same goes for the two young guys I saw wearing inappropriately tight florescent Speedos walking hand-in-hand near the Dead Sea last month.
“Eyeswaretagott they’re not gay,” Tom Muslawi protested again when I saw him for dinner recently in Jordan. “But they were nude and singing to each other, Tom!” I replied. “It’s just the way we Arabs are,” was his response. “I know Tom. There are no homos in Baghdad. But this was in Amman.” While that joke was still in the air, another guy at the table, this one from Jordan chimed in. “What are you talking about? There’s plenty of homos in Baghdad. I’ve been to Baghdad a bunch of times and you always see homos.” Tom and I looked at him as he dipped his bread into the bowl of ground chickpeas and olive oil in front of us. “In fact, you can get homos anywhere in the Middle East.”
“Homos,” I corrected. “Not hummus.”
“Oh,” my local friend replied as he looked concurringly toward Tom, “You’re right habibi, there are no homos in Baghdad.”