A minority within a minority

For gay Arabs, Tel Aviv is a place they can express themselves – but some still fear discovery by their families.

A minority within a minority (photo credit: Reuters)
A minority within a minority
(photo credit: Reuters)
Tel Aviv may be the gay capital of the Middle East and, with its recent positive accolades in various magazines and website polls, maybe even of the world, but is this title really deserved? Thousands of tourists will join tens of thousands of locals next week at the now famous Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade to celebrate the city’s free and liberal attitudes, but will the Arab members of the community be celebrating along with everyone else? The answer would appear to be yes – but some still from within the closet.
Just as numerous young Israeli gay men from the smallest moshavim to the farthest development towns gravitate toward Tel Aviv each year to live and make a life for themselves, so do a small number of gay Arabs. While any move to Tel Aviv is significant, for gay Arabs living in Israel there is often more at stake.
For those gay Arabs who either live in Jaffa or have migrated to Tel Aviv, “the New York of the Middle East” has a lot to offer. The very active Gay Center in Tel Aviv has a whole host of events and facilities that cater to the gay community, but none cater specifically to the Arab community. While at first glance this may not seem to be a positive for those Arabs struggling with the conflict between their identity and their culture, it actually reflects an all-inclusive approach. When the Gay Center was asked why there were no activities specifically catering to the Arab community, the answer was simply: “Everyone is treated equally here. There is no need to have separate events.”
On an official level there may be no significant separation, but with Tel Aviv being a party city, when it comes to nightlife, there is a special night held every few weeks specifically for Israeli Arabs as well as for those from the West Bank and Gaza. This night offers a safe haven for those in the Arab gay community who are otherwise unable to express themselves how they want to. Ahmed (not his real name) a 21-year-old gay Jaffa resident who lives with his family, is a regular at these club nights and says it’s a good excuse to go out and meet people who are similar to him. While Ahmed says in theory he would feel comfortable enough to go out to any regular gay night in Tel Aviv, he stresses that having the opportunity to mix with other Arab men is important to him.
“I think it’s obvious – you have more in common with people from your own community,” he explains. “The gay community of Tel Aviv is very open and accepting but I do feel as if I’m a minority within a minority. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not something you can’t ignore. I am who I am.”
When it comes to having relationships, Ahmed prefers Arab men. He says he has nothing against the Jews or tourists from all over the world who flood Tel Aviv’s gay clubs every night, but he is proud of his Arab roots and looks for partners who share a similar culture and ideals.
Ahmed’s parents have no idea that he’s gay and he has no intention of telling them. His traditional family just wouldn’t know how to accept it, he explains. “I love who I am and I’m happy that I get to be who I want to be outside of the house, but my family is too important to me to risk not having them on my side,” he says. He says that he would not attend events such as the Gay Pride Parade for fear of being seen supporting gay rights in public.
The confident young man admits that one day he will probably marry a woman, as is expected of him by his family and his community, and he has made peace with that.
“Unless things drastically change among the Arab community in the next few years, I will find myself a wife and settle down,” Ahmed explains. “It’s really great that there are so many opportunities in Tel Aviv to go out and have a good time because I can get it all out of my system while I’m still young so that when I do eventually settle down I will be less tempted to do so.”
IBRAHIM (not his real name), a 28-year-old chef from an Arab village in the North, doesn’t quite share the same sentiments about following the traditional Arab path. Originally from a small village near Karmiel, Ibrahim escaped from his family home after his brother found out that he was gay. While Ibrahim did not fear violence, he says that he could no longer live in a place that did not accept him for who he was.
“I could have just done what so many others in my situation do and marry a woman to live a traditional Arab life. But then I wouldn’t be true to myself,” he explains. Ibrahim says he is proud to be an Arab and it has made him who is today, but he is not willing to let it rule his life and make him unhappy.
Working as a chef in a Tel Aviv restaurant, Ibrahim is making a new life for himself after running away three years ago. He misses his family, who know where he is but choose not have anything to do with him.
“In an ideal world they would accept me for who I am and I would be able to bring a partner home with me to meet them, but that’s not the case, so I am making a new life for myself here in Tel Aviv where I can pretty much be who I want to be.
“While Tel Aviv is very accepting and most people don’t care that I’m Arab, it would be naive to say that it’s never an issue,” he says. “The bubble of Tel Aviv does block out most of the tensions that exist throughout the rest of the country, but it’s almost impossible to forget that they don’t exist. It is Israel at the end of the day.”
Ibrahim doesn’t currently have a partner but he says he is looking for one. It doesn’t matter who he is or where he comes from; he says that the most important factor is that they love and respect one another. “While it would be nice to find an Arab boyfriend, I don’t limit myself to dating just Arabs. Tel Aviv has so much to offer, so while I don’t have the pressures of my family telling me what to do, I may as well enjoy myself,” Ibrahim jokes.
Being an Arab in Tel Aviv can actually work to his advantage when it comes to meeting men, Ibrahim explains. “For many regular Israeli guys that I’ve come across, having a relationship with an Arab guy is considered exotic and exciting,” he says. “It’s hard to ignore the country that we live in so even though most people are liberal and accepting, it’s still considered taboo to date an Arab guy. But among the gay community that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”