Last week I sat opposite Lena, a young Jordanian woman, in a cafe in downtown Amman. Almost casually, she took a sip of her coffee, placed the mug back on the table, looked me in the eye and said “Yes. I could be killed.”
“Because I’m gay.”
Naively, I had believed that being gay in Amman was not particularly controversial. Homosexuality in Jordan has been legal since 1951. The age of consent is the same for homosexual and heterosexual intercourse and, while government censorship controls how homosexuality is presented in the media, there are various Jordanian publications that are either aimed at an LGBTQ audience or are pro-LGBTQ rights.
But here was a woman telling me that she feared for her life. Behind the seemingly liberal legal system there is clearly a level of pain and fear that I drastically underestimated.
According to Lena, being gay is not really legal in Jordan, whatever the law may officially say.
“It’s the grey area… the thing that no one’s talking about.”
The reason she believes this is that homosexuality can still incur a heavy penalty.
“Honour killings are a big problem here,” she explained. “I know cases where it happened because the person was gay”.
This is then legitimised by the legal system’s refusal to properly sentence the perpetrators.
“Sometimes they get nothing… sometimes six months [in prison].” Lena’s anger was visible.
I asked Lena if it was honour killing that made her fear for her own life.
“No,” she replied. While Lena has not told her parents that she is gay because she is sure that they will not accept her, she does not fear that they would hurt her physically. Where physical violence is concerned, Lena fears the wider community, not her family – someone on her street who might hear something and take “justice” into their own hands. She even fears the police.
“If a policeman heard that I am gay I would be scared that he would beat me up in the street.”
Lena describes the police as an authority that sometimes enforces the written law and at other times enforces deeper cultural laws. For Lena and other young lesbians in Amman this has particular significance regarding the convention that unmarried women do not live alone – they go straight from their father’s home to their husband’s home. So what do you do if you’re gay? Live at home forever with parents who have no idea that you’re gay? Strictly there’s no legal prohibition against single women living alone and many richer women do choose this option, but this does not stop the police from helping parents to keep their adult daughters at home. Lena told me that one of her friends tried to move out on her own but her parents called the police, who dragged her back again.
I asked Lena what her plan is, if it’s a choice between marriage and living in her parents’ home for life.
“My parents are asking me when I’m going to marry. But we have back up marriages, where I marry a guy who I know is gay, and we both know we’re gay,” she explained.
The only other option is to leave Jordan.
“My family would let me leave if it was to study abroad. I want to go to Amsterdam.”
But even if she could find a scholarship, it would only be a temporary fix.
“I don’t actually want to leave Jordan. My life is here, my friends are here, my family are here.”
Not all gay people in Amman share Lena’s fears or feel the same restrictions, however.
“No, that would not happen,” Madian said, when I asked him whether he shared Lena’s fear of police harassment or violence. “The police are the police. They wouldn’t beat me up on the street.”
Madian is the founder and owner of Books@ Cafe, Amman’s most famous gay bar-cafe-restaurant and book shop, where I met him for the interview. He is openly gay and is well-known in Amman. He is an activist, holding talks at the cafe about LGBTQ rights and sexual health.
Madian does not fear for his life and he is able to own a gay bar playing music loud into the night without hassle from the police or from the government.
Why do Lena and Madian have such different experiences? I thought that maybe it is easier to be a gay man in Amman than a gay woman, but both Lena and Madian told me they think the opposite is true: it is easier for a woman to pass off a relationship as a close friendship without attracting suspicion. I wondered if their age difference could explain the discrepancy, but while Madian is twenty years older than Lena, he pointed out that many people he knows who work in or visit his cafe and are part of his social group are in their mid-twenties, like Lena. Madian suggested instead that how easy you find life as a gay person in Amman comes down to how easily those close to you and within your community can accept you.
So who are the tolerant people in Amman? Revealing my own cultural prejudice, I had equated “Western” with “liberal” and assumed that the most tolerant people regarding LGBTQ rights would be the most Westernised – wealthy young Ammaners who study in the UK and the US, speak flawless English and wear Western fashions.
I first suspected that I was wrong about this when I went out for drinks with two very rich, Western-educated Jordanian men. Chatting on the way home I told them that I often go to Books@.
“You know that’s a gay bar…?”
“Don’t you mind?”
“No… Why? Do you?”
“It’s forbidden in Islam.”
I am not Muslim and I don’t pretend to know what is or isn’t right in Islam, but I still wondered how they had decided that being gay was wrong, while they were happy to drink and have pre-marital sex — two things which many Muslims believe are forbidden.
One of the men answered: “I know that drinking is haraam [forbidden] but I do it anyway. I know that having sex is haraam but I do it anyway. But being gay is really, really haraam. It’s not okay.”
I asked Madian whether this exchange was representative. Were the rich, Westernised elite actually quite intolerant of homosexuality?
“Yes,” Madian answered. “The less exposed you are to the West, the more liberal you are about it.”
Amman can be roughly divided into East and West. East Amman is poorer, more conservative in terms of dress and alcohol, and sees fewer Western immigrants or tourists. West Amman is richer, dotted with malls and bars, and has a growing European and American population.
“The most liberal are the East Ammaners,” Madian told me. “They haven’t fallen into the trap of labelling and dissecting sexuality – they have a more fluid sexuality.”
Just as in all human civilisations, homosexuality has existed here as long as people have been attracted to one another. Homosexuality has never been entirely uncontroversial, but to an extent it was accepted as a fact of life. Now, the Western desire to define homosexuality has brought people and their sexualities under scrutiny.
“East Amman doesn’t talk about sex like the West does,” said Madian.
Lena agreed that the rich and the Westernised are not necessarily the tolerant. Both stressed, however, that it “really comes down to the individual” as no group is entirely tolerant or intolerant. Prejudice is found everywhere, just as open-minded people are. Both Lena and Madian live in West Amman and have open-minded, liberal friends.
So what is the barrier to tolerance in Amman? Without hesitation, Lena and Madian answered: “Religion”.
In Madian’s words, it is “our biggest enemy”.
He was quick to clarify that it is not Islam itself that is the issue because “Nothing in the Qur’an actually says that [homosexuality is wrong]. Politicised Islam is the issue.”
“Christianity is exactly the same,” he said, but asserted that Islam is the greater barrier simply because it is the dominant faith in Amman.
Lena explained why politicised Islam presents such a barrier.
“People are scared to criticise Islam,” she told me, and even those who dare to try are unsuccessful because there are “no channels” for such criticism.
Lena says that acceptance of the status quo is taught within schools.
“We need to change the children first,” she stressed. “The lessons are from the government. Children don’t think for themselves.”
Madian specified that it was the lack of sex education in schools that was particularly dangerous to the gay community.
“It wasn’t [a problem] until a few weeks ago,” Madian told me. “I noticed one of the guys at the cafe looked very ill so I said he had to go to the doctors and I took him there myself to get him tested for various illnesses. The results came back. He was HIV positive. He contracted the virus almost 10 years ago – he’s 25 now. I told him that he would have to make a list of all the people he’d had unprotected sex with. There were 13 names. I couldn’t tell those people without outing this man, so instead I created a general panic. Since then, I know four more men who’ve been diagnosed.”
Madian warned that AIDS will not be defeated as long as the public lack sexual health awareness.
“The people remain ignorant” but compulsory sex education is “not likely to get through government.”
So with barriers like education and political Islam very firmly in place, what are the prospects for the future?
“It’s going backwards,” Lena said, referring to social views in the Middle East more generally. “I don’t know what Jordan will be like after a few years. Maybe it will get better, maybe we’ll be like our neighbours, Syria and Iraq.”
The conflict and violence in bordering countries has made people cautious. Social change can be regarded with suspicion as a means of destabilising the country at such a volatile time.
“We want change, but safety and stability are the most important things,” Lena told me.
Madian, however, has a different perspective.
“You have to have age to view the trajectory. It’s much better than in 1997.” Madian opened Books@ in 1997. It was quickly infiltrated by government spies, concerned about the effect this establishment might have on “public morality”. These spies “outed” Madian to his family and friends. Now, nearly 20 years later, Madian says he has no trouble with the government or the police regarding his cafe and has since opened another branch in another neighbourhood.
Madian sees Amman as a city that is changing every day, still finding its feet.
“Amman is a melting pot. There are so many backgrounds. People don’t know their identities yet.”
In his view, this creates an ideal situation in which to take society to new places.
Just as I was getting ready to leave, he leant back slightly in his chair, completely at home in this safe space that he had created for those whom he terms “the rebels of Amman”, smiled and said, “We’re on our way.”