In the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid. By the time I was 10, though no one spoke of it, I knew what happened to boys like me in our impoverished society; they were designated victims, to be used, with everyone’s blessing, as easy sexual objects by frustrated men. And I knew that no one would save me – not even my parents, who surely loved me. For them too, I was shame, filth.

Abdellah Taïa, A boy to be sacrificed.
Illustration by Gabija Chomskytė

I am a 50-year-old accomplished woman that has to keep her head down and be as discreet as possible not to attract cat calling from boys as young as 9-year-old to senior men. I feel safer walking with my own son that is 20 years old. Do you think that is normal?

One of the founders of #ZankaDialna

From the age of 10, Abdellah Taïa had to walk his head down in Morocco. This statement of 2012 echoed in me a 2019 statement of a female Moroccan activist, who declared: “I am a 50-year-old accomplished woman that has to keep her head down and be as discreet as possible not to attract cat calling from boys as young as 9-year-old to senior men. I feel safer walking with my own son that is 20 years old. Do you think that is normal?”

In Muslim countries where homosexuality is illegal, the surge of iconic figures in homelands can be viewed as a ray of hope for members of the LGBT+ community. Such figures include Abdellah Taïa, the first openly gay Moroccan writer and film director. But Muslim and Arab gays cannot only rely on the coming out of contemporary figures. They have to rediscover and re-appropriate the rich sources found in their culture.

In Tunisia, one of the most advanced Arab countries in terms of women’s rights, the only one where polygamy is prohibited, a group of activists created “Shams” (“Sun”) to extend this beacon of hope to the other former protectorate in North Africa. Its name stems from a former Sufi (mystic) and its logo represents two whirling dervishes, an order founded by his disciple, Rumi as the “Mevlevi Order”.

The Sufi and dervish Shams-e-Tabrizi after whom the association is named was not Arabic but Persian and he was not exactly soft towards the less ancient Arabic language, stating for example that there was nothing good to compare between Persian and Arabic when it comes to elegance and meaning. Shams was renowned for his poetry and for instructing Rumi, creating a spiritual relationship quite similar to the one tying Socrates and Plato, two major Western reference philosophers who also made a great place for homoeroticism.

Although there is no direct evidence of a homosexual relationship between Shams and Rumi, certain rumours and the writings themselves have entertained their same-sex love. One undoubtedly has to be familiar with the mysteries of Persian poetry to understand the profound and deeply philosophical, spiritual knowledge that Shams was looking for in an extraordinary equal student such as Rumi for the former to become the mentor of a protégé in the Western sense.

Our European tradition of sharing knowledge comes from the Ancient Greeks and the myth of Odysseus, where the latter places his son Telemachus in the hands of his friend, the experienced Mentor. No eroticism is however attached to the story even though the apparition of Athena under the traits of Mentor blurs the picture of the relation between the old and the young man.

The extent to which imparting the experience and knowledge can be twined in a romantic or sexual relationship leads us to interrogate the true feelings Sufi masters experienced for their mentees and reciprocally. In the case of Rumi and Shams, it is certain that real love connected the two men. It is evidenced by Rumi’s writings that place same-sex love between two men as a superior quest, comparable to the experience of going beyond religion to find God. And certainly, the life of Rumi, who was married, was greatly changed when he met Shams.

They loved each other as equals, and in reality, it was impossible to know who was the lover (erastes) and who was the beloved (paidika). The two had profound conversations and gazes but the jealousy of other students or men sparked, which would exile and eventually lead Shams to disappear.

The re-appropriation of this past, on spiritual grounds, would be of great help to LGBT+ people who identify as Muslims. They could raise it as a standard in their countries of origin, which have become much more conservative by turning a blind eye to their own cultures.

Abdellah Taïa is such an example of a gay who considers himself Muslim because he is “very spiritual”, and he believes that “freedom has existed in Islam through those such as the Arab philosopher Averroes and the Iranian poet Rumi, and in works such as ‘1001 Nights’”. Taïa indeed told a newspaper, “I don’t want to dissociate myself from Islam. It is part of my identity. It is not because I am gay that I will reject it. We need to recover this freedom that has existed in Islam.”

Referring to that freedom, Taïa also told in another interview, “I consider myself culturally Muslim. I feel connected to the great writers and thinkers of Islamic civilization, the great philosophers, sociologists and poets. I believe firmly in secularism, and I think that Muslims would be better off liberating themselves from religion. Islam should have no role in government.”

The Christian World could, in turn, be inspired by the mysticism of Sufis and whirling dervishes since it has already distanced itself from and found other models than its own, notably in the pre-existent Antiquity, to build up homosexual/lesbian (later LGBT+) identities, which widely came to prominence in Western countries. The mutual benefit of coming together of both cultural groups, Christian and Muslim, bears a potential to promote greatly the dialogue of acceptance on the three inter-connected continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.

In Tunisia, controversy burst after the appearance of the founder of “Shams” (the NGO) on television: the following days, shops, restaurants, Internet cafes were posting on their doors: “homosexuals (and atheists) not allowed”, while others were exhibiting: “homosexuals allowed, we are all Tunisians”.

The reading of the event draws the following conclusion: there is a segment of the population that cannot accept the fact that LGBT+ people can be religious and they are ready to dissociate them from their own nationals in spite of the fact that some LGBT+ people, as we just witnessed, while condemning a paramount form of their religion, still associate with it as part of their education and culture. And these people do so, despite being sentenced to up to three years of prison for homosexual acts in the case of Tunisia, while gay men would not be considered as criminals for the same act in other countries or parts of the world: their engaging in a consensual homosexual sexual relationship is not universally recognized as a crime.

“The problem with homosexuals,” Taïa has said, is that “they are not accepted from the beginning. Where I come from, homosexuals allegedly do not exist. I had no other choice but to accept this non-existence. We could call this exile, meaning that your people, they deny you the most important thing, which is recognizing you as a human being”.

This sad assertion tends to divide our civilization too, along the lines of a more Western-leaning orientation and an Eastern conservative Weltanschauung or worldview, where religious practices coincide with religious views. But those who accept and welcome LGBT+ people can definitely take pride in reconciling with the universal legacy and values of our Greek and Sufi scholars.