That I have a thing for dark-featured guys is no secret to those who know me. When I announced I would be visiting the Middle East and North Africa prior to embarking on my latest trip, my second journey into the region thus far, the conclusion to which many jumped — that shawarma wouldn’t be the only meat I consumed in this neck of the woods — wasn’t off base, logically speaking.
In practice however, meeting dudes in Muslim countries — for dudes, anyway — isn’t particularly easy or even legal.
Several of my less-traveled friends and acquaintances, gay and straight alike, have hypothesized that this might introduce an element of excitement to the old “hunt.” In reality however, even appearing gay in most of the Islamic world is dangerous. Actively cruising practically guarantees abuse and punishment, often of the harsh sort. The silver lining? You get to experience aspects of each destination you might miss if you were busy chasing tail.
The Law on Gay Sex in Muslim Countries
Officially, it is illegal to engage in homosexual activity under Islamic law. The penalties for doing so vary depending on which country you visit. In Saudi Arabia it’s death for example, while the United Arab Emirates prescribes the more moderate punishments of imprisonment for locals and deportation for foreigners.
Some countries are even borderline tolerant — in Turkey, a government-sponsored support hotline exists, and several flag-waving gay bars operate in the more cosmopolitan cities of the Islamic world, such as Beirut and Istanbul. In any case, you should always remain vigilant, no matter where in the area you visit.
The enforcement of foreign laws is often different for locals and visitors, so the extent to which these laws apply to foreign travelers in a practical capacity isn’t clear. I would imagine they are only implemented when said foreigner is caught red-handed — or brown-dicked, as it were.
In my experience, police in developing countries avoid approaching Westerners at all costs, usually because of poor facility with English — I would assume this is also the case when homosexuality is suspected but not confirmed. There are of course exceptions to every rule, so let your wrist hang limp, but be prepared to straighten it at a moment’s notice.
Oddly, behavior that would be considered homoerotic or even outright gay in much of the West is commonplace in the Middle East and North Africa. Men of all ages can be seen holding hands and locking arms with their friends as they walk down the street. In some cases, the affection escalates to full-on mouth kissing.
Unfortunately, as arousing as this is to watch in the case of the most attractive locals, it’s more Bert and Ernie than Brokeback Mountain. As I noted when I first saw it in India, a country that isn’t (wholly) Muslim but where the same sort of social conventions exist, men can frequently been seen checking out women while hand-in-hand. I’ve seen it echoed literally everywhere in the Islamic world, from moderate countries such as Jordan and Turkey to more conservative places like Egypt and Dubai.
I don’t claim to know the actual reasons that lead to these sorts of interactions, although I would imagine the gender segregation in Isalmic society has something to do with it. Seeing men and women in public together, particularly in the evening, is a rare sight in most Muslim countries. Seeing women in public at all after sun sets is even less common.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Muslim men get fresh with their bros simply because they aren’t able to do so with their hos, but I imagine there must be some correlation. Regardless of its underlying cause, this phenomenon nonetheless makes the general intolerance of homosexuality in the region all the more puzzling.
Gay Underground in Muslim Countries
This isn’t to say that actual gays don’t exist in Muslim countries — quite the opposite, in fact. To quote my friend Maria, who runs the excellent Travel the Middle East website, homosexuality runs rampant in the Islamic world, albeit extremely on the D/L. As a foreigner, however, it will probably elude you unless you get approached directly, as I did.
After spending one particularly day in Alexandria, Egypt, I was walking east along the city’s corniche toward the railway station to board my train back to Cairo. As is often the case in this part of the world, taxi drivers frequently passed me, yelling out their windows to see if I needed a ride — I didn’t.
One of them in particular was more insistent.
“Please,” he said. “I don’t charge you. I just want to practice my English. Where do you go?”
I bent down and poked my head through the window to take a closer look at the man begging me to get into his cab. Cute? Definitely. But trustworthy? “I’m going to the train station, but I really prefer to walk.”
He continued his pleas. “What time is your train? Where do you go?”
“Eight o’clock,” I said. “Cairo. But I’ll walk. It’s fine.”
“I get you there at 15 to eight.” He wasn’t budging. “Come with me. Talk to me.”
Eventually, I obliged. After a few minutes of chatter, he posed a question I’d gotten used to answering.
“Do you have a girlfriend back in America?”
I shook my head.
I gave him my stock answer. “I travel a lot. I’m busy.”
“I also don’t have.”
“And why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“I like boys.”
His response was unexpected, but not totally surprising. After I revealed to him that I was of th same persuasion, he asked me to come back to his place with him. I couldn’t afford to miss my train to Cairo, however, so I politely declined.
Interestingly, this exchange wasn’t the first or last of its kind over the course of my trip. The first day I arrived in Egypt, for example, the man who drove me to the secluded Ras Mohammed National Park near Sharm el Shiekh on the Sinai Peninsula practically raped me as I sunned myself on a rock in the Red Sea — and I let him.
The Danger of Gay Sex in Muslim Countries
The takeaway here is that gay sex may find you as you travel the Islamic world, even if you heed my advice and don’t actively seek it out. Remember, however, that just because someone propositions you doesn’t mean you should accept his offer.
Shortly after landing in Morocco, two girls from my hostel told me of a young gay man who’d been staying there the week before. He approached a local guy in a coffee shop and propositioned him. Surprisingly, the Moroccan accepted — and proceeded to beat the shit out of his would-be lay on the way back to an apartment I’m assuming didn’t exist.
The same fate nearly befell me a couple nights later. After a late dinner in medina of Marrakech, I was approached by an older man as I walked back to my hostel. Initially, he asked that I come to his food stall to enjoy dessert, but his line of questioning soon took a turn.
“Let’s have sex,” he said, and began groping me. “Come on, let me fuck you.”
I wasn’t sure what to think until several younger men, most of whom were pretty obviously straight, began mimicking their older associate’s words and actions. I wasn’t sure whether or not my safety was compromised. On one hand, I was in the middle of a well-lit square; On the other, said square is located in a country where people of my sexual persuasion are not officially welcome. My instincts told me that I should break free and move on as quickly as possible, however, so that’s what I did.
The Bright Side
I don’t have numerical data to back this up, but I would wager that gay travelers devote more time and energy to getting laid while on the road than any other demographic group. As a proud member of this contingent, I can say that meeting dudes in foreign countries not only feels good, but can also provide cultural insight, particularly in sexually-open places like Brazil.
That being said, I’ve found that my own never-ending quest for action often prevents me from enjoying experiences of the non-sexual variety. In this way, the coital desert of the Islamic world is a blessing in disguise. Sure, I only rarely shake the dirty thoughts I have about the sexy tour guides, hotel staff and even the occasional street hustler I encounter, but I’ve spent the time I would otherwise use bedding them cruising sailboats down the Nile River and riding camels through the Moroccan Sahara. I can’t truly say I would be as motivated to explore such remote reaches of places where more carnal delights are so easily in reach.
Thankfully, there is a New Jersey-sized bastion of tolerance for us gays in the region, so if you make it all the way to Timbuktu and still have near-Eastern dick on the brain — and haven’t visited Syria, Lebanon or any other country mentioned in this article — take a side trip to Tel Aviv and indulge yourself.