Carte Blanche Middle East “Perhaps everyone is struggling more with themselves”

The activist Lukáš Houdek immersed himself in the LGBTI scene of Amman for two weeks as part of the project Carte Blanche Middle East.
The activist Lukáš Houdek immersed himself in the LGBTI scene of Amman for two weeks as part of the project Carte Blanche Middle East. | Photo: Lukáš Houdek

Is there a LGBTI scene in Jordan? And is the Czech Republic really as liberal about same-sex love as it seems? These questions were discussed at an event called Amman Same Sex Love at the Goethe-Institut Prague. The results are surprising.

There was plenty of laughter this evening at the Goethe-Institut Prague even though the topics were difficult: homosexuality in a Muslim country, family conflicts, playing everyday hide-and-seek. At an event called Amman Same Sex Love, Khalid Abdel-Hadi, the chief editor of the only LGBTI magazine in the Middle East, Hana Kulhánková, director of the human rights film festival Jeden Svět and Mohammad, a member of the LGBTI scene in Amman discussed such issues. The event was moderated by Lukáš Houdek who, with the Hate Free initiative, fights against hatred and racism in the Czech Republic.

The gathering of this group in Prague is remarkable in several respects. The Czech Republic is considered very tolerant towards sexual minorities, but reservations against Muslims are widespread. In the past year, anti-Islamists were able to mobilize hundreds of participants for demonstrations against the alleged threat of Islamization. “There is much talk about them, but never with them,” says Houdek.

The Czech activist Lukáš Houdek (left) and Khalid Abdel-Hadi, chief editor of the only LGBTI magazine in the Middle East. The Czech activist Lukáš Houdek (left) and Khalid Abdel-Hadi, chief editor of the only LGBTI magazine in the Middle East. | Photo: František Šeda/Goethe-Institut

“The problem isn’t religion, it’s tradition”

For Mohammad and Khalid Abdel-Hadi, faith is not to blame that life is difficult for many homosexuals in their country. Abdel-Hadi is an LGBTI activist and also a practicing Muslim. “I know a lot of people from the LGBTI community who are devout Muslims or Christians. But the problem isn’t religion, it’s tradition.” Mohammad (whether that is his real name is unknown) agrees. The young architect has not yet opened up about his homosexuality. His parents, with whom he lives, know, but his brothers are not allowed to find out about it. “That would be dangerous for me.”

Mohammad is one of the gay Jordanians Lukáš Houdek met in Amman when he immersed himself in the LGBTI scene there for two weeks as part of the project Carte Blanche Middle East. Three Goethe-Instituts from North Africa and the Middle East are working together with Goethe-Instituts from Central and Eastern Europe to develop cultural programmes for the project. In this way, a little bit of Beirut comes to Bratislava, Cairo to Vilnius – and Khalid Abdel-Hadi and Mohammad came to Prague to share with Kulhánková, Houdek and the audience. Mohammad’s family knows nothing about it. What did he tell them at home? He shrugs and grins, “They think I’m at an architectural conference.”

Stories about gay sheiks and “mipsterz”

“Homosexuality is not punishable in Jordan. But in our society the laws of the family are more powerful,” says Abdel-Hadi, who has been writing to combat the social stigma for nine years in his online magazine My.Kali. Stars like the singer Yasmine Hamdan are photographed for the cover of his magazine. At first glance, the title images differ little from lifestyle magazines for women. Bright colours, glossy paper, headlines like “What we’ve missed in online dating so far.” Behind this, however, is a concept that Abdel-Hadi regards as clearly activist. “We reproduce stereotypes and then break with them,” he says of his work. And that he wants to educate society.

Hana Kulhánková, director of the human rights film festival Jeden Svět. Hana Kulhánková, director of the human rights film festival Jeden Svět. | Photo: František Šeda/Goethe-Institut Only recently, My.Kali began to be issued in Arabic. Previously, stories about gay sheikhs, “mipsterz” (Muslim hipsters) and relevant film tips were only published in English, which was “also a kind protective shield” for Abdel-Hadi. Indeed, My.Kali experienced its first backlashes following the Arabic publications. The website was blocked in Jordan. Abdel-Hadi is not discouraged by this, though. He continues to publish on an international online platform.

Fighting for social acceptance

According to Hana Kulhánková, in spite of widespread tolerance there is still a lot that needs to be done in the Czech Republic before equality is attained for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals. “We have registered partnerships, but that’s not the same thing as marriage.” LGBTI persons also do not enjoy the same rights as heterosexual singles or couples when it comes to adoption rights. There is also a lack of public outing. “Hardly any politicians or other public figures come out here,” says Kulhánková, although the sexual orientation of many is an open secret. “We should publish a list,” she laughs.

Visitors to the event Amman Same Sex Love at the Goethe-Institut in Prague. Visitors to the event Amman Same Sex Love at the Goethe-Institut in Prague. | Photo: František Šeda/Goethe-Institut Why do people in the Czech Republic still opt to live double lives? Kulhánková does not have an answer to this question. “There is no big LGBTI community that fights for true social acceptance,” she attempts as an explanation. Perhaps each and every one is struggling more with themselves.

By Katharina Wiegmann
Katharina Wiegmann is an editor of the German-language Prager Zeitung.