Lebanon is allegedly the most progressive country in the Middle East. Beirut, despite being rocked by war and violence to a point that the landscape is characterized by the empty space left behind by bombed buildings is still the cosmopolitan Paris of the Middle East. Return addresses on envelopes coming from Beirut are rare, and stability one day and cacophonies of violence the next are assumed–even if they take years to transpire. Lebanon always seems to rebuild itself from the ashes, making art from empty space and using loss as an opportunity to tirelessly renew itself, eternally chic and glamourous despite its troubled upbringing.
Lebanon presents itself as the place to be. The women are sexy and wear mini skirts. The youth are carefree and smoke hookah on the beach. Together they make a perfect western-friendly postcard–exotic and enticing, yet familiar enough to be comfortable. For many Europeans and other Westerners, Lebanon is an ideal destination and welcome reprieve from the more foreign, traditional parts of the Middle East.
So, why is it that on Saturday the Lebanese Internal Security Forces raided the Plaza Cinema (a traditionally gay space, known for sometimes playing pornographic films)–and arrested 36 men and charged them with homosexuality? Once the arrestees were at the Hbeish police station, they were anally probed–an invasive and violating procedure that involves putting an egg shaped probe up their anus, and checking for sperm. If sperm is found, or their anus is a certain size deemed “larger than normal”, they are charged with homosexuality–apparently a violation of article 543 of the Lebanese Constitution which prohibits “sexual acts contradicting the laws of nature.” This is punishable with a year in prison.
Most of the men have been released–but three remain in jail, simply for being identified (first culturally, and then through assault) as homosexual.
But what to make of Lebanon? It is normalizing unlawful raids, criminalizing homosexuality and willfully engaging in non consensual violations of privacy and making convictions based on faulty science. It’s humiliating and shameful, dangerous and unlawful. What is particularly bad is that this is not a sudden swing to the right, as many on the outside might perceive it to be. It is simply what has always been part of Lebanon, this time boiling instead of simmering. It is a culturally ingrained, a normalized system of violent traditionalism that leads to the patriarchy, homophobia and vast intolerance that makes it blend with the more unflattering qualities of the Arab World that would be so nice to leave in the past.