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Lesbian in an Arab world

In the Middle East, homosexuality is a taboo subject, and members of the LGBT community endure hardships on a daily basis. So, why would an American lesbian want to move there, living and working in a Muslim society? That’s exactly what Chivvis Moore did, and after 16 years in the region, she’s sharing her story in her book, “First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God”. She now chats and shares snippets from her book with Outrage Magazine.

“My life felt better balanced than it had before. And yet—I was a lesbian,” writes Chivvis Moore. “I had to decide what to do with that aspect of myself during the year I was in Egypt and later, when I lived in countries even more homophobic than my own.”

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Outrage Magazine: Describe your experience living in an Arab country without understanding a word of the language. How were you able to become a part of the foreign culture and lifestyle?

Chivvis Moore: The morning I stepped off the boat and onto the North African shore, my first impression was of sun so stark that I squinted in the brilliance reflected off buildings of bright white stone. The second impression, just as strong, was of people’s kindness.

On a sun-drenched Alexandria street whirling with glittering vehicles that caught and recast the light as the cars spun by, a white-uniformed policeman waved white-gloved hands in a high-walled booth inside a circle of traffic. Wading toward him through the swath of cars, I took out the miniature phrase book Jean had given me, circled the sentence “Where is the railroad station?” and reached up to hand him the book. He took it in one hand and read, but as he lifted his other arm to gesture, pages fluttered out of the paper binding and scattered down into his little booth. Traffic handled itself as he vanished to pick them up, then pointed me in the right direction.

A few blocks on, a young man guided me to a bus, amid the whirl of honking cars, bright light, the smell of dust and, most remarkable, everywhere more people than I had ever seen together at one time. I was passed, hand to hand, bus to train, all the way from Alexandria to Ramses Station in Cairo.

High on a pedestrian walkway near the train station, I must have looked as lost as I felt, for a man stopped and spoke to me. After politely asking in English if he could help me, and learning where I was from, he asked, “Do you know Ralph Nader?”

“I’ve certainly heard of him,” I said, whereupon he introduced himself as one of Ralph Nader’s Lebanese cousins, then escorted me the short distance to the Everest Hotel, which I had been looking for, and which, it turned out, he owned.

The next morning, stepping out into the busy Cairo street, I could not identify the proper bus to take. Which number should I try to read—the one on the front of the bus? the one on the back? the one on the side of the bus nearest the front, or the one on the side of the bus by the rear door? All the numbers were different and all, naturally, in Arabic. What had I expected? I burst into tears.

Instantly, I found myself surrounded by a little crowd— merely to window-shop in Cairo can result in a pileup of people equal to the size of a respectable demonstration in a medium-size US city—none of whose members spoke English. One woman pointed at her own cheeks and shook her head: I must not cry! From this little crisis I was extracted by the sympathetic Coptic owner of a coffin shop who sat me down among the coffins and gave me soda in a green bottle. Someone else hopped on a bus with me, accompanied me to downtown Cairo, and delivered me safely at the hostel I had marked on my map.

By the end of that first day in Cairo, I was hot, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I had never seen a city so enormous or so packed with people. Cairo’s sounds were deafening to someone who had been living in the suburban United States: hawkers cried their wares, music competed in tone and rhythm as it blasted from various speakers, and cars honked, as if compulsively, with each of the minute shifts in speed and direction drivers made constantly to avoid smashing into other cars. I was hungry and had no idea what I might eat. I settled on a piece of bread and a hard-boiled egg bought from two sellers in the street. I was delighted to have arrived, but where was I? I dropped onto my bunk in the women’s dormitory and did what I usually did when the world was too much: I slept.

The next morning, when I when I set out to take a bus on my own, yet another of Egypt’s seemingly endless supply of helpful young men accompanied me until I found myself aground amid the traffic spinning in an impressive Parisian-type roundabout. There I was offered differing (and sometimes contradictory) sets of directions by numerous people— men, women, and children—to whom I showed the scrap of paper on which Halim had written his family’s address in both English and Arabic. Each person peered at the writing and, either unsure of the address or unable to read, carried the little paper over to someone else to study. Each person who could read the paper and who presumably had some knowledge of the neighborhood would then lead me hither and thither with such goodwill that the experience was a happy one, although I ended up several times on wrong streets, and on the correct street at last, still had difficulty finding Building #2.

From that time on, stepping into any street in Egypt felt like lowering myself into a rushing river. If I allowed myself to float amiably where the stream led, I would be safe, entertained, and supported. At first, I received so much help that I began, ungraciously, to wonder if, when I did know my way around, I would ever have a moment to myself as I walked the streets. But I found, when I learned which bus to take, which road the right one, that all my helpers melted away. It seemed Egyptians were far more sensitive to a stranger’s needs and states of mind than I, certainly, had ever been to those of a stranger in my own country.

With Egyptians who had received formal education, I was able to speak French—in my case, a fortunate memory from high school, for them, a holdover from the days of the brief French occupation of Egypt. A few spoke English. In the carpentry shop, though, and on the street, gesture and a lot of guessing were the principal tools we all relied on to make our meanings known. There was not a day that year in Cairo that I was not warmed and lightened by the expressions in people’s eyes—the middle-aged woman, dressed all in black, who sat on the sidewalk and from whom I bought the English-language newspaper each morning, the tea seller who greeted me with his gentle smile when I passed his shop each day. Countless and precious, such moments kept occurring, day after day.

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That was language. But as for my acceptance into Egyptian culture and daily life, for this, I owe a debt I can never repay – to Halim, the young Egyptian I met in Berkeley, who gave me his family’s address in Cairo, and later walked with me throughout the city, day after day, offering me priceless insight into Egyptian culture and Islam; to Halim’s family, who welcomed me, urging me to “come visit every day”; to Hassan Fathy, who greeted this stranger who walk unannounced into his home one day and made her welcome ever after; and to the master carpenter, M’alim Hassan, who took me into his shop and adopted me as his daughter in the neighborhood of Islamic Cairo and in his home. Without these people, my experience in Egypt that year would have been as outsider, as tourist, and I would be the poorer.

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Outrage Magazine: How were you able to live in a world that largely shunned your sexuality?

Chivvis Moore: From a world of lesbian feminist tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was plunged into a world of men as well as women, during that first year in Egypt. I found much to appreciate and admire. I was surprised to feel this way in the Middle East, where most women have less freedom than women in the West. I was privileged to be treated as that anomaly, an “American woman,” not subject to the rules Egyptian women were, and I was astonished by the ease with which this treatment was given. At work there was none of the condescension, barbed putdowns, or even open hostility I had experienced in the company of many male carpenters in America. No one tried to humiliate me or scare me off the job, the way one carpenter had, by chasing me with a forklift, and another by jumping on the scaffolding that supported us, trying to make me fall, when I worked in the carpenters’ union in Oakland, California. No one asked me why I wasn’t home with my husband and children or claimed that men would fall and injure themselves because of the distraction of my female presence on the job. My life felt better balanced than it had before.

And yet—I was a lesbian. I had to decide what to do with that aspect of myself during the year I was in Egypt and later, when I lived in countries even more homophobic than my own.

Among lesbian feminists in the San Francisco Bay Area, it had by then become a matter of both pride and honor to refuse to hide your sexual orientation. Lesbians and gay men were standing up to denigration and abuse. To some of my friends in California, not to do so was not only unhelpful but also cowardly. No doubt some of them would have felt the same way in countries other than their own.

But I did not. My identity as a lesbian is only one part of who I am, and I felt strongly that I was in Egypt to learn, not to try to change another culture. Equally important, though hardly commendable, I was afraid that the Egyptians who cared about me would be appalled and reject me if they knew I was a lesbian. When attractions arose, as they did from time to time in later years in other Arab countries, I let them go. Halim knew; and in later years I told friends in Palestine who had lived for a time in the US and who I guessed would be more accepting. Mostly, though, my silence limited my friendships. It did not feel good not to be completely honest about who I was.

Many years later, in Syria, and then in the West Bank, in Occupied Palestine, I also said nothing about my sexuality. Shortly after I arrived in Damascus, in 1992, I learned that a young man had been made to leave the country because authorities learned he was gay. At that time, I decided that, if challenged, I would not deny that I was a lesbian, and that if I were required to leave that country or any other because I was a lesbian, I would not feel guilty or ashamed. I would not return to the feelings I had felt so many years as a teenager and a young adult, before I was able to embrace my lesbian identity.

Shortly after I arrived in the West Bank and began teaching at Birzeit University, a colleague, one of just a couple of Americans on the staff, told me one day without preface that a foreign teacher had been fired from the university some years earlier for being gay. I took the information as it was intended – as a warning – although the teacher, who later became a friend, said nothing about her thoughts on my being a lesbian.

It was clear, though, that in any Arab country, any relationship I might initiate with an Arab woman would put that woman at risk in her own society. I had no intention of entering in any such relationship. Having had chronic fatigue for years, I found that no hardship; I wouldn’t have had the energy for an intimate relationship even had I been living in the United States. As the years went by, I did tell several women colleagues at the university that I was a lesbian, but I told these women because they had spent time in the United States, and I judged that they would not be horrified at my news. At least I thought it was news; one friend asked me at one point why I thought people did not know I was a lesbian. It had not occurred to me; perhaps it was generally known.

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I do remember at a party early in my time at the university a woman colleague saying that, unlike most Arabs, she didn’t like the music of the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum.

“I hear she was a lesbian,” another woman commented, whereupon the first speaker said, to my surprise,

“Oh, well then, that makes me like her after all.”

I have always wondered if the comment were directed toward me, to let me know I was welcome, no matter what my sexuality. I may never know. Or I may learn, after this book becomes available in the West Bank, what people really thought of me all along.

So the question ‘How was I able to live in a world that largely shunned my sexuality?” is not one I can really answer. The world did not know of my sexuality, as far as I know. Certainly I was not comfortable knowing that there were lesbians – and gay men – who had to hide their sexuality from their families and from society as a whole. In 2007, I attended the first public conference put on by the Palestinian lesbian organization “Aswat,” meaning “voices,” founded by Rauda Marcos in 2003. Significantly, the conference was held in Haifa, inside Israel, and not in the West Bank or Gaza. Since then, as far as I know, the organization has continued to function openly in Israel, but not in Palestine.

Outrage Magazine: How would you describe the role of women in the Arab and Muslim culture and religion?

Chivvis Moore: We talked, of course, about the role of women. Heba brought up.

On my second day in Cairo in 1978, I met a woman named Nahid. In striking contrast to the Western image of the helpless, unthinking, beaten-down Arab woman, Nahid was a natural homegrown feminist, the first of the many women I met during my years in the Arab world whom I respected and admired for the strength, inner fortitude, and self-esteem that I came to see as characteristic of Arab women.

In Egypt in 1978, as in many Arab countries today, most women had harder lives than women in the USA. They were poorer, had less opportunity for education, and did more physical work, without the aid of washing machines and dryers, gas stoves, and dishwashers. Fewer families have cars than families in the US; shopping is more difficult, traffic and stores more congested, most buildings have no lifts. . . . The Arab women I met in Syria, Egypt and Palestine, in 1978-79 and later, in 1991-2008, confronted the whole array of challenges that all women, except the wealthy, have to face—having to work outside the home and yet do all the work inside the home as well.

“The life of a woman in Egypt is dûr [hard],” Nahid said that first day I met her.

But from Nahid and the other women I met, I got the distinct impression they valued and respected themselves more than I or many women in my own society did. With freedoms more limited than those of women in the USA, Arab women, it seemed to me, nevertheless carried their heads more proudly, seemed surer of themselves, and appeared more comfortable in their own bodies. I wondered if we in the USA had to a greater extent internalized our oppression than women who in fact had far less freedom of choice than we.

What of the separation of the sexes we hear about in the Arab Muslim world? The first day I went home for lunch with M’alim Hassan, the carpenter for whom I was working in 1970s Egypt, he and I were served by a woman who vanished into another part of the house. But I heard voices, and I sensed a lively, self-contained women’s world existing somewhere in another part of the house – a world I was not allowed to see.

On a second visit, I felt as if I had passed a test, even though again we ate alone, because I was introduced to M’alim Hassan’s wife, a lovely, imposing woman. Her gray hair was pinned to the top of her head, and she wore no head covering, since no unrelated male was present. She was tall and carried herself with grace and authority; and from the gentle deference with which her son and husband treated her, I gathered she was both respected and much loved. She spoke little to me on that visit, or any other time I saw her, but her manner was not unfriendly; rather, she seemed self-contained, “intact,” the way M’alim Hassan wanted me to be. The only other woman I saw that day was a young woman I glimpsed in another room, who was taking keen and vocal interest in the Zamalek soccer game showing on TV.

Had I proved myself worthy of being seen by the women of the house? Apparently so, for one afternoon soon afterward, I was invited to leave the dining room at M’alim Hassan’s home, and enter the kitchen at the end of the hall.

There, sure enough, were the women and girls of the house, washing up after our lunch and preparing more food—and they were doing much of it on the floor, on a portion slightly raised from the rest. Food was cooked on a two-burner stove set on a table. Dishes were washed by one woman squatting on the floor of a little shower stall. Another rinsed, rising and bending with each dish, and a third stood outside the shower staff and placed the wet dishes on the rack. A low table was brought out at which Madame and at least four other women ate, sitting on the floor. I learned that the name of the young woman who had let us in the door the first time I came was Tahani. When everyone had finished eating, she washed the floor clean and dried it all, even the water sitting along the low part, near the wall.

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And what of the issue of veiling, which in recent decades has galvanized many Westerners, including governments and non-Muslim feminist writers, many of whom assume the custom is not only a patriarchal imposition but also indicative of a regrettable lack of self-esteem in women who elect to cover their heads?

In the United States, showing more skin is considered modern, and therefore preferable; many American women wear high-heeled shoes, low cut dresses and short skirts. Long dresses and veils worn by Muslim women are considered traditional, backward, repressive. Why is that?

Certainly, women in some Arab Muslim countries are required to veil, either by their families or by society, and it’s hard to imagine at least some women not finding the all-enveloping outer garment, the burka, cumbersome and unwelcome.

But when I lived in Arab countries, I knew Muslim women who had taken up wearing the veil, although not required to wear it, in order to indicate their difference from western ways. Others said they veiled to shield themselves from unwelcome advances from men on the street. Still others covered themselves because they believed that God required of both men and women a certain modesty in dress, as set forth in the Qur’an.

Most who make judgments about Arab women’s lack of freedom blame it on Islam.

But they don’t know anything about the religion. They have neither studied it nor lived in Muslim countries.

For one thing, the critics are equating Islam with the violent and repressive rhetoric and practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But most Muslims want as little to do with the values of ISIS or the Taliban as you or I. Why is Islam held responsible for the injustices in Muslim societies in ways Christianity is not held responsible for the evils in our own? The Qur’an is open to as many interpretations as the Torah and the Christian Bible.

Second, even when people complain about customs that are common to a number of Arab countries, such as the lesser percentage of women in public positions of responsibility, they do not understand that it is not Islam that decrees and perpetuates such inequality, but the men who have always had the power in those societies to make the laws and to justify them by means of their own interpretation of texts formulated centuries ago. Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion, and in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, many of its tenets were progressive in their treatment of men and women, of all human beings. But, just as the founders of the US decreed a Black man to be worth less than a white man and ruled women unfit to vote, the men who ruled Arab countries kept rights for themselves. Nor do critics of Muslim societies ever note that the country we destroyed in our two Gulf Wars boasted the most educated and privileged women of any in the Arab world.

Third, as a number of Arab Muslim women scholars have made clear, there are women activists in every Arab country working to change laws so in keeping with alternative interpretations of the ancient texts and working in myriad ways for women’s right to choose the life they want to lead. There is not a country on the planet where women are not themselves working to change the practices that hurt them – early marriage, “honor killings,” clitoridectomy, trafficking of women and children, and conditions that make prostitution the only viable way of providing for themselves and their children. Arab and Muslim women are working to change their societies just as American feminists are working to change ours. 

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Outrage Magazine: Why is it important to learn about other cultures?

Chivvis Moore: The short answer to that question is that the more we learn about cultures other than our own, the kinder we will be.

Most significantly, the more we understand, the less likely we will be to arm and prepare for and conduct war. The less likely to think of war as a business like any other.

What resources we could free! How peaceful the world that would result! We could finally go about being creative in ways that would bring health and happiness to humankind. No more refugees. No longer the Mediterranean a sea of death.

Before and during and since the most intensive US war in Afghanistan, it was repeatedly written in the media that Afghan women are badly treated in Islam. It was said that the US was making war to “save Afghan women.” After we made war on Iraq, and admitted that ours were the only weapons of mass destruction around, we said we were bringing democracy to Iraq.

But how could war make life better – or more equal, or more democratic — for anyone who suffers it? We who have not suffered war in modern times need to learn, not only about other cultures, but also about the effects of war on the human beings whose countries we are today attacking.

Where there is understanding there is compassion, and respect. It seems to me that could make all the difference.

Chivvis Moore is the author of First Tie Your Camel, Then Trust in God. She lived in the Middle East for 17 years, working in Egypt, Syria, and Israel, before teaching at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Before her journey to the Arab World, Moore earned a BA from Harvard University and worked as a journalist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Daily Review in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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