The Beats in Tangier

Every Columbia undergrad, reading Kerouac’s On the Road in his or her Literature Humanities (“Lit Hum”) class, fantasizes that he and his circle of friends will form the core of the next Beat Generation. Indeed, even before college, I read Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which I found bewildering but also enticing, with all of its deranged fantasies. Hopefully it’s not what I based my senses of literature or sexuality on, but Kerouac and Burroughs definitely played a role in my adolescent imagination.

And so, finding myself in Morocco, I could not help but make a pilgrimage to those Tangier (“Interzone”) locations so infamously tangled with the short-lived American social/literary movement referred to as the Beat Generation, as much a part of its history as New York’s Morningside Heights or San Francisco’s North Beach.

It is certainly a treat for the fan of history that it is possible to stay at the very house in which William S. Burroughs lived during his Tangier days, the Villa Muniria. Of course, Tangier was then a very very different place from what it is now–the culture of drugs and prostitution of the Interzone has been largely replaced by what is a pleasant and decidedly unseedy medium-sized city, especially for a border town. According to my guidebook, the Villa Muniria was then owned by a procurer of male prostitutes, certainly a welcome convenience for Burroughs. The Muniria Inn is now a quiet, reputable, family-owned pension. We were not given one of the rooms reputed to have been stayed in by Burroughs and Kerouac.

Room 9, in which Burroughs is said to have written Naked Lunch.

Attached to the Muniria is the Tanger Inn, a local drinking establishment. I thought that the young international crowd at the popular bar resembled something like the present-day counterparts of Kerouac and his friends, but that comparison only served to remind me how dull, how devoid of imagination and possibility, the world of the 90s and the present seems compared to that of the late 50s or 60s.

At the heart of Tangier’s Medina lies the Petit Socco, the pleasant appellation of French and Spanish or Italian derivation for what was once the “little souq.” We were a bit surprised and amused to see that it is still a center of drug culture–we read that people openly smoke the kif and in our few minutes there saw a dealer and transactions taking place.

Gay Jordan–A Pilgrimage

Jordan is fairly liberal and tolerant for an Arab country, and there is even genuine gay nightlife in Amman, including bar/club RGB (on the Third Circle). But RGB is hardly the sort of place that a first world gay tourist would find too exciting–nothing compared to what is on offer in Beirut, I’m sure, and in some ways not even matching Bahrain’s bars. There is, however, one place I felt strongly about visiting, a Biblical site not featured on too many Holy Land tour itineraries, but one that has made a genuine impact on the relationship between sexual minorities and the world’s great monotheistic religions: Sodom.

Sodom today is known as Bab adh-Dhraa, and it is not much more than a tell, or archaeological hill, with parts of wall and gate peaking through a jumble of rocks. But back in Old Testament times it was the foremost of the five “cities of the plain,” the town’s whose attempted gang rape of two male angels resulted in its total destruction.

From Genesis 19:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. . . He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.
The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it. . . . “
Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace. So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.

By its destruction (some say that an earthquake released trapped gases, which ignited and set the town aflame) Sodom became the most vivid evidence that the Judeo-Christian God disapproves of homosexuality. Of course, reading the passage it would seem that it actually condemns gang homosexual rape (while condoning or even encouraging the offering up of one’s own daughters for the same treatment). More progressive religious types read the passages as condemning Sodom for its ill treatment of guests, and Sodom and the other cities of the plain were known for generally being miserly and cruel. If Sodom never existed, or if it had not gotten such a memorable mention in the Bible, would the great Semitic religions have a different relationship with sexual minorities? At the very least, would anti-gay attitudes be less infectious without such a graphic example of God’s wrath?

I am inclined to think not, given the confused and twisted message in the remainder of Genesis 19. If this latter passage doesn’t give cause to question the moral compass of the entire chapter, I’m not sure what would–if the story of Sodom had never been told, people would just pick another part of the Bible to support their prejudices:

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.”
That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I lay with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father.

Whether offering up your daughters for gang rape or drunken incest is worse, the Bible is unclear–both seem acceptable (or even admirable) under certain circumstances. The message I take away from Genesis 19 is hardly “God hates gays.”

Gay Egypt–A Pilgrimage

Actually, we haven’t made any attempt to find gay life in Egypt. As was widely publicized in 2001, the Egyptian government has developed a record of actively persecuting gay men in the country (with even some foreign tourists caught in raids, although released), and there appears to be little public gay life–not even as much as Iran (see post of 6.6). So far, the only “gay” activity we’ve experienced in Egypt is one somewhat elderly security guard trying to grope Derek in the dark of an underground tomb chamber and numerous disturbingly young boys offering sexual services for money in the tourist ghettoes of Luxor and Aswan. One also reads (although we did not encounter it) that felucca (Nile sailboat) captains offer more than just sailing services and that guards at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum have been known to hook up with tourists. Pretty unsavory stuff, though I’m glad to hear that all those empty sarcophagi are being put to some additional use.

But there was one special place to which I felt a pilgrimage absolutely mandatory: the joint tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqarra. I will leave the full background of the mystery to other websites (see http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/20egyp.html, http://www.egyptology.com/niankhkhnum_khnumhotep/), but the short story is that the tomb (from around 2400 BC) appears to be for the first gay couple in recorded history. (The more/less official line from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities is that they are brothers.) They were, believe it or not, Overseers of the Royal Manicurists.

Below are some pictures we took of the close pair.

Waria, or Transgendered around the World

In much of the first world, the battle for “gay rights” is largely won. Gay men and lesbians can legally marry (or enter into some contractual facsimile of marriage) in many Western European countries, as well as Canada and some of the most important of the United States. Even if public acceptance is not yet totally here, and some anachronistic laws remain, the overall trend seems clear, and young people today find little astonishing or controversial about sexual orientation (as Derek’s then nine year-old niece remarked, even SpongeBob is gay). This is of course not the case in many other parts of the world. Even if east Asia lacks much of the religio-moral condemnation of homosexuality, most gay men in Japan, Korea or China are deep in the closet, with “Brokeback” marriages the norm. In the macho-er parts of the developing world, gayness is perceived as weakness and shunned. In some parts of the Islamic world, homosexual activity can be a capital offense.

Some in the world may still try to deny the existence of hard-wired homosexual orientation, or its “legitimacy” to exist and manifest itself, but some facts of life are impossible to deny, and it is sometimes quite surprising to see how well-established the transgendered identity is in seemingly unlikely locales, including three on our itinerary: India, Iran and Indonesia.

Homosexuality as an identity in India may be just barely nascent–even the megalopolis of Bombay does not support one proper gay bar–but there is an ancient class of transgendered persons, known as hijra. Either male or intersex at birth, hijra assume essentially feminine identities, going so far as to “marry” men (either with or without having undergone castration). Some hijra work in the sex industry, but they are also known for performing a sort of exorcising role at births and weddings, to ensure the masculinity of male children and promote fertility. While hijra are not exactly “accepted”–they suffer a great deal of discrimination and are also feared as a sort of cursed race that may, if you offend them or refuse their services, curse your children to suffer their fate–they are a well-established community, a category of person, which has its defined (albeit difficult) niche within Indian society.

The second place on our itinerary that has a sizable and recognized transgendered population was, believe it or not, Iran. While Iran executes (or at least Iranian law calls for the execution of) gay men, Iranian doctors and theologians apparently have found no religious reason to deny the existence of transgendered people. Even if being a transgendered person is not exactly “well accepted” by society, the state recognizes it as a medical condition that can be “remedied” by the surgery of the sex change operation (partly covered by the national health insurance), and Iran is, after Thailand, a world center for that procedure.

Southeast Asia as a whole seems to have an unusually large transgendered population. In Thailand they call them kathoey or ladyboys, and many a male heterosexual traveler has mistakenly fallen for one (they can sometimes be, as U2 would say, even better than the real thing, in terms of sheer knockout beauty). The visibility of the transgendered population of these countries may have some genetic component or, as likely, may be due to widespread public acceptance, especially in Thailand and some of its neighbors. Indonesia may be the largest Islamic country in the world, but in terms of its transgendered population, and seeming acceptance of their gender identities, it is very much a part of Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia they are known as “waria,” which is an amalgam of the words for woman (“wanita”) and man (“pria”). I have read one estimate of fewer than 30,000 waria, but in a country of over 200 million it seems likely that the real number is far higher, and simply traveling about Indonesia one sees them everywhere, from the seedier parts of Bali nightlife along Jalan Dhyana Pura to quiet Labuanbajo on Flores to Islamic Makassar on Sulawesi. I have also read reports suggesting that many or most waria are sex workers or have at least engaged in the trade, and while of course there are some (such as the ones on Bali) who are, most waria I have seen in Indonesia seemed like regular people doing regular jobs. Waria are often quite friendly and outgoing with travelers. Labuanbajo had a sort of waria hangout (the Matahari–two English guys in our dive group seemed to hang out there quite a bit). We saw some mild teasing of waria by other locals but no open hostility, given the warias’ very open presence.

I am inclined to think that transgendered people, in India, Iran or Indonesia, or in some Native American cultures (whose transgendered people were at one point called berdache and now, “two spirits”), are accepted in part because of the indubitable existence of people who are born intersex. It is a fact of nature (up to 1% of all human births, according to some studies) hard to deny the existence of, that it forces the creation of a category. Presumably, once the category is created, it admits not only those who are born physically ambiguous but those who, psychologically, are transgendered.

I wonder: In societies where the transgendered identity exists and is tolerated, is there any pressure on non-transgendered homosexuals to try to squeeze themselves in? That is, if you are a gay male, would you be tempted to identify as a hijra or waria to be able to express your sexual preference? I would think not, because gender is a much more core aspect of identity than mere sexual preference, but it is clear to me that there are different “kinds” of homosexuals, and it is possible that some may be tempted by an open identification. If indeed culture helps shape sexuality, to what extent can sexuality be affected by the gender/sexual roles available in a given culture? Does the existence of the category of waria or hijra affect the number of people who may come to identify, in their adolescence or adulthood, as transgendered or homosexual? These are difficult questions, of course, but one thing is clear: “deviance” from the male/female heterosexual norm is incredibly widespread, and recognition of this fact has existed from time immemorial.

Police!

We’re not proud of this, and it is really with some shame that I admit it, but we have had more than our share of run-ins with police around the world. To wit, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Bahrain, Madagascar, Korea, . . . , and most recently China. Given this wealth of experience, I thought that it would be fun to do a post relating our experience, with perhaps stories of one or two of the most interesting incidents.

We usually bring in the police because we have a dispute with some local person. Sometimes we feel that we’ve been overcharged and seek to explain to an official why we are withholding payment, or we otherwise feel that we’ve been wronged and the police are called in to intermediate. Since we only let it escalate to that level when we are clearly in the right, the resolution is usually in our favor, but at any rate it can be helpful to have official mediation. (Contrary to what you may suspect, local police generally do not immediately take the side of the local and assume that the foreigners are in the wrong.)

My favorite story, the one I most often tell, takes place in the foreigner ghetto of Itaewon in Seoul. Derek and I were out late one night near some gay bars in Itaewon, and were walking down a small street in order to catch a cab back home, when I suddenly heard, in English, “Check that one in the black t-shirt.” Now, I was wearing a black shirt at the time, but I did not think that anyone could be referring to me. A few steps later, I was stopped by a group of four U.S. MPs and two Korean police. The MPs asked me for my identification. Now, it was around midnight, and I knew that at the time (a sort of peak in anti-American/anti-military sentiment in Korea due to a recent accident involving the deaths of two young Korean girls) the U.S. armed forces in Korea were subject to an 11 p.m. curfew, and so I figured that the solders thought that I might be a U.S. soldier violating my curfew. After a slight pause I decided that I would on absolutely no account show them any identification. There were so many things wrong with the situation. First, and foremost, why were the U.S. MPs patrolling the streets of Seoul, asking anyone for their identification? Second, why would they pick me, an Asian person, to check? Shouldn’t they at least focus on people who look typically American rather than someone who is just as or more likely to be Korean? Third, why were they set up right next to the gay bars? I thought to myself, even if these MPs were in the U.S., there is no way that I would do their bidding, why the hell should I be doing it here? If I, a lawyer, do not stand up for my rights, who will?

I told the MPs that I was in fact a U.S. citizen but that I was not a soldier and that they had no business asking me for identification. They suggested that they had the authority to check me because I am a U.S. citizen–I told them that that was nonsense. The Korean police officers who were patrolling with them asked me to cooperate. I explained politely but firmly that I understood exactly why the MPs were doing what they were doing, but that I found their methods objectionable and misguided. The dispute went on and a crowd started to gather. For the most part, people were cheering us on–bystanders (mostly gay westerners) taunted the MPs with their own IDs. Eventually, they gave up and the MPs stormed off with the Korean police in tow.

Satisfied, we started walking back toward the main road when a young Korean man who identified himself as the owner of one of the bars stopped us to congratulate us on our victory. He himself (despite his clearly non-native English) had been ID’d the week before, and was relieved that somebody had finally said “no”. He said that we must come back to his bar for a drink on the house. Not wanting to be unappreciative, we went back and were enjoying a glass of wine when the Korean police came back.

The police explained that the U.S. MPs were making a big deal of this situation and simply would not let the matter drop–they demanded my identification. I assured the Korean police that I was not U.S. military, and appealed to their sense of justice and national pride that foreign armed forces were ordering them around. They remained firm, and I said that I would just go home, as originally planned–they could either arrest me or let me leave. I started walking away, but the police followed, eventually to a street with prostitution. A working woman stationed obviously outside her place of business was curious at our late night dispute and got involved, asking what the matter was. “If you’re not a soldier, just show them your identification,” she said. Derek pointed out that there was an outright violation of law in front of the officers (prostitution), but that instead they were wasting their time with me. The police at one point suggested that I get in their car, to which Derek protested by saying that he would then be stranded and lost and in danger (though really what kind of danger would an English-speaking foreigner be in “lost” in Seoul), persuading them not to take me.

Finally, the police argued that they had a right to check my papers for my immigration status, given that I had acknowledged that I was not a Korean citizen. I was annoyed by this, given that U.S. citizens do not even require a visa to visit Korea, but could not dispute the legitimacy of the request. Even in the U.S., I thought, this request would likely be within the law. I said that I would allow them a glance at my passport picture and entry stamp, just to verify that I was in the country legally. I made them promise not record my name in order to pass it along to the MPs. I showed them my passport–I had to sort of yank it back in order for them not to retain it–and they were satisfied, although not looking forward to returning to the MPs empty-handed. From our taxi on our way back home we saw the MPs leaving the Korean police station, where they had apparently been waiting for me.

This was perhaps the police incident that took the largest amount of time to resolve, but there was at least no chance of physical or legal danger. That prize would go to Ethiopia, generally a very safe country, where the police offered to extricate us from a somewhat angry mob by essentially arresting us. Thankfully, we were able to avoid both the mob and the police with the assistance of an armed and sympathetic guide.