10 May 2011 – GME
Syria during the Protests: more fear, more arrests
by Sami Hamwi, GME Syria Editor
Damascus now looks very different than it used to be only a few weeks ago when it was known for its late-night life especially for LGBT people. Despite lifting the emergency law, security agencies “secret police” are still arresting, threatening, and, in some places, killing people. Any kind of gathering is still forbidden and questioned by the secret police. A few days ago, my friends and I were waiting for a bus a little bit after midnight, when we were questioned by secret police; they checked our phones for videos or pictures, and they asked to check my laptop. Suspecting that we are gay, they made some offensive remarks about LGBT people trying to provoke a response.
A few days ago, a gay guy was arrested in a coffee shop while using its Wi-Fi internet connection to watch youtube videos about the protests, the waiters tipped the police about him. Damascus is not safe anymore because of the secret police, not because of anything else. LGBT people have a lot more to be afraid of these days, especially that the secret police might threaten them to expose them as LGBT people if they “do not cooperate”.
May 27, 2011 – CNN
Will gays be ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Arab Spring?
by Catriona Davies, for CNN
(CNN) – The uprisings bringing political change and demonstrations across much of the Arab world have given millions of people hope of greater freedom. But some gay people in the Middle East fear exactly the opposite. Homosexuality is illegal — enforced to varying degrees — in most Arab countries. A 2011 report by the International Lesbian and Gay Association reported that homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries worldwide and punishable by death in five, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite the risks, there are those willing to speak out and campaign for gay rights across the Middle East.
Sami Hamwi, a 35-year-old journalist from Damascus, is the Syrian editor for the website Gay Middle East, but few friends or family know his true sexual orientation. Hamwi said: "We have been trying in Gay Middle East to start a group to be able to help LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] people in Syria. It is a work in progress." However, he added: "I am very scared now. I can think of a million things they can do to me if I was ever arrested or investigated."
Hamwi wants to see reform in Syria, but doubts that any political change could significantly improve gay rights. "Sheikhs still emphasize that death penalty is the Islamic punishment for gay men," he said. "A more open society regarding sexuality needs years, if not decades, of work after Syrians get the freedom they aspire to have."
Haider Ala Hamoudi, an expert on Middle Eastern and Islamic law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, in the United States, says that while Islamic law is open to different interpretations, it is generally considered to condemn homosexuality. "Not every Muslim would adhere to this view but traditionally Islamic law would regard homosexuality as illegal," he said. "It seems commonly accepted that the foundational sacred sources (the Quran and the Sunnah) ban homosexuality," he added. "I do know there are Muslims who take exception to that, it’s not black and white, but the dominant standing pretty clearly condemns homosexuality."
Some have a more positive view of the situation in Syria. A Syrian woman who writes a blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus" has gained international attention for her account of her father protecting her when security forces arrived at night to arrest her for "conspiring against the state." The blog’s author, Amina Abdallah, is a 35-year-old English teacher who says she returned to Syria last year after many years in the United States. In an email interview Abdallah said she believed that political change could improve gay rights. She said: "A whole lot of long time changes are coming suddenly bubbling to the surface and views towards women, gay people and minorities are rapidly changing."
12 June 2011 – GME
From Damascus with Love: Blogging in a Totalitarian State
by Sami Hamwi and Daniel Nassar,
Following the revelation that "Amina" was a hoax two LGBT Syrian Activists speak out.
Sami Hamwi, Gay Middle East Syria:
Blogging in Syria has been forbidden by law for more than eight years. As internet started to flourish, many Syrians started to use internet spaces and blogs to write personal thoughts, poetry, short stories… etc. unaware of that fact, but they remained safe as the authorities only monitored political and human rights blogs. LGBT bloggers can manage to keep safe only if their blogs were meant for gossip and entertainment, but they might have to face different kind of difficulties if they reported news or engaged into LGBT rights activism. As soon as any blog starts to attract attention, the agony with authorities’ interference starts.
Syrians police deals with opposition, activists, journalists, bloggers… etc. in 2 main methods, a third one might be added to intimidate the ones who pose “less harm”. For many purposes I will use the word “subject” to refer to people targeted by the Syrian secret police. The first method is to call the subject and say: “We would like to come over for a chat!!!”, later, when they find it necessary to interview the subject more than once they might say: “Come over for a cup of coffee and a little chat!!!”. Needless to say that this is an “offer” no one can refuse. Those chats are normally friendly and full of “heartfelt advices” by the officer about what to do or not to do; the subject has to comply. Frequent visits are normal for journalists and usually take place every 2-3 months. I have “chatted” with friendly officers for more than 37 times so far and was given valuable advices not to engage into any kind of political activism.
The second method is actual arrests. It is used when the subject is deemed to be “effective and harmless” and/or with connection to the west or western media. Normally no one can find out where the subject had been taken to, what branch of secret police made the arrest, and when the subject will be released if they were ever released. Fortunately, the second method has been never used with me, and I hope this will remain to be the case, but it was used with many of my friends as I mentioned in a previous blog. For days, weeks, months, and sometimes years, I didn’t hear or know any news about those friends. I know two friends who had disappeared a few years back, and I know nothing about them until now.
The third method is what is called in an exact translation “a security study”. Secret police agents go to the subject’s place of residence, work, or home town, they interrogate their relatives, coworkers and/or employers, and they hint at points the subject themselves knows about. This is widely used with LGBT people as a threat to expose to families or employers. People might get killed or at least fired if their homosexuality was exposed as the society is far from being lenient with sexuality issues. I have been a subject of such studies more than 6 times, last one was two days after the upraise in Syria started.
I started to write all this after Amina Araf story was one of the lead stories in the media after her alleged arrest. As I was about to publish my views about her and her stories, I was stunned by the latest post that was published on that blog. Instead of not publishing what I have wrote, I thought people in the west should know about the secret police in Syria, and how they deal with Syrians. To Mr. MacMaster, I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country. We have to deal with too many difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us. Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure. Really… Shame on you!!!
To the readers and the western media I say, there are authentic people in the Middle East who are blogging and reporting stories about the situation in their countries. You should pay attention to these people.
I’m so outraged I can’t even type well. Mr. Tom MacMaster, with due respect, has the audacity to say on the blog he created over the last two years that he did not harm anyone with his fictional writing; I beg to differ. Because of you, Mr. MacMaster, a lot of the real activists in the LGBT community became under the spotlight of the authorities in Syria. These activists, among them myself, had to change so much in their attitude and their lives to protect themselves from the positional harm your little stunt created. You have, sir, put a lot of lives, mine and some friends included, in harm’s way so you can play your little game of fictional writing.
This attention you brought forced me back to the closet on all the social media websites I use; cause my family to go into a frenzy trying to force me back into the closet and my friends to ask me for phone numbers of loved ones and family members so they can call them in case I disappeared myself. Many people who are connected to me spent nights worrying about me and many fights I had with my family were because you wanted to play your silly game of the media. You feed the foreign media an undeniable dish of sex, religion and politics and you are now leaving us with this holier-than-thou semi-apologize with lame and shallow excuses of how you wanted to bring attention to the right people on the ground. I’m sorry, you’re not on the ground, you don’t know the ground and you don’t even belong to the culture of the people on the group.
You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical time. I’m outraged, and if I lived in a country where I can sue you, I would.
June 14, 2011 – Foriegn Policy
The Dark Closet – Don’t let the Amina hoax distract attention from the plight of the real gay community in Syria
by Daniel Nassar
Damascus, Syria — In a city like Damascus, with its beautiful culture, amazing people, lovely food, and unmatchable history, one feels like they could be anything — anything but gay, that is. When Tom MacMaster, an American master’s degree student living in Scotland, revealed himself to be the writer behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, it shattered the trust between the Middle Eastern blogosphere and the foreign media, and endangered the lives of queer people across the region who stepped out of the closet to answer questions about "Amina," MacMaster’s fictional creation.
I remember sitting on a balcony overlooking rainy Damascus this April with my best friend in the city, who happens to be a lesbian, chatting about the queer community here. She once asked me to pretend to be a fictional man interested in marrying her girlfriend to assuage the suspicions of the girlfriend’s family that she was gay. The family needed to hear a voice behind this man, and we gave them one: I pretended to be a Syrian man living in the United States who met their daughter online and was calling on Skype to chat with the mother about future arrangements. The mother was so relieved to receive evidence that her daughter was not gay. The conversation was short, and I felt awkward about pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
The conversation on the balcony turned to another problem my friend was facing: She was having problems coming out to her close friends and family members. I could see it in her eyes — she was struggling. And sitting on the balcony with her, I suddenly had a suspicion about Amina. If my friend, one of the bravest women I’ve ever met, can’t be out of the closet in Damascus, and if I faced so many problems with my family since my teenage years due to my homosexuality, how could the "gay girl of Damascus" be so boldly out — not to mention critical of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and gain acceptance and protection from her family?
My suspicions hardened when I went back to her blog to read the post, "My father, the hero," that had first garnered her widespread attention. Honestly, I didn’t believe a word of it. Any person who lived in Syria knows that authorities coming to pick up a suspect in the "wee small hours" are not going to back off because of a speech, as Amina described the incident. They are not going to be shamed by anyone. Actually, after such a confrontation, arresting both Amina and her father would have been unavoidable. It all felt so fictional, so unimaginable, so untrue. Upon Amina’s fictional arrest, I shared my views with my lesbian friends, asking them on a secret Facebook group whether anyone knew of her or had any idea who she was. I came back empty-handed. I later shared my concerns with NPR journalist Andy Carvin, whom I’m happy to call a friend, and he started asking questions.
MacMaster’s admission on June 12 that the blog was fictional has spurred fears within Syria’s LGBT community of a potential backlash. The media has been targeting minorities who are seen as critical of the current regime, and the LGBT community is an easy target. They don’t need to change people’s opinion of homosexuals; it’s already a negative one.
16 June 2011 – PinkNews
Comment: What life is really like for gay Syrians
by Sami Hamwi
Sami Hamwi*, the Syria editor of GayMiddleEast.com, offers a glimpse of what LGBT life is really like in the country. When the ‘Gay Girl from Damascus’ blog started to attract media interest, I thought of a friend of mine who is a lesbian. She once told me: “No matter how you think it is hard for gays, it is even harder for lesbians, be sure of it.” The only photo I had seen of ‘Amina’ confused me and I thought that I had seen her before, until I read her post about her father supposedly saving her from Syrian security forces. It was then that I suspected that she was not for real, although I wished that she was.
My lesbian friend invited me to her city where I met her family. What a wonderful family she has. Had my family been any different, I could have wished to have hers. I told her: “I can’t ever come out, not because of my fear of my family, but because of my fear for them. I come from a conservative city; the society might cut off my family for having a gay son.” I thought her situation would be different, but she responded: “You know what will happen? They will force me to get married. I am trying to make excuses because of my career with the hope that someday I will be too old for mothers to accept me as a daughter-in-law.” It was then that I became sure that if there is any ‘out’ LGBT person in Syria, it will be an individual one, an exception to the rule.
My friend’s beliefs were confirmed later by a lesbian professor I have met once and kept in contact with via email. When I spoke to her after Amina’s ‘arrest’, she said: “Amina cannot be real. No girl can be out to her family here, even though I think she looks familiar, I still can’t tell because the photo is not clear enough.” Why was it that we both thought Amina looked familiar? Maybe we wanted so badly to believe that one gay person in Syria had managed to come out. We both felt terrible when we heard the news of the arrest, and then put ourselves in danger trying to investigate it. “We could have disappeared indefinitely”, the lesbian professor later warned me.
The plight of LGBT people in Syria starts with law criminalising homosexuality and goes through the religious and social homophobia and beyond. I know gay men who have been shot and tortured, while humiliation includes being tied down to be urinated on by family members. Videos from police humiliations of gay men are passed around as jokes on mobile phones, offensive words for “gay” and “lesbian” are still used widely even among the most open-minded people, homophobic jokes never fail to amuse people and everyone damns and curses homosexuals whenever they are mentioned. In 2010, Syrian authorities started a campaign against gay people by raiding parks, hammams and private parties and detaining many for weeks and sometimes months. There has not been any gay private party since March 2010 in Damascus. Needless to say, any kind of gathering now is dangerous because of the current situation. LGBT people are now more afraid to gather than before.
When the unrest started, LGBT people were afraid that Islamists might take over if the regime was overthrown; an Islamic rule means death to gay men. Knowing what happened in the 1980s, older LGBT people were sure that the situation for us would not be easy in either case. If Islamists take over, we might be in a life-threatening situation. If the regime wins, the situation will force us to hide for years because of what they might do to LGBT people gathering. Nevertheless, even though the regime under Mr Bashar al-Assad proved to be as virulent as it was under his father, it also proved to be less intimidating. With more than 2,000 civilians killed, 10,000 arrested, and 10,000 refugees, Syrians are still protesting.
“To be gay in Syria is to be a night owl”, a British journalist friend once told me. Things have changed since March this year. Although most of us have adapted themselves to the current situation, we still are afraid to be stopped by secret police and be humiliated. This fear will only grow after Tom MacMaster’s fictional character found her way to the Syrian media, which was desperate for a true story to back up the invented conspiracy theory. MacMaster, who thinks he did not harm anyone, has cast a dark shadow over the credibility of LGBT bloggers in the Middle East. This has given the Syrian regime a new target which won’t need any PR to gain the people’s backing – they are already homophobic and think of us as sinners, sick and liars. To be credible or to be safe is what he added to our struggle.
*Sami Hamwi is a pseudonym, used for the author’s safety.
10 August 2011 – Gay Middle East
More Dangers for Gay Syrians, and ManJam collaborates!
by Sami Hamwi, GME Syria Editor,
ManJam, unwittingly or not, collaborates with the Syrian Regime against LGBT people! Please spread the word! It has been very dangerous to form any kind of gathering in Syria since the spark of the protests last March. Gay Syrians had avoided cruising and gathering for a few weeks before they started to become more aware of the best places and times for such actions. Until recently, most LGBT people tried to avoid declaring their political opinions until the protests started to become closer to their areas. They became more aware of the facts, and started to express their opinions. Nevertheless, pro-regime LGBT people, as few as they are, have always expressed their opinions. Of course, they have also been trying to force them upon others.
One of Assad’s relatives is a known gay in Damascus. Most people tried to avoid him at the start of the protests, while some tried to become friends with him. Recently, his new found friends have been threatening anti-regime gay people to expose them to authorities and deliver their names to the secret police. They have been using online gay dating sites to contact people and threaten them. Some are only trying to blackmail others into having sex with them. Others are making lists of anti-regime people and publishing their handles on those sites. It is known that extremists used gay sites – mainly ManJam – in Iraq to hunt gay Iraqis, torture them, and kill them. Worries arise now that Syrians might use the same methods to help the regime to hunt gays who oppose it.
ManJam is one of the easiest sites to access and join. Their requirements are minimal, and many users have multiple profiles there. With the difficulties in internet access in Syria at this time, tracking those profiles is nearly impossible. However, when we come across a profile listing anti-regime profiles, we try to report it. Unfortunately, ManJam webmasters don’t do anything about it. I have reported three profiles listing and threatening others, but they still exist and their lists are expanding. I received a message today from a friend telling me about the troubles he had to face after those people listed him on one of their profiles. It is hard enough for gay Syrians to have to hide and fear the authorities because of their sexuality in a country where homosexuality is forbidden by law. The danger becomes more threatening with Assad fanatics threatening to expose those who dare to have a different political opinion.
Last June, Syrian media started to use homosexuality as “the moral reason not to follow certain news channels”. Al-Arour, a former Syrian military officer turned into a Muslim brotherhood member, was exposed as a homosexual on Syrian TV channels. Secret military documents were published revealing that the reason behind the military discharging him was because of his homosexuality. Around the same time, the Amina hoaxer was revealed giving the Syrian media more reasons to use homosexuality against some protesters. It is worrying to think that some anti-regime gay men might be used as the regime’s next scape goats. It is also horrifying to witness a Syrian version of the Iraqi infamous gay hunt. In Arab homophobic societies, the dangers of such a hunt can be catastrophic. Some gay Iraqis survivors who fled Syria had warned us about this before they left. We didn’t believe it might happen in Syria.
16 September 2011 – UK Gay News
Mass Punishment for Gays in Tartous – Christian church is implicated
by Sami Hamwi – Syria Editor at Gay Middle Eas
Less than a week ago, a young, and reckless, gay man from the city of Tartous on the Syrian coast ‘outed’ his fellow Christian gay men. Acting out of vengeance, he claimed to have been “maltreated by fellow gay men”. The young man went to his (and his fellow gay men’s) local church and told the Patriarch the men’s Manjam profile names, along with their full names. The Patriarch conferred with the clergy before calling all the families of all the accused gay men.
According to our sources, the men have since been suffering abuse from their. In addition, families are now limiting the movement of their gay family members, censoring their calls and access to the internet. Being ‘outed’ in Syria can be extremely dangerous, and even fatal, for LGBT people. It stigmatises not only the person affected but the whole family and even community. Such stigma can mean the ‘social death’ of the person exposed, and reduced prospects, and shame on the family/community who are seen as having produced such a ‘sinner’. In traditional Muslim families it can even lead to so called “honour” killing.
I would like to add that this is a very irresponsible and cruel act. The Bishop single handily helped turn the Church from a place of forgiveness and salvation to a source of suffering for Christian gay men in Tartous. The situation will continue to be monitored.
Manjam, based in the UK, is a gay social networking site. Gays in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East have experienced difficulties with the authorities in the past.