Thursday, January 18, 2007

Arabic terminology

In his new book Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, the British journalist Brian Whitaker offers some remarks on changes in terminology in the Arabic-language media.

The old term for a male homosexual, roughly equivalent to “sodomite,” is luti, derived from the Biblical patriarch Lot. Khawal and khanith/mukhanath refer to effeminate men. According to Whitaker, other traditional terms include ma’hun, a passive sodomite, mu’ayir, a passive male prostitute, and dabh, an active sodomite who rapes victims in their sleep.

Still common in journalistic usage is the heavily pejorative shaadh (queer, perverted, deviant) Suhaaqiya, lesbian, is somewhat less disparaging.

More enlightened journalists are coming to prefer al-mithliyya al jinsiyya, sexual sameness (an expression modeled on the West European term homosexual). Mithli can be used to mean simply a gay person. A glossy magazine, apparently the only one of its type in the Middle East, is published in Lebanon with the title Barra! (Out).

The spread of Western-derived terms is the accompaniment of the fact that an increasing number of young people are adopting Western customs and life styles. This has led some local observers to denounce these fashions as manifestations of cultural imperialism. Ostensibly, according to some, the condition of same-sex persons was just fine until these divisive foreign habits were introduced. This mistaken view dovetails with the claim of Western savants that historically Islam had no such thing as homosexuality. This assertion in turn rests on terminological arguments, which do not take account of the fact, attested in many other spheres, that concepts and practices can exist before the words to describe them have been found.

In dress Whitaker notes a preference for the color black, as in the black tee-shirts worn by brave gay activists. A prominent nightclub in Beirut had an interior painted entirely in black. This color preference seems to have no real parallel in the Western world, though black is, of course, the color of anarchism.


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