Marrakesh sexpress

Morocco may be chilling out, but male lovers still shoved to the shadows

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Marrakesh, Morocco — referring to his time in this Muslim country, the late British playwright Joe Orton called it the “Costa del Sodomy.”

Morocco, which is officially Islamic, criminalizes homosexuality. Still, as I retrace Orton’s steps and those of famed American writer and self-confessed bisexual Paul Bowles through the magical Djemaa el Fna, the square at the centre of this ancient city, I catch the glances at every angle of hot men willing to get intimate, no doubt for a price.

Considering that 17 per cent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, it’s not surprising that Arab men of ambiguous sexual persuasion will turn a trick for a few dirhams (eight of which equal $1).

But as well as poverty, something else is shaping behaviour here. The AIDS crisis has transformed Moroccan sexual space in a way that few would have thought possible even five years ago. Under the reign of the 30-something King Mohammed VI, the country has joined the global fight against the illness, part of a progressive policy push that has also seen a transformation of family law, more women’s rights and the end of polygamy.

At last summer’s international AIDS conference in Toronto, for example, Othman Mellouk of ACLS, the French acronym for the national AIDS organization, detailed a prevention strategy involving condom promotion to men having sex with men. Government officials sat in the audience beaming at the positive attention Morocco was receiving for its work. Only a few years ago, Mellouk says, even saying the word “condom’ was risky. When he was first invited to appear on TV, hosts would ask him to talk about transmission through blood transfusions and not to utter the C word.

“It’s a revolution,’ Mellouk tells me when I meet him at a hip café called Kech Mara in the Nouvelle Ville, the more modern part of Marrakesh. Mellouk, an orthodontist by day and an AIDS activist in his spare time, wants a beer, so we leave the patio and go inside. Like men having sex with men, alcohol is verboten but easily available as long as you’re discreet.

Such ambiguity is the story of the socially forbidden in Morocco.

He tells me about a survey the group did in a cruising area. Asked if they were gay, straight or bi, 90 per cent of men claimed to be hetero. One has to be careful using the word “gay,’ Mellouk cautions, because in this part of the world “gay’ refers to the person on the bottom, while the inserter is straight.

It’s this discomfort with the gay identity that also explains, along with the country’s desperate economic circumstances, the number of Moroccan men who hold themselves out as prostitutes, he believes.

The way Mellouk sees it, there are real prostitutes those who name their price upfront. Then there are the others, young Moroccans who have sex with foreigners without pre-negotiation. “At the end, there’s often a problem,’ Mellouk says. “The Moroccan wants something and he’ll take just about anything 10 dirham (less than $1.50), a T-shirt, a CD.

“To me, this is not a sex worker,’ he says, “but, rather, someone who needs to get something from the encounter to prove to himself that he’s not really gay.’ In fact, in the peer education group run by ACLS, a number of men who have come out as gay have stopped being prostitutes.

It says a lot about the new climate in Morocco. But, alas, the new sexual honesty may turn out to be as fleeting as one of Orton’s homo flings. The national guessing game right now is whether Justice and Development, an Islamic party similar to Hamas, will double its seat count in September’s legislative elections.

Certainly, such a result would be a downer for the new sexual openness. Mellouk fears an Islamist electoral breakthrough would bring a return to the bad old days when AIDS workers carrying condoms in cruising areas were hassled and even jailed by police.

But not everyone is as concerned as Mellouk about a possible Islamist onslaught. Some Moroccans tell me that in a country where politics are as corrupt as they are here, vested economic interests will find a way to deny the Islamists their democratic due.

Nouzha Skalli, Morocco’s most famous female politician, scoffs at the very idea that the PJD could make a breakthrough. Skalli, a member of the Party of Progress and Socialism (formerly the Communist Party), has had her share of run-ins with the Islamists. She spearheaded the fight to end polygamy.

“They appeal to people who believe all our problems will be solved if we apply the Koran,’ Skalli tells me in her office in Casablanca. “Moroccan people are religious, but they also like their freedom,’ she says.

But Abdeslam Maghraoui, an expert on Morocco formerly of the U.S. Institute for Peace, predicts that the PJD will double its seats if the elections are fair. “Islamists are better organized politically, more in touch with local communities and, surprisingly, more democratic in the conduct of the party politics,’ he tells me.

If the Islamists do win big in September, Maghraoui expects them to shy away from an attack on Morocco’s new family law, but foresees interference in other areas. “AIDS education and debates about sensitive issues such as sexuality will be repressed,’ he says, though he expects resistance from civil society, which has grown more durable over the last half-decade.

Which means this Pride Day, we should take a leaf from Joe Orton’s book and remain politically intimate with our Moroccan brothers. Chances are they’ll need our attention more than ever.

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