Jerusalem - like the strongest weed, lust is a powerful force that survives even in hostile ground. Witness what happens in West Jerusalem's Independence Park, a monotonous but welcome patch of green in the car-cacophonous holy city, which is also an after-dark rendezvous for those seeking the illicit joys of male-male sexual contact.
Mere minutes from the packed pedestrian streets, beyond the random car stops and police vehicles with blinking blue lights, a steady stream of Jewish men wearing kippas share the secluded pathways, and their bodies, with young men named Omar and Sayed, libidinous needs creating a temporary harmony among the trees.
World Pride, the second ever conference and celebration sponsored by InterPride - The International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Pride Coordinators (the first was in Rome in 2000), was intended to bring a taboo topic for both religious Arabs and Orthodox Jews, out from the bushes of shame. But the controversial event scheduled for August will not be taking place this year.
As the celebratory roar of another T.O. Pride Day nears, the echoes of this queer dust-up remind us how problematic gay life is elsewhere, especially in the Middle East.
Even the soft-pedalling of the event by the organizers did not stave off an unholy alliance of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics.
But that's not the whole story. Besides the religious naysayers, there were the queer ones, too. Some gay groups from elsewhere in the world opted to boycott the event, saying it was unfitting to hold the affair in a contested city half under occupation.
Organizers at first insisted the show would go on, even after someone tried to burn down Jerusalem's only gay bar. Then, weeks before the curtain was to rise on the event, organizers opted to postpone it until 2006. The ultimate decision not to hold the event, say organizers, hinged more on whether the safety of participants could be guaranteed than on the contested status of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the unexpected delay in World Pride ("Love Without Borders" is the official motto of the event) will give the global movement a chance to do something it hasn't been able to thus far: support Palestinian political aspirations and at the same time stand up for the forgotten queers of the West Bank and Gaza. ***
Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies offer a lesson in contrasts, sexual and otherwise. One minute you're in the squalor of Gaza, where huge pockmarks scar the dirt roads and garbage rots in the Mediterranean sun. Then, as long as you aren't a Palestinian, you navigate the Erez checkpoint into Israel, drive a few miles north and arrive in loud, lusty Tel Aviv. In one place, gay liberation has little meaning. In the other, the party never stops, even on the Jewish sabbath. Hell, Friday night is the biggest night of the week at the city's many queer bars, where well-moisturized gay men preen in the labels that are the global gay uniform.
Israel is dramatically more tolerant of gay life than any of its Arab neighbours, and has consequently become the destination of hundreds of queers fleeing the West Bank and Gaza. They choose to live under Israeli military oppression rather than face the sometimes deadly homophobia of their homeland.
In Tel Aviv I was introduced to Mazim (who asked that his real name not be used). We sat in his room under a poster saying "Give me a bit of love" and discussed how a 16-year-old from Nablus on the West Bank ended up in Israel eight years ago with no job and knowing not a word of Hebrew. His saga began when his brother found out he had been fooling around with another guy, precipitating a family meltdown.
"He said, 'Fuck you, you homo - I'll kill you," Mazim remembers. His father, though he didn't approve, did not have the violent reaction. "He loved me and didn't talk to other people about it." The brother, who was tight with Hamas militants and smugglers, evidently feared that having a queer brother would lower his standing in those circles.
So Mazim fled, first to Haifa, then to Tel Aviv, where he tries to pass as an Israeli. He shows me his tattered photocopied Palestinian ID and the plastic-laminated rainbow-coloured card he was given by Aguda, the Israeli queer rights groups that does outreach among Palestinians. If he's picked up by the Israeli cops, Mazim is supposed to show them this card. If he's lucky, the Aguda card will persuade them he should be allowed to stay.
There are no firm estimates of the number of Mazims seeking a better life in the very country held responsible for the tragedy of the Palestinian people. Human rights groups say they're too busy keeping tabs on higher-level rights abuses.
But Bassem Eid, a human rights activist and president of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, acknowledges the hostile conditions for queers in the Occupied Territories. "Homosexuality is an issue that's prohibited by everything - by attitude, behaviour, by customs and tradition," he tells me in his small, tidy office in Arab East Jerusalem.
Part of the problem is that there is little in the way of official law in Palestinian areas. Much of the order that exists is in the hands of paramilitary groups composed of people who "rule the daily life of people in the West Bank according to their moods," says Eid, whose group scrupulously keeps track of Palestinian as well as Israeli human rights transgressions.
On the other hand, Garay Menicucci, assistant director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and an editor of Middle East Report, questions the extent to which blame for human rights violations against gays can be ascribed to Palestinian authorities when the Israeli military still controls so much of daily life in the territories. Elsewhere in the Arab world - in Egypt and Jordan, for example - there are large gay scenes, though they're more underground than in Europe or North America.
"A lot of people who find the situation on the West Bank unbearable go to Jordan," he tells me, not to Israel.
Still, many believe holding World Pride in Jerusalem would at least have forced a dialogue on a topic that, among large sections of the population, both Muslim and Jewish, remains the biggest taboo.
The outfit ultimately responsible for World Pride, the international gay extravaganza that kicked up a storm of controversy five years ago when the very first World Pride was held in Rome during the Catholic jubilee year, is InterPride, which brings together organizers from around the world. The project was endorsed by the mainstream National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the U.S.
For their part, staff at Jerusalem Open House lesbian and gay community centre, who were to have been the local hosts of the event, have done little to tackle the political skepticism on questions of Palestinian rights and Israeli occupation.
"This organization has opted not to scream at things we don't like, but to build the world we want to be living in," Hagai El-Ad, the executive director, told me a few months ago in the Open House, in an otherwise nondescript high-rise in West Jerusalem. "And that's an extremely important part of our work, because it's going beyond LGBT rights. And World Pride is another articulation of that."
The Open House is one of the few places in Jerusalem where Jews and Muslims can commune. But since the second intifada, a security clampdown has made it uncomfortable for anyone who looks Arab to be seen outside the centre on Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian mall and popular hangout that's been a target of suicide bombers.
In his customary nuanced tones, El-Ad explains that this summer will be a "painful" time in Israel, and the organizers did not want to make what will be a difficult period even more so. "The decision to reschedule the event reflects a deep understanding of the social and political reality that Israelis and Palestinians will face," he tells me on the phone a few days ago.
But for activists who had called for a boycott of the event, there was no sadness over the postponement. In the U.S., groups such as QUIT (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) said that to participate in World Pride would mean complicity in Israeli occupation. "Although the event is named Love Without Borders, Israel has illegally occupied Jerusalem for decades and has functionally annexed the city," the group said in its statement.
Closer to home, Salaam, the Toronto-based queer Muslim group that also has branches elsewhere in Canada, also joined the boycott call.
"Would you have held World Pride in apartheid South Africa?" asks El-Farouk Khaki of Salaam.
Khaki says he realizes that the event has the potential to spark much-needed dialogue on homosexuality. But he wonders how much good it would do, since few Palestinians from the territories would attend. Furthermore, it might have had the unintended effect of associating the gay movement with the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, thereby undermining attempts to change hostile attitudes.
In the end, it may matter little to the lives of queer Palestinians whether World Pride goes ahead, or whether activists in Toronto and San Francisco boycott it. Their destiny is intimately tied up with that of other Palestinians, who finally see some faint possibility of living normal lives free of an occupying force. When the Israeli occupation is no more and Palestinians themselves are responsible for what goes on inside their borders, perhaps then they will recognize the oppression within.