Beirut - In some of the unrenovated buildings in this city pointing out into the Mediterranean, you can stick your fingers in the perfect circles made by the artillery barrages in the civil war that ripped Lebanon apart two decades ago. The conflict's mostly a memory now, buried under the construction debris in one of the largest urban rehabilitation projects ever undertaken. In many ways, Beirut is a success story in this region of so many tragedies - proof that sometimes history does move on.
Of course, with Israel due south, Mideast realities are never far away. A short drive from the city centre, you find the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where the misery of the Palestinian residents is punctuated by the bustle of the market - tomatoes and produce on one side of the narrow street, TVs and electronic goods on the other, at prices so good that Lebanese come here looking for bargains.
In the urban cacophony of Beirut, however, where it's jackhammers and car horns that are most likely to disturb the peace, the reality of a southern Lebanon controlled by fundamentalist Hezbollah, "the party of God," seems far away. This is particularly true because this city is the closest thing there is to an oasis of sexual freedom in the Arab world.
In the evening, tourists promenade on the cobblestone streets past Versace, Boss and Dunkin' Donuts. Unbeknownst to most passersby, the Yankee outlet specializing in inferior coffee is a prime gay rendezvous spot, the dozen stylish metal tables a place to see, be seen and connect.
For the less pretentious, there are a couple of well-known cruising parks where you might hook up with one of the many visiting Syrian construction workers. And the gay partier wanting something less sedate can hopscotch across town to Acid nightclub, where men dance groin to groin to the strains of house and funked-up Arabic tunes as if Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code did not make "physical contact and union against nature' punishable by a year in prison.
Now there's a move to change this legal prohibition (and end the not infrequent blackmail that goes with it). But in a fascinating deviation from the way such politics are handled in the West, gay rights lobbyists here bundle their claims in a broader package of demands for citizenship, gender equality and against obligatory religious identities.
Religion looms large throughout the Arab world, no more so than in Lebanon, where one is either Sunni or Shia Muslim, Maronite Christian, Druze (cousins of Muslims) or Greek Orthodox. There is no escaping the clutches of religious identification - it's stamped on identity passes. Marriages between Christians and Muslims are not recognized. After the 1980s civil war, the Lebanese returned to a 50-year-old system in which the most important governmental and military positions were doled out among religious groups. But now a campaign is challenging a sectarian scheme that maintains peace but cements the same divisions that led to war 20 years ago.
The secular challenge offers inspiration for human rights activists, especially those who have often wondered wistfully what a successful gay rights strategy in an Arab country would look like. The group that's causing waves not only in Lebanon but throughout the region calls itself Private Liberties (in Arabic, it's Hurriyat Khassa) and is made up of Lebanese lawyers, journalists and academics.
The name has layers of meaning. It encompasses the freedom to be Lebanese rather than merely one of its constituent religious sects. But the mandate also includes specifics: gender equality, rights for domestic workers and, perhaps the most daring for this part of the world, the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Nizar Saghieh, a leader of Private Liberties, says his group concluded early on that it's better to talk about homosexuality under the umbrella of other issues than by itself. "Otherwise, gays just become marginalized,' says the French-educated lawyer who practises corporate law in the morning to pay the bills and in the afternoon does what he would prefer to do all day long - human rights law.
"I want homosexuals to interact inside society - to be accepted by others and to accept their society,' Saghieh says. "It's not because people are bad that they are against homosexuals, it's because of tradition.'
That's why Saghieh spends little time talking about international human rights law and more on gentle persuasion. "You have to take time and convince people of the necessity of change. You don't have to be provocative.'
In the end, success or failure in Lebanon - and everywhere else where people strive for sexual freedom - depends on convincing society that queer freedom is for the good of all, because it's part of opening space for everyone to live their lives as they would prefer.
This explains why Saghieh is as pleased to be quoted in Lebanese media on the issue of the disappeared in the civil war as he is on rights for sexual minorities, because undoing the taboo against homosexuality is intimately tied up with other undiscussable subjects.
"It's very important at this stage of Lebanese history, or maybe to all Arab people, to have a unifying discourse giving everyone the same rights and answering the legitimate needs of each,' Saghieh says. Otherwise, he fears, the current social paralysis that characterizes so many Arab countries will continue, and more and more of those frustrated by the state of things will take the ultimate step - they'll leave.