Beirut: Arab world's sin city

2006-06-23 12:49

Beirut - A gay rights group comes out of the closet, a taboo-breaking play wins rave reviews and shops now offer edible underwear... welcome to Beirut, the proud sin city of the Arab world.

"Lebanon has maintained a relative freedom of values, despite the spread of extremism in the Arab world, mainly due to its religious and cultural diversity" with its various Christian and Muslim communities, sociologist Leila Kfoury tells AFP.

"This allows for a more permissive and less hypocritical society," she says.

"Contrary to Dubai, it is not just a form of freedom aimed at creating the right atmosphere for business and tourism.

"In Lebanon, the quest for freedom is a social action," Kfoury adds.

Easing of attitudes

Homosexuality is outlawed under the Lebanese penal code as "an offence against nature", and those convicted can be sentenced to jail terms ranging between six months and a year.

But in the 12 months since it began operating, the Helem Association for the defence of gay rights says it has noticed an easing of attitudes among some sections of the police, judiciary and press towards its campaign for homosexuality to be decriminalised.

A petition filed by a Beirut city councillor earlier this year seeking prosecution of Helem was rejected by the attorney general's office; it ruled that just because the gay rights group had an office and a website, this did not mean it was breaking the law.

Transvestite on television

"Some sections of civil society and opinion makers in the media are backing our battle, which forces the authorities to be more tolerant toward us," Helem member Georges Kazzi says.

This year, Helem publicly celebrated international day against homophobia for the first time, and a transvestite went on live television to defend his rights.

Sex shops

If sex shops are banned, some stores across Beirut openly sell aphrodisiacs, edible underwear, leather accessories and handcuffs.

The Lebanese capital's openness has also been visible recently in a series of daring plays which have tackled sexuality and social taboos.

The Masrah al-Madina avant-garde theatre staged To Hell With Meryl Streep, a play about a naive husband who suspects that his wife was not a virgin when they married.

"The young want to shock in order to change society. Since the Greeks, and (French playwright) Moliere, theatre has always been a catalyst for the evolution of social freedoms," director Nidal Ashkar says.

Fundamentalism and sexual vulgarities

"The Arab world is caught between fundamentalism and the sexual vulgarities seen in video clips and magazines, while in Lebanon there are people who are tackling sexual issues with seriousness and a sense of humour," she adds.

"My role is to give them a platform," says Ashkar, who also manages the Masrah al-Madina.

After winning a tough battle with censors, the first Arab adaptation of the hit US play The Vagina Monologues - the taboo-breaking Hakeh Neswan (Women's Talk) - took Lebanese theatre by storm with sold-out performances and rave reviews.

"If there had been no favourable opinion among people in power, I may not have been able to win the approval of the censorship department," its 30-year-old director Lina Khoury says.

"I managed to win the support of the minister of culture."

Heated debate

The widespread coverage given to her play in the Arab media has stirred a heated debate, particularly within the online community.

On the internet site of Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television, one angry Arab user wondered whether "there are no more men in Lebanon to force women to be decent as required by God".

But a number of internet users in Gulf Arab states also called on Khoury to keep the production going - so they can see it when they visit Lebanon during the summer holidays.