Odyssey to America: A departure
It started with a kiss.
Finishing a bout of lovemaking in the back seat of Omar’s car, Adil kissed him in the moment before their bodies parted – and that’s when he heard it: a tapping on the windshield. The car was flooded with light and a veritable army of Moroccan policemen appeared to be storming the vehicle, banging on the windows, demanding “Open! Open!”
Before either of them realized what had happened, two burly policemen had hauled them out of the car and thrown them both, one on top of the other, in a heap on the sand. The cops formed a ring around the two skinny Moroccan boys, both of whom looked no more than 17, and sniggered.
So, what are you boys doing in there, in that fancy car, eh? It was the big, fat one with the epaulets and pockmarked skin who seemed to be in charge.
Nothing, Adil answered. Just hanging out.
The cop’s eyes glittered with malice, and he stared , not at the two boys – who, by now, were shivering with more than the cold wind that came off the sea – but at the car, a black Mercedes with plush cushion seats, as if it were a vision from another planet. It may as well have been, as far as the cop was concerned, because he could never afford to buy such a car, not if he worked and saved for a hundred years.
Fatso leered at Adil, his eyes taking in the sight of the young boy – who looked like the fallen statue of a minor Greek deity: a faun, perhaps, with a face like that of a very young Pan – rather too hungrily. Adil’s heart sank. They were doomed. Or, at least, he was…
The Oukacha prison is an old one, built by the French in the heyday of their imperial delusions, and the rats were as big as cats. The two young prisoners were separated, and Adil was thrown into a dark cell with 30 or so other inmates: the Moroccan version of what we call the “gay tank.”
Morocco used to be a gay tourist mecca, where the boys are available, often for free, because everyone – even “straight” men – is available. We are, after all, speaking about a society where relations between the sexes are so tightly regulated, both by custom and by law, that the chances of a heterosexual man actually having intimate relations with a woman are not good. In that sense, all of Morocco is a prison, where, as everyone knows, homosexual behavior is rife.
This is never acknowledged, however, and recently, with the rise of radical Islamist parties in Morocco’s much-touted democratic elections, it is increasingly risky. As Adil and Omar were about to find out.
The judge looked like a reasonable man, stern but not cruel – but the prosecutor! A more perfect portrait of satanic evil could hardly be imagined. Thin as a rail, with that scraggly beard the Islamists wear, eyes buried in shadow beneath Brezhnevian eyebrows, he demanded the maximum sentence for homosexual acts: three years, and a hefty fine. No lawyer appeared on behalf of the defendants. Omar’s shoulders slumped forward as he heard the prosecutor’s demand, and he looked down at the floor. Adil, on the other hand, did not slump, but stood straighter, and looked directly at the source of this threat to his freedom, projecting, with all his might, his utter disdain.
The prosecutor gave what amounted to a political speech on behalf of the leading Islamist party, emphasizing that these sorts of activities are “corrupting the youth” and must be nipped in the bud before they blossom into a poisonous flower. He glared at the accused, eyes ablaze with hate, and declared that, if it were up to him, they would suffer a fate far worse than the law presently prescribed.
Omar slumped further forward and seemed to be trying to fall through an invisible hole in the floor. Adil just sneered.
Then it was the judge’s turn. He asked lots of questions: What did you think you were doing? Did you know that such things are against the law and against nature? How did you two come to meet? And how often did you meet at the beach? For the first time, Adil felt he might somehow wriggle out of this trap, because there was no rancor in the judge’s voice, only patience and even a bit of sympathy. He answered each question politely, without cowering, his voice clear and steady. His spirits lifted. Yet they fell again when he heard: And are you sorry for what you have done? Aren’t you ashamed?
I am not ashamed.
The words rang out through the courtroom like a gunshot, and with just as much impact: the prosecutor looked as if he might keel over, and his hand seemed to be spasmodically twitching, as if he had just been subjected to a strong electric current.
The judge, however, looked unperturbed: he peered expectantly down at Adil, and listened intently as a teenage Berber boy explained to him why he was only doing what comes naturally – and ably defended his right to do so. We are all of us different, Adil averred, each in their own way. This is mine. I don’t make trouble for anyone – and, no, I am not ashamed. I did nothing wrong.
Adil thought he saw the judge smile, ever so briefly, or perhaps not: it was only a moment, and then it was gone. Then they dragged him away.
Here the respective fates of Adil and Omar diverged. Omar, being a dual citizen of Morocco and France, was deported to Spain. His French mother – blonde, a typical Parisian white lady – came to fetch him. No one came for Adil. Nor had any member of his family attended the trial – not his father, not a single one of the three wives, and not any of his 18 brothers and sisters. Afterwards, Adil learned that Omar’s father – a prominent banker – had bribed the prison guards to leave his son alone, but Adil – by far the handsomer of the two – they ravaged regularly. When it came time for sentencing – a full week after their arraignment – Adil was a bit battered, but far from humbled.
Thanks to Omar’s father’s largess, Adil got the minimum – three months – but did not feel at all relieved. Three months in that hellhole of a prison – at the mercy of the guards, and forced to breath the suffocating air of a place that had no windows and no ventilation, yet was stuffed with thousands of prisoners. The “gay tank” also had its dangers: a violent, half-mad Senegalese, who followed Adil about, stalking him around the cell like a cougar cruising a fawn. And then there was the food: it made you sick, so you had to buy food from the “commissary.” Coincidentally, this was run by the brother of the prison director, and – due to the lack of competition – prices were high.
Being a resourceful lad, Adil soon made friends with an inmate who had a regular source of outside funding – a rich boyfriend – and managed to survive without resorting to prison fare, although he rapidly lost weight: the baby fat melted off his body in a matter of weeks. He lost his illusions, too, as he heard nothing from Omar or his own family. Omar’s mother, an elegant lady who was still beautiful at 45, came to the prison once, full of sympathy and vague promises of assistance that never materialized.
He wondered what would happen to him. Of course he could never go home again. His father, he was sure, had disowned him. His mother, while sympathetic, could say nothing. As for his siblings – his favorite sister, Shadia, was similarly constrained, and his brothers would be shamed as word spread on the street that he was a faggot. The local imam would hear of it, and then there would be no end of trouble for him and his family as long as he stayed in Morocco. Surely, he thought, this is a cursed country, and from that moment on his one thought was to devise a way to get out – free of the countrywide prison he had been born into, but did not belong in.
But where would he go? His first thought – dismissed almost as soon as it occurred to him – was America. Land of hip hop, all night discos, movie stars like gods and goddesses, and the whole country as some sort of Olympus. Far too high up in the clouds for a mere mortal of Adil’s sort: his passport, he knew, would not get him past the airport. Well, then, somewhere in the EU – but not Spain, where they shoot illegal immigrants as they clamber onshore from rickety barges. France was out of the question, too: in the eyes of many French citizens, France suffers from a surfeit of North Africans, and Moroccans are not exactly welcomed with open arms. They would never let him in.
The drag queens were royal personages in the “gay tank,” and were treated with an odd mix of deference and contempt by the guards. One of them, who called himself “Shamira,” had long black hair with wild streaks of red in it, like flames licking and coiling around a thin neck. “She” dressed in all black, like a vampire, in a dress made of material smuggled in by her current lover, said to be one of the prison guards. Shamira doted on Adil like a mother might on her son: she protected him with her fierceness and her air of authority in the cramped, contentious world of the cell. She scolded him when he didn’t eat, and told him stories of her fabulous life as a stripper and “star” at a gay club in Tunisia. Like all such clubs throughout the Arab world, they are officially “straight” – the owners hire girls to come in and hang out. But everybody knows what these places really are and who they cater to – even the Islamists, who have targeted them for attack.
Shamira was effusive in her praise of Adil’s beauty, and claimed that he could easily be the toast of Tunis if only he would get himself a good drag outfit – which she would be more than happy to help him with. He could, Shamira assured him, make some really good money on stage – and also offstage. Why, claimed Shamira, you could even someday be as big a drag star as me! Adil laughed and assured her that this was not possible.
As the day of his scheduled release drew near, however, he began to panic. What would he do? Where would he go? He pried Shamira for some of her Tunisian contacts, and she gave him a bunch of addresses: friends of hers who could be trusted to shelter a gay refugee.
He knew he could not count on his family’s support, and so he was surprised, on the day they let him out, to see his mother waiting at the gate. He ran to meet her: she looked smaller, frailer, than he remembered. Although it had been a mere 90 days since he had last seen her, he looked at her as if for the first time. There was something in her eyes – an unbearable sadness, resignation in the face of the inevitable – that he had never seen there before.
He must leave, she told him, as she pressed a thick wad of bills into his hand. Your father, she said, is furious. And your brother Rashid has threatened to kill you. My son – she looked away, unable to continue, in a vain attempt to shield Adil from the sight of her tears. You must go.
She was a strong woman, but could never openly oppose her husband, who had disowned Adil, and decreed that he should never return to their home. He wasn’t shocked. He was already thinking of what course to take, the first stop in his odyssey across the Middle East, into the furthest reaches of Central Asia – and beyond.
I won’t regale the reader with stories of Adil’s exploits in the gay underground of the Arabic world, except to recall one incident that underscores the trials this child had to endure. It was in the “Arabesque” Café in Tunis, where he was performing on stage for the delectation of fat old businessmen in suits and young toughs in hip hop gear, that he met an Egyptian, a man of means, who hired him to “entertain” the guests on a cruise down the Nile. The “Gay Cruiser,” as they called it, was a luxurious barge, outfitted with a disco, a bar, and some of the hunkiest crew members this side of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Adil, of course, refused: the old bastard was hiring the most notorious money-boys as “waiters,” and taking a cut of their earnings.
But Adil was getting restless. The pay was bad, Tunisia is very poor, and his drag queen friends were getting tiresome: always bitching at each other, and in a state of perpetual high dudgeon. It was too much. Besides which, he had heard, in the gay Internet chatrooms, that the party was going to be wild. He called the Egyptian, and arrangements were made: he would take a bus to Libya, and then on to Egypt. He didn’t tarry long in Tripoli. At that point, the quackish Gadhafi was on a campaign against “Occidental” music, and anything from the West was formally banned: if you were caught listening to, say, Madonna, you were subject to arrest. Everywhere the posters of the Beloved Leader stared down at you, and the place gave Adil the creeps. It wasn’t long before he was on his way to Alexandria, where the pleasure boat waited at the mouth of the Nile.
Before he left, however, Adil underwent a major transformation, at least outwardly: his long, curly hair was shorn off, he shed his very gay-looking clothes, and he worked out at a local gym to steel himself for what he knew was coming. Egypt was no picnic: it was seething with Islamists, and the police hated gays. He had heard they conducted regular raids on known gay establishments and rounded up the queers in periodic “cleanups.” He couldn’t afford to be conspicuous: and, besides that, he was beginning to shed the more feminine aspects of his boyish persona like a chrysalis.
He didn’t make it in time to catch the boat from Alexandria, so he took a bus to Garden City, where a rich businessman was hosting the party at his villa by the Nile. The place was packed – 200 people, mostly rich Egyptians, but also a lot of Western tourists: Brits, French, Dutch, Italians, and Greeks. The place was palatial, an Arabic-style villa surrounded by lush gardens covering the extensive grounds: the luxuriant foliage was a green wall behind which it was safe to partake of forbidden pleasures.
It was a bacchanal worthy of the Internet chatter that had preceded it, and then some. Dinner on the boat was followed by the real festivities. Half-naked men roamed the grounds, trampling flowers in pursuit of each other. Alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality – the three main bugaboos of Muslim orthodoxy – were present in overabundance. The music was loud and only got louder as the first hints of dawn streaked the horizon. That’s probably why the police showed up at four o’clock in the morning: complaints from the neighbors about the noise.
They didn’t bother announcing themselves, or knocking on the door: 20 or so Egyptian policeman carrying truncheons just entered and shut down the music immediately.
So what do we have here? The voice was that of a big, fat Egyptian policeman who seemed to be in charge. Very interesting. The party, he declared, is over: You are all under arrest.
Voices from the crowd rose up: For what?
For what? He laughed. For homosexuality, habibi. So shut up and get your clothes on. We’re going for a ride.
The raid made international headlines: EGYPTIAN GAY LOVE BOAT BUSTED. Of course, the foreigners were not roughed up or harmed in any way; neither were they jailed. They were deported immediately. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were jailed and sentenced to long terms of hard labor. The other Arabs present were roughed up – they, after all, were supposed to be Muslims – and deported back to their own countries. All except for Adil…
They took him down to the police station, directly from the villa. During the interrogation, they tried to get information from him about any gay Egyptian men he might know: how did he know them, where did they live? Adil was most uncooperative, and the cop was getting visibly annoyed. Things came to a head when Adil declared that he didn’t have to answer any of their questions because he is a Moroccan, not an Egyptian. But you are a Muslim, said the cop, by way of explanation. I don’t care about that, Adil answered: you can take your Islam and you know what you can do with it!
The cop was wearing a large ring, and the impact on Adil’s face was similar to what brass knuckles might have achieved. It was a severe beating, and by the time it was over Adil’s face was covered in blood. Later he was proud to say that he went down fighting, swinging wildly until he passed out.
He woke up in immigration detention, a ramshackle facility on the outskirts of Garden City. They wanted to deport him back to Morocco. That would have been a disaster: when the Moroccan authorities saw why he had been deported, he would not be treated kindly. It would be his second offense: this time, he’d get three years. He begged the immigration official – a skinny, nervous wraith of a man, visibly uncomfortable in the presence of a convicted homosexual – not to send him back to Morocco. Impossible, the official replied. We must: where else would you go? This was the opening Adil had been hoping for, and he spoke up immediately: Send me to Syria.
Syria? Why should we send you there? Adil translated this, correctly as it turned out, into a hint that his proposal would be considered, given the right incentive.
I can pay you. Adil reached into his wallet, the repository of his life savings – totaling some 4,000 euros, which he’d somehow managed to keep hidden – and handed 300 over. The official wanted 600. They settled on 500.
Adil’s adventures in Damascus would make a story all by itself, especially his relationship with a prominent official in the Interior Ministry. His sojourn through Uzbekistan, his journey through Turkmenistan, and especially his experiences in Iran – where boys cruise each other as they smoke hashish in the parks – would make for exciting reading, but there is no space for that here. I can’t resist, however, relating one of several attempts to reach Europe, specifically Greece via Turkey.
The boat was old and rusty, and passage cost him 500 euros. His journey started at Izmir, in Asia Minor, the site of ancient Smyrna, where the sky is blue and the aroma of olive oil permeates the air. The other passengers were mostly Africans: Senegalese, Nigerians, Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans. Many women, half of them pregnant. They wanted their babies to be born into a better life. And for that relatively modest ambition they were fated to pay with their lives…
The goal was to reach Mitilini, a Greek isle in the Aegean and the site of a UN refugee camp. Greece is dotted with these facilities, which provide sanctuary for illegal immigrants – and the hope of acquiring official status as a refugee, and possession of a coveted refugee card. Which means you can move freely about Greece, until the local authorities decide your case. This was the magnet that drew Adil with such irresistible force that he was willing to get on that rickety boat and entrust his fate to the Turkish Mafia.
Halfway there, the boat – a small fishing vessel – started to sink. It was five o’clock in the morning when water started pouring into the cabin below deck. Adil was sleeping in a clot of Moroccans, girls from Casablanca, when he woke up in a pool of water. He jumped up. People were simultaneously waking and screaming. We’re all going to die, said Haditha, a Moroccan girl who was four-months pregnant. No we aren’t, answered Adil. Girls, he addressed them all, who doesn’t know how to swim? No one answered, of course, since in Casablanca they all know how to swim, having lived by the sea for most of their lives. Most of the others, however, being from the desert regions of North and Central Africa, were strangers to the sea, and they knew they were doomed. Adil and his three Casablanca cohorts ran up to the deck and jumped as far away from the ship as they could. The non-swimmers, too, were jumping – and grabbing on to the more aquatically inclined for dear life. In their desperate attempts to save themselves, they would have pulled Adil and the others down if they could. He had to beat three young Senegalese men with his fists before he broke free and was able to swim out to open water.
He was in the water for an hour before the Turkish coast guard picked them up in rescue boats, where they were doused in warm water, given warm pajamas and blankets – and summarily arrested. Adil and the girls were turned over to the Moroccan embassy, in Ankara, where they were given their walking papers and set free.
Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman, Dubai, Kuwait – there is hardly a Middle Eastern country that did not play a part in Adil’s odyssey. His adventures would make a book, and perhaps will some day, but for the moment let us simply say that he wound up in Malaysia, where I met him outside Kuala Lumpur’s oldest and wildest gay bar, the aptly named Blue Boy. As to just how I got him into America, where he is now applying for asylum based on the certainty of persecution in his home country, I won’t say much, except to note that it was and is all perfectly legal.
This odyssey of an essentially stateless person, as he navigated his way through the Middle East via the underground highways and byways of the Arab gay subculture, illustrates so many of the problems that beset our troubled world that his story seems almost like some sort of parable. Homosexuality, immigration, the hypocrisy and fanaticism that deforms the Arab world, all this and more are the ingredients of a story that is almost biblical in its narrative of unrelieved tragedy and suffering. That anyone could survive such an experience and still retain the capacity for laughter, and even joy, is a miracle on a par with the Resurrection. It is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit over every form of adversity, of one boy’s determination to reach the West – or die in the attempt. In this sense, it reminds me of Ayn Rand’s We the Living, her 1936 novel of life in Soviet Russia. There is a passage in the book in which the heroine confronts her Communist lover with the fact of her own betrayal, and adds this pungent political commentary to give her speech a little bit of extra sting:
“You came and you forbade life to the living. You’ve driven us all into an iron cellar, and you’ve closed all doors, and you’ve locked us airtight, airtight until the blood vessels of our spirits burst! Then you stare and wonder what it’s doing to us. Well, then, look! All of you who have eyes left – look!”
Look, I might add, at the predicament of the Adils of this world. Caught in a vise between the medieval values of their native land and the freedom of an invading modernity, they struggle long and hard to break out, to get some air. Most fail, and suffocate – or die in the attempt to find sanctuary in the West. Adil made it, just barely – but how many others are out there, waiting for their chance, hoping against hope that they will one day be free? The new immigration bill has yet to take on its final form, and yet the provisions that enable gay people to claim asylum in America have never even entered the national debate.
In order to claim asylum based on the likelihood of persecution on account to sexual orientation the claimant must pass through a legal minefield, and he or she cannot do it without the aid of a lawyer. And lawyers cost money, which is one commodity that Adil is sorely lacking, and so his chances of achieving his dream – to become an American citizen – are diminishing rapidly. He must apply for asylum within one year of arriving in America, and the clock is ticking. Yet where will he find the several thousand dollars required to hire a good lawyer and get a shot at realizing his dream? His current F-1 status – student – does not allow him to work in the U.S.
A more steadfast friend of the West would be hard to find: here, after all, is a young Arabic man whose fondest ambition is to vote in an American election. No fiercer foe of Islamic fanaticism exists, yet we would turn him away from our shores without a thought. It makes no sense. But then again, what about our immigration policy does?
If we look at the world through Adil’s eyes – that is, through the eyes of a person who is essentially stateless – the world is divided into two classes: those who can go anywhere, and those who are banished to the outer fringes of the global metropolis. The visa is the holy grail for Adil and his rootless tribe, which is growing in numbers and desperation. And even when, by some miracle, a single young male of Arab extraction is granted a visa to study or work in the U.S., there is no guarantee he will be allowed to enter. The State Department decides who gets a visa, and what kind, but Homeland Security, the new department that absorbed the various immigration-related bureaucracies under one overarching mega-agency, can stop you at the border.
When Adil got to U.S. Customs, he was immediately pulled out of line and interrogated for over three hours. The officer who brought him into the interrogation room commented to the others: “Morocco – scary!” While Adil speaks at least several languages, including Arabic, French, and Turkish, as well as English, he was questioned by a group of three or four border control officials, all speaking in rapid-fire English. Are you a Muslim? How many wives does your father have? How many times a day do you pray to Allah? That he, of all people, was being asked this last question is a particularly bitter irony.
Adil had never believed it possible that he would ever reach America: it was always a scheme so improbable as to relegate it to the realm of dreams. Europe seemed so much more possible, and besides that, he knew many friends who had made it into the EU via gay marriage. Just find yourself a European husband from one of the majority of EU nations that recognize same sex unions. But some of us are just not the marrying kind, and this is certainly true in Adil’s case. He’d rather risk a leaky boat.
Adil’s best friend from Casablanca married a German guy and is now the proud possessor of an EU passport. This means he can go back to Morocco and lord it over his old friends: he, after all, has made it out of there. Adil dreams of replicating his friend’s triumph, and then some, by flashing his American passport around his old home town. He imagines a cop would stop him in the street and try to hassle him, but then he would whip out his passport and ask – nay, demand – to speak to the American embassy. He would, finally, be on the side of Power, rather than beneath its boot.
In Adil’s world, nations are ranked by the power of the passports they issue, and by that standard EU citizenship is undoubtedly near the top. But the Hope Diamond of passports, the ultimate in international mobility and prestige, is the one issued by the U.S. State Department. Americans do not understand: they think everyone can go anywhere. But if you have, say, a Moroccan passport, you cannot go anywhere that a boy like Adil wants to go. Forever branded with the mark of his oppressors, he is an international pariah outside the Arab world and Iran.
Caught between the West and the rest, he is welcomed by neither. His mind is, in most ways, so thoroughly Westernized that he can only be a misfit in his homeland: yet so many obstacles are put in the way of his responding to the siren song of freedom that his odyssey to America is as perilous as the one endured by the original Odysseus. Caught between the Scylla of U.S. immigration law and the Charybdis of a native culture that rejects his very existence, Adil is cast adrift on the uncertain sea, swimming – as always – against the current.