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Taqarub: How one Facebook Page Helped its Founder Find Safety

[Poster from an Iraqi anti-LGBTQ+ violence campaign, reads: [Poster from an Iraqi anti-LGBTQ+ violence campaign, reads: "like me, like you: differences and diversities are the bases of life." Baghdad, Iraq. Image via Taqarub.]

To this day, a statue of Abu Nawwas (756-814 AD) is still standing on an important street running aside the east bank of the Tigris, along with two parks in Baghdad that are named after him. After all, Abu Nawwas was one of the most celebrated Arab poets, who also happened to be unapologetically homosexual. He published a collection of poems that were so homoerotic they were rarely translated into English or any other European language, as they were shocking by European standards*. Abu Nawwas was not the only known homosexual in Iraq’s coloured history. S’aoud el-Imaretly, a beloved Iraqi singer, was a transgender man who got married to women, twice. And then there’s also Saadi el-Hilli, a popular Iraqi singer from the ‘70s and ‘80s, whose hundreds of comical anecdotes and urban legends about his love of men are still memorized by Iraqis until today, although the truth of these tales was never confirmed.  However, it would be a lie to say that Iraq is a welcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community. It became especially dangerous in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion and the infestation of religio-political ideas, as well as the rise of many different armed militias. For the LGBTQ+ community, life before 2003 was hard, but it became extremely dangerous after the invasion of 2003. 

So it was not easy for Taim, a young Iraqi gay man to come to terms with his homosexuality. Taim was born gay in Mosul in northern Iraq to a conservative family and in a society that he knew did not accept his sexual orientation. He, like many Iraqi LGBTQ+ men and women, questioned himself and his nature and tried his best to look, act, and even think “straight” according to his community’s standards. Taim was trying to conform, to fit into the frame society tries to force us all into, until he decided he could not do it anymore. He started looking for ways to accept his nature, and that is when he decided to create Taqarub; a Facebook page designed to reach out to others who understand his struggles on one hand, and at the same time to do as the group’s description states: to “bring understanding and correct some of the wrong information and concepts about homosexuality that are spread around the Arab world.” Taqarub also “welcomes heterosexuals, and invite[s] them to ask questions, discuss and engage in dialogue.”

Dima Yassine: How did the group come to be? And what was the purpose of it?

Taim: I accepted myself after a long period of inner struggle in which I dealt with the fact that my feelings were going against the beliefs I grew up with. The page was created because I needed a safe place. I found comfort and solace talking to others who are like me, people who understood my feelings and struggles. I suffered a great deal until I found people who comforted me, gave answers to my questions, helped me to cope, and showed me the path to self-acceptance. So I decided to try and make it easier for others. The group became a way to gather tools and resources, to connect people who are willing to help those who need that help, and to start a conversation with others who hate “us.”

DY: How was Taqarub different from any other LGBTQ+ group in Iraq?

T: Taqarub (which in this context translates to mean ‘understanding’) was the first public group that initiated a friendly debate and created an open platform to answer all questions concerning the issues of sexual orientations and non-binary gender issues in Arabic. It is a much needed place for people from the LGBTQ+ community and for those who are outside it to have a dialogue instead of projecting pure, blind hate. Aside from the Facebook page, I also created a website called LGBT Arabia where, just like Taqarub, I posted translated articles and links discussing different topics related to the LGBTQ+ community.

DY: What were the difficulties that you or the members faced creating or even being in this group? Especially considering that previous LGBTQ+ Facebook groups were targeted in the past and violence was inflicted on the members in some instances.

T: It was not easy! There was the fact that the group admins’ accounts were under a tremendous risk of being shutdown at any time, as we were constantly being reported as an offensive group. Besides, of course, there was a great risk of being identified, hunted down, and maybe killed by conservative groups; the amount of death threats we received was huge. For that reason, we couldn’t, for example, link our phone numbers with our accounts to avoid being identified. But all of this also made it difficult for us to connect to people and gain their trust while we were using fake names and pictures.

DY: In the past few years, there has been an increasing popular conversation about homosexuality and gender identity in the Middle East. Opinions, whether positive of negative, around these issues are constantly debated and talked about in the mainstream media, movies, books, and articles and, of course, on social media. Do you view this debate as healthy? Do you see the LGBTQ+ community being normalized in the region anytime soon?

T: There is no bad or good publicity, in my opinion. I love to watch the LGBTQ+ issues debated on TV, for instance, even if the debate meant to attack the community. There’s always a sheikh or a minster defending what they usually call “the good values,” “traditions,” and so on. However, this is also “breaking the ice” and bringing the issue to the surface. People now know that we exist amongst them, that there is an LGBTQ+ community. My point is, it is all about baby steps and it is definitely better than nothing.

DY: Your Facebook page started being open to the public as a way to start a conversation with society, but now it’s closed and only visible to members, what changed?

T: When ISIS took over Mosul, the first thing I did was to delete the website LGBT Arabia, so as it couldn’t be traced to my name and bank information. We (the Facebook page admins and I) then decided to close the page and make it members only. I was still living in the city at the time, and so were some of the page members. Two months later, around June 2015, I managed to flee Iraq with great help from the Taqarub community. 

DY: So, would you say that Taqarub had saved you?

T: Taqarub was a tool and a platform that connected me to other people in the LGBTQ community. When I was in need of help, they were there for me. Through Taqarub, I had people who smuggled me physically and helped my movement migrate from one city to another, crossing different check points. They helped me cross to Kurdistan in a time when Arabs were not allowed in. Taqarub introduced me to those who opened their homes for me, and helped me all along my Journey to safety. Some of them became my best friends.

* Carousing with Gazelles, Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad. Translated Jaafar Abu Tarab

 

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Jadaliyya’s Maghreb Page delivers exclusive coverage on Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Western Sahara. As the role of the Greater Maghreb has been pivotal in the regional movements, it is imperative that coverage remains consistent and relevant. Jadaliyya offers incisive analysis--in Arabic, French, and English--through an academic and critical perspective.

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Algeria:

Population (July 2016 est.)40,263,711
GDP (2016 est.)$609.4 billion
Unemployment 
(2016 est.)9.9%
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24;
2014 est.): 25.3%
Military Expenditures 
(/GDP, 2016 est.)6%
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.): 7.2%

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Population (2015 est.)6,597,960
GDP 
($US billions; 2016 est.)90.89
Unemployment (2004 est.)30%
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24):
n/a
Military Expenditures: 
3.9% of GDP 
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.): 5% 

Mauritania:

Population (2016 est.): 3,677,293
GDP 
$7.242 billion
Unemployment (2016 est.)12.8% 
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): 67%
Military Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.): 2.67%
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.): 3.8% 

Morocco:

Population (2016 est.)33,655,786
GDP ($US billions, 2016 est.):  $282.8
Unemployment (2016 est.): 9.9%;
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24, 2014 est.): 20%
Military Expenditures (/GDP, 2015 est.): 3.25%
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.)5.9% 

Tunisia:

Population (2016 est.)11,134,588
GDP ($US billion, 2016 est.): $130.8 billion
Unemployment (2016 est.): 14%;
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24, 2012 est.): 37.8%
Military Expenditures (/GDP, 2015 est.)2.28%
Health Expenditures (/GDP, 2014 est.)7%

Western Sahara:

Population (2016 est.)587,020
GDP ($US million, 2007 est.):  $906.5
Unemployment: n/a
Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): n/a
Military Expenditures
n/a
Health Expenditures
n/a