A bit of action in the hammam

Observations on gay men in Iraq

The Sunday before the election, we got two calls from Iraq. The first was from the people I call my in-laws, though they won't technically be in-laws until Majid and I commit to each other at a civil partnership ceremony in December. Majid's niece, Marwa, is studying law at Tikrit University and she had rung to talk about the election - our election.

Earlier this year, all the women in her very extended family had gone together to vote in the Iraqi elections. Marwa had been thrilled and now she wanted to share Majid's excitement as he prepared to vote in our election (he has become a British citizen). "And, please," she begged, "please vote for Mr Tony Blair." Er, why? "Because if he had not saved us from Saddam, we wouldn't have proper elections. And life wouldn't be getting better."

Majid tried to explain about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and so on. He later abbreviated her vociferous answer as, "So what?" We rang her back after the election. She wanted to know about "Mr George". "You free us from Saddam," she said. "Then you elect his friend. Please explain this word Respect." We were calling an Iraqi mobile, so it was an expensive explanation.

The house in Samara in which she and her mother lived was damaged by a suicide bomber last month and later looted. Her mother is waiting to be treated for breast cancer. (She posts us samples of the only medication she can get, so that we can ask our GP if it is "good medicine".) They suffer from erratic power supply and food shortages. Even so, they are grateful for western intervention. As Shias, they are no longer victimised. And they've now got mobile phones and dare to talk on them without fear of the line being tapped.

The second call was from Nazar, an old schoolfriend of Majid's who lives in Baghdad and keeps us informed about the gay scene there. It is never easy being gay in a Muslim country: there is a tradition of hurling homosexuals from high places or toppling heavy walls on to them. And in Iraq, as in other Arab countries, gay men still lead closeted lives and often enter marriages of convenience.

But Iraq has a history of more liberal attitudes - especially from when it was known as Babylon or Mesopotamia, when a celebrated poet called Abu Nawas wrote odes in praise of wine and boys. Now Nazar can visit the Baghdad cinema that shows gay soft porn, or even seek some action in the hammams. This is still risky, because these bathhouses are mainly in the areas controlled by insurgents - and are used by many Iraqi men simply for bathing. However, according to Nazar, there is usually a darkish massage area where like-minded guys will oblige each other. The big problem seems to be that almost every Iraqi is a top.

But, Nazar said, for all this we should thank Blair and President Bush. It would be patronising for us to say that he and Marwa don't know what they're talking about - even if Nazar's particular liberation was probably not what George W had in mind when he decided to invade.

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