A Return to Baghdad

Haider, who met the reporter on Manjam, the gay cruising site, looks out on the Karada district from a hotel window. | MICHAEL T. LUONGO

BY MICHAEL T. LUONGO | What had only been lines on a map, forbidden and dangerous, were places that had come alive, places that I could now see with my own eyes.

I was in Baghdad in mid-2009 for my second time. The post-surge trip introduced me to places I had only heard of in stories — what then seemed like fables — told to me by Ali Hili, the director of Iraqi LGBT, a London-based human rights group working with gay men in Iraq, and by other gay men I had met in Baghdad two years earlier.

Ali told of walking the reedy banks of the Tigris in Baghdad, a place he said, where gay men laughed, cruised, and picnicked together in the days before the US invasion changed everything. The recent horrors reported out of this city, for gays and ordinary citizens alike, made it hard to believe such a time ever existed.

That is until I was able to see it with my own eyes, in a Baghdad inching, hoping to be post-war. It was a completely different city from the one I discovered in my first visit in 2007, when the insurgent uprising meant that simply being on the street was an invitation to instant death.

This visit would be full of stark contrasts. It was as if there were two different Baghdads — at least. I would interview men from Sadr City, one of the poorest, most dangerous districts, who talked about friends killed by sprays of bullets in drive-by shootings, their gathering places firebombed, their names posted on lists, others raped and disappeared by militia-infested police squadrons at checkpoints.

I would see a hospital where the bodies of gay men had been dumped, their anuses closed shut from a heavy glue used to torture them. I would visit a safe house, chatting with gay men and transgender Iraqis who hid for safety, yet at the same time were welcoming and life-affirming, teaching me gay Arabic slang and joking about sex with gay Saddam-look-alikes.

And I would meet other men from different parts of Baghdad, young, fashionable, masculine, with far less to fear, who did in fact cruise along the colorful banks of the Tigris on Abu Nuwaz Street and spend their evenings at fashionable cafés popular among gays in West Baghdad, flirting with men they met through the website Manjam as they sat back in comfortable seats visible from the street.

I would grow to fall in love with a newly vibrant Baghdad. Not that I didn’t still have much to fear as a visiting gay journalist — from conversations that could be tapped to entrapment, spies, and the bullets of panicked Iraqi soldiers. In the end, there was much that didn’t fully makes sense — for me, for the local gay men, and for anyone living in this ancient cradle of civilization, a place somewhere between war and peace.

This four-part series does not aim to duplicate the work of reporters who, over the past four years, exposed the targeted killings of Iraqi gay men. My goal instead is to draw on my experiences in the spaces where gay men socialize, where they have been killed and where they hide, to demystify what remains an abstraction for Western audiences.

The stories of the men in Baghdad, told from their own spaces, rather than through second-hand accounts or from overseas, humanizes them, makes them more than victims in a war alternately labeled a fight for freedom, a clash of religious ideologies and, by many, a grave mistake by the United States that has thrown occupied Iraq into chaos.

Some of the earliest writing — dating to the spring of 2006 — on the killings of Iraqi gay men was done by Doug Ireland in Gay City News, based on interviews with his overseas contacts. Baghdad-based correspondents for CNN, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications in time followed suit.

I reported on the killings for Gay City News and the Gay Times of London after my 2007 visit to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, though my movement in the capital was then severely limited. The most recent in-depth piece was the emotive October 2009 New York magazine article by Matt McAllester, also largely based on research conducted outside of Iraq.

This series, to the best of my knowledge, represents the first reporting by a gay journalist working for gay media based on in-person research within Baghdad’s gay spaces. I spent six weeks in Iraq from July through September 2009, three of them in Baghdad, a period of time that coincided with the release of a Human Rights Watch report on the killings of gay men. My preliminary research began in April 2009, as gay murders began their spike and my contacts in Baghdad reached out to me, in response to which I wrote an Advocate editorial on the killings.

Before and after my trip, continuing until May of this year, I conducted interviews in the US, Europe, and several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where I interviewed gay Iraqi refugees and was able to corroborate information gathered in Baghdad — though not everything I learned can be independently verified.

Despite the length of this series, the four installments represent only a fraction of the information garnered. My work would have been impossible without the assistance of Hili, Scott Long of Human Rights Watch, journalists based in Baghdad, staff members of numerous non-governmental organizations around the world, and government officials from Iraq, the US, and other nations. A number of ordinary Iraqi citizens provided critical help, often at great personal risk to their safety; for that reason, many cannot be acknowledged by name.

As of this writing, the massive wave of gay murders in Baghdad seen in 2009 seems to have subsided. However, as Iraq continues to struggle to form a government in the wake of its March 2010 elections, and as the US military and diplomatic presence recedes into the background, the country has faced renewed instability. New attacks are beginning to be reported, including some on gay safe houses in Baghdad and in Karbala, a religious city south of the capital. These might be harbingers of what is to come again, for gay men and for many other groups in Iraq.

A Concert at the Al-Wiya Club: A Reminder of Pre-War Baghdad

One of the best examples of Baghdad’s change that I witnessed came when I went to see friends perform at a classical music concert at the Al-Wiya, a country club off Firdos Square, the plaza where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled early in the war. The club and the surroundings, like much of Baghdad, have the feel of an apocalyptic Los Angeles. It’s just a few blocks from the banks of the Tigris, where the skyline at water’s edge is punctuated by high-rises pock-marked with weatherworn missile blasts. Dust-caked palm trees with tattered fronds line the approach to the club’s parking lot, where instead of valets, men cautiously approach each car, inspecting it for bombs.

To step into the club is to enter a world vastly different from the Baghdad of news reports, or even that seen on the city’s streets, where women still remain relatively invisible. The club’s auditorium had an audience of a few hundred, virtually all of them locals. A friend, Amanda (anyone identified by first name only in this series has been given a pseudonym, to protect their privacy and safety), and I were among the few foreigners, but in this the elite crowd, there was no shortage of English speakers.

That night, and on many others during my trip, I experienced the reawakening cosmopolitan fabric of Baghdad, where it was possible to imagine how gay people — while remaining closeted — had blended in during the stable years prior to the US invasion. At the concert, alongside husbands and wives and their children were a few gentlemen of a certain age — polished, well dressed, sitting in what appeared to be couples; they would not have seemed out of place at a symphony hall in New York, Paris, or London.

More striking, however, was the revealing way the young women in the audience were dressed. A local Iraqi journalist who helped with this article remarked, “Women with their hair uncovered, in short skirts, listening to music, this is the Baghdad we remember.”

When the concert ended, we walked through the worn wooden French doors to the country club’s gardens to dine on long tables, an abandoned pool staring at us, a reminder of the ravages of the war. Still, the company sparkled — elegant men in tuxedos, young women in fashionable dresses, glasses clinking with Chivas Regal on ice.

Just off the ground loomed the Palestine Meridien Hotel with its funky honeycomb façade. Inside there was the club where Ali Hili once DJ’d, at a time when it was Baghdad’s most popular gay space. As I sat in the Al-Wiya gardens, I realized there was probably a time when a night out in Baghdad would have begun as this one had — a gay man surrounded by co-workers, family, and friends, who likely knew nothing of his sexual orientation. When they had all at last left, his own clandestine night could begin, meeting gay friends to dance the night away in the towering building next door.

Under the Ramadan Moon

The relative ease of moving through a safer Baghdad allowed me to discover more clues to pre-war gay life. My trip coincided with Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day, but eat an extravagant dinner, called an Iftar, after sunset, with family and friends. Amanda and I decided to treat our driver Wissam to a dinner of mazgoof, a traditional Iraqi meal of filleted carp roasted over an open fire at a restaurant on the banks of the Tigris, along Abu Nuwaz Street, a thoroughfare named for an ancient poet who wrote of love between men.

We sat in the restaurant’s garden, at the edge of a promenade that meandered through overgrown bushes, an area I knew was a notorious cruising ground. I later spent another evening on Abu Nuwaz with several young gay men, and also learned that male prostitution had begun to make a comeback here.

On this first visit, though, it was the area’s beauty that struck me. The crescent moon signaling Ramadan’s beginning hung high in the clear sky. In the distance, the lights of Abu Nuwaz snaked along to the blocky apartment complexes, now slums, which once housed the elite Republican Guard, Saddam’s protectors. The dome of the Republican Palace, later used for a time as the US Embassy, was silhouetted across the Tigris. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

Curiosity got the most of me. My Italian looks allow me to pass as Arabic in the Middle East as long as I don’t talk. Amanda knew why I wanted to explore the walkways in the bushes, while Wissam thought my interest in reporting on gay life was just a small part of my journalistic interests. Both feared for my safety as I set out to investigate, and I promised to text Amanda every few minutes.

The waterfront promenade was a vivid, spectacular carnival. Young men and women held hands along the paths, the women demurely dressed in full black abayas, giggling about their secret encounters as they suddenly dropped from view into the darkness of the bushes. The laughter of children pulled me along toward the broad parks in front of the riverfront hotels, with their rainbow lights, popcorn vendors, picnic tables, and rides.

The walkways, however, were not without risks — young men, wobbly and angry from drinking, shouted at me and tried to block my path as I walked along. In the midst of the lights, sounds, and people, there were a few men alone on the pathways, some staring openly, others peeking from behind bushes.

One short young man, with tight white pants and a pink shirt, walked along hyper-kinetically, slipping showily in and out of the bushes and looking back as I stopped to text Amanda. I would later find out that had it not been Ramadan, a time when sin is supposed to be in check, there would have been many more men cruising the pathways.

A Meeting Two Years in the Making

The video played in an endless loop on the cell phone. Its ominous unseen ending, the murder of a gay man, was all the more chilling as loud Islamic chanting, part of a Ramadan program, played loudly in the background of the hotel restaurant where we sat. It’s an unsettling contrast — the killings of gay men in the guise of religion versus Ramadan and the real Islam.

“I don’t want to think of it, because he is my friend,” Hassan, the man across from me, said as he stared down at the cell phone edging off the table’s surface. Sadness grew on his face as he continued, “He is barbershop, he is working with me, like me.”

This was my second try at meeting Hassan, a point man in Baghdad for Iraqi LGBT, the group Hili runs out of London. I had hoped to meet him in 2007, but the overwhelming violence and fear at the time kept him from the hotel where we were now meeting, one destroyed in a bombing a few months after the interview.

Hassan, 41, was a hairdresser, until the stigma that linked the profession to being gay made it too dangerous, forcing him to give up his work. His hair, dyed a deep black, is hidden under a baseball cap when he is in public. In the hotel lobby, he was visibly shaking, at times too nervous to speak, both of us conscious of the others around us.

He told me of “the danger for us at the checkpoints,” pulling on his hair, long for a man in Baghdad. “How can I look something like this, I leave the hair, and also I have something for relaxing for tension, when I go outside,” he explained. Even having taken pills to stay calm, he fidgeted and jerked his head as sporadic outbursts sparked from him in English and Arabic.

Hassan insisted that I write down the name of the man in the video, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh, wanting to make sure he did not remain simply another gay statistic, someone who anonymously turns up dead. In the video, Ahmed does the same as Hassan, hiding his hair under a baseball cap. Ahmed was transgender, Hassan told me, using a term considered pejorative here in the US — “she-male” — but one that points up his view and that of transgenders I met in Iraq that their identity remains tied to their biological male roots. Ahmed is thin, constantly smiling, trying to project confidence as he is interrogated at a checkpoint, one of hundreds throughout Baghdad.

But the video has an oddly playful quality too, with the soldiers laughing and Ahmed smiling. Hassan translated the conversation, saying, “He says, ‘Why do you do this to me, why do you want to do something like this to me?’” The soldiers at the checkpoint grab Ahmed, pulling small breasts out of his shirt and biting them as they laugh into the camera. Ahmed tries to maintain a sense of dignity, pleading cautiously, showing no apparent fear. Hassan imitated the forced smile he makes, something he explained gays try to do at checkpoints to diffuse confrontations that can end up deadly.

As they fondle Ahmed in the video, the guards laugh, saying, according to Hassan’s translation, “I want to see your breasts. I want to see your ass. I want to see you. I want to come to you. Come to us in the night with us. We want to make love with you.” Ahmed agrees to meet the guards later in the hopes of escaping for now, saying, “I only want to leave.” The guards force him to show his ID to the camera, so they will know where to find him.

Hassan became sad, exasperated: “They are commandos, they are from the Ministry of Interior. Why do they do something like this? Why do they take his breasts and do something like that?”

It’s common for gay men to be detained at checkpoints, forced to pay bribes or agree to sexual encounters in trailers meant for interrogations of suspected terrorists. Once the victimized men become well known to the guards, they can turn up dead weeks later.

This was Ahmed’s fate a week after the video was made: “They put silicone in his ass,” Hassan said, his hand up, imitating an injection. “They killed him with stones, because of religion, and they put silicone in his ass. It’s a mark to say he should not do anything with his ass.” Hassan pulled his hat off, let his hair flop down, and wiped his sweaty brow. He became emotional, his hands flailing until he caught himself and looked over to make sure the restaurant workers were not watching. He tapped his fingers on the table and said Ahmed’s full name again, making sure it was in my notebook.

Then, Hassan fell silent, staring down as the video continued.

Video helped fuel the spike in killings in the first place. Hassan told me that at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, the post-surge safety of Baghdad meant an increase in gay parties. Partygoers and promoters used video as a way to advertise, to let others know of the fun they were having. But this had deadly consequences as they began to fall into the wrong hands.

Many months after I left Baghdad, I met gay Iraqi refugees in another Arab country who had been rescued by Human Rights Watch. One told me that a party promoter was pimping some of the young men, using videos as advertising “so people could see who was coming to the parties” and pick someone they wanted to have sex with. “He didn’t know what would happen with the videos,” this man told me, as they went viral and spread throughout the country.

Later, when the Human Rights Watch refugees began their flight from Iraq, the videos still haunted them at hotels in the north of the country. One man told me he was accused by staff of being “one of the men in the party videos” when he checked in. He himself knew many of the men in the videos when I showed him one I had gotten a copy of in Baghdad. It was a friend’s birthday celebration, he explained, one that started the killings.

If videos gave some gay men away, the neighborhoods where they gathered also posed threats for them. Many of the parties and new cafés popular with gay men were in areas bordering Sadr City, the heart of the religious militia movement, such as along Palestine Street. The presence of openly gay men visible in these areas was seen as an affront — and an easy target. With their tight Western party clothes, they stood out in the conservative district. Attacks on gay men were among the ways that the religious insurgency, discredited and in disarray during the US military surge, could regain legitimacy.

Hassan told me the parties were used by the militia groups, namely the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, as damning evidence of “the new Iraqi, the new generation,” which was “soft” and in the thrall of unseemly American influence. “Since the Americans come, they make all these things upside down,” he said, explaining the argument made by the militias, adding, “We see the new Iraqi, because the Americans make the new government. I told you when I walk on the streets, they say, ‘Look at the new Iraqis,’ and they laugh about us, they say there are puppies,” a derogatory Iraqi term for young gay men.

Hassan told me that the owner of one gay Palestine Street café was severely beaten by the militias, using frozen soda cans. “They broke the bones,” beating him nearly to the point of death, sparing him only because he was Shia. The reprieve, Hassan explained, was “mercy for the gays.” He used to go to the café, but since the attack, he said, “When they saw us and they know that we are gay, you know what they say, he don’t want us, to go outside. He make the prices more than the prices.” Tables, Hassan and his friends are told, are reserved for others. He said he experiences the same treatment at the ShiSha Café in Karada, even though it is one of Baghdad’s best-known nightspots popular among gays. The ShiSha’s owner would “make a cross of us,” Hassan said, a cutting sign on the neck, “because they are afraid because they make a cross to his cafeteria if they see gays,” referring to militia spies hunting for gay men. When I visited the ShiSha Café, I found few stereotypically gay men there, part of the way the venue protects itself. (I would customarily not identify the ShiSha Café by name, but USA Today and New York magazine have already used its name and New York ran a photo of it.)

Hassan protects himself and his friends by carrying two phones. If one is tapped, he’ll have an alternate, and when he leaves the house, he carries the phone without stored numbers. If he is kidnapped, the militias cannot use his captured phone to entrap his friends.

Hassan told me that a doctor at one hospital helps gay men fortunate enough to survive attacks. “They don’t ask you about anything that happens to you,” he explained, even of those who have survived the brutal torture of having their anuses glued shut before being given laxatives designed to rip their insides apart. The hospital, however, is also the place where victims, gay or otherwise, are simply dumped. In many of Baghdad’s hospitals, the doctors taking care of victims of violence are shadowed by militia members intent on spying on the survivors and their families.

“Nearly 17, 15,” of his friends have been killed since the war began, Hassan told me, many of whom he had known for years. His words were peppered with “habibi,” darling, and “en-shallah,” God willing, as he lamented, saying, “They love me, and I love them, because I am old, and because I saw them when they were with me, when they were in school and in the discotheque and in the park.”

Hassan started crying, and then he hit himself in the head, as if to reset his emotions. I worried he was having a breakdown. “I am okay,” he assured me, adding, “You know, I live only off the memory from before, before it was very nice. We meet with the friends, in any places if you want.”

He said the militias and Muqtada al-Sadr “want us to come back to Islam. They don’t want us to have hairdressing, entertainment, anything like that. He want us to come back to Mohammed,” the era when Islam was established, before modernity.

I asked Hassan what he wants, what he would like American readers to know about the situation. He told me he and his gay friends “love each other, we see each other, we are afraid for each other… Here in Iraq, we want only them to leave us alone. They know very well we don’t do anything to him. We don’t do anything to him [Muqtada al-Sadr], only to leave us alone, we want safety. Before we have discotheque, before we have bar gay, in Saddam, before. Now we don’t want anything, we want only the safety.”

Still, Hassan told me, leaving Iraq would be difficult at his age. “Baghdad is my home,” he said. “Iraq is my country, I can’t live anywhere else. I am old. A new life is only for the young.”

In the next issue’s installment, Michael T. Luongo examines the death lists threatening gay men in Sadr City, talks to a confident young gay man hoping to build Internet support for others in Iraq, and speaks to Iraqi government officials and diplomats from Western nations with embassies in Baghdad.