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One blog from Syria, largely considered a repressed society, details a tourist's guide to gay hangouts in Damascus and Aleppo. There are four hammams in Damascus where you could play safely, but always be careful," he writes, then listing the most popular "hammams," or bath houses. He goes on to name the Safwan Hotel in Lattakia as "the most famous gay-friendly hotel in the region.
From his home in Mecca, Samir can surf the web forums and Facebook groups that connect him to the gay Arab world.
But he does so with care, fearing that authorities will follow and flag gay activity online. If they have their eye on you, they can follow your every move," he says. If Samir's approach seems paranoid, it's conditioned by horror stories of harsh crackdowns by Arab governments on gay life. In Egypt, where police have systematically arrested and tortured suspected homosexuals, vice squads have logged on to chat rooms posing as gay men.
Forming friendships under a false identity, the police set up an expected first date, then meet their "suspects" with a brutal arrest.
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I was dragged, almost carried to the police car The vice squad's practice of covertly hunting gay men in chat rooms cooled once the teeming gay Internet scene in Egypt slowed down. Fear and suspicion effectively shut down one of gay Egypt's few free outlets. At one point online entrapment was yielding one arrest per week, according to Human Rights Watch. The Web was part of a greater crackdown in Egypt, a country that was once a liberal environment for homosexuals.
Government-led assaults on homosexuals intensified in The pivot point was a mass arrest known as the "Queen Boat" incident. In the early morning hours of May 11, , police raided a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat, a then-popular gay hangout moored on the Nile River. Suddenly surrounded by uniformed and undercover members of the Cairo Vice Squad, dozens of gay men were arrested, detained and tortured. What ensued from the Queen Boat arrests was a show trial -- forced confessions, some extracted under torture and a media circus designed to amplify public fear and maximize the government's political gain from the arrest.
Though Egypt claims to have no law against homosexuality, it routinely criminalizes and prosecutes gay men under a law prohibiting "juhur," or debauchery, a charge originally levied for prostitution. In the heat of the case, one article in the state-owned Al-Gomhoureya newspaper gave full names and identifying details of the accused, depicting the arrested homosexuals as part of an underground religious cult. Analysts point out a number of ways the Egyptian government gains from crackdowns like the Queen Boat raid. News pages full of homophobic rants are a useful distraction from issues like a faltering economy and rampant corruption, which erode government support.
In the same stroke, the state gains ground against its Islamist opponents by attacking homosexuals -- trumped-up offenders against Muslim values. Hardly anyone is going to stand up and stick up for homosexuals," he said. Long applies his analysis to other governments in the region.
In , authorities in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, arrested more than two dozen men in the desert town of Ghantout at an event state officials characterized as a mass gay wedding. The UAE announced the men would receive lashings, jail time and forced hormone and psychological treatment. The case was eventually overturned on appeal, after news of the trial drew criticism from human rights activists and the U. State Department.
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The U. In attacks that accelerated last February, Shiite militiamen have carried out a series of beatings and assassinations of gay men, occasionally with the help of the Interior Ministry, according to Scott Long of Human Rights Watch. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a rival Islamist group, has also reportedly attacked gay men in Iraq, in what human rights activists call a clear moral cleansing campaign.
The recent spate of attacks followed a succession of sermons in Iraqi mosques, attacking the scourge of homosexuality. As in the case of Egyptian arrests, suspected homosexuals were detained, tortured, and forced to give names of other gay men for authorities to pursue. People turn off their phones, change their e-mail addresses, and stay home.
Outside the spaces of hostile discrimination, homosexuals in the Middle East do manage to form a community and enjoy a freer lifestyle. Israel, perhaps the most tolerant state in the Middle East, has a thriving gay community. Last year thousands attended the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, though the event has drawn right-wing protests and attacks. A similar parade in Jerusalem, a more socially conservative environment, took place with police protection along the parade route.
Up the coast in Lebanon, a relatively liberal Arab society plays host to the first gay rights group in the Arab world. In a country that moves back and forth between secularism and religious politics, the group and its gay community center are creating a space for their freedom. In other parts of the Arab world gay life has to fit into whatever space is provided, and the borders are constantly moving.
In Dubai, arguably the most modern city in Arabia, gay expats have little trouble living and loving freely. Rashid, a young Lebanese expat who lives with his partner in Dubai, knows he has it better than most. Unlike many gays in the Gulf, Rashid has come out to his parents, and felt comfortable meeting men and dating as he grew up in Abu Dhabi. I once had sex with a guy who told me he climbed into his young wife's hospital bed and they fucked, joyously, memorably, and I'm guessing painfully, just days before she died, and just weeks before we fucked.
Except it is surprising, because this is the non-secular Muslim world, and everything we've been thinking for about the last 14 years points to a monolith, a medieval set of values and choice of punishments, not just among the crazies in the hills of Tora Bora or the ruined ruins of Homs, Aleppo, and Palmyra , but in millennia-old civilizations and enthusiastic economic and military allies of the West.
This is one of the many powers of travel. A place never looks the same on the ground as it does from the height of Google Earth or the arm's length of even a responsible news report. This emirate is as against men with other men's penises in them as they are against calling their Prophet a naughty name. But, look at this glowing screen. Look at those hopeful, horny, possibly brave, mostly young men, erupting out of this tiny desert nation with Goldblumian inevitability.
Life will find a way, at least if by life, you mean semen. I had meetings and lunches and suppers and drinks, but amid those, in the early mornings, late nights, and occasionally stolen hours in between when the thing I was doing happened to be in the lobby of my own hotel, I had some sex, and learned a thing or two about the religious Muslim world in the process. At first, I thought vaguely that these sites and apps would be a good way to track just these sorts of people, my sorts of people, were the government to want to do that sort of thing.
Saudi Arabia, just a few kilometers west, has been accused of doing just that. And the first couple of guys I messaged back—apologies, guys—were asked more questions than I usually ask about where they were and who they were and could they take an incriminating picture posed just like I say so I know it's you and not some be-robed cop using stolen porn to reel in the unwitting unholy.
I didn't always get their names, but with the exception of the one guy in the polo shirt and basketball shorts who didn't have more than two or three words of English or at least didn't offer more than that to me , I did talk with them. I really like postcoital get-to-know-you talk, with its combination of intimacy, honesty, and stakes-free carelessness that seems to lead to conversations that mostly sound pretty honest instead of fabricated, which would be just as easy.
I want to be careful about the guys' personal details here—all but a couple of these guys were Muslim and most were Qatari and so would be candidates for the chopping block—so I'll make some up to obfuscate. There was the bodybuilder who lived with his boyfriend, whom he considered his husband, or the guy with the sprung, rabbit-like body, all nervous energy, who got impatient with my leisurely approach to fucking him, and flipped me in what must have been a practiced wrestling move and got most of the way into me—which I'm fine with but dude, roll on a condom—before I kicked him over and restored order.
He worked for a big Qatari corporation. Our conversation was much like it has been in other hotel rooms in other cities, talking about home, other trips, other sex. I asked him if it was tough, having sex with guys here with the laws so strict and scary. He laughed a laugh I've grown accustomed to on the road, the oh-you-stupid-callow-foreigner laugh.
No, he said, it wasn't tough. There's a quotation inscribed in the entrance hall of Doha's grand Museum of Islamic Art from the 13th-century historian Rawandi: "He should be aware of his enemies, like a chess player who, while observing his own move, also watches over his opponent's. Then there was a builder who re-upped his annual contract more than half a dozen times instead of going back to his home country. I went to his apartment, which he shared with one other guy who seemed to be out.
I asked him about the working conditions I'd heard about on the news. I asked another quiet, serious guy, about whether there was any way to meet people in Doha offline. He said there was a hotel bar he went to. Qataris aren't officially allowed in hotel bars, but it turns out that if you're not wearing your thobe, you aren't assumed to be Qatari. I went to the bar later to see for myself. It certainly wasn't a gay bar, but there were single, young, brown men who ordered drinks they didn't drink and stood at the bar making the same kind of anxious, hungry, hesitant eye contact I've read about in novels and memoirs that describe the North American scene five and six decades ago.
There are many different sorts of what we might call sexual miasmas in the world. There's the confident cruising of catching someone's eye on a street at a time and in a place where catching someone's eye is playful instead of dangerous, or the pressurized pick-up in a club or at a party where the whole reason to be there is to find someone so not to at least try is basically failure, and there's the desperation of that same club or party as the crowd starts to dwindle and you've got no one on the line. There are more extreme miasmas, like window shopping in a bathhouse, the mash-up of a group thing, or what I assume is the basically RPG approach that takes over in prison.
Doha felt like none of those things. Doha felt distinct. The closest thing I can come up with is what I imagine a lumber or oil town might have been like a few decades ago.