meet the young gay arabs causing a commotion in tel aviv

We catch up with the twenty-something gay Palestinians challenging sexual and political identities.

by Colin Crummy
15 June 2015, 3:35pm

Fadi has a problem. He keeps sleeping with inappropriate men he meets in Tel Aviv gay clubs. They're handsome, charming, nice Jewish boys. And the problem with that? He's an ardent Palestinian nationalist. "I'm falling for a Zionist," Fadi explains to his best girl friend Nagham in the new documentary Oriented. "I'm in love with the enemy," he says.

The perils of dating in Tel Aviv are just some of the complex social, cultural, political and personal dilemmas Oriented depicted in its global premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in England this month. The film, the debut project of British director Jake Witzenfeld, follows three twenty something gay Arab Palestinians living in Jafo, a trendy coastal enclave just south of the city on the Mediterranean coast. Khader is a Palestinian activist-about-town who also lives with his Jewish boyfriend, David. Naeem is comfortable in Tel Aviv's bubble but not out to his parents at home, and Fadi is having trouble reconciling his deep Palestinian nationalism with his habit of falling for Israeli men in uniform.

Talking in a sunlit coffee shop the day after the film's premiere, its stars make hip, lively company: Khader Abu Seif, (28, works in advertising) is colorful, flirty and a chatterbox; Fadi Daeem (27, a nurse) is deadpan, laconic and all piercings and fuck-off shades; Naeem Jiryes (26, also a nurse) is earnest, sweet and dressed in a baseball cap and beard. It quickly became apparent why Witzenfeld decided to follow these guys around for 18 months. The three young Palestinians are fun, raucous, smart and like a drink. A waiter is flirted with (by Khader) and then bitched about for being slow with the order (also by Khader). "I want to kill him," he laughs.

Witzenfeld came across the boys through YouTube video they'd made under the name 'Qambata'. The videos went viral after they highlighted some taboo topics - like homosexuality and gender equality - in the Arab world. They'd decided to do it, one drunken night, says Khader because they wanted to articulate a new Arab generation's feelings. "We didn't have a gay, lesbian or queer role model to look up to; so since we don't have a role model, let's be it."

In Oriented, that challenge to traditional Arab culture manifests itself in Naeem's story, as he decides to come out to his family who can't understand why he doesn't just move back to their village, settle down, get married and have children. Naeem takes the group to visit his family where, over dinner, his father suggests he should sacrifice ten percent of his happiness and follow tradition. Nagham, the boys' female friend, counters: "So why can't you sacrifice that ten percent of your happiness so he can be happy?"

The film lightly teases out cultural tension like this through personal stories. Back in Tel Aviv, a different kind of tension arises: how young Palestinians, given the fraught historical tensions, operate in Israel. As a British, straight, Jewish guy living in the city, Wizenfeld admits he hadn't really understood the complex, shifting identities these men might have to grapple with. The filmmaker documented their lives from 2013 - 2014 as tensions between Israel and Gaza rose once again. Living in the liberal bubble of Tel Aviv as conflict with their own people takes place just beyond it, they admit, can be quite the mindfuck.

"This is our lives, it is very confused all the time," says Fadi. "It is like if I do something, am I supporting Israel, am I not being a good Palestinian? It's about the smallest things in life, where you study, where you work, where you go out, who you go out with. It's in everything we do. Madonna was in Israel six months ago and we love her. But we didn't go, and we didn't want to go because it would be supporting artists to come to Israel and make it look like it's a good place."

But Oriented isn't about dour protest and sitting-at-home-when-you-could-be-at-Madge. The film is marked by vibrant docu-soap sensibilities, reflecting the young energy of its subjects. Most of the politics gets talked out over cocktails and cigarettes. For the director, this meant trying to capture activism in an intimate way. "Social change isn't the stuff you read about in history text books," he says. "It's the words and actions of people living their everyday lives, whether it's fucking or dating or choosing where you go out." As Fadi dryly adds "We're obviously not planning to set ourselves on fire in the middle of the local market."

Still, the group realize that making a film like Oriented is putting themselves out there. They are worried about how the film will be received at home, even among Israeli colleagues at work. Politics may dominate the conversation in Tel Aviv but for young Palestinians living there, it is difficult to express the complexity of their feelings. "We are not allowed to talk about politics, about supporting Palestine," says Naeem. "It's there under the surface but you are not allowed to show your feelings… to feel legitimate."

The Oriented boys, however, are used to feedback. Their original YouTube viral videos received comments like 'lesbian, gay whores', 'traitors' and 'Israeli Arabs'. They have support from some Israelis in Tel Aviv, though sometimes that can feel cynical, like the time this one guy came up to Khader in the street mockingly shouting 'Free Palestine.' "I thought relax, bitch," notes Fadi. "Don't scream 'Free Palestine' when you see us."

They are also used to being critiqued for being 'victims' or portraying themselves as victims at all. "I think Palestinians are used to being victimized in films," says Fadi, "it's very hard for them to see a person who identifies as Palestinian and is not suffering in the way they do. And I understand that. I am not comparing my pain to the pain of a teenager in Gaza."

Still they hope they might help some Arab teenagers out with the film. "Our dream is to be able to screen the film in Arabic countries," says Naeem. "That is the audience I want to reach." Khader wants gay Arab teenagers to see Oriented and connect with it in a way he did when he first saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch. "To a young gay Arab person watching this, I cannot promise them the glamorous, fun party night if they live in Kabul. But when I watched Hedwig, I felt so connected to this thing. I felt so inspired. The hope is that 50 young Arab teenagers watch Oriented; for me that would be enough."


Text Colin Crummy

Tel Aviv
Gay Rights
Sheffield Doc Fest
Jake Witzenfeld
Colin Crummy