Last Tuesday, the documentary “Oriented”, produced and directed by Jake Witzenfeld, was screened as a result of sponsorship from the Peace and Conflict Studies and Sociology and Anthropology departments, as well as the Lang Center for Civic and social responsibility. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of a group of young, queer Palestinians living in Tel Aviv. “Oriented” both draws attention the unique intersection of national and sexual identities these individual face and makes plain the the similarities between queer life in the Middle East and the Western world.
The film is centered around Khader Abu-Seif, a well known Palestinian LGBT activist living in Jaffa, a portion of Tel Aviv more heavily populated with Arabs. Two of his friends, Naeem Jiryes and Fadi Daem, are featured as main characters. The documentary follows the men as they navigate the difficulties of living as a gay Arab in Israel: the complications attached to dating Jewish men, the inhospitality of Israel during times of war, the suffocating traditions of the villages where they grew up. However, “Oriented” by no means intends to paint a picture of these men as victims. It shows them, along with their friend Nagham Yacoub partying in Amman and Tel Aviv. The film shows the four friends forming Qambuta Productions, through which they create musical tribute videos for the Arabic community, full of social and political criticism. Abu-Seif makes it clear early on in the documentary, when he tells the story of a BBC reporter who contacted him, looking for a gay Palestinian who’d suffered, that he has no interest in furthering one-dimensional views of people like himself and this film does him that service.
Dr. Sa’ed Atshan from the Peace and Conflict Studies department, was responsible for arranging the screening and the following discussion with Abu-Seif. He described appreciating the film not only for its portrayal of the intersectional identities of the men, but also for the compelling and powerful friendships the film showcases.
“I thought it was beautifully done. It showed you how human beings who are at the intersection of so many different identities — who are at the margin of the margin, the minority of the minority, of the minority — navigate their everyday lives,” he said. ”I thought it really humanized queer Palestinians who live in Israel. But I was also touched by the friendships that they forged. You could see how they support each other, how they have eachother’s backs, it was really beautiful.”
Abu-Seif also described enjoying very similar aspects of the movie. To him, the role of his friends in the movie was also crucial and very powerful.
“The biggest disappointment for me in the movie, but also the thing that made me happy the most was to discover that I’m not – to me at least – the strongest character in the movie,” he said. “To discover how strong my friends are and how strong they are as characters was amazing because in that moment I knew I chose the right friends and I was proud of them.”
Throughout the discussion, Abu-Seif was adamant about correcting misconceptions about queer life in Arabic community. He pointed to examples, like his parties in Tel Aviv, gay clubs in Amman, and the nickname for the Lebanese capital within the Arabic LGBT community, “Gay-rut”. He also spoke out against the assumption he has encountered in the West that the difficulties he’s encountered don’t exist in the West. Abu-Seif described frequently being approached by members of minority communities in the United State after screenings and told about how relatable his story was. He also expressed a firm conviction that coming out of the closet is just as difficult for many individuals in the American South as it was for his friends in Tel Aviv.
While standing firm against the depiction of queer Arabs as victims, Abu-Seif was also candid about the difficulties he faces living in Tel Aviv. For example, when there is fighting between Palestinians and Israel, life for Arabs in Israel becomes very difficult.
“Even speaking in Arabic on the bus would be super dangerous because you are the enemy,” said Abu-Seif. “To people who don’t know you on the bus, you are a threat — you are an immediate threat. Your mother is calling and you want to talk with your mother in your language but you can’t because you know that people will be afraid of you.”
He also identified a lack of support for Arabs in the international LGBT community. He spoke about not only a problematic lack of representation for Arabs in the international LGBT community, but also a lack of support and protection for LGBT Arabs from international organizations.
“Other countries and organizations don’t understand where we’re coming from. We need Arabic organizations, who will understand our struggle and understand where we’re coming from. At every [pride] parade you go to today, no matter which parade, you will find thousands of Israeli flags, but you cannot find one Arabic country’s flag, because people are afraid.”, Abu-Seif said.
Although he mentioned several issues he and his friends face, Abu-Seif was always firm in asserting that he does not want Western help in addressing them. He believes that solutions to these issues must come from within the culture they are native to, like the possible international Arabic LGBT organization he mentioned.
“To be honest and rude: stay out of our business,” he said.