Mukalla, Yemen, 1962
In Mukalla it wasn’t uncommon to see boys – even nine or ten-year-olds – doing what Joe later described as “practicing buggery.”
When first I saw a pair at it, I thought they were playing leap-frog, but a second glance quickly disabused me. These kids were definitely buggering one another – casually and publicly, as though it was some sort of game – teasing, laughing and shouting – and not at all shy. One young pair even waved at me – in mid-stroke, as it were – shouting “Ya ferang! Shoof di! Shoof!” (“Hey, foreigner, watch this, watch!”)
Arthur explained it to me. “Although everywhere illegal,” he said, “buggery is tacitly accepted in much of the Middle East – largely, I expect, as a result of the strictures on relations between the sexes – especially among young males. In practice, this tolerance has come to extend to any sort of male-male intercourse. Nobody much worries about it. The kids all bugger each other and everybody has a good time.
“The problem arises,” he continued, “when a boy carries his taste for buggery into adulthood, but still prefers young boys. Then what was buggery becomes pederasty. As a general rule, few Arabs condone pederasty – it’s as wrong to them as it is to us – but in a few places, like Mukalla (and a place called Borujerd in SW Iran), everyone seems to. The town’s actually famous for it. Practically every adult male here is a practicing pederast – not that any of the kids seem to mind – and they’ve a lively paedophile tourist trade.
“I’ll tell you my best buggery story,” Arthur went on. “About six months ago, on the one day a month I wear my Chief Magistrate’s hat, the qadi ((mayor) brought a case of pederasty before my bench – the first I’d ever handled. A middle-aged man had been caught rogering an eleven-year-old boy – who was, by all reports perfectly willing – in the public latrine in the souk.”
“The latrine in the souk?”
I knew the bog in question – right beside Ar Rawdha Mosque. A typical Arab latrine – a pair of little cubicles each about a metre square with a hole in the centre of the floor over which it was intended for you to squat – it seemed a strange place to commit a sexual offence.
To begin with, there was hardly any privacy. Three sides of the loo were mud walls about a metre high. On the fourth side was a latchless wooden door. To see if the toilet was in use, you just sauntered by and looked over the wall.
Besides, there wasn’t a whole lot of room inside. If both man and boy were in the cubicle, the top halves of both their bodies must have been above the top of the walls for the whole world to see. No prizes for guessing what was going on in there.
“Anyway,” Arthur continued, “The crowd was really rowdy, shouting and waving their fists in the air, and the qadi was beside himself – really, really furious – and insisted that I find both man and boy guilty of pederasty. How, I thought to myself, can this be? After all, practically every man in town is – or has been – a pederast, and every boy in town has been buggered ever since he learned how to bend over.”
“’Since when,’ I asked him, ‘has pederasty been a crime for the magistrate to judge? Everybody in this town,’ I told him, ‘Does it and everybody knows everybody does it. Nobody here has ever been charged with pederasty before, so why is this case before me now? What have this pair done to merit such special attention?’ All I really wanted to know was what all the fuss was about.”
“’Oh, Mr Arthur, you don’t understand!’ The qadi replied, his voice quavering with emotion, ‘This … this was in the afternoon!’.”
Arthur grinned and took a small bow.
I didn’t see the point. “Is that it?” I asked.
He shrugged and spread his hands. “That’s it. I know it’s not especially funny – though, I assure you, it loses something in translation.”
He was right. It wasn’t especially funny – but it was a curious sort of story nevertheless, and it has stuck in my mind for more than 40 years. It showed me, I guess, something about the Arabs – or at least about these Arabs – that I hadn’t realised before. How differently they and we perceive our world.
They and we were all upset – if not actually outraged – at what had happened. Superficially Arab and westerner were of one mind – something immoral had occurred and somebody deserved to be punished. But in reality, our viewpoints could hardly have been farther apart.
To us, it was the sexual act itself that was reprehensible. The Arabs objected to the unseemly time at which it was committed.
To us, the offenders were guilty of gross sexual misconduct – or, at least, one of them was.
To the qadi, they were mostly guilty of bad timing.