During last summer’s Gaza war, Khader Abu Seif was living with his then-Israeli boyfriend in Tel Aviv, wondering whether Hamas rockets could reach them from the coastal strip.
He thought yet again of the dichotomy of his life as a gay Arab Israeli citizen considered an outcast by the Palestinian society for his sexuality and viewed with unease by some Israelis for his brand of nationality.
The rockets were not the only thing that made him feel unsafe.
Outside, Israeli extremists rallied on the streets against Hamas’ attacks with chants of “Death to Arabs.” Abu Seif was afraid to speak Arabic, his mother tongue, in his native Tel Aviv, the Middle East’s most gay-friendly city.
For the 27-year-old, the city is a haven for gay men, but Abu Seif says he considers himself a Palestinian and that as such, he can never fully integrate.
His struggles, along with those of two other protagonists are the subject of “Oriented,” a new Israeli documentary, touted as the first to focus on gay Palestinian citizens.
The privately funded film is British director Jake Witzenfeld’s first feature documentary. It premiered in June at the Sheffield Film Festival in England and the Los Angeles Film Festival in the United States but has not made it to the Middle East yet.
During an interview this week at a spacious apartment in Jaffa — the mixed Arab-Jewish city merged with Tel Aviv — the three protagonists of “Oriented” could easily be mistaken for any hip Jewish residents of Tel Aviv.
The liberal Israeli city is considered a gay refuge in an otherwise largely intolerant Middle East, where in some places, gays are persecuted and sometimes killed. Same-sex relations are punishable by death in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. Some gay Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have fled their conservative homes to come out in Tel Aviv. Even in Jerusalem, the same gay-friendly climate does not always thrive.
On Thursday, an antigay extremist lunged into the holy city’s annual gay pride march and stabbed six people, two of them seriously, Israeli police said. The attacker, Yishai Schlissel, who was arrested at the scene, had been released from prison just three weeks ago, after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2005.
Abu Seif is an Arab citizen of Israel, like the two other protagonists in “Oriented” — 27-year-old Fadi Daeem and 26-year-old Naeem Jiryes.
All three said even though their sexuality is hardly an issue in Tel Aviv, their national identity is.