The following took place in a prominent Arab capital. We had just learned the Arabic word for ‘controversy’ (jadal) when Sheikh (his real name actually did have “sheikh” in it) asked us: “what is an example of a controversial issue in the United States?”
Most of my fellow participants in this Arabic immersion program for Americans were left of center, to say the least, and gay marriage was thus always on their minds. So it was in my head. Not knowing how to say this, I replied “marriage between two men.” “What are you talking about?” replied Sheikh. My classmate, Matt (I changed their names for privacy reasons), then elaborated: “sometimes two men get married to one another in America.”
Sheikh was visibly perplexed, as he sat there stroking his beard. “How can two men get married?!”, he barked. “They can’t have kids.” His mind got even more twisted when I said “sometimes they obtain children from other people,” not knowing the verb ‘to adopt’ in Arabic.
At this point, his face read a mix of astonishment, curiosity, fascination, and disgust. I wouldn’t call him a homophobe, but I don’t think he had had much exposure to homosexuality in his life, in neither theory nor practice. “Surely the church must be opposed to this”, I imagine he thought as he asked “what is the church’s position?”
And then it got messy. I said “some churches allow it.” Matt, who was Jewish (Sheikh already knew this), then said “Yes, my rabbi does gay marriages in our synagogue.” Arabic nouns have gender, and Matt used the feminine noun ending when he said “rabbi”. “What do you mean, your (female) Rabbi?!”, a now red Sheikh asked us. “Yea, my Rabbi is a woman,” replied Matt.
I like to think Matt and I gave Sheikh as good an impression of America as he gave us of the Arab world. But in that moment, I believe he pictured a land full of homosexual unions producing homosexual offspring, all blessed by a contingent of Jewish clergywomen.
“Let’s take a break,” Sheikh said. And we did. And when we got back to class he cheerily greeted us like he always did, and began the next lesson.