Dima Yassine: How did the group come to be? And what was the purpose of it?
Taim: I accepted myself after a long period of inner struggle in which I dealt with the fact that my feelings were going against the beliefs I grew up with. The page was created because I needed a safe place. I found comfort and solace talking to others who are like me, people who understood my feelings and struggles. I suffered a great deal until I found people who comforted me, gave answers to my questions, helped me to cope, and showed me the path to self-acceptance. So I decided to try and make it easier for others. The group became a way to gather tools and resources, to connect people who are willing to help those who need that help, and to start a conversation with others who hate “us.”
DY: How was Taqarub different from any other LGBTQ+ group in Iraq?
T: Taqarub (which in this context translates to mean ‘understanding’) was the first public group that initiated a friendly debate and created an open platform to answer all questions concerning the issues of sexual orientations and non-binary gender issues in Arabic. It is a much needed place for people from the LGBTQ+ community and for those who are outside it to have a dialogue instead of projecting pure, blind hate. Aside from the Facebook page, I also created a website called LGBT Arabia where, just like Taqarub, I posted translated articles and links discussing different topics related to the LGBTQ+ community.
DY: What were the difficulties that you or the members faced creating or even being in this group? Especially considering that previous LGBTQ+ Facebook groups were targeted in the past and violence was inflicted on the members in some instances.
T: It was not easy! There was the fact that the group admins’ accounts were under a tremendous risk of being shutdown at any time, as we were constantly being reported as an offensive group. Besides, of course, there was a great risk of being identified, hunted down, and maybe killed by conservative groups; the amount of death threats we received was huge. For that reason, we couldn’t, for example, link our phone numbers with our accounts to avoid being identified. But all of this also made it difficult for us to connect to people and gain their trust while we were using fake names and pictures.
DY: In the past few years, there has been an increasing popular conversation about homosexuality and gender identity in the Middle East. Opinions, whether positive of negative, around these issues are constantly debated and talked about in the mainstream media, movies, books, and articles and, of course, on social media. Do you view this debate as healthy? Do you see the LGBTQ+ community being normalized in the region anytime soon?
T: There is no bad or good publicity, in my opinion. I love to watch the LGBTQ+ issues debated on TV, for instance, even if the debate meant to attack the community. There’s always a sheikh or a minster defending what they usually call “the good values,” “traditions,” and so on. However, this is also “breaking the ice” and bringing the issue to the surface. People now know that we exist amongst them, that there is an LGBTQ+ community. My point is, it is all about baby steps and it is definitely better than nothing.
DY: Your Facebook page started being open to the public as a way to start a conversation with society, but now it’s closed and only visible to members, what changed?
T: When ISIS took over Mosul, the first thing I did was to delete the website LGBT Arabia, so as it couldn’t be traced to my name and bank information. We (the Facebook page admins and I) then decided to close the page and make it members only. I was still living in the city at the time, and so were some of the page members. Two months later, around June 2015, I managed to flee Iraq with great help from the Taqarub community.
DY: So, would you say that Taqarub had saved you?
T: Taqarub was a tool and a platform that connected me to other people in the LGBTQ community. When I was in need of help, they were there for me. Through Taqarub, I had people who smuggled me physically and helped my movement migrate from one city to another, crossing different check points. They helped me cross to Kurdistan in a time when Arabs were not allowed in. Taqarub introduced me to those who opened their homes for me, and helped me all along my Journey to safety. Some of them became my best friends.
* Carousing with Gazelles, Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad. Translated Jaafar Abu Tarab