TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — 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, a well-known socialite in Tel Aviv’s LGBT community, 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,” sporting the latest trend in beards, 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.
Abu Seif is critical of Israel, his country of citizenship, over its policies toward Palestinians but also criticizes the Palestinian society, where homosexuality remains taboo and where there is little tolerance for gays.
On his documents, he is an Arab citizen of Israel, like the two other protagonists in “Oriented” — 27-year-old Fadi Daeem and 26-year-old Naeem Jiryes. The Arab minority makes up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.
All three are fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew and easily switch between the languages. But while in Tel Aviv their sexuality is hardly an issue, they say their national identity is.
“At the airport while my Jewish partners … are already at the duty free, I’m still being checked,” said Abu Seif, referring to the extra level of scrutiny Arab Israelis often face. “So I’m for sure not an Israeli gay man. I’m gay something. So I’m gay Palestinian.”
Daeem, who works as a nurse, said he was initially hesitant to be part of the documentary because of the stigma among some Palestinians that such films “normalize” relations with Israel.
His colleagues in Israel often “don’t understand how a guy living in Israel still identifies himself as Palestinian, especially when he’s gay,” Daeem added. And to add another complex layer to his personal life, Daeem is now living with an Israeli partner.
In addition to their Palestinian identities, the film also explores how each of the three friends dealt with their families’ reactions when they came out.
Daeem’s family, the more liberal one, has entirely accepted his lifestyle, while Abu Seif says he is close with his mother but has not been in contact with his father, who refused to accept that he is gay.
Jiryes, the most shy of the three, came out to his conservative family during the shooting of the film and their relationship has been strained since — his parents insisted that he see a psychiatrist, arguing that he must be “sick” or “in a phase.”
Despite the freedom of coming out, Daeem said he would not urge every Palestinian to do so because of the difficulties it entails. “I’m always careful to talk about it to tell people to come out,” he said.
In the film, the three grapple with contradictions that are part of their lives as gay Palestinians and Israeli Arab citizens, and compare themselves to Palestinian gays living in the West Bank and Gaza.
“I think that in the Palestinian society, the (LGBT) struggle exists underground,” Daeem said, citing a growing gay life in Ramallah, the central Palestinian city in the West Bank. “It evolves gradually.”
Witzenfeld, the British director, said that as a Jew, he was “intrigued by this Palestinian national gay voice coming out of Tel Aviv.”
“The film is shifting people to these gray spaces were you are forced to confront these complicated identities,” Witzenfeld said.
The three friends plan to someday show the film in Israeli and Palestinian communities, though they say “it will be hard” to do so.
For Abu Seif, it’s important that he identifies himself as a Palestinian, rather than an Arab Israeli.
“This is my basic right to define myself as a Palestinian, because if I didn’t do it, my people will be forgotten,” he said. “And I think if I didn’t do it my (Palestinian) people will not have to face the fact that I exist” as a gay man.
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