The Voice behind Mawaleh

Mahmoud Hassino founded and runs Mawaleh, Syria’s first and only LGBTQIA Online Magazine. This is an interview we did with him two years ago.

Could you start by sharing your story to the extent you're comfortable? Your childhood, your growing years, education, family, and friends as you deem fit?
I was born in Syria. When I was 4-year-old, my family moved to Saudi Arabia where I grew up and went to school. I moved back to Syria in 1993. Because of family pressure, I started studying Medicine in Aleppo. After 2 years at university, I realised that Medicine isn’t for me. Later on, I studied English Literature and worked as a journalist and translator in Syria.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia was horrible for me. Even before I started reflecting on my sexuality, I knew I was not a believer. The idea of “God” didn’t really register in my brain. Shortly afterwards, my homosexual feelings started to emerge. I was 10 at the time. As I was not really a believer at that point, I just started to reject the religious teachings about homosexuality. I just thought, since they want to call it “haram”, a sin, then it exists, therefore, I’m normal. However, since it was Saudi Arabia, I suppressed all my atheist and homosexual thoughts and feelings. I resorted to reading and I had great parents who did not censor any topic.
Being in Saudi Arabia and waiting for the moment to leave it prevented me from building friendships. I just thought that moving to Syria and speaking out against religion might sever all ties with friends who were being brought up as “good Muslims”.
In Syria, I started exploring my sexuality. I was lucky that I learned that homosexuality was removed from the ICD just around that time. As I have been always more inclined to believing in science, that finding made me sure of my conviction which I had developed nine years before. I have been lucky to have a family and friends who accepted my sexuality. When I tell my life story, it sounds like a fairy tale to many gay men even in Europe. I had my own struggles for sure, but at least I did not have to struggle for acceptance within my own “circle”. I do not think I am a “representative” of homosexuals in Syria, but at least I am an example that not all Syrians are homophobes. I am also an example that not all Muslims are homophobes. I need to state this all the time as I owe it to my family and friends.
In 2005, internet access became much easier in Syria after the Syrian regime managed to cover all points related to censorship. Blogging was, and still is, banned in Syria. Nonetheless, I started a blog which was mainly about the gay places in Syria – where gay Syrian used to cruise, gather, go to, etc. The blog caused me a lot of problems with the Syrian authorities as well as some gay Syrians. Some of the gay Syrian men used to think that homosexuality shouldn’t be discussed publicly. Yet, most of my friends admired and supported the blog.

You started Mawaleh, the first (and only?) Syrian LGBT online magazine. What inspired it? What were your challenges in doing so?
Yes, Mawaleh is the only Syrian LGBTI magazine and its website is the only Syrian LGBTI website.
Ever since I started blogging, I wanted to have some kind of a Syrian LGBTI platform and publish some Syrian LGBTI stories. That was not possible at all in Syria because of the persecution of bloggers  and the law that is used to criminalise homosexuality. Between 2008 and 2011, Syrian authorities raided gay cruising areas and gay Hammams in the country.
After the demonstrations against the Assad regime broke out in Syria, the regime launched some homophobic campaigns while it was struggling to curb down the revolution. I had to leave Syria to Turkey on October 31st 2011. In 2012, it became easier to go to the northern parts of Syria, which were controlled by the FSA and the armed opposition groups. I noticed back then that the war situation will last long and that radical jihadist groups might come to the country. I immediately started to contact people to propose the idea of a magazine. Some gay and lesbian Syrians joined and we launched in August 2012.
Working on a magazine about LGBTI issues in a country like Syria is a challenge by itself. The war, the regime, and the radicalisation of some groups in Syria makes it very dangerous. My main challenge at the time was to protect the identities of the people who were contributing to the magazine. Maintaining contact and sustainability became the biggest challenge after a few months. All of the contributors were living in Syria and internet access became more difficult. Later on, most of the contributors left Syria either to study abroad or because the clashes arrived to their areas. This made it almost impossible to have regular issues of the magazine. We couldn’t publish more than 4 issues between 2013 and 2016.

From thereon, you started Mr Gay Syria. What inspired that? Did you face too many challenges with it? How did you overcome them?
LGBTI Syrian issues needed exposure. I have been in contact with Mr Gay World organisation since 2012. I had always wanted to have a Syrian delegate in the international competition. I thought that a Syrian presence will create a media buzz that could lead to some recognition of the Syrian LGBTI plight.
With ISIS and other radical groups being one of the main current threats to the Syrian LGBTI people, challenges to organise a Mr Gay Syria event become innumerable. Yet, many Syrians were inspired by Mawaleh and other initiatives that they wanted to do something for the cause.
Just before trying to organise Mr Gay Syria, I moved to Berlin. Organising such a competition from afar is the biggest challenge. We also did not have any money to do it at that point. Luckily, AyseToprak, a Turkish filmmaker and a friend, became interested in making a film about the competition and the Syrian LGBTI struggle. This helped in creating more structured team-work around the event and helped eventually making it happen.
Another challenge was Mr Gay World organisation itself. There were challenges in the administration which was taken over by some amateur event planners. Instead of keeping the advocacy nature of the event, they wanted to turn it into another beauty pageant. They didn’t want a Syrian in the competition and tried to block us from participating.

With all that's going on in Syria right at this very moment, the government has added you to a list of wanted terrorists. Would you like to talk about it? Do you have a response that you would like to articulate?
My response has been and will always be by working hard on advocating for LGBTI and human rights in the country. Still, I would like to bring into attention that when it comes to “terror and human rights violations in Syria”, Assad vs ISIL equals Denial vs Boastfulness. While ISIL boasts and brags about its violations and terrorising acts, Assad just denies his. They are actually two sides of the same coin.

Speaking of the regime, it is known that the incumbent leadership was absolutely pivoted against LGBT rights and the fundamental freedom of the right to life. Are there any particular incidents that you would like to share from your time in Syria, under his regime, as a gay atheist?
Talking about “life in Syria under Assads” is not easy. There are many elements that need to be explained and cannot be summarised easily. The Syrian regime claims to be secular. Yet, the Quran schools that Hafez Assad started in Syria are more than those in Saudi Arabia. It was not permitted to identify as an atheist. One is always assigned to their parents’ religion. As for “gay life” in Syria, the most recent incidents started around 2008. Syrian authorities started raiding gay places all over the countries. In 2010, around 35 gay men were arrested and held up without being charged until their families and relatives found about their sexuality. They were released afterwards to face social retribution. Some fled Syria, and some committed suicide, whereas the rest had to deal with forced marriages, losing jobs, and abuse.

Considering how deep rooted discriminatory tendencies are, and considering how homophobia and rigidly monotheistic beliefs are pivoted against homosexuality and atheism, you may have had to face a lot of resistance to your work and views. Could you share any anecdotes that you feel comfortable articulating?
Once again, this is a very complicated issue to explain about Syrian society. Many religious Muslims and Christians in Syria used to “overlook” one’s sexuality as long as they practice religion. Whereas my mother and my family accepted my sexuality, my siblings never accepted that I do not believe in the idea of “God”. In the wider Syrian society and local communities, homosexuality was “ignored” as long as the homosexual went to mosques or churches. Still, people would “pray” to god to forgive the homosexual sinners. Combining homosexuality and atheism was never condoned. This fact leads to many paradoxes and, sometimes, funny conversations with Syrian gay Muslims or gay Christians.

In a recent book, Majid Rafizadeh talks about the heavy premium on namus and sharaf, and the rape of pre-pubescent and pubescent boys in Maqnon. Do you believe that this is true of the larger social ethos in Syria?
I cannot provide any comparison to Syria as I haven’t read the book. However, because of the restrictions on similar discussions and debates in the country, “the age of consent” was never contested. The Syrian regime never allowed the “idea of consent” to be brought into debates. Syrian local communities were allowed to keep their traditions. Most of those traditions violated the “secular laws”, but they were condoned to please men of religion who were essential for the regime to preserve its grip on power. Traditionally, age of consent was around 14 or 15. Moreover, “no never means no”. This led to the idea that having sex with minors is OK. When it comes to “having sex” with pubescent boys, this was accepted amongst some local communities. Raping pre-pubescent boys was not condoned in most local communities though.

What do you hope for, for Syria? The mounting violence and global inaction is terribly disheartening. How can we, as civilians, help?
I have no idea how we, as civilians, can help. The Syria I know is lost. There is no way that my hopes and dreams for Syria will come to existence. I stopped thinking about the Syria I hoped for since 2014. The global inaction, as you call it, turned one of the great examples of nonviolent resistance to the most vicious war in the history of the region. This inaction is contributing to the bloodshed in Syria. I have no words to describe my tormenting feelings at this point. I started speaking out about homosexuality and gender identity in 2005 and had the hope that I would see a change in my lifetime. Now, all I hope for is for the children of Syria to have a normal childhood.