While history is undeniably written by the winners, it’s even more so colored by a country’s need to be painted in ethical white, while its enemies drenched in villainous black. Ken Dorph, a longtime Sag Harbor resident and expert on the Arab World, says that perhaps the group most unfairly demonized by the American media and leaders are the Arabs, many of whom he’s broken bread with during his years living in Kerkennah, Tunisia and Cairo, Egypt.
As a gay American who’s spent a great deal of his life in the Arab World, Dorph has a deep insight into the nuances of the area’s diverse cultures, views on gender and sexuality, acceptance of religious minorities and rate of social progress compared to the U.S. He will discuss such topics and more in a two-part lecture series, Hidden Cosmopolitanism of the Arab World, at Bay Street Theater this month.
In the first of his lectures on Thursday, April 20 at 7 p.m., Dorph will discuss what defines an Arab, the diversity of the Arab World, the position of religious minorities in the primarily Muslim region, including an overall greater tolerance than many Christian European nations throughout history, and the experience of Jewish Arabs.
Then on Thursday, April 27 at 7 p.m., he will dive into gender and the LGBTQ community in the context of Islam, women’s rights, as well as the historical eccentricities of some country’s acceptance of transgender and gay individuals. The lectures are designed to serve as an informational and fun “travelogue to the Arab World” with traditional music clips and more.
Having graduated from the University of Michigan with an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, plus a life-changing Fulbright experience in Damascus, and from the Wharton School with an MBA, Dorph is a financial sector consultant who offered his expertise across the world in fluent Arabic, Spanish, French and English. He’s also had a two-year stint as a Peace Corps high school English teacher in Tunisia.
While not as active in LGBTQ activism in recent years, Dorph has done great work with groups like OutRight Action International, which addresses human rights violations and abuses against LGBTQ individuals, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which recruited him to examine the status of the LGBTQ communities spanning Iraq to Algeria.
Lately, his focus has been on helping Americans to better understand and respect the Arab World for all that it has to offer, and to no longer view the entire Arab population as a foreign enemy. “It can really be uplifting to know that someone you think of as being the bad guy is actually interesting and not so bad, maybe kind of nice,” he says.
A Chat with Ken Dorph
How and when did your fascination with and exploration of the Arab World begin?
When I was very young, I grew up in the city among Jews and Italians. I think I was kind of predestined to be involved with Mediterranean people.
I was always very attracted to that part of the world, and then when I was a junior, I took a year abroad to Malta, Morocco and Venice. Frankly, I went for Venice because I was a budding Italophile, but I totally fell in love with Morocco. … I was unprepared for how beautiful it was — the music, the food, the people, the culture.
I wanted to go back, so I joined the Peace Corps and ended up in Tunisia. … (Since graduating from Wharton) I’ve worked pretty much all over the world — I mean literally — I’ve been to over 100 countries. But I always kept coming back to the Arab World because of my passion for it.
Now, I preferentially take work in the Arab World, both because I love it and have so much to offer because I know it so well, not just the financial sectors but more profoundly the cultures, political systems and the issues they face. And because I want, at this stage of my life, to become more of an ambassador. The Arab World is perhaps the most demonized section of the planet by Americans because of our history, and I think it’s a terrible tragedy.
How long have you been giving lectures about the Arab World?
Probably off and on for 20 years. I’ve only done it once or twice on the East End, but I’ve done it at Harvard Arab Weekend and in Manhattan at a couple of events. I want to do it more, but I’ve frankly been too busy. I had kids, and then I had the job … I’m still working, but now that it’s less urgent, I really would like to do it more, as long as my energy holds out and people want to listen.
How has your experience living as a gay man in the Arab World contradicted the American assumption of what that probably looks like?
For one thing, it’s very diverse; just take Tunisia and Lebanon, which are quite liberal. … Same-sex marriage is legal nowhere in the Arab World, as it’s much more conservative than here, but in Tunisia they’re fairly open and have gay groups there. I have made it a point to … try to meet the local gay organizations to help them out — this is how I got involved with OutRight — and to try to connect them with people in Europe or the United States who can help with money or whatever. …
There’s no open gay movement, but no one bothers you. I know gay men in Saudi Arabia, I know lesbians, and they’re left alone. … There’s a difference between same-sex relations and gay liberation. There are all sorts of issues going on here right now. All over the world — whether you’re in Mexico, Sri, Lanka or China — most people don’t really care what you do behind closed doors. They really don’t.
What other insights can you share about the views on issues of gender and sexuality in the Arab World?
Changing gender norms is global, and every society is trying to figure out the new rules about what it means to be male and female. … It’s complex and obviously affected by Islam, because most Arabs are Muslim, just as we are affected by Christianity. … I’ve always seen it not so much as this religion versus that religion, but more against people who are tolerant, progressiveand who interpret things in a way that’s open, loving and kind versus angry fundamentalists. …
Anywhere in the world where women have more autonomy, tend to be, pretty much across the board, more open with gender fluidity. Countries that are extremely patriarchal over women, like today’s Afghanistan, are also extremely harsh against homosexuality, because it’s related and is questioning the gender norms. … I think the Arab World was probably more accepting of male-male relations 100 years ago than Europe. Period. …
What I have found is that when people are threatened because of economic collapse or war, they almost always move to the right, get less tolerant, more rigid and patriarchal … but when things are open, prosperous and easy, there’s much more acceptance of shifting gender roles and diversity of all sorts —religious, linguistic and cultural.
To learn more about Ken Dorph’s lectures at Bay Street and to purchase tickets, visit baystreet.org.