“Birds of the Borderlands”

Four Queer Arabs

Amos Lassen

Jordan Byron’s documentary “Birds of The Borderlands” follows four queer Arabs as they risk their place in their families, communities and even countries to be themselves.

Hiba is a Bedouin trans-girl fleeing her tribe before they discover her secret transition; Youssef is a gay Iraqi refugee murder-witness, waiting in hiding for UNHCR to hand him his fate; Khalaf is a gay Imam turned LGBT activist forced to seek asylum abroad after a vicious assault from his family; Rasha is a young Jordanian feminist who finds herself in a relationship with Jordan, the Australian filmmaker who is determined to help the film’s characters but doesn’t understand the price paid for freedom in a country where honor is often thicker than blood.

At first, we are not sure if director Byron has lost his mind or just foolish.  He just might be both. Jordan is an Australian genderqueer. When the camera starts rolling on Birds of the Borderlands it is initially hard to know if Australian genderqueer filmmaker is crazy or brave because of the topic. On a whim Jordan moved to Jordan where they (Jordan’s pronoun of choice) planned for a three month stay but stretched to 18 months,  and they actually spent the next 5 years wandering all over the Middle East getting immersed in the lives of several LGBTQ people whose sexuality was creating them major problems.

Most of the LGBT community they met, wouldn’t allow their faces to be shown on camera not just for concern for their own safety but also for the families they had left.  In most of this region of the world,  a child’s homosexuality if discovered is considered a major dishonor on the entire family that can result in them being shunned by society or attacked.

Youssef who had to  flee Baghdad almost momentarily after witnessing the horrific murder of his boyfriend.  Bryon took him in as their roommate and he is now waiting for refugee status which could (and does) takes years.  The apartment they share also becomes a safe haven for others including Hiba, as a young teenage trans woman Hiba who has run away from home. She is the only one who is keen on showing her face on the  screen  because as she says, “I’m tired of being invisible, I want to stand up and be seen and be heard”. However when HIba’s Bedouin family tricked her into coming back, the incident turns both dangerous and scary and Bryon is kidnapped in the process.

Feminist lesbian Rasha is braver than most and Bryon begins to date her. I had a hard time trying to differentiate between Byron’s friends and lovers but it is more important to watch them establishing  a real safe house for all LBTQ folk.

On one of their side trips to Beirut, Byron meets with Khalaf, an articulate gay Imam turned activist who had to leave Iran to escape death and is now hold up in a hotel room  unable to go out and just waiting for asylum in Canada. The whole business is very scary for those involved. There were threats from the Jordanian Secret Service who gave them orders to leave the country for good.  Although  what went on for Byron was not as violent as what Youssef had to deal with and thus forced to live on the margins. We are reminded that there are still places where LGBT people are not allowed to be themselves and there is no tolerance for them.

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