Through an epic series of illustrations, a queer male artist is depicting love in the LGBTQI+ community in the Arab world.
The artist behind Art Queer Habibi – who prefers to remain anonymous – aims to "build up a safe platform for the community," he said in an interview with StepFeed.
He started the project about three months ago, despite the fact that he has no qualification nor a degree in painting.
Following outpouring support from the online community, the comics and illustrations - which were first just being shared on Instagram - have since developed into a business. They are currently being sold as postcards ... and they're the definition of love.
In his artwork, the artist depicts random locations across the Arab world but draws inspiration from one particular city: Beirut.
"Beirut is one of the more 'open' and welcoming cities [in the region] in terms of LGBTQ+ lifestyle," he told StepFeed.
Under the controversial Article 534, which says sexual acts that "contradict the laws of nature" can be punished by up to one year in prison, LGBTQI+ individuals are sometimes prosecuted in Lebanon.
However, court rulings in recent years have challenged the use of the law.
In 2017, Lebanon hosted an LGBTQI+ Pride week, an event the organizers called a "first." The week-long gathering positioned itself as a "collaborative platform that takes a stance against hate and discrimination."
In 2018, nearly 100 candidates running for elections openly called for the decriminalization of homosexuality.
"I get hateful messages about using churches or mosques as background"
The artist is a target of hateful messages online. He's been criticized numerous times for using houses of worship as the backdrop to a number of the illustrations.
"I get hateful messages about choosing churches or mosques as [scenery for the background]," he said.
He often responds to such comments by explaining that these houses of worship "are the same architectural buildings such as skyscrapers."
"I choose them to [depict] which city is being portrayed on a particular painting. I'm balancing to not hurt anyone's feelings and I want you to know that," he added.
"Many of us are living behind closed doors"
When asked about the many obstacles the LGBTQI+ community encounters, the artist explained that there are several faces to the challenges.
The first comes from within the individual, while the second comes from society.
"Everyone should accept themselves for who they really are: lesbian, gay, bi, trans or any other queer peer," he explains.
There exists "a lack of education within society, with many unaware that an LGBTQ community exists within the individuals' respective country."
This is also due to the fact that the "majority is afraid to fully embrace who they are. Many people are shocked to learn how many of us are living behind closed doors," he added.
The artist hopes to "spread awareness and educate people through my art that being LGBTQ+ in Arabia is just as common as being straight and there is nothing wrong with it," he told StepFeed.
"In the end, love is the feeling that wins," he said.
YALLA YALLA YALLA ... time for change?
LGBTQI+ individuals in the Arab world have long been subjected to oppression, harassment, societal judgment, and a wide array of discriminatory laws.
In many Arab countries, engaging in same-sex relationships can lead to imprisonment. In more severe cases, they are faced with the death penalty.
A look at some Arab countries:
While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, according to The Guardian, police routinely arrest individuals using decades-old prostitution and debauchery laws.
According to media reports from earlier this year, Egyptian police have even been targeting gay men through dating apps like Grindr.
In 2017, a number of individuals were arrested for raising a rainbow flag during a Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo.
The country's Musicians syndicate also said it will ban the band - whose lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay - from performing in the country again.
2. United Arab Emirates
Article 354 of the UAE Penal Code is pretty vague in its definition, however, it condemns "coercive sodomy or intercourse with a female."
The law can easily be amended to persecute those who engage in same-sex relationships. The death penalty has never been carried out as a punishment for homosexuality or sodomy, according to The Independent.
In 2016, gender reassignment surgery was legalized, although the legality of changing one's gender on official documents is still unclear.
3. Saudi Arabia
As per the country's interpretation of sharia law, a married man engaging in sodomy can be stoned to death, according to The Washington Post.
In addition, any non-Muslim who commits sodomy with a Muslim is also at risk. All sex outside of marriage is illegal.
In 1995, Saddam Hussein created a paramilitary group with an aim to identify, torture, and execute LGBTQI+ individuals.
The post-Saddam era saw the gay community organize a number of meet-ups in gay-friendly spaces but attacks on the community drove LGBTQI+ individuals back to their shells.
While Iraq's Penal Code does not directly criminalize same-sex intimacy, Article 394 criminalizes extramarital sexual relations. That provision effectively criminalizes all same-sex relations, since the law does not provide for same-sex marriage, according to Human Rights Watch.
IraQueer - the country's only LGBTQI+ awareness organization - has been fighting oppression for years. It seeks to provide advice and safe houses for LGBTQI+ people who were disowned by their families.
Muslims in Qatar are subject to laws based on the country's interpretation of sharia, which calls for the death penalty for those engaging in extra-marital sex, regardless of sexual orientation.
To read more about the laws prohibiting or used to punish same-sex conduct in MENA, check out Human Rights Watch's report here.