Gregg Homme
    First Published: Before August 2002
       This is an OutUK Archive Item and so some of the links and information may be out of date.
I took a journey back to Egypt, writes an OutUK Correspondent whose name has been withheld to protect his identity. I had been there some fourteen years ago, prior to this brief visit. My memories were heavy with the images of the ancient world, the dust, the constant battle to avoid beggars and pestering hawkers and the elusive beauty of a seemingly, exclusively bisexual (and very handsome) male population. But this visit was not inspired by any reconnection to the Pharaonic past or to indulge in pseudo-colonial, romantic images of 'third world' charm, nor was it to be an erotic adventure. Stories of homophobia, a clampdown by the modern government, the systematic persecution of the gay male population, these things had drawn me back to Cairo. I wanted to taste for myself a little of what life was really like, and I wanted to find out what the feeling was, among gay men in Cairo in these fear filled days and nights.

NO LONGER CAST IN STONE

The ancient civilisations of Egypt were uncompromising and dictatorial, their histories and victories are literally written in stone. Their persecution of minorities also. If one takes a visit to the Egyptian museum in the centre of Cairo you cannot help but notice the room dedicated to Akenhaten. Although a father of three daughters with Nefertiti, art historians and Egyptologists alike have agreed that the images that survive of the founder of monotheistic religion portray him as having the hips and lips of a woman. He was, most agree, inter-sex - a hermaphrodite. I listened to the tour guides as they entered the Akenhaten room, in the time that I stood there, six different guides began their explanation of Akenhaten's appearance with: "He was not a homosexual." His orientation aside, one cannot but help notice that he was a queer of sorts and a very important one at that - but even the history of queers that is cast in stone, can be changed by the authorities of today.

GETTING THERE

My journey to Egypt had begun long before I boarded the EgyptAir flight to Cairo. I had been searching the Internet and chatting in chat rooms to try to arrange meetings with Egyptian gay men. This, I learned very quickly, was the riskiest thing I could have done. The police in Egypt are using exactly those tools to track down and arrest gay men, I was told - on two occasions I received emailed viruses with Arabic headers as part of the process - had I chatted to a police man who was now trying to interrupt my search? I was given a list of email addresses used by the police - I had been chatting to a policeman.

As we came into land I saw the endless lights of the mega city stretching to all horizons. The bustling streets that I observed from the taxi to the hotel were filled with cars and people, each jostling for space. But to describe Cairo as a big and bustling city is to make the biggest understatement possible. The traffic is constant and relentless and where ever you turn there is a uniformed figure - police, army, traffic-police, state security guards.

EGYPT'S DIARY OF FEAR
February 2001
Gays protest in Cairo over the closure of Turkish Baths.
2 Egyptians arrested for starting gay sex website.
May
Queen Boat Arrests, 52 men arrested and detained.
June
Queen Boat Charges, 52 charged with obscenity and crimes against religion.
September
Allegations of torture and entrapment leak out from the Queen Boat detainees.
15 year old boy from Queen Boat sentenced to three years.
November
23 of the Queen Boat detainees sentenced to between one and five years hard labour.
4 men arrested in Boulak-al-Dakrour, Giza.
December
2 students arrested after being entrapped in Internet chat room.
Appeal court cuts the sentence of 15 year old boy from three years to six months.
January 2002
5 men arrested and held in Alexandra suburb of Damanhour.
February
Cairo press report that one man is sentenced to three years hard labour for placing a personal advert on the Internet.
Boulak 4 sentenced to three years hard labour.
Egyptian Ambassador visits 'pink' centre in Belgium.
March
Egyptian activist, Maher Sabry, wins IGLHRC Felipa award.
Damanhour 5 found not guilty.
May
President Mubarak orders the release of 21 of the 23 Queen Boat prisoners.
The presence of the government is felt everywhere. Even during a stroll along the Nile, once a favourite cruising ground, you will see sailors lounging seductively, but none the less, on guard. The air is ripe with suspicion. Where once the whole city was a cruising ground, now eyes are averted, danger feels close. Big brother is watching you.

Since the infamous Queen Boat arrests of last year (and actually for a while before) the Egyptian police have been carrying out arrests of gay men. By all accounts it is a weekly, almost daily, occurrence - gay men are being picked off one by one and it is spreading terror and distrust through the gay community and putting a halt on the once common, bi-sexual or "homosexuality of convenience" behaviour of Egyptian men. The sources of information on the behaviour of the police are unverifiable, people are too afraid to speak out or too afraid that their stories may be recognised, but the same stories over and again make it clear that there is truth in the terrible tales of oppression of gay people by their own government. I spoke to many on the Internet and a few in person.

SOURCES

So how do we know that the police are arresting people, torturing and abusing them? Are some people getting away? Are some people paying bribes? Are these the accounts of hapless foreigners who have witnessed the behaviour of police against the locals but escaped by the skin of their passports?
Whatever the sources, the fear is real, the paranoia is evident, the suspicion that gay men have of each other is rife and the loathing of the authorities is shamelessly obvious. The campaign of terror and control has, in some ways, been effective and successful - how can a community exist if it cannot communicate?

My first morning in Cairo brought me closer to the clampdown than I had anticipated. Within a few minutes of leaving my hotel, I was approaching a bridge over the Nile. A man in a suit caught my eye - he was cruising. I continued along my route without responding. As I reached the point where the bridge crossed the riverbank I glanced down and saw another man standing beside a public toilet. He winked at me and gestured. Perhaps Cairo hadn't changed so much after all? I continued over the bridge and then realised that I was not going in the right direction and turned back - I needed to take another bridge and so had to pass by the two cruising men again. As I passed the second man, I noticed him speaking into his lapel and, glancing to where the first man had been, I saw him furtively respond into his radio. It was a stakeout. There was no doubt. I looked him squarely in the face and continued to pass by. He stared me out but that was all - a chilling introduction, I was lucky, I looked like a foreigner.

MEETING PEOPLE

The next day, I was given another reminder of the good old days. While walking in central Cairo a friendly and attractive Egyptian man approached me and struck up a conversation. Half an hour of tea and small talk later and that all important question popped up: "Are you married?"

Some cautious and well-rehearsed information drawing ensued and finally it was evident that we were both gay. I made it clear that I wasn't looking for sex but that I would be interested to talk. This was not possible in the tea-house, nor could we go to my hotel, as Egyptians are not permitted to visit foreigners in hotels. At home, he shared with his family. He suggested we go to the pyramids and take a trip to the desert.

A semi-silent bus, taxi and horse ride later and I was in the desert. On one side the ancient pyramids, on another the sprawling metropolis, its skyline dotted with the towers of mosques, its edges lined with squalid poverty stricken communities.
The third vista was the endless desert only sparsely inhabited with tourists taking camel rides. Cynics may suppose that this was some rouse to get me to use his friend's horse hiring service and, despite the fact that he paid his portion for the experience, it did cross my mind also, but there, alone in the desert, a different man emerged.

As we sat, the horses tethered, the heartrending truth of being gay in Egypt came flooding out. As if timed for the occasion the evening prayers began, a thousands crying Imams echoing the tortured feeling of my companion.

There is nowhere to go to conduct relationships, be they sexual and/or casual or emotional and/or committed. Extended families living in close proximity, the cultural and religious expectation of marriage, the ever-watchful authorities, the close monitoring of the Internet. Rather than face the loneliness of city life he had taken a job in a small desert village, he had, in effect, removed himself from the temptation, but not from the overbearing sense of isolation and persecution.

That evening, back at the hotel, my invitation to those I had chatted with on the Internet bore fruit. The phone rang, it was an Egyptian man who I had mailed my number to. His questions were searching, (I hadn't told anyone about my research for an article - that I would rather do face to face) clearly there was distrust between us both. He became nervous - he felt I wasn't being entirely honest, he firstly accused me of being a foreign journalist - and then offered to help. We should meet. Another phone rang and his went silent and then hung up. My pulse was racing, was he a policeman? How many individuals have two phones at home? He knew where I was and that I was there right now. Preparing for the worst I took all the evidence that I had of my real purpose there, my notes, people's email addresses and phone numbers and I began tearing them up and flushing them. My senses were on full alert, listening for the door. The phone rang again - it was him. He began giving me instructions of what I should wear, then he told me to leave the hotel and he gave me directions for a rendezvous. Was he friend or foe? I went with it. A block before the rendezvous a car pulled up next to me and a man indicated that I should get in. It was him and he wasn't police. The level of paranoia, of downright fear, the risk that we both felt we had taken. This was the experience of every Egyptian who tries to make contact with an unknown member of his community. His elaborate instructions and his contravention of the plans were all part of his attempt to make sure that I wasn't an Egyptian policeman or a 'guide' for the police. He would talk, but only if we drove around - what if they were listening to the hotel phone?

The New Tool Of Oppression

 

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