Islam and Homosexuality
Important Report: In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice In Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct 3/04 by Scott Long, director of the LGBT Rights Project at Human Rights Watch
January 10, 2003, Gfn.com News
Egyptian police arrested a 30-year-old gay man after chatting with him on an Internet site he used to seek potential partners and, posing as gay men, lured him to meet them, police said Thursday. The man, whose name was not given, was an employee at a upscale Cairo hotel and had posted pictures of himself on the Web site calling himself a “single dreamer.” Police, in an undercover operation, chatted with the man over the Internet passing themselves off as a potential lover and arranged to meet with him. At the meeting place, they arrested him.
On December 22, a gay dentist was arrested in the same manner. Although homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited under Egyptian law which is based on sharia or Islamic law, authorities use “public morality” statutes as a ruse to harass, arrest and prosecute gay men.
March 27, 2003, Gay.com
by Tom Musbach
A day after the U.S. Supreme Court began deliberating about decriminalizing gay sex between consenting adults, Egypt continues to aggressively seek – often through Internet chat rooms – and punish men who are suspected of being gay. On Jan. 16, a Lebanese man named Wissam Abyad was entrapped on a gay Web site by an undercover agent posing as a Spaniard who was new to Cairo and looking for friends. Abyad, 26, agreed to meet the man and was then arrested, charged with “debauchery,” advertising “against public morals” and inciting others to debauchery. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The incident is one of several during recent months in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called an “increasingly harsh campaign of entrapment and arrest of men solely on the basis of alleged consensual homosexual conduct.”
“The police are raiding private homes and using the Internet to entrap men on trumped-up charges of ‘debauchery,'” said Joe Stork, the Middle East/North Africa director for HRW. “People looking for support and community find a prison cell.” Abyad’s partner, who requested anonymity, said via e-mail that he knows of three other men who were similarly entrapped since Abyad’s arrest, as well as 13 more who were arrested in private homes. The trial of those 13 men began on Thursday. “This is truly a witch hunt,” Abyad’s partner said. According to Abyad’s partner, Abyad refused meetings twice after chatting via Gaydar with the agent posing as the lonely Spaniard, but he finally “felt sorry for him” and agreed to meet for lunch. When he arrived at the arranged meeting spot, a McDonald’s restaurant, four undercover cops arrested him.
Last year, a 23-year-old Egyptian man was sentenced to three years in prison after he tried to meet another man he had chatted with online. The recent arrests follow the nearly two-year ordeal of 52 suspected gay men who were arrested in May 2001 on a floating nightclub, tried over several months under harsh and humiliating circumstances and then retried in a different court. Two weeks ago, the retrial ended with three-year jail sentences imposed on 21 of the men; 29 were acquitted. (The two “leaders” were sentenced last year and not subjected to retrial.) Abyad’s case was recently defeated in an appeals court. He and his partner – who have lived together in Cairo for two years – are working on an appeal to Egypt’s highest court. Earlier this week, Abyad was transferred from the crowded appeals jail, where he lived in a cement room without running water or a toilet. Abyad’s partner has not yet been able to visit Abyad in the new prison north of Cairo, which is supposedly for foreign prisoners. He said Abyad had not been harmed with physical violence in prison. Amnesty International, which has spoken out against Egypt’s treatment of suspected homosexuals, declared Abyad a “prisoner of conscience.”
12 May 2003, Gay.com U.K.
A weekend of protest began Friday in over a dozen cities across the world against the continued trials and detentions of gays in Egypt and to mark the second anniversary of the Queen Boat raid, which led to the arrests and trial of 52 men. Though many were acquitted after several months, at least 20 were rearrested and convicted for “habitual acts of debauchery,” a euphemism for homosexuality. Protesters held an hour-long rally in front of the Egyptian mission in New York on Friday. Michael Heflin, director of Amnesty International’s OUTfront program, and journalist Mubarak Dahir, who represented the Gay and Lesbian Arabs, spoke at the event.
Most of those attending the New York rally were asked to wear red in solidarity with those participating in a clandestine gay pride demonstration in Egypt. A representative in the press office of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., when contacted on Friday for comment about the protests, repeated the common refrain that homosexuality per se was not illegal in Egypt. Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., told the Gay.com/PlanetOut.com Network, “I, along with Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), am imploring members of the House to refuse to support free trade agreement with Egypt, until it stops persecution of gays.” He said he has “no hopes” for the Bush administration, as it went along with the Islamic bloc to stop a key gay rights vote at the United Nations, but said he pins his hopes on congressional allies to help stop Cairo’s persecution.
Faisal Alam, founder of Al-Fatiha, a group for gay Muslims, said from Washington, D.C., that the protest weekend had been planned as part of renewing focus on the “human Egyptian tragedy” unfolding in Egypt but was being neglected “because of the war on terrorism and the Iraq war.” He said the reason why Egypt had been selected – while there are many Islamic countries with worse records on gay rights – was multifaceted.
“Egypt does not have any laws against homosexuality, it’s the second largest recipient of U.S. monies, or $2 billion each year, even its president and ministers have become parties to the issue, and lastly it is a beacon of hope and light in the larger Muslim community,” Alam said. “Egypt has been striving to improve its democratic credentials.” Protests are planned for London, Geneva, Madrid, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Norwegian cities of Bergen and Oslo, Manila and cities across Ireland. Throughout Europe, the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) teamed up and bolstered Amnesty International’s protest actions. The two bodies are said to be jointly approaching the EU Commission to express concern over the Egypt situation. In Geneva at noon on Saturday, 52 people will chain themselves on the Place des Nations, the entrance to the European headquarters of the United Nations, while in Washington, Amnesty International’s OUTfront team and Al-Fatiha will stage a “teach in.”
5 June 2003, Gay.com U.K.
An appeals court in Egypt has reduced the sentences of four men convicted of charges stemming from a May 2001 raid on a Nile boat restaurant. The four were among 52 men arrested in a May 2001 police raid on a Nile boat restaurant on suspicion they had taken part in a gay sex party. 29 were acquitted, and a further 16 appealed and were released pending the hearing.
Twelve men, who had also been initially sentenced to three years imprisonment, lost their appeals on Wednesday because they did not attend the hearing. Another five did not appear at the hearing and will be retried if arrested. Another two men had been sentenced to five and three years respectively on charges of contempt of religion and misinterpreting the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. Homosexuality is met with zero tolerance in Egypt. While not explicitly referred to in the country’s laws, a wide range of laws covering obscenity, prostitution and public morality are punishable by jail terms and used to persecute gay men.
June 16, 2003, Philadelphia Inquirer
They say a rise in arrests that began with a boat raid in 2001 points to increasing intolerance. Egypt denies targeting them.
by Elise Ackerman, Knight Ridder News Service
Cairo, Egypt – For gay Middle Easterners, the nightclubs along the Nile in downtown Cairo were once as much a tourist destination as the Pyramids. But during the last three years, Egypt has become as famous for its persecution of gay men as it once was for its tolerance of them. Nightclubs have been raided, cruising areas have been placed under surveillance, and Internet dating services have been populated by undercover police officers posing as lonely hearts. An appeals court judge on June 4 reduced the sentences of four men convicted of debauchery in the notorious Queen Boat case to time served and ordered them to spend a year sleeping each night in their local police stations. Seventeen other defendants feared they would receive more prison time and did not appear in court.
They are fugitives. “This is a trial that should never have taken place,” said Hossam Bahgat, program director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a legal activist group. “It is still outrageous to see people being convicted when they have committed no crime.” For the nation’s gay community, the largest in the Middle East, the case of the May 2001 raid on a floating, Nile-side disco known as the Queen Boat was a frightening turning point in government treatment of homosexuals. For Western lawmakers and human-rights activists, it was a wake-up call that the police powers of Egypt – the closest U.S. Arab ally – could be used against others besides Islamic terrorists.
The Queen Boat case and the recent court ruling are a sign of a “bigger tyranny” by an authoritarian government that has been in power for almost 23 years, said Maher Sabry, an Egyptian activist who helped bring international attention to the Queen Boat arrests. “Gay men are just a scapegoat to distract people from real problems and to portray the government as the protector of morality and society,” he said.
The year before the arrests, Egypt’s highest court ruled that the country’s election laws were unconstitutional, essentially invalidating the nation’s parliament and vindicating opposition charges of rigged votes. Though parliamentary elections in the fall of 2000 were judged to be significantly fairer, they were accompanied by the sweeping arrests of thousands of supporters of a peaceful, and widely popular, Islamic political movement. Sabry and others contend that the subsequent crackdown on gays helped appease the conservative, predominantly Muslim electorate. In the 1990s and 2000, venues such as the Queen Boat provided gay men places they could dance, hold hands and even hug without risking their reputations. Then, in May 2001, police raided the disco, detaining 38 men and picking up about a dozen others apparently at random, their lawyers said.
Eyad, a gay man who asked that his real name not be used, was hauled off while hailing a cab near the boat. The suspects were taken to a downtown police station and asked to confess to being “faggots.” If they protested, they were beaten and kicked, according to interviews with four men and dozens of testimonies taken by human-rights researchers.
Two months before the trial, the names of the men and their places of employment were published in state-controlled newspapers, along with allegations that they were Israeli sympathizers who held orgies, and satanists who practiced perverted religious rituals. Judge Mohamed Abd el Karim, who presided over the first Queen Boat trial in a special emergency court used to try threats to national security, made clear his views on gays. In an interview, he said he believed homosexuality is criminalized not only by Egyptian law, but by “the three heavenly religions,” a reference to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Gay sex “is not acceptable,” he said.
“It is not logical.” Abd el Karim found 21 of the men guilty of debauchery, based on his belief that they had had homosexual intercourse with more than one person more than one time during the previous three years. A subsequent trial in a regular misdemeanor court increased their sentences from two to three years. (Two defendants who also were found guilty of contempt of religion were not retried and received three-year and five-year sentences.) Since January 2001, at least 140 Egyptian men have been arrested on vice charges ranging from debauchery to “inducing passersby to commit indecent acts,” according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It is very difficult to be gay in Egypt,” Eyad said.
Human-rights activists say the Queen Boat case heralded a shift to longer sentences and routine violations of privacy, particularly with regard to Internet entrapment. Human Rights Watch has documented 32 Internet arrests since the beginning of 2001. Scott Long, a researcher who has done extensive work in Egypt, said he is sure the total figure is much larger. Posing as gay men seeking relationships, Egyptian police have posted profiles on Internet dating sites popular with gays. Several men who were later arrested said they became infatuated with a man who called himself “Raul,” who turned out to be an undercover officer.
“The really heartbreaking thing is how Raul plays on people’s emotions,” Long said. “People are scared after the Queen Boat. They don’t know how to meet people. And they meet this person on the Internet who is actually curious about them and their lives.” In an official response to international criticism of the gay arrests presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee last fall,
Egypt maintained that it did not criminalize sexual orientation per se, and that gays were prosecuted under laws prohibiting male and female prostitution. Paralyzed by the prospect of returning to prison, Eyad skipped his appeal hearing. While he and others had been freed on bail, they have been expected to turn themselves in and begin serving the two years remaining on their sentences since their second trial ended in March. Instead, Eyad recently quit his job and moved out of the apartment he shared with his family to avoid arrest. The appeals judge’s decision surprised him, and now he says he wishes he had gone to court.
July 20, 2003, Associated Press
Cairo, Egypt – An appeals court acquitted 11 men of charges of debauchery linked to homosexual activity, one of their lawyers said Sunday. As his three-member panel issued its ruling Saturday, lawyer Helmi al-Rawi said Judge Mo’azer El-Marsafy told the defendants: “We are so disgusted with you, we can’t even look at you. What you did is a major sin, but unfortunately the case has procedural errors and the court had to acquit all of you.”
The 11 had been convicted in April and sentenced to up to three years in prison in one of several such cases that have drawn accusations of anti-gay bias in Egypt from international human rights groups. The defendants appealed in May.
Summer 2003, Amnesty NOW
by Mubarak Dahir
For “security reasons,” New York police ordered the crowd of 30 or so demonstrators to move away from the steps in front of the gray, concrete building where the Egyptian consulate is housed. On that early May weekend the New York demonstrators in Washington, London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, and Berlin were marching in front of Egyptian consulates and embassies. The protests, organized by Amnesty International and Al Fatiha, a gay and lesbian Muslim organization, marked the second anniversary of an Egyptian police raid on a floating disco on the Nile, the Queen Boat, frequented by gay men.
The May 11, 2001 early morning raid resulted in the arrest and subsequent trial of 52 men suspected of being gay. The Queen Boat incident won international attention, thanks to outside pressure, including that of Amnesty International activists. Even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took note. Less well known, however, is that ever since the Queen Boat affair, Egyptian authorities have mounted a sustained attack against gay men and what was once an emerging gay community. “The raid marked the beginning of a two-year public campaign of harassment, intimidation, and detention of those perceived to be gay,” said Michael Heflin, director of AIUSA’s OUTfront Program. “Beyond those originally arrested, scores have faced police surveillance, entrapment, drawn out trials, and long periods of detention.
Some were rejected by their friends and family, lost their jobs, or were tortured. All were subjected to profound public humiliation, often in the Egyptian media.” Just back from Egypt, where he spent three months documenting the abuse of gay men, Scott Long of Human Rights Watch took the megaphone and told a chilling story of how the police tortured and killed one young gay man and then, in a transparent attempt to make the death look like a suicide, threw his body off a building. There are no hard figures, but Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch estimate that in the past two years, police have arrested up to 200 men for “debauchery,” the official codeword for homosexuality.
Not all meet such a horrible ending as torture and death, but it is fair to say that most of their lives are shredded by the stigma of being gay in Egypt. At the rally, I picked up a sign in red, hand-drawn letters, saying “Stop Torture.” The group walked in a circle as a woman with a pink triangle on her black T-shirt led us in chants she shouted through a megaphone. I used both hands to direct my sign toward the men in suits and women in head scarves who peered from the consulate offices on the second and third floors of the consulate.
As I walked, I thought of “Ahmad,” one of many young gay Egyptian men I met while on assignment in Egypt for three weeks last December. Ahmad worked at his family business on the outskirts of Cairo, hauling and selling coal. He came from a very conservative family. His mother and three sisters cover their heads with the traditional Muslim scarves. His brother studied at Cairo’s premier Muslim university. Ahmad himself prays five times a day. And yet he was not torn between his religion and his sexuality. He had found a way, as many spiritual people of any faith do, to bridge the gap between the teachings of his religion and his sexual identity.
What Ahmad struggled with was not religion, but loneliness and fear. There was a time, he told me, when he had been able to escape the strict bounds of his family life and go into Cairo to be in the company of men like himself. He recalled visiting the Queen Boat, before it was raided. It was “incredible” he said, as was the sense of community. There were private parties so large “you would have thought all of Cairo was gay.” These were havens for Ahmad not because, as Egyptian authorities have said, they featured public sex and devil-worshiping. These were havens because gay men could come together and meet and socialize and even talk about building their own movement, making their own place in Egyptian society – something that the government might well have found more threatening than devil-worship.
But in the past two years, all of that has essentially vanished. Today, Ahmad lives in near-isolation from other gay men, fearing that if he is found out, he will be arrested, his family shamed, and his life ruined. He is lonely enough that he risks the occasional walk along segments of the Nile where gay men still dare to venture in hope of finding one another. But, he told me, he feels gay life is over in Egypt. He has no hopes of ever finding anyone to love. He dreams of leaving the country, but cannot afford it.
And so he is stuck in Egypt and trapped by fear and loneliness. That is why I went to the New York rally, and that is why it is so important that we tell the Egyptian government that what it is doing is intolerable. It is especially important for Americans to speak out because Cairo receives Washington’s second largest foreign aid package. We need to tell our own representatives that it is unacceptable to continue to support a government that practices such blatant human rights violations against gay men.
But there is more we as Americans, and as gay people, can and must do. Many of my fellow gay Arabs come to this country specifically for the freedom to be gay, something they would never have at home. Yet I know that many of my fellow gay Arabs have been made unwelcome by gay Americans since September 11 cast suspicion on all Arabs.
That must stop. I know also that this is a difficult time for every Arab in the United States. We’ve all lived in fear and under suspicion since Sept. 11. But my fellow Arabs must stop trying to tell gay and lesbian members of our community that this is not the time for gay issues. Now more than ever is the time for fair-minded Arabs in America to embrace their gay and lesbian members and to stop forcing us into a lie of invisibility. And we in America who are gay and who are Arab have a responsibility to speak up and to counter the worst of all lies spread by our enemies both here and abroad: that we as gay Arabs do not exist.
Mubarak Dahir, a New York-based freelance journalist, writes frequently on gay and Arab issues. He has been a reporter for the Philadelphia City Paper, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and an editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and has contributed to Time, and The Advocate.
Al-Fatiha Foundation c/o Egypt Fund PO Box 33532 Washington, DC 20033
August 21, 2003
Al-Fatiha Foundation, a US-based non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to supporting Muslims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning (LGBTIQ), announced today the launching of a fund, created to disseminate money to asylum seekers from Egypt. Since the infamous ‘Cairo 52’ case, dozens of men have fled Egypt and have sought asylum in countries including France, the United Kingdom, Austrailia, Canada and the United States.In most cases, asylum seekers from these countries cannot start working or earn an income, while their asylum case is pending. In the United States, this can mean 6 months to several years, before an asylum case is heard.
And then several more months can pass before working papers are processed. During this time, asylum seekers must rely on the help of organizations and individuals who can support them with housing, food, and finances to live. “The creation of this fund will ensure that asylum seekers from Egypt can begin to start a new life in a new country,” said Bassam, a coordinator of SWANABAQ, the Southwest Asian and North African Bay Area Queers, based in Northern California. The group has held several fundraisers in the San Francisco to raise money for asylum seekers from different countries.
From 2001 to 2003, Al-Fatiha raised more than $2,000 for two asylum seekers from Egypt and Morocco. Although the creation of this fund will primarily help asylum seekers from Egypt, Al-Fatiha hopes to expand the fund in the future to distribute money to asylees from other countries as well. A coordinating committee consisting of Al-Fatiha board members, community leaders, Al-Fatiha chapter coordinators, and human rights activists will be created, to help manage and distribute money from the fund. Al-Fatiha will donate $250 for the inception of the fund.
More information on how to apply to receive money from the fund will be announced soon. In addition to the creation of this fund, Al-Fatiha regularly provides letters of support to asylees, who have left their home countries. Al-Fatiha has also worked closely with organizations including the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force (LGIRTF), which links asylees with pro-bono and low cost immigration lawyers. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) provides documentation on human rights abuses towards sexual and gender minorities in countries around the world.
This documentation is also extremely useful when filing for asylum. Donations to the new fund for asylum seekers from Egypt can be sent to: Al-Fatiha Foundation c/o Egypt Fund PO Box 33532 Washington, DC 20033 All donations are tax-deductible to the extent of the law. Any questions or concerns relating to the fund can be addressed to Al-Fatiha by email at firstname.lastname@example.org to Faisal Alam, founder & director of Al-Fatiha at cell # 202-271-0067
10 – A few good women
September 2003 Issue, Huriyah Magazine
by Afdhere Jama
More than sixty years ago, a little girl by the name of Farduz Hussein found herself “lusting after women,” as a friend of hers puts it. But that wasn’t just unacceptable, but unheard of in her community; a small village right in the middle of Egypt, one of the largest countries in the Middle East. Farduz grew up to become a beautiful woman, married a man and later reconnected with her sexual desire to women. “She was what I call fierce fem,” says Sharifa Ismail, an Arab lesbian who worked with Farduz for more than twenty years. “She was everything we wanted to be: beautiful, gentle, feminine and fierce!”
In 1963, while she was married, Farduz set up a “gathering” one night for the lesbians in her country. That night, for the first time in their lives those Arab women had the privilege to be in the company of other lesbians and not feel ashamed or scared. Of course, with a good thing like that, they had to repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat it. It became a monthly meeting and used to just be called “the gathering” and one year after their first meeting, the women decided to make it more “official.” They wanted a name, and so they called it Hamd, a word that means “to praise.” “It was 1979, if I remember it correctly, when I was introduced to them by a friend,” says Sharifa, who lived in Iraq at the time. “Maybe it was a long commute but it was worth it. I would go there for the big meetings that happened every six months.”
In 1987, after coordinating the “meetings” for more than twenty years, Farduz died from ammonia. “It was devastating day for all of us,” says Sharifa. “To this day, we still mourn her every year. She was young. She should have lived to be hundred [years old]!” After Farduz died, her best friend, also a lesbian, took over. “It wasn’t easy,” says Istaqlal Ahmed, the current coordinator of Hamd. “I was the oldest of us, so that is why the women chose me. No one has the talent she had. She was the kind of person who put smile on your face by just watching her face. She always was happy.”
Hamd is very closeted and does not have any public meetings where anyone can come. The meetings almost always happen between their homes. For example, a woman in Alexandria whose name is Fatma hosted the last three months. The fifty-two women who are members all know and trust each other, says Istaqlal. Whenever a new member comes, it is because one of them trusts that person. In fact, Hamd is so closeted that a gay Arab activist, Abu Omar, who lives in Cairo, did not know about them. Abu Omar, who has lesbian friends himself, only got in touch with the group after I introduced him to them to help with the story. He said he didn’t believe it until he saw a house full of “strong, butch women,” though Istaqlal says the group is “very mixed” in terms of feminine vs. butch. Their finance is also another interesting story. At every meeting, the women bring whatever they can and donate it to the woman who hosts the next meeting.
“It is not intimidating so it works for us,” says Istaqlal, who mostly hosts it at her houses in Cairo and Asyut, where she is originally from and owns a farmhouse. “We put the box in the back and nobody sees what you put in it. You put in whatever you can.” Also, they receive small monies from abroad. For example, members like Sharifa (who lives in Canada) and Marium (in Germany) support them. Earlier this year, for example, Sharifa, Marium and Suleika (another member in the UK) put together $2,500. That allowed the women to rent an entire boat in the Nile River and party like it is nobody’s business in celebration of their 40th anniversary. “We enjoyed it much,” says Istaqlal, who pulled off planning the party with a few other women. “It was like a wedding.
We are thankful to our sisters for coming and supporting us like that.” Hamd is not just a partying club, however. In 2001, when two women from their group were arrested in mass with many other queer people on a boat [now mostly known as “Cairo 52”], Istaqlal and her assistant went down to the police station in Cairo with two men, whom they paid to say they were married to the women. They were let go. In 2002, when a member had to have a complicated surgery, Hamd members pulled together and paid for her to have a first-class surgery in Dubai, UAE. “It felt good to do that for our sister,” says Istaqlal.
“We are blessed to have each other like this.” But Hamd’s work goes beyond Egypt. When in 1994 a member moved to neighboring Libya, she started a group of her own which she also named Hamd. That group now has over twenty strong members in Tripoli, the capital. Hamd Egypt supports them almost exclusively. “The success of their story is their secrecy,” says Abu Omar. “They are very smart women. No one suspects them. I support them being secretive because their lives are at stake. The society here would accept a gay man much faster than it would accept a lesbian.
Their lives would be threatened. If not by the government, by their families.” Istaqlal says whenever they rent a place – which is not often – they tell the people it is for a wedding. “It is easier this way,” says Istaqlal, who plans another big party for October to welcome the Islamic holy month, Ramadan. “Arab people are nosey. You must tell them something. We are curious people, you see, in our nature. It is easy for us to not be noticed because we don’t do public events. No parade. Just in our homes we celebrate.” You can support Hamd by e-mailing Sharifa Ismail: email@example.com
9 September 2003, Gay.com UK
Egypt’s religious leader has committed himself to fighting the “plague” of gays. Additionally, Pope Shenouda III, of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has called for other leaders of different religions to help in his campaign. In an interview with the Middle East News Agency, Shenouda said he will be hosting a summit to discuss ways on how to fight the growing visibility of gay men and women across the world.
He added that he supports all those who are against gay marriage and the appointment of gay clergy, which defies “the teachings of the holy book and threaten the stability of marriage, the family and social morality”. The pope said he is currently looking to contact the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches and councils in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa. The Coptic Orthodox has over 10 million members worldwide, although the majority are in Egypt.
25 September 2003, Gay.com UK
Egypt’s police force have arrested more gay men, it has emerged, in a crackdown reminiscent of the Queenboat scandal in 2001. The police arrested 62 men on August 28th at a popular cruising spot in a gay area. They swept across Qasr-el-Nil bridge across the Nile and arrested any men found, charging them with debauchery. According to reports that have since leaked out, the police then dragged the men to the police wagons, before shouting to onlookers “Look at the faggots! The country’s become full of faggots!”.
At the police station, the men were forced to sign confessions of their crimes, and were only released 3 days after their arrests on provision of a guarantee of address. The arrests have been kept secret from the press, following the international scandal caused by the arrest of 52 gay men on the Queenboat. This caused controversy throughout the international community, with human rights groups such as Amnesty International calling for their immediate release. Despite being a taboo subject, homosexuality is not specifically illegal in Egyptian law.
7 October 2003, Gay.com UK
Egypt’s “crackdown” on its gay citizens and visitors must stop if the country wants to be considered a modern and non-repressive country, a leading civil rights group said today. According to Human Rights Watch, the continuing detainment of gay men in the country’s prisons, as well as their torture, is against human rights codes. “The Egyptian government should free these men and any others who are imprisoned for consensual homosexual conduct,” said HRW acting executive director Joe Stork today.
“These arrests should end, and the repressive legislation that makes them possible should be amended or repealed,” he added. The comments came after the country hit the headlines once again over its treatment of gay men this summer. Sixty-two men were reportedly rounded up in Cairo and arrested under suspicion of being gay. After being held in prison for three days, and being verbally abused, the men were released on bail under the charge of “habitual practice of debauchery”.
This charge is used to arrest gay men, as homosexuality is not actually illegal in the country, but is a taboo subject. “These arrests are only the latest in a two-year official campaign against homosexual conduct,” Stork said yesterday, linking the arrests to the infamous Queenboat scandal of 2001. Additionally, he highlighted the growing number of entrapment cases, where men are lured by police who log on to gay chat sites and arrange meetings with closeted gay men. Once they meet them, they then arrest them under charges that could lead to 3 years imprisonment.
March 1, 2004, New York Times/ Associated Press
Cairo, Egypt – Egyptian authorities have entrapped, arrested and tortured hundreds of men thought to be gay, a New York-based human rights group said in a report Monday. Human Rights Watch urged Egypt to repeal legislation allowing the prosecution of consensual homosexual relations — covered under the country’s debauchery laws. The report said police agents surf the Internet and answer personal ads placed by men seeking men, then arrange meetings with them and arrest them.
Gen. Ahmed Shehab, who oversees Internet-related crimes for the Interior Ministry, said he had not yet seen the report and was unable to comment on it. However, vice officials in the past have acknowledged the practice of answering Internet personals by gay men and praised it for getting results. At a news conference, Human Rights Watch and Egyptian rights groups accused the government of ignoring its own declarations to the United Nations and the European Union that homosexuality is legal in Egypt.
“The police at Abideen police station (in Cairo) clearly have a different opinion because they are going out and they are arresting men who are doing nothing, who are accused of nothing, but consensual, private, homosexual conduct.” said Scott Long, HRW’s director for homosexual issues.
Islam prohibits homosexuality, and it is taboo in Egypt’s conservative society. Homosexuality is not explicitly referred to in the Egyptian penal code, but the report said legislation originally meant to penalize prostitution is being used against gay conduct. In 2001, 52 men were tried on charges of debauchery and 23 were convicted and sentenced to up to five years in prison. The rights group said at least 179 men accused of debauchery have been brought before prosecutors since the start of 2001. Hundreds of other men have been harassed, arrested and often tortured but not charged.
Early last year, the rights group interviewed 63 men who had been arrested for homosexual conduct. It said they spoke of being whipped, bound and suspended in painful positions, splashed with ice-cold water, burned with cigarettes, shocked with electricity to the limbs, genitals or tongue. They also said guards encouraged other prisoners to rape them, according to the report. “The government,” said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth, “has found it advantageous to demonize this group of people as a way of diverting attention from other problems.”
Gen. Assem Omran, the Egyptian police official in charge of vice, whose department was specifically mentioned in the report, declined comment to The Associated Press. The report said that doctors also participated in torturing the men. Prosecutors would refer suspects to the Forensic Medical Authority, an arm of Egypt’s Justice Ministry, it said. “Doctors there compel the men to strip and kneel … subjecting them to intrusive, abusive and degrading examinations to ‘prove’ the men have committed homosexual conduct,” the report said.
March 1, 2004, Human Rights Watch
Cairo – The Egyptian government continues to arrest and routinely torture men suspected of consensual homosexual conduct, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The detention and torture of hundreds of men reveals the fragility of legal protections for individual privacy and due process for all Egyptians. “ The prohibition against torture is absolute and universal, regardless of the victim,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Accepting torture of unpopular victims—whether for their political opinions or their sexual conduct—makes it easier for the government to use this despicable practice on many others.”
The 144-page report, “In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct,” documents the government’s increasing repression of men who have sex with men. The trial of 52 men in 2001 for the “habitual practice of debauchery”—the legal charge used to criminalize homosexual conduct in Egyptian law—was only the most visible point in the ongoing and expanding crackdown. Today, Egyptian police use wiretaps and a growing web of informers to conduct raids on private homes or seize suspects on the street. Undercover police agents arrange meetings with men through chat rooms and personal advertisements on the Internet—and then arrest them.
Police routinely torture men suspected of homosexual conduct. The report cites testimonies of victims telling how they were bound, suspended in painful positions, burned with cigarettes or submerged in ice-cold water, and subjected to electroshock on their limbs and genitals. Numerous testimonies in the report accuse Taha Embaby, head of Cairo’s Vice Squad, of direct participation in torture.
Doctors participate in torturing suspected homosexuals, under the guise of collecting forensic evidence to support the charge of “habitual debauchery,” Human Rights Watch found. Prosecutors refer suspects to the Forensic Medical Authority, an arm of Egypt’s Ministry of Justice. Doctors there compel the men to strip and kneel; they massage, dilate and in some cases penetrate the prisoners’ anal cavities, subjecting them to intrusive, abusive, and degrading examinations to “prove” the men have committed homosexual acts.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to reform the criminal justice system to protect all citizens against torture and abuse. It also called on the government to end arrests and prosecutions based on adult, consensual homosexual conduct.
Five Egyptian human rights organizations—the Egyptian Association Against Torture, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Nadim Center for the Psychological Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information—joined Human Rights Watch in Cairo to launch the report. They also joined in releasing the Arabic-language version of “Security Forces Abuse of Anti-War Demonstrators,” Human Rights Watch’s November report on arrests and torture of antiwar demonstrators during March and April 2003
“ These reports together document a crisis in Egypt’s criminal justice system,” said Roth, who presented the report at a press conference in Cairo. “Impunity for torture and arbitrary arrest puts all Egyptians’ rights at risk.”
In its November report, Human Rights Watch documented excessive use of force by security forces to disperse demonstrators protesting the U.S.-led war against Iraq in March and April 2003. After arresting hundreds of protesters, police beat and mistreated many detainees—some to the point of torture—and failed to give medical care to seriously injured persons. Some of those beaten and tortured at the time filed official complaints with Egypt’s Prosecutor General, requiring that office to investigate the allegations. Nearly a year after the arrests and complaints, the Prosecutor General has failed to launch an investigation.
Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention and torture in Egypt for more than a decade. In 1992 the organization published “Behind Closed Doors: Torture and Detention in Egypt,” a 219-page report that examined the routine use of torture, particularly against alleged Islamist activists and sympathizers, by the State Security Investigations Office (SSI) of the Ministry of Interior.
“ It saddens me that Human Rights Watch has been documenting torture in Egypt for over a decade,” said Roth, who also released the 1992 report at a press conference in Cairo. “The government’s recent initiatives to improve its human rights image mean nothing unless it lives up to its obligation to investigate and punish those responsible for torture.”
” In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice In Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct” is available in English at http://hrw.org/reports/2004/egypt0304/
To read testimonies from the report, please see: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/02/27/egypt7675.htm
To read a recent Human Rights Watch briefing paper on police abuse and torture of detainees in Egypt, please see: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/02/26/egypt7660.htm
In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct – http://hrw.org/reports/2004/egypt0304/
Report, March 1, 2004
Testimonies from the report – http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/02/27/egypt7675.htm
Report, March 1, 2004
Egypt’s Torture Epidemic – http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/02/25/egypt7658.htm
Background Briefing, February 25, 2004
More on Human Rights in Egypt – http://hrw.org/doc/?t=mideast&c=egypt
Human Rights Watch’s work on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – http://hrw.org/doc/?t=lgbt
Video from “In a Time of Torture” – http://hrw.org/video/2004/egypt/
Video, March 1, 2004
April 2004 (?), Gay City News, New York
by Duncan Osborne
Wissam Toufic Abyad, a Lebanese national, with his American lover, Derek Reynolds, recently served time in an Egyptian prison after being convicted of “habitual debauchery.” Judges who received judicial training from an American agency upheld Abyad’s 15-month sentence.
Four Egyptian judges who have been involved in the prosecutions of men who have sex with men in that country on charges of habitual debauchery have received training paid for by U.S. taxpayers, according to a source familiar with the training who insisted on anonymity.But when Gay City News sought confirmation that the judges had received U.S.-funded training, the federal agency that funds the training first said it would confirm if the judges were enrolled in the program, but told the newspaper eight days later that a policy forbids the release of the names of those trained.
One of the four judges—Tawfik Alam—oversaw the trial of Wissam Toufic Abyad, a Lebanese national, who was arrested in 2003 by Egyptian police after he set up a date on the Internet with another man.“I had an e-mail from some Spanish guy,” Abyad said on April 17 at the annual meeting of Amnesty International USA. That “Spanish guy” was a police officer and Abyad was arrested, interrogated, and threatened with torture by police.
He was convicted of “habitual debauchery” and sentenced to 15 months in prison. He was released after serving three quarters of his sentence, which is standard practice in Egypt.Abyad’s appeal was heard by the three judges who received U.S. training—Yaser Ali El Zyat, Bahgat El Hosamy, and Nomear Negam—and upheld his sentence.
“They did not provide any justification for the sentence, and left that part of his verdict blank,” wrote Derek Reynolds, Abyad’s American partner, in an e-mail to Gay City News. “It was painfully obvious that they just wanted him to pay for his perceived sexual orientation.”Reynolds recently returned to the U.S. after living in Egypt for ten years while working with private aid agencies there.
He also spoke at the April 17 meeting.The Egyptian government’s crackdown on men who have sex with men started seven years ago, according to a 2004 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that examined the “official files in the cases of 126 men arrested on ‘debauchery’ charges since 1997.”The crackdown gained widespread public attention in 2001 when Egyptian police raided the Queen Boat disco in Cairo and arrested 60 men. Fifty-two were prosecuted and their trials resulted in a mix of acquittals and guilty verdicts
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, voided all the verdicts in 2002 and the men were retried. In 2003, 21 of the men were convicted and given sentences as long as three years in prison.The HRW report includes allegations of harassment and torture by Egyptian police of gay and bisexual men. The rights group knows of 179 men who have been prosecuted for “debauchery” since 2001, but “in all probability that is only a minuscule percentage of the true total.
Hundreds of others have been harassed, arrested, often tortured, but not charged,” according to the report.The four judges were reportedly trained in the Administration of Justice Support project funded, in part, by the U.S. Agency for International Develop (U.S. AID) and administered by American Mideast Educational and Training Services, a private agency.
Egypt’s Ministry of Justice contributed 20 percent of the project’s $18 million budget, according to a 1998 Associated Press (AP) story.The project, which started in 1996 and ended in 2002, was intended to make Egypt’s civil court system better able to resolve disputes. The assumption was that more efficient courts would promote democracy and attract foreign investment to Egypt.The project trained 3,000 judges, supplied some of them with computer equipment, and brought Egyptian judges to the U.S. for training on five “study tours,” according to the 2002 annual report from the educational and training agency.
Two judges who participated in Abyad’s case came to the U.S. on a “study tour.”In the 1998 AP story, Maher Abdel Wahid, then the senior undersecretary at Egypt’s justice ministry, endorsed the effort saying “This is our number one project.”Wahid is now Egypt’s prosecutor general, a position that is equivalent to the attorney general in the U.S.While the project was concerned with civil law, the equipment and skills are applicable in criminal cases, which potentially puts U.S. taxpayers, lesbian and gay taxpayers in particular, behind the crackdown. U.S. AID disagreed.“The U.S. AID judicial training program in Egypt is a commercial law program only,” wrote Harry Edwards, an agency spokesperson, in an e-mail.
“The program is not involved in training judges involved in the criminal justice system in Egypt, to which the above-stated cases belong.”Gay City News first sought confirmation from U.S. AID that the four judges had received U.S-funded training on May 19 with a May 25 deadline that the agency missed. The agency then declined to confirm the judges’ participation in the training on the May 27.“Due to privacy and security issues, we are prohibited from confirming or denying any individual’s participating in any USAID programs,” Edwards wrote.
“The reason for this policy is that participation in US-sponsored programs can have serious personal or professional consequences to individuals in certain countries.”Before contacting U.S. AID, the newspaper sought confirmation from the U.S. Department of State that reported no record of the four judges participating in any educational or cultural programs there. The U.S. AID is part of the State Department, but it maintains separate records.
The U.S. AID delay came because U.S.-based officials had to speak with colleagues in Egypt to confirm the judges’ participation and it was during that conversation that they learned of the policy barring disclosure, according to Edwards.The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to requests for comment.Human rights groups that have objected to the crackdown have included many of the judges who ran the trials in their complaints.
“We did make a comment on a lack of due process,” said Michael Heflin, director of the OutFront Program at Amnesty International. “We did express concern about the way the trials were managed by the judges.”The HRW report charged that some judges rendered guilty verdicts on little evidence or without hearing from defense attorneys while others acted with an obvious bias against the defendants. One judge, Medhat Fahwakih, opened a trial by demanding “Where are the khawalat? Bring in the khawalat,” according to the report. Khawalat roughly translates as “faggots.”
A few judges dismissed cases with harsh words for the Egyptian police and prosecutors, according to the HRW report. For Amnesty’s Heflin, the four judges illustrate a broader point.“I think beyond these four judges, one of the points that Amnesty has been making, is that Egypt overall is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and the U.S. government has a right, and at Amnesty we would say a responsibility, to ensure that any funds that are going to Egypt are being used in a way that promotes human rights and doesn’t undermine people’s rights,” Heflin said.
18 May 2004, Gay.com UK
by Patrick Letellier, Gay.com/PlanetOut.com Network
Last week Egyptian demonstrators protesting the abuse of prisoners at an Iraqi prison, which has sparked international outrage in recent weeks, blamed the abuse on what they called “homosexual American executioners”. The rally, held in Cairo, followed other protests throughout the Middle East over graphic photos depicting the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of US soldiers.
Many of the abuses reported and depicted were sexual, including forcing nude male prisoners to pile on top of each other, and forcing them to simulate oral and anal sex with each other. Prisoners have also alleged being sodomised with broom handles and other objects.
According to a report in the Kuwait Times, 300 Egyptian protestors rallied in front of a banner that read, “Bring to justice the homosexual American executioners, their agents the traitors, their followers the enemies”. The report also quotes Mustafa Bakri, editor of the Al-Osboa weekly newspaper, who said, “Those gays forced our brothers in Iraq to practice homosexuality and filmed them. If we remain silent, we will be next.”
Human rights experts and advocates for gays in the military say that by labelling the perpetrators of abuse as gay, protestors are deliberately blurring the lines between homosexuality and torture to serve a broader anti-gay political agenda. This blurring reflects “an imagination grounded in homophobia, where forced rape is read as gay sex, and torture is read as homosexuality,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. “The protestors’ way of dehumanising the American soldiers is to say that they’re gay.”
The fact that gays are being blamed by protestors in Egypt is also significant, experts say, because the Egyptian government has been engaged in a year-long campaign of persecuting gay men, a campaign that entails harassment, entrapment and the mass arrest and torture of gay men, according to a recent report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. “Much of the discourse that’s been going on in Egypt is that homosexuality is an import from the West, and here you have Western imperialists, the occupiers in Iraq, using homosexuality this way,” said Scott Long, director of the LGBT Rights Project at Human Rights Watch.
The perpetrators of abuse in Iraq “use homosexuality in a homophobic way, to indicate humiliation and shame,” which only adds support to a widely held belief in Egypt that homosexuality itself is degrading, Long told the PlanetOut Network. “But the issue here is not homosexuality, the issue here is torture,” he said.
May-June 2004, Gay and Lesbian Review, Cambridge, MA
by Scott Long, director of the LGBT Rights Project at Human Rights Watch
Taher (not his real name) was eighteen, a law student, and terrified when I met him. One of his best friends had just been arrested, charged with consensual homosexual conduct—a crime under Egyptian law. Taher himself knew first-hand what can happen when power and prejudice meet. A policeman who stopped him for walking too “effeminately” through one of Cairo’s main squares had raped him a year before.
I talked to Taher while I was working in Egypt in early 2003. Then he fell silent for a long time. I now know that a few weeks ago—on February 17, 2004—Taher went to meet someone he had encountered on the Internet, through a website where gay men place personal ads. The man who had answered his ad seemed kind and trustworthy, and Taher was desperately lonely. At their meeting place on a street in Cairo’s trendy Heliopolis district, he was arrested. His date had been an undercover policeman.
Taher is in a Cairo jail as I write, facing a three-year sentence for the crime of merely wanting to have sex with another man. Friends who talked to him through the bars of a courtroom cage say prisoners and guards have beaten him severely. Since early 2001, hundreds of men have been arrested in Egypt on suspicion of having sex with other men. The best-known case saw 52 men tried before a repressive state security court ordinarily used for terror suspects and political prisoners. Yet innumerable others have been seized and abused. I spent over three months in Egypt last spring, interviewing dozens of men and documenting the crackdown.
Human Rights Watch has shown how police use wiretaps and cast a net of informers to capture victims. Undercover officers trawl Internet websites and chatrooms used by gay men, arrange meetings, and arrest them. Police accuse the men of fronting for foreign influences—sometimes insinuating their sexuality amounts to espionage. Victims face brutal torture. Men arrested for homosexual conduct in Egypt have told me how they were whipped, bound, and suspended in agonizing positions, splashed with ice- cold water, and beaten by guards— or raped by other prisoners with the guards’ connivance. One man showed me his limbs scarred by cigarette burns; he described being electro-shocked on the hands, feet, and genitals. “I want to scream,” he said. “I want to cry. I can’t let it out.”
Egyptian officials have one refrain when confronted about the brutality of the campaign. Last year, Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Maher abd al-Wahid, told me: “We are dedicated to protecting society against perversion, from a religious, social, and cultural point of view. This kind of conduct”— that of the tortured, not the torturers—”is simply not accepted.” Egypt’s crackdown may be extreme in its sweep, scope, and ferocity. But it reflects a growing trend in which sexuality becomes a battleground for other contested issues. In Zimbabwe, faced with a collapsing economy and the unraveling of his regime, President Robert Mugabe has for years used homosexuals as both scapegoat and distraction, calling them agents of foreign imperialism and “worse than dogs and pigs.”
In Russia, politicians have threatened to revive Stalin-era sodomy laws. In many ways this rhetoric reflects a real powerlessness. Governments face a world dominated by a single superpower, where capital flows allot prosperity or misery almost randomly, and mock the permeability of national laws and borders. Their own fears of vulnerability—their feelings of political penetrability—are translated into a different form of customs control. States no longer able to ensure their citizens’ welfare police cultural borders with increasing brutality—a cost-free way of reasserting control.
At the United Nations Commission on Human Rights next month, countries will debate a ground-breaking resolution declaring that basic human rights cannot be denied on the basis of sexual orientation. A marriage of convenience between Islamic states and the Vatican is already preparing a furious charge against the resolution—calling it a tool of Western imperialism. It seems the “culture wars” are now a global phenomenon. Scott Long is director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch, and author of In a Time of Torture: The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct (see www.hrw.org/lgbt).
March 14, 2005, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
by Anita Srikameswaran, Cairo
In May 2001, police raided the Queen Boat, a floating nightclub moored on the Nile River, and arrested 52 gay men.
Some of the 52 men arrested at an alleged gay gathering at a Nile River boat restaurant cover their faces as they enter a state security court for trial in July of 2001 in Cairo where they faced a range of charges rooted in the nation’s obscentiy and public morality laws. This widely publicized raid and subsequent prosecutions heightened gay distrust of the government and is complicating current measures to combat the spread of HIV.
Ultimately, judges sentenced one defendant to five years in prison for debauchery and deriding religion, another to three years for deriding Islam, and gave 21 others three-year prison terms to be followed by three years of probation for “habitual debauchery.” Human rights groups around the world protested that the arrested men had been beaten and threatened with torture to confess their “crimes.” The Queen Boat incident began what many see as a crackdown on homosexuality, heightening gay people’s distrust of the government and driving them even further into hiding.
So now that the government is offering anonymous HIV testing for the first time, many gays are understandably wary.
Some suspect that if they get tested for the infection, they could be identified publicly as gay, which could lead to imprisonment regardless of their HIV status. “ It’s not anonymous [testing], don’t believe that,” warned one gay Egyptian who asked not to be named. “The first thing they do is call the cops.”
The 22-year-old man said that when his partner visits the United States, friends ask him to bring back HIV tests that can be done at home, so that they can learn their status in private. However, the only home-based test that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the blood sample be mailed to an American lab. Other home test kits have an indicator window and promise results in 15 minutes, much like a pregnancy test, but the FDA doesn’t consider them reliable.
Do Infected Gays Disappear?
Rumors of HIV-positive gay men disappearing add to the fear. The Egyptian gay man spoke of trying to track down an infected acquaintance to offer help. He couldn’t find the man and his family had no information on his whereabouts.“ Either they disappear or they stop having sex with people because they are too scared or they leave the country to get treated,” he said. Besides, “it’s becoming very, very difficult for any AIDS patient or HIV-positive patient to go and seek medication [in Egypt]. There have been too many horror stories lurking around.”
Dr. Khalil Ghanem, of Johns Hopkins University, said HIV-positive people in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, both gay and straight, have similar concerns about being stigmatized. Those “who have money are actually leaving the country and getting treatment somewhere else,” he said. “They go to France, they go to Switzerland, to the United States for care.”
Ghanem pointed out that people who leave don’t get counted in official case numbers. A small number of others, he said, may strongly suspect that they are infected, but avoid being tested. “ They are essentially dying without care,” he said.
In Egypt, the same conservative social norms that make gays so fearful also make it hard to preach HIV prevention methods.
In this predominantly Muslim culture, both homosexuality and sex outside marriage are considered sinful, so any discussion of safe sex among unmarried partners or gays could amount to condoning forbidden behavior.
“ Premarital and extramarital sex are not accepted socially and culturally,” said Dr. Nasr El-Sayed, leader of the AIDS program for Egypt’s Ministry of Health. “The girls should be virgins. It’s not accepted for the girl to not be a virgin when she gets married.”
As in other countries, people are not as young as they used to be when they wed. The marriage contract specifies that the prospective groom must provide the bride with a suitable apartment, but even down payments are far out of reach for the average worker.
So some men in the Middle East, unwilling to wait for years before they can have sanctioned sex with their wives, have sex with other men—but they don’t consider themselves homosexual or bisexual. Bob Preston, an American gay man who does consulting work in Egypt, said these Egyptians “don’t have access to have sex with women, so they have sex with men and it’s OK because they’re not married yet. They don’t think of it as gay sex [if] they’re the active partner,” meaning they take the male role during intercourse.
A Bisexual Pattern
One of Preston’s friends even attended the wedding of his Egyptian male partner of several years, and Preston broke off a relationship because he didn’t want to play out the same scenario. “ He showed me the apartment he bought for his wedding,” Preston recalled. “He was having it remodeled. And we went out with his straight friends.” Female prostitutes do exist as another outlet for unmarried men, but they are believed to have longer relationships with fewer partners.
The hidden world of gay sex and the obscurity of prostitution worry those who want to test for HIV. “ In Middle Eastern countries, the prostitution is kept so hidden that it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s going on,” said Carol Jenkins, coauthor of a World Bank report on HIV and AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the general public doesn’t seem to know much about AIDS or have much interest in learning about it. “ We used to have in our [news]paper that this disease is not present in our country because we are morally, culturally and religiously” superior, said Dr. Mervat El Gueneidy, a consultant with Egypt’s AIDS hotline. “So people would not even try to learn about it because it’s not our disease, it’s the disease of those bad people.”
An October article in a student newspaper of the American University in Cairo noted mixed feelings about having HIV education available on campus. Some said they knew enough already; others thought there was no such thing as too much information. And some, like the student union president who called HIV a “shameful disease,” worried that an awareness campaign would encourage people to have sex. In 1996, with the assistance of the Ford Foundation, the health ministry’s El-Sayed started the AIDS hotline as a way for people to get information anonymously. In the early days, callers had questions about basic reproductive biology and sexuality, not just HIV.
The hotline’s El Gueneidy hoped the service would also discreetly broaden sex education for women, but men make up the overwhelming majority of callers. Women are more likely to be illiterate, so they may not be aware of the service, she said. There may be no phone in the home, and they may be uncomfortable asking sensitive questions on a public phone. There are still myths that need to be dispelled, such as the idea that AIDS can be avoided by not having sex with a foreigner—which does not keep young Egyptian men from trying to strike up conversations with female tourists, whom they think are more promiscuous than their countrywomen.
Another common belief is that HIV patients are quarantined, a rumor that is hard to refute because not even foreign and local health experts are convinced that it’s an urban legend. “ Once you’re found to be HIV positive, the police show up at your house and accompany you to the fever hospital,” Jenkins said. “If international donors came and talked to people they would be told that doesn’t happen. But we know it happens.” Others say AIDS patients were quarantined in the past, but it doesn’t happen anymore. “ This is 10 years before,” said Dr. Cherif Soliman, of Family Health International, the agency that helped develop the new anonymous HIV testing program. “Now, they can go out and in, they have no problem.”
El-Sayed, of the health ministry, just laughed at the quarantine notion. “ Never happened,” he said emphatically. “This happened in a movie and the people believe the movie was fact. They mentioned in this movie that any person who had HIV, they put in quarantine. But we never had a quarantine.” There is far less stigma attached to AIDS now, El-Sayed continued. Fifteen years ago, his experience was that family members typically demanded that their HIV-positive relative be kept in a hospital. “ They didn’t want to take [them],” he said. “Now almost 97 percent of the families are accepting.”
Could It Explode?
So far, low infection numbers and conservative sexual behavior seem to have prevented the rapid spread of the virus in Egypt.
How long that will last, though, no one knows. To get an epidemic rolling, an HIV-positive person “has to infect more than one person,” said Karen Stanecki, a senior advisor on demographics for the United Nations AIDS agency. “ People tend to think that once it gets started, it’s just going to explode,” she said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. If it’s just a very small group of people then it’s not necessarily going to break out into any kind of major epidemic.”
But behaviors can change, especially with globalization increasing the movement of people and ideas across borders, and very little research is being conducted to keep tabs on the cultural landscape. For example, even though sex outside marriage is considered illicit, a study conducted by Family Health International and the U.S. Agency for International Development found that 16.5 percent of about 1,200 unmarried Egyptian university students have had sex.
And there has been an increase in unofficial “orfi” marriages, which fulfill people’s desires for a romantic, sexual relationship in a climate where weddings are extremely expensive. Orfi unions are not legally binding, so there are no protections for the partners, or their children, if the relationship sours. “ You have to be ever vigilant as to what’s happening in terms of changes in behaviors,” Stanecki said. Public health experts say societies cope best with HIV and AIDS when leaders talk about it openly. But such discussions can still be divisive in the Muslim world.
In 2003, American professor and Muslim theologian Amina Wadud presented a paper at an HIV conference for Muslim scholars in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Among other things, she said that Muslim women are more vulnerable to getting HIV because they’re expected to have sex with their husbands, who are under no obligation to say whether they are infected with the disease. Those remarks infuriated some audience members, 10 of whom walked out. The moment became a hallmark of the tension between religious traditionalists and reformers.
Theologian Farid Esack, who cofounded a South African group to support HIV-positive Muslims, said he believes some people rely too much on the moral code of Islam to protect them from HIV. “ I think the religious factor is overplayed in the low prevalence rate in Arab countries,” he said. “Real Muslims are . . . having sex outside marriage regardless of what the Quran says. And somebody has to deal with the real consequences of this.” Even if a rigorous surveillance effort were to confirm a low prevalence of HIV, “it doesn’t let you off the hook,” said Hopkins’ Ghanem. “In fact, it should prompt you to be more aggressive from the prevention standpoint.” As the experience of other nations has shown, he and other experts say, it’s never too soon to act.
Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3858.
by Heather Sharp, Cairo
As part of a series about young people in the Middle East, the BBC News website explores relationships in Cairo where sex outside wedlock is taboo – but some say not uncommon. Courting couples on Cairo’s 6th of October bridge are a new sight. Fatima and her boyfriend had been together for about two years when she discovered she was pregnant. ” I had to have an abortion. I didn’t want to do it, but in this society I didn’t have any choice,” she says, now an outspoken 27 year-old. ” I hate it when I remember it, because it was a very, very bad experience.” Her family know nothing of her ordeal.
Mido, 28, has had four serious girlfriends. He has had sex several times and feels no guilt, but would never tell his parents. ” I don’t have the courage to shake their beliefs – especially my father’s,” he says. Niveen, 24, has been seeing her boyfriend for four months. They plan to move in together without their parents finding out. ” Whenever you have a relationship here you have to take risks, and this is the risk I’m taking,” she says. Spending the night together is difficult as both live at home with their families. Even going to a hotel means checking into different rooms and sneaking between them.
With their secret lifestyles, these three young people from Cairo’s liberal, intellectual elite are pushing at the limits set by a society dominated by traditional views. Even among educated urbanites, the concept of an unmarried mother simply does not exist. A bride’s virginity is so highly prized that doctors charge up to 1000 Egyptian pounds (US$173) to reconstruct a young woman’s hymen.
But there are perceptions that in general, at least in Cairo, sex before marriage is widespread and increasing as spiralling costs and high unemployment push marriage ages up.
On any summer evening along Cairo’s 6th October Bridge, veiled figures nestle up to young men. The couples gaze down into the Nile, engaged in intimate conversation amid the blaring horns and traffic fumes. Locals will tell you this is increasing as it becomes more socially acceptable, and that many of these couples are from Cairo’s poorer areas. But there is debate over whether this new openness about courtship is resulting in more premarital sex.
Gynaecologist Rima Khofash works among both rich and poor in Cairo and estimates that about 50% of young people have pre-marital sex. ” I think now there is a revolution in sex between young people – they do it haphazardly – often in short-term relationships.” Abortion is illegal in Egypt in all but a few cases. Approximately one woman a month comes to her clinic with complications resulting from a backstreet termination, she says. Dr Khofash is certain that the number of abortions is increasing: “All gynaecologists know this, but we don’t know how much it is increasing by.”
But Dr Sahar Tawila of Cairo University, who co-ordinated one of the most comprehensive studies ever of young people in Egypt, believes the prevalence of sex before marriage has been dramatically overblown in the Egyptian media. ” It is not widespread. Sexual relationships do exist, but they should be put in proportion.”
In the 2001 nationwide study, 21% of young men with higher education said they knew someone who had had pre-marital sex – and this dropped to 1.4% among the uneducated. Dr Tawila says young people, particularly girls, are highly aware of the risks of pre-marital sex. For example, Shaymaa, 20, is in love with Ashraf, her boyfriend of 18 months. But she refuses anything more intimate than holding hands. If she has sex with him, she explains, she may end up being forced to marry him, which she is not yet sure she wants to do. “Virginity is your whole life,” she says. Ashraf, 26, says he has been pushing her towards intimacy: “I just have to stop at a point when I am sure she will refuse to sleep with me – that means she is a good girl.”
Many more young women say they plan to stay virgins until they marry. Several point out that girls face more pressure to do so than boys. ” Boys I know have many girlfriends, even at the same time. One of my best friends told me he made love with his girlfriend and then said ‘I won’t ever marry her – she’s not a virgin’,” one 19-year-old female student said.
This pressure drives the demand for hymen reconstruction operations, which can even involve stitching a small capsule of red fluid into the vagina to ensure wedding night “bleeding”. Gynaecologist Ahdy Wahid Rizk says that each week, two or three young women visit his central Cairo clinic to ask about hymen reconstruction, despite the fact that he has always refused to carry out the illegal operation. But even so, those having premarital sex may well still be a small minority.
For those who would like to, there are still many barriers. Mona, 27, was with her boyfriend for two years: “We didn’t have full sex. We didn’t have a place to do it. If it was easier, yes, I think I would have liked to. But it’s also our traditions that stopped me. I felt guilty about what we did.” And many others simply believe it is wrong, like Cairo University student Mohammed Esmat, 20: “I’m a Muslim and in Islam sex before marriage is forbidden, so I am against it.”
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.
April 07, 2006
Brian Whitaker‘s book gives voice to gay Arabs: ‘Unspeakable Love–Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East
by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie Daily Star staff
Beirut: When Salim, a 20-year-old Egyptian, told his family that he was gay, they packed him off for six months of psychiatric treatment. When Ali, a teenager from Lebanon, was discovered to be gay, his father broke a chair over his head and his brother threatened to kill him for tarnishing the family honor. Ali left home and no longer has any contact with his relatives.
When the family of another young Egyptian man found out their son was gay, they beat him and then sent him to a therapist. He convinced a young woman to pose as his girlfriend for a while, but once that ruse was up, his family beat him again, this time so harshly that he fled Egypt for the United States, where he applied for political asylum.
These are just a few among the many anecdotes that Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper in London, relates in his new, groundbreaking book, “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.”
Launched in Beirut on Wednesday night with a book signing at Zico House and a party at Walima, “Unspeakable Love” explores the experiences of young gay men and women in several countries throughout the region, including Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Whitaker filters their stories through the multiple lenses of social norms, cultural expressions, the media, politics and religion. To his credit, Whitaker does not shy away from but rather dives into the murky questions surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East.
Is homosexuality a Western import and a sign of modernity’s moral decay? How does that square with the Orientalist fantasy of the Middle East as a lush gay paradise? How do young people today distinguish between homosexuality as a practice and homosexuality as a self-proclaimed identity? What are the various laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and how are they implemented in various parts of the region? What are the religious texts dealing with homosexuality, how have they been interpreted and – perhaps most crucially – why have they been interpreted as such?
And what, more basically, is the precise terminology at stake here in Arabic, with such expressions as shaadh (pervert or deviant), al-mithliyya al-jinsiyaa (sexual sameness) and the latter’s shorthand, mithli and mithliyya, all in circulation at once?
Whitaker, 58, was motivated to write “Unspeakable Love” by the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in 2001, when police raided a Nile River boat that functioned as a floating nightclub and attracted a mainly male clientele. Not only were numerous men arrested and jailed, but the event was also one of the very few to bring issues of gay identity and practice into the mainstream Arab media.
Three things become palpably clear from reading the book.
The first is that social attitudes are the single-most mind-crushing factor for young men and women in Arab world who are trying to deal with the fact that they are attracted to members of the same sex. More so than legal statutes or religious edicts, the pressure to marry is what pushes many of these young men and women to the breaking point.
The second is that because not only homosexuality in particular but sexuality in general remain so stubbornly taboo in the Middle East, there is a dangerous dearth of reliable information, education and counseling available for gay men, lesbian women and their respective families.
Because sexuality is not discussed in the public domain, young people lack even the actual vocabulary – the words, the terms, the turns of phrase – to describe themselves and their actions in simultaneously civic and sexual terms.
A city like Beirut may have a thriving gay subculture, and it may even have a strong, impressive and unprecedented gay rights organization in Helem. But homophobia remains rampant – even among those who should know better – and homosexuality has yet to light the imagination of any prominent politician. Imagine what it would take to get gay marriage on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting or the current national dialogue in Lebanon. Lots of red flags waving and exclamation points popping there.
The third is that the push for gay rights in the region is very much tied to wider issues of social and political reform.
” It’s not just about gay rights,” says Whitaker. “It’s about the whole issue of reform, and reform is not just about elections.”
True reform will have to take a full range of factors into consideration, and “sexuality,” he adds, “has to be a part of it.”
Whitaker has three ideal readers in mind – Westerners interested in reform who need to look beyond voting structures, Arabs interested in reform who need to get over outmoded leftist strategies and young Arabs who are gay, ostracized and alone. For them, the book is perhaps most important because even if the names have been changed and the details have been deleted, it gives them a voice.
” I was basically trying to do a job of reporting, asking people about their lives,” Whitaker explains. “There’s no book that deals with the contemporary situation quite like this one.” He lays a hand on the cover and pats it once. “There are literary histories and anthropological studies. But there are not books that talk to people about their daily lives.”
Whitaker admits that he could spend the rest of his career researching the subject, but he says he would risk ending up being just “that guy writing those books.” In fact, he hopes he doesn’t ever have to write another book like “Unspeakable Love.” In effect, he hopes that by its publication, the book will break the taboo.
While it is entirely conceivable that “Unspeakable Love” could have attracted the attention of a major publishing house in Europe or the U.S., Whitaker chose to go with Saqi Books because of its foothold in the region. “This is where the issue matters,” he explains.
It was also important for him to launch the book in Beirut before anywhere else. “I have been apprehensive about it being seen as another Western attack.” He says he recently turned down an interview with CNN because he wanted to see how the local press would cover it first.
All of which begs the question: Will “Unspeakable Love” be translated to Arabic anytime soon? Speaking on the day before the launch, Whitaker sounded hypothetically optimistic.
” Obviously, yes,” he laughed. “It would be a major development, a breakthrough, if it were to be translated to Arabic. I think the situation with books is similar to the situation with the press. People writing in the English language have a bit more freedom. I hope people will read it in English and tell their friends about it in Arabic. It’s a pity it’s not in Arabic, but it’s a start.”
By the time the launch rolled around on Wednesday, Whitaker’s publishers were adamant. “Yes,” they said. “An Arabic translation is in the works. It will be out by the end of the year.” How’s that for progress?
Brian Whitaker’s “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” is out now from Saqi Books. For more information, please see www.saqibooks.com
Mostafa Bakry has a knack for reinventing himself
by Negar Azimi
Mostafa Bakry has a knack for reinventing himself. He is an old-school Arab nationalist, newspaper editor and parliamentarian, and has managed to keep himself in the middle of the Egyptian political scene for almost two decades. He rails against decadence, against corruption — anything that can get the otherwise sleepy Egyptian public excited. This past July, he took on the issue of homosexuality, introducing a motion in Parliament calling for censorship of several scenes in a popular new film, “The Yacoubian Building,” and denouncing the racier parts of the movie as “spreading obscenity and debauchery.” One of the central characters in the story — a mosaic of downtown Cairo life complete with political intrigue, love triangles, the specter of extremism and more — is an affluent, dashing, Francophone newspaper editor who happens to be gay. He has an affair with a simple soldier from the countryside, and thus begins a tale of lust that ends in murder.
“It is a travesty,” Bakry told me not long ago when we met in the downtown Cairo office of his newspaper, Al Osboa (“The Week”). Shelves around his desk were stuffed with plaques, honorary degrees and dozens of gilt replicas of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. He fingered fancy prayer beads as he expounded in the way one would to an adoring crowd. “The American agenda is promoting the rights of homosexuals,” he said in Arabic. “I am not against freedom of expression, but this abnormal phenomenon should not be presented as natural. Even if it has roots here, it is rejected by society. And by Islam.” In the end, 112 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum signed onto Bakry’s motion. The gesture, however, had little effect. By the beginning of September, the film was still doing well at the box office, and no censorship was in sight. But it didn’t matter. The parliamentarian had made his point; he had raised the flag of morality, religion and public virtue.
The politics of homosexuality is changing fast in the Arab world. For many years, corners of the region have been known for their rich gay subcultures — even serving as secure havens for Westerners who faced prejudice in their own countries. In some visions, this is a part of the world in which men could act out their homosexual fantasies. These countries hardly had gay-liberation moments, much less movements. Rather, homosexuality tended to be an unremarkable aspect of daily life, articulated in different ways in each country, city and village in the region. But sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular are increasingly becoming concerns of the modern Arab state. Politicians, the police, government officials and much of the press are making homosexuality an “issue”: a way to display nationalist bona fides in the face of an encroaching Western sensibility; to reject a creeping globalization that brings with it what is perceived as the worst of the international market culture; to flash religious credentials and placate growing Islamist power. In recent years, there have been arrests, crackdowns and episodes of torture. In Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, as in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — even in famously open and cosmopolitan Lebanon — the policing of homosexuality has become part of what sometimes seems like a general moral panic.
Egypt’s most famous crackdown got under way at a neon floating disco, the Queen Boat, docked on the wealthy Nile-side island of Zamalek, just steps from the famously gay-friendly Marriott Hotel. In the early-morning hours of May 11, 2001, baton-wielding police officers descended upon the boat, where men were dancing and drinking. Security officials rounded up more than 50 of them — doctors, teachers, mechanics. Those who were kept in custody became known among Egyptians as the Queen Boat 52. The detained men were beaten, bound, tortured; some were even subjected to exams to determine whether they had engaged in anal sex. In the weeks that followed, official, opposition and independent newspapers printed the names, addresses and places of work of the detained. Front pages carried the men’s photographs, not always with black bars across their eyes. The press accused the men of sexual excesses, dressing as women, devil worship, even dubious links to Israel. Bakry’s newspaper, Al Osboa, helped lead the charge.
The Queen Boat was just the beginning. Agents of the Department for Protection of Morality, a sort of vice squad within the Ministry of Interior’s national police force, began monitoring suspected gay gathering spots, recruiting informants, luring people into arrest via chat sites on the Internet, tapping phones, raiding homes. Today, arrests and roundups occur throughout the country, from the Nile Delta towns of Damanhour and Tanta to Port Said along the Suez Canal and into Cairo.
The city’s central Tahrir Square is a vast plaza with awkward pedestrian islands separated by traffic, lined with a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Arab League headquarters and the Egyptian government’s hulking bureaucratic headquarters, the Mugamma. On summer evenings, it is full of people. Men whistle at passing women, couples linger, tourists are accosted by the oddly seductive call of “You look like an Egyptian” and hawkers promote their wares — not the least of which is sex. In early July of this year, 11 men, said to be conspicuously homosexual, were picked up. Many of the police reports on arrests of homosexuals have cited “the protection of the society’s values” as a motivating factor, adding that the arrested threatened to harm “the country’s reputation on the international level.” The country’s image is of the utmost importance for the officials responsible for these campaigns. Still, homosexual acts are not against the law in Egypt; most men caught in these roundups are charged with fujur, or the “habitual practice of debauchery.” Some countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, expressly criminalize homosexual acts. But in Egypt, the charges have increasingly involved a creative interpretation of a law introduced in 1951 to combat prostitution — drafted as a response to what was viewed as a remnant of Egypt’s colonial past. (The British introduced the licensing of brothels.)
The Queen Boat affair roughly coincided with a number of circuslike controversies in Cairo surrounding public morality: the outrage following the publication of the Syrian author Haider Haider’s novel “Banquet for Seaweed” (which incited riots at Al Azhar University in Cairo, as the book, about two Iraqi exiles in the 1970s, was interpreted as offensive to Islam); the trial of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American university professor and human rights activist accused of embezzlement, illegally accepting foreign funds and sullying Egypt’s image abroad; and the trial in 2002 of a prominent businessman who had taken 19 wives. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood, which often positions itself in opposition to what it describes as a decadent, secular regime, won 17 seats in Parliament in 2000. Public regulation of morality is an area in which the secular regime — often through its mouthpiece religious institution, Al Azhar — is in harmony with the Islamists. Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, was brought under direct state control by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961. Through Al Azhar, the secular regime throws the occasional bone to the religious opposition — most often on issues of women and the family. Sometimes, avowedly secular officials and politicians even try to outdo the Islamists in this tug of war over who can win the public’s favor as the guardian of morality.
Tanta is a drab industrial town on the Nile, halfway between Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. With a population of about 350,000, Tanta has a university and a plethora of cotton-gin and oil factories. It is probably best known for its moulid, a gathering celebrating Al-Sayyed Ahmed Al-Badawi, a 13th-century holy man of Moroccan origin credited with being the founder of the Badawiyyah Sufi order. Al Badawi died in Tanta in 1276, and each year in October, just at the end of the cotton harvest, some two million Egyptians descend upon Tanta and Al Badawi’s shrine for a week of recitations, performances, dancing and devotion.
The rest of the year Tanta is remarkably quiet. One afternoon in August, I met a young man named Hassan at a baroque, upscale hotel steps away from the shrine. Though it is difficult to speak of a gay community in Tanta (not all men who sleep with men in Egypt use the term “gay,” much less identify themselves as such), Hassan is a ringleader of sorts, a thread between generations. A youthful 37, he comes from a working-class family — his father runs an auto-parts shop — and he told me, mischievously, that he got out of military service because he is the only son among girls. For Hassan and many gay men in Tanta, the last few years have been especially hard. “First, there was Shibl’s death, then the affair of Ahmed, then Adel’s death and the arrests,” he explained.
Shibl was a friend of Hassan’s, caught with another man in the baths of the shrine — a gathering ground for many gay men at the time. In 2002 he was beaten so badly in detention that he died of cardiac arrest. Ahmed, another friend, was arrested from his home later that year, accused of having sex with two other men in his flat and “forming a group of Satan worshipers.” In prison, he was forced to strip down to his underwear, then was humiliated and beaten to the point of hemorrhaging. After his release, he lost his job as a schoolteacher. One local paper wrote, “A male teacher puts aside all principles and follows his perverted instincts, putting on women’s clothes and makeup on his face to seduce men who seek forbidden pleasures.” Adel, a third friend of Hassan’s, was killed by an occasional lover. The ensuing investigation, not far removed from a witch hunt, resulted in many suspected homosexuals in Tanta being arrested, including Hassan. He and others arrested told me that they were held in a police interrogation room called “the refrigerator,” marked by a carpet brought in by the police that was caked in Adel’s blood. Detainees were tortured nightly for more than two weeks, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., according to the same sources. Hassan estimates that at least 100 men were detained and tortured. Some men were forced to stand on their tiptoes for those hours; others got electric shocks to the penis and tongue; still others were beaten on the soles of their feet with a rod called a felaqa, to the point of losing consciousness.
Most men were held until they broke, agreeing to work as informants, walking the street to pick up other homosexuals and reporting in each night. “They told us Adel deserved to die,” Hassan told me. “They said they wished all gays would die.” This went on for at least a month, Hassan and others say, in a pattern of detention, torture, informing, more torture. On my second visit to Tanta, in August, I sat down for a lunch of kapsa, a sweet Saudi rice specialty, with Hassan and Mo, a slight student of English literature at Tanta University. The discussion turned to Islam and homosexuality. Both of them considered themselves practicing Muslims. Mo has combed the Internet for signs as to whether homosexuality is at odds with Islam. He said he had browsed the popular Egyptian lay preacher Ahmed Khaled’s Web site and found nothing. But he did see that Sheik Yussuf Al-Qaradawi had called homosexuals “perverts.” Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric generally considered a liberal, is best known for his television program “Shariah and Life” on the satellite channel Al Jazeera, and for his Web site, Islamonline.
“There is nothing clear about homosexuality in the Koran,” Hassan said. “It reads that the man who does it should be hurt. What does it mean ‘to be hurt’? In the Arabian peninsula they used a stick the size of this pencil (he raises my pencil) to punish men. It’s not like thievery or adultery. And anyway the Prophet was promised boys in heaven. Not girls.” “I read that one should have their head cut off or be thrown from a mountain,” Mo continued. Hassan disagreed: “There is no explicit punishment for gays in the Koran.”
Mo countered, “The problem is not the punishment, it is the scandal.” Hassan, looking triumphant, told us that Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, had also spoken out against homosexuality. (Most famously, in 1990, he asked, “What rights are there for homosexuals?”) “It’s more complicated than you think,” Hassan said to Mo.
Countless interpretations of the story of the prophet Lot — the source of much of the commentary on homosexuality in Islam, as well as in Judaism and Christianity — have been offered. Ambiguities abound, and while there is no consensus on where Islam stands, popular and legalistic reinterpretations take liberties in selecting the bits that suit particular worldviews — whether they are liberal or intolerant. In October of last year, the Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuals on the Arabic-language version of his Web site. It was inexplicably removed last May (some say international outrage swayed the image-conscious cleric). And while Al-Qaradawi did call homosexuals sexual perverts, he also noted “there is disagreement” over punishment.
Perched on a hill at the end of a windy road in Helwan, an industrial town south of Cairo and once the summer romping ground for the city’s well-to-do, is the Behman Hospital. With its pruned bushes and tennis courts, Behman looks more like a country club than a psychiatric institute. Dr. Nasser Loza is the medical director there; he is also an adviser to the Ministry of Health and runs a clinic in the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen. I had heard through friends that Loza counsels homosexual couples, so I went looking for him.
“They come in with quite banal relationship problems,” Loza told me when we met one afternoon at the hospital. “They manage to have very normal, quiet lives despite society’s negative views about being gay.” He added that on average he sees about one new couple every two or three months. “I suppose most are high-level professionals, some are of mixed cultural backgrounds.” Loza’s patients are the people you hear less of in the din of discussion surrounding homosexuality in this part of the world. Take M., for example, a successful businessman who was among the 52 arrested on the Queen Boat. He has since moved to the States, and recently wrote me in an e-mail message: “Money gave me security. I met my partner at a dinner party. I could travel. And I didn’t have my family on my back because I had moved out. I had a normal life until this happened.”
Most often, Loza sees families. “Typically, a family comes in with their son or daughter who has just announced that they are homosexual,” Loza explained. “They want me to help. The first reaction on the part of the family is denial, and then incredible blame.” In 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, but Loza told me that “whether it is treated as a disease or not really depends on the doctor.” While a combination of counseling and antidepressants seems the norm, you still sometimes hear of the application of electroshock therapy. L., a lesbian originally from Alexandria, is seeing a Cairo psychiatrist. Women have not been subject to the same kind of attacks that men have been in Egypt, perhaps because of their relative invisibility — an invisibility that can itself be oppressive. It can be virtually impossible to meet other gay women. For L., the brunt of the problem is her family. “I’ve been to three psychiatrists, each time taken in by my parents,” she told me. “The first two prescribed antidepressants, they told me it was a phase, that I should ‘cheer up.’ The third prescribed electroshock therapy. I never went back.”
In Cairo, L. is studying communications. She has nothing to do with her family and, through the Internet, has found a supportive partner. The weight of the stigma remains. “When a Muslim dies, there is a required 30 minutes of prayer,” she wrote to me in a recent e-mail message. “When a gay person dies, they bury him and flee.” There is a searing scene in the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s 1973 novel “For Bread Alone” in which a desperate young man, having recently moved from the country to the city in colonial Morocco, sells himself to an elderly Spaniard. The scene is explicit (they have oral sex in a car), and the novel, which has been banned or caused controversy in many Arab countries, serves as a stunning condemnation of the power disparities engendered by colonialism. Symbolism like Choukri’s is common in Arabic literature and cinema, providing for what the British writer Brian Whitaker has referred to as a “reverse Orientalism,” in which sex, and specifically homosexual sex, is presented as a foreign incursion, a tool of colonial domination.
Sometimes a stigma hangs over efforts to protect homosexuals from repression or attack. Negad Al Boraei, an Egyptian attorney and human rights activist, has irritated many in the local human rights community by a number of his stances, including his willingness to accept American financing for his work. (He readily dismisses his critics as “communists” and “revolutionaries.” He was one of the first recipients in Egypt of financing from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.) I went to Al Boraei to talk about how sexual rights fit into the broader human rights agenda. “I was telling a friend of mine who works for Amnesty International, we have a lot of problems here — torture, violations against street children, we are full of problems,” he told me. As he spoke he gesticulated wildly with his ring-covered hands. “To come in and talk about gays and lesbians, it is nice, but it’s not the major issue. It’s like I am starving and you ask me what kind of cola I want. Well, I want to eat first. Then we can talk about cola! It’s a luxury to talk about gay rights in Egypt.”
When the raid on the Queen Boat occurred, much of the human rights community declined to take the case on, Al Boraei included. (Some activists even attacked those who met with the defendants.) Hossam Bahgat, a young Alexandrian working at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told me he was quietly dismissed after he wrote an article calling upon the human rights community to overcome its fears about working on the case. In the West, however, the Queen Boat became something of a cause célèbre. Amnesty International supported protests in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London. A Web site called GayEgypt.com called on Egypt’s homosexuals to wear red on the two-year anniversary of the Queen Boat raid (an invitation to be arrested, it seems), while 35 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, asking for a stop to the anti-homosexual crusade. It was no wonder that amid this, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram al-Arabi proclaimed, “Be a pervert and Uncle Sam will approve.”
“This was framed locally as an attack from the West,” says Bahgat, who eventually collaborated with Human Rights Watch on the case and later opened his own organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It was important to show that working for the rights of the detained was not a gay agenda, or a Western agenda, that this was linked to Egypt’s overall human rights record. Raising the gay banner when most sexual and other human rights are systematically violated every day is never going to get you far in this country.” In the end, Human Rights Watch avoided laying itself open to easy attack as the bearer of an outsider’s agenda, packaging Queen Boat advocacy in the larger context of torture. Many of the arrested men were tortured, and torture is something that, at least in theory, most people agree is a bad thing. In Human Rights Watch’s 150-page report on the crackdown, references to religion, homosexual rights or anything else that could be seen or used as code for licentiousness were played down. Torture was played up, and it may very well be the first and last human rights report to cite Michel Foucault’s “History of Sexuality.” Upon release of the report in March 2004, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, and Scott Long, director of the organization’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project, met with Egypt’s public prosecutor, the assistant to the interior minister and members of the Foreign Ministry. Their effort seemed to have had some effect; although occasional arrests continue, the all-out campaign of arrest and entrapment of men that began with the Queen Boat incident came to an end. One well-connected lawyer noted that a high-ranking Ministry of Interior source told him, “It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt, because of the activities of some human rights organizations.”
When I spoke to Long about his work on the Queen Boat case and its aftermath, he reflected on his advocacy methods in a context in which human rights, and especially gay rights, are increasingly associated with Western empire-building. “Perhaps we had less publicity for the report in the United States because we avoided fetishizing beautiful brown men in Egypt being denied the right to love,” he said. “We wrote for an Egyptian audience and tried to make this intelligible in terms of the human rights issues that have been central in Egyptian campaigns. It may not have made headlines, but it seemed to make history.” Whether the effort made history or simply interrupted it remains to be seen. Long himself noted, “The fact that the crackdown came apparently out of nowhere is a reminder that the repression could revive anytime.”
The possibilities for official repression exist across the Arab world. Early one morning this past August in Saudi Arabia, the police raided a wedding party in the town of Jizan, arresting 20 men “impersonating women,” according to the newspaper Al Watan. Similarly, late last year, 26 men were arrested when a party in Ghantout, a desert region on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway in the United Arab Emirates, was raided. The press went into typical scandal mode, and images of some of the men in women’s clothing circulated on cellphones. A government spokesman was quoted in The Khaleej Times, “Because they’ve put society at risk they will be given the necessary treatment, from male hormone injections to psychological therapies.” Arrests have also taken place in Lebanon — despite its being perceived as having more liberal social mores — as well as Morocco. In Egypt, religiosity — along with an associated emphasis on public involvement in the private sphere — continues to rise. For the 2005 campaign the Muslim Brotherhood listed beauty pageants, music videos and sexy photographs as issues needing public debate; banning female presenters (even in veils) from state-run television and expanding religious education in public schools were also on the agenda. The brotherhood won 88 seats. And in most cases, there has been complete impunity for perpetrators of attacks on gay men; individual officers responsible for attacks have been promoted or shuffled around. As recently as September, at least one entrapment case occurred in Cairo; a young man was lured via a chat site and tortured — badly beaten and subject to electroshock on his genitals — by the same office of the public morality squad that had conducted Internet-based entrapments.
In the meantime, routine scapegoating of the West, and of its real and perceived agendas in the region, seems to be reaching new highs. The Egyptian government, despite its intimate strategic relationship with the U.S., has been increasing its rhetorical assaults on what is blithely reduced to an imperial, meddling West — ostensibly to parade its nationalist credentials in the face of America’s disastrous exploits in the Middle East. (In September, Gamal Mubarak, the president’s smooth-talking, Western-educated son and heir apparent, went so far as to dismiss Western initiatives designed to foster democratization in the region at a policy conference of the ruling National Democratic Party). Blanket attacks on what is vaguely referred to as “human rights” continue; in late August, Mostafa Bakry’s newspaper, Al Osboa, assailed Hossam Bahgat’s organization, along with an NGO that works on AIDS, for defending “perverts.” The ingredients for another crackdown exist in abundance in Egypt and the region at large.
Today the Queen Boat continues to sit docked on the Nile, its name clumsily respelled “Queen Boot” in garish green neon. It is hardly the gay hangout it once was, instead catering to the very occasional budget tourist. Many dragged away by the police that evening five years ago have since left the country, and others keep a low profile, although there are signs that young people have begun cruising the Nile banks again and meeting on the Internet. As I prepared to leave Cairo at the beginning of the fall, I received an e-mail message from M., the businessman from the Queen Boat, since relocated to the States. “I sit here, and the Americans talk about something called Islamic fascism, the Arabs go on about their values,” he wrote. “All of us, and I don’t mean gay men, I mean all of us who don’t fit the norm — democracy activists, queens, anything — it’s us who get branded as Western, fifth columnists. We pay the price.
April 26, 2007
Dr. Heba Kotb is tackling a taboo in the Arab
by Aneesh Raman
Cairo Egypt (CNN) – Dr. Heba Kotb is tackling a taboo in the Arab world unlike anyone else: She’s talking about sex openly on a show broadcast all over the Middle East. It’s a big first in these parts of the world, and Kotb leaves little uncovered. “We talk about masturbation … sex over the Internet. We talk about sex and Ramadan. We talk about the wedding night,” said Kotb. Entitled “The Big Talk,” the show is broadcast once a week over a satellite channel from Cairo, Egypt. It took the 39-year-old mother three years of negotiations to get her show on the air. And a main reason she succeeded is that she talks only about sex allowed in the Quran — sex between husband and wife. (Watch sexologist describe why sex is good http://www.cnn.com/video/player/player.html?url=/video/world/2007/04/25/sots.egypt.sex.doctor.cnn )
But even with that guideline, it’s no easy sell. The promo for “The Big Talk” starts with Kotb saying, “Sex. Don’t be afraid. Join me to talk about sex without shame.” And people are doing just that. The show is gaining in popularity throughout the Middle East. So much so that Kotb just signed with a new production company and plans to push the sexual envelope even further in her discussions. For the moment her main advice for married couples: Have more sex.
“You have nowhere else to get your sexuality but from your spouse. It’s the only source available, so it’s very important.” And for the men she has some blunt advice: “You have to have foreplay with your wife and you have to have sex with her frequently, not just when you want to.”
Surgical dreams to sexologist:
Growing up, Kotb desperately wanted to be a surgeon. But years later, when she started a family after medical school and wanted more time with her daughters, she decided to change paths. “Leaving surgery felt like falling from a very high point to a low point. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to end up just doing something less exciting.’ I wanted to be productive.” It was while making that decision, that Kotb was writing a dissertation on sexual assaults. For the study, she needed to discuss normal sexual behavior and suddenly realized she had no idea where to start. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, me — a medical doctor who has a masters; is working on a Ph.D. — doesn’t know anything about this.’ How did all these people I was reading know about sexuality?”
So she started researching while wondering why her part of the world was so averse to talking about sex. It was something Kotb wanted to change and she found a way in the Quran: a passage that discusses sex between husband and wife. The passage reads: “Your wives are as a tilth [land or soil to be cultivated] unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear Allah.” That verse, she says, makes it known that sex shouldn’t just happen when the husband wants but that the wives have rights too. “I was so proud of my religion when I saw that. My religion was advanced enough to talk about women’s rights in sexuality how many years before modern science did?”
From that moment, there was no turning back.
First come patients, then the show:
Kotb got her first degree in clinical sexology in 2003. A year later, she earned her doctorate in human sexuality, clinical sexology and pastoral counseling from Maimonides University in Florida.All the while, her family showed steadfast support. Her father helped her to pay for her doctoral degree, while her husband kept pushing her to do what she loved.And shortly after getting her degrees, she did, opening a clinic in downtown Cairo. In the beginning, things were rough.
“It was a mess,” she said. “I had one or two patients per week.”But five years later, things have certainly changed. Now, Kotb’s calendar is booked three months in advance. She says patients are much more open about sex and the specifics they talk about in her sessions.She expanded her work to include television, launching “The Big Talk” several months ago. The show is, by all accounts popular, although you wouldn’t know it from walking Cairo’s streets.In the middle of downtown, women refused to discuss the show when asked about it.
It was an expected sign of just how sensitive the topic of sex is in the Muslim world. And even though the men were more willing to talk about it, they were less than enthusiastic about the subject.In fact, Kotb has critics on all sides. Those more liberal think she’s not being open enough about sex, ignoring topics like extra marital affairs, homosexuality and pregnancy out of wedlock. Meanwhile, conservatives think sex is not for public discussion.“There is no reason to talk about sex on television. Our society doesn’t need something like this,” a shopkeeper named Fawi said.
For her part, Kotb has no plans to slow down.“I wanted to be the first sexologist in the Arab World not because of the challenge of being first,” she said. “That didn’t cross my mind. I did it because I was interested in the subject and I wanted to help people.” And she has no regrets.”A mother of a friend of mine, when she first knew I was doing this career five years ago, she looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, are you teaching people to sleep with each other? I said ‘yes,'” Kotb responded with a laugh. “That’s what I do. This is the truth. And I’m very proud of this.”
July 31, 2007
Changing Hearts and Reading Minds
by Brendan Bernhard
In a departure from the usual Middle Eastern diet of tabbouleh, rampaging mobs, and suicide bombs, tonight PBS presents “Dishing Democracy,” a one-hour edition of the globetrotting documentary series “Wide Angle.” The program’s subject is “Kalam Nawaem” (Sweet Talk), an Arabic talk show modeled on ABC’s “The View,” only with prettier hosts and more stylish sets. The show is carried on the privately owned Arab satellite channel MBC, whose motto is charmingly upbeat, “We See Hope Everywhere.” If our own media had to serve up a motto in reply, I think it would be, “Really? We See Only Despair.” But then, the last few years have been hard on American morale. It was once believed that the presence of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers might transform the Arab world, but PBS’s press release hints that they arrived too late, and with the wrong mission. “While the United States has been striving to promote democracy in the Arab world, a homegrown revolution is already taking place. Every Sunday night in living rooms throughout the Middle East, tens of millions of viewers are tuning in to a fearless all-female talk show whose four hosts discuss controversial subjects, shatter stereotypes, and provoke debate.”
The four hosts of “Kalam Nawaem” are certainly willing to tackle subjects head-on. “The subject of this show is masturbation,” announces Fawzia Salama, introducing a particularly controversial edition of the program. A woman calling in anonymously admits that she began masturbating when she was 15. “Nobody taught me how to do it, my body asked for it,” she says with a touch of lyricism. “When we talked about, excuse me, the female masturbation,” says the show’s male producer, “Oh, my God! We made a big, big split in the media. But at the end, simply it was a success. When you make a controversy, this is the true success. And life is a controversy, it is a duality.” The presenters of “Kalam Nawaem” are united by their willingness to discuss hot-button topics (sexual equality, homosexuality — “a super-taboo” — wife-beating, sexual abuse, infidelity, and child sex education, to name a few). They also share a certain rootlessness. The striking Palestinian actress Farah Bseiso was born in the Gaza Strip but grew up in Syria and Kuwait. Ms. Salama, the oldest of the bunch (she looks about 60), is an Egyptian journalist based in London. Rania Barghout is a Lebanese who once lived in London, now lives in Beirut, and is considering a return to London. Lastly there’s Muna AbuSulayman, a divorced Saudi from a prominent religious family. Ms. AbuSulayman is the only host to wear the hijab, and the only one who could be called a conservative.
“Dishing Democracy” shows the women’s lives off-air as well as on, but the background is often more revealing than the foreground. When Ms. AbuSulayman visits a Saudi shopping mall, you don’t learn much about her, but you do get a pretty good sense of the eeriness of Saudi shopping malls: The men in white gowns with red-and-white headdresses, the women like floating black pillars. Only their heavily made-up eyes are visible, and they’re the busiest, most flirtatious eyes you’ll ever see. My favorite moment in “Dishing Democracy” comes when the Dutch director, Bregtje van der Haak, cuts away from the television studio to gauge the reaction in a Cairo cafe, where an unshaven, unemployed, all-male ensemble is sitting around sucking on water pipes and occasionally glancing at the TV. An episode of “Kalam Nawaem” is on, and it’s about sex education. “We’re uptight because we try to hide from children what’s natural,” says Ms. Salama, who probably imported the idea from London. The men in the cafÃ© are unimpressed by the sex talk: “That’s not okay, we’re Muslims,” says one, a T-shirt-worthy line in the tradition of “No Sex Please, We’re British.”
Another man in the cafe — mustachioed, quite young, looking distinctly peeved — isn’t taking the bait either. “They want to tell us what to think,” he says indignantly, referring to the women on the show, “and now they’re getting satellite TV to tell us about it.
You know what? Next, they’ll teach it in primary schools.” My dear sir, I’m afraid you’re right. These media boors, with their grotesque salaries and inflatable smiles, have ideas, opinions, theories about how you should live, and they broadcast them all day long! It’s just the way it is. As for sex education in primary schools, you don’t know the half of it: Try kindergarten. “Dishing Democracy” provokes mixed feelings. Of course you side with the four women encouraging greater openness in the Arab world. On the other hand, you also pray they don’t end up replicating every dumb bit of therapy-speak we’ve ever come up with.
Additional URLs for the show:
November 30, 2007
Eastern promises: Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai
by Yotam Feldman, Amman, Jordan
At twilight, the labyrinthine paths of the ancient Roman theater in Amman begin to fill up. Men who have come alone stand in waiting postures, impatient, casting glances this way and that. Others congregate by the wall or on benches, not letting the patrolling police bother them. Occasionally a couple disappears into a clump of bushes or into one of the niches. Many tourists might be confused by the scene, but a gay tourist will get it immediately. Most of the men who approach the tourists are selling sex for money, sometimes mediated by a pimp lurking in another corner of the theater. Relations with those who are not engaged in prostitution also sometimes have a character that makes it impossible to be oblivious to economic power relations. The tourist will invite them for drinks or dinner, for example, or will pay for the hotel room to which they will go, perhaps, at the end of the evening.
There are other places, too, for those seeking cross-border relations: Thakafa Street (thakafa means “culture” in Arabic) in the Shmeisani quarter is a cruising site for a higher-level crowd. Strolling on the well-lit street, amid the ubiquitous campaign posters for the parliamentary elections, are families with children, groups of students and also gay men (mostly young) who are trying to spot a new face in the city’s small, stifling community. The searchers can be identified by their long pauses every few steps or by their many sidelong glances. Iman, a young literature student of Palestinian origin, whose family comes from Hebron, is here with friends to cruise Thakafa Street – “Not necessarily to look for anything, but if the opportunity arises, why not?” He is not ashamed to say that he’s looking mainly for foreigners. “In a small place like Amman, people we don’t know, with whom we haven’t yet slept, are a refreshing innovation. You can find tourists here from different countries – Americans and Europeans – and also many from Arab states, and occasionally also Israelis.” Just that morning, Iman relates, he met, via the Internet, a Saudi student who was in the city for a short visit. “It’s been a long time since I met someone so uptight,” he says. “He didn’t stop shaking until we entered the hotel room. Anyway, I won’t see him again.”
In the evening, Iman and his friends hang out at Books@Cafe, a coffee shop that is considered “gay-friendly” and whose owner acts as an adviser and mentor to his clients. He tells of efforts by the young people to create a sense of community. Two of them, he says, tried recently to put out a magazine for gays, but quickly found themselves in trouble with the authorities, who threatened them with legal proceedings. They shelved the idea. We meet one of them later in the evening, together with a group of his friends, in the gay bar RGB, a relatively new establishment. It’s not very big – five wooden tables around which two groups of young men are milling. Sitting at one of the tables are two women, a couple, who have come from the lesbian bar that opened recently not far from RGB.
Marwan, a successful young Palestinian entrepreneur, originally from Jerusalem, who is at RGB almost every evening, says he is not concerned by the implications of the ties between Jordanians and tourists. “The westernization and Jordan’s economic dependence on the West are facts of life. The tourists, on the other hand, also alleviate our distress.” At the same time, he regrets the fact that forging genuine relations is impossible under these conditions. “The end is more or less inevitable – the tourist will leave and we will probably never talk again. It is also unfortunate that it is impossible to find a place for meaningful encounters – all my recent encounters were in hotel rooms or in my car. Sometimes I feel a little like a prostitute.”
The anti-erotic element
“They were an instance of the eastern boy and boy affection which the segregation of women made inevitable. Such friendships often led to manly loves of a depth and force beyond our flesh-steeped conceit. When innocent they were hot and unashamed.” – T.E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”
Gay Israeli travelers frequent Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Dubai. Holders of two passports also visit Beirut, which they say can compete with Tel Aviv as the gay capital of the Middle East, and Damascus, where the gay scene is more secretive. This is not sex tourism, all the travelers who were interviewed for this article emphasized, certainly not in the narrow sense of obtaining sex in return for money. The fear of being exposed as an Israeli heightens the thrill, some of the visitors say. “It’s a state of consciousness, which allows you to overcome the usual inhibitions. The erotic yearning mobilizes additional forces,” says Arnon, 35, who works for a human rights organization and makes frequent visits to Arab countries.
The fantasy that lured Western travelers to the Arab world is not new. In the 19th century, writers and other creative artists, Europeans in general and Frenchmen in particular, were drawn to the Levant under the auspices of colonialism. On their return they described places where men slept with other men without being categorized as homosexuals, as in the West.
“What connected me to the East was French literature of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Arnon says. “Roland Barthes connected me to Morocco, and Flaubert to Tunisia. My image was of a place where almost every man could find himself in a sexual situation with another man, because you don’t have the Catholic prohibition on sexual contact between males. That is further intensified for a Western man, for whom all the barriers are lifted, in part by material incentives. It is not confined to a bar or a park. The horizon of possibilities is far more dynamic, and it is not just about those who declare themselves gay. It can also be a married man – anyone, really.”
And were your expectations fulfilled?
“Very quickly. There are always these types who approach you. For example, in Tunis – you are sitting in a cafe and someone makes eyes at you, comes over and asks, ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Where are you from? Are you married?’ ‘Would you like to go someplace?’ You don’t necessarily go straight to the hotel. Usually they want to go out, want you to take them drinking, to a discotheque.”
And it’s at this stage that the economic dependence is created?
“In the background, there is always the question of what they will get out of it in material terms. It’s not that you are going to send them a hundred dollars a month for the rest of their lives, but relations of dependence form. Some of them told me that their dream is to leave Tunis and live in the West. They asked if I could write a letter to my consul general that will make it possible for them to get a visa. They asked that after 25 minutes of conversation.”
What was your reply?
“I think I left it open. I said it’s an interesting idea, maybe I will try.”
Does this put a damper on the experience?
“It is the anti-erotic element that bothers me. In Tunisia, for example, someone I met invited me to his cousin’s home. I went with him, even though I did not necessarily want sexual contact. I understood that the sexual thing was the payment I would make in order to see his house. We got a cab and drove out to a kind of suburb. It was a large house, what’s known in Israel as an Arab villa, made of concrete, on which construction was completed but hadn’t yet been quite whitewashed or furnished, or maybe would never be whitewashed because the money has run out. The uncle was sitting in the courtyard, holding prayer beads and smoking. We said hello, and the man introduced me in Arabic and spoke with him.”
Was the uncle surprised to see a Western tourist in his courtyard?
“Not in the least. Maybe he was thinking that this was exactly what he did with the French who were there 50 years ago. He was completely at ease. Inside we met the cousin – ‘ahalan wasahalan’ – and then okay, let’s go to my room. We entered a room, which may or may not have been his, where there were two wooden beds and a poster of a Hollywood star on the wall. The small talk continued, the same conversation that is repeated on every trip. At a certain point he decides to turn off the light and starts to lean over me. After our pants are lowered the cousin opens the door and turns on the light. I thought there was going to be trouble, maybe he would be appalled, or maybe he would want to join, I don’t know, but he only asked him something, took a pack of cigarettes from him, and left.”
Does the political dimension make such encounters highly charged?
“From my point of view, that dimension is critical, because if you leave only the sexual core, nothing would exist. It all comes from anthropological curiosity, political power relations, attraction to him as the representation of something, through my Israeliness and Jewishness. It is absolutely a type of conquest or operation in enemy territory and a speedy withdrawal. I came, I experienced a few things, I pulled out. The moment I have collected intelligence, withdrawal back to the hotel as quickly as possible.”
Every trip is political
“The association between the Orient and sex is remarkably persistent. The Middle East is resistant, as any virgin would be, but the male scholar wins the prize by bursting open, penetrating the Gordian knot … ‘Harmony’ is the result of the conquest of maidenly coyness.” – Edward Said, “Orientalism”
Lior Kay, 32, one of the founders of the gay forum called Red-Pink in the Hadash Arab-Jewish party, has paid many visits to Arab states, including Iraq. He finds a direct link between his experiences as a gay man in Tel Aviv and his adventures abroad. “There is something very international about being gay,” he says. “Gays have a tool that allows them to enter deep into communities that are rooted in the local culture. When you come to someone for a one-night stand, you learn about all kinds of things. You can see the house, meet the friends, have breakfast with them. There is this very deep desire to get to know, even if it is only for one night – things that don’t necessarily happen to tourists.
“I, for example, like parks more than pubs, because there is an experience of disclosure there. You meet people who are outside the mainstream. In parks there are people who have no vested interests. We forget that there are people who do not have vested interests. That’s what I do in Jordan, for example, just talk with people who are wandering around the amphitheater.” Kay entered Iraq in February 2004 on a U.S. passport, eight months after the start of the occupation. “On Friday I took a bus from Tel Aviv to Beit She’an. I hitchhiked to the border and then took a taxi to Amman, where I got a taxi to Baghdad. It was a 12-hour trip. We made a night stop in the desert and waited for the dawn, because it was dangerous to enter the Sunni triangle in the dark.” There were hardly any tourists in Iraq at the time, he says. He walked around the city and talked to people, but was afraid to look for men.
Are these visits also related to your political attitudes?
“For me, all the trips are political and also social, in the sense that I see up close how people live. In many places I saw the anger at the West’s pillage of resources, and of course at the Israeli occupation.
The trips lent color to my political approach. You have to read books and studies and quotes by Brecht, but you also need color and aroma and soul to determine your political identity.”
What is the negative side of being political in this context?
“There is a feeling of a stereotype that is at work on both sides. The fantasy of the West that likes what’s available and hot, and the people who live there, who hope to latch on to the tourists to get out of the disgusting cycle of poverty. Sex in these countries has a very clear economic element: a relationship of exploiter and exploited. Sometimes there is a feeling that you can go with almost anyone you meet, that they want you not because of your personality but because of these relations.”
Where is that reflected?
“Everywhere, and first of all in bed. Even the active and passive thing – very often they will not agree to be passive with a Jew. There is definitely a matter of honor.”
Do experiences in these countries challenge some of the images of homosexuality?
“Yes. We know the Western definition of the gay person – someone like Oscar Wilde – but in the Arab countries it is formulated in different codes of their culture. There is also liberation from the usual image of the body – less of the Western worship of youth. Many of the normative rules of the West do not apply there. Here we have the gyms, the hair removal; there it is a little less orderly, there are more possibilities.”
Legislation is now being formulated that will strip Israelis of their citizenship if they visit Arab countries with which Israel does not have an agreement. Is it possible that you will no longer be able to travel there?
From Egyptian writer Constantin Cafavy “In the Tavernas”: “I am a law-abiding citizen, but I don’t know how far my instinct for adventure will be repressed by that. Especially when it’s a flagrantly undemocratic law which is aimed, I think, less at people like me than at Knesset members whose activity might create a chance for peace.” Assad watches the men: “I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut. I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery. The one thing that saves me, like durable beauty, like perfume that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides, most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years, and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.” (translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
Russell, an American who immigrated to Israel in 1982, first visited Syria in 1993, entering the country on an American passport. His first encounter with the gay community of Damascus was a chance one. “I went into a pizzeria in Damascus. There was only one empty seat. The young Syrian who was sitting next to me asked where I was from, and we got into a conversation. It turned out that he was in charge of renovating the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus.
“Even though the norms are very different in Syria – for example, it is routine for men to walk hand in hand in the street, and usually it doesn’t mean a thing – he somehow tuned me in and quickly started to pour out his heart. I asked him what was happening and where it was happening. He said it was done with a very low profile, a very traditional approach. The fear is less of the authorities, who monitor everything that goes on in the country, including gays, than of family and friends. He told me that people got together in homes, that there was a kind of group of gays who met every so often, and that there was sometimes sex with married men, too, but that there was no true gay life.”
And besides the homes, are there other meeting places?
“In contrast to other Arab states, nothing happens in the hamams [public baths], but there are parks.”
Russell’s host took him to a park. “He told me it was the cruising park of Damascus and that everyone went there, of all ages, for money and not for money. In the middle of the park there is a huge statue of Assad, who seems to be watching all the men. We walked around a little, said hello to a few people, and left.”
What was the atmosphere like?
“Dark and not very pleasant, not friendly. I didn’t feel that I could have hooked up with someone if I had found anyone. I also drew a lot of attention – suddenly there was this new face, white with blue eyes. A tourist in Independence Park [in Jerusalem] might be an attraction, but not a big deal.”
Did you get an unpleasant economic feeling from your encounters with men in Arab countries?
“Not necessarily. I’ve been to Jordan 200 times. If you go to Book@Cafe and want to meet someone, you can put out feelers immediately. If it is someone who speaks English and is well dressed, you know he is not after your money. People who are after money will go to the theater area, where the refugees hang out and where there are more needy people. Of course, it differs from one country to another – Dubai is one big brothel, filled with foreign workers, most of the population is not Arabic, and you don’t walk three meters without someone stopping you, whether it’s in a mall or in Starbucks, it makes no difference.”
No consideration for Edward Said
From: Gustave Flaubert, “Flaubert in Egypt”: “Here it’s quite well accepted. One admits one’s sodomy and talks about it at the dinner table. Sometimes one denies it a bit, then everyone yells at you and it ends up getting admitted. Traveling for our learning experience and charged with a mission by the government, we see it as our duty to give in to this mode of ejaculation.” (translated by Francis
Yair Kedar, who was the editor of the travel magazine Masa Aher from 2003 to 2005, first visited Egypt in 1991, when he was 22. “I went with a gay French friend and an Italian-speaking Korean clergyman who joined us through a travel agency,” he says. Kedar started to look for the gay scene where he had been told it was happening: hotel lobbies.
“You are in a very large hotel lobby, in the Hilton, say, and you sit down on a sofa and scan the place. Someone sits down next to you and you start to talk about the weather – ‘It’s really hot today.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘Have you been to the pyramids?’ And then he asks you if you would like to have a cup of coffee, and adds, ‘Just the two of us.’ And from there things develop.
“There is also the boardwalk along the Nile, which is a good catching place, these liminal places along the water, where culture ends. You wander around in the evening, there are groups of two-three guys and they start to talk to you, and suggest that they go with you and visit the room.”
Do you feel guilty because gay tourism is also sex tourism, in the negative sense?
“That is a moral dilemma, because the visits also derive from good reasons. Is there a conflict between what they are selling and the regimes in these countries, and the economic dimension that permeates the sexual relations? There is a big contradiction.
But I see these contradictions in other places, too. There were travelers whom I spoke to as editor of Masa Aher, and at first they would tell me, ‘I was at the volcano, I was on a trek, I was here and there,’ and then, when things warmed up, they would tell me what they did at night: 12-year-old girls in Colombia and Thailand.”
Is there something distinctive about the gay experience in places like this?
“There is a similarity between gay cruising and tourism: you are sold something that looks terrific from the outside by hiding the moral problem it entails – in that something is promised that cannot be fulfilled. In both cases there is a large dimension of guilt. On the other hand, I always thought that homosexuality is a great treasure that enables you to meet people and embark on new voyages with them. It’s intriguing, and you acquire experiences, until at a certain age you discover that you are becoming less patient and less inquisitive.”
Benny Ziffer, the editor of the weekly Culture and Literature supplement of Haaretz (Hebrew edition), has written a great deal, in books and articles, about his erotic experiences in Arab countries. He says he chooses to ignore the feeling of guilt that accrues to the economic relations.
“You walk in Alexandria and people offer themselves to you in return for shawarma. If I were political and Marxist, I would not do anything. If someone offers you something like that, you have to cry out to the high heavens. I am doing something bad: I am fulfilling a desire at the expense of these unfortunates. These relations of power are ancient, you know, it was the pattern in the colonial period. People who were nothing in France became great lords in these countries, because they could control the people.”
How do you justify it to yourself?
“Maybe in my writing I purify myself, maybe by saying it now. I always travel in order to write, and I have always written; I can’t bring myself to travel just like that – and I am not original in this, I did not invent it. I go to Egypt with the official goal of writing about bookstores, but the real inner goal is for something to happen from the erotic point of view, otherwise I will be very disappointed.”
Don’t political relations interfere, in a period when there is critical talk about the East that was created by the writers you read?
“I immerse myself in the erotic and literary East alike, without taking account of orientalism and without taking account of Edward Said. I have my life and my experiences and my things.