Intro: A month in Egypt–up the Nile, north to Alexandria and west across to the oasis of Siwa–is hardly enough to see this ancient culture in all its beauty and despair. Gay and lesbian life shares little of the beauty and much of the despair
Story and photos by Richard Ammon
Updated March 2012
Islam and Homosexuality
After the 2011 Revolution: What it Means for Gays
From the start, writing about the ‘gay scene’ in Egypt did not look promising: “I am quite sure you will have difficulty trying to uncover much at all,” said a friend of a friend who lived in Egypt for three years.
He continued, “I have one close friend who is now living in London (in exile). He fled the country shortly after I left and declared himself a political refugee because the Egyptian government sees homosexuality as an illegal practice and imprisons any known offenders!”
As if this were not enough discouragement, he went on to say, “I have another friend currently in prison in Cairo for the same ‘offence’. He was arrested shortly before I left for just being in a disco on the “Queen Boat’ where homosexuals frequently hung out.” (photo left: Queen Boat Disco by Marriott Hotel)
Daunting as his advice was, his message was no surprise to me since I had read about the police raid on the Queen Boat in May 2002, as had most of the world. The resulting scandal, trail and human rights outcry caused Egyptian President Murbarak to invalidate the 23 guilty verdicts (out of 52 arrested) and order a new trial, which resulted in more acquittals and a few ‘leaders’ being re-sentenced.
Nevertheless, I inquired further for gay contacts and connected with two Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria who agreed to meet me when I arrived. Their stories are in contrast and reveal two very different facets of homosexuality in Egypt. And, as always, serendipity provided some further insights into a cloaked world.
Madi and Hani
My first contact was named Madi (he suggested this pseudonym) who was pleasantly handsome, about 50 years old and conservatively dressed in western clothes. He spoke perfect English. His profession was a medical consultant and had worked in Egypt and abroad for universities and hospitals. Although he was married with three kids he came to dinner not with his wife (which I hardly expected) but with his 24 year-old boyfriend.
Conversation flowed easily in the stylish dining room of candlelight and high Moorish arches. It was an unusual meeting for Madi in that he could safely tell his story without censure.
Indeed he seemed eager to let out his secret second life with me, to give it a moment of light. He felt he had been gay since he was 13. Early feelings of attraction and the frightening thrill of adolescent sexual encounters excited and confused him. “I was very religious then and went to mosque often to purify myself from these feelings. But a month later I wanted sex again.” It didn’t take long for his ambivalence to clear up (after college) when he returned again and again to the same man for a couple of years. “It was my first relationship; he was very nice to me and the sex was very good.”
As Madi described his coming out and subsequent duplicitous life, his current non-English-speaking paramour, Hani, a sweet-faced youth with a thick shock of shiny black hair and cobalt eyes sat quietly across from Madi. Hani was polite and very patient as Madi and I jabbered through our French meal of entrecote and legumes. Madi described Hani as very devout and was known as an exceptionally kind person. He was also somewhat of a local heart throb among the girls, some of whom he had for occasional sex partners. He smiled with embarrassment when Madi asked him, in Arabic, about his other ‘conquests’. (photo right: Young Egyptian)
Hani was a restaurant waiter loyal to his mother and siblings with whom he lived. He made about $50 a month and was not much interested in further education beyond his high school diploma. He wanted to work to help his family. He lacked ambition for anything beyond his present circumstance. When Madi occasionally addressed him in Arabic it elicited a beautiful smile on his unwrinkled face. He seemed content just to look at Madi. “You see how much he loves me. Look at his eyes,” said Madi as we both looked at the charming boy (the archetype of puer eternis), which elicited another, bashful, smile. Hani replied with awkward sincerity and gazing into Madi’s eyes, that his love was for Madi not his girlfriends.
I could say Madi was bisexual but he was not about to declare a singular identity around his sexuality. He was first of all an Egyptian Muslim man: husband, father, son, brother and cousin. This has always meant devotion to Allah, family and the social requirements of citizenship: in short, obedience. Declaring his sexuality openly, taking a visible male lover and living with him was out of the question. So Madi did what he and most gay middle class Egyptians do, he served in the military for a short time, finished his university degrees, got married and provided three children for his wife, parents and in-laws. He has done his duty well.
Over the past 20 years (his oldest child is now 17) he has had several amorous relationships with younger men who have provided him with more passion and romance than his marriage. But he said he would never leave his wife for Hani. So the second rule of survival (the first is obedience) for homosexuals in Egypt is that genuine passion must remain a secret. Duty is visible, love is not.
For Madi such a dual life has not been a problem. His professional career has supported and educated his family and has given him the freedom (working abroad) to pursue his own interests. As well, it’s customary for Egyptian men and women to socialize primarily with their own gender. Countless cafes all over the country are filled with men smoking water pipes, drinking coffee and playing cards or backgammon (towla), or watching soccer games on TV. Women stay home and talk in discreet circles.
Over the years Madi has never had a single incident of exposure or harassment regarding his sexuality. He was betrayed by one lover (and suffered in silence) but recovered and went on to meet other sexy and loving guys, two of whom initially cruised or touched him in the Cairo subway. Another boyfriend broke off to marry while another lives on his own and has other boyfriends (with separate homes).
(In Cairo and Alexandria, cities with millions of people, a gay person can more easily escape the confines and demands of family and engage furtively in a sort of gay social scene that includes certain clubs and discos (like the Queen Boat) on certain nights. But such folks are rare and brave and /or have enough money to have their own private apartment. A wider gay ‘community’ can be found on the Internet but this still represents only a small fraction of homosexuals in Egypt since the vast majority cannot afford such luxuries.)
Meanwhile, Along the Nile
All this seemed so distant and devious as I traveled south on the Cairo-Aswan train one sunny afternoon a few days later. The railroad travels through the underbelly of Egypt, passing countless gritty urban back alleys and green Nile River farms dense with fields of wheat, alfalfa, sugar cane and mud brick houses.
While tourists whisk by in speedy trains or air-conditioned buses, most rural local travel is by donkeys who are clearly ‘beasts of burden’, laden with bales of crops or carrying farmers (felaheen, who make up the majority of the population) to or from their fields. Water buffalo are tractors. Farmers dress in galabiyyas (robes) and headdresses as they wield hoes or sickles. Barefoot kids play with sticks and old tires. Goat herds wander close to their herds. Polluted irrigation canals parallel the rail tracks from which gas-powered pumps toss water into the fields. Date palms spawn everywhere. Not a few hundred yards pass without another donkey blinking in the afternoon sun as farmers bend or squat to cut or plant.
In great contrast to the sublime pyramids of yesteryear, the vast majority of urban housing today is in large ugly unimaginative apartment blocks constructed of cement columns filled in with walls of brick. (photo left) Rural farmhouses (no bigger than two or three rooms) are of mud adobe bricks in villages that sprawl across the parched brown land, many far from the Nile valley.
Second only to the great sands dunes here are the dunes of trash piled along countless alleys and canals and vacant fields that back onto the railroad routes. It appears there is no national system of disposal or recycling, a western luxury that Egypt can ill afford. So plastic bags snag on trees and bushes and become a sort of national flag as they flutter in the wind. Some plastic containers, aluminum cans and cardboard are scavenged by peasants on bicycles or lugging hand-drawn carts.
Mosque minarets are never far from view. Islam is more than a religion here; it’s a lifestyle, a constant presence, a form of government and a personal conscience. Even if one does not practice or pray or give alms according to scripture there is no escape from the faith. And clearly no gay man or woman in this country is free from the homophobia of Islam (or Coptic Christianity, which is equally as stringent). Being gay is publicly and personally felt as shameful, and queer people live in fear of exposure, humiliation, rejection and scorn. Physical gay bashing, however, is virtually unheard of–except when in police custody.
Virtually all citizens agree that homosexuality is an offense against Allah and his prophet. There is no sympathy or support. You’re on your own to ferret out secret contacts in stolen moments of passion. Never mind the larger violation of impoverished millions, the dilapidated infrastructure of the electric grid, polluted canals or lack of running water or trash disposal. The impetus for improving working class life (after 5000 years of civilization here) is mute compared to the fervent passion of persecution that dwells against citizens (many very devout) who happen to be gay or lesbian.
Ari in Alexandria
And what better example of that cruel displaced self-righteousness is found in the trauma of young Aristotle’s life. Ari is 20, a student of international law who is lucky to come from an upper middle class family in Alexandria. Shy and polite he suffers from mood swings and nightmares and has seen more than one therapist to help pull his mind back from the shattering two months that ripped him from innocent childhood to rude adulthood.
Sitting in a quiet Alexandria coffee shop Ari told me his story. “On the Internet, I had chatted with this guy for a couple of weeks and we decided to meet at Mac Donald’s in Cairo. So I went there at the right time; a man approached me and asked if I was Ari. As soon as I said yes seven policemen in casual clothes arrested me and took me out and pushed me into a truck.”
They took him to the top floor of the Mogamma government building (“a Kafkaesque monument to bureaucracy”–says Lonely Planet guidebook) in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square!) where police investigations are done. (photo left: Mogamma Government Building)
That was the day that changed Ari’s life, from a naïve carefree student to a jailed criminal at the age of 17. His crime: ‘habitual debauchery, attempting to seduce another, and practicing homosexuality’. Said Ari, “I was still a minor of 17 and that’s why after investigations, which lasted for 7 hours, I was sent to Azbakiyah Police station after midnight to stay overnight, before heading to the D. A’s. office the next morning.”
As a young teen Ari’s only crime was stealing glances at older guys when he went to the fitness club. “I used to love to watch them when they laid in the sun or in the changing room when they bend over to changing their pants.” At first his attraction was unintentional, a vague liking. But as he aged and became more self aware of this willful desire toward men he also realized that to express it would offend social boundaries. Yes, friends held hands in public in Egypt; boys and men put their arms around each other; they lightly kissed on meeting up with best buddies.
At 17 he was a gay person without ever having embraced another boy or felt the visceral charge of a passionate kiss. At 17 he was sent to college. It was in the university library that he discovered the Internet and homosexually oriented web sites. He was thrilled, aroused and frightened at what he saw. He was also terrified of being seen watching these sites.
As with all Egyptian youth, social behavior is carefully prescribed by local family traditions that are in turn prescribed by a society infused with religious beliefs, dogma and prohibitions against any premarital sexuality–especially homosexuality. For endless generations, sex has been shrouded in fear, shame, repression. Having some ice cream in a café with boys and girls in modern Cairo is not unusual. (It is unusual further away in smaller towns like Luxor). But chatting up a girl and making suggestive comments offends public morality in Egyptian culture. Even among the many Christian families (Coptic Christians) there is strong prohibition against such prodigal behavior. For gays and lesbians the prohibition is thus doubled.
A Boy’s Nightmare
Ari’s family is Muslim but this clearly had no softening impact on the dismay at receiving that phone call from the police. Their son had been arrested as a common criminal. Discovering Ari’s secret in such a public jolting way was devastating and humiliating for his conforming and complacent family. For Ari it was as close to death as he ever wanted to feel.
Here is his story as told to me in person and by e-mail:
“Well, to start with. I was studying medicine in the Alexandria University. I am also studied for a diploma in computer science privately. I also studied German language. I wished to get accepted in a foreign university for a further degree.
“I was arrested for being a gay in February 2002 and was jailed for about 2 months. I remember during the investigation with me when I was first caught, I denied every thing and wouldn’t confess the real truth. I was so frightened and confused. I was caught alone with my trolley bag containing medical books. (I didn’t look like a flirt or a date). As I told you before, I came to Cairo in the same day I got a call from this guy I had chatted with. We decided to meet at Mac Donald’s and then happened everything.
“I was threatened by the police that the person whom I was going to meet was related to a political group and was a devil worshipper. For any Egyptian, this is the hell on earth if just to be accused, even if maybe not found guilty later.
“I was not allowed to call my family the first day and I thought automatically I will not be allowed the following day. What happened is that a social worker in the juvenile court (D.A. office) asked me for numbers of my relatives, my memory was blocked, and then I remembered an uncle’s number and he came after investigations at the D.A.’s office. Something else worth mentioning is that my mobile phone was confiscated as evidence that I made phone calls through it, and my wallet was taken away to the safety deposit.
“It is well-known in all Arab countries (democratic countries and non-democratic countries) that you can be taken into custody by state security police with no trial at all and maybe get a life imprisonment in the middle of nowhere at the end of the world. So that is why I was forced to say every thing.
“I tolerated beating in jail, abuses, insults and mocking from everybody. I had to sleep on the floor without a blanket. But those words and actions were not the most humiliating things. Part of the investigation was with a forensic doctor from the court who examined me. He was ordered from the D.A. We were in a room with no door and people passing outside and he told me that he will perform a rectal examination and other incidents happened which I find it hard to tell. This was the most humiliating and disgracing moment in my life and full of dishonor for any human.
“After two months of terrible life I luckily got released. I got a three years sentence but I managed to avoid because of my family influence. The police have neglected my presence since then as I am not an active gay leader or group member and so I’m useless to them.
“They have more recently started to ignore the gay issues, unofficially, in public and they seem to have finished their attacks and left a ‘lesson’ for the leftovers (gay people in general). But they are still active on the Internet and surf the chat rooms for Egyptians to lure into their trap. So, please watch out as you might also be followed, although no trouble will happen to you as a foreigner but it might happen to us after you leave. Please be very careful to the greatest extent.
“But, the main problem I got now is the complication happening afterward regarding constant fear of being re-jailed, my post-traumatic stress (so I’m told). My feelings are very moody, anxious I think. I went to several psychiatrists. I used the gay issue as the main problem and did not mention my imprisonment, although I know that my main problem came from my being jailed. From the time I was jailed in February (’02) till September my memory was very washed (unclear) and I wasn’t conscious of myself. Although I was released in April, I had a total collapse and breakdown that started. Thanks to Allah I am starting the construction of my self-being again.
“I didn’t mention the detective work and intelligence personnel who were placed in my university dorm to watch my movements after my release. They even were monitoring my mobile line and I used to hear buzzing while talking; all of this to catch a new victim as if they were thinking that I was knowing other gays.
“Also there are problems regarding my parents and our surroundings. Some relatives discovered I am gay because of this big problem so my parents feel embarrassed and not sure what to say. It is hard for them and I feel bad what I have done to them, but after some time passing it is a little better as my life goes into the future…”
This sad and harrowing story is one of many that have come out of Egypt in recent years. For another account of police corruption and brutality toward captured gays read the report from Human Rights Watch posted at: http://hrw.org/reports/2004/egypt0304/ as well as posted on this web site News and Reports page: Egypt News
A summer 2005 message from Ari said his life has continued to settle down and he is now busy with school exams. Recently he ventured back to the Internet–much more carefully–and has made the acquaintance of someone older whom he likes and who “adores” Ari. As he said, “my type is a ‘bulky’ person and being a man in his attitude. I enjoy also lean guys. I think always I am more mature than my age and need someone older in result.”
In early 2008 he sent the following more upbeat note: The gay and lesbian life is again active in Cairo and Alexandria but with differences. My boyfriend works in Cairo and some of his colleagues are gay and lesbian too—about a dozen.
“I was invited with him to a dinner once in Maadi (a quiet neighborhood and a luxurious place) where gay parties and birthdays are done on weekends for a simple reason: they are low-key and private and not open to just anyone.You do find queens invited with full make-up on their faces and this implies what is happening.
“There is still harassment going on but at a very low scale for now and in a different way. An arrested person or couple is taken to the police station and are beaten a bit and stay there overnight or for 3 days then released but no charges are issued. I haven’t heard of a new case since November. There have been no recent cases of entrapment, although gay issues and gay dating web sites are being surveiled by police to keep a check on this society and to solve other related cases, e.g. a murder case of a gay which lately took place.
“In Alexandria it is different; everyone knows everyone (I mean gays). They meet in many occasions. I went once with three friends celebrating a feast and went to a mall. Suddenly we turned to a cafe to greet some friends and there were over 25 guys sitting together in a circle and occupying a quarter of the Cafe.
“I shook hands with a few then escaped away; I couldn’t handle such a thing and felt as if I was fainting but again everyone was friendly. They are always curious to know who is the new face.
“I think if you come once more to Egypt, you will have a totally different view. However, we gays are benefiting of this relative freeness because it is in a low key, even when we are sitting in a cafe and discussing issues we are loud and the people around hear us and mostly never bother us. Each one is in his own world.
“A bad thing here is that many gay, tops and bottoms are called female nicknames and call by the feminine pronoun, she or her .I do not like that at all and I am fortunate that I was nicknamed “the Doctor”.
“By the way, the Issue of homosexuality is mentioned in some Egyptian movies now and does show it in different ways, e.g. in a film called ‘Mercedes’ there are two guys living a loud and bohemian life. One of them has a father who deprived him from his inheritance and he is the cousin of the libro (main) actor. In another film the scene starts with an old man having a phone call with his boyfriend who apologizes for not coming. This depresses the old man who prepared an exquisite banquet for them both. Then the meter man (the libro actor) rings the doorbell to check the readings. The old man tries to seduce him but very politely and with dignity. The meter man leaves in peace. The translated name of the film is ‘A Meter Man’s Tale’ (It is called “Dheel Elsamakah”, it means Fish Bone but the deeper meaning is that everything has a influence which helps to guide you to the right way.
“Another thing to mention, my older sister, 19, knows about my gay life and about my boyfriend. She tolerates that but still does not accept him totally. The rest of my family are still negative and feel insulted. I still live with my mother and sister. But, I think even if I stayed here next year, I will live alone or with my boyfriend if things are going fine. My brother will be coming and he will be the man of the house and I will be released from this burden and gladly give up that “oriental tradition”.
“I really hope to live abroad in graduate school but the current world-wide situation is not promising whether in Europe or USA against Arabs and Muslim. I am hoping for a long term study visa abroad which includes some work that helps me keep my identity which I am proud of and be independent. Being away will also save a big burden from my parents by ending the everyday quarrels and sorrow they suffer–and allow me to live as a gay man away from Egypt, and be in peace.”
(End of Ari’s 2008 message)
Constantine P. Cavafy
The next afternoon I went to Alexandria’s most famous café/pastry shop Trianon in the main square famous for its history as well as it desserts. High wood-lined walls rose up to the carved ceilings that dangled crystal chandeliers. Tall windows invited channels of sunlight through sheer curtains onto the red carnations on each table.
Sitting at one of these tables was a solitary man in his sixties absorbed in his own thoughts. His postured silhouette, cast in a glow of gossamer light, awakened in my imagination that he could have been Constantine Cavafy, Alexandria’s most illustrious poet (1863-1933) deep in reverie. I thought about the pieces of his life as a Greek-born Alexandria-based poet, government clerk, traveler, classicist and gay aesthete. He was in love with human beauty, gods and heroes, ancient and modern who peopled his poems like lovers. In 1924, at the age of sixty, his thrill of sentient splendor had not diminished. He wrote:
He came to read. Two or three books
are open; historians and poets.
But he only read for ten minutes,
and gave them up. He is dozing
on the sofa. He is fully devoted to books —
but he is twenty-three years old, and he’s very handsome;
and this afternoon love passed
through his ideal flesh, his lips.
Through his flesh which is full of beauty
the heat of love passed;
without any silly shame for the form of the enjoyment…
Clearly the poet’s passions were still keen and undeterred by the poverty, corruption and religious banality around him. Aesthetic delight and erotic energy of puer eternis–eternal youth–re-awakened his muses daily.
My private reverie with Cavafy finished when the man left. He passed two other men sitting at a table speaking American English. I found an excuse to open conversation with them and found they were a couple from New York State. Hakim, a 55 year-old native-born Egyptian, and his American partner Glen were on their annual trip to visit Hakim’s relatives, as they had for the past 25 years.
Over some very black Egyptian coffee Hakim related that he knew he was gay at twelve when he was in anguished muted love with his school teacher. It didn’t get easier as he aged and realized what these feelings meant and how they could never be spoken in Egypt.
Surrounded by his Muslim family, friends and school peers who held hands and hung on each other, Hakim said he always felt he wanted to kiss these guys, “you know, like a girl, on the lips! But of course that never happened but I imagined it.” he said with a laugh. He had a crush on one classmate but this was their final year after which Hakim went off to the American University in Cairo and he never saw the boy after that.
In college Hakim found an occasional willing classmate or local for a furtive sex. But Hakim was looking for more: “I made suggestions to some of my sex partners about love but they ran away. They couldn’t think that way. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me that I wanted such feelings from others. My years at college were very frustrating. There was sex once in a while but no passion.”
Hakim graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. He chose it partly because it was an unusual and desirable specialty that allowed him to make application for further study abroad in Europe or America. He was accepted at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. “And the rest is happy history. I met Glen there and we’ve been together since then. I tell my family here my work here is very important. We go back and visit them almost every year and I think by now they realize Glen is not my roommate. They will never ask and I will never tell. But my mother makes up one bedroom for us now that my father has died.”
This unusually fortunate gay Egyptian lives the life he once vaguely dreamed about as a mystified youth in love with other boys. It’s a reality for Hakim, but it’s still only a dream for most other LGB Egyptians. (“How can I get to America,” I was asked several times by gay and straight young people as I traveled around Egypt.)
Along the Nile: Felucca Boys
Egypt is a complex culture, not unlike other cultures, in that there is contradiction, paradox and conflicting forces at work that influence behavior and habits. Media headlines may describe homosexuality as highly suspect and under attack in Egypt but walking the streets of small villages or along a Nile River promenade reveals a different story.
One cool morning before the heat arose I left my Aswan hotel and headed for the river where the famous Felucca sailing boats are crowded along the embankment in between huge five-story passenger ships. It’s impossible to get near the ‘corniche’, as the river promenade is called, without being approached by Felucca middlemen offering their boats for hire, “very cheap my friend. Come…”
I wanted to get to the west bank to visit the ruins of the ancient St Simeon monastery just near the mausoleum of the Aga Khan family. I let myself be led by one insistently persuasive salesman (they are like buzzards– unavoidable and rapacious) to one of his ‘fleet’, which was operated by a ‘captain’ who ferried tourists back and forth or up and down the chilly Nile.
To cross the river in a Felucca is not a straight shot (pun intended), like the motor ferry, because the wind varies; rather, the boat tacks back and forth eventually reaching its destination. It’s not good transport if you’re in a hurry but it is quiet, calm and gentle. It is also an opportunity for some Felucca drivers to slowly work their way into conversation about where you’re from, if you are alone, if you want to hire them tomorrow…or if there is anything that you are looking for.
My swarthy little Nubian (the ethnic group in the Aswan area) named ‘Ziggy’ was 20 years old and his fellow helmsman was 24 with a name that sounded something like ‘Sitchy’. As our boat caught a soft breeze Ziggy sat closer as we chatted about the boat, his impending marriage and if would I like to see the ‘room’ under the bow. He pointed to a little door about 30 inches square with the words ‘Magic Room’ painted on it.
“ You like?”
‘ Like what?’ I replied feigning ignorance of his overtures.
“ Maybe you like Egyptian banana. Is very good.”
I looked at him with mock surprise. ‘But you are getting married in six months; you like sex with boys and girls?’ It felt bizarre saying ‘boys’ since I was old enough to be his grandfather.
“ Sure, why not? You like?”
He now knew that I knew what he was talking about; that I was not put off and that I was at least playful if not curious. He pressed himself against me and put his head on my shoulder with one hand behind me stroking my back pocket.
“ Come on I show you. Come,” as he started toward the door.
But I said with a laugh, ‘no, not so fast. What do you do in there?’
“You like banana. You like fuckee. Is very good.”
Talk about cruising down the Nile!
Set against the backdrop of police persecution and the notorious drama of the public trials, convictions and international protests this skinny dark Nubian sported an erection under his galabayya (robe) and insisted I feel it to convince me he was ready for this foreign ‘money-man’. He was certainly primed for action.
And he was not the only ready one. His fellow pilot was also available. “You like him too?” offered Ziggy looking at his pal who was following Ziggy’s Don Juan act with no small interest.
I laughed at the absurdity of the moment. I doubt Ziggy or Sitchy had a clue about the serious events in the Cairo courts. Nor should they. Who was going to bust a couple of kids on a boat in the middle of the Nile putting the make on a tourist. I doubt they cared what my sexual leaning was. For a few fleeting moments I was vainly flattered that age had no effect in the matter.
I was of course always aware this was a sales pitch. Ziggy was actually quite smooth and confident and unabashed in using his sexual prowess as a commodity. Was he gay? I doubt it. But neither could he be called completely straight. Labels simply didn’t apply. He was another of the countless impoverished guys around the world who are gay for pay. And if it feels good, so much the better. Poverty and sex have always been twined from ancient times, from Buenos Aires to Vladivostok. Genuinely gay or not the Felucca scene was a side show in queer Egypt today–and probably for centuries before.
In Paul Theroux’s 2002 book ‘Dark Star Safari’, he describes the same seduction scenario with straight women as they hire, knowingly or unknowingly, a Felucca and it’s spicy crew for a cruise across the river—or down into the hidden riverside foliage.
And Ziggy was not the last. Over the course of several days progressing along the Nile valley from the huge Aswan dam and the stunning Abu Simbel temple (the one they moved up hill in the 1960’s) past the very ancient tombs of the pharaohs, a varied assortment of sweetly smiling guys let their gaze rest on my eyes in clear and silent gaydar language. Backward looks and knowing smiles were exchanged every day between this traveler and numerous swarthy men. No doubt most of the glances were mercenary but more than a few were silent calls from encapsulated lives.
And if such a glance suggested more a room in a hotel was needed, but it’s not likely the man of the moment would be allowed upstairs. The ever-watchful staff are on alert even in two star hotels to ‘protect’ guests from ‘suspicious’ locals.
Such as the waif who approached me one afternoon as I was waiting to board the cross-Nile ferry (no Felucca, thank you) and in a falsely modest voice asked if I would like to “enjoy” him. Dressed in a grubby galabayya he appeared little more than thirteen as he plied me to visit the tall sugar cane bushes across the road to “make pleasure”.
“ You will like to feel good; Egyptian men very good. Good banana.” I asked him how old he was to which he surprised me with “16.”
‘No, that’s not possible. You’re only 13,’ I countered.
“ No, really 16.”
The moment was a somewhat incredulous for me that this boy was so young and so sexually street-smart. He talked as if he were ten years older with more years of experience.
Picking up on his boldness and slightly as a dare, I said ,’you have a big dick?’ to which he brightened and replied without skipping a beat, “oh yes, you like for sure. Come we go over there.”
Fortunately my ferry arrived in time to end the hollow and demeaning banter with this too-worldly impoverished child. Money was a rare commodity; for perhaps three dollars he, like many river boys, was fearless, pushy and willing to undress and use his puerile body as merchandise–and doubtless without the slightest concern for HIV.
Sex as a Bargain
Such encounters with underemployed, unskilled and barely educated young men happen everywhere, only their styles vary according to their personal and social manners. But the ‘make’ is the same. Here in Egypt the prized art of bargaining is added to the pitch. Persuading a buyer to pay more than he is willing to offer is a skilled honed over generations and the training starts early. Haggling for sex is no different. In both situations the boys were insistent and persistent with a driving sense of immediacy that disregarded my response. I really was not willing to engage in sex with either one of them and I said so.
But as in bargaining for a carpet or a teapot, my opinion didn’t matter. My refusal only whetted their appetite for further persuasion, pleading, urging, lambasting or arguing against any excuse I offered for not buying. One souk shop owner (not a sex boy) in Luxor put his hand on my shoulder and would not let me pass, insisting I look at this or that souvenir in this or that color or this or that material.
So it was with these sexy persuaders who ignored my declinations. Their forceful words seemed to me acts of defiance that bordered on contempt.
I found the best solvent for the tension created by these encounters was a playful laugh that (firmly) shrugged off the swarm of words and urgings of these poor guys. It was, after all, business.
Days later in Cairo I was taking a photo of a grubby back alley arrayed with hanging laundry peeling painted walls, trashy gutters and a greasy car under repair. A young boy perhaps 15 on a bicycle came peddling toward me and yelled “hallo” as most youngsters do to pale-faced tourists. Just as I called ‘hello’ back he tossed out “I fuck with you,” and wheeled away as I shot him a surprised and indignant look.
It was another swipe of adolescent verbal sexual aggression that circulates in this culture. I doubt they would ever say such things to an adult Egyptian man, especially one over 50. It’s puzzling, homoerotic, offensive and naïve; it felt demeaning to be on the receiving end of such crude behavior. Such insults seem a resentful slap by a down-trodden victim at the arrogance of western wealth—resentment embedded with envy for what I have and he never will. And sex is the great leveler. Curiously it’s only from teenagers (unmarried) that I heard such verbal sexual aggression.
In contrast, countless other men and women in their twenties and beyond responded to me with friendliness and cheer when I smiled or waved—including truckloads of police shipped into central Cairo each day to secure the central square against possible demonstrations. (The most recent protest was the March ’04 assassination of the Hamas leader Sheik Yassin in Gaza by an Israeli rocket attack. Thousands protested in the plaza under the close scrutiny of thousands of police.) How could I possibly not want sex with them, especially since they were offering enjoyment for not much money? “You rich, you like banana. Very cheap.” Looking back at me he laughed and disappeared in the street traffic.
In the Hilton
Another face of ‘gay Egypt’ appeared in the Nile Hilton (photo right) as I approached the restaurant for lunch. Walking past the courtyard café I saw three guys sitting at one of the dozen or so tables. I had read that this was one of Cairo’s classier cruising places so I wasn’t surprised to see one of the guys with definite ‘signs’: dressed in firm-fitted pants and a body-hugging black pullover studded with what appeared to be tiny sequins. The shirt was intended to show off his buffed body. He was fresh, scrubbed and looked available—and not bad looking although not CQ material.
He and another friend were chatting on their cell phones making busy as I passed. I sat down at a table in the restaurant not far from the café area and ordered soup and salad—and watched. Halfway through my meal, Mr. Buff with his shiny coif of thick black hair made the rounds of the hotel lobby, atrium restaurant and courtyard café. His friend sat at a table near me and ordered a round of tobacco and a gurgling water pipe as he studied his cell phone as if it was about to speak to him.
A few more minutes passed and again Mr. Buff came by again this time accompanied by an older ‘serious’ man in his early fifties. Mr. Buff was obviously with him although he followed behind by two steps. (Did they want to appear not to be together?) They turned the corner and headed toward the lobby where the elevators were. From there on I can only guess but I’d probably come close with suggestions about a mercenary tryst on the 8th floor. And I would very likely be right if I guessed the older man was married with kids.
A few minutes later his friend also disappeared leaving his coffee cup empty and the water pipe on the table. It was all rather smooth, quiet, discreet and well understood. This was the opposite of the Felucca style but both were very Egyptian in their seething urgency, their commercial enterprise, their furtive manner and endless pursuit and sale of forbidden male eros.
El Gouna near Hurghada
A portion of this story was written on a balcony overlooking the Red Sea just north of the resort city of Hurghada, in a gated community called El Gouna. The place was developed by an Egyptian tycoon for the middle and upscale European market, with a small airport, golf course, hotels including a Sheraton and a Movenpick among numerous other smaller smart boutique hotels and shops.
There are also hundreds of holiday homes, flats and sites for purchase ranging from US$30,000 to $200,000. Omar Sharif is reported to own a place here and a top soccer star has a small palace, for 2 million Euros, on one of the many water inlets that weave like tentacles among the houses and out to the sea. It’s all quite tidy, pretty with pastel exteriors and clean beaches for the Germans, French and Italians and their ilk (including a few elite Egyptians) who come for the endless sun (and wind).
It’s anything but Egyptian and overwhelmingly straight. I was there only because it was on my group’s itinerary (a good way to go for a first visit to Egypt. I joined the group only for the Nile portion of my trip). There is beach lounging, snorkeling on threatened reefs, manicured blocks of domed houses and western style apartment complexes, noisy late night western disco music and Euro menus. It’s a quiet and safe stop for a while but it’s essentially a fantasy, a deception, far from the soul of ancient or modern Egypt, and certainly little to do with gay life as it really is in that country.
A pair of gay Egyptian lovers could possibly come here and blend in quietly since there is a broad mix of international visitors, but they would be among the very few who could afford even the two-star Hotel Elkhan at $40 a night. It’s very unlikely they would have the courage to appear as being together since all the staff in the hotels, shops, taxis and boats are native and would easily pick up that they were more than the usual back-slapping and cheek-kissing pals. But as usual nothing would be said.
Conforming to the Code
Virtually every unmarried guy lives with his family as a matter of money and tradition. Young men are expected to save money for their wedding so they can afford the marriage party, a flat with furniture and a display of financial respectability. Privacy is very difficult for any Egyptian with fervent desire for genuine same-sex affection. Even someone as independent as Madi must arrange his liaisons with Hani at the home of a friend who makes a room available to them.
In Luxor one of the best multilingual bookstores is the Aboudi bookshop. It’s a reliable place for international newspapers such as Le Monde, Der Stern and the International Herald Tribune. Tending store one day was Ahmed, the owner’s son, a university graduate, 23 years old. A handsome young man with a wry smile and rimless glasses, his English sounded well enough to suggest he might add some further insight for my gay Egypt story.
I doubted he was gay and it turned out he wasn’t but I sought some comments from a middle-class person about homosex in this country. I wondered if during his school and college years he knew of anyone who was homosexual. He smiled with only a slight hint of embarrassment but answered he did not. “It is not normal behavior, I think. I don’t know anyone that way,” he said pleasantly.
I was a bit surprised but I had to keep in mind this was rural Egypt, Luxor is as far culturally from Cairo as Canton, Ohio is from New York. Marriages here are sometimes arranged by parents for their marriage-age children. Ahmed told me about a recent such match made for a friend of his older brother in the area. Often the arrangement works out and duty is done by producing children. Ahmed did say that if it doesn’t work out that divorce is allowed.
What about the sexual feelings that young men have? If there are no girls for boys to date or have intimate contact with, what does a man do with those urges, I asked Ahmed. “In the Koran the prophet says that a person should fast and not take food. Then he will be hungry and his mind will change to his hunger instead,” replied Ahmed.
Ahmed did not know any male friends who had sexual contact with one another. The stereotype of single Muslim guys humping each other before marriage obviously does not apply to all. Of course I can never know if Ahmed was glossing over some furtive randy occasions when his hunger for food just didn’t cut the other craving. Horny and hungry at the same time? How long can that last, I wondered. It’s the first time I ever heard of someone possibly dying from sexual desire.
I can’t speak, of course, for the knowing looks exchanged among with women but I’m sure they were just as present. But even in Muslim-moderate Cairo where a portion of the women dress in western attire (as opposed to Muslim-style head scarves and long dresses in smaller cities), women are much more constrained than men in expressing sexuality. There is a very strong social ethic that demands women be much more chaste and modest and honorable.
A rigid, almost brittle, set of rules prescribe a ‘good’ woman’s life. The most powerful requisite is that she marry young, under 25, to maintain family tradition and honor. Cruising for sex is unthinkable. So lesbian affections are deeply hidden behind closed doors and mouths. To their possible advantage, women (wives) are often left among themselves when the men go off to the cafes in the afternoon or evenings.
(One of the most offensive and humiliating experiences for a man is to have his wife raped or sexually assaulted. It’s a favorite threat used by the government’s secret police to extract confessions from suspected militants or, more often, innocent victims accused of plotting against the long-serving Mubarak administration.)
Mohamed in Siwa
Free from my tourist group and a tight itinerary I rented a car in Alexandria and drove six hours (with stops) across the parched Western Desert to the remote ancient oasis of Siwa not far from Libya. I wanted to visit the Temple of Ammon, my namesake temple (also spelled Amun) where Alexander had come in 331 BC to consult with the oracle. He wanted to know if he was of divine origin (son of the god Ammon-Ra or Amun-Ra). After the consult he never revealed what was said but it must have been inspiring because Alexander went off to conquer most of the known world all the way to India.
A much more humble and modern day man, Mohamed, greeted me on my arrival at the charming Shali Lodge Hotel in Siwa village. He and half a dozen other workers managed the hotel for the rich Egyptian doctor-owner who lives part-time in America. Mohamed traveled each day to work on his bicycle, with brightly painted handle bars and mirrors, from the mud brick adobe-style house of four rooms where he has lived with his family all of his 26 years. He earned about $40 a month as a bell boy, waiter, housekeeper and other general worker for the hotel.
As a lone male traveler, I was the recipient of his attention and suggestions.
After he left the room, with one last downward glance, I imagined how things must be for him (as a gay or bi person) here in this remote place living with his family and knowing nearly everyone in town. There is no place to hide his desire in this faraway village except in his own heart. Perhaps occasionally he was lucky and able to steal some moments of pleasure with strangers but rarely an encore. Visitors stay in Siwa only a few days. Most likely, at the end of each day he peddled his bike home alone in silence. for local sites; he brought extra towels, drinking water and a husk of local ‘fruit’ whose inner fiber (tuffa) is used as a body scrubber in the bath. (He suggestively brought two.) It was easy to see that he was gauging me. He eyes lingered slightly on mine and wandered up and down my length.
Digression: Siwa’s Gay History
(Quoted from http://www.gayegypt.com/gayguidtosiw.html)
“Until the Second World War marriages between men were common. During the last century only women, children and men over the age of forty could remain within the city walls which meant that homosexuality was very common amongst the entirely male population outside.
“The duty of these young men was to work the fields and to guard them from attacks by hostile bedouin. They had a fearsome reputation and were known as “Zaggalah” or “Club bearers”. They also earned a shocking reputation for drunkenness and “unashamed” homoerotic relationships. As late as 1938 one horrified British army officer spoke with evident distaste of the oasis’ “degenerate inhabitants” [ Major C. S. Jarvis OBE (1947 edition) Desert and Delta p182 ].
“During the Second World War the oasis, which was close to Egypt’s border with Axis controlled Libya, served as a base for British special operations against Rommel’s Panzer Army Africa. It may have been this inflow of outsiders which led to negative reports being sent back to Cairo which in turn seems to have resulted in the outlawing of gay marriages in the oasis soon after the war’s end. However such relationships, though now illicit, still continue to flourish today–discreetly.
“The oasis has also served as a strategic base for much earlier “world powers”. Centuries ago Alexander the Great made a special detour across the desert to find the Oasis in 331BC. His journey was inspired by the reputation of a famous oracle to the god Amun (Ammon) sited in the oasis. The oracle promised him great conquests and he probably also enjoyed the company of some of the handsome Siwan men. Alexander’s bisexuality is well-known and some of the young priests may have earned a living as male prostitutes. <The ruins of the Temple of Ammon still exist in Siwa.>
“For whatever reason Alexander was so happy here he declared he would be buried in Siwa. Today some historians are hopeful they can find his tomb. These include Greek archaeologist Liana Sovaltzi who in 1995 discovered evidence indicating that the great conqueror was indeed buried somewhere near the Oasis. But despite much searching the tomb of Alexander remains to be discovered.” (End of quote)
My journey into ancient and modern Egypt did not disappoint me but it did make me feel somewhat choked. I think there is a heaviness in the gay Egyptian heart that cannot wholly be resolved even by a lover, by romance, passion or sex. It’s the sadness of being born gay in Egypt, born with a clutched fist around one’s heart–a heart in a desert of fear.
I spoke to three gay men in ‘liberal’ Cairo and Alexandria; I observed others in silence. They were all afraid of their sexual love for other men as much as they hungered for it. Never would they, at 20 or 50, be free from the heavy mantel of Islamic social strictures. The constant refrain was ‘how can I get out of here?’
It is one of the greatest human torments to be forbidden love–forbidden a desiring heart, a caress on the face, the press of soft lips. Across the transcontinental arc of Islamic countries countless millions of gays and lesbians lay their heads into solitary pillows each night wondering if they will ever have freedom to love.
But many of these isolated hearts learn early in life to forge a defensive shell against too much dreaming or desiring.
Young Ari in Alexandria has closed the book on his yearnings for now. His life has returned to previous dimensions–family and school, obedience and study. After his traumatic brush with the law, he is glad to return to a confined life until he can study abroad.
Hani was very much in love even though Madi is married with kids and will never come out or leave his family. Against that hard reality Hani has built a form of love composed of passion and denial, the only form available with Madi. When Madi recently told Hani he had accepted a job abroad it was a unilateral decision on Madi’s part and Hani had no vote in the matter. All he could do was sulk in obedient silence.
Gay love in Egypt has little choice but that does not diminish the truth of that love.
The author in Arab drag