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 was not enough discouragement, he went on to say, "I have another friend currently in prison in Cairo for the same offense. He was arrested shortly before I left for being in a disco on the 'Queen Boat' where homosexuals frequently hung out."
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, trial, and human rights outcry caused Egyptian President Mubarak 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 eventually connected with two Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt who agreed to meet me when I arrived. Their stories 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 as a medical consultant, and he 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.
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 as an exceptionally kind person. He was also somewhat of a local heartthrob 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."
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 while gazing into Madi's eyes, and said 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 had 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. It's customary for Egyptian men and women to socialize primarily with their own gender. Countless cafés 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 still 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 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 herders 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.
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 who are 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. One may not practice or pray or give alms according to scripture, but 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 conservative). 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
A good 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 McDonald'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 street 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.
That was the day that changed Ari's life, from a na´ve carefree student to a jailed criminal at the age of 18. His crime: "offending public morality, attempting to seduce another, and practicing homosexuality."
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 bent 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.
At 17 he was a gay person without ever having embraced another boy or felt the visceral charge of a passionate kiss. At 18 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, and repression. Having some ice cream in a café with boys and girls together 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 Christian, but this clearly had no softening impact on the dismay at receiving that phone call from the police. Their only 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 am studying international law in the Alexandria University. I am also studying for a diploma in computer science privately. I also study German language. I wish to get accepted in a foreign university to start 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, when I was first caught, I denied everything, and wouldn't confess the 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 McDonald'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 also a devil worshipper. For any Egyptian, this is the hell on earth if just to be accused, even if maybe not found guilty later.
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 everything.
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 doctor who was checking me. He was ordered from the D.A.. We were in a room with no door, and while people were passing outside, he told me he would do rectal examination, and then several 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 this terrible life, I luckily got released. I got a three years sentence, but I managed to escape it, because the federal government is corrupt, as well the police. (My family paid money, but they don't talk about it.) 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.
The main problem I have now is the complication happening afterward regarding constant fear of being re-jailed, my insomnia, and some manic-depression (so I'm told). My feelings are very moody, anxious, I think. I read a lot in psychology, but I fear going to psychiatrist. 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. 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 very hard for them, and I feel very bad what I have done to them. I think about my troubles all the time; they are in my head, but it is a little better now 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 this report from Human Rights Watch.
My latest message from Ari is that 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 bulky person with some effeminate style although being a man in attitude. I am a top if I didn't tell you before. I enjoy also lean guys. I think always I am more mature than my age and need someone older in result."
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 its 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
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 a 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 12, 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 in 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 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 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 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 where contradiction, paradox, and conflicting forces 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 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.
"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 a boner 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 its spicy crew for a cruise across the river -- or down into the hidden riverside foliage.
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 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 a room in a hotel was needed, it was not likely the man of the moment would even be allowed upstairs. The ever-watchful staff are on alert, even in two-star hotels, to "protect" guests from "suspicious" locals.
Like 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 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. 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 skill 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. 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."
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. Looking back at me he laughed and disappeared in the street traffic.
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 na´ve; 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 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.)
In the Hilton
Another face of "gay Egypt" appeared in the Nile Hilton, 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.
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. 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 the endless pursuit and sale of forbidden male eros.
El Gouna near Harghada
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, and 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 (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 has 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.
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 good 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 homosexuality 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 then answered that 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. 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.
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.
I can't speak, of course, for the knowing looks exchanged among 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 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 cafés 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 bellboy, waiter, housekeeper, and other general worker for the hotel.
As a lone male traveler, I was the recipient of his attention and suggestions 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.
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 pedaled his bike home alone in silence.
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 mantle 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.
©2005 by Richard Ammon