By NEGAR AZIMI
Published in New York Times Magazine, on: December 3, 2006
Mostafa Bakry has a knack for reinventing himself. He is an old-school Arab nationalist, newspaper editor and parliamentarian, and has managed to keep himself in the middle of the Egyptian political scene for almost two decades. He rails against decadence, against corruption — anything that can get the otherwise sleepy Egyptian public excited. This past July, he took on the issue of homosexuality, introducing a motion in Parliament calling for censorship of several scenes in a popular new film, “The Yacoubian Building,” and denouncing the racier parts of the movie as “spreading obscenity and debauchery.” One of the central characters in the story — a mosaic of downtown Cairo life complete with political intrigue, love triangles, the specter of extremism and more — is an affluent, dashing, Francophone newspaper editor who happens to be gay. He has an affair with a simple soldier from the countryside, and thus begins a tale of lust that ends in murder.
“It is a travesty,” Bakry told me not long ago when we met in the downtown Cairo office of his newspaper, Al Osboa (“The Week”). Shelves around his desk were stuffed with plaques, honorary degrees and dozens of gilt replicas of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. He fingered fancy prayer beads as he expounded in the way one would to an adoring crowd. “The American agenda is promoting the rights of homosexuals,” he said in Arabic. “I am not against freedom of expression, but this abnormal phenomenon should not be presented as natural. Even if it has roots here, it is rejected by society. And by Islam.”
In the end, 112 parliamentarians from across the political spectrum signed onto Bakry’s motion. The gesture, however, had little effect. By the beginning of September, the film was still doing well at the box office, and no censorship was in sight. But it didn’t matter. The parliamentarian had made his point; he had raised the flag of morality, religion and public virtue.
The politics of homosexuality is changing fast in the Arab world. For many years, corners of the region have been known for their rich gay subcultures — even serving as secure havens for Westerners who faced prejudice in their own countries. In some visions, this is a part of the world in which men could act out their homosexual fantasies. These countries hardly had gay-liberation moments, much less movements. Rather, homosexuality tended to be an unremarkable aspect of daily life, articulated in different ways in each country, city and village in the region.
But sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular are increasingly becoming concerns of the modern Arab state. Politicians, the police, government officials and much of the press are making homosexuality an “issue”: a way to display nationalist bona fides in the face of an encroaching Western sensibility; to reject a creeping globalization that brings with it what is perceived as the worst of the international market culture; to flash religious credentials and placate growing Islamist power. In recent years, there have been arrests, crackdowns and episodes of torture. In Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, as in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — even in famously open and cosmopolitan Lebanon — the policing of homosexuality has become part of what sometimes seems like a general moral panic.
Egypt’s most famous crackdown got under way at a neon floating disco, the Queen Boat, docked on the wealthy Nile-side island of Zamalek, just steps from the famously gay-friendly Marriott Hotel. In the early-morning hours of May 11, 2001, baton-wielding police officers descended upon the boat, where men were dancing and drinking. Security officials rounded up more than 50 of them — doctors, teachers, mechanics. Those who were kept in custody became known among Egyptians as the Queen Boat 52. The detained men were beaten, bound, tortured; some were even subjected to exams to determine whether they had engaged in anal sex. In the weeks that followed, official, opposition and independent newspapers printed the names, addresses and places of work of the detained. Front pages carried the men’s photographs, not always with black bars across their eyes. The press accused the men of sexual excesses, dressing as women, devil worship, even dubious links to Israel. Bakry’s newspaper, Al Osboa, helped lead the charge.
The Queen Boat was just the beginning. Agents of the Department for Protection of Morality, a sort of vice squad within the Ministry of Interior’s national police force, began monitoring suspected gay gathering spots, recruiting informants, luring people into arrest via chat sites on the Internet, tapping phones, raiding homes. Today, arrests and roundups occur throughout the country, from the Nile Delta towns of Damanhour and Tanta to Port Said along the Suez Canal and into Cairo.
The city’s central Tahrir Square is a vast plaza with awkward pedestrian islands separated by traffic, lined with a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Arab League headquarters and the Egyptian government’s hulking bureaucratic headquarters, the Mugamma. On summer evenings, it is full of people. Men whistle at passing women, couples linger, tourists are accosted by the oddly seductive call of “You look like an Egyptian” and hawkers promote their wares — not the least of which is sex. In early July of this year, 11 men, said to be conspicuously homosexual, were picked up.
Many of the police reports on arrests of homosexuals have cited “the protection of the society’s values” as a motivating factor, adding that the arrested threatened to harm “the country’s reputation on the international level.” The country’s image is of the utmost importance for the officials responsible for these campaigns. Still, homosexual acts are not against the law in Egypt; most men caught in these roundups are charged with fujur, or the “habitual practice of debauchery.” Some countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, expressly criminalize homosexual acts. But in Egypt, the charges have increasingly involved a creative interpretation of a law introduced in 1951 to combat prostitution — drafted as a response to what was viewed as a remnant of Egypt’s colonial past. (The British introduced the licensing of brothels.)
The Queen Boat affair roughly coincided with a number of circuslike controversies in Cairo surrounding public morality: the outrage following the publication of the Syrian author Haider Haider’s novel “Banquet for Seaweed” (which incited riots at Al Azhar University in Cairo, as the book, about two Iraqi exiles in the 1970s, was interpreted as offensive to Islam); the trial of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American university professor and human rights activist accused of embezzlement, illegally accepting foreign funds and sullying Egypt’s image abroad; and the trial in 2002 of a prominent businessman who had taken 19 wives. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood, which often positions itself in opposition to what it describes as a decadent, secular regime, won 17 seats in Parliament in 2000.
Public regulation of morality is an area in which the secular regime — often through its mouthpiece religious institution, Al Azhar — is in harmony with the Islamists. Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, was brought under direct state control by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961. Through Al Azhar, the secular regime throws the occasional bone to the religious opposition — most often on issues of women and the family. Sometimes, avowedly secular officials and politicians even try to outdo the Islamists in this tug of war over who can win the public’s favor as the guardian of morality.
Tanta is a drab industrial town on the Nile, halfway between Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. With a population of about 350,000, Tanta has a university and a plethora of cotton-gin and oil factories. It is probably best known for its moulid, a gathering celebrating Al-Sayyed Ahmed Al-Badawi, a 13th-century holy man of Moroccan origin credited with being the founder of the Badawiyyah Sufi order. Al Badawi died in Tanta in 1276, and each year in October, just at the end of the cotton harvest, some two million Egyptians descend upon Tanta and Al Badawi’s shrine for a week of recitations, performances, dancing and devotion.
The rest of the year Tanta is remarkably quiet. One afternoon in August, I met a young man named Hassan at a baroque, upscale hotel steps away from the shrine. Though it is difficult to speak of a gay community in Tanta (not all men who sleep with men in Egypt use the term “gay,” much less identify themselves as such), Hassan is a ringleader of sorts, a thread between generations. A youthful 37, he comes from a working-class family — his father runs an auto-parts shop — and he told me, mischievously, that he got out of military service because he is the only son among girls. For Hassan and many gay men in Tanta, the last few years have been especially hard. “First, there was Shibl’s death, then the affair of Ahmed, then Adel’s death and the arrests,” he explained.
Shibl was a friend of Hassan’s, caught with another man in the baths of the shrine — a gathering ground for many gay men at the time. In 2002 he was beaten so badly in detention that he died of cardiac arrest. Ahmed, another friend, was arrested from his home later that year, accused of having sex with two other men in his flat and “forming a group of Satan worshipers.” In prison, he was forced to strip down to his underwear, then was humiliated and beaten to the point of hemorrhaging. After his release, he lost his job as a schoolteacher. One local paper wrote, “A male teacher puts aside all principles and follows his perverted instincts, putting on women’s clothes and makeup on his face to seduce men who seek forbidden pleasures.”
Adel, a third friend of Hassan’s, was killed by an occasional lover. The ensuing investigation, not far removed from a witch hunt, resulted in many suspected homosexuals in Tanta being arrested, including Hassan. He and others arrested told me that they were held in a police interrogation room called “the refrigerator,” marked by a carpet brought in by the police that was caked in Adel’s blood. Detainees were tortured nightly for more than two weeks, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., according to the same sources. Hassan estimates that at least 100 men were detained and tortured. Some men were forced to stand on their tiptoes for those hours; others got electric shocks to the penis and tongue; still others were beaten on the soles of their feet with a rod called a felaqa, to the point of losing consciousness.
Most men were held until they broke, agreeing to work as informants, walking the street to pick up other homosexuals and reporting in each night. “They told us Adel deserved to die,” Hassan told me. “They said they wished all gays would die.” This went on for at least a month, Hassan and others say, in a pattern of detention, torture, informing, more torture.
On my second visit to Tanta, in August, I sat down for a lunch of kapsa, a sweet Saudi rice specialty, with Hassan and Mo, a slight student of English literature at Tanta University. The discussion turned to Islam and homosexuality. Both of them considered themselves practicing Muslims. Mo has combed the Internet for signs as to whether homosexuality is at odds with Islam. He said he had browsed the popular Egyptian lay preacher Ahmed Khaled’s Web site and found nothing. But he did see that Sheik Yussuf Al-Qaradawi had called homosexuals “perverts.” Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric generally considered a liberal, is best known for his television program “Shariah and Life” on the satellite channel Al Jazeera, and for his Web site, Islamonline.
“There is nothing clear about homosexuality in the Koran,” Hassan said. “It reads that the man who does it should be hurt. What does it mean ‘to be hurt’? In the Arabian peninsula they used a stick the size of this pencil (he raises my pencil) to punish men. It’s not like thievery or adultery. And anyway the Prophet was promised boys in heaven. Not girls.”
“I read that one should have their head cut off or be thrown from a mountain,” Mo continued.
Hassan disagreed: “There is no explicit punishment for gays in the Koran.”
Mo countered, “The problem is not the punishment, it is the scandal.”
Hassan, looking triumphant, told us that Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, had also spoken out against homosexuality. (Most famously, in 1990, he asked, “What rights are there for homosexuals?”) “It’s more complicated than you think,” Hassan said to Mo.
Countless interpretations of the story of the prophet Lot — the source of much of the commentary on homosexuality in Islam, as well as in Judaism and Christianity — have been offered. Ambiguities abound, and while there is no consensus on where Islam stands, popular and legalistic reinterpretations take liberties in selecting the bits that suit particular worldviews — whether they are liberal or intolerant. In October of last year, the Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa against homosexuals on the Arabic-language version of his Web site. It was inexplicably removed last May (some say international outrage swayed the image-conscious cleric). And while Al-Qaradawi did call homosexuals sexual perverts, he also noted “there is disagreement” over punishment.
Perched on a hill at the end of a windy road in Helwan, an industrial town south of Cairo and once the summer romping ground for the city’s well-to-do, is the Behman Hospital. With its pruned bushes and tennis courts, Behman looks more like a country club than a psychiatric institute. Dr. Nasser Loza is the medical director there; he is also an adviser to the Ministry of Health and runs a clinic in the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen. I had heard through friends that Loza counsels homosexual couples, so I went looking for him.
“They come in with quite banal relationship problems,” Loza told me when we met one afternoon at the hospital. “They manage to have very normal, quiet lives despite society’s negative views about being gay.” He added that on average he sees about one new couple every two or three months. “I suppose most are high-level professionals, some are of mixed cultural backgrounds.” Loza’s patients are the people you hear less of in the din of discussion surrounding homosexuality in this part of the world. Take M., for example, a successful businessman who was among the 52 arrested on the Queen Boat. He has since moved to the States, and recently wrote me in an e-mail message: “Money gave me security. I met my partner at a dinner party. I could travel. And I didn’t have my family on my back because I had moved out. I had a normal life until this happened.”
Most often, Loza sees families. “Typically, a family comes in with their son or daughter who has just announced that they are homosexual,” Loza explained. “They want me to help. The first reaction on the part of the family is denial, and then incredible blame.” In 1990, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, but Loza told me that “whether it is treated as a disease or not really depends on the doctor.” While a combination of counseling and antidepressants seems the norm, you still sometimes hear of the application of electroshock therapy.
L., a lesbian originally from Alexandria, is seeing a Cairo psychiatrist. Women have not been subject to the same kind of attacks that men have been in Egypt, perhaps because of their relative invisibility — an invisibility that can itself be oppressive. It can be virtually impossible to meet other gay women. For L., the brunt of the problem is her family. “I’ve been to three psychiatrists, each time taken in by my parents,” she told me. “The first two prescribed antidepressants, they told me it was a phase, that I should ‘cheer up.’ The third prescribed electroshock therapy. I never went back.”
In Cairo, L. is studying communications. She has nothing to do with her family and, through the Internet, has found a supportive partner. The weight of the stigma remains. “When a Muslim dies, there is a required 30 minutes of prayer,” she wrote to me in a recent e-mail message. “When a gay person dies, they bury him and flee.”
There is a searing scene in the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s 1973 novel “For Bread Alone” in which a desperate young man, having recently moved from the country to the city in colonial Morocco, sells himself to an elderly Spaniard. The scene is explicit (they have oral sex in a car), and the novel, which has been banned or caused controversy in many Arab countries, serves as a stunning condemnation of the power disparities engendered by colonialism. Symbolism like Choukri’s is common in Arabic literature and cinema, providing for what the British writer Brian Whitaker has referred to as a “reverse Orientalism,” in which sex, and specifically homosexual sex, is presented as a foreign incursion, a tool of colonial domination.
Sometimes a stigma hangs over efforts to protect homosexuals from repression or attack. Negad Al Boraei, an Egyptian attorney and human rights activist, has irritated many in the local human rights community by a number of his stances, including his willingness to accept American financing for his work. (He readily dismisses his critics as “communists” and “revolutionaries.” He was one of the first recipients in Egypt of financing from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.) I went to Al Boraei to talk about how sexual rights fit into the broader human rights agenda.
“I was telling a friend of mine who works for Amnesty International, we have a lot of problems here — torture, violations against street children, we are full of problems,” he told me. As he spoke he gesticulated wildly with his ring-covered hands. “To come in and talk about gays and lesbians, it is nice, but it’s not the major issue. It’s like I am starving and you ask me what kind of cola I want. Well, I want to eat first. Then we can talk about cola! It’s a luxury to talk about gay rights in Egypt.”
When the raid on the Queen Boat occurred, much of the human rights community declined to take the case on, Al Boraei included. (Some activists even attacked those who met with the defendants.) Hossam Bahgat, a young Alexandrian working at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told me he was quietly dismissed after he wrote an article calling upon the human rights community to overcome its fears about working on the case. In the West, however, the Queen Boat became something of a cause célèbre. Amnesty International supported protests in front of the Egyptian Embassy in London. A Web site called GayEgypt.com
called on Egypt’s homosexuals to wear red on the two-year anniversary of the Queen Boat raid (an invitation to be arrested, it seems), while 35 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, asking for a stop to the anti-homosexual crusade. It was no wonder that amid this, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram al-Arabi proclaimed, “Be a pervert and Uncle Sam will approve.”
“This was framed locally as an attack from the West,” says Bahgat, who eventually collaborated with Human Rights Watch on the case and later opened his own organization, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It was important to show that working for the rights of the detained was not a gay agenda, or a Western agenda, that this was linked to Egypt’s overall human rights record. Raising the gay banner when most sexual and other human rights are systematically violated every day is never going to get you far in this country.”
In the end, Human Rights Watch avoided laying itself open to easy attack as the bearer of an outsider’s agenda, packaging Queen Boat advocacy in the larger context of torture. Many of the arrested men were tortured, and torture is something that, at least in theory, most people agree is a bad thing. In Human Rights Watch’s 150-page report on the crackdown, references to religion, homosexual rights or anything else that could be seen or used as code for licentiousness were played down. Torture was played up, and it may very well be the first and last human rights report to cite Michel Foucault’s “History of Sexuality.” Upon release of the report in March 2004, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director, and Scott Long, director of the organization’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project, met with Egypt’s public prosecutor, the assistant to the interior minister and members of the Foreign Ministry. Their effort seemed to have had some effect; although occasional arrests continue, the all-out campaign of arrest and entrapment of men that began with the Queen Boat incident came to an end. One well-connected lawyer noted that a high-ranking Ministry of Interior source told him, “It is the end of the gay cases in Egypt, because of the activities of some human rights organizations.”
When I spoke to Long about his work on the Queen Boat case and its aftermath, he reflected on his advocacy methods in a context in which human rights, and especially gay rights, are increasingly associated with Western empire-building. “Perhaps we had less publicity for the report in the United States because we avoided fetishizing beautiful brown men in Egypt being denied the right to love,” he said. “We wrote for an Egyptian audience and tried to make this intelligible in terms of the human rights issues that have been central in Egyptian campaigns. It may not have made headlines, but it seemed to make history.” Whether the effort made history or simply interrupted it remains to be seen. Long himself noted, “The fact that the crackdown came apparently out of nowhere is a reminder that the repression could revive anytime.”
The possibilities for official repression exist across the Arab world. Early one morning this past August in Saudi Arabia, the police raided a wedding party in the town of Jizan, arresting 20 men “impersonating women,” according to the newspaper Al Watan. Similarly, late last year, 26 men were arrested when a party in Ghantout, a desert region on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway in the United Arab Emirates, was raided. The press went into typical scandal mode, and images of some of the men in women’s clothing circulated on cellphones. A government spokesman was quoted in The Khaleej Times, “Because they’ve put society at risk they will be given the necessary treatment, from male hormone injections to psychological therapies.” Arrests have also taken place in Lebanon — despite its being perceived as having more liberal social mores — as well as Morocco.
In Egypt, religiosity — along with an associated emphasis on public involvement in the private sphere — continues to rise. For the 2005 campaign the Muslim Brotherhood listed beauty pageants, music videos and sexy photographs as issues needing public debate; banning female presenters (even in veils) from state-run television and expanding religious education in public schools were also on the agenda. The brotherhood won 88 seats. And in most cases, there has been complete impunity for perpetrators of attacks on gay men; individual officers responsible for attacks have been promoted or shuffled around. As recently as September, at least one entrapment case occurred in Cairo; a young man was lured via a chat site and tortured — badly beaten and subject to electroshock on his genitals — by the same office of the public morality squad that had conducted Internet-based entrapments.
In the meantime, routine scapegoating of the West, and of its real and perceived agendas in the region, seems to be reaching new highs. The Egyptian government, despite its intimate strategic relationship with the U.S., has been increasing its rhetorical assaults on what is blithely reduced to an imperial, meddling West — ostensibly to parade its nationalist credentials in the face of America’s disastrous exploits in the Middle East. (In September, Gamal Mubarak, the president’s smooth-talking, Western-educated son and heir apparent, went so far as to dismiss Western initiatives designed to foster democratization in the region at a policy conference of the ruling National Democratic Party). Blanket attacks on what is vaguely referred to as “human rights” continue; in late August, Mostafa Bakry’s newspaper, Al Osboa, assailed Hossam Bahgat’s organization, along with an NGO that works on AIDS, for defending “perverts.” The ingredients for another crackdown exist in abundance in Egypt and the region at large.
Today the Queen Boat continues to sit docked on the Nile, its name clumsily respelled “Queen Boot” in garish green neon. It is hardly the gay hangout it once was, instead catering to the very occasional budget tourist. Many dragged away by the police that evening five years ago have since left the country, and others keep a low profile, although there are signs that young people have begun cruising the Nile banks again and meeting on the Internet.
As I prepared to leave Cairo at the beginning of the fall, I received an e-mail message from M., the businessman from the Queen Boat, since relocated to the States. “I sit here, and the Americans talk about something called Islamic fascism, the Arabs go on about their values,” he wrote. “All of us, and I don’t mean gay men, I mean all of us who don’t fit the norm — democracy activists, queens, anything — it’s us who get branded as Western, fifth columnists. We pay the price.”