Homosexuality on Trial in Egypt
– UK, November 19, 2001
By Brian Whitaker
Same-sex relationships are as common in the Middle East as in Europe, but
the difference is public perceptions
In 1800, a European traveller to Egypt wrote: "The inconceivable
inclination which has dishonoured the Greeks and Persians of antiquity
constitutes the delight, or, more properly speaking the infamy of the
Egyptians ... the contagion has seized the poor as well as the rich."
The "contagion" in question was spelled out more bluntly by an
earlier writer, Thomas Sherley, describing the Turks: "For their
Sodommerye they use it soe publiquely and impudentlye as an honest Christian
woulde shame to companye his wyffe as they do with their buggeringe
A 17th century French visitor to the Middle East went so far as to claim
that Muslims were bisexual by nature, and numerous male authors gave
descriptions of "licentiousness" (i.e. lesbianism) among women in
harems and bath houses that they could not possibly have witnessed.
In those days, homosexuality was known in Britain as the
"Persian" or "Turkish" vice. That image of the Middle East
has never entirely disappeared, and first-time visitors today are often struck
by the sight of men, sometimes even soldiers in uniform, strolling along a
street hand in hand.
The mistake here is to imagine that spoken language is the only gulf
between cultures. Body language and customs also need translating if they are
not to be misunderstood.
Confused signals can, of course, travel in both directions. A handbook
issued to western students by the American University in Cairo warns:
"Earrings on men are considered to be a sign of homosexuality".
A Jordanian (who had never visited Britain) once informed me that London is
full of discos where "girlboys" dance together. Such behaviour,
naturally, is known to many Arabs as the "English" vice.
The truth of the matter, so far as anyone really knows, is that same-sex
relationships are neither more nor less common in the Middle East than
anywhere else—though attitudes towards them differ.
Although Islam strongly disapproves of sex between men, Muslim societies
have generally been tolerant in practice, especially where relationships are
discreet. One of the most celebrated poets of classical Arabic literature
indulged in wine and young men in equal quantities, but literary merit seems
to have excused his behaviour.
The relatively open and liberal attitudes in much of the Arab world
obviously came as a great shock to the straight-laced European travellers of
the 18th and 19th centuries. The first people in Egypt to demand a law against
homosexuality were the British, during the colonial period.
Curiously, though, over the last few decades, these positions have been
reversed. Europe and North America have become more liberal towards
homosexuality while some of the Arab countries have become more conservative—possibly
in order to appease Islamic militants.
Last week, in the biggest gay trial that Egypt has ever seen, 23 men were
sentenced to between one and five years’ imprisonment for
"debauchery" (since homosexuality itself is not illegal).
Twenty-nine others, who had been held in jail for six months awaiting trial,
In advance of the trial, Egyptian newspapers published the full names and
addresses of the accused—who included a university professor, three doctors
and a lawyer—so there is little chance that those who were cleared will be
able to return to a normal life.
The case began last May with a police raid on the Queen Boat, a floating
disco on the Nile in Cairo, which was known as a gay—but not exclusively gay—venue.
A number of women who inconveniently happened to be on board were allowed to
Egypt’s popular media reported the affair with a mixture of homophobia
and xenophobia. Homosexuality, in their eyes, is a foreign phenomenon—an
illness that Egyptians, if they are not careful, risk catching from
westerners. Having caught it they may, in the words of one newspaper, go on to
"infect others", thus threatening the Egyptian way of life.
It therefore came as no surprise that the central figure in the case,
32-year-old Sherif Farahat, was said to have been a regular visitor to the gay
fleshpots of Europe and—adding a touch of regional politics—Israel.
To highlight the danger to the nation, the case was not heard in an
ordinary court but in the state security court, specially set up some years
ago to deal with suspected terrorists. The front-page headline of a Cairo
newspaper reinforced this view: "Perverts declare war on Egypt".
Although novels by famous Egyptian writers such as Nobel Prize winner
Naguib Mahfouz, and several films, portray gay characters living normally in
society and causing no public outcry, it has never been easy to be gay in
Egypt. In poor areas, men who seem feminine or act in a camp manner are
ridiculed and sometimes beaten.
Gay characters in modern Arab novels and films usually meet with
unhappiness or tragedy. Their sexual relationships with foreigners are often a
metaphor for western domination or Arab revenge against it.
One popular explanation for same-sex relationships among young people in
the Middle East is that those involved are not really gay, but social
insistence on the virginity of unmarried women drives them to seek other
This is simply not true, according to one Egyptian gay activist who asked
to be known only as Ahmed. "Heterosexual sex is freely available,"
he said. "Women who need to be virgins can have an operation to restore
their virginity before they marry. It’s very simple and quite cheap."
(The cost is normally less than £200.)
It is much more common, he said, for gay young men to be forced into
marriages they do not want. Those who display the wrong inclinations are
likely to be beaten by their fathers until they find a wife or run away from
home. In better-off families they may be sent for a "cure".
Ahmed told of a friend whose father discovered he was having a gay
relationship and, after a beating, bundled him off to a psychiatrist.
"The treatment involved showing him pictures of men and women and
giving him electric shocks if he looked at the men," Ahmed said.
"After a few weeks of this he persuaded a woman to pretend to be his
girlfriend. His father was happy for a while—until he found a text message
from the boyfriend on his son’s mobile phone."
The beatings started again and the young man fled to the United States.
No one is absolutely sure what prompted the recent mass trial in Cairo, but
it seems that the internet played a part.
While discreet gay relationships are tolerated in Egypt up to a point,
concepts such as "gay identity" and "gay lifestyle" are
not recognised. There has never been a "gay community" of the kind
found in many western cities.
This began to change in Egypt with the arrival of the internet. Websites
and email lists allowed previously isolated gays to make contact and tell each
other about social events.
About the same time, the Egyptian police set up a special internet crimes
unit. With internet use mainly confined to the country’s law-abiding middle
classes, there was little real work for them to do, but they needed to show
results and spotted a few international dating sites where Egyptian men were
seeking to meet other men.
"Some found themselves invited out for a date and got arrested when
they turned up," one man said. In February, a computer engineer was
jailed for 15 months and an accountant for three months for having committed a
"scandalous act"—advertising sexual services on the web.
Many Egyptian gays believe the government has cracked down because they
were starting to come into the open. Ahmed Ghanem, a western-educated film
director, says that the internet made it easier to find gay hangouts, and many
upper-class gays no longer felt a need to hide.
"This has led to a negative reaction among ordinary Egyptians who do
not believe that sex is something to speak about in public," he says.
Meanwhile, half a dozen Egyptian gay websites have closed down, leaving
only gayegypt.com, which is registered in London and uses a server in
California. It carries a warning on its home page that visitors may be
monitored by the Egyptian authorities.
The gay emailing lists, in turn, have been deluged with
"unsubscribe" messages. Since the arrests, one has dropped from 300
subscribers to nine (of whom only six are Egyptians).
- Thanks to Khaled Dawoud, the Guardian’s correspondent in Cairo, for
assistance with this article.
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