Gay Arab Gathers Courage to Confront His Community
Dahir, February 12, 2002
Ismail El-Shareef could feel his heart racing as he stood
at the microphone waiting to pose what he knew would be a shocking question to
the audience of hundreds around him.
“I was very nervous and a little overwhelmed,” says
El-Shareef. “My emotions were a mixture of joy that I had come to do this,
and fear of the reaction I would get.”
El-Shareef, a 27-year-old Egyptian computer engineer
living in West Hollywood, had gathered all his courage to drive the hour south
to Anaheim February 7 to attend a dinner hosted by the American-Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in honor of Amre Moussa, the Secretary
General of the League of Arab States and a former prime minister of Egypt.
El-Shareef was there for one reason: To confront the
Egyptian dignitary on the recent actions by the Egyptian government towards
gay men. In Cairo last May, 52 men were arrested in a raid on the Queen Boat,
a floating disco on the Nile known as a gay hangout. Though Egypt has no
specific law against homosexuality, the men were charged with committing
“obscene behavior,” and “contempt for religion.” In November, 23 of
the men were convicted and sentenced to years in prison.
El-Shareef fears a close friend is among the Egyptian men
arrested and jailed. El-Shareef chose not to disclose the man’s name, but
said his friend was a frequent visitor of the Queen Boat. Last May, after El-Shareef
first heard of the arrests, he e-mailed his friend to ask if he was safe. When
the e-mail remained unanswered, El-Shareef sent another one. And another. El-Shareef
says it is unusual for his friend not to reply to e-mails.
Worried, El-Shareef tried phoning his friend on at least
three separate occasions, but the cell phone rang and rang, unanswered. The
last several times El-Shareef sent e-mails, an automated response was
returned, saying the friend’s e-mail box had exceeded its limit of incoming
messages. The unreturned e-mails, the unanswered telephone calls and the
overflowing e-mail box convince El-Shareef that his friend has been nabbed.
Recently, the Egyptian government has stepped up its
harassment of gay men, using the Internet to lure men into meeting undercover
police officers, only to be hauled off to jail. In January, at least 8 more
men were arrested.
Since the arrests began, El-Shareef has been sending
letters and faxes to the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., and to Egyptian
consulates in numerous other cities around the country. His letters have
remained ignored and unanswered.
So when El-Shareef saw an ad in his local Arabic
newspaper advertising ADC’s honoring of Amre Moussa, he decided show up in
person and raise the issue.
“I figured it was the perfect setting,” he explains.
“The ADC is an organization that claims to fight against discrimination and
for human rights. And in Egyptian circles, Amre Moussa is very influential,
and considered a moderate.”
During his speech that evening, Amre Moussa lauded the
ADC for its work on behalf of Arab-Americans who have suffered a surge of
discrimination, even violence, in the wake of September 11. He asked audience
members to play an active role in working for tolerance and understanding. And
he called on everyone to confront oppression, which he called the face of
El-Shareef was heartened by Moussa’s speech, and jotted
notes quoting the Secretary General’s own stirring phrases.
Then, with butterflies in his stomach, El-Shareef stood
in line to pose his question.
When it was finally his turn, El-Shareef started by
praising the Secretary General’s call to action, quoting back his own words.
Then, taking a deep breath, he continued: Could the Secretary General discuss
the situation in Egypt concerning the government’s continued oppression of
gay men, and offer his opinion on the situation?
“This particularly hits home for me,” El-Shareef
concluded, “because I am a gay Egyptian myself.”
As soon as El-Shareef first uttered the word “gay,”
the audience rippled with hushed murmurs and even a few boos. “It was a
tense and uncomfortable atmosphere,” El-Shareef says. “It was a very
public coming out for me in a hostile environment. But I wanted these
progressive Arab Americans who are part of a national anti-discrimination
group who had gathered to speak out on international issues of human rights to
face this issue.”
Unfortunately, Moussa totally evaded the question. He
simply refused to comment, and went on to the next question.
Back at his seat, El-Shareef was deeply disappointed. He
hadn’t expected Moussa to champion gay rights, and had even braced himself
for a condemnation of homosexuality. But he at least had hoped to force some
Minutes later, however, El-Shareef’s disappointment
turned to anger.
El-Shareef’s American lover, Mark Zecca, had
accompanied him to the event, and was standing in line waiting to ask his own
question. Zecca started by saying how he felt American foreign policy was
disastrously biased against the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
Zecca forcefully insisted to know what serious, concrete steps “beyond the
usual lip service and rhetoricâ€”the League of Arab States and Arab
nations were willing to take to lobby American policymakers for a more fair
approach to solving the problem.
Zecca became an instant crowd favorite. “People were
clapping and even standing and shouting,” recalls El-Shareef.
For him, the irony was too much. “I wanted to shout,
“You hypocrites! You are cheering a homosexual!” El-Shareef pondered the
thought that “if this man was back in Egypt, they wouldn’t be applauding
him, they’d be arresting him!”
Looking back on the event, El-Shareef remains
disappointed, but determined. “I feel I have to keep speaking up on this
issue to Arabs and Arab-Americans,” he says. “Very few gay Arabs are
willing to confront our own community. But if we don’t do it, how will
things ever change? I’m little apprehensive about it, but I feel I can’t
be quiet now. I have to be louder.”
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