Last edited: January 04, 2005

Gay Arab Gathers Courage to Confront His Community

By Mubarak 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 evil.

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 discussion.

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 rhetoric—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.”

  • Mubarak Dahir is a Palestinian-American journalist who lives in NYC. Mubarak can be contacted via email at

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