“Cruising” the Nile
Dahir, February 5, 2003
I am sitting at the Taverne Bar in Cairo’s Nile Hilton
hotel, waiting for a man I know only as “Mac.”
Mac is the sole gay man in Egypt who would communicate
with me via e-mail before I made my trip here. Ever since the May 2001 police
raid of the Queen Boat, a floating gay disco on the Nile, where 52 men were
arrested and put on trial for “obscene behavior” and “contempt for
religion,” gay life has gone deeply underground. And while the arrest and
trial of the “Cairo 52,” as the Queen Boat victims have become known, has
garnered international attention and protest, the Egyptian government
continues to harass gay men with other, smaller round-ups. Police also
sometimes go online in “sting” operations, where they pose as gay men, set
up meetings, then arrest their dates. Though there is no law against
homosexuality in Egypt, it’s not difficult for the police to make up all
kinds of charges against the men, including unfounded claims of prostitution.
Shortly before my arrival, a police Internet sting
resulted in several entrapments. In at least one case, the policeman posed as
a gay tourist from Italy looking to meet locals. The subsequent fear that
created made it almost impossible for me to arrange online to meet men for
interviews. Mac alone would answer my electronic notes, much less agree to
meet. After a flurry of cautious e-mails—where Mac would not send me his
picture—and a few phone calls once I arrived in Cairo, Mac told me to meet
him at the Taverne.
The bar is designed as an old-fashioned English pub, with
heavy dark woods and plush, overstuffed chairs around small round tables. The
walls are lined with booths, made semi-private by stained glass partitions
The Taverne Bar used to be a hot meeting place for gay
men, particularly on Thursday and Friday nights, the weekend in most Muslim
countries. There was a time when so many gay men crammed into the pub that it
was standing room only.
But at 7 PM on a Thursday night in mid December, the bar
is practically empty. At the far end of the room, a few straight Egyptian
couples on dates steal what privacy they can in the secluded booths. At the
grand bar itself, two older men are chatting up a woman in tight black pants
and a T-shirt that is surprisingly revealing for such a conservative country.
The woman’s hair is bleach blond—clearly not her natural color. Her nails
are blood red, and the make-up on her face is thick and exaggerated. She is
probably a prostitute.
Also sitting at the bar is a handsome, broad-shouldered
man with the thick, charcoal-black hair and dark eyes that is the signature of
Egyptian men. I take a seat at a table in the middle of the floor, where I can
get a good view of the place as I look for Mac. Periodically, the good-looking
man at the bar turns and looks my way. I wonder if perhaps he is Mac. But then
it hits me he is cruising. I am relieved to see that vestiges of gay life
Moments later, a tall, lean man with a bushy mustache
walks through the door. He spots me, walks to my table and puts out his hand.
“I’m Mac,” he says.
At Mac’s request, we move to a booth to take advantage
of what little privacy it offers. We order two Stellas, the Egyptian beer, and
Mac lays out his has requirements for the conversation to continue: I am to
refer to him only as “Mac”; I never learn his real name. We are to speak
only in English, no Arabic. He doesn’t want to address me by my Arabic name,
but instead insists on using an American moniker—we settle on “Bart,” my
adopted nickname. And we are not to say the word “gay” out loud; instead,
we use the code word “family.”
Mac, 41, teaches at a private high school in Heliopolis,
a wealthy section of the city where many government officials live, including
President Hosni Mubarak. Mac is unusual in that he lives alone in his own
place. Most unmarried Egyptian men, regardless of their age, still live at
home. But because Mac is “family,” living at home with his parents would
be “unbearable,” he says. He doubts he’ll ever be able to live with a
boyfriend, should he find one. “That would be highly unusual, and very
difficult” to pull off.
His parents still ask him when he will find a woman and
settle down. “I just tell them I haven’t found the right woman yet,” he
says. “To some degree, they know I will never find the right woman. It’s a
situation of ‘don’t say, don’t tell, don’t know.’” But he believes
his family does know he’s “family.”
“When the extended family gets together, I can feel the
odd looks, and I know they whisper behind my back. They pity me, because in
Egypt, everything is built on family. Without a family, you are not considered
whole or complete or normal.” The vast majority of gay men in Egypt do end
up marrying, he says, and secretly having sex with men on the side.
Before the evening is over, Mac drives me around Cairo
and points out the top cruisy places where men still go to meet. We drive past
an old movie theater, infamous for sex in the balconies. He shows me a disco
called the Tiffany Bar, that attracts a lot of gay men on the weekends. Mac
points out one sauna where men go to have sex, warning it is more dirty than
dangerous. A second sauna, he says, is clean and comfortable, but “there’s
no penetration. If you’re lucky you can get a hand job. But if you get
caught, they fine you and, worst of all, ban you.” We end up at Ramses
Square, a huge transportation hub for buses. We walk to a large, concrete
square area with benches and sit. This, Mac says, is where he usually comes to
The square is literally in the shadow of a huge mosque,
and I can’t help but comment on the irony. But Mac, who is Muslim, says most
of the men he meets for sex are also Muslim, and that, as far as he knows,
there is very little religious struggle for them. “There is a big social
struggle about it for everyone, but that’s true if you are Christian,
too,” he notes.
Before I leave Cairo, I return several times to the
Taverne. There is never a huge crowd there, but on four subsequent visits, I
find at least one gay man each time. When I tell them I am a journalist, all
of the men I speak to insist on using pseudonyms—that’s how thick the fear
is here in the aftermath of the Queen Boat. The night before I leave the city,
I run into a well-dressed, clean-cut man at the Taverne. We stare at each
other for half an hour before I strike up a conversation by pretending I’ve
run out of matches to light cigarettes. In the two weeks I spend in Egypt, I
learn that, when approaching gay Egyptians, they are much more at ease when
they realize I am an American.
This man, whom I’ll call “Salim,” echoes the
sentiments Mac and the others have told me. “What we had once, it’s
gone,” Salim says sadly, shaking his head. He still comes to the Taverne
occasionally, hoping it finds favor again with gay men. But so far, it
hasn’t. Salim, who is Christian, also agrees that the social pressures that
keep gay men so hidden these days are less religious than cultural. “The
police don’t stop to ask your religion when they arrest you,” he says to
make a point.
Salim narrowly escaped arrest himself the night of the
Queen Boat incident. He was on the boat, when suddenly the music and flashing
lights came to an abrupt halt. Everyone on board simply thought there was a
technical problem. Even when police boarded the vessel, the crowd at first
assumed they were there to help. Then men started getting arrested.
Salim was only able to avoid being detained by flashing a
foreign passport—his mother is Greek and he has dual nationality, thus
carrying a European passport as well as his Egyptian one. Foreigners were not
arrested that night, human rights groups have said, because the Egyptian
government wanted to avoid an international scandal.
But in fact, the incident has put Egypt in the
international spotlight, and many activists, including Maher Sabry, the
pony-tailed Egyptian activist who alerted the international community to the
Queen Boat arrests, believe such attention was responsible for President
Mubarak’s order that the trials be retried, this time in a regular court
rather than in the special, military court where they were first heard.
Ironically, that court was initially set up to try Muslim terrorists fighting
against the Egyptian government. The re-trials were scheduled to begin at the
end of January, but have been postponed.
At his home on the highly militarized U.S. compound in
Cairo, David Welch, the American ambassador to Egypt, told me over a cup of
coffee and ginger cake, that “we do have important disagreements with the
Egyptian government on human rights issues, especially the use of
anti-terrorism courts as a way of supressing sexual preference, particularly
as was done in the Queen Boat incident.” He said he felt President
Mubarak’s ordering of retrials was “a positive development. I believe it
is a path to solving the problem.” He says the United States is putting
pressure on Egypt about the cases “behind the scenes.” But he also said
that change on issues as culturally sensitive as homosexuality had to come
from within the country, and could not be forced by American strong-arming.
Mac, Salim and the other men I interviewed in Egypt all
agree that there has been a dramatic change in public perception of
homosexuality since the Queen Boat incident—all for the worse.
Before, there were several good meeting places, like the
Taverne and the Queen Boat, that were packed with gay men and ignored by both
the police and the public, says Mac. For a while, the Internet offered a place
for gay men to talk openly about their lives in a safe forum, and there was
even sort of a circle of gay intellectuals and activists online.
But now, that has all disappeared. “The Queen Boat
incident was devastating. It was front-page news for months. It ruined so many
lives. And it made everyone desperately afraid. The clock in Egypt has been
turned back more than 20 years. I don’t know when people will feel safe
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