Last edited: January 07, 2005

“Cruising” the Nile

By Mubarak 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 between them.

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 remain.

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 meet men.

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 again.”

  • Mubarak Dahir is a Palestinian-American journalist and freelance writer living in New York City.

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