Last edited: February 13, 2005

Remembering “Ahmad” at a Protest Against Egypt

Mubarak Dahir, May 14, 2003

At about 12:30 in the afternoon on Friday, May 9, a small crowd of about 30 people gathered outside the Egyptian Consulate on Second Avenue and 58th St. in New York City. I was one of them.

For “security reasons,” the police made us move from the steps directly in front of the gray, concrete building where the Egyptian consulate is housed, across the busy street, where some passers-by wondered if we were protesting Crunch, a chain of New York City gyms popular with gay men.

Over the weekend, others formed similar bands in front of Egyptian consulates and embassies in other cities, including Washington, London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris and Berlin. The protests were organized by Amnesty International and Al Fatiha, a gay and lesbian Muslim organization, to mark the second anniversary of the raid of a floating disco on the Nile called the Queen Boat, frequented by gay men. The raid resulted in the arrest and subsequent trial of 52 men suspected of being gay.

The Queen Boat incident has won international attention, and, thanks to outside pressure, even got noticed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Less well known than the Queen Boat affair, however, is how the Egyptian authorities have mounted a sustained attack against gay men and gay society in Egypt ever since. Through Internet entrapment, phone tapping, informants and continued raids, the government has used fear, intimidation, and torture to quash what was once an emerging gay community. Scott Long of Human Rights Watch arrived at the rally just back from three months in Egypt. He told the tale of how a young gay man was murdered by torture while in police custody, then thrown off a building in a transparent attempt to make his death look like suicide.

There are no hard figures, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International estimate anywhere from 150 to 200 men may have been arrested for being gay in the past two years. Not all meet such a horrible ending as torture and death, but it is fair to say that for most of them, their lives will be ruined.

At the rally, I pick up a sign that, in red, hand-made letters, reads “STOP TORTURE.” The group walks in a big circle, and a woman with a pink triangle on her black T-shirt leads us in chants she shouts through a megaphone. I walk in the constricted circle and use both hands to hold up my sign at the men in suits and women in head scarves peering out of the second and third floors of the building across the street, where the offices of the Egyptian consulate are.

As I walk, I think of “Ahmad,” just one of many young gay Egyptian men I met while visiting Egypt for three weeks last December.

Ahmad worked at a family business on the outskirts of Cairo, hauling and selling coal. Ahmad came from a very conservative family. His mother and three sisters cover their heads with the traditional Muslim scarves. His brother studied at Cairo’s premiere Muslim university. And Ahmad himself prays five times a day.

And yet Ahmad was not torn between his religion and his sexuality. He had found a way, as most spiritual people of any faith do, to bridge the teachings of his religion with his sexual identity. What Ahmad struggled with wasn’t religion, but loneliness and fear.

There was a time, Ahmad told me, that he could escape the strict realities of his family life and go into Cairo and be in the company of men like himself. He recalled visiting the Queen Boat, before it was raided, and calling it “incredible.” He went to private parties of gay so large, he told me, “you would have thought all of Cairo was gay.”

These were havens for Ahmad not because, as the Egyptian authorities have said, that such things as public sex and devil-worshiping were going on. These were havens because these were places where gay men could come together and meet and socialize and even talk about their own movement, their own place in Egyptian society—something that the government may well have found more threatening than devil-worshipping.

But in the past two years, all of that effectively vanished.

Today, Ahmad lives in near isolation from other gay men, and fear that if he is found out, he will be arrested, his family will be shamed and his life will be ruined. He is lonely enough that he takes the occasional chance to walk along segments of the Nile where gay men still might dare to walk in hopes of finding one another.

But as he told me, he feels gay life in Egypt is over. He has no hopes of ever finding anyone to love. He’d thinks of leaving the country, but for him, that is economically impossible. And so he is stuck there, caught in a paradigm of fear and loneliness.

That is why I was at the protest, and that is why it is so important that those of us here in America and the West stand up on this issue and let the Egyptian government know that what they are doing is intolerable. Egypt receives the second largest foreign aid package in the world from the United States government. As Americans, we need to tell our own government representatives that it is unacceptable to continue to support a government that practices such blatant human rights violations against gay men.

But there is more we as Americans and we as gay people can and must do.

Many of my fellow gay Arabs come to this country specifically for the freedom to be gay, something they would never have in their own countries. Yet I know that many of my fellow gay Arabs have been unwelcome here by fellow gay Americans. That must stop.

I also know it is a difficult time for all Arabs in America right now, as we live under fear and suspicion here, too, since September 11. But my fellow Arabs have got to stop trying to silence the gay and lesbian members of our community, telling us it is not the time for our issues. Now more than ever is the time for fair-minded people in the Arab community in America to embrace their gay and lesbian members, and no longer force us into the lie of invisibility.

And for those of us who are gay and Arab here, we have a duty, a responsibility to speak up, to make our voices heard so that we can counter the worst of all lies spread by our enemies, both abroad and here: And that most damning of lies is that we as gay Arabs do not exist.

  • Mubarak Dahir is a Palestinian-American writer and syndicated columnist. He lives in New York City and be reached by email at

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