Oppose the UK – Jamaica prison deal


Activists in the UK are mobilizing against the Cameron government’s proposed diversion of foreign aid to build a new prison in Jamaica, and open a transatlantic export trade in inmates.

public meeting to discuss opposition to the plan will be held Thursday, November 5, from 7:00 – 8:30 PM (SOAS Russell Square campus, room 583, London WC1H 0XG: map here). On Friday, November 6, there will be a 10 AM demo in front of the Jamaican High Commission (1 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ: map here), to kick off a London day of action against the prison-industrial complex.

This is all part of a November 2-8 week of actions across the UK, aimed particularly at Cameron’s plan to build a new super-prison in North Wales that would be the second largest in Europe.

Prisoner transfers — forced deportations of convicts — are a point where paranoias over crime and paranoias over migration meet. With Europe and North America more and more dominated by prisons and barbed-wire border fences, this intersection is ominous.  Luke de Noronha writes movingly about some of his experiences with Jamaicans deported so far:

Many of the deported persons I have met lived in the UK for over ten years, built lives for themselves, started families, picked up regional British accents, and began to call the UK home. When they are forcibly returned, many land with a few tenuous family links at best, some with none at all. Some have to be housed in homeless shelters …

As one young man told me, he has only taken two flights in his life. The first, a flight to England to join his mother, aged 15. The second, and perhaps his final: a flight to Jamaica, in which he was restrained in handcuffs on a chartered plane from the UK, in November 2014. With tens of other black men, handcuffed to their seats, escorted by security agents, he was flown, against his will, to a country in which he had no support or resources. If this image does not feel uncomfortable, then we really are in a place where historical amnesia rules. A place where wrenching somebody from their home is a matter of justice for the “British tax-payer,” where bodies and lives are forcibly transported to honour racially inscribed citizenship policies, and where, ultimately, deportations are celebrated while reparations are ridiculed.

You can read more here — or, of course, on this blog. 

Storming of the courthouse during the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). British authorities slaughtered rebels protesting the use of criminal law to preserve the structures of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Storming of the Courthouse During the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). In 1865, British authorities in Jamaica slaughtered rebels protesting how criminal law preserved the conditions of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his daftly pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from flickr.com

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from flickr.com

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.


Graph from FullFact.org

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/resource12c.htm. Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Anusbook. Be connected. Be discovered.

“Tests of shame! Till when?” Campaign by the Tunisian group Damj

Join the campaign to end forced anal tests in Tunisia. You can start by posting a message of support, or even re-posting this article, on Twitter or Facebook. Paste in the hashtag #لا_لفحوصات_العار (No test of shame!), or  #لا_للفصل_230 (No to Article 230!); or use the hashtags #TestdelaHonte and #Tunisie.

On September 6, police summoned a young Tunisian man, 22 or 23, in the coastal city of Sousse. One of his friends had been murdered; the man numbered among the contacts on the victim’s phone. Someone in the young man’s circles told me:

A friend of mine was there in the police station to be with him in case he needed any thing. This friend told me that the arrested young man was being beaten as he was interrogated.  Also, he had no legal representation at all. I was told that the police checked Facebook conversation with the murdered man and based on them they charged him with homosexuality. The[y] could not find any links with the murder so they decided to charge him based on the anti-sodomy law in Tunisia.

The young man later told AFP, through the attorney he’d finally been able to reach, that “I do not understand why I have been sentenced … or why I was detained for six days without being allowed to contact my lawyer … I want to get out and resume normal life. I don’t know what I’ll do with my studies and my work. I do not want to be rejected by society,”

Unfortunately, these abuses on arrest are standard practice in Tunisia; the law allows police to hold defendants for up to six days, without access to lawyers, before a judge or prosecutor sees them.  A United Nations expert condemned this in May as “counter to the right to a fair hearing, the right to defence and the right to have access to legal counsel … The excessive length of police custody combined with the fact that a suspect does not have access to a lawyer may create the circumstances for ill-treatment.” On September 11, he was sent to a prosecutor, and four days after that to a judge, who ordered an “anal inspection” — a forensic anal examination, inflicted without his consent. The examination found him “used’; on September 22, the judge sentenced him to one year in prison, under Article 230 of the Penal Code, which punishes “sodomy” with up to a three-year sentence.


“What are the tests of shame? It is an anal test performed by the forensic doctor on the order of the judicial police. It is practiced on ‘presumed gays’ to verify their sexual orientation.” Poster by Damj.

The story stirred up a storm in Tunisia because it exposes two ongoing scandals. One is the persisting criminalization of private,consensual sexual acts. The other, deeply connected, is the state’s invasion of the body, an incursion of which the anal tests are an extreme but indicative form. As Yamina Thabet, president of the Association Tunisienne de soutien des minorités (Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, ATSM), declared on Twitter, the case sent a citizen to prison “based on a liberticide law and using abusive evidence.”

Damj, a Tunisian NGO fighting to decriminalize homosexual conduct, swiftly launched a campaign to educate the public about the “tests of shame” — which its president, Baabu Badr, described as “a surrealist practice in today’s Tunisia.” The leftist party Al Massar declared the tests “inhumane and unacceptable” and the trial “a danger to the democratic processes of the Second Republic.” ATSM said the exams “recall the practices of the Inquisition.” Wahid Ferhichi, president of the Association pour la défense des libertés individuelles (Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties) complained that “The consent of the accused should be required for this type of test but in fact, the suspect is put under pressure. His refusal is held against him as a presumption of guilt. But the law stipulates the presumption of innocence, and not the opposite.” And Médecins contre la dictature (Doctors Against Dictatorship) called the exams “a blatant attack on physical integrity which falls under the framework of physical torture.” It said they violate Article 23 of Tunisia’s progressive new constitution, which holds that “The state protects human dignity and physical integrity, and prohibits mental and physical torture.”


“Is it possible to refuse an anal test? From a legal perspective: It is possible to refuse an anal test at the time you are confronted with the forensic doctor. The reality is quite otherwise. The victims often ‘consent’ to the test from fear of torture, because of their young age, or because they don’t know their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Poster by Damj.

Unquestionably the exams are torture. They prove nothing and have no medical basis, though their obsessed practitioners try to believe they do. Their only real function is to resemble rape, to hammer home the victim’s helpless abjection before pitiless power. (The fact that, in Muslim countries, prisoners are often told to assume the posture of prayer as the exam is inflicted only lends a blasphemous twist to the humiliation.)

I’ve studied these tests for more than ten years; the article I wrote on them for the Journal of Health and Human Rights is still pretty much the only historical analysis of them around. They grew from the theories of a 19th-century French forensic doctor, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu. Tardieu studied both prostitutes and “pederasts” through the peculiar lens of a pornographic imagination. He believed that vice left physical evidence on the body — that through these stigmata, doctors and police could detect the adepts of perversion, however cunningly they concealed themselves in urban anonymity and confusion. The “pederast” carried six unmistakable marks: “excessive development of the buttocks; funnel-shaped deformation of the anus; relaxation of the sphincter; the effacement of the folds, the crests, and the wattles at the circumference of the anus; extreme dilation of the anal orifice; and ulcerations, hemorrhoids, fistules.`” Among these the conical anus was “the unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty.” Tardieu launched generations of forensic pseudoexperts on an idiotic quest to detect suspect anuses shaped like trumpets, pyramids, or calla lilies. I first read Tardieu in my room in Cairo back in 2003, like a dirty novel, in a copy downloaded from the digitized collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I shuddered in disbelief that doctors could credit this kind of fantasy; except by that time I’d already talked to the doctors who performed the exams in Egypt, and I knew.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Criminal entities: A) calla lily; B) trumpet; C) you know.

Tardieu’s ideas were discredited in much of the West by the twentieth century — partly on pure scientific grounds, partly because, as the ideal of universal citizenship became an essential prop of government, the idea that certain bodies were palpably, legibly deviant or illegal stopped being a tenable approach to politics or crime. (Two facts can be said to symbolize the qualified victory of that universal ideal, one well-known and one almost forgotten. On the one hand, the slow triumph of women’s suffrage meant that sexual difference cased to be a comprehensive legal disqualification from the public sphere; on the other, the British feminist campaign against forced medical testing of suspected prostitutes — so-called “specular rape” — asserted that the state couldn’t use medicine to winnow respectable from “fallen” women in that public world.) Of course, the belief that some bodies were scientifically identifiable as dangerous never wholly went away. It was intrinsic to fascism. It’s implicit in contemporary American penology, where to be young and black is to have a prison sentence written on your forehead.

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair, 1934

Anthropology in the human zoo: A Tunisian family exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1934

However, Tardieu’s specific delusions about sex and the body are largely dead in the Europe from which they sprang. They survive, instead, in the countries Europe colonized. In addition to the Middle East, where they run rampant, they’ve been documented across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a reason. The promise of universal citizenship wasn’t valid in all locations. It was fine for the West, but in the subject territories, the colonial powers practiced divide and rule. Their authority was made through measuring and classifying bodies — by race, ethnicity, sex, health, height, malleability, morality, cleanliness. The law against “sodomy” in Tunisia dates back to a 1913 criminal code the French authorities imposed; homosexual acts had been legal in metropolitan France since the Revolution, but in the Maghreb the penalty was resurrected — to segregate immoral elements in the population with a view to purification and control. Public health was another great fixation of colonial authorities, British and French alike. (It was one of the few areas where Victorian British intellectuals were willing to take French tutelage.) Through its emerging discourses, they aspired to disinfect indigenous physical filth with the aseptic, separating order of reason. Exported extensively on French and British warships to the warmer climates of the world, Tardieu’s theories about lily-shaped assholes found room to flower; they gave colonial governments the snug belief they could actually measure native perversions with a ruler — and could subject those bodies to scientific domination. The illusions that powered the colonial state became the post-colonial state’s inheritance. Governments still cling to the strategy of division, the distrust of universality, the corporeal ambitions of authority, and the myths that underpinned them. Under precarious, authoritarian regimes struggling to manage and moralize unruly, prolific populations, Tardieu lives.

“Excessive development of the buttocks”: Saartjie Baartman, a captive Khoikhoi woman exhibited in London and Paris from 1810-1815 as a lesson in physical decadence and comparative anatomy, in a contemporary French print

Tunisia was, of course, where the Arab Spring began. It’s still the one state that’s stayed, however haltingly, a democratic course while the others lapsed into civil war or the Ice Age. Lisa Hajjar argues that a “torture trail” ran through the 2011 revolutions: people came together in revolt partly because they shared a loathing, cutting across classes and identities, for regimes that secured their rule by brutalizing and destroying bodies. Resisting state power over the individual body was a key flashpoint in many countries: in Egypt, for instance, the “We Are All Khaled Said” movement roused people in transformative solidarity with a single middle-class youth tortured and murdered by police. Tunisia was at the heart of this. Its revolution ignited when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, put his body literally on the line against the state by burning himself to death, to protest police violence and bureaucratic indifference. The question of corporeal resistance, freedom in the bone, has remained central in Tunisia since. It underlies the controversy over society and state’s collusion in enforcing women’s virginity before marriage — the splendid film National Hymen makes clear how this isn’t just a question of “individual freedom” in the abstract, but of the nation’s claim to illegitimate rights over the body. It’s not surprising that progressive activists in Tunisia should understand the forced anal exams — an assertion of the state’s power over every carnal crevice of your person — as a crucial battle in this elemental war.

It’s sad and telling that the young man’s ordeal began with the police searching through Facebook messages — that technologically modern method of rooting out private evidence. In his misery, two forms of surveillance met. Like Tardieu’s theories, Facebook claims it can make social networks legible. The fear that haunted Tardieu was people copulating secretly, flouting class and status, outside society’s panoptical scrutiny, promiscuous and unrecorded. As I wrote in 2004:

To Tardieu, “habitual pederasty,” a tendency outwardly often undetectable, had infiltrated all social classes. His aim was to help justice “pursue and extirpate, if possible, this shameful vice.” His obstacles were the slippery masquerades in which a protean pederasty hid. He warned of “habitual pederasty among married men, among fathers of families.” The treacherous skill by which pederasty concealed its public marks lent urgency to the “precise and certain declaration of the signs which can make pederasts recognizable” – pinning down the tendency’s spoor upon the skin itself.

That’s what, in a very different register, Facebook promises: to reveal selves and networks. It will render your desires and connections visible, to your friends but also — the fine print of the bargain — to companies hunting customers, and to governments tracking crime.

The cops start with trailing you in the cyber placidity of Facebook. But there’s an Anusbook they want to study, too, and it’s violent, not virtual. Surveillance begins by intercepting words; it ends by invading bodies. The state monitors messages at first, but only the better to torture their makers. Knowledge is the means, but the goal is pain. Social media make up a dull, expository prologue. The intricate exposed agony of your wounded body is what the police really long to read.

Facebook logo

Also, bend over. That thumb is waiting.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Meet this policeman. He is going to arrest you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from El Wafd, May 2015

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, from Al Wafd, May 2015

… “You” can mean many things, of course. Not all my readers are gay or trans or sex workers, though some are (hi there!). Nor are they all Egyptians. But wherever you live, you might wind up here; anybody can visit Egypt (unless a Google search turns up evidence you actually know something about the place, in which case you’ll be expelled). The government welcomes tourists; this month it sent helicopters to kill eight of them, the way big-game hunters cull the population to make room for more. And it loves gay tourists; they’re so much fun to arrest. Meanwhile, that man’s title is actually head of the Morals Police, Shortat el-Adab. Who among us hasn’t thought or done or dreamed something immoral? The very word, adab, casts a wide dragnet in Arabic, covering everything from “manners” to “discipline.” Generalissimo Sisi himself has called for a land more disciplined in every way: “State institutions, namely those with educational, religious and media roles, have to help us regulate morals that we all think are problematic.” Wayward fantasies and errant words of dissent are as unchaste and culpable as misused genitals. Look in that man’s eyes, and tremble. He’s watching you.

Major-General Amgad el-Shafei, the new leader of Egypt’s vice squad, has been on my mind. Morals police arrested “the largest network of gays” last week, 11 of them reportedly inhabiting two apartments in the Agouza district of Cairo along with “sex toys,” “manmade genitalia,” and women’s clothes. Allegedly the criminals charged 1500 LE (just under US $200) per hour. It’s impossible to make out how police caught them, though the cops claimed to have been “monitoring pages on the Internet.” The arrests got unusual coverage — not only in scandal sites like Youm7 and El Watan, but the respectable state-owned Al-Ahram; and right in the lead was the name of the hero head of the Morals Police, el-Shafei.

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

Some of the 11 arrestees, from Youm7

One thing not much noted in the current crackdown on trans and gay Egyptians is how inextricable it is from fears, and laws, about prostitution. The morals campaign has meant intensified repression of women sex workers, though this gets little international attention. The law criminalizing homosexual conduct in Egypt is actually a “Law on Combatting Prostitution,” passed in 1951, amid a moral panic over licensed brothels kept by British colonial forces. Lawmakers, determined to extirpate immorality of all kinds, wrote a bill punishing not just di’ara (the sale of sexual services by women) but also fugur, or “debauchery” — a term they didn’t bother to define. They slapped both with a draconian three years in prison. Courts, culminating in a binding ruling in 1975, held that “debauchery” meant men having sex with men, with or without money. The law thus penalizes women selling sex, and all sex between men. It’s a textbook case of how a badly, broadly written law on sex expands like the Blob in the movies. Although legally it’s irrelevant whether those accused of homosexual sex were doing it for cash, police often claim they were, to stiffen the stigma. But everyone also knows that a woman snogging with her boyfriend or flirting with a man in public, or simply dressed the wrong way, can be picked up for “prostitution.” (Of course, the exchange of money is notoriously hard to prove in any case, meaning cops everywhere rely on stereotypes, suppositions, and lies. Cairo Tourist Police threatened a straight female friend of mine with the charge last October, because she hung around with gay men.)

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

Anti-prostitution laws, hard at work

The law was meant to punish women for defiling the national honor with the occupier. Now it suppresses any deviations from the moral “discipline” that plinths and legitimates Sisi’s rule.

So the same adulatory stories announced that el-Shafei’s officers also broke up “four prostitution networks,” involving an airline pilot, a Jordanian girl, Gulf Arabs (real or fictional). Last week el-Shafei caught gays consorting with Gulfies; the week before, twin sisters soliciting in Agouza; before that a 25-year-old woman doing “immoral business” with foreigners. The foreign peril is a crucial angle in today’s Egypt: fears of alien corruption, lusts leaking across borders, make persecuting “promiscuity” seem not only moral but mandatory. “‘Imported Prostitution’ Sweeps Egyptian Society,” Youm7 warned two weeks ago, about Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese sex workers in Cairo. 

The press defines the crackdown’s latest phase as a broad cleanup campaign before the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that began today. “These pre-Eid morality raids have been going on for some time,” my colleague Dalia Abd el-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told a reporter. “We have almost got used to expecting them.” This is true. Higher-ranking officers feel the urge to purge the streets before one of the noblest of Islam’s holidays. Admittedly, it’s a celebration of charity and forbearance, but show too much forbearance and the scum of the earth will spoil the fun. Meanwhile, beat cops get bonuses (and extract bribes) for diligence in duty; and they need them, because Eid al-Adha is expensive. (There’s the long weekend at the beach that many uxorious policemen buy their families, or girlfriends; plus, sacrificial animals cost money, and their prices usually soar before the festival.)

“In Peace and Security.” Cartoon by Andeel for Mada Masr, September 14, 2015

Two things, however, make this pre-Eid campaign feel different. First, security language dominates the holiday — and the crackdown. All the headlines are about threats and counter-measures. The state claims it has “eliminated” a terrorist group in the Western desert that was plotting holiday attacks; meanwhile, a massive, murderous military operation continues in Sinai, a war zone barred to journalists, and we only know the government gloats it’s killed hundreds of “terrorists.” In Cairo, authorities plan to safeguard the Eid with SWAT teams around mosques, banks, movie houses, parks — even on Nile party boats. Throughout, the Ministry of Interior assures us, the Morals Police will play a vital role, protecting women against the population (as opposed to their usual job, protecting the population against women). But morality is now part of security in Egypt. Whatever the Morals Police do, they couch in security terms. One newspaper screamed three weeks ago that male homosexuality in Egyptian society

has increased in recent times … and sets off alarm bells about the causes of what can be called the “emergency disease” which threatens the future of the Egyptian nation, and calls for serious and rapid action from the state to prevent its exacerbation, as a national security issue.

And the other difference is the glut of publicity the police are giving this pre-Eid campaign. Nothing “undercover” about it. One thing you can say about Major-General el-Shafei: he knows how to get headlines.

What else can you say about Amgad el-Shafei? He’s an interesting man. It’s hard to trace the arc of an Egyptian policeman’s career; these cops don’t post their CVs on LinkedIn. The Ministry of Interior is by far the least transparent part of an Egyptian state apparatus that mostly churns out squid ink. Still, you can tell the man is important: he holds the highest police rank. Back in 2014, he shows up on TV (talking about the “spread of weapons after the Revolution”), as assistant director of the Bureau of Public Security at the Ministry.

 El-Shafei on the “Name of Egypt” talk show, April 2014

By April 2015, though, el-Shafei has a different Ministry post; he heads its General Directorate for Investigating Public Funds. It’s one of the most sensitive police branches: “the first line of defense for combatting economic crimes such as, for example, but not limited to, forgery and fraud in all its forms, falsification of documents and national and foreign currencies, promotion of all forms of financial fraud … administrative offenses of bribery and influence peddling and graft,” and so on. Mostly el-Shafei pursued not state officials stealing public funds, but members of the public stealing them: or just plain fraud in general. That’s odd, given how rampant official corruption is in Egypt. (This month, Sisi used the arrest of the Agriculture Minister on charges of taking bribes as a pretext to dismiss the whole government.) But here el-Shafei’s gift for getting publicity truly flowered. For four months, he was on TV and in the headlines constantly: for arresting a scam artist, “El Mestray’iah,” who bilked Egyptians of their savings; for grabbing a gang smuggling hard currency out of the country; for nabbing a fake-investment ring. The press releases must have spurted from his office daily, like healthy flatulence.

His last bow in this role comes July 4, when he takes credit for arresting the “fashion doctor,” an academic who ran a weird scam involving fashion shows. The next time el-Shafei appears, he’s had a change of title. On August 17 his name graces an item about the arrest of three Ukrainian sex workers. He’s now director of the Morals Police.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry's website. Don't blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

For torture nerds only: Ministry of Interior organizational chart (English, L; Arabic, R), from the Ministry’s website. Don’t blame me for the blurriness, blame the Ministry of Interior.

So sometime in the summer, el-Shafei got a new job. Why? The morals squad, in comparison to anti-corruption work, is a swampy backwater. It has its consolations, to be sure, financial ones included; some impecunious cops actively seek the assignment. (San Francisco’s famous Tenderloin sex district supposedly took its name from a police officer who said, more or less, I used to have ground beef for dinner. But now that I’m working vice, I’m going to get me some of that tenderloin.) Still, it resembles a demotion, and I wonder why. Had el-Shafei done his job too well for someone’s comfort (seems unlikely), or not well enough? Or maybe the Ministry just wanted someone of his caliber in the Morals Police, perhaps to root out corruption. Corruption in vice squads usually means cops take bribes in exchange for not pressing charges. The surest way to stop it is to increase prosecutions; here, el-Shafei seems already to be semaphoring success.

In a society stripped of facts, speculation rules — and I can speculate as wildly as the best of them. The most ambitious case the Morals Police brought last year was journalist Mona Iraqi’s klieg-lit raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December. (I had heard rumors back in September 2014, from well-connected sources, that the Ministry of Interior was debating whether to stage a huge gay show trial on the scale of the Queen Boat. The Bab el-Bahr hammam was it.) The trial failed, and reaped bushels of bad publicity for the police. Rumors of corruption susurrated round it; Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger, claimed the police were in league with a gentrifying real-estate magnate trying to close the bathhouse (which had one of those immemorial, unbreakable Cairo leases) and expropriate the building. Such theories never had a shred of proof. But what if el-Shafie’s new job were the Ministry’s answer to all that: a move to bring back the days of good PR, successful gay persecution, unremitting arrests?

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Mona Iraq (R) films naked victims of her raid on a bathhouse, December 7, 2014

Who knows? Not I. I do know, though, that an ambitious and publicity-seeking policeman given absolute power, in an authoritarian state, over frightened and furtive and undefended people’s lives will abuse it — because the power itself is abuse. I know that the newsclips this skilled operator spews out have life and momentum of their own; like maggots in dead meat, they’ll multiply, and what will emerge full-blown are more arrests, more suffering. I know that the surveillance and the stings will grow in both brutality and cunning. I speculated last week that the branches of Egypt’s police are competing to get the money and technology the state now has for Internet surveillance: for the kind of keystroke-by-keystroke decoding of people’s discourses and desires that can splay their ganglions bare for the government’s entertainment. How can the Morals Police cut in on the largesse, and build an empire over intimacy? By convincing the state that it’s successful, and that its success defends national security. On both counts, el-Shafei knows what to say.

NOTE: For advice on avoiding police entrapment and protecting yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For very important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

Separated at birth: El-Shafei (L), from an official photo; Big Brother (R), from an Ingsoc rally

  If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Entrapped! How to use a phone app to destroy a life

Love in the age of Grindr. From http://media.giphy.com/

Love in the age of Grindr and Tinder. From http://media.giphy.com/

NOTE: For advice on how to avoid police entrapment and protect yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Here’s news from Cairo. On September 8, El Watan reported that the morals police, “under the direction of Major General Ahmed el Shafie,” caught a “bodybuilding trainer” who also served as bodyguard to famous actors and singers. He was “practicing sexual perversion [shuzooz] with a rich Arab man in an apartment in Doqqi” (a tony neighborhood where many Arabs from the Gulf live). Investigations showed “that the accused Salah A. , a bodyguard, set up a page for himself on a social media website, to offer himself for sexual perversion with men who want to practice debauchery [fugur] for prices as high as LE 2000″ – about US $250.

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

The same day, Al Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), a scandal site that runs stories leaked by cops, announced that the morals division of the Tourism and Antiquities Police – which patrols hotels and tourist sites — “has captured two sexual perverts while they practiced debauchery with two men from the Gulf inside two famous hotels in Zamalek and downtown Cairo.” Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen, Tourist Police head, took credit for the case; one of the arresting officers was Colonel Ahmed Kishk — remember that name. In a posh Zamalek caravanserai they stopped “Fathy A., 24,” leaving “the room of a guest from the Gulf area.” On his IPhone they found a “conversation program which allows him to identify those close to him,” and evidence that he had sex for 1000 LE a shot. He is in jail, and was subjected to a forensic anal examination. The second miscreant, “Mahmoud A., 23,” was “found practicing debauchery with a person from the Gulf in exchange for 800 LE, in another hotel in downtown Cairo.” He too is in the police lockup.  A transgender friend of mine knows one of the hotel arrestees, and says he identifies as a “ladyboy,” a slang term in Cairo for men who play against gender roles.

of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets with officers at a meeting this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets his minions, at a confab this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

It doesn’t make sense. Youm7’s explanation for the arrests beggars belief; “secret sources” pointed police to “two men who look suspicious and are unstable in their behavior and the way they talk,” headed for “two rooms of two different customers from the Gulf area,” in two hotels in two different neighborhoods. Quelle coïncidence! And why were the young Egyptians jailed while the Gulf Arabs went scot-free, in a country that’s declared its intention to crack down on gay foreigners? Under Egyptian law, both parties should be culpable. (See the note at the end for a summary of Egypt’s law on sex work and homosexual conduct.)

I know why the Gulfies weren’t jailed. The Gulfies didn’t exist. The IPhones, the evanescing clients, suggest the real story: the police impersonated rich Gulf Arabs online, to lure victims to a meeting and arrest them.

Between 2001 and 2004, police entrapped hundreds, probably thousands, of gay Egyptian men over the Internet, in a massive crackdown. Since 2013, arrests of suspected LGBT people burgeoned again in Egypt; most victims were seized at home or on the streets, yet rumors circulated that cops had returned to the Web for entrapment. But there was no proof — till this summer. On June 8, police arrested a Syrian refugee in Messaha Square in Doqqi; they’d arranged to meet him over Growlr. An appeals court overturned his one-year sentence, but, flouting legal protections for refugees, the Ministry of Interior deported him anyway. A month later, seemingly under similar circumstances, Doqqi police arrested an Italian national who had lived in Egypt for six years. A court eventually dismissed the charges, but, under pressure, he left the country. The latest cases show not just foreigners but Egyptians are targets of the snares.

Internet entrapment is cruel — and successful — because it feeds on solitude. The police arrest you not because you’re dancing at a party or cruising on the street, but because, on the apparent privacy of a flickering screen, you express a need. Your crime isn’t hurting someone but being vulnerable to hurt. I know a great deal about Internet entrapment; more, I think, than almost anybody except the police who do it. I don’t have the victims’ permission to detail this summer’s cases; but I’ve interviewed dozens of men arrested in the 2001-2004 crackdown, and studied dozens of police files from the same period. I’ve documented entrapment cases in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to learn how to do it? Here’s what I know.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993; this is reportedly the New Yorker's most-reproduced cartoon ever

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993: reportedly, the New Yorker’s most-reproduced cartoon ever

I. Truth and consequences. In the huge crackdown from 2001-2004, massively publicized arrests in gathering places — like the Queen Boat raid — made gay men avoid the sites where they could meet face-to-face. They turned to the Internet; and there, in their isolation, police could pick them off one by one. The current crackdown follows the same script. Last year, police harassment devastated the downtown café scene, shuttering spots where LGBT people had been welcome. (After padlocking one coffee bar popular among gays, police announced to the press that they had quashed an “atheists’ café,” a “place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.”) Nobody goes out anymore; they stay home and log in. Any time I’m with a group of gays in Cairo, the peculiar cooing sound of Grindr alerts, like pigeons masturbating, semicolons the hushed conversations.

Egyptians want the same range of things from dating apps as people anywhere: talk, touch, raunch, rapport, money, undying love. Where threats pervade the world outside, though, people want safety, as much a sexual as an emotional need. Dating apps give a dangerous simulacrum of security. You believe you’re safe, because you can hide who you are. You’re not safe, because others can do the same.

From Girl Comics #1,

From Girl Comics #1, “A Brief Rendezvous”

Dating apps are games of truth. They’re full of people seeking truth with desperate sincerity while trying to avoid telling it. The first rule is: Everybody lies. You lie as much as you can to make a better self for yourself — but not so much that, if a meeting happens, the other will be let down. (Don’t say you’re 25 and look like Channing Tatum if you’re 55 and look like Chris Christie.) The second rule is: Winning means not being lied to. It means meeting someone who tells you the truth; it means sustaining your invented self which staying the one less deceived. The game’s unstable, off-center, because these rules are irreconcilable.

But there’s one catch, one secret: If the police are playing, the policeman always wins. His avidity to listen, meet, and love trumps the diffidence other, lukewarm suitors show. The cop can lie as much as he likes, without fear of a rendezvous exploding his persona; you’re not going to storm away saying, “But you’re not 25,” because you’ll be in handcuffs. And he doesn’t care how many lies you tell; all that matters is getting the one fact from you, a confession that you’re gay — the evidence that makes you criminal. For ordinary players, you’d need the intricate algorithms of game theory to calculate the winning balance of truth and fiction. But streamlined rules govern the policeman’s game; only one truth counts. Once he has that, he’s won; your loss is final.

In a game of needs, the simplest, most economical need conquers. Most gay men believe the online world is liberating. But the game is rigged for the police. The ersatzness of that world, its imitation freedom, collapses like cardboard when a policeman commences play. After that, only he can win.

2. Trust and betrayal. Before you entrap someone, they have to trust you enough to talk to you and meet you. Most people online in Egypt want to believe there’s someone real out there, someone less prone to fiction than they are; naive desire renders entrapment easy. Still, the policeman needs skills: some English (required to navigate many apps and websites — plus, much chat is partly anglicized); some knowledge of gay slang and the gay world. It’s not a combination many cops have.

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

There are certainly officers who prowl the LGBT Internet. They’re in the morals division of the Cairo police, headquartered atop the Mugamma, the vast Stalinist bureaucrats’ sarcophagus on Midan Tahrir. (In 2001-2004, cops entrapped gay men from elsewhere in the country — but always by asking them to come to Cairo, for convenient arrest.) I’m convinced, though, they employ civilian gay informers as well.

Morals police in Egypt, like elsewhere, have always cultivated informers. The gay ones were mostly working-class guys, doing it for a little money and immunity from arrest. Sometimes, in seasons when the cops hungered for baksheesh, police would take an informer in a microbus round the cruising areas; he’d point to the known khawalat, or faggots, on the streets and they’d be loaded in the van, beaten, jailed. The gays even gave some famous informers nicknames; “Mohammed Laila Elwi,” dubbed for a movie actress, probably got hundreds arrested. In 2003, with an Egyptian colleague, I went to talk to Taha Embaby, then the dreaded head of the Cairo morals division, in his office in Abdin police station. On a sofa in his anteroom sat two fey young men, obviously there to give reports. As we stood quivering with trepidation, one cocked his wrist flirtatiously at me. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

But in 2001-2004, for Internet entrapment, police developed a new cadre of informers, with cyber-skills, not street smarts. Sometimes these exhibited frightening cunning. In one case, police entrapped a man who worked at the Cairo Opera House. His Internet chats with his nemesis,  preserved in the police file I read, chilled me: they showed an agent, calling himself “Raoul,” with deep musical knowledge and dark humor — as if the cops, like a dating site, had matched the informer to the victim. They asked each other their favorite operas. Tosca, said the victim-to-be, but the agent named “Die Fledermaus”: Johann Strauss’ story of deception and entrapment, its last scene set in a jail. He added that he loved Dialogues des Carmélitesan opera by the (gay) composer Francis Poulenc: a work almost unknown in Egypt, one that also ends, grimly, in a prison cell. As they set up the meeting that led to the arrest, their dialogues grew double-edged:

Raoul: and I promise u 2 things
Incubus: which r?
Raoul: first I will make u so happy
Raoul: second u will never forget me

Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in a Metropolitan Opera production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The informers often used the name “Raoul” in 2001-2004. Raoul frequently said he was French or Spanish — police grasped that many Egyptian gays trusted foreigners more than fellow countrymen. In some incarnations, he clearly wasn’t what he claimed. (One court file showed “Raoul” chatting with two young gay men. When he explained he was from Spain, one of the men excitedly announced he studied Spanish. Es usted de Madrid? ¿Qué estás haciendo en Egipto? Raoul retreated: No, no, better English for now. They went to meet him anyway.) But some playing the “Raoul” role were perhaps more truthful. I suspected police were blackmailing a gay foreigner living in Cairo, possibly one they’d gotten on drug charges or some other grave offense. It evinced the trouble they were willing to take to entrap a few hundred gay men.

The cops themselves were like cops everywhere: eager to make arrests, but lazy. They met their victims as close to police stations as possible, to minimize the walk. Often the rendezvous was in front of the Hardee’s in Midan Tahrir, across the street from the Mugamma. These days, police in Doqqi seem to specialize in entrapment; they like to meet victims in Midan Messaha, three easy blocks from the Doqqi police station.

 Friendly Doqqi police doing their patriotic propaganda duty: Cops hand candy to passersby in front of the Doqqi police station, to celebrate Sisi’s Suez Canal opening on August 5

3. Innocence and evidence. The one thing police want is proof of their victims’ guilt: which means getting them to confess to at least one sexual experience they’ve already had. Tender, attentive, and inquisitive, the informers pry this information out like gold fillings from teeth.

In early 2002, “Wael Samy” (another name informers often used) answered a personals ad placed by Zaki, a lonely 23-year-old from a provincial city. They started exchanging emails, often in English, and Wael lured Zaki into describing the one time he’d had sex:

Dearest Wael, It is always so fulfilling to hear from you ‘cause your e-mails are full of sincere emotions and feelings although they are always too short. I am also so happy to know that my emails give you such pleasure. …

Well, this time, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to give you an account of what happened during my first and only sex experience which happened about six years ago, hoping you can e-mail me with yours next time.

Zaki fell in love with Wael at a distance, and went to Cairo to meet him. The e-mail was the key item of evidence at his trial. He spent three years in prison.

Spies in our midst: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

Spies among us: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

But police also try to extract confessions after arrest. In the past, they’ve used a sadistic trick. If the informer had claimed to be a foreigner (“Dennis” or “Sevensen,” like “Raoul,” were common aliases), police at the Mugamma`would tell the terrified prisoner he’d been arrested because he’d spoken with a spy. Menaced with an espionage charge, the innocent captive would protest that they’d only talked about sex. Fine, the cops would say. Just tell us all about your gay life in writing and we’ll let you go. One victim told me:

The officer who interrogated me claimed [he was] a State Security officer. He said that all he wanted was for me to confess that I was gay. He said this is “personal freedom” and that if I confessed they would inform State Security and let me go immediately.

“Amgad,” a young doctor from upper Egypt whom I interviewed after his release from prison in 2003, told me the police

asked me how long I had known [the man I chatted with] … They told me this guy was an Israeli spy. They said he would have sex with me, then take photographs of me and then threaten me and make me work for Israel. … I told them all about my gay life, such as it was—the friendships I had made over the Internet and why they were important to me. Then they looked at each other and said something like, “We will make this only a personal relationship case.” Now I realize how funny they thought it was to lead me on this way.

The thing is, they didn’t blink. They didn’t feel that doing this would destroy a whole life. They caught me because I am gay, but they didn’t even think that my future could be destroyed. I am not rich, I cannot leave the country or start my life over. … And they didn’t feel anything. Anything. Can you understand what they were thinking? I cannot.

b86cefbf-3753-4937-95dc-62696d57cd8f4. Motives. It’s the cops’ motives I mean. Today as much as in 2001-2004, the Egyptian criminal justice system’s ignorance about the Internet is stunning. Back in 2003, one defendant told how at his trial, the judge

wasn’t sure what a website was, or what “chat” was, and he was puzzled by the difference between chatting with someone over the phone and over the Internet.

Another told me, “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just sit around and talk with men?'”

Things haven’t changed much. Most judges know how to send e-mail by now, and some cops even have Facebook pages. But the technical side of cyberspace mostly leaves them baffled. And this makes the Internet a source of fear. It terrifies the state itself. Police pursue “perversion” on the Internet not because they’re scared of perversion, but because they’re scared of the Internet and its capacity to spread it.

The Internet arrived in Egypt in 1993; by the early 2000s, it had nearly half a million users. In 2002, the government introduced “free” dial-up access (costing ordinary phone rates), opening the Web to anyone with a landline. With the advent of wireless, sold through Egypt’s giant telecommunications companies, technology leapt ahead of the state’s capacity for control. Faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-powered revolution in January 2011, the government proved unable to monitor or block individual websites; its only recourse was to shut down the whole Internet for days — and even then, intrepid activists circumvented the wall. Successive regimes absorbed the lesson. Information flow could be an mortal foe; survival could hinge on subduing it.

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimates that internet users in Egypt more than tripled from 15 million in 2009 to 48 million in early 2015. Smartphones — required for using most apps — have spread more slowly. In 2012, smartphone penetration was lower than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. This is changing, though. Sony reportedly expects smartphones to make up 32% of mobile sales in Egypt by next year — still low (worldwide, they account for more than 2/3 of sales) but rising swiftly.

High price and exclusivity make smartphones even more potent status symbols in Egypt than elsewhere. They’re a tool of communication, but also a tool for the upper-class and upwardly mobile to convey their insulation from the world. To be sure, plenty of poor people save for months to buy a Samsung, but that’s because possession conveys membership in a virtual gated community, like the real walled wealth reserves that mushroom in exurban Cairo. This adds to the false feeling of safety enshrouding the promised anonymity of the Internet.

But the government attacks anonymity on every front. Most obviously it fears the Internet’s political uses. ANHRI notes that “the role the internet played in the political changes over the past years … drove more and more users to social media.” Twitter users, for instance, multiplied tenfold between 2012 and 2015. And lots of Egyptians talk politics on the Internet — about twice the percentage that do in the rest of the world. Moreover, with Sisi’s draconian censorship of print media, Facebook and Twitter and a few doggedly independent websites are where Egyptians turn for accurate rather than airbrushed news.

The state responds by suppressing, scaring, spying. A brutal draft “cyber-crime” law provides life imprisonment for “harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties,” as well as “harming national unity or societal peace” and “defaming a heavenly religion.” The pretext is “terrorism”; the target is any dissent. Already the government has imposed harsh prison terms for unwanted — in particular, atheist — Facebook posts or pages. (Last month a court rejected a Sisi supporter’s lawsuit demanding a complete ban on Facebook. It urged “self-censorship” instead.) Meanwhile Sisi’s regime has sought, and bought, technology from sinister corporate suppliers to enable surveillance of virtually every keystroke on the Internet. No one knows just how deep the state’s current invasions of cyber-privacy go.


Egypt has aimed very little of this high-tech surveillance machinery at sex or dating apps — so far. In truth, most dating apps are extremely vulnerable to surveillance. Last year, analysts found flaws in Grindr’s geolocation service, the one that lets you know which cruisees are near you; anybody adept at exploiting the errors could pinpoint a user’s exact location down to a meter or two. Some (but seemingly not all) of the problems were patched, and Grindr disabled geolocation for some worst-case countries, including Egypt. But other problems persist. For one thing, most dating apps don’t offer users an SSL (Secure Socket Layer, or https://) connection — one that encrypts communication between your device and their servers. Moreover (I’m quoting the security mavens at Tactical Tech), with most dating apps,

  • Downloading the apps from the Appstore or Google Play will link them directly to your Apple ID or Google account;
  • Your mobile operator will also collect this information, linking it directly to your identity;
  • Other social networking apps installed on your mobile device such as Facebook or Twitter may also collect this information about you.
Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Yet Egypt’s police haven’t taken full advantage of this porousness; so far as I know, they’ve relied on crude flesh-and-blood informers to entrap Grindr’s and Growlr’s users. I suspect there’s a knife-fight among Egypt’s police branches to access the technology and training — and money — for Internet surveillance. And the sex cops haven’t been a priority so far; the thugs surrounding Sisi care far more about sites dealiing in expressly political dissent than they do about dates or hookups.

This too may be changing. The more arrests the morals police make, the more they can argue that Internet sex is a security issue. Persecution of gay foreigners can only bolster that contention — and as that expands, State Security officers seem to be upping their involvement in the cases. Think Rentboy. Last month, US Homeland Security dropped its hot pursuit of mad bombers and terror cells to bust an innocuous website for male sex workers, ostensibly because it aided “trafficking.” The anxieties in play were indistinguishable from those in Egypt: fears of money, bodies, identities, and information flowing over the Web and across borders, out of control. Similarly, when Cairo journalist Mona Iraqi led a ludicrous, brutal raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December, she justified the inhumanity as a war against “human trafficking.” The online world is already a danger zone for LGBT Egyptians, but there may be worse to come.

5. In conclusion. Gay men’s cruising is intimately interwoven with urban history, with the power to spin new narratives out of opportunities for lingering, loitering, delay. Cruising is connected to the figure of the flaneur pausing at shopwindows and interrogating glances, to existence in the city as a story full of forking paths, to the streets as sites of mystery and concealment amid displays and crowds.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

I remember walking once through Bucharest with a gay Romanian friend in 1993. Only a few years after the Revolution, Romanian cities were still drab, vacant. Clothing stores all sold the same clothes, state food shops held aisle on aisle of canned carp in oil — crap în ulei, self-descriptive. Suddenly, on gray Bulevardul Bălcescu, we realized a young man with sculpted hair was staring at us. We followed him, tentatively. Then we lost him — then realized he was following us. We carried on a hunt or dance for an hour or so, as he paused at store windows, stared furtively into the grimed glass, flicked an eyelid our way, flurried on. My friend, expert enough at cruising dark public parks, had never experienced anything like this in downtown Bucharest. I understood that day the advent of something new in the disused city, an ambulatory eroticism that would transfigure seeing and the sidewalks, something reflected in a few scrubbed panes, flowering in the first buds of consumer culture; new desires and new ways for them to occupy the streets. (I thank George Iacobescu, who became my friend that day, for offering the lesson.)

All I can say is, Grindr’s different. Playing on dating apps is interesting and erotic, but it isn’t ambulatory or open. A call-and-response rhythm drives the dating app. It starts the moment you sign up, when you clarify yourself in detail, on a form, not only for your peers but for the corporation’s benefit. Once your identity’s set, interrogations continue. Conversations are quick arousing inquisitions, the question-and-answer form unvarying as a coxswain or a tragic chorus. This isn’t cruising; it’s a catechism. Like religious catechisms, it’s a mechanism by which power forces you to state your faith, define your self as one declines a noun. The apps police us; they force us to confess, even though temptation constrains us, not a clumsy truncheon. No wonder it’s a perfect playing ground for the police — the police are already there. They come built in. Intensifying this is the effect of speed. Ten years ago, on static personals sites, you could write long answers, even switch to the horse-and-buggy hebetude of e-mail. Now everything goes triple-time; urgent antiphonies rush you on, no time to dally, every decision’s instant. The race erodes judgment, and it’s that much easier for the cops to get what they want from you — the name, the sex story, the date for the meeting.

No wonder everybody lies so much on apps; it’s their way of resisting the drumbeat demand that you define yourself. It preserves space for secrecy and invention — only a space too fragile to withstand the police. Every time I fill out a form on one of these things I recall Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” And fuck.

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

At the beginning, I mentioned Colonel Ahmed Kishk, who helped arrest the hapless victims in hotels. As soon as I read that, I recognized the name; it took a few days to remember everything. Twelve years ago, Colonel Kishk presided over the arrests of thirteen gay men who used a flat in Giza for occasional sex. There was no Internet entrapment in the case; Kishk collected evidence by the old-school method of tapping the apartment’s phone.

One of the men tried to slit his wrists when Colonel Kishk seized him. I remember standing outside the Giza police station one February night in 2003, trying to get in to see them; I was turned away. I spoke to several of them much later (they were convicted, then acquitted on appeal, freed after six months in prison). Guards tortured them viciously in the police lockup. Possibly they were being tortured while I stood on the cold street.

This summer, by coincidence, I met a man who had been one of them. He’s almost forty now; he fled the country after he was freed, and has lived in the Gulf ever since, only returning to Egypt to see his family. When he told me his story and I realized who he was, he started crying. “You know,” he said, “in many ways I live well now. I have a good job in another country. And yet they ruined my life, utterly. I know that I am safe now. And yet I know I will never recover.”

One other thing I know about these cases: when the police invest their time and talents in training their own to entrap and deceive, or in blackmailing and manipulating gay informers, they’ll use those valuable human resources again and again and again, till they are shamed or commanded to stop. Why lose the investment? These stories are only the augury of more ordeals. Colonel Kishk is still on the job.

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards

Guy 1:

Guy 1: “Those gay people are funny, bro…” Guy 2: “Yeah man…” Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, August 20, 2014

New ISIS execution for “sodomy”: Attention, UN Security Council

These photographs appeared earlier today on a JustPaste page set up by the Islamic State’s province of the Euphrates (Al-Furat). The link has spread non-stop on Da’ish-affiliated Twitter accounts ever since. The headline on the page, and the caption under each photo, is “The execution of the judgment of God on the acts of the people of Lot.”


Da’ish announced the formation of the “state,” or province, of the Euphrates in August 2014. It takes up parts of eastern Syria and westernmost Iraq; its proclamation was meant to show the Islamic State’s contempt for the old national borders — cocking a snook at Sykes-Picot, as the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights explained at the time (more or less).  The province centers on Al-Bukamal, better known as Abu Kamal, a dusty Syrian border town of some 60,000 along the Euphrates, as well the town of Al-Qa’im across the Iraqi line. My guess is that the execution took place in Abu Kamal.

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2014 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (Wikileaks)

Abu Kamal in relation to Syria and Iraq. L: Map of areas of control in Syria as of July 2015 (Institute for the Study of War, US); R: Map of the Syria-Iraq border at the Euphrates River (WikiNews)

Da’ish’s Euphrates state has long been a busy source of propaganda. Isdarat — the ISIS imitation YouTube channel — put up a glossy video today, produced by the Euphrates state, on “messages from Muslims in the lands of the unbelievers.” Another JustPaste page today posted pictures from a Euphrates-state training session about “Lessons on preaching” (or “missionary work,” or “advocacy”), apparently for confronting the great unbelieving Abroad. No specifics about the agenda, but there’s an implicit parallel between enemies without and within. Some ISIS blogs show photos from the training session and the execution together, as though the participants went straight from the tutorial to the killing.

Probably they did. Reports of Da’ish executions for homosexual acts have accelerated, with a spurt in June and July (around the time of the US Supreme Court marriage ruling, a huge headline across the Arab world), then the unconfirmed murder of nine people in Mosul on August 22, two days before the UN Security Council’s notorious meeting on the topic. There are many things we don’t know: for instance, whether the killings themselves have intensified, or simply Da’ish’s publicity around them. In late July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi forbade Islamic State groups from releasing exceptionally gruesome execution videos, apparently realizing such imagery was sullying the movement’s image. Still images weren’t covered by the ban; but each photo released now implies a certain calculation, someone in Da’ish’s chaotic structure deciding its propaganda value trumps disadvantages. The publicity itself thus politicizes death. It suggests that executing the “people of Lot” is morphing from a religious duty for Da’ish into a political tool, another mode of defying its enemies. And my strong feeling is that the Security Council’s noisy, impotent rhetoric can only make things worse.

What exactly was the point again of putting LGBT victims of ISIS under the symbolic protection of the United States, and invoking the UN Security Council to save them?  It only makes sense if there is something the US and UN can, and will, do. The Security Council has done nothing, nor are they going to do anything. America’s protean strategies on ISIS get rephrased, repackaged, and re-spun daily, but the lavish expense of words and money has no effect on anything that happens on the ground. Three reports this week indicate the depth of American uselessness. Intelligence analysts claim that senior military officials deliberately distorted their findings, to persuade Obama and those around him that the war on ISIS is going far better than it is. US airstrikes, the strategy of choice, continue to kill civilians in ISIS-controlled areas, alienating publics already primed, in many cases, to loathe and fear American action. And a $500 million Defense Department program to train 5,400 Syrians to take up arms against ISIS has only “four or five” fighters left in the field. The Obama administration talks about rescuing the gays, but it’s all publicity for a domestic audience. Those who suffer because of this self-indulgent charade are voiceless, voteless, and a long way away.

ISIS is a low-hanging wasps’ nest. Poking it with a stick is dangerous unless you have a clear plan for dealing with the consequences. This is no less true when the ones with the stick won’t be the ones stung.

Da'ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

Da’ish soldiers at a checkpoint in Abu Kamal, from a propaganda page of the Euphrates state at http://justpaste.it/hauajes4

تحديث: الشرطة المصرية تقوم بالقبض على من يُشتَبه في كونهم من المثليين و متحولي النوع /الجنس من خلال الإنترنت. إِحموا أنفُسكم!


الشرطة تستخدم هويات مزيفة على شبكة الإنترنت للقبض على المُشتبه في كونِهم مثليين أو من متحولي النوع الإجتماعي. قامت الشرطة مؤخراً بالقبض على أربعة أفراد آخرين. يبدو إن تم القبض عليهم من خلال إستخدامهم لأحد تطبيقات الهواتف – جرايندر، هورنيت، جراولر – أو من خلال موقع التواصل الإجتماعي “الفيسبوك”. من الوارد أن يكون أفراد الشرطة تظاهروا بكونهم سائحين من الخليج مُقيمين بفندق في منطقة الزمالك. الإحتمال الآخر أن يكونوا تظاهروا بكونهم رجل مثلي ثري و مُسن يقطن بمنطقة الدُقي.

إحموا أنفُسكم! الإجراء الأكثر أماناً هو إزالة كافة حساباتكم/ن من هذه التطبيقات و المواقع الشخصية. إن لم ترغبوا/ن ف إتخاذ مثل هذا الإجراء، رجاءاً إلجأوا/ن للإحتياطات التالية:

NEWSprivacyWEB١-لا تنسق مقابلات مع غرباء تعرفت عليهم من خلال شبكة الإنترنت فقط. التطبيقات مثل جريندر و الإعلانات الشخصية على الإنترنت غير آمنة. حتى و إن قضيت محادثات طويلة مع أشخاص تعرفت عليهم من خلال “جرايندر” أو تطبيقات أخرى، و إن بَدوا حقيقيين، ربما يستخدمون حيل لخداعك. قد يتم القبض عليك في اللحظة التي تصل فيها لمكان المقابلة.

 ٢-الشرطة تستخدم الأشياء التي ينشرها الأشخاص على شبكة الإنترنت — بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية — كأدلة ضد الأشخاص في حال القبض عليهم. لا تنشر أي صور لوجهك أو لنفسك، لا تنشر إسمك الحقيقي أو أيّة معلومات قد يتم إستخدامها للتعرف عليك. إن كنت تستخدم إسماً مستعار، حاول أن تتأكد إن لا أحد يستطيع تتبعه للوصول إلى هويتك الحقيقية.

 ٣-لا تنشر رقم هاتفك على الإنترنت بما فيها الإعلانات الشخصية لإمكانية تتبعه للوصول إليك. إن كنت تحتاج لرقم لمقابلة الأشخاص من خلال هذه الإعلانات، استخدم رقم غير مسجل بدون عقد.

 ٤-قم بإزالة أي شئ يدينك — بما فيها صور عارية لنفسك أو مقاطع فيديو محرجة — من حاسوبك أو هاتفك في حال تحفظ الشرطة عليهم.

 ٥-حاول تحميل برامج الحماية لوضع كل محتويات هاتفك تحت كلمة سر حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء قراءتها. هذه البرامج قد تضع كود سري للمحادثات، و الرسائل، و المكالمات، حتى لا يستطيع الغرباء الوصول إليها. يمكنك تحميل برامج الحماية مجاناً:

 :إن كان هاتفك آي فون، قم بتحميل “سيجنال” من هنا-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد”، قم بتحميل “بوكس كريبتور” من هنا-

 :هذا التطبيق متوفر أيضاً لنظام ويندوز على الحاسوب-

 :إن كان هاتفك “آندرويد” يمكنك أيضاً تحميل “تيكست سيكيور” لحماية رسائلك-

 :يمكن أيضاً تحميل “ريد فون” لحماية إتصالاتك-

كريبتوكات” هو برنامج مجاني يُمكنك تحميله على الآي-فون و مُعظم الحواسيب.”

إضغط على هذا الرابط لقراءة معلومات شديدة الأهمية عن حقوقك القانونية.

:تذكر، إن تم القبض عليك

. لا تعترف بأي شئ أو توقع إعتراف، لا توقع أي شئ الشرطة تطلب منك توقيعه-

. كن دائماً مصّر على التحدث مع محامي-

– لا تتحدث أبداً عن أي شخص مثلي أو متحول الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي بغض النظر عن مدى ضغط الشرطة عليك – حتى و إن عرضوا عليك صور أشخاص.

:(تستطيع أن تجد معلومات على الأمان الرقمي في الرابط بأسفل (بالإنجليزية

بالعربية في الرابط بأسفل:

رجاءاً قوموا بنشر هذه الرسالة لجميع أصدقائك. تذكر أيضاً: في ظل الهجمة المستمرة على مدار سنتين، الجيران قاموا بتبليغ الشرطة عن أشخاص مثليين أو متحولي الجنس/النوع الإجتماعي أو “ليدي بوي”. أينما كنت تعيش كن هادئاً في منزلك و متحفظاً على قدر الإمكان في الأماكن العامة.

كونوا/كن آمنين/ات.

privacy1تمت الترجمة بواسطة رامي يوسف / Translated by Ramy Youssef

Oliver: Thoughts on love

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

Oliver, in a photo taken by a friend while I was in hospital for a week in May

My little cat Oliver, whom I loved dearly, died in July. He was perhaps ten months old – with rescued street cats, of course, there is no way to be sure. He had been sick for a few days, coughing and feeble; but I didn’t fully notice till he began refusing food and hiding in dark places: a sign, though I didn’t realize it, that a cat believes it is going to die. I took him to the veterinarian on a Wednesday. He cried softly, mewling against my shoulder, as we descended the elevator; in the taxi, he tried to hide beneath the seat. The doctor said he had severe pneumonia. They shaved part of his leg and attached an IV drip to rehydrate him. But as soon as the slow flow of liquid struck, something happened: he screamed and leapt in the air, as if galvanized. I tried to hold him and he bit my right hand hard, just at the thumb; I carried the scar for weeks. Then he tumbled over and lay there, still. The doctor massaged his chest, and gave him a shot of atropine, but his muzzle was turning blue. I was too stunned to realize quite what was happening. He died staring at me, his mouth open; the look in his eyes was both blank and insistently expressive, as if he were saying to me, simply: You see.

I haven’t been able to say much that made sense about it since. For a long time now I have been thinking about what, or how, a life — any life — means. This is different from “the meaning of life,” a question that is, as the President would say, above my pay grade. (Who gets paid to provide such answers anyway? The philosophers I’ve known must have hid their incomes under a bushel.) It’s instead a question of what one specific life can signify, so slight, so almost-always soon forgotten. What does it mean for such an evanescent thing to mean? If an individual existence means anything after it is gone, that must lie in what we say about it, how we re-imagine and retell it. But this seems a cruelly fragile significance for an extinguished life that once meant so much more to the one living it.

This question is valid for animals as for humans. Animals may or may not have consciousness like ours. (Julian Jaynes points out that it’s impossible, watching any human going about her business, to tell whether she is actually conscious or an automaton at the beck of inner voices. Yet we give humans the benefit of the doubt, although – in the case of Donald Trump, or President Sisi, or indeed almost anyone on TV – the inner voices might be a more plausible explanation. I don’t see why we shouldn’t grant the same credit for consciousness to the pets sharing our lives, who look at least as convincingly as if they know what’s what.) Even if they are conscious, though, we humans have the power of language as they don’t. We are meaning-making animals, and the meaning of the animals we love resides uniquely in our minds, our words. Our pets give us a trust that, duplicitous and uneasy, humans can’t offer one another. In return, we only give them words they cannot use.

So I wonder what Oliver meant; what I can say about this vulnerable, short-lived little animal who only indifferently noticed that I had given him a name? He came to me in November of last year, in a sidewalk café near where I lived in Doqqi. I went there to meet some friends, and when I arrived, a tiny orange-and-white street kitten was on the lap of one of them. He was dirty and scraggly, with an infection in one eye. He was also desperately affectionate; put down, he would try to scramble back up to you, as if he wanted nearness more than anything, even food. I couldn’t leave him; after asking my friends what to do, I decided to take him home. He whimpered as I carried him down the street. The elevator frightened him – he cried frantically as we rose in it, far more grievously than when, months later, he descended it the last time. The artificial light in my flat stabbed his eyes and terrified him, and he burrowed under my jacket and clung to the back of my shirt. Several traumatic baths were needed before he was presentably clean. The conjunctivitis faded quickly. It took a day or two to decipher his sex; when I did, I named him Oliver, after Dickens’ little orphan.

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Oliver in early December 2014, about a week after I brought him home

Cats are tragic animals, tragic in a comprehensibly human way. Their happiness is in the womb or in the first few weeks when they’re drawing on their mother’s teats, a fantasy of amplitude and union. (Watch a grown cat, sleeping, knead and suck anything that reminds it of a maternal nipple.) Then life turns on them, harsh, insufficient, cruel. When they’re barely old enough to fend for themselves, their mothers reject them brutally, like Baptists finding out their kid is gay. After that they form no compensating connections within the species. Cats are loners; they don’t prowl in packs like dogs; they struggle against their own kind to live, and sex is a penetrative skirmish in the war of all with all — if you’ve seen (or heard) cats fucking, it’s like one of Mike Tyson’s wet dreams. In fields or forests this life has logic. In a city like Cairo, it is dreadful; hundreds of thousands of street cats populate its trash piles, fighting to survive in a misery that brevity cannot redeem. Yet in all this they are animals recognizably like us: by night, dreaming of a lost maternal plenitude; by day, hacking day their way through a life without comfort, with a forward-thrusting impulse to survive that cannot restore them to the happiness of dreams. I suppose I’ll be accused of anthropomorphizing animals; instead, though, I’m situating our human rage and suffering back in the animal world from which it sprang. Schopenhauer must have studied cats in the wild. In them, the Will that wills nothing but its preservation, but cannot will contentment or satisfaction, appears naked of the disguises that make it bearable to humans; and so does the sorrow for a lost time when nothing was willed or needed.

Yet when they connect to us humans it’s something quite different, devoid of the violence that rends relations among themselves. They don’t strive with us; they suspend the war. Ethologists trace the domesticated cat’s bond with a particular human to its deep memories of its mother when she was carer and provider. Surely that’s true to a point. But cats aren’t idiots. They don’t blindly identify these large, hairless, stumbling apparitions with the resurrected mother. Their attachment contains the buried past while transmuting it into something else. (Often while I worked, Oliver would lie on one of my old thick blankets, which smelled of me but was reassuringly hairy in a cat-like way, and knead and suck it while drifting off to sleep. It was a fantasy object in which his memories could merge with the actuality of my scent. His bond with me showed its origins in nostalgia then; but, when he was awake, that bond was different – much less oral, for one thing – as if he knew that it was bound to the mast of the future, not the past.)

Cats take a lost utopia and, changing its terms, turn it into love for us. Without leaving the instinctual world for a moment, they acquire something like a moral life, one not shaped by the adult struggle to survive. Of course the transcendence of natural limit is small and local; morality is never complete, never permeates any self; no cat ever stopped dismembering mice because he loved a human. (Hitler, after all, became a vegetarian, but never stopped being Hitler.) Still, the accomplishment is something nature never fully planned. Turning backward to move forward, a cat’s love transcends the conditions and the destiny it was born with. Transcendence both rejects and redeems what it transcends. All morality is a map of an imagined future, but it comes from memory, from the faint dream traces of an unrecoverable past. Escaping the ukases of necessity means recollecting a time before need.

Oliver was intensely, astonishingly full of love. He loved to love people. Mostly this focused on me, but whenever he met a stranger he approached the encounter with passionate interest, as though he wanted to figure out what could be loved about this person. (When a cat grows up, its gaze tends to narrow; the broad stare of kittenhood that we think so innocent turns shuttered and aloof. It’s an aid to predation, a way of veiling exactly where the hungry look aims. This never happened to Oliver, though, for some reason. His eyes stayed wide and open till he died, as if he wanted to absorb as much of the world as he could.) In a street kitten, this was amazing. I don’t know how he became this way. In cruel Cairo, street cats learn to fear humans early; people spend on cats their casual sadism left over from family and work, as if they were tossing pocket change. At a downtown café last year, I used to see a cat with a tail skinned from the tip, bloodied down a third of its length. It darted round for days showing this raw stump in terror and pain, till it stopped appearing any more. I can’t reconstruct what made Oliver take the immense risk of loving a species so eager to torture, so quick to forget. But he took the chance, and he loved.

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver approaches a new friend at my birthday party, June 2015

He was so inseparable from me for months that it’s hard to detach discrete memories. I remember the way he stretched, usually lying beside me in the bed in the morning, more profoundly than I’ve ever seen a cat stretch its limbs before: his body taking in the sheer contentment of being there. Although like most cats he was not enthusiastic about having his belly touched, he liked to lie on his back, cradled in my arms, staring up at me; at such moments he would let me strum his stomach like a banjo, as if he were saying, I know you like this; it’s OK. Early on, I tried shutting him out of my bedroom some nights, because I’m allergic to cat hair. I stopped because he would sit at the doorsill the whole night crying – not because he wanted food, his bowl was full, but because he wanted nearness. I remember how, when I leaned over him, he would reach up his paw and press my face. It was a firm touch, but too pliant to be meant to keep me distant. He would stare at me intently then, as if to say: There you are.

Another thing I have thought about lately, in a disconnected way, is love. As I grow older, I grow more convinced that love is something tangible in the universe, existing above and beyond beings who try to love; a force that inhabits us, almost irradiates us, briefly and from time to time (because our frailty could hardly bear such a suffusion constantly). It’s impersonal in the sense that it seems to dwell outside us. Yet it still calls us back to the things of this world, to apprehend the absolute individuality of the objects it chooses. There is a wonderful essay by Edward Mendelson on W. H. Auden, my favorite poet since I was a child. A heretical Christian, Auden had his own religious vocabulary. “Auden used ‘miracle’ to refer to anyone’s sense of the unique value of one’s own unpredictable individuality”; and he used “God” for the force that understands the individuality of every thing in creation. God is the giver of all Proper Names.

“To give someone or something a Proper Name,” he wrote, “is to acknowledge it as a real and valuable existence, independent of its use to oneself, in other words, to acknowledge it as a neighbor.” The value that is acknowledged through a proper name is not measurable in any objective sense; it exists in the eyes of the beholder. When human beings imagine a beholder who finds such value everywhere, they think in terms of God, or, as Auden wrote in another late poem, “the One … / Who numbers each particle / by its Proper Name” – a deity who knows the name of every electron in the universe, rather than thinking about them in collective, statistical terms.

That is love in its largest shape, of which we experience little, local portions. Poets grasp this paradox of an immense power transfiguring our particular selves. They tell us that to let this power invade us gives us meaning, just as the power lets us recognize the meaning in others. Perhaps that force that is not us, is all that will remain of us. Philip Larkin wrote about “our almost-instinct, almost-true”:

What will survive of us is love.

One more thing I remember. There was a time from November through January – the first few months after I took in Oliver – when the cruelty in Egypt seemed out of control. Stories of arrests and torture spread, formed the ground bass beneath every conversation. My friends were leaving the country; what they left behind was fear. We were all certain we would be arrested. I kept a small bag packed under my bed for when the police came. Each day I repacked it methodically (colored underwear or white? do they allow dental floss in jail?) as if trying obsessively to put order in the paranoia, to arrange its mad metastasis into a coherent plan.

I can’t describe what it meant, amid all this, to have the nearness of a small animal who wanted nothing but to love and be loved. He wakened me every morning, sitting on my chest, sensing something was out of kilter, with no remedy to provide but love. His simplicity made things seem sure. Purity of heart can save others; he woke me out of the nightmare of the fallen days to a dream that fear was the fragile thing, that our barbarous human hatred quailed before the invulnerability of compassion. He offered the hope that love survives in this suffering world, that it transforms us. For that I owe him much of my self, although I never had a way to say it. Goodbye, Oliver. I love you.

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

Oliver at my birthday party, June 2015

If you like this blog, we’d be grateful if you’d pitch in:
Donate Button with Credit Cards


Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

Francisco Goya, De qué sirve una taza? (What use is a cup?) Plate 59 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), 1810-1820

I remembered this poem today, though what it describes seems almost forgotten. If you do remember, and have read the newspapers, you’ll understand.


Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.

— Czesław Miłosz, “Sarajevo,” from Facing the River: New Poems, 1995

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Disasters of War

Enterrar y callar (Bury them and be quiet), plate 18 from Los Desastres de la Guerra 


Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”


Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr