New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeast Cairo

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeastern Cairo

I wish some Egyptian Joan Didion could visit El-Marg. She might turn this dry outcropping of Cairo into a fear-saturated landscape like the dismal suburbs of Los Angeles: “an alien place,” as the writer sketched those badlands in one essay,

a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.  October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April.  Every voice seems a scream.  It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

Street in El-Marg

Street in El-Marg

I’ve been to El-Marg once or twice, out on the far northeast edges of the megacity, and I remember dust everywhere, enough to outdo Didion’s sallow, itchy ambience. The neighborhood is too close to the desert, and nothing keeps out the onslaught of sand that grinds itself fine against window and wall and skin. But there are no mountains and there’s little wind; none of Didion’s rattlesnakes crepitate in the drives – there are no rattlers in Egypt, just impudent mongeese that hurry hunchbacked along the streets like donked-up rats; and you come away impressed not by sullen, repressed California housewives dreaming of adultery and insurance money, but by the prevalence of men, particularly young ones, slouching and strutting and parading down the unswept streets. It’s a shaabi neighborhood, a word sometimes translated “popular” and sometimes “working class,” but carrying other, deeper connotations: down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, the country transported to the city on migrants’ backs. The place has the resentful pride of poverty, but none of the thwarted aspirations that fester in Didion’s bourgeoises. Nobody aspires. The local dreams seem leaden, not golden. The main hope is simply to survive in an economy and country where that gets harder all the time. Fourteen or more men are in jail there tonight, for something connected, somehow, to this hurt and troubled manhood.

The story appeared on October 12 in Akhbar el-Youm, a state newspaper, describing arrests that probably happened the day before.

The niyaba [prosecutor] ordered the [continued] detention of the manager and specialists and workers at a health center that was open for perverts [shawazz] only, in El-Marg. He also ordered the detention of 14 men who were caught practicing immorality [fahesha] inside it, and the closure of the establishment.

Information had been received about the center’s illegal activity, and that it welcomed perverted men and boys to practice immorality in its rooms.  The investigation has proved the information correct; the center was raided, and 14 men were caught, in positions that are against religious precepts.

Also, the management staff were caught along with a large quantity of pills and sexual stimulants. It emerged that the center only engages in this illegal activity in return for payments of between 50 and 200 pounds [$7-$28 US] for one encounter.

The defendants confessed in front of Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, the chief El-Marg prosecutor, that they had been frequenting the center to practice immorality [fahesha]. The niyaba ordered their detention and referral to the forensic medical authority, and ordered the center closed and the evidence preserved.

The “health center” turned into a “medical center” by the time this reached the English-language Egyptian press. It has remained so now that the story has started to enter the international LGBT media.

Actually, the establishment is — was — neither. I have at least one friend who has visited. It was a small gym and sauna, converted from a private apartment and operating as a business for years. It’s well known in the surrounding streets; when my friend went there about three years ago – before the Revolution – and asked directions, the neighbors said “Oh, the hammam!”, or baths, and pointed the way. The entry fee was 25 pounds back then. It’s unlikely the price has gone up eightfold in the interim, so the figures the police gave (with the strong suggestion of prostitution) are probably nonsense. There is a good chance that the “pills and sexual stimulants” the police found are vitamins, or even steroids.

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

The gym sounds, and perhaps was, a little upscale for a district like El-Marg: so poor and so insulated from so much of Western consumerism, with the exception of universal values like Marlboros and Pepsi. The arrests certainly call into question the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the “visible” people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for “homosexuality” in Egypt are “Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” There aren’t too many people like that around El-Marg. On the other hand, a different kind of consumerized identity, built not around sexuality but around masculinity, has been creeping into places like El-Marg for well over a decade now. It comes from movies and magazine ads and it consists in a cult of the sculpted body, perfected from nature’s raw materials, designed to elicit admiration quite apart from anything it does, any useful work or wonders it performs. A longstanding fetish of health and exercise in Egypt dates from the colonial period – periodic pushups helped show that “natives” could be as strong and self-sufficient as their masters. Yet it was largely confined to the upwardly-pushing middle classes, as Wilson Chacko Jacob has demonstrated in an intriguing study. Only more recently has working out, and a fullblown Chelsea version of it at that, become a defining feature of shaabi manhood.

Something of the change can be sensed just with a glance at two Egyptian movie stars and their physiques.  Farid Shawki (1920-1998), nicknamed the “King of the Cheap Seats,” was an idol to working-class audiences for decades, playing poor heroes who fought against injustices imposed by a rogues’ gallery of rich villains. He was an unwieldy lug with a rectangular body that made him resemble a walking refrigerator (a luxury item his characters certainly couldn’t afford). Mohammad Ramadan, a 20-something kid from Upper Egypt and now a major sex symbol, also plays noble prole roles, but by contrast has the kind of torso that – well, in every movie he misses no opportunity to take his shirt off: “Lunch, habibi?” “Yes, but it’s so hot in here …”

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R):

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R)

It’s like the transition between John Wayne and Channing Tatum: between a laconic masculinity that held its energies in reserve, lest they be harnessed or exploited, versus one that shows itself off compulsively and indeed exists to be seen. The way the poor devour this new image in Egypt may have something to do with how the shaabi classes are increasingly invisible to the privileged and powerful. The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. The conspicuous development of delts and abs is also a defiant way to say, I’m here, if only as an object of desire. It also perhaps reflects the economy of underdevelopment: a feeling that muscles are no longer for labor – there are fewer and fewer jobs as the economy spirals downward – but for show. Maybe there’s an element of resistance to it (look at Mohammad Ramadan’s menacing weaponry, above), but mostly it seems to be resignation to a different kind of exploitation. It’s a grim admission that your existence is really only useful as a spectacle. This kind of masculinity-for-display inevitably carries homoeroticism with it, but a particularly unsettling kind: the pumped-up muscles make one an object, not an agent, and imply vulnerability along with the visibility, the paralyzed passivity of a pin-up photo. Mohammad Ramadan is not an action hero. He seems quite credible, in fact, playing a victim.

The consumerized body, its class implications, its cross-cultural incursions – have any of these drawn Joseph Massad’s indignant attention? I think not. I don’t know whether any of the arrested men in El-Marg are “gay” or not, or what they were doing when caught “in positions against religious precepts” (a remarkably inclusive phrase).  I am inclined to guess, though, that the visibility of this suspect masculinity finally roused the antagonism of the neighborhood; and that is why the police were called, and how they ended up in jail.

Friends of friends of mine know some of the men. (Although “14” is the figure that’s made it into Western press reports, this is only the number of the clients arrested – it doesn’t seem to include the “manager, specialists, and workers.”) The prosecutor ordered them held for four days, but that may be renewed. They’ve been sent off for forensic anal examinations, which are intrusive, abusive, and inhuman treatment. They don’t yet have lawyers. Human rights organizations are overburdened with the arrested, the tortured, the disappeared since the military takeover. Some informal networks are trying to see what we can do.

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Bodies indisciplined: Anti-Morsi protesters fill Midan Tahrir, June 30

Back in June, when three days of massive demonstrations gave the military the go-ahead to overthrow President Morsi, most of my gay friends in Cairo flocked to the streets, first in protest, then in celebration. But nothing had gotten worse for LGBT people under Muslim Brotherhood rule; nothing has got better since it ended. Same old, same old. It’s still true that the worst persecution LGBT people have faced in Egypt, possibly in the whole region – the three-year, continuous crackdown from 2001-2004, when police probably arrested and tortured thousands – was inflicted under Mubarak’s secular dictatorship. It had virtually nothing to do with religion. Indeed, the aged caudillo was arresting and torturing tens of thousands of Islamists at the same time.

What has been consistent since the Revolution, despite the several changes of government – military, Islamist, military again – is that the police want desperately to win their reputations back.  Under Mubarak, the vast majority of Egyptians passionately loathed the police: they were the contact point where ordinary citizens faced, and felt, the corruption and arbitrary power and abusiveness of a regime that had lost its sense of limit. And after February 2011, the cops finally had to give a damn that they were hated. In fact they largely disappeared, fearing for their safety and even lives if they offended an empowered populace. Since then, they’ve looked for ways to recuperate credibility – mainly, by showily harassing anybody the man in the street might despise even more than a man in uniform. Since the coup, the police go after Syrians, Palestinians, and other foreigners, because the wave of State-fostered xenophobia makes them applause-inducing targets. But it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?

Tell us who to torture and we will: Police in el-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

Tell us who to torture, and we will: Police in El-Marg escort deputy Minister of Interior on an inspection tour, April 2013

One night last February, I got a call at 4:30 AM. A small gaggle of gay men had been standing just after midnight in a square, in the tony Heliopolis neighborhood, that’s known as a cruising area. A police car pulled up to harass them; two of them, feeling their post-Revolutionary oats, argued with the officers.  They got arrested, while the others ran. One other guy who bravely went to the police station an hour later to ask about their well-being also found himself arrested, though the cops quickly let him go. Before that, though, the badges threatened him that he’d join his shawazz pals in prison. The word spread fast, by phone and text message, across Cairo’s gay communities. There were fears the prosecutor would slap charges of “debauchery,” or homosexual conduct, on the two men; fears, too, that they’d be sent off for the dreaded anal examinations. By 6 AM Ramy Youssef, a young Egyptian human rights activist, was standing with me in the shivery egg-blue dawn in front of the police station. Under various pretexts, we argued our way in, and persuaded the commander to let us see the men. One had been severely beaten. They were set free a few hours later – largely, I think, because we let the abusers know somebody was watching; but before I left, I asked the commander, in my most oozily ingratiating manner, whether the police found it increasingly difficult to work since the Revolution. “Definitely,” he said, spreading his hands imploringly. “And I hope you will tell the world that, as these cases show, we are still trying to do our job.”

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from  (h/t @Seldeeb)

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from (hat tip: @Seldeeb)

Will this change? Not until the police are changed – until Egypt’s security sector is reformed; and neither military nor civilian governments have shown the slightest interest in that. The current junta, led by Generalissmo Sisi, has even less incentive to embark on any reforms than Morsi, who should have mistrusted the police (after all, they persecuted the Muslim Brothers for decades) but imagined he could employ them against his enemies. And military rule is never friendly to alternate ideas of manhood (or womanhood, for that matter). It exalts its own proprietary version of gender: a thoroughly traditional one, the old Everyman style of patriarchal authority, impatient of any perversion or extravagance. “We’re all Sisi,” the propaganda tells the public, and anybody who doesn’t look safely, nondescriptly, heterosexually Sisiesque enough will be in trouble. The fourteen or more men now in jail are victims because they seemed, in some fashion, different. They’re among many victims of the pressure to both believe (in the secular cult of Sisi) and conform.

It is the eve of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice in Islam. The holiday commemorates the faithful Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail – a story that ended, as Jews and Christians know from their own versions, with God’s merciful forbearance, permitting the prophet to spare the boy’s life. Tonight as I walked in downtown Cairo, all the alleys felt festive almost till the curfew impended. In a run-down street near the High Court, small kids played on the sidewalk around a prostrate and unhappy-looking goat, which in a few hours would play its part as the substitute sacrifice. Ibrahim offered up an animal in grateful exchange for the divine indulgence, the value God placed on human life. There are no substitutes in Cairo these days. It’s human life that’s sacrificed. The whole country looks more than ever like a scapegoat.


We are all Sisi: Junta propaganda on an August 2013 cover of Sowt el-Umma

50 thoughts on “New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

    • I don’t see any great difference between Sisi and the Brotherhood. Same security forces, same police, similar tactics. Re: “undoubtedly”: the Brotherhood never came up with a plan to impose shari’a, and were not making any perceptibly moves toward it beyond the (comparatively) small nod in the Constitution toward an expanded interpretation of existing law in terms of Islamic jurisprudence. But unlike Sisi, they didn’t kill over a thousand people.

      • But according to BBC News:

        “The movement is the country’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, meaning its ideology is based on the teachings of the Koran.

        Founded by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood – or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic – has influenced Islamist movements around the world with its model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.

        The movement initially aimed simply to spread Islamic morals and good works, but soon became involved in politics, particularly the fight to rid Egypt of British colonial control and cleanse it of all Western influence.

        While the Ikhwan say that they support democratic principles, one of the group’s stated aims is to create a state ruled by Islamic law, or Sharia. Its most famous slogan, used worldwide, is: “Islam is the solution.”

      • According to BuzzFeed World:

        “Following the revolution in 2011 and the ascension of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, even stricter laws and conditions were placed on the LGBT community.

        Brotherhood leaders preached against homosexuality and publicly announced that ‘gay men are not real people.'”

    • George, no new or stricter laws have been passed relating to homosexuality since 2011, either under the Muslim Brotherhood or under SCAF. The BuzzFeed article refers to a single incident where an Egyptian diplomat at the UN Human Rights Council said that instead of addressing LGBT issues the Council should take up the concerns of “real people.” But the man who said that — Omar Shalaby, the second secretary of the Egyptian Mission — wasn’t a Brotherhood appointee; he was a long-time diplomat from the Mubarak era. And the statement was mild compared to the vitriol Egyptian diplomats directed against SOGI issues under Mubarak — in 2003-2004, for instance, they led the campaign against Brazil’s resolution on sexual orientation, and three years later they greeted the application of one LGBT NGO for consultative status by asking whether it supported the extermination of the human race.

  1. Scott, it is interesting you would try to use the latest incidents to take a jab at “the celebrated thesis of Joseph Massad: that the ‘visible’ people experiencing, indeed mischievously inciting, persecution for ‘homosexuality’ in Egypt are ‘Westernized upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.'”

    But with regard to the “gym” which you believe undermines Massad’s view, you yourself inform us that it is known to outsiders who come to El Marg seeking it and that local residents identify it to outsiders as a “hammam.” And that the local residents know that it is these outsiders who frequent the premises.

    Indeed it is through one of your “outsider” friends that we learn that the price of a visit was 25 pounds about three years ago, as opposed to the much higher prices reported in the media now (up to 200 pounds)

    Perhaps this explains why the “gym” is a little too “upscale” for the poor residents of El Marg: they are not the target clientele.

    The only other example you cite is of the arrests in the “tony” — upscale — neighborhood of Heliopolis.

    This certainly does nothing to undermine Massad’s observations. Your own description indeed supports them! It seems quite plausible, from your account, that it is the highly visible clientele who are targeted by the police, and this in turn ends up victimizing the workers in the “gym.”

    • So it turns out that these taintedly “gay” and “wealthy” victims have been victimized, not because the Egyptian police is brutal and oppressive and wants to use them as a distraction, but because they have brought it on themselves, so to speak, by being “visible”, by not managing to completely hide in fear and shame and by daring to frequent a “hammam” that’s decidedly too expensive for them, unless they were westernized upper-class dupes who elicit their own oppression through their visibility. Thus, our respected US-Arab anti-imperial journalist, following in the footstep of another US-Arab academic, Massad, doesn’t stop at deciding on behalf of the natives, for them, which “visible” identities are appropriately theirs and which are not, but goes beyond that to decide how much money they should be able to spend on what to qualify as properly native and working-class. And if they dare seem to violate his totally arbitrary criteria, or rather if he decides that they did, they’re automatically judged as too wealthy, and thereby blamed for not only victimizing themselves but also victimizing the “workers at the gym”. What a breath-takingly egotistic and self-serving piece of logic that totally exonerates the polices while blatantly blaming the victims! Why is it that this kind of anti-victim logic is emanating from people who should know and think better? I’m truly perplexed. It’s just very sad.

      • Samir, I can’t understand why you are perplexed. Scott decided to use this incident as an example which supposedly undermines Massad’s thesis. As I pointed out, the facts as Scott renders them do not undermine Massad’s thesis. Indeed it can be argued that they support it.

        Nothing Scott said suggested that Scott or Massad support the Egyptian police persecuting people and nothing I said supports the Egyptian police persecuting people. The question Scott raised was about the visibility of those being targeted. No one is blaming those arrested regardless of how they might identify.

        Massad’s point — which, as I remind you, Scott thought important enough to bring into his article — is that the police target those who want to assume a public sexual identity and want to congregate publicly around it.

        This is how Massad puts it in Desiring Arabs (p.183):

        “the [Egyptian] police do not seek to, and cannot if they were so inclined, arrest men practicing same-sex contact but rather are pursuing those among them who identify as ‘gay’ on a personal level and who seek to use this identity as a group identification through social and public activities. The campaign of the Gay International misses this important distinction. It is not same-sex sexual practices that are being repressed by the Egyptian police but rather the sociopolitical identification of these practices with the Western identity of gayness and the publicness that these gay-identified men seek.”

        Nowhere does Massad make a normative case that those who identify as “gay” should be repressed, nor has he ever justified it (nor did I in my earlier comment as you falsely charge). He is describing a process. The important implication which Massad identified is that when all same-sex contact becomes coded as “gay” then the repression expands to ensnare more people.

        It is therefore not an insignificant point in this process that when the rich are caught, their social and financial capital can (often) give them an exit. When the poor are caught, they are not so lucky.

        In response to Scott’s further points: Whether those arrested were “outsiders” or not is not the relevant question in terms of Massad’s thesis; the question is whether the “gym”/”hammam” had become associated with the “gay” sociopolitical identity, which would make it and anyone in it a target of police repression.

        The fact that Scott had knowledge of the place and its prices through a friend who had to ask directions to find it suggests that it had become so associated whether or not those frequenting it also include poor local men. The comment of the “Cairene,” also a visitor, who self-identifies as “bilingual and Westernized” also supports this point (Also, Scott, Massad first put forward his thesis in a lecture in Chicago in 2000, before the Queen Boat horror. Its inclusion in his article two years later did not alter his thesis but in fact provided evidence to support his description of the structure, politics and impact of the Gay International).

        I note too that you, Samir, (and sadly Scott) have deviated from a discussion about the question toward personal ad hominem speculations, and posturing as protectors of the downtrodden. I usually interpret that as a sign of weak arguments.

  2. Pingback: Seeking public approval, Egyptian police arrest 14 for gay sex | 76 CRIMES

  3. Let me get this straight; when men who engage in same sex practice, and who do not necessarily identify as gay, are identified by the authorities as gays/deviant and persecuted accordingly, this undermines “Massad’s celebrated thesis?”

  4. Dear Scott,

    I am a bit perplexed by your depiction of Egyptian working class masculinity and its links to sexuality or to the arrests in general. Why is it that submission to global norms of desirability and bodily aesthetics represents a form of resistance exactly? And what would it have to do with popular resentment or charges of sexual depravity? The global film industry’s transition in models of masculinity, from Shawky to Ramadan or from Brando to Pitt, does not enlighten me much upon the matter. Fifty years ago, people used to consider fridge-men more attractive than today’s tumorous meat-slabs. So? I do not see this argument as having any bearing on…anything really. It simply suggests that ideas and dreams of the “good body” have been shaped by upper-class behavior and media outlets for a long time.
    As such, I do not believe that people who work out at the local gym 1) resist (or think they resist) Egypt’s oppressive economic exclusionary regime, or 2) would have drawn much negative attention to themselves because of their “visible” masculinity. Besides the apparent contradiction in the argument–these new men EITHER represent the forefront of a male resistance movement OR they are hated by the majority of the population to the point of calling the police on them–usually, such monstrously worked-out men are celebrated in “shaabi” culture. They would only become suspicious if associated with wealth or upper-class visitors, or men deemed “devious” through some other marker (such as “effeminacy” for instance). Muscle mass and sexual identity are, to the best of my knowledge, not particularly linked to each other, either in Egypt or in Europe or in the US for that matter.
    Last, and not to rant on for too long, I do not quite understand the jab at Massad. It seems your entire post is designed as a response to his argument, and based on the false premise that working class men like to work out, and that this new bodily fetish makes them hated by other working class people of nebulous and unspecified identity. Working class families living in El Marg, as you should know from your visits to the neighborhood, would not earn much more than 600 EGP per month. In this context, it seems rather unlikely that they would pay sums representing between a 20th to a third of their monthly income, i.e. 25 or 200 EGP, to access the gym for 24 hours! That would be like claiming that a median American making 3000 USD a month would be willing to pay between 150 and 1000 USD for a day pass at the gym. The class-based attack on Massad seems entirely misguided to me, and a pretext for polemic rather than actual analysis of this event, sadly.

    Marc Michael

      • In order to remain as inclusive as possible in this thread, Samir’s comment translates in English as: “Why don’t you grace us with your silence, white boy toy?” The problem with this translation is that the English readership ends up missing out on the sexist connotations. This 20 second video clip translates them pretty accurately. You just have to imagine Samir as a much more depressing version of Sean Connery:

  5. Having been to the ‘hammam’ of Marg, I feel I have to clarify a few things. The place is sha3bi as it gets. It’s not exactly a hammam or a gym, but a mix of both. The prices in the article are not real. Most of those men (from conversations with them) only meet other interested men in this venue, so it’s definitely worth paying the 25 EGP. The main target are those people, not the occasional visitors who are bilingual and Westernized like myself.

    This defensiveness to prove a certain academic right or wrong seems rather out of place for me. Those people are in jail now, nobody knows what they’re being subjected to. The place has been running for years, what concerns me is why they chose this time to do it, when the same men have been coming and going for years.

  6. Just a few comments on the Massad question. I have generally and publicly said that Massad’s critiques of human rights deserve serious consideration. That doesn’t mean I have to buy them in toto or lock, stock, and barrel, particularly because they have empirical as well as theoretical consequences and because the empirical premises on which they rest are falsifiable — and sometimes demonstrably false.

    Ali — I’ve said that based on what I know (and Cairene above affirms) the gym seemed to be thoroughly shaabi. The price ranges you cite come from the police, not the clients. Marc also seems to fail to comprehend this point. 25 LE is surely not a heavy price for folks in El Marg to pay for a periodic pleasure they value highly. Luxury yes, but beyond the pale? No. There’s something odd about graduates of Yale or Cambridge telling working-class Egyptians how much they can afford to pay for a gym, or for sex. It reminds me of neocons telling welfare recipients that if they spend $10 on KFC, they’re irresponsible, and not really poor. You folks might want to reflect for a moment on how this makes you sound.

    If the gym’s neighbors in El Marg recognize it and refer to it as a “hammam,” it’s probably not because they see outsiders going there, but because they saw it as a familiar place integrated into the daily life of the neighborhood. The guys who were arrested seem entirely to have been from El-Marg, which is why nobody in the “downtown” crowd in Cairo knows them. Trying on the basis of a few textual inferences to identify them as “outsiders” is a weird gesture at this point, when (as Cairene says) they are actually in jail. What’s the investment in proving that? Isn’t it just a matter of discrediting them to demonstrate that this is somehow consistent with Massad’s thesis? and I repeat: everything I have heard suggests they’re all el-Marg residents.

    The “tony” Heliopolis case was one of many in recent months, and I mentioned it solely because i had especially direct experience of it. Arrest and harassment happen fairly regularly, and I could cite cases involving shaabi men and working-class environments as well.

    Ahmed: “when men who engage in same sex practice, and who do not necessarily identify as gay, are identified by the authorities as gays/deviant and persecuted accordingly, this undermines “Massad’s celebrated thesis?” It might not, except that was not the situation I described. They weren’t identified by the authorities as “gay.” If you have actually read Massad, you’d know that the difference between “gay” and “deviant” is a textually and politically significant one for him — one that he quite incisively analyzes — and it speaks shelfloads that the Egyptian press accounts (and, I suspect, the niyaba reports if and when we see them) use a more customary terminology of “shawazz” and “feshara” rather than e.g. “mithliyya.” Were they looking for “Western” deviance? Or for “immorality” in a more local and immediately (in the root meaning) comprehensible sense? That there’s an open question (an aporia, one might say) there suggests at a minimum that Massad’s theses about why police do what they do, do not cover the whole territory.

    Marc: I’m not quite sure you read what I wrote. I didn’t say that working out represented some form of “resistance.” Instead, I said the opposite. What i tried to suggest, and I fully acknowledged this is speculative, is that it’s a relatively novel embodiment of masculinity that comes from outside (hence the grating question: why hasn’t Massad critiqued it?), that has been embraced for certain reasons more connected to powerlessness than resistance, but that also awakens anxieties. If that ‘s true, and I invite arguments that it’s not, it’s perfectly understandable why people in a neighborhood like El-Marg would participate in fetishizing it, but also why other people in a neighborhood like El-Marg might resent and oppose it. That account doesn’t require a Gay International dictating identities and pulling strings, but rather turns to both capital flows and cultural flows as heuristic points. In fact, I was trying to decouple “muscle mass” and “sexual identity,” or, more to the point, gender and sexual identity, and argue that there is a politics of gender at work in Egypt which is transnational and involves power relations across boundaries and borders but is not necessarily dreamt of in Massad’s philosophy. Resisting accounts of gender because they can’t be mapped onto a theory of “sexuality” is not a persuasive move, in my view.

    Blog comments are no place to get into the thick of a discussion about Massad’s work, which is rich and provocative but sometimes wrong. I just want to close with a few empirical points. Massad’s approach to these issues started, really, with the Queen Boat case, which was one of the origin points of his 2002 Public Culture article. There, he argued that the men arrested in the case were Westernized and made visible by a “gay” identity. This was not true. It is easy to document that it was untrue. I interviewed about 2/3 of the men arrested. Of the full total, 1/3 weren’t arrested on the boat at all, but were poor shaabi guys picked up by the police on the streets, through informers, not in search of “gay” Western-inflected folks but in traditional roundups connected to prostitution that have been going on for decades. Many people on the boat were poor (some illiterate) working class kids who were there for any number of reasons, but had basically saved up to splurge on a night of fun. In fact, the police targeted them rather more than the rich ones, on the presumption that they wouldn’t have wastas to help them get free. There are ways of nuancing Massad’s argument, in the light of the prosecution’s politically-motivated emphasis on “foreign’ sources of the “perversion,” to account for all this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the facts were rather different from what he thought. Surely it’s legitimate to suggest the limitation of theories the factual basis of which shifts like the San Andreas beneath them.

    Now I can’t help seeing this replayed again. Nothing in the evidence suggests the men in El Marg were “outsiders,” rich (25 LE? Come on) or “Westernized.” Nothing at all. To the contrary: if they’re arrested in El Marg, there ought to be some presumption at work that they’re from El Marg. It’s not like Wust el-Balad or Maadi, where all kinds might congregate to enjoy the fleshpots. But it seems to me there’s an ideological desire here to claim without evidence that they were “outsiders,” solely in order to vindicate a theory and to claim Massad is right, though Joseph is in no way invested personally or professionally in this case — I, um, seriously doubt he knows any of the arrested guys either. Arguing from theories to facts is a bad way to do things, in the social sciences or elsewhere. As we find out more about what happened, I’m perfectly happy to modify my inferences accordingly, but I would invite you guys to examine your presuppositions, realize that there are real people at stake as well as theories, and perhaps suspend your own judgments.

  7. And just one final note: if you want to set up a gym or a sauna, or a sex club for that matter, to appeal to relatively prosperous Cairenes, gay or straight, YOU DO NOT PUT IT IN EL-MARG. El-Marg is on the periphery of nowhere in most Cairenes’ terms. My friend who went there was fairly explicit that he was, in his visit, exploring unknown territory to see whether the rumors of an outpost of homoeroticism there were true. Nobody from another neighborhood without an appetite for adventure is going to spent 90 minutes on public transport, or 40 pounds on taxis, to get to a district with no other reported consolations.

    If you are from anywhere else in Cairo and want to go to a hammam and have sex with a man, you can go to Ramsis. Everybody in the “gay” scene knows that, and it’s at a –the — central metro and minibus stop. If you go to a hammam in El Marg for any reason, it’s probably because you’re from El Marg. Enough said.


  9. To Ali Abunimah,
    Rather than condemn the Mubarak sate police, here you are blaming it on the victims’ “visibility” as “upscale”, “Westernized” subjects, all of which are signifiers loaded with normative judgement. Isn’t it outrageous enough already that this discussion could descend into one about how much money those arrested paid at the “gym”, as if that should be at all relevant to the fact of police oppression. Anyway, I’m so over arguing about Massad, because it still remains so easy for his followers to just simply deny the screaming complicity in their statements and his. I’ve already written a long response to his unwittingly orientalist thesis. Here it is if anybody is interested

  10. Of course the move from theory to fact is unwise. However, the move from fact to theory, without enough attention to detail, distortion, and meaning, ends up distorting the facts themselves. This is what you do, Scott, you distort everything, including our words (and Massad’s for the matter). The term “shuzuz” has undergone a transformation in Egyptian writings, from meaning sexual deviance and excess in general (including, but not limited to, same sex practice) to a meaning deviance qua homosexuality; something you would know if you cared to read beyond chapter 3 of Massad’s book. As for the term “feshara,” it does not exist in the Arabic language. Maybe you mis-transliterated? Or perhaps your native informants, who incidentally happen to be non-westernized, need to fix their Arabic.
    Anyway that is not the central contention (or distortion on your part). The important thing is that my argument (and probably Ali’s and Michael’s, and the argument of anyone who has properly read and understood Massad) is how the gay international (yes, people like yourself) for the sake of feeling good about themselves, getting funding, or in some cases getting promotions, bring visibility to people who did not ask for it, and therefore make them vulnerable to the authorities persecution. By the way Massad has nowhere argued that the Queen Boat detainees were all of upper class or westernized. His argument is that the upper class westernized ones who sought visibility made the others now visible and more vulnerable and while those who originally sought visibility had exit, the ones who did not seek visibility in the first place were subject to police arrest. Now regardless of the class of the people arrested in the hammam, the productive question, rather than to use this incident (and the plight of real people) to take a shot at Massad, is to rethink the role of the people who continue to make same sex practice visible to the authorities (through a discourse of rights, identity, and visibility that makes its bearers feel good about themselves but victimizes others on its way).

    • Actually, Ahmed, Massad’s argument has changed quite a bit since its 2002 iteration, when he did in fact claim that the Queen Boat detainees were all wealthy and Westernized. He nuances this somewhat in Desiring Arabs, while switching his emphasis to a misrepresentation of the profile of Egyptian internet users (claiming that *they* are necessarily wealthy, Anglophone, and Westernized). In its earlier form, his argument did in fact make express excuses for the Egyptian police – claiming that detainees were merely “roughed up,” a curious refusal to employ the condemnatory language of torture and inhuman treatment. In subsequent years he’s clarified that he regards torture as wrong, while not precisely backing away from his minimization of specific instances in which it took place.

      Neither of his claims about the people he’s describing is accurate — I’ve already discussed who the Queen Boat detainees were, and a little research can give a profile of Egyptian internet users in the 2000-2013 period. As I say it seems quite legitimate to ask questions about a theory which can so slipperily adapt itself to incommensurate factual predicates (and can so readily elide its own factual implications).

      One further point: let’s say for the sake of argument that your long-distance appraisal of the men in El Marg is actually right, and they were openly embracing a “gay” identity. Now your point, taken from Massad, is that a primary responsibility for this rests with the agency of human rights activists and organizations, who induced or incited them to that stance in order that they could make specific kinds of claims. But how did that work? When the owner opened in gym in El Marg, did he think: ” I must prepare to make a human rights claim someday, and therefore I must begin embracing an identify for it?” Weren’t his motives (assuming, again, that this identity was the discursive frame in which he was working) much more connected to both money and culture: attaching himself to certain economic flows and processes, and connecting to broader cultural transactions that had absolutely zero to do with “human rights”? Whether they are gay or not, I can bet you that none of the 14+ men in El Marg had the least idea of making a human rights claim when they were visiting the gym, or at any point until the police broke down the door. I’d bet they had pretty much no contact point with the discourse of human rights whatever. And the striking fact is that “gay-identified” networks in Cairo, far from using that as a basis for claiming, are at some pains right now not to support any appearance the men are “gay,” but rather to make a case that this is a humanr ights violation on difference premises, including the right ro privacy.

      Finally: The term I meant (obvious if you read the blog post) was fahesha. Of course it’s an Arabic term. It appears six times in the Quran: Sura 3, Sura 7, Sura 17, Sura 27, Sura 29. That should be conclusive.

  11. Pingback: Neighbors Destroy Bath House In Egypt, Mikhail Baryshnikov Blasts Russian Homophobia: Today In Gay | NewNowNextNewNowNext

  12. Scott, just a few comments because as Samir rightly points out, this is probably getting old for all parties involved. 1) Yes, 25 EGP is a huge lump of money for many people, although it’s the price of a cup of fancy tea in Zamalek. My point however is not that people should not spend it on sex–they do whatever they wish– but that I find it strange that people with very little money would spend such sums on getting laid when they can very easily do so for free anywhere in Egypt. The streets are wide. So to put it bluntly, I was questioning the realism of your hypothetical (rather than empirical) statements. 2) I am still confused as to the nature of your claims on this sauna/gym and the arrests. In plain language, the crux of the matter is what drew attention to these men and got them arrested. Now you are either claiming that a) it is their masculinity/muscle mass, in which case this has nothing to do with sexual practices at all, but then I don’t understand why it should matter to the police. If someone calls to denounce bodybuilders for being buff, it’s not going to go very far or b) it is their sexual practices, which in turn you associate with a specific conception of masculinity, which you don’t specify. Another problem, of course, is to understand why the neighbors would denounce them in the first place if it weren’t for suspected sexual practices, and why the neighbors would be “anxious” about working out culture (as I stated above, I have never seen muscular men as anything but celebrated in pop culture; I really don’t understand where you perceive these “anxieties” about their muscles…). 3) Your spatial analysis of Cairo’s sex scene seems a bit wanting. Yes, you would definitely build a sex club interfacing between residents of heliopolis and of poorer surrounding neighborhoods in El Marg! Much closer than going back downtown. Besides, the rent will be much lower for a very small niche market, and these type of practices more tolerated than in more policed upscale neighborhoods like Helio.
    And to make myself perfectly clear: I’m not interested in claiming, without any empirical evidence, that the people arrested were of any specific class. You made a number of highly hypothetical statements, and I responded in kind showing that the opposite hypothesis held just as well if not better. The impulse to respond was born of my disappointment that you would use these men’s lives and arrests as pretext to attack Massad rather than covering the issue in depth and with some real research. That’s all.

  13. Coming from a working class background, my take is this, the poor guys from El Marg(perhaps homos perhaps not but probably homo) got busted whilst the wealthy middle class and upper class guys *** The rich and even the middle class retreat into guarded shopping malls, gated towers, and remote desert developments with the poor safely locked out. *** (homos perhaps, perhaps not but again, probably homo) do not get busted.
    Your observations here, ***it never hurts to announce that you’ve picked up a few suspected homosexuals. What better paints you, corrupt and immoral though you may be, as a defender of the nation’s morals?*** lend credence to scapegoating marginalized individuals while real International Homos go untouched. The obvious analogy is the war on drugs in the US where the street level dealer gets busted whilst the international white collar drug dealer goes free.
    Scott and Samir seem to be pedantic pseudo intellectuals with an axe to grind against the more elevated Massad and Ali Abuminah who make a far more clear concise case then the convoluted pretzel logic of the former two Scott and Samir,both, obviously hold sympathies to the International Homo networks.

  14. to be honest, I don’t know where Massad and his followers get all this moral superiority from. skin color? haughty Western education? All I see here is a bunch of “mozaydat”.

  15. To Marc Michael,
    “White boy toy”? and sexist connotations? This couldn’t be further from the truth and only goes to show how removed you or your translator are from queer or sexually non-normative communities in Egypt, which still doesn’t stop you from hypothesizing about them, and how much money they might be willing to spend on sex. The phrase “نقطنا بسكاتك”, which you translate as “grace us with your silence” in Egyptian colloquial Arabic is loaded with indicative meaning. Any native Egyptian speaker knows that it’s associated with “baladi” women, or women from the lower classes. In my experience queer men in Egypt sometimes use the phrase in an imitation of “baladi” women, perhaps to communicate or assert their queerness. The word “حليوة” can literally translate as “cute boy”(boy toy is a total fabrication), and in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, it is usually used for the masculine, sometimes with a slight tinge of ironic disdain. It can also connote a sort of boyish spoiledness and privilege. Contrary to your charge of sexism, in using the first phrase, “grace us with your silence”, I was trying to assume a queered and vulgar femininity to pose it against a privileged, whitened, aesthetically normative, and spoiled (and, perhaps slightly feminized) masculinity, which someone like you might perfectly exemplify–a spoiled masculinity which despite of, or perhaps because of, its obvious privilege still wants to script and discipline the native queer femininity, lest it deviates from or contradicts the latest trends in academic “radical” critique.

    My intent from writing that short and codified comment was to simply remind you of your obvious whiteness and privilege, in the hope that this might shake up your confidence a bit and stop you from arguing over those you seem to know very little about. Rather than getting my hint, you went on to totally distort what I said and charge me with sexism, thus fully exposing your ignorance of Egyptian Arabic. Now after I decoded my comment for you, would you please stop trying to discredit Scott, who, as it happens, is the only one on here genuinely concerned for the plight of those arrested and working for their release. Thanks.

    • Dear Samir,
      Unwilling to presume anything about you, I simply understood your comment as sexist. In light of your explanations above, I must apologize for mistaking your racism and classism for simple sexism. I bet “baladi” women love your gentle stereotyping of their ways, for the sake of amusing your friends and posturing as an oppressed minority at their expense. In other places, this has been called race- and gender-bending, or less kindly whitewashing. Rather than a more depressing version of Sean Connery, I now imagine you as a more self-righteous version of Nathalie Wood parading as a Puerto Rican: Or perhaps, a slightly less libertarian version of Shirley Q Liquor, another “queer” man parading in female blackface:

      I’ll let you pick. But keep in mind black minstrels’ motto when you choose: “It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience.”

      Now if my comments are unwelcome to Scott, I’m sure he’s old enough to ask me to leave his blog himself. No need for your kind intervention. Besides, there was no attempt at discrediting anyone on my part (funny you’d think that), but rather an attempt at something called “discussion” with Scott. I thought blogs were made for that purpose.

      Last but not least, I understand it must be hard for you to conceptualize of a name such as Marc Michael as upper-Egyptian (on both sides), and that to sectarian Egyptian Muslims (not only those amongst them who hate Christians but especially those who “love” them–I suspect you belong to either one of these two categories) “Christian” automatically means “European white”. But there is about 10% of the population that is of Coptic origin (the stereotype about whom is, ironically, that they are darker than Egyptian Muslims), and a good third of whom must be called either Marc or Michael, or a combination of both. Sectarian Sunni nationalist chauvinism is in fashion this season, I get that. But surely you can do better?

      • It’s certainly true that everyone I’ve ever heard speaking from the perspective of an afcicionado of Joseph Massad’s ideas has been an academic at a North American or European university, mainly American. I have never heard anyone actually living in the Arab world or even speaking Arabic as their main language of communication who takes them very seriously. I don’t want to disperage the academics, who make a very valuuable contribution to activism as well as thought. But if the ideas you’re imposing on people are so very different from their own, and seem to have little to do with the way they do their work or live their lives, could it be maybe there is something wrong with the ideas? Instead of with the people, which is what you seem to be suggesting?

      • Oh wow, my comment about a whitened masculinity seems to have made you really furious, despite your attempt at a calm sarcastic tone. It perhaps hit a sensitive spot, a guilty spot. Anybody could google your name to realize just what I meant by “whitened”, Mr. scholar, CEO, fashion model all at once. It probably doesn’t get any “whiter” than that. Despite appearances, and those can be deceptive, I promise, my intent here is not to further guilt you, as this might only exacerbate the problem, and since, after all, I really believe that it’s OK to be “whitened’. All I was trying to do was to stop you from projecting your white/”whitened” guilt on us, and making us into the victims of you trying to redeem yourself from your obvious privilege, much like how your Columbia god, Massad, denounces “Westernized” Arabs, who’re obviously much less “Westernized” than he is, and much less privileged than he is, for their alleged complicities. Though, at this point, it’s perhaps really unfair to compare you to Massad.

        All of your vicious attacks and accusations against me, making very US-specific references–most of which I don’t really get, as I’m not a whitened consumer of US media–provide one parodic example after another of precisely what I’m referring to as a whitened masculinity trying to discipline a recalcitrant native queer femininity, by extracting from a specifically racialized, gendered and sexualized US landscape, and superimposing on a very different social context. What you call, referencing liberal white discourses, “stereotyping” and “whitewashing”, I call queered femininity and cross-gender, cross-class solidarity. It’s quite tragically fascinating how those obsessed with criticizing cultural imperialism and epistemic violence can themselves turn into some of its worst practitioners.

        On a final note, I’m so done with your bullshit, Mr. witty we damoh khafeef. Masha2allah zaky we nabih!

      • Seriously get a life… No 25 pounds is not an awful amount of money for people to frequent a gym or a hammam. Where do you live exactly ya Michael? Have you ever actually visited a ‘shaa3bi’ Hamam? Your claims just show that you probably read Massad’s book recently and found it ‘like aw my gawd, phenomenal!!’. Seriously no body wants to argue with a white-minded person pretending to save the natives from themselves. If we involve Massad’s moralizing arguments. as you can see we go into circular accusations.

  16. Ay, “mozaydat” is true. These Massad fans they all seem a bunch of Westernized people full of their own sense of superiority to “working class” culture, and full of their own ideas about what it should be and what people should d. Completely distant from the Egytptian reality, and completely patronizing. If you want to accuse anybody of selling out to ideas that are not located in the actual reality of life as it is lived by human beings in Cairo — look in the mirror.

  17. Peter12345678,
    “Scott and Samir seem to be pedantic pseudo intellectuals with an axe to grind against the more elevated Massad and Ali Abuminah who make a far more clear concise case then the convoluted pretzel logic of the former two Scott and Samir, both, obviously hold sympathies to the International Homo networks.”
    This is so unfair, so ad hominem, so removed from the truth that I don’t know how to tell you how untrue this is, nor even begin to tell you. I worked with Scott as an interpreter on abuses. Scott consistently goes to places where upper-class Egyptians would never go, he seeks out the marginalized classes – I once spent over three hours with him searching for the house of someone who was arrested in Ezbet al-Nakhl, just to find someone and hear his story – and goes to towns outside Cairo. His observations on the change in the perception of masculinity, speculative as he points out, are based on hours and days of living in these communities. ‘Elevated?’ I’ve yet to see someone more erudite, who does his homework and works as hard as Scott Long, to the extent that when some a**hole forensic doctor in the Queen Boat case quoted ‘the French specialist Tardieu’, Scott searched for, found via inter-library loan, and read the book written by Tardieu, and discovered that he was a 19th-century ignorant Victorian, and also found the later experts who called his theories “bizarre and antiquated…rubbish.” (See In A Time of Torture, the Human Rights Watch report on the Queen Boat incidents. I translated it into Arabic, mainly because Scott is so far from the ivory tower that he insisted – unlike the other intellectuals you mention – on making it available in a language accessible to the people who formed the focus of the report.) He read it in the original French.
    In addition, I’ve never seen someone as committed as he is to the man-in-the-street. “International Homo networks?” — He’s not working for anyone right now, but putting his erudition and ability to do his homework into service while living in Cairo, going to the slums and areas that most human rights activists, and that I, as an upper-class Egyptian woman, would not venture into. Very few people will go into this kind of area, broach the self-contained specificity of the interpersonal relationships there, and to get anything out of these close-knit communities, you have to earn their trust. The fact that he is writing about it at all means that Scott, and his interpreter, have managed to do that. Yes, I can argue against his conclusions, as can anyone, but I have seen firsthand his ability to go where most activists do not, indeed to remain aware of his own race and class privilege and adjust accordingly, and I would not presume to launch ad hominem attacks without knowing this background.

    • Sarah,
      Scott sounds soo wonderful. You really should start a fan club. You know, Hitler loved dogs and children, at least according to his followers who knew him well. I point that out to empysize the non objective nature
      of close associates.
      I apologize for the ad hominem. On the street, where I spend all my time, the ad hominem is an essential element in judgement of a person taken as a whole not just the subjective nature of the topic eing debated. I only encounter the revulsion of ad hominem within the sheltered ivory towers.

      A man or woman is the sum of his or her parts. Whatever he or she says is waht he or she is. To islate the contenet of what they stand for and ognore the sum totolity of who they are is just silly.

      • Trying to stay on topic (a lot of tangential comments on this blog have really made me dizzy).
        Hitler and his Nazi networks were riddled with homos. This is indisputable fact. Google Ernst Rohm to see just one thread in the Nazi tapestry. The actual event, “Night of the Long Knives”, uncovers a Pandora’s box of shadowy homosexual factions at war with one another.(It’s not individual homos that bother me but what I see as an “international homo mafia”, which has garnered for itself, over the centuries, in the West, enormous power.) This is why Massad’s use of International “gay” has intrigued me.The Anglo American homos were deeply involved with Rohm. The post war Gladio networks also heavily infested with secret occult homo networks( I just watch the 1969 movie Z directed by Costas Gravas on HULU last night. The director slyly hinted at homosexuality being a hidden factor in the assassins networks. Absolutely enthralling to see that!. To ignore homo involvement in current events and hidden involvement with social political and economic chicanery would be seriously foolish.
        Controlling both sides in any conflict, throughout History, is an essential for the ruling elites. Whether it is on the right, with atavistic Imperialism or on the left with Bolshevism, there is, in my opinion, a decidedly hidden power, a shadow government, pulling strings from both sides of the ideological spectrum. This group has, as it’s secret binding element, homosexuality.
        My guess is most of the homos writing comments here tend to fall into the Bolshevik homo networks. Well, whatever, but as Massad has pointed out there are controlling elements within, that are in possession of hidden occult Orwellian “inner party” knowledge. Most rank and file are sincere but alas, terribly in the dark and I have personally gotten a lot of flak for daring to point out the huge hidden powers that the international homo networks have.
        My reason for commenting here, because Massad, seemingly, has broached this forbidden territory. Throwing down the gauntlet for further focused discussion… if you dare!

      • Oh, what a discovery! You’re fucking genius man! Go hide quickly before the nazis and homos networks come get you for finally exposing their ultra-secret conspiracy!

  18. Pingback: Egypte: des hommes arrêtés et placés en détention pour actes homosexuels | Yagg

  19. This would have been much more fun if we have this argument in a badr/rad7 form in a downtown cafe in Cairo. And for those who don’t know badr/rad7 is our age-old version of reading/voguing. But I don’t know if that would have incited the police to arrest us.

  20. Wonderful article! have you seen Paul Amar’s new book “The Security Archipelago” yet? Reading you and him, I’m always struck by how so many of these trends and tendencies are, in fact, transnational. We haven’t started arresting gays here in Brazil yet, but the same sort of state morality politics are visible in our ever-increasing anti-prostitution/trafficking/sexual tourism campaigns.

    I’m also struck by the way you describe the transformation in Egyptian working class men and their bodies. It reminds me very much of Susan Faludi’s analysis of the transformation of masculinity into something decorative in the U.S. have you read her book “Stiffed” or did you develop this analysis independently? It’s really good!

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