Jeddah Prison, Cell 18: Entrapped in Saudi Arabia

Baiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

Braiman Prison, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: from a video leaked to international media in 2012 to expose overcrowding (see http://observers.france24.com/content/20120201-leaked-images-overcrowding-saudi-arabian-prisons-mobile-phone-video-jail-jeddah-khoudar-hygiene-crowded-health)

“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.

I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia.  He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.

Here is his story.

I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah.  I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.

In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad.  There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”

There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!

So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?

I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that.  I was looking cute.

He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking.  But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.

The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.

Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.

I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself

Then I found myself in the police station.

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

Preventing vice, encouraging virtue: Saudi religious police

I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.

I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.

The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.

The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported.  To me this was something good: at least I would be free.

Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert.  I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.

That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?

Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.

The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.

I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.

The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.

I was so happy that day.

But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.

But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me.  Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.

After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions.  The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex.  The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

If you buy now, comes with a free three-year prison sentence: Vintage Orientalist condom packet from the US

At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.

In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty.  The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years.  And after I was released, they deported me.

In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.

I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75.  Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo.  Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

That handsome, bearded man wants YOU to prevent some vice and encourage some virtue

I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country].  From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US].  The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.

No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.

They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that.  But I don’t believe everything he said.

Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.

But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death.  It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

Still from leaked footage: A cell in Braiman Prison, Jeddah, 2012

ProstitutionSpeak, ideology, and death

"Moral Reform Directory" of 1839: This town is a horrible sump of abominable corruption, and here are the addresses

The God’s honest truth is, I get so depressed when I think about sex work.   Nothing ever changes. Or — well, let me correct that a little. Sex workers change.  The conditions of sex work change. The demographics of who goes into sex work change. The clients of sex workers change according to time, place, the economy, and other factors. The collective consciousness of sex workers changes. Even the laws around sex work change. But two things never change: The way the media reports on sex work, and the way Nicholas Kristof goes out in the wild to save some sex workers whenever there’s a full moon.   And the immobile persistence of these overwhelming facts cancels out all the other changes: the same way the occasional wobble in the earth’s axis, though it might produce an Ice Age or a mass extinction on the local scale, doesn’t alter the drone of the planet’s endless billions of rotations around the sun. The sun is a fixed fact; Nick Kristof is a fixed fact; and phrases like “Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” are fixed facts that will last till every newspaper and every computer chip are shreds of superheated carbon inside a red dwarf. And so it goes.

“Street Prostitution Keeps Its Wily Hold” was in the headline of a New York Times article this month.

Two men dressed as women strutted in and out of the shadows cast by the moon, past the locked doors of residences, just off one of Brooklyn’s nondescript commercial strips.

One wore knee-high boots and jeans with flowery designs. He had the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen. The other was a rocker type, the bright red tresses of his wig bouncing giddily off his leather jacket whenever he peered over his shoulder into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Eight months ago, it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 scantily dressed women shimmying along the side streets near this one-block stretch of Madison Street between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue, selling sex for cash or other gifts, like drugs or alcohol. But a recent police crackdown and an influx of transvestite prostitutes have sent most of the women elsewhere — at least for now.

Who writes this stuff for the Times?  (Answer: Al Baker and Tim Stelloh.)  Who edits it? On what other subject would the Newspaper of Record slip into such purple prose, as if it were donning its own flowery off-the-rack fuck-me hooker outfits? What does it mean to have “the straightened hair, exaggerated lashes and thick lipstick of a drag queen”? Does that mean she is a drag queen?  Or did he just mug a drag queen and steal his facial features?  Why isn’t the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation nailing the Times to the wall for this, instead of standing up for Ellen, who can probably stand up for herself?  Oh, I forgot: “transvestite” prostitutes aren’t respectable, unlike camera-coddled or drug-addled celebrities, and even Neil Patrick Harris could probably get away with calling them “drag queens” or, as GLAAD puts it, “tr*nnies.”

Slumming: A resembles-a-drag-queen and her manner-of-a-pimp

The arbiters of what’s Fit To Print, I suspect, fall back on such adj.- and adv.-filled language because they still think sex work would be unprintable in bald noun-verb phrases. The reigning ideology is all about hiding the fact that something very simple is happening, the exchange of sex for money. Instead, sacred horror and legal revulsion must cast their nebula over the scene, made up of purple rain and red-tressed wig and elaborate lighting effects to allow fantasies of rot and exploitation full play. Nothing in ProstitutionSpeak (or Pr*st*t*t**nSpeak) simply is itself. Everything resembles something, everything is like something, as if the jism of metaphor spills over and obliterates the outlines of thought. It’s all swept up in the “vibrancy and persistence of the old-fashioned street hustle, which in the predawn darkness of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Thursday spilled forth in all its crafty, competitive mercantile ways”:

As the transvestites walked up and down Madison Street looking for clients, a man, who had adopted the dress and manner of a pimp, followed them, sometimes at a close distance. Their parade was interrupted by a Mercedes sedan that pulled up to a traffic light; a door opened and a prostitute bolted out. The Mercedes sped away.

Is this guy a pimp?  Or did he beat one up, like the drag queen, and make off with his dress and manner? How do you know that’s a prostitute? Maybe she just stole a prostitute’s profession. Jesus, it’s a dangerous neighborhood.

And now it’s even more dangerous. Why? Well, there’s the police. Wheeling their attention briefly from the omnipresent Muslim threat, the cops, over three days in January, “made 195 arrests and seized 55 vehicles in what police officials called Operation Losing Proposition.” (That’s almost as good as Infinite Justice.) It’s hard to tell how they even identify the sex workers underneath all the metaphors, but in their hard-boiled wisdom, they manage. Here’s my favorite sentence from the entire piece:

In a separate case underscoring the ubiquity of streetwalking, a 32-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Feb. 6 after impersonating a police officer to extort sex from prostitutes, the police said.

Hilarious. But why does it show the “ubiquity of streetwalking”? Doesn’t it really underscore the ubiquity of … cops? Of real cops and fake cops alike, swarming everywhere, the greatest danger to prostitutes’ health and integrity? As Raymond Chandler wrote at the end of his greatest novel:

I never saw any of them again—except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.

So true. But then if you’re a cop, you probably don’t even notice that no one can get rid of you, or that anyone is trying.

The general gist of the article is that while “other crimes recede” in greater New York, prostitution-related arrests stay steady. But this isn’t surprising.   Those arrests, a fertile field for extortion, have always provided supplemental income for the police; and since streetwalkers are exposed pretty much by definition, it’s easy to nab them — and their clients. As it happens, Governor Eliot Spitzer (before he was brought down by the scandal over his patronizing a DC sex work ring) signed a bill changing the laws on prostitution in the state of New York. Selling sex remained a Class B Misdemeanor ( worth three months in jail or a $500 fine); but patronizing a prostitute, the crime and associated hypocrisy soon to topple Spitzer, went up to Class A, carrying one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. For cops, the clients have always represented a readier source of bribes, since they have both more money to offer and more reputation to save. Now they also face more risk. So it’s not surprising that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s chief target in Operation Losing Perspiration was the johns.

Protest against Raymond Kelly: We don't just spy on Muslims anymore

The article tries to put the best gloss on this by suggesting the notoriously un-cosmopolitan Commish was in fact mimicking the famous “Swedish model” — a Nordic effort to target “the point of demand” rather than the prostitute herself. For Head Cop Kelly, the guy who goes to Bed-Stuy looking for a blow job is now engaged in “human trafficking”: the slave trade in women, or in “drag queens” or “transvestites.” All this, the writers claim, “occurred after Mr. Kelly took part in a series of meetings, beginning last year, with advocates from Europe and others aiming ‘for a fairer approach to prostitution.'” But:

Some advocates for prostitutes noted that 10 prostitutes were included in the mid-January arrests, which sends a mixed message. Others, including one former call girl, said it was wrong to focus on johns because it could make those clients more nervous and less likely to share the kind of personal information prostitutes rely on to ensure their safety.

Stop that man! Marketing the Swedish model

Predictably, in letters to the Times’ editor, advocates of the Swedish model call it a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”  Is it — even in Sweden? There, one analyst reports that, since the system began in 1999,

Police harassment of prostitutes has increased – they can be forced to appear in court to provide testimony against the client (they can refuse to witness, but they are still summoned and sometimes escorted to courtrooms), and whenever they are caught with a client, their belongings are searched and they may be frisked. Anything that police think they can use as evidence against clients (such as condoms) are confiscated. In those cases where a man was caught with a condom on his penis in the back of his car, police have used that fact to argue that he was breaking the law. This practice clearly has consequences for condom use among sexworkers. It provides both them and their clients with strong incentives to avoid using them. The law has been a catastrophe for non-Swedish sexworkers – if the prostitute found with a client is not a citizen or legal resident of Sweden, she is immediately deported; in fact government prosecutors complain that in a number of cases they were unable to gain convictions against clients because the prostitutes they were found with had been deported before they could even give a statement. This fact affects the willingness of non-residents to report on violence.

But the model’s goal is not actually to defend the rights of sex workers — in or out of the trade. It’s to pursue a project both chimerical and, in its infatuation with the radical absolute, Stalinist: the eradication of sex work altogether.   We “must work to end it — in our lifetime and forever,” Nora Ramos, of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (and “drag queens”? and “transvestites?”), instructs the Times. 

Prostitution won’t end. But the fantastic dream of its elimination will continue to inspire brutality in the inquisitional name of an erasing justice.  Since the crime leaves neither victims nor evidence behind, the quest to find and eradicate it breeds deep intrusions into personal and physical privacy, and torturous semantic reinterpretations of proof.  In Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2007, I listened to a police inspector try to justify the arrest and beating of several metis (a local Nepali term for effeminate men) the night before. The cops had inspected their penises by the light of mobile phones in search of numinous sex traces. That didn’t work– but “Of course they were engaged in immoral activity,” he shouted. “We found condoms on them!”

The same inquisitive spirit animates police from Bed-Stuy to Stockholm.  In a miraculously more sympathetic article this week, the Times writes:

When she worked the streets, Yvette Gonzales said, she frequently saw other prostitutes working without condoms. But they were not having unprotected sex at the request of their customers.

Often, Ms. Gonzales said, the police would confiscate condoms when making a prostitution arrest so they could be used as evidence. And as soon as the prostitutes were released from jail, she said, they would go right back to work without protection; or refrain from carrying condoms at all, for fear of being arrested. …

In a recent survey of 35 prostitutes conducted by the Sex Workers Project, 16 said they had not carried condoms at times because they were afraid it might lead to trouble with the police. Fifteen said their condoms had been destroyed or taken away by the police. Three of those 15 said they had engaged in sex afterwards without a condom.

Don't take the C train

For thirteen years, lawmakers have tried to push a bill through the New York legislature that would bar prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of criminal conduct. For thirteen years, it’s died in committee. Now, it may have a chance of passage. The Times waffles characteristically on the rights and wrongs here: “Excluding certain types of evidence from criminal court is rare, but not unprecedented,” it intones. But that’s not the point: condoms aren’t evidence of criminal conduct. Even where prostitution is penalized, a woman, a man, a “drag queen” or a “transvestite” may have condoms in their pocket simply because they want to protect themselves, and be ready for opportunities. They should have them. As one judge in Manhattan Criminal Court said, “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”

The New York Police Department did not respond to questions about the proposal, but prosecutors said they wanted the option of including condom evidence at trial.  “I oppose any law that would restrict our use of evidence,”  said Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney. “Prosecutors in my office assess evidence on a case-by-case basis, determining what is appropriate in each situation.”

It’s a wrenching misuse of language for the anti-trafficking crowd to claim that those officials are bent on a “human-rights, women’s-rights-based approach.”   Only the vagaries of ideology can allow such a distortion. The police and prosecutors are on the side of death.