After Mona Iraqi: Some Egyptian voices

Lock your door if you like, but I'm still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai ("The Hidden")

Lock your door if you like, but I’m still watching: Mona Iraqi as Big Sister, in an ad for her program El Mostakhbai (“The Hidden”)

How does it feel to be unsafe in ur own house, scared and your stomach hurts hearing ur elevators doors open, random foot steps outside thinking they might be coming to get you, becoming someone else but yourself just because they can’t accept you the way you are, afraid to love and be loved, not because ur heart might get broken. NO it is because u can’t be who you are even in ur own home with someone you love. Afraid you might get killed in front of everyone and they will be happy and supportive to your killer just because u r not one of them. Happy new year.

A gay Egyptian friend wrote that on Facebook on December 31. It reflects how many in Egypt feel — whatever their identities — after a year of fear, a year of intensifying police repression and political regression.

The collusion between supposedly independent media and the state has been key to consolidating Egypt’s new dictatorship. This week Buzzfeed reported the claim by Ibrahim Mansour, editor of Tahrir News, that “There are instructions from the state apparatus” to cover sex scandals and other “silly” issues. Mansour believes “the government wanted coverage of arrests for homosexuality and other ‘morality’ charges in order to distract from political stories that could expose how the government had betrayed the hopes of the revolution.”

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

IloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiI IoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisiIloveSisiIIoveSisi: Mahmoud Saad

But it goes deeper. The state knows how to bully or buy media to mouth its political line. Help in getting salacious sales-boosting stories is merely one reward for cooperation. This week a tape mysteriously leaked, apparently recorded during last year’s presidential campaign; in it, Abbas Kamel, head of Generalissimo Sisi’s office, gives the armed forces’ official spokesman detailed orders to exploit reporters. He instructs the PR flack to reach out to “our people in the media,” and command them to “create a situation” and “rile people up.” One snippet plumbs the depths of sycophancy to which journalists can sink:

Kamel also mentions media personality Mahmoud Saad, saying he had recently received a call from Saad asking what he did wrong, and that he heard he had upset “them.” “He told me that we had already agreed and that he loves and supports [Sisi],” he said, before dismissing Saad, saying “we can leave him for now.”

In Egypt, embarrassing tapes leak so often these days you could irrigate crops with them. They may suggest cracks in the military’s support for Sisi, or perhaps fractures between the military and the security services. They also point an ambience around Sisi reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp or the noxious Nixon, a paranoiac multiplication of microphones where nobody knows who’s wiretapping whom. But the perverse copulation between journalists and generals remains a central fact in Egypt’s loss of freedom.

Sisi's last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he's hearing voices

Sisi’s last tape: The Generalissimo wonders whether he’s hearing voices

Two activist colleagues recently wrote essays on the implications of TV presenter Mona Iraqi’s disastrous escapade. With their permission, I’m publishing them here.

Ramy Youssef is an activist working on human rights and issues of harassment. He wrote (in English):

I was wondering: if I’d get the chance to talk to Mona Iraqi and have a discussion with her, what would I say? I tried hard to exclude any violent ideas that might be floating vigorously in my head, and focus on the verbal actions.

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Najla Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Not hidden for long: Mona Iraqi, played by Naglaa Fathy, listens to the shocking goings-on next door

Mona Iraqi, who became one of the most famous and controversial persons in Egypt at the moment due to her heroic action in leading the extraordinarily smart morals police department to a demonic place where people bathe — God, isn’t she a real savior, intervening with unbelievable bravery to stop all these people from bathing and get them all into a police van wearing nothing but towels. Not only did she do this, but also she took the time to video record all these people being led into the police van semi-naked, and broadcast it on her TV show.

Last Monday, January 12, the court announced the verdict after the arrestees spent 35 days in prison. There were all found  innocent. While they were in jail, Mona Iraqi was on a different mission to spread awareness and deliver knowledge to our society. On her show, she declared a mere assumption about their sexuality based on zero evidence, and no right. She said that they are part of a male prostitution network, which participates actively in transmitting HIV to thousands and thousands of people. That’s what you get for having a bath, faggot!

On the second episode of the show, and after a two weeks campaign against her led by activists, journalists and movie makers that led to her expulsion from SHNIT – the International Short Film Festival – she decided to attack those who dared misunderstand her Nobel-Prizeworthy activities.

I talked on a TV channel after the bathhouse was raided, saying how I believe this is a setup to polish the image of the government. She played that interview, along with her comments that I’m just a phony who visits Europe twice a month with nothing on his mind about helping actual homosexuals. Pardonnez-moi, aren’t you just back from Paris? I will not go through explaining that everything she said is lies; that’s obvious.

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Brave undercover reporters ready to investigate something awful in a bathhouse

Mona, you are not allowed by law to film anyone getting arrested, for any reason at all. You know that. You are not allowed to lead the police anywhere, even if it was Al Qaeda Central Offices, you do know that as well. You realize that what you did was shameful, terrible and incredibly immoral. You realize that what you did has nothing to do with “sex trafficking.” If you wanted to discuss “sex trafficking,” why go after people who pay 25 pounds to have a bath, instead of making a story about the state officials who are involved in sex trafficking on an international level? Oh, I forgot, that would cut off your financial support for a while.

The interesting part is she didn’t “out” anyone, for real —  she did something far worse: she made an assumption about 26 people’s identities, sexualities and practices, and then outed her presumptions, broadcasting the idea that this is truthful!

What Mona Iraqi did cannot be forgotten until she and whoever cooperated in this get the rightful punishment. People’s lives aren’t a tool for any media worker to achieve success. Mona Iraqi should be imprisoned for the sorrow she caused, in the same cell with the police officer who is bravely leading a campaign against LGBTs and presumed LGBTs.

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Lt. Col. Ahmad Hashad, played by Fouad El Mohandes, prepares to put his expertise on immorality to use

Now what happens? That’s a good question. Three things: The first and most basic step is filing a complain against Mona Iraqi, Tamer Amin [a talk show host who has campaigned against “perverts” and dissenters of all kinds] – who seems to be the perfect match for her — and Ahmed Hashad (who is the head of the morals police and the officer responsible for the crackdown on homosexuals and transsexuals, according to his declarations).

Second: doing more extensive investigations on the lies behind all the homosexual and transsexual cases that Ahmed Hashad has presented to justice, and setting these victims of injustice free.

Last but not least, law needs to respect human rights, now not later. Police need to stop arresting people based on their sexualities or presumed sexualities, because that is just wrong and unjust. The law should be cleansed of all personal conservative beliefs about sexual activities.

It is about time for this country to start working according to law, and by law I mean a true law respectful of human rights that does not criminalize any consensual sexual activity by any means. Many people, LGBTs and non-LGBTs, wait for justice to take place. If you as a state do not apply justice, in time it will be applied to you.

Members of Egypt's morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, prepare to go to work

Members of Egypt’s morality police, on hearing that immorality is taking place somewhere, are ready to go to work

“Yara” — she asked not to use her real name — is a transgender rights activist working on sexual health and rights. She wrote in Arabic; the translation was edited slightly for clarity in English. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.

Amid the latest events that Egypt is undergoing, causing changes on various levels, the issue of homosexuality has grabbed the attention of pens, papers and cameras of yellow newspapers.

To begin with, I am an Egyptian trans person from Egyptian roots. I carry no other passports and I belong to no political party or religious currents. And I am still living in Egypt. My case is the case of every homosexual living in Egypt, facing oppression on all levels, “a second class citizen” according to the criteria the society imposes on people for how they look or act. That fact won’t stop me from showing how disgusted I am by the crackdown on LGBT individuals in Egypt.

Let’s get to the point.

This is how 2014 started for me: four homosexuals were arrested in Nasr City and accused of “debauchery.” Three were sentenced to three years in prison, the other one to eight years.

Al Youm Al Sab’aa [the popular tabloid Youm7] played a major role in this case and other cases that followed, smearing the victims’ images and shaming their names by stalking them in the police stations to videotape them or take pictures of them, mentioning their full names in the newspaper in the name of “professionalism.”

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7  didn’t.

Typical headline and photo from Youm7, spring 2014: “Crackdown on a network of shemales in Nasr City. Ahmed says, ‘I changed my name to Jana after being raped by the grocer and my psychologist. We get our clients from Facebook and we act like females by wearing makeup and adopting feminine attitudes. Are they going to put us in a men’s or women’s prison?” Photo caption: “Ahmed, the accused.” I blurred the face: Youm7 didn’t.

But obviously they didn’t figure in “the ethics of journalism.”

What are the ethics of journalism? Philosophies of media institutions might differ but they agree on the principles of following the truth, accuracy, subjectivity, neutrality, tolerance, and responsibility before the readers. To follow these ethics you start by collecting the information, understanding its importance, then delivering it to the audience.

The press is committed to the principle of “doing the least harm.” This means not publishing some details, such as the name of an injured person, or news irrelevant to the subject of the article that might harm the person mentioned. That definition of media ethics the journalists of Al Youm Al Sab’aa did not follow in any way, in any case they covered about homosexuality.

I will not talk for long about this newspaper that was so unethical in their news coverage.

Defendant in another "debauchery" case from 2014. Photo published in elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Defendant in another “debauchery” case from 2014. Photo published in Elhadasnews.com. Again, I blurred the features, not the newspaper.

Along the same line: another disaster which was the first of its kind.

This was the campaign Mona Iraqi started against what she supposed, from her perspective, to be homosexuals. She started her campaign to know the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt. Through her program she reported a number of people in a public place called “Bab Al Bahr” to the police, in order to protect them from the wrath of people living in that area — all according to the imagination of Mona Iraq.

Who am I and why am I speaking?

As I identified myself from the start as gay/trans, I also work in the field of health in Egypt and especially on HIV. I also work in human rights activism for LGBTs in Egypt.

Journalist Mona Iraqi, you talk about the acute criticism you faced from journalists in and outside Egypt, and human rights activists in and outside Egypt, in complete shock. You do not acknowledge the reasons behind this attack. So here are the reasons, based on your first and second episodes of the show “Al Mostakhbai” [Mona Iraqi’s television show]:

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge on AIDS among Egyptian men, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

FIRST: The episode was supposed to be about AIDS and methods of transmission. But it was not. You did not discuss such questions as: What is HIV, and how is it different from AIDS; does it have symptoms or not; when do they show; what are the means of prevention; is there a cure or not?

The groups most at risk for the spread of HIV/AIDS are:

  1. Injecting drug users;
  2. Men having sex with men, and male and female sex workers;
  3. People who have unsafe sex with either sex.

If Mona Iraqi, as she claims, seeks the reasons for the spread of AIDS in Egypt, why didn’t she seek out all the groups most at risk of getting HIV?

What about those eight individuals whom she interviewed outside the bath [about their homosexuality]? How are their private lives related to the content of the episode? What about their own HIV status? If the goal behind the episode is to reveal the “dens of AIDS,” why weren’t the arrestees checked for HIV while they were examined anally?

Why Mona Iraqi's ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, I: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

Why Mona Iraqi’s ignorance on HIV/AIDS matters, II: Knowledge about AIDS among Egyptian women, 2008, from Children in Egypt 2014: A Statistical Digest, UNICEF, at http://www.unicef.org/egypt/Ch10.HIV_and_AIDS.pdf

SECOND: In the first episode Mona Iraqi gave a speech about how it was impossible for her to enter this den full of naked men, as they were having group sex. But it is normal for her to record these men semi-naked on her phone! In her second episode she accused her critics of masculine bias, saying: “Are you attacking me because I’m a woman who did this?”

No activists objected to your being a woman among semi-naked men, but to your recording a video of them on your phone. However, if we look to the principles, values, traditions, and religious values that you and your supporters claim to apply in this case, then your being there and among these semi-naked men goes against all those values and traditions. It contradicts everything you previously said about those values.

THIRD: You demanded why activists and organizations in Egypt who are receiving funding don’t help this category of society.

The answer: this category is being prosecuted on all levels. We — activists — or anyone else cannot help directly. That doesn’t mean that we do not provide in one way or another — despite you.

CONCLUSION: Over one hundred persons were arrested and prosecuted in a few months, accused of debauchery, sentenced to between one year and twelve years in prison. The Egyptian yellow press and the likes of Mona Iraqi joined in smearing the image of the defendants and of homosexuals generally – in order to achieve fame, or sales.

The episodes of El Mostakhbai have nothing to do with HIV or AIDS or professionalism or press ethics.

Mona Iraqi referred to what is happening in European countries with arrests of male and female sex workers. But we do not see a picture of any journalist recording one of these arrests with his mobile phone. We didn’t hear about journalists reporting the places where they live.

What we can conclude from 2014 is that the issue of homosexuality in Egypt is a blown-up case pursued by those who want fame, or want to join in morally policing the lives and the privacy of many other people.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi's Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right.

The December 7 bathhouse raid: Photo from Mona Iraqi’s Facebook page. Iraqi is on the right. 

في ظل الاحداث الأخيرة التي تمر بها مصر  من تغيرات على جميع الأفق,

شغلت  قضية المثلية الجنسية أقلام وأوراق وكاميرات الصحف الصفراء في مصر.

بداية انا مصري مثلي الجنس ذو أصول مصرية ,لا أحمل أية جنسيات اخري ولا انتمي الي اي حزب سياسي أو توجه ديني صارم ولازلت مقيم في مصر.

قضيتي هي نفس قضية كل مثلي يعيش في مصر,يعاني من الاضطهاد علي جميع المستويات, بمعني اخرمواطن درجة تانية“, وذلك طبقا للمعايير والمواصفات التي فرضها المجتمع من هيئة الاشخاص و تصرفاتهم, ولكن هذا بشكل ما أو اخر لم يمنعني من اظهار مدى استيائي كشخص تجاه ما يحدث من غارة علي مثليين/ات الجنس في مصر.

إلى صلب الموضوع ….

هكذا بدأت  سنة 2014 معي تحديدا في شهر ابريل حيث تم القبض علي اربع مثلي الجنس في مدينة نصر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور,و قد حكم على ثلاثة منهم ب 3 سنوات و اخر ب 8 سنوات,

حيث لعبت جريدة اليوم السابع دورا هائلا في هذه القضية, و القضايا الاخرى التي تبعتها, من تشويه وتشهير صور المتهمين عن طريق ملاحقتهم في الاقسام و تصويرهمفيديووصور فوتوغرافيةو ذكر اسماءهم الكاملة في صحيفتهم وذلك تحت شعارالمهنية “.

ولكن لم يات في الحسبان  ما يدعي بـاخلاقيات الصحافة” !!

ما هي اخلاقيات الصحافة ؟؟

* قد تختلف فلسفات المؤسسات الصحفية إلا أنها تجمع على مبادئ اتباع: الحقيقة والدقة والموضوعية والحياد والتسامح والمسؤولية أمام القراء. ويبدأ اتباع تلك الأخلاقيات في الحصول على المعلومات ومراعاة أهميتها ثم توصيلها إلى الجمهور.

وكما هو الحال بالنسبة لأنظمة احترام الأخلاقيات فتلتزم الصحافة هي الأخرى بمبدأ «إلحاق أقل ضرر». وهذا يتعلق بعدم كشف بعض التفاصيل في النشر مثل اسم مصاب أو بأخبار لا تتعلق بموضوع المقال قد تسيء إلى سمعة الشخص المذكور.

هذا كان تعريف اخلاقيات الصحافة  و الذي لم يلتزم به صحفيو  جريدة اليوم السابع بشكل او باخر في اي قضية تم تداولها في ما يخص المثلية الجنسية.

لن أكثر الحديث عن هذه الجريدة لالتزامهم بتطبيق اللااخلاقية في اخبارهم.

و علي غرار ما حدث..

كارثةاخريهيالاوليمننوعها ……..

فقد كانت هذه هي الحملة التي شنتها مني عراقي على ما يفترض أنهم مثليي الجنس وذلك من وجهة نظرها  في سبيل معرفة اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر,و قد ابلغت عن طريق برنامجها  علي عدد من الاشخاص يتواجدون في  مكان عام يسمى (باب البحر) خوفا من فتك اهالي المنطقة بهم و ذلك حسب ما جاء في مخيلة مني عراقي.

من انا و لماذا اتحدث ؟

كما عرفت عن نفسي  في البداية عن  كوني مثلي الجنس, انا ايضا  عملت في مجال الصحة في مصر و خاصة  فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسب“, و أعمل أيضا في مجال  النشاط الحقوقي للمثليين في مصر .

الاعلامية  مني عراقي:

تتحدثينعنالهجومالحادالذيوجهاليكمنخلالالصحفيينفيمصروخارجهاوالناشطينالحقوقيينفيمصروخار
جهامدعيةعدمفهماسبابهذاالهجوم ,لذلك ها هي الاسباب مستعينا بالحلقتين الاولي و الثانية من برنامجكالمستخبي” :-

ا/ كان من المفترض ان مضمون الحلقة عن الايدز وعن اسباب انتشاره .

كأي شخص مهني يطرح موضوع للنقاش يجب علية اولا ان يكون على دراية تامة   بموضوع الطرح,وأقصد هنا  في هذه الحاله (الايدز).

* فما هوفيروس نقص المناعة البشري“, و ما الفرق بينه و بين الايدز؟

و هل له اعراض ام لا, و متي تظهر اعراضة, و ما هي طرق الوقاية ؟

و هل يوجد علاج ام لا؟

*انتشار فيروس نقص المناعة المكتسبة :- (الفئات الاكثر عرضة)

1- المدمنيين بالحقن.

2- الرجال الذين يمارسون الجنس مع الرجال و بائعين/ات الجنس.

3- ممارسة الجنس الغير امن.

فاذا كانت مني عراقي كما تدعي انها تبحث عن اسباب انتشار الايدز في مصر لماذا لم تبحث عن الفئة الاكثر عرضة للاصابة بالفيروس؟

و ماذا عن الثمانية الذين قمت بتصويرهم خارج الحمام, وما علاقه حياتهم الخاصة بمحتوي الحلقة ,وماذا عن اصابتهم بالفيروس ؟

و اذا كان الغرض من الحلقة الكشف عن اوكار الايدز لماذا لم يتم فحص المتهمين باحتمال اصابتهم بفيروس نقص المناعة في حين ان تم فحصهم شرجيا؟

ب/ في الحلقة الاولي وجهت مني عراقي كلمة بانها لم يكن من المستحيل ان تدخل هذا الوكر المليء بالرجال العرايا, حبث يمارسون الجنس الجماعي, و لكن من الطبيعي بالنسبة لها ان تقوم بتصوير هولاء الرجال شبة عرايا بـ هاتفها المحمول .

ثم قامت منى  في الحلقة الثانية باتهام  مهاجمينها  بذكوريتهم قائلة

ولا علشان واحده ست هي اللي عملت كدا” !!!!

لم يعترض احد من النشطاء علي وجودك كامرأه وسط رجال شبة عرايا و لكن الانتقاد الذي وجه لك كان عن تصويرهم بهاتفك المحمول, و لكن اذا نظرنا الي القيم و المبادئ و العادات و التقاليد و الدين و العرف و الذي تدعي انت والكثير من انصارك في هذه القضية بتطبيقه.

فـوجودكفيهذاالمكانامامهذاالعددمنالرجالشبهالعراياينافيتماماكلالقيموالا
عرافوينافيايضاماسبقوقدقمتباعلانهفيحلقتكالاوليمتحدثةعناستحالةوجودكفيوسطهذاالمكان.

ج/ كنت قد ذكرت لماذا لا يقوم النشطاء والمنظمات في مصر الذي يتم تمويلهم بمساعدة هذه الفئة من المجتمع؟

الاجابة :-

فيظلوجودمايدينهذهالفئةعليجميعالمستوياتلايوجدفياستطاعتناأننقومبالمساعده  نحن النشطاء اوغيرنا بشكل مباشر , و لكن هذا لا يمنع اننا نقوم بمساعدة هذه الفئات بشكل او باخر.

و عليكي مني عراقي ان تتفهمي خطورة الموقف بالنسبة لثمانية شباب قمتي بتصويرهم في اماكن تواجدهم ,و قد اعترفوا بممارستهم علي شاشات التلفيزيون, فما بالك عن اهل المنطقة بـ هؤلاء ؟؟؟

الخلاصة :-

* تم القبض و الحكم علي اكثرمن مئه شخص خلال عدة اشهر بتهمة ممارسة الفجور وتم الحكم عليهم  باحكام تتراوح بين سنه واثنا عشر سنه .

* ساهمت الصحافة المصرية الصفراء وامثال مني عراقي في تشوية وتشهير صورة المتهمين و صورة المثليين بشكل عام علي حساب الشهرة ومين يبيع اكتر“.

*حلقات برنامجالمستخبيلا تمت بصلة  عن فيروس نقص المناعة البشري و الايدز كما انها لا تتصف بالمهنية واخلاقيات الصحافة .

*بالنسبة لما قمت باذاعته مني عراقي عن ما يحدث في بلاد اوربية او غيرها فيما يختص بالقبض علي العاملين والعاملات بالجنس. فنحن لم نري صورة اي صحفي قام بتصوير قبضية معينه علي فئة معينة بـهاتفه المحمول و لم نسمع عن صحفي قام بالابلاغ عن أماكن تواجدهم.

ما نستطيع استنتاجه من الفترة السابقة في عام 2014 ان قضية المثلية الجنسية في مصر هي قضية دسمة و لكن للاسف يشتهيها كل من يبحث عن الشهرة و كل من تخول له نفسه في تطبيق الفضيلة و الاخلاق و ذلك علي حساب حياة و خصوصيات ارواح اخري .

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi's television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Victims of the bathhouse raid, in a screenshot from Mona Iraqi’s television show: From Al Masry Al Youm

Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

images

Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different — exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer — Who needs a roof, anyway? — becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote — as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

On not being well

Michael Ancher, "The Sick Girl," 1882

Michael Ancher, “The Sick Girl,” 1882

My mother died when she was 51 and I was 17. Here is how it happened. She had gone to Ohio — we lived in Virginia — to see her own mother, a solitary and sometimes bitter woman; an argument had broken out; my mother was struck by chest pains, and an ambulance took her to the hospital with angina. She’d never had heart problems before. That was on the Fourth of July, 1980. The next day, my father and I drove the hundreds of miles across monotonous mountains to her. Prone in the metal bed, she was pale and distracted. She asked me to rub her back. As I did so a small volcanic spike erupted on the monitor behind her, connected to her chest by wires. We left her, seeming a bit better we imagined, and my father and I went to a Howard Johnson’s somewhere nearby to eat silently. When we returned, the outer hall of the intensive care ward looked strange, congealed, like light glancing off obsidian. Nurses were gathered, and my mother’s beloved aunt was there. A band of bright fluorescent light showed under the door to my mother’s room, and I started toward it, and someone stopped me and told me rapidly what had happened. A massive heart attack, nothing anyone could do …. My great aunt held me. After a while they asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said no. I couldn’t have stood it. Many of these memories are blurred now — I don’t recall exactly who stopped me, or who told me. I remember those jagged peaks on the monitor, and I remember the color of that band of light as clearly as if it were shining in the next room now. It was only some years later, in graduate school, when I read The Duchess of Malfithat I found words to match in some degree what I must have felt. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young. 

The ensuing years involved the usual inept evasions of guilt and sorrow. An event like that, especially when you are 17, does not enforce lessons, even if it should. Now I am 50. Ten days ago, I woke up in Cairo with a straining pain in my left leg: the kind of pain that suggests a bad soprano trapped inside there, trying to sing something from ToscaI knew what it was, but for 24 hours I persisted in hoping I had simply pulled a muscle. The next day I took a taxi downtown, and discovered I couldn’t walk at all. A familiar cafe near Bab el-Luk had just opened after Friday prayers, and the waiter propped me there and I started calling friends for help. The pain now indicated that the soprano and the orchestra were working from different scores in different keys. After a while my friends Tarek and Fady arrived with a car, and took me to a hospital in Giza. My leg had swollen to the size of one of those limbs of cattle that hang in butcher’s shops here, and was as red, but with a necrotic blue noli me tangere tinge of rot. As I lay in the emergency room, a doctor told me I had a “massive” deep vein thrombosisWhy massive? Why do they always call them massive? I asked myself. The caterwauling in my leg and in my head had reached a point where the orchestra was trying its hand at a Mahler symphony while the soprano, drunk and flu-ridden, was howling out Pierrot Lunaire.

What it felt like, generally: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

What it felt like: Caricature of Gustav Mahler conducting, 1900

I spent five days in the hospital, laid flat and depressively eating flavorless soups, while the musicians gradually sobered up and wound down. I am home now, but the clot is still there, diminished but undefeated. I can’t walk much: even staggering to the corner pharmacy to pick up medicines makes the leg swell up again. I inject myself with something in the stomach daily, intrigued by how this doesn’t hurt. Kind friends are staying with me, to cook and run errands and clean. There’s no travel, no boarding an airplane till this is over, and I’m not sure when it will be over.

This isn’t the first time for me. Modernity has done wonders, for those of us in rich countries, to expand the life-span; specimens of homo sapiens in the European Middle Ages were lucky to grasp the goalpost of 35. But the payback is the onslaught of technologically demanding ills that start in the forties, as a reminder that what lies ahead of you is a stretch of undeserved and unnatural existence endowed by civilization’s artifices, that you owe this borrowed time to the bank.

Warfarin way back when

Warfarin way back when

My mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her forties. Almost four years ago, I had my first thrombosis. That one started in my leg too, but showed no traces there; it climbed — they’re natural mountaineers — unnoticed to my chest and nested there as if in a Himalayan cave, and I still felt nothing till one night, running to catch a bus on a New York street, things went white and I collapsed. There were massive blood clots (there you go again) in both lungsMy heart almost failed.

After that came two years of staying on blood thinners. The most popular one, Warfarin, was invented by the Wisconsin Agricultural Research Foundation (WARF) decades ago, in search of a humane way to kill rats by bleeding them to death internally. I went to sleek offices to have blood drawn all the time — little pipettes and big bleeping machines became my neighbors, like the vampires civilisés of True Blood — to test my “international normalized ratios,” (INRs) which determine the “extrinsic pathway of coagulation.” You get used to the jargon. Then 18 months ago my doctors took me off the drugs experimentally, since I seemed to be doing reasonably well. Bad call. 

Warfarin now

Warfarin now

In a condition like my current one, you lie in bed all day and think. The first fact about not being well — it should be obvious, but isn’t to the young and healthy — is how boring it is. The second, related, is that your horizon shrinks: all reality concentrates in the point or body part where you hurt or fear, and neither action nor emotion can happen without reference to the fundamental given of what’s wrong with you. How’s my clot today? That question obliterates the sunrise and the revolving world.  Auden wrote a poem about the sick:

They are and suffer; that is all they do:
A bandage hides the place where each is living,
His knowledge of the world restricted to
The treatment metal instruments are giving.

They lie apart like epochs from each other
(Truth in their sense is how much they can bear;
It is not talk like ours but groans they smother),
From us remote as plants: we stand elsewhere.

This is why visiting the hospital-bound or the very old is so horribly dull for everybody else, to be avoided like (literally) the plague, or turned into a quick drop-off of chocolates or floral arrangements, surgical as a Special Forces raid. What have they got to talk about? Their skin is the absolute limit of their interests. I don’t know how my friends, who have been generous with their time, can stand it.

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital ward, ca. 1900

At the same time, in high Western modernity, we’re obsessed with disease. With the idea of disease. This is understandable, since we are, as I say, living on borrowed time. Stolen, really: every year we eke out beyond our fourth decade is not just the gift of our technological civilization, but a robbery from other people whom we deny the diet, the drugs, the requisite machines.

Life expectancy in the rich US is 78.62 years these days. (Almost thirty years to go, Scott –voice shrinking to a whisper — insh’allah.)  That’s lower than Monaco, which has hit an amazing 89.63 (insert joke about a good gamble, please) but well above Egypt, where I am now. A cheap, efficient medical system, the legacy of Arab socialism, can’t overcome radical poverty to raise the allotted time above 73.19. In Sudan, just south, the expectancy falls to 63 years; from there on, as you follow the paths of slave caravans and colonial explorers across the continent, it keeps plummeting, to 54 years in Uganda, 53.86 in Zimbabwe, 52.78 in Malawi. Finally, in South Africa, it reaches 49.48 years, one of the worst in the world (in 2013 only Chad was lower), the aftereffect of forty years of apartheid and twenty more of equality deferred. Democracy does not heal; it does not cure history. These figures don’t just map out disease or poverty. They are a geography of power, because who has power has life. (It’s no coincidence that I’m getting the numbers from the CIA.) As a bedridden American in Cairo, on the broad Northern shelf of Africa, I’m sitting atop an inverted pyramid of injustice.

Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From www.gapminder.org

Do click on this chart. Life expectancy by country plotted against average annual income, 2010: From http://www.gapminder.org

There’s always some symbolic sickness in the West, a disease representing how we think about these powers and inequities: a condition that stands in for what we know about our place in the world, or what we’d rather forget. Cancer used to be the great symbol. Its origins were obligingly inexact; either there were Enemies Within (anonymous little Communists in the liver or the lungs) or Enemies Without, chemical or biological opponents like Third-World dictators making the whole known environment unstable. (Todd Haynes’ Safeabout a woman rendered sick by almost everything in the plastic life around her, is still one of the scariest American films.) Thirty years ago, HIV/AIDS displaced cancer as an imaginative malady. We figured out what caused it fast enough — that retrovirus — but it was easily attributable less to a microscopic invader than to lifesize Others whom we disliked. There were a lot of them. Haitians, homosexuals, and heroin users for US paranoiacs were quickly joined by fearsome cousins around the world: Bulgarian nurses, Zimbabwean migrants, sex workers, black men on the down low, black women who slept with them, Africans in general, foreign tourists, foreign truck drivers, that ethnic minority who stink, the whole sick crew. It’s a truism that HIV prevalence provides a chart of inequality. But HIV mythology provides something almost as valuable: a chart of hate. The political power and the ideological convenience of HIV have always lain in its double gesture: simultaneously exposing injustice, and giving hate a justification.

I’ve watched relatives die of cancer, and friends live and die with HIV/AIDS. The kind of thing I’ve got is different: not worse, certainly, just different. There’s a reason heart disease and its associated syndromes have never become such symbols, such subjects of imaginings. They’re just there. Their ultimate cause is generally in the genes or in some combination of accidents; that multiplication of factors doesn’t lend itself to mythology. In my case, the blood just clots the wrong way, much like my mother’s did. I will have to take modified rat poison for the rest of my life to thin it. This is not intolerable. (The rats are happy.) The problem is, of course, that as a condition it’s controllable but not excisable; it doesn’t go away, and there is always that low basso ostinato uncertainty about whether or when you’ll wake up with a strange pain in the leg that gets more insistent, or keel over in the street. It’s impossible to interpret something like that in any meaningful or order-instilling way. It’s an existential insecurity insusceptible to the consolations of metaphor. It teaches nothing except that the body is frail, unreliable. In no sense can that be made reassuring, not in the way that it’s always comforting to identify some chemicals to eschew, some culprits to loathe, some immigrants to expel.

Jean Bourdichon, The Four Conditions of Society : Poverty, ca. 1500

Jean Bourdichon, “The Four Conditions of Society: Poverty,” ca. 1500

Nobody likes these uncertainties, from which there’s nothing to be gained or learned. Nobody likes knowing the body is weak and prone to betrayal.  All that money, all our accumulations of political power, all those drugs we hoard behind patent laws, all the debt we extract from others to fund our happiness, all the food we store up while others starve, all our drones and armies and the authority our societies claim, can’t contend against our physical random flaws, doesn’t alter the aleatic vulnerability of the individual body. It’s an old cliché:

Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade. …
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair.

But do we ever hate hearing that.

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, Cardinal Mazarin's Last Sickness, 1830

The rich die well, but they still die: Paul Delaroche, “Cardinal Mazarin’s Last Sickness,” 1830

You would think that Western gays, after years of confronting HIV, would have come to terms with the body’s unreliability. But no. In fact gays particularly hate the idea. Maybe it’s because their identities are so tied to a set of physical acts that to admit bodily weakness would undermine their selfhood in a particularly drastic way. Maybe it’s because one common reaction to AIDS has been an extreme compulsion to look and act healthy. Back when I came out, in the 80s, you were required to be buff and butch and the picture of wellness (odd that the Marlboro Man, a pitchman for killer cigarettes, served as icon of this vital manhood). The slightest sag into infirmity or unaccountable cough, and no one would touch you for fear of infection. We queers measure triumph or disaster by our bodies. We can’t afford to let them be mistrusted.

I learned this in a curious way, the last time I got seriously sick; I learned it from a bunch of people who don’t like me. When I resigned from Human Rights Watch, I discussed the blood clots in my lungs that triggered my departure, in a letter that made its way around the Internet. What struck me about the many responses was that people who disliked me for political reasons felt compelled to turn that into medical mistrust; they simply didn’t believe I could get sick. This took nasty forms. The ever-love-filled and litigious Peter Tatchell repeatedly circulated e-mails to thousands, saying that “Scott Long left Human Rights Watch. He claims it was because of ill-health. Others suspect he was sacked.” Peter’s friend Michael Petrelis, the crank-slash-stalker in San Francisco, developed this theme, blogging that “Long developed a severe case of a Soviet-style case of the flu … His official explanation for moving on would have delighted the editors of Pravda in Brezhnev’s day, it was so full of obfuscation and self-pity.” Melanie Nathan, a peculiar West Coast blogger, just three months ago sent me an series of messages saying — among many other things — that “We all know that your ’embolism’ was a convenient excuse” (not clear for what). She also called me a “vile bucket of anal slime,” which I think is a quote from some website. There were more. I would have to be superhuman not to be angry at these creeps; I felt like sending them my medical charts as proof, or maybe my medical bills. Some of these folks were crazy, some permanently enraged, and some simply hadn’t a clue what they were saying. But — trying to stand back slightly — I hear in all this vituperation a very human fear. Your foes are always supposed to be there, even more so than your friends; they’re an identity and linchpin, a pole against which you define yourself. They’re spectres and ideas, not frail and physical people. God forbid they should have bodies; God forbid their bodies should do them wrong. I’m sorry I got sick, and I’m sorry that unsettled Tatchell and Petrelis so much. Perhaps I can understand, though, why the news of somebody else’s sickness roused them to so much anger. “Rage against the dying of the light” translates quickly into a rage against those who remind us of the dying.

So here I sit in Cairo, thinking about my body.

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child," 1885-86

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child,” 1885-86

My mother died when she was a year older than I am now: much too young. I can’t remember her without seeing, almost like a light beneath her skin, the banked fires of things undone. The memories don’t grow easier. I cannot read Paul Celan‘s poems about his lost mother without breaking into uncontrollable tears:

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Celan’s mother died in the Holocaust, in Transnistria. It’s presumptuous to compare personal loss to historical catastrophe. But loss is what it is, always different in its circumstances and in other ways always the same. My mother died because her body failed her. It was part of a world in which she’d suffered, and also where she had a relative degree of safety: a world where she had tried to compensate for both by a constant, wearing labor of compassion. It didn’t matter. My mother died because her body was part of the world, and the world is perishing.

It’s strange that I’ve spent so much of the years since then working on things like “sexual rights” and “bodily autonomy.” Bodily autonomy is a beautiful ideal. Like so much in human rights, it gestures toward a vision of a perfect cosmos, lit by Platonic concepts that burn in the corridors like inexhaustible candles. Yet our bodies are not autonomous. Our bodies are part of the world. They are subject to its vicissitudes, implicated in its weakness, its injustices, its power, its deaths. They live with the world’s joys and fail with its wrongs. This is a fact, not a lesson. It can be said; it can’t be learned. I will only learn it by dying.

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

Change in Zimbabwe

Happily never after: Mugabe and Tsvangirai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader and prime minister under a tense power-sharing agreement, tells the BBC he supports including protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in a new Constitution:

“It’s a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody, … To me, it’s a human right,” he said.

In March 2010, Mr Tsvangirai said gay rights was not up for discussion in Zimbabwe. “I totally agree with the president,” he said at the time.

A new constitution will be drafted over the coming year, and submitted to a referendum ahead of the 2012 elections, which most expect to be close and violent.

Tsvangirai once asked, “Women make up 52% of the population … there are more women than men, so why should men be proposing to men?” Today, his spokesman told the AFP that the prime minister

still believes that the issue of homosexuality is alien in Africa … However, he is a social democrat. What he was saying is that ordinary people’s rights must be respected as long as they do their things in private.

Tsvangirai’s change of heart, however qualified, sets up a test in next year’s vote: whether Mugabe’s tried and true exploitation of homophobia, which he’ll surely haul out yet again, still works in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s comments also mark a general shift in attitudes affecting many African countries. Zimbabwe’s Guardian newspaper notes,

Tsvangirai’s U-turn comes after Botswana’s former President Festus Mogae told the BBC last week that his country should decriminalise homosexuality and prostitution to prevent the spread of HIV. Mogae, who heads the Botswana government-backed Aids Council, said it was difficult to promote safe sex when the two practices were illegal.