New arrests for “homosexuality” in Egypt

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeast Cairo

Down these mean streets: El Marg district in northeastern Cairo

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

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

Street in El-Marg

Street in El-Marg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

Working out is easy! Fun! And Pharaonic!

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

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

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

Farid Shawki (L), Mohammad Ramadan (R)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandon hope, all ye that think otherwise: Portraits of General Sisi at a toll booth on the Sokhna road, October 2013, from http://instagram.com/p/faSnnEGD-t/ (hat tip: @Seldeeb)

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

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

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

Cynthia Nixon, Joseph Massad, and not being an American gigolo

Many years ago, I decided never to take an interest in the sex lives of people more famous than myself. This came after hanging out with some famous people and some not so famous people, and noticing that all the excitement lay with the latter.   Anal sex with one of the stars of American Gigolo, as described to me by a friend in excruciating detail, was not nearly as innovative or arousing as the mute inglorious milkings available every night in the refreshing anonymity of the rushes in the Back Bay Fens. As of now, there are something like six billion people in the world, and 5,999,999,999 of them are more famous than I am.   The boost to my mental concentration that derives from ignoring all their sex lives is considerable.

Nixon, partner Rojo Caliente, and child: Perfect, but not by choice

Still, there’s Cynthia Nixon.   Which one did she play on TV?  I confess, I can’t even remember. Oh, Sex and the Citythat hootchy-kootchy halftime show from ancient times! —when  I caught five minutes of a rerun in a hotel last month, it seemed as dated as Baroque opera. But that doesn’t stop her from continuing to be a celebrity, and most people really do care about celebrities’ sex lives. And so most everybody noticed when she told the New York Times: 

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not. … Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive.”

Uh-oh.

The hue and cry over what you can say about your own kind has been almost as bad as what Hannah Arendt stirred up.  John Aravosis told Nixon she didn’t understand herself. First off, she’s wrong about who she is:  “What she means is that she’s bisexual, and doesn’t quite get that most people aren’t able to have sexual romantic relationships with both men and women because they’re just not into both genders.” But moreover, she doesn’t experience sexuality the way she thinks she does:

It’s not a “choice,” unless you consider my opting to date a guy with brown hair versus a guy with blonde hair a “choice.” It’s only a choice among flavors I already like … [S]o please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can “choose” their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere.  Because they can’t.  And when you tell the NYT they can, you do tremendous damage to our civil rights effort.  … [E]verything you say can and will be used against you by the gay-haters.  And when you say things like this, using incendiary buzzwords that don’t really mean what you’re trying to say – when you try to define the rest of us by your incredibly poorly chosen, and incorrect, words – you hurt us all. This was an incredibly irresponsible interview.

Or as another blogger wrote:

Is anyone else here thinking maybe Cynthia Nixon isn’t really gay? Like maybe she’s bisexual, or gay-until-retirement, or gay-until-Ryan-Gosling-calls? …  statement pissed off a lot of gay people, and not just because being gay is NOT a choice for most of them. Years of talking with gay friends over the years have taught me something important: language matters. Gay, queer, bi, whatever — people have some pretty strong opinions about what those words all mean. And Cynthia could have been more sensitive with her language.

There’s an unlovely looniness here. First of all, no one should be forced to surrender their personal identity to political obligation. That’s the antithesis of a liberal society, and has nothing to do with any campaign for human rights. Second, no one has the right to decide or define anybody else’s sexuality for them — to select, for God’s sake, what you can say about yourself. The claim that a blogger who’s never even seen Cynthia Nixon (except in her TV role as a heterosexual) can determine who she is and how she can describe herself is simply silly. But it can also be as malignant as the idea that an activist in London can intuit, and inscribe in stone, the identities of a couple of teenagers in far-off Iran, a place he’s never seen or visited. I’ve written about this kind of gay imperialism extensively. In the US, it’s simply rude and repressive. Practiced elsewhere, it can kill.

The problem is that, in the US, we — the LGBT movement — have staked all our rights claims on the analogy with race. We are a people; we have our own culture and history, even though the categories that define us (so we contend) don’t; and, most importantly, our selves, like our skin colors, cannot change.   Sexual orientation is something deep, unalterable, basic. It’s because it’s unchangeable that discrimination predicated on it is so wrong. And so we’re not defending people’s freedom; we’re defending their imprisonment in themselves. The argument goes: It’s bad enough not having any autonomy over the intimate aspects of your life. Do the state and society have to punish you for that too?

It’s when people try to escape that prison, even for a day’s parole, that we treat them as traitors to the cause.

Foucault grasping sexuality

Of course, this kind of argument is absurd — even about race. It ignores the innumerable historical experiences of “passing,” the different ways that white as well as black people have been defined, the differences in race’s definition around the world — the US conception is incommensurate with the Brazilian, for instance — the fact that the Irish were treated as a “race” in the early 19th century, and many more. To say this isn’t to deny the reality of race as a basis for injustice and a predicate for social division. But to treat it as an absolute fact, an ontological canyon separating some from others, is to ignore its history. Similarly, supposing “sexual orientation” is unchangeable ignores the fact that the category itself has changed since it was invented, and that it was only invented a hundred years or so ago.  Sexuality, as Foucault grasped, doesn’t reveal some “truth” about us. (Even if it did, Aravosis would hardly be in a position to diagnose Nixon’s.)  It reveals our shifting place in society; it’s made of ideas, dreams, opinions, not absolutes.

Of course, Nixon made it rather worse by explaining in another interview:

I don’t pull out the “bisexual” word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals. … [W]e get no respect.

The thing is, though (and yes, I note how her own identity has shifted here), she’s right.   In the politics of identity, bisexuals are hated because they stand for choice. The game is set up so as to exclude the middle; bisexuals get squeezed out. in the “LGBT” word, the “B” is silent.  John Aravosis, for instance, says that if you’re into both genders, “that’s fine” — great! — but “most people” aren’t.  First off, that rather defies Freud and the theory of universal infantile bisexuality.   But never mind that. The business of “outing,” of which Aravosis has been an eloquent proponent, also revolves around the excluded middle.  It’s not a matter of what you think of outing’s ethics, on which there’s plenty of debate. It’s that the underlying presumption is that one gay sex act makes you “gay” — not errant, not bisexual, not confused or questioning: gay, gay, gay. I saw you in that bathroom, for God’s sake! You’re named for life!  It’s also that the stigma goes one way only: a lifetime of heterosexual sex acts can’t make up for that one, illicit, overpowering pleasure.  As I’ve argued, this both corresponds to our own buried sense, as gays, that it is a stigma, and gives us perverse power. In the scissors, paper, rock game of sexuality, gay is a hand grenade. It beats them all.

And this fundamentalism infects other ways of thinking about sexuality, too. Salon today carries an article about multiple sex-and-love partners: “The right wants to use the ‘slippery slope’ of polyamory to discredit gay marriage. Here’s how to stop them.”  I’ll leave you to study the author’s solution.  He doesn’t want to disrespect the polyamorists:

I reject the tactic of distinguishing the good gays from the “bad” poly people. Further marginalizing the marginalized is just the wrong trajectory for any liberation movement to take.

That’s true — although whether we’re still really a liberation movement, when we deny the liberty of self-description, is a bit doubtful. But he goes on, contemplating how polyamory might in future be added to the roster of rights:

Really, there are a host of questions that arise in the case of polyamory to which we just don’t know the answer. Is polyamory like sexual orientation, a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being? Would a polyamorous person feel as incomplete without multiple partners as a lesbian or gay person might feel without one? How many “truly polyamorous” people are there?

Well, what if it’s not?  What if you just choose to be polyamorous?  God, how horrible!  You beast!  What can be done for the poor things? Should some researcher start looking for a gene for polyamory, so it can finally become respectable, not as a practice, but as an inescapable doom?   (I shudder to think there’s one gene I might share with Newt Gingrich.)

What, moreover, if sexual orientation itself is not “a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being,” one that people miraculously started feeling in 1869, when the word “homosexual” was coined?  What if it’s sometimes that, sometimes a transient desire, sometimes a segment of growth or adolescent exploration, sometimes a recourse from the isolations of middle age, sometimes a Saturday night lark, sometimes a years-long passion?   What if some people really do experience it as … a choice?

What if our model for defending LGBT people’s rights were not race, but religion? What if we claimed our identities were not something impossible to change, but a decision so profoundly a part of one’s elected and constructed selfhood that one should never be forced to change it?

Now I have damaged the LGBT rights movement. I’m sorry, but you know, I didn’t really have a choice. The Devil made me do it, as Flip Wilson used to say. We’ll see how that argument washes in defending me against my fellow activists, as well as against the missionaries of Westboro Baptist Church — who surely must understand that when the Devil grabs either your argument or your genitalia, it’s hard to make him let go.

I suppose I have to do something for the gays to make up for it, but I don’t know what. Oh, wait, here’s the answer!  I’ve just signed to star in Sex and the City III. Just wait till it comes out!  In this exotic, erotic, fashion-filled romp, Joseph Massad and I fly to Dubai, argue about identity while hiding from the police in full niqab, and go shopping.