Deport me!

gallery_1238284997So they’re going to deport gay foreigners from Egypt. My phone started ringing a few mornings ago, reporters wanting comments: solicitous but always with a subtext of What’s going to happen to you?

I don’t know. The case involves a Libyan student whom police expelled from Egypt in 2008, after a complaint that he was gay. From back in Libya, he sued. This Tuesday, after seven years – the alacrity typifies Egyptian justice — an Adminstrative Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior did the right thing, under its power to”prevent the spread of immorality in society.” In fact, then, this isn’t a new policy. The court reaffirmed authority the state always had. Two years ago, for instance, a Polish citizen was vacationing on the North coast here with his Egyptian partner. The Pole grew seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. The nurses found their relationship suspicious and called the police. After several days under arrest, the Egyptian was freed; police deported the Pole, who was still in agonizing pain. I heard all about it at the time, but there was nothing we could do.

Things are much worse these days under Sisi. I sometimes seem insouciant about threats in Egypt, but I’m not. iI’s just that the atmosphere of threat is general here. It affects every corner of your personality, yet it’s hard to take it personally, so wide is the danger spread. Here’s a story. Yesterday, talking with a reporter in the usual seedy Cairo café — a place I’ve always considered safe — I saw a well-dressed man at the next table listening intently. Finally he interrupted. He gathered I was interested in human rights, he said. What did I do? Did I work for Freedom House? Freedom House is, of course, a banned organization, its local office raided and shuttered by the military regime back in 2011. I said no. He added, almost enticingly, that he himself had been tortured, and offered to show me his scars. I gave him my contact information and told him to call me. That was simple responsibility – you do not refuse a torture victim anything you can give; but afterwards I cringed inside. It’s how things are in Egypt. Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Game of thrones: Sisi at his most Napoleonic

Still: this story, the deportation story, went viral abroad. It’s strange because LGBT Egypt has not been in the international news much for months. When you deal with the media, you get used to its collective movements, puzzling as tidal motions when it’s too cloudy to see the moon, or the startled shuddering of gazelles racing in unison through tall grass. But other terrible things happened here recently. A man acquitted on charges of homosexuality tried to burn himself to death in despair. Police arrested an accused “shemale,” splaying her photos on the Internet. Egypt’s government threatened to close a small HIV/AIDS NGO because it gave safer-sex info to gay men. None of these got such press. The contrast is striking.

I learn three things from all this. First: our attention span isn’t what it used to be.

The world is everything that is the case, said Wittgenstein. These days we can click instantly on every fact about the world. When everything is the case, nothing might as well be; the excess of fact turns fantastic, the surfeit of reality becomes unreal. The LGBT arrests in Egypt had their moment of fame late last year, but the spotlight moves on; nothing is ever serious enough to make it halt. I’m not complaining about the press. In fact, many reporters have written about LGBT Egyptians both repeatedly and well (Lester FederBel Trew, and Patrick Kingsley have helped keep pressure up, among many others). But the attention span of news consumers, and activists among them, shrivels; and that’s a problem.

I often think of the long international campaign throughout the 1990s to repeal Romania’s sodomy law. A few Romanian friends and I started researching the fates of people arrested under the law after I moved to the country in 1992 (it was some of the first human rights documentation ever on the persecution of LGBT people). Bucharest finally repealed the law in 2001. Over those nine years the Council of Europe and the EU exerted pressure; so did international groups like IGLHRC and Amnesty; and so did activist circles from Soho to Rome. The agitation was steady, so persistent that every time a Romanian politician visited Western Europe he was sure of facing a noisy protest somewhere. It would be simply impossible to keep a decade-long campaign like that going today. Nobody has patience. These days, if the law didn’t disappear after a single summer of sign-waving, the anger would evanesce like early frost.

Consider the transient 2013 furor against Putin’s homophobia: with its boycott calls and Stoli dumps, the campaign survived all of seven months. None of its self-proclaimed leaders even remember it anymore. Abstaining from vodka for a few weeks had absolutely zero chance of making the Russian state back down. Seasonal activist infatuations are doomed. Repression doesn’t cower before fads. Change takes work, and work means the long haul.

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Dec 2013

Brief shining boycott: Activists protest Russian homophobia (while dabbling in transphobia) in central London, December, 2013. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis, AP

There is of course the well-known malady of “compassion fatigue,” a multisyllabic way of saying boredom. There’s been so much news from Egypt since the 2011 Revolution, so many twists in the plot, that even the most rapt listener gets lost. And isn’t the Middle East mixed up anyway? Six months ago, the enemy was the demon ISIS in Iraq. Now it’s the demon Houthis (who?) in Yamland or somewhere. Even the demons can’t keep themselves straight.

In fact, the confusion of cable news feeds the wiles of statesmen. “Compassion fatigue” serves a political end. Empathy, souring into self-pity about how overstrained it is, ignores inconvenient crimes. Egypt, by publicly killing “terrorists,” has planted itself on the side of the West. It’s best for all concerned to have minimal publicity about Egyptian state terror. After all, ISIS is worse — though they may have slain fewer civilians than Sisi. The Houthis are worse — though don’t they sound like they’re from Dr. Seuss? (And the distinction between being killed in Tikrit and killed in Tahrir Square may well look like the narcissism of small differences if you’re the one dead.) You might possibly remember Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Activist, journalist, poet, mother, she was murdered by security forces in Tahrir in January, while trying to place flowers in honor of the now-expired Revolution’s martyrs. A photograph of her dying in a friend’s arms broke through the wall of indifference; the story briefly travelled worldwide.

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh dying in Tahrir Square after police shot her, Cairo, January 24, 2015

Last month the state pressed criminal charges. No, not against her killers. Against the witnesses who testified to prosecutors about her killing — because they’d joined an “illegal demonstration.” They could face five years in prison, for being there when Shaimaa was shot. Did you know that? No. The story’s over; we’ve moved on. It’s better you don’t know, because after all, your compassion might get tired; wiser to tend your valetudinarian emotions than defend exhausted dissidents, or the memory of those already murdered and past help.

Another lesson is: some people don’t count. Sex workers, for instance. I hate to say this, because it seems to give the Egyptian government a pass – but the idea that governments can exert moral controls at the border is not a Middle Eastern peculiarity. The US still denies entry to anyone involved in sex work. The American immigration bar on “moral turpitude” uses almost the same language as the Egyptian exclusion. Most gay Americans have no idea of this: because the American gay movement couldn’t give a shit about sex workers.

And then there are trans people. Most of the Egyptians arrested in the crackdown since 2013 were transgender. The government explicitly says it’s going after “she-males,” sissies, mokhanatheen. Nonetheless, most coverage by Western media – or by Western NGOs – talks about an anti-“gay” crackdown, as though sex were everything, gender irrelevant, and trans folk distractions from the main event.

The Egyptian arrests that got the most publicity were ones that did involve cis men: working-class clients of a bathhouse, or respectable bearded types doing the gayest of gay things in Western eyes, getting wed. In Egypt, as a colleague of mine points out, these gained extra-large headlines because they showed “perversion” at its most dangerous, infecting people like us, not just the pre-emptively anomalous. But they became poster boys in the West for similar reasons, because these were people gay readers could identify with, muscular and married, “normal.” Trans people doing sex work are neither nice nor news. Who gives a damn? Getting arrested is simply their destiny, their job.

In 2013 the Western press started reporting that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – were going to test and expel “gay” people at the border. There was a storm of stories about how dumb this was. Silly Arabs, setting up gay detectors in airports! Then it turned out the targets weren’t gay people (or Western visitors) at all. Kuwait had proposed chromosome tests for migrant workers, to determine if their genes and their IDs conformed. They meant to expel trans people coming from countries like Nepal (a major exporter of exploited labor to the Gulf) that now permitted them treacherously to change their passports. This wasn’t silly; it was scientific, and a much worse invasion of privacy than an imaginary gaydar machine.

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days.  From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

In a Nepali village, family members mourn over the coffin of a migrant worker returned from Qatar. On average, a Nepali migrant dies in Qatar every two days. From http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/09/asia/qatar-nepali-migrant-workers-deaths/

And with that, the stories stopped. Nobody cared about trans people – or poor Nepalis. The Human Rights Campaign, the US gay behemoth now going international, still claims in a recent report that the tests were meant to keep out only “gay” people. This isn’t a mere mistake; HRC knows better. But their members’ empathy, and donations, won’t get revved up for trans Nepali domestic workers. Purely hypothetical Western gay businessmen facing persecution, blond boys flying first class and unfairly driven from Abu Dhabi like Sarah Jessica Parker, are way more likely to stimulate the cash flow.

Bad migrants vs. good: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); Sex and the City 2 girls in Abu Dhabi (actually filmed in Morocco; bottom, if you didn't guess).

Bad migrants vs. good ones: Asian construction workers in Qatar (top); the Sex and the City II girls in Abu Dhabi (bottom, if you didn’t guess).

And that shows a third lesson. Some people do matter. Some stories do break through. There are more important travelers than migrants or refugees. This story has legs because it implies that tourists, innocent people from the West, can be swept up in Egypt’s series of unfortunate events.

Sometimes tourists are victims of rights violations, and that must be condemned. But the most effective condemnations draw connections. What Westerners endure can bring attention to what others suffer.

In mid-2013, after the Egyptian coup, queer Canadian filmmaker John Greyson and his colleague Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo. They were “tourists” in a broad sense, passing through on their way to work in Palestine. The paranoiac regime, which treats all real or imaginary opponents as terrorists, accused them of conspiracy. The international campaign to free them, politically astute, brought into focus the violent repression Sisi also inflicted on many others, including massacres of Muslim Brotherhood adherents. (A mark of how successfully Greyson’s and Loubani’s case illuminated Egypt’s whole human rights record was how they pissed off Canada’s equally terrorist-obsessed right wing.) And Greyson has passionately kept on doing so since his release.

On the other extreme, I have miserable memories of the embattled gay pride in Moscow in 2007. A flock of foreigners came, European politicians and minor celebrities, many hoping to garner a little publicity for the cause and themselves: get arrested briefly, spend an afternoon in jail, give a press conference. It was no more intrinsically offensive than taking selfies at Bergen-Belsen. They inadvertently drew the media away, however, from the young Russian marchers arrested at the same time, sent to jail in the Moscow outskirts with no cameras attending. They also monopolized the lawyers; the young Russians had none. I’m afraid the Moscow Pride circus is more typical of what happens when Westerners get involved than was John Greyson.

Nicholas Kristof, white-savior-in-residence at the New York Times, has written how nobody cares when he just describes foreign brown folks and their strivings. It takes a “bridge character,” “some American who they can identify with,” to “get people to care”:

It hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters … Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.

But it never works. Read Kristof and see: all the sympathy goes to the span itself, to the charismatic white connecting hero. Nobody’s attention makes it to the other side. Whatever happens to me, in Egypt or anyplace else, God save me from being a bridge to nowhere.

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

This bridge called your back: Kristof inspecting raw materials

And here’s the heart of the matter. The context for this latest case is twofold. Egypt’s government has been cracking down on gender and sexual dissent for a year and half. But it’s also been whipping up xenophobia, fear of foreign influences, hatred of foreigners themselves. Now it’s figured out how to make those two kinds of incitement meet.

Westerners have been targets of Egypt’s xenophobic campaign, painted as conspirators against the country. Michele Dunne, an American expert on Egypt, was turned away at Cairo airport in December in retaliation for her criticisms of Sisi. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch was expelled last August. Last month the government announced it would stop granting visas on arrival to most Western visitors, requiring applications in advance instead. It was a move to keep unwanted critics out. But Egypt understands how vital its already-moribund tourist industry is, and how restricting visas might scare the last few pocketbooks away. The measure was “postponed.”

Although this deportation case dates back seven years, the way the government is publicizing it now – while it’s arresting alleged LGBT people on a massive scale – suggests they have new plans to put these powers to use. The truth is, though, that Western tourists won’t be the easiest targets. Those who’ll suffer most will be from poorer African or Arab counties, those who don’t spend dollars, whose embassies won’t lift a digit to defend them: or – still more defenseless — suspected trans or gay people from Egypt’s communities of refugees.

Some Middle Eastern states have been welcoming to refugees. Syria – though one of the poorest countries in the region – took in waves of displaced Palestinians from the nakba till now, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis after the Bush invasion. Egypt has not, on the whole, been on the hospitable side. The national identity inculcated since the 1950s is intolerant of ethnic difference and of influences from outside. The state has accommodated refugees – Sudanese since the 1990s, Iraqis and Syrians now – but reluctantly; it harasses them, denies them political rights or permanent status, and insists it’s only a transit point for loiterers who eventually must move along. And ever since Sisi took power, refugees have been vilified by state-promoted xenophobia. Syrians and Palestinians are especially singled out. But every refugee in Egypt lives in anxiety. There are plenty of LGBT folk among them. (Last fall a cohort of plainclothes security forces raided the apartment of a gay Syrian refugee I know. They searched his papers, computer, phone, and noted all the gay-related documents and photos. They didn’t arrest him. They just wanted him to know they were there.) This publicized decision will only sharpen their fear.

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

February, 2015: Syrian and Palestianian refugees on hunger strike to protest over 100 days of detention without charge in an Alexandria, Egypt, police station. See https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/blogs/politics/17086-syrian-palestinian-refugees-on-hunger-strike-to-protest-arbitrary-detention-by-egypt

The fate of refugees in Egypt is not just abstract for me. It’s bound up with guilt. In 2003, working for Human Rights Watch, I lived in Cairo for several months. Two days after I arrived, police began arresting refugees, mostly African, in sweeping raids in neighborhoods where they clustered. Such harassment is recurrent; most were freed in days; but, covering the raids and talking to the victims, I got to know some of the community leaders. In the next months, they organized many meetings for me with refugees in Cairo, so I could hear their stories. I thought perhaps the documentation could push Human Rights Watch into reporting on the situation in detail.

Most of the people I talked to were South Sudanese, survivors of the civil war raging there for 20 years. We met in their cramped flats; in the dusty courtyard of All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, an asylum where police rarely intruded; or in rundown Coptic churches in Shobra, where fellow Christians had afforded the South Sudanese some space.

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

Refugee claimants gather for admission to UNHCR offices in Cairo

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo was and is one of the slowest in the world.  It could take UNHCR years — it still does — just to schedule an intake interview. Until the UN formally recognized them as refugees – three, five, seven years after their arrival – the displaced had no legal rights in Egypt at all; after that, they had to wait more years for the UN to resettle them in a third, safe country. Some had been in Egypt for well over a decade. Meanwhile, they endured constant harassment, joblessness, humiliation. Nobody outside the community had listened to them before. Women working for a pittance as maids told me about sexual harassment and rape. Some men sold their organs to survive. Police picked them up off the streets, beat them, ignored the UNHCR’s hapless interventions to protect them; there were stories that some refugees, randomly arrested, had been driven south and deported illegally back across the border, to Sudan and death. The waiting and fear drove some people mad. One courtly man of about fifty took me aside at a church meeting. He had been tortured in Sudan; he showed me a scar on his arm. He had many narratives of persecution, but most embarrassing now, he said was an unbearable rumor circulating all across Egypt that he had a tail. He showed me medical documents, testimonies elicited from doctors in English and Arabic, painfully certifying that he was tailless. He also gave me a typed personal statement, in English. “Among the many crosses I am compelled to Bear, in a long Journay and much Torture, the widespread libel that I am a Tail Wizard is completely Unfounded.” Others at the meeting treated him with deference, as if they envied the relief in his delusions.

I began to feel uneasy about these meetings. My presence was an implicit promise that I would do something, and there was nothing I could do. In February and March Egypt’s security state moved on to arresting and torturing hundreds of leftists opposing the Iraq war. I had to document that, and gradually my meetings with the Sudanese lapsed. Human Rights Watch, its refugee program stretched thin, never produced a report on these abuses (though in recent years they’ve documented, in harrowing detail, the monstrosities traffickers inflict on desperate African refugees in Sinai). I still think of my inability to provide some concrete assistance as one of the worst failures in my twenty-five year career, and I can’t remember it without shame.

Now there’s another basis, inscribed in law, for harassing some of them.

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Refugee protest camp outside the UNHCR offices in Cairo, October 2005. Photo by Vivian Salama, Daily Star

Some refugees tried to speak up about their endless agonies. Two and a half years after I left, in September 2005, Sudanese started a sit-in before the Cairo UNHCR offices, demanding faster processing of their claims. The UN treated the protest with contempt; one staffer accused them of wanting “a ticket to go to dreamland.”

Three months passed; then UNHCR called in the authorities. On December 30, 4000 police surrounded and shot at the unarmed Sudanese. At least 27 died, including eight women and between seven and twelve children. Thousands were arrested; among those, hundreds who had not yet been given refugee cards by UNHCR faced deportation. The first dozen Cairo planned to deport included three women and a child. “Egypt has dealt with the sit-in of the refugees with wisdom and patience,” the country’s foreign minister said.

A Sudanese removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

A Sudanese man removes rainwater from a tarp in the protest camp, December 25, 2005. Five days later police attacked the camp. Photo by Shane Baldwin, New York Times

Ten years later, this massacre is forgotten in Cairo. It never figures on the list of Mubarak’s crimes. Nobody bothers to remind UNHCR of its complicity in the killings. Refugees don’t matter.

The massacre did merit brief mention in a text that’s become a Bible for right-wingers warning about the Muslim peril. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West is a 2009 book by conservative American journalist Christopher Caldwell. Seemingly ignorant that the demonstrators were Christian, he uses the protest to press his case — distorting it, insulting the dead in the process:

3000 Sudanese camped in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo to seek refugee status. What was bizarre was that many of them already had refugee status in Egypt. So these were bogus petitioners in the sense that what they were really seeking was passage to some country more prosperous than Egypt. The sad ending to the story, though, shows that the line between “real” and “bogus” calls for help is not always easy to draw: in the last days of 2005, Egyptian riot police attacked the encampment, killing twenty-three [sic].

Bogus vs. real migrants: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

Bogus person vs. real one: Caldwell, a US citizen, in London in 2014 (top); wounded Sudanese refugee arrested by Egyptian police, December 30, 2005 (bottom)

That’s not true. Either Caldwell, who claims to be an immigration expert, doesn’t understand refugee law, or he’s just lying. I think he’s lying. Egypt doesn’t grant anybody “refugee status.” It has no national asylum procedures at all. It gives people whom the UN recognizes as refugees (the status most of the the protesters were still waiting for) a limited right to stay, but only temporarily, on the understanding they will eventually be resettled elsewhere. The dead Caldwell defames were not “really seeking” someplace “more prosperous.” They were asking the UN to do its mandated job, to find them a country that would give them the legal right to live.

Caldwell is a fool, but he’s right on one thing: this is all about the bogus and the real. It’s about belonging. Egypt’s government is now deciding who belongs or not, who’s a real or bogus person. The gays are fake people, void of the authenticity and weight that might entitle them to stay.

But isn’t that how we readers, sympathizers, citizens use these stories too, to separate the wheat from chaff? We winnow the fit objects of our concern from the unwanted ones, from those whose sufferings don’t ring true because we don’t recognize ourselves in them. Tourists count, not migrant workers. White travelers count, not brown refugees. Gay, yes; transgender, no. We each mistrust the incomprehensible stranger, you as much as I do. We were all strangers once in the land of Egypt. But we forgot.

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

Joseph Tissot, The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1886-1894

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Last word on Kuwait: Unfortunately

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council's Health Comittee

Gene genie: Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Health Council

“Told you so” is no pleasure in this life. Still. Arab News (an English-language Saudi paper) this evening published a piece confirming most of what I wrote about Kuwait’s proposed policy. It entails gender tests, not exams for “gayness,” and it targets migrant workers, not tourists.

The Kuwait Ministry of Health has proposed tightening genetic tests for immigrant workers in order to prevent transgender migrants from entering the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council job market.

Tawfiq Khojah, director general of the Executive Office at the GCC Health Council, said, “The health checklist for migrant workers now contains a mandatory examination to determine gender.” … The proposal will be made in a meeting for the Central Committee for foreign workers’ at the Health Council to be held on Nov. 11, Khojah told Arab News.

Youssef Mendkar, director of the Public Health Department at the Kuwait Ministry of Health, confirmed that the proposal aims to prevent transgender migrants from working in GCC countries. The tests determine the gender at birth. Gender is also determined through the worker’s medical history.

According to local media, sex conversion operations are considered normal in some countries which supply manpower to GCC countries. He said that statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Interior show that some foreign workers had a different gender recorded on their identity documents.

Khojah also said that the exams are already in operation in some GCC countries – “More than 2 million expatriate workers underwent the new gender tests in 2012” – but didn’t say where. The tests are probably chromosomal samples, and there are questions enough about these and the definitions of “sex” they imply; but the reference to “medical history” also raises the possibility that still other kinds of investigation, including abusive forensic examinations, may be involved.

One of the more thought-provoking comments on my last post came from HIV/AIDS activist Gus Cairns, who wrote on Facebook – I’m oversimplifying– that if you can rouse public outrage on an issue by saying it’s about gay men, and you can’t by saying it’s about trans migrants, surely there’s a case for saying what’s strategic. Terrible abuses based on gender under Kuwaiti law have gotten little notice over the years. I admit I feel some nagging guilt for helping burst a balloon that, floating over the ravaged rights landscape, at least had the possibility of drawing some attention to them.

In the end, though, I don’t think you can get far by advocating about fictions. Inevitably the Kuwaiti government would be able to respond, blithely, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — and there would go any traction to the claims. Moreover, the problem with slants like this (a “gay exam” targeting privileged white tourists) is that they aren’t just popular because they’re sensational: they draw unwanted strength from releasing the darkest, rottenest impulses of the collective psyche, which float up from the depths like dead manatees. Gay superiority (over the L and B and T), gay imperialism (over other minorities and their needs), chauvinism, homonationalism, Islamophobia … these may not fully have reached the surface, but they were bubbling around under the reactions to this story. They lurk undesired in some of the furor over Russia as well, which is why, despite the surfeit of good intentions, so much of that still leaves me viscerally uneasy: not least because I respond to them too. The 24-hour Twitter cycle, the quick swell and ebb of anger, offers little time to think about what the facts are, much less what our words imply or why we use them. But we should be alert to these concealed beliefs and motives, and militant in resisting them. They pollute both the language of rights and the dream of liberation.

If you wonder about some of the politics behind the Kuwait tale, consider this: why was a group called Act for Israel (“Mission: to represent Israel’s interests in US through new media”) urging Peter Tatchell to take it up; and why did Tatchell answer by boasting that he’d already “helped break this story”? What was that all about?

Tatchell Kuwait IBT copyThe last word? I hope not. It remains formidably hard to whip up concern over the fates of poor workers, or foreign laborers, or trans people, and even harder to build a movement around the intersections. But I hope at least some of the folks who got agitated about this case when they thought it was a threat to football stars and white tourists will continue to follow it now that they know it’s about the marginal, the migrant, the despised. A simple Google search (try Kuwait gay tests) will turn up the names of notables who worried about FIFA and the limelight. Now let them show they care about those who don’t make the headlines. I remember (the music is at the end of the clip below) the frightening lines Brecht wrote at the very terminus of the Threepenny Opera:

Some in light and some in darkness
That’s the kind of world we mean
Those you see are in the daylight
Those in darkness
Don’t get seen

Kuwait’s “medical screening for gays”: Truth, fiction, and why it’s not a “gay” issue

"Illegals" -- foreign violators of Kuwait's labor and residency laws -- under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

“Illegals” — foreign violators of Kuwait’s labor and residency laws — under arrest in a police station after May 2013 raids

I first noticed it yesterday on Pink News, the UK’s G-and-sometimes-LBT news website: a new horror from the Persian Gulf. “It was revealed that Gulf Cooperative Countries introduced new rules to ‘detect’ and ban gay people from entering the country.” It doesn’t take long for any story about Arabs and sex to go viral. In this case, given that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, the headlines hitched a ride with anxieties over the Sochi Olympics, and turned into warnings about threats to sports. Peter Tatchell leapt in headfirst, proclaiming that “FIFA now has no option but to cancel the world cup,” because “gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.” The story was soon in the Daily Mail: “Gulf states to introduce medical testing on travellers to ‘detect’ gay people.” Russia Today picked it up (probably hoping that they could lure Jamie Kirchick to move his strip show to Al Jazeera). Of course it spread all over Twitter. Tommy Robinson, the leader of the UK’s thuggish and Muslim-bashing English Defense League, should have been thinking happy thoughts on his very own special day – he was collaborating with the Quilliam Foundation, a doubtful British affair that calls itself “the world’s first counter-extremism organization,” to announce his departure from the Fascists and conversion to tolerance and understanding. But he wasn’t too busy to send out a Tweet suggesting that his about-face, like the Qulliam Foundation itself, was a bit of a put-on. Islamophobia dies hard:

What about this story? Some of it is true, but only sort of. Some of it’s grossly distorted.  Let’s try to unpack what the truth is.

FIRST: Are there “new rules”? Not yet. It’s still just a proposal.  It comes from Kuwait, not Qatar – specifically, from the Director of Kuwait’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Youssef Mindkar, who discussed it with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai yesterday. He said a new proposal

aims to discover the “third sex,” “gays” [al-mithliyeen], during the clinical medical examination procedure upon arrival, to prevent the entry into Kuwait and the Gulf of those certified as “improper” [ghair la’eq]. Mindkar spoke to Al-Rai of “strong measures to be included in Gulf regulations on employment screening, especially in respect of the third sex.”

So let’s be clear: this is a matter of employment screening – of people coming into the Gulf to live and work, people who already have to undergo medical testing on arrival. It’s not a screening for every arrival at the airport. It does not mean, as Tatchell claimed, “that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending the football world cup.” Whatever Dr. Mindkar has in mind, the sacred anuses of fans and footballers will be exempt, unless they plan to settle down and get jobs as gardeners or drivers in the Gulf after the games are through.

Trust me, you won't feel a thing: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

Trust me, this won’t hurt a bit: Dr. Youssef Mindkar

SECOND: Who decides on this? It’s not clear.The first Al-Rai article quoted Dr. Mindkar as saying “the project will be proposed during the meeting of the Central Committee of the Program on Expat Labor [of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC], which will take place on 11 November in Oman with a view to amending the regulations.” The Gulf Cooperation Council is a 22-year-old organization for economic and political cooperation between BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It tries to develop common policies on everything from patent regulations to labor policy to crushing and killing dissidents (its Peninsula Shield Force invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down demonstrations). The Oman gathering will address the second concern: how to treat foreign workers. One recurrent issue is health – that is, protecting the region from diseases that migrant labor supposedly carries. Already, incoming workers must undergo medical screenings on entry; Mindkar is suggesting the meeting could recommend adding some new procedure.

Al-Rai is a newspaper close to Kuwait’s government. So it’s interesting that it followed up next day with an article interviewing Kuwaiti parliamentarians about the idea. This suggests they don’t feel it’s just a simple tweak of medical procedure – it’s a visa policy change that might need legislative action, in which case it would only apply to Kuwait, not the rest of the Gulf. It also suggests this is mainly for domestic political consumption. (Most of the MPs were supportive: the move would “safeguard our children … from abnormal behaviours contrary to religion.” Only one expressed some qualms: “Generally I reject legislating for legislation’s sake. Any legislation must be based on scientific study, and must be legal and constitutional.”)

In practice, the Gulf states are even worse than the EU at coming up with joint policies in the sensitive areas of work or borders. (A Schengen-like proposal for a common tourist visa has been discussed interminably.) In other words, even if some new policy is adopted by Kuwait itself, it’s still not clear it would affect Qatar or other states.

Raise your hand if you're a manly man: Session of Kuwait's National Assembly

Raise your hand if you’re a manly man: Session of Kuwait’s National Assembly

THIRD. What kind of “medical screening”? And for whom? Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Al-Rai articles repeatedly said the screening would search for the “third sex” (al-jins al-thaaleth). Only once in each article did they use the word al-mithliyeen, which is a politically-correct, recently invented term (derived from mithliyyu al-jins, “same sex,” constructed by analogy to “homosexual”); it’s sometimes translated “gay.”

What is the “third sex” to Kuwaiti ears?

Popular Arabic doesn’t contain any word (even mithli) that corresponds exactly to the way English-speakers and other Westerners use “gay” – which doesn’t stop Western reporters and the rest from jumping on this story and announcing it’s about “gay” people. This isn’t just about translation, it reflects different social norms: different concepts of identity. In the US, Europe, and much of Latin America, for instance, a strong, almost defensive distinction has grown between “gay” men and people who are “trans” or “transgender” (or “travesti,” or other words). The cultural importance of maintaining this difference is one reason the aggressive gay male Penis Police break out in anxious sweats when faced by someone they find ambiguous – somebody like Johnny Weir who’s too man-identified to be shoveled off into what they see as the transgender trash can, but who is just not their kind of man.

The distinction can be irrelevant in many other parts of the world, though. Here in Egypt, for instance, a separate female-to-male “transgender” identity is only starting to be articulated among middle-class people. (Many elements go to make it up, some local and some patterned after non-Egyptian possibilities. Demotic, working-class subcultures of men who danced in women’s clothes were well-known in 19th century Egypt, even if they didn’t cross the gender line full-time. On the other hand, a recent trip to Alexandria with a trans-identified friend involved more repeated viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to remember.)

This is important because people who think the Kuwaiti proposal is an anti-“gay” measure clearly haven’t followed what’s been happening there in the last decade. In Kuwait for seven years now, “third sex” has mainly been a term of abuse for people whom the US or Europe might call “transgender.” A major moral panic has been raging (also in other Gulf countries, especially Bahrain). Press, preachers, and politicians rant about the dangers of men who aren’t “manly,” or women who are too much so. (Sometimes they refer to the latter as al-jins al-rabi, the “fourth sex” – or sometimes just “boyat,” as in boys.) This peaked in 2007, when Kuwait’s parliament passed a provision to punish anyone “imitating the opposite sex in any way” with a year’s imprisonment, a hefty (US$3,600) fine, or both. MP Walid al-Tabtabai, who drafted the law, said repeatedly it was aimed at stopping the “third sex.” Here he is on YouTube feeding the fires of panic: “Imprisoning ‘third sex’ and boyat is a law I’m proud of.”

 Boys will be boys, and if they won’t, send them to me

During my years at Human Rights Watch, we monitored the panic and the resulting police crackdowns from 2006 on. My colleague Rasha Moumneh, now sadly moved on from HRW, wrote an excellent 2011 report about the Kuwaiti situation. While police abuse of transgender-identified women has been especially violent and brutal, she stresses that the law does not just single out a “transgender” identity, much less “gay” sex, but rather targets anybody who doesn’t follow gender norms. It’s easiest for police to pick out biological men who are overtly wearing women’s clothing – but all men seen as effeminate, or women seen as butch, are potential victims.

Gender and sexuality often become foci for broader anxieties in times of rapid social and political change. The criminalization of “imitating the opposite sex” in Kuwait is one  element of a broader regime of gender regulation that began to take hold after 1992, when  tensions between “liberal” and “traditionalist” Kuwaitis after the Gulf War intensified as  each tried to establish their status as influential political entities. The battle over women’s rights and role in society constituted one of this conflict’s most  prominent arenas, and presented an opportunity for traditionalists and Islamists to join forces. … Given this long-running controversy within government and society over the appropriate  roles of men and women, it is not surprising that parliament would turn its attention towards those who visibly challenge these gender roles.

HRW documented how people arrested under the Kuwaiti law are often subjected to bodily inspection by a forensic doctor, to determine what their “real” sex is. It’s likely this is the meaning of the “medical screening” that Dr. Mindkar proposes: a doctor checks potential entrants to find their biological sex, and if it doesn’t correspond to their demeanor or the clothes they’re wearing, goodbye.

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

Protester at 2012 Lebanese rally against forensic anal exams. “Together against tests of shame: Whether anal or vaginal, they are rape on the prosecution’s orders.”

By no means do I minimize the abusiveness and intrusiveness of these examinations, or the humiliation they can inflict. Probably doctors would limit themselves to inspecting genitals at the border. But in part because “transgender” and “homosexual” are not neatly separated categories, it’s quite possible that indications a biological man has been anally penetrated can serve as proof that he “imitates the opposite sex.” I spent years documenting the forced forensic anal examinations practiced by the Egyptian police on thousands of victims. Such fraudulent tests were also part of the Lebanese police’s repertory. Though they prove nothing except the obscene prurience of the responsible officials, they have been blessed in the past with pseudoscientific imprimaturs. For example, sitting on my shelf is a 1993 Arabic publication by the World Health Organization’s East Mediterranean Regional Office, on “Forensic Medicine and Toxicology”; it recommended them as a way to discover the “habitual bottom” (ubna). It’s conceivable that the Kuwaiti border’s anti-deviance armory could include forcing these tests on suspect migrant workers. We just don’t know.

FOURTH. Isn’t this just more proof of the exotic, barbaric practices of repressed Muslims? Yes, of course, if you believe everything you read. It’s amazing how a story like this allows people to bring in every little tidbit about sheikh-and-terrorist sex that they garnered from the rumor mill, or from having wet dreams about Lawrence of Arabia. It’s as if, every time you mentioned gerbils, you had to segue to that friend of a friend of a friend who told you how Richard Gere ….

For instance: the International Business Times filled out its story on the border controls by informing you that

In 2012, Kuwaiti police officers arrested two men for allegedly having homosexual acts in a car at a café’s parking lot in Kuwait city. Police also found the men had a four-year-old “marriage contract” and were planning to travel abroad to obtain a legal marriage certificate. According to many Arab LGBT organisations, it is common practice among Arabian Gulf gay couples to sign a marriage contact as a sign of love and commitment.

I have to doubt “many Arab LGBT organisations” said this, or were even asked. It also seems odd to mark this as a distinctive, slightly primitive custom among “Arabian Gulf gay couples,” when oodles of gay couples in Amsterdam and San Francisco are doing the same thing. Did the Dutch read about this ritual called “marriage” in some anthro textbook on exotic Arabia, and decide to mimic it? But what does this have to do with anything?

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

Your anus is looking funny. Or funnely: Auguste-Ambroise Tardieu

The idea of medical testing for sexual or gender deviance is not an Arab one. It came from the West. The forensic anal examinations I discuss above were – as I’ve written before — the brainchild of Auguste Ambroise Tardieu (1818-1879), a French scientist who largely invented the techniques for forensic examination of sexual crimes. The fact that his theories about how “abnormal” sex changed the bodies of its practitioners were idiotic and bizarre does not make them less French. The myths and modes of investigation he advocated remain powerful, and not just in the Middle East.  His theory that frequently-penetrated assholes turn “infundibuliform” or funnel-shaped even found its way into the avant-garde poetry of the Comte de Lautréamont:

Oh incomprehensible pederasts, I shall not heap insults upon your great degradation; I shall not pour scorn upon your infundibuliform anus.

Thanks, thoughtful Frenchman!

Our pundits also assume that any different understanding of gender and sexuality must be a deficient one: that the absence, for example, of a concept exactly like “homosexuality” in another culture implies a lack to be filled, rather than discursive space already occupied by another valid concept. So Arabs don’t know what “gay” means? We’ll teach them! But, if anything, the coverage here clearly shows how our English-language terminology and thinking are stunted and inadequate to other situations. In particular, although we do formal obeisances to the “inclusive” terminology of “LGBT,” we’ll throw out everything but the G given half a reason.  Why is this a “gay” story? Why does everybody translate “third sex” as “gay” alone? Why do they ignore Kuwait’s recent history on gender issues as irrelevant? Why do they describe it as “homophobia” when only a slight look below the surface shows how deeply it’s a question of gender?  Why, given that vicious persecution of transgender people in Kuwait has been documented for seven years, does nobody even think to raise the T word (much less the L word!) when a report like this arises? What fears, what phobias enforce that silence?

FINALLY: There is a history to Kuwait’s worries about its borders. This story is not just “about” gender or sexuality. It’s also about citizenship and belonging. 

From Nasra M. Shah, "Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?" at

From Nasra M. Shah, “Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf: How Effective Are They Likely To Be?” at http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1055&context=intl

The other huge moral panic going on in the Gulf for years has been over migrant labor. And Kuwait lies at the heart of the vortex of arrests, abuses, deportations. The whole region survives on the sweat of foreign workers. Four-fifths of Kuwait’s labor force is non-Kuwaiti; two-thirds of the country’s residents are non-citizens. Qatar and the UAE have similarly high figures; but Kuwait is unique in that it endured the trauma of foreign invasion in 1991, and doesn’t forget. Back then, Kuwaitis perceived guest workers — many resentful over their exploitation — as a fifth column welcoming Saddam Hussein’s troops. After Bush the First drove out the Iraqis, Kuwait expelled Palestinians en masse, including tens of thousands who had lived there for decades. Other guest workers, however, quickly took their places. The last time Kuwaiti nationals made up a bare majority in the country was the year of its independence, 1961.

From Nasra M. Shah, "Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies," at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf. PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

From Nasra M. Shah, “Migration to Kuwait: Trends, Patterns and Policies,” at http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Nasra_Shah.pdf.  PACI = Public Authority for Civil Information, Government of Kuwait

Most of these foreigners are from poor countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, many serving in demeaning domestic jobs. They’re needed but feared. Migrant Rights, a website on migration in the Middle East, notes that “demeaning spectacles” and “popular myths” surround guest workers in Kuwait. They’re promiscuous, they’re drug addicts, they’re criminals. The press “vilifies undocumented workers through vague, unfounded assertions of the miscellaneous ‘danger’ they pose to society at large.” In addition to moral menaces, medical fears also play a role. Just a casual search shows that much of Dr. Mindkar’s work at the Department of Public Health involves protecting the Kuwaiti public’s health from the strangers in its midst. He makes sure domestic servants get re-tested and re-vaccinated when they return from holidays! He visits Egypt to stiffen the standards of clinics that pre-screen migrants there!

The stigma leads to violence. Bosses don’t just exploit guest workers; they abuse and beat them. And the country recurrently tries to chase out undesirables — who could be anybody with the wrong passport.  Since early 2013, Kuwait has been carrying out a “fierce crackdown” on foreign workers, jailing and deporting thousands without appeal. The numbers keep mounting: one day sees 86 arrests, another day 491 across the country.

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

South Asian domestic worker in Kuwait shows injuries inflicted by her employer

This is the context for the new, proposed test of foreign workers’ genitals and morals. It’s another excuse, founded in fears for national purity, to drive people out. It’s doubly ridiculous, then, to claim the proposal’s wrong because it somehow endangers the World Cup. Zillionaire football stars and tourist fans won’t suffer any hiccups at the border: it’s obscene to put their situation on a level with that of impoverished migrants who face torture and the loss of livelihood. It’s equally absurd to claim that “Banning gay people [sic] from entering the country will deter foreign investors and companies. They won’t want to subject their employees to such barbaric, medieval humiliations.” Executives for Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell will breeze through Kuwait’s medical tests, whatever they may be, because they’re wanted in the country; if they happen to have some ailment, their company just bribes them in. The exams are meant to intimidate poor Nepalis or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis, to exclude those who are too recalcitrantly different. Talking about the imaginary inconvenience to corporations and guys in Porsches completely misses the point.

I hate to play the game of equivalences, to measure any human rights violation against another. Kuwait’s proposal is appalling, part of a disgusting system of policing gender — and part of a repressive history of exploiting a non-citizen helot class. Fight it! But to treat it as some “barbaric” or “medieval” invention unprecedented in modern immigration law is a self-exculpating fantasy.

Consider the US, where the Atlantic magazine made fun of those stupid Arabs: “We wouldn’t want to be the ones to break it to Mindkar that gay people come from the loins of straight people, meaning any attempt to keep your country gay-free is all but impossible.” Yeah. The US still bars foreign sex workers and drug users from entering the country, a policy that banned thousands of people from participating in the last World AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. See if that keeps America drug-free, or sex-work-free. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail excoriated the Kuwaiti policy. That’s in the United Kingdom, a country famous for welcoming immigrants with songs and sex and flowers, and for its particular friendliness to LGBT asylum-seekers, who get free chocolate cakes and feather beds upon arrival! The Daily Mail itself loves immigrants. It loves immigrants so much that it just accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition of being anti-British because his father was a Jewish refugee. Stupid, stupid, stupid Arabs.

Oh, yes, I mentioned the rich Quilliam Foundation, a favorite of Tony Blair and the terror-fighting crowd. (Peter Tatchell, after enunciating his version of the Qatar Kuwait story, went off to a fifth-anniversary event for the Quilliam Foundation, and tweeted “Bravo”!) Blogger Fagburn has asked where Quilliam gets its money, aside from British taxpayers. Here’s one answer. In 2008 Quilliam’s head told Susannah Tarbush, writing for Al-Hayat, that it received “private Kuwait funding.” Kuwait’s a small country, and “private funding” usually passes through pockets of the royal family. Kuwait is happy to fund organizations that oppose “extremists,” which to the royal family means anybody who dissents. They also torture foreigners, Islamists, students, transgender people … the possibilities are endless. Those concerned about Kuwaitis’ and non-Kuwaitis’ rights might stop going to the Quilliam Foundation’s parties, or ask it to stop laundering Kuwaiti money. But I won’t hold my breath.

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991: Palestinian refugees at Kuwaiti border waiting to be deported, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis

Palestinians at the Kuwait border await deportation after the Gulf War, 1991. © Isabel Ellsen, Corbis