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

The Russian issue(s)

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a "Day of Kisses" protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of  the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Right-wing demonstrators attack participant (center) in a “Day of Kisses” protest against anti-propaganda bill, in front of the Russian State Duma in January: © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

A few good sources of information about Russia crossed my screen in the last week or so.

§ Just over two years ago, LGBT activists in Russia set up an e-mail list, Queerussia, to help to help Western activists and journalists understand their perspectives on the LGBT rights struggle. Now it’s gone online, as a news aggregator for lots of information about Russian events — mostly in English, with valuable material specially translated for the site. Check it out.

§ Open Democracy published an opinion piece by activist Igor Iasine on what Russian LGBT communities need right now: movements strong enough to carry the fight forward on Russian ground.

It won’t be Stonewall; it’ll be our own revolt. ..We  need to create a systematic and solid movement for LGBT rights if we are to avoid a new backlash … We can take inspiration from other people’s successes. Not everything in that experience is universal and equally relevant everywhere, but its importance should not be underestimated.

In the 60s and 70s the American LGBT community couldn’t ask Brezhnev or Mao to lean on the USA government on their behalf, to introduce sanctions or refuse visas to American officials. But now some Russian activists are looking for ways to enlist help in putting pressure on the Kremlin from abroad, as they doubt their own strength and don’t believe they will find enough support among other Russians. But … the best way to fight homophobic laws and prejudice is to forget about Obama and develop our own grassroots protest campaign. … [T]he LGBT community shouldn’t be pawns in a new Cold War, but part of an international movement for real democracy and equal rights for all.

The best way for people abroad to help us is through empathy and genuine solidarity, and not isolation or a boycott. Lukashenka’s Belarus has been the object of sanctions for years, but ordinary people’s lives are none the better for it.

§ Spectrum Human RIghts Alliance also interviewed Iasine here. And Open Democracy also carried an interesting piece by writer Sergey Khazov:

I’m certain that it is the new homophobic law itself that … has in fact worked both ways. On the one hand it has triggered a public witch hunt: a steep rise in cases of discrimination; people losing their jobs; attacks on LGBT activists; regional LGBT organizations being harassed and prosecuted under the law that bans NGOs from engaging in ‘political activity’. But on the other hand, this is happening precisely because people have suddenly started leaving their closets in a way that they never did before – a wave of ‘coming- outs’ is sweeping the country. LGBT activists have emerged in just about every city, and some of them have set up organizations that are making a real difference to people’s lives.

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Solidarity in Poland, April 1981

Foucault speaks at a labor union demonstration supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement, Paris, April 1981

§ Sean Guillory’s article in The Nation is one of the few recent English-language pieces to recognize the large, loud, and vibrant LGBT movement that’s still agitating in Russia — and to point up the diversity of opinion it contains. He concludes with a paradox worth stressing:

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result of recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that … the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. … The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

§ Finally, in Counterpunch, Alexander Reid Ross places the anarchist artists of Pussy Riot in the heroic tradition of Soviet-era dissent. Check at the bottom of his article: he offers to translate and forward letters of support to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, the sacrificial leaders of the group who are imprisoned in Putin’s Gulag, if you’ll send them to him at a.reid.ross@gmail.com. Tolokonnikova started a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in the Mordovian labor camp where she’s being held. Her open letter has been widely circulated; it can be read here. I would also like to call attention to a moving statement Tolokonnikova wrote (but was not allowed to deliver) at a hearing this April, when a judge denied parole because she refused to admit her “guilt.”

I am absolutely convinced that the only correct road is one on which a person is honest with others and with herself. I have stayed on this road and will not stray from it wherever life takes me. I insisted on this road while I was still on the outside, and I didn’t retreat from it in the Moscow pretrial detention facility. Nothing, not even the camps of Mordovia, where the Soviet-era authorities liked to send political prisoners, can teach me to betray the principle of honesty. …

Recently, I got a letter containing a parable that has become important to me. What happens to things different in nature when they are placed in boiling water? Brittle things, like eggs, become hard. Hard things, like carrots, become soft. Coffee dissolves and permeates everything. The point of the parable was this: be like coffee. In prison, I am like that coffee.

I want the people who have put me and dozens of other political activists behind bars to understand one simple thing: there are no insurmountable obstacles for a person whose values consist, first, of her principles and, second, of work and creativity based on these principles. If you strongly believe in something, this faith will help you survive and remain a human being anywhere.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) behind barbed wire in Prison Colony no. 14, Mordovia, November 2012: from http://izvestia.ru/news/539656

And then there’s other stuff. Notably, New York’s Gay City News headlines its current edition “The Russia Issue,” which is nothing if not a belated effort to clamber onto the news cycle. As issues go, it’s thin. There’s one article on the Queer Nation’s anti-Russia protest at the Metropolitan Opera, which happened two weeks ago. And, inevitably, there’s something by ace reporter Doug Ireland.

Ireland’s contribution is an interview, all done by e-mail, with Nikolai Baev — Nikolai Alekseev’s onetime deputy at (indeed, almost the only other member of) Moscow Pride. Baev is a brave man, and he’s been a leader in at least one important action: he and Irina Fet were arrested in Ryazan in 2009 for demonstrating against the local anti-gay-propaganda law, a precursor to the later Federal iteration. Fet took her case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which found against Russia; Baev appealed his conviction to the European Court of Human RIghts, where it’s still pending.

But there are a couple of issues with Doug’s mis-take on the “Russian issue.” First off, Baev broke with Alekseev back in late 2011 — partly because Baev wanted Moscow Pride to join in anti-Putin demonstrations, and Alekseev refused; but partly too because Alekseev briefly resigned as Generalissimo, putting Baev in charge, then rudely retracted it (not the only time this happened). Baev hasn’t had an organization since then. Singling him out as the sole voice of Russian activism shows Doug’s old identification with heroic Lone Rangers, and his distaste for people who build movements. It’s the same frustrated passion that led him to idealize Alekseev over seven years of hype. Indeed, maybe the most telling passage comes when Baev tells Doug that Nikolai Alekseev’s

reputation among Russian LGBT community was always very bad. He has been supported by a few number of radical activists, including me, who thought about him better than he indeed was. … In any case, it always has been a minority of activists, and originally he understood this himself, saying that he represented no one but himself and his supporters.

If that’s true, why didn’t ace reporter Ireland know it? If Doug knew it, why did he keep lauding Alekseev as “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers” — and so on?

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

I have an issue with that: Gay City News cover

More than that, though, it shows how little Doug has learned about Russia and its movements over the years. Presumably he was under some pressure from his usually pliant editors to show that he could interview somebody, anybody, other than Alekseev about Russian issues. But who does Doug find? Alekseev’s former right-hand man. Either Doug didn’t have any other Russian numbers in his Rolodex; or other activists, many of them angry over his years-long denial of their existence, refused to talk to him. Either way, it’s sad that Gay City News thinks this lazy, one-note, one-source writing actually gives a general picture of “the Russia issue.”  One need only compare Sean Guillory’s analysis of the diversity of Russian LGBT activism with Ireland’s easy puff pieces to see the difference between reporting and typing.

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Defendants in the Queen Boat case during their 2001 trial

Let me tell a story. During the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Doug decided he wanted to write up the gay angle. He “found” a gay Egyptian blogger — actually, the discredited website Gay Middle East served up someone they knew — and asked him questions by e-mail. When Doug published the story in Gay City News, it contained major factual errors, mostly about the 2001-2004 crackdown on men suspected of same-sex sex. Doug misidentified and misunderstood the laws under which they were arrested. He misunderstood Egypt’s Emergency Law and the kinds of special Security Courts the country operated. He got the details of the famous Queen Boat raid wrong. And he utterly garbled the fact that police arrested hundreds, probably thousands, of men by entrapping them through gay personals and Internet chatrooms. In his version, this came out as “During the same crackdown, all gay websites were closed down, either by Internet censorship of the Internet or by the arrest of those who ran them.” Fact: there simply were no “gay websites” operating in Egypt in the pre-blog, pre-Facebook era. (People used Gaydar.com, Gay.com, and other sites hosted well outside the borders. None of those websites was “censored,” since the police needed them to entrap people). And no one was ever arrested for running one.

I pointed these errors out to Doug, and he exploded in shrill banshee wails of fury at my temerity. “Distortions”!  “Meritricious [sic] semantic quibbles”!  His words were TRUE, he thundered back, because

Information on the use of the Emergency Law and the law on blasphemy to arrest and persecute gays came from Ice Queer, the gay Egyptian blogger I interviewed, as did the information on censorship and arrests relating to web sites which published gay-related content.

Now, I know “IceQueer,” who was Doug’s one and only source for the story, personally. He’s a nice guy. He blogs in English; this identifies him (or might if Doug knew anything about Egypt) as someone who stands at a slight angle to the mainstream of Egyptian life, gay or straight. He doesn’t write about politics at all. His blog is full of frank talk about sex; its main appeal is to an upscale Zamalek and Maadi crowd whose English is often better than their Arabic, who want to read about erotic lives like their own, but don’t give a damn about politics either. This is a very needed niche in Egypt, but it might have made Doug question whether the guy’s legal analysis didn’t need just a little fact-checking. Moreover, IceQueer was born in October 1988. When the Queen Boat case happened, he was twelve years old.

In other words, Doug Ireland relied on the memories of a single source who wasn’t even a teenager at the time to give him all the information about Egyptian law and history he needed. Having jotted down a mishmash of mistakes and turned facts to wet falafel, Doug rushed to print. Gay City News never printed a correction — they never do. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. Out of Doug Ireland, gibberish.

Two women at the "Day of Kisses" demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters.

Two women at the “Day of Kisses” demonstration in front of the Russian State Duma in January; one sports the remains of an egg thrown by right-wing protesters. © Anton Belitsky / Ridus.ru

Why gay Middle Easterners can’t stand GayMiddleEast.com

In June 2011, 15 Arab sexual rights and human rights organizations, and more than a dozen individual activists, signed a statement condemning the website Gaymiddleeast.com for lying about itself, its origins, and its politics. It’s unusual to see so many groups and activists getting together on anything in a fractured region, so this unanimity was something of an event. It’s been six months since the statement, which “Gay Middle East” never answered.  But the website has started creeping back to life. It’s time, I think, to remind ourselves exactly what its lies were, and why they were and are so dangerous.

This statement wasn’t the first time the activists had to tried to ask “Gay Middle East” to clarify basic facts, including where it was founded and based.  The website’s editor, Dan Littauer, earlier responded to criticisms (in a press release written for him by British activist Peter Tatchell) simply by dismissing the questions as “smears.” “Gay Middle East” had denied that it had any links to Israel. The activists responded that GME “presents lies so blatant that a simple Google search is enough uncover the truth.” And they offered the evidence and the truth they had uncovered.

In summary, they found:

  • GME’s claim that it was “not owned or run by an Israeli” was completely untrue: the site had been founded in Israel, registered to an Israeli, and owned by an Israeli.
  • As late as 2009, in fact, it was still registered to an Israeli address.
  • Littauer, its “executive editor,” who when confronted in 2011 claimed he was “a German citizen (with only a German passport),” had in fact repeatedly identified himself as an Israeli in the past.
You can read their research in detail in their statement. What a lot of people outside the region don’t quite grasp, though, is exactly why this is so important.

The activist statement raises a range of political issues.   Those involve, at a basic level, Arab queers’ and Arab activists’ need to reclaim their own voices, rather than submitting to the ventriloquism of others — others who may or may not share their values, may or may not sympathize with their work, but should not in either case be arrogating the right to interpret their struggles to the world.   I’m not going to recapitulate all their concerns here, although I agree with many: they’re already laid out articulately and clearly.  I’m going to address the one that resonates most with me: safety, the safety of activists and ordinary queers. Littauer and “Gay Middle East” have been putting people across the region who work with them in danger.

To be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Israelis working on LGBT issues elsewhere in the Middle East. Plenty of Israeli researchers have produced important academic information on the region. (Among things I’ve read in recent years, Ze’ev Maghen’s work on the concept of purity in Islamic jurisprudence struck me as important, despite the fact that I can’t stand most of what I gather are his politics; and Ofra Bengio‘s study of Ba’ath Party rhetoric, Saddam’s Word, seems to me much better than Kanan Makiya.) But they didn’t do it by denying being Israelis.

Even in Egypt, formally at peace with its neighbor for three decades, Israel remains an enemy in both the state’s rhetoric and the population’s opinions.  Giving sensitive information — and human rights information is clearly “sensitive” to any government — to an Israeli-based group or an Israeli citizen would easily be seen as practicing espionage, almost anywhere in the region.

The khawal as traitor: From state media, 2001

This isn’t a light or abstract threat. It is particularly dangerous for members of groups that are already despised. When the lead defendant in Egypt’s famous Queen Boat case was put on trial, prosecutors claimed he had learned all about homosexuality in Israel. The press carried, and people believed, ludicrously doctored photos of him sitting before an Israeli flag, wearing an Israeli army helmet. In 2007, a Cairo court sentenced Mohammed al-Attar to fifteen years, for recruiting gay Arabs in Canada to spy for Israel.  Prosecutors alleged he was “a gay Zionist, who turned his back on Islam and worked to undermine the security of his homeland.”  He later said that police electroshocked him to extract a confession, and forced him to drink his own urine. There are plenty of other stories.

Israel is proud of its espionage, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Not only has it long kept up spy networks around and beyond the Middle East, it publicizes the fact just enough to keep governments off-balance. Objectively, in the Great Game, this is sensible. It’d be dumb to do otherwise. The prevalence of espionage makes a general paranoia on its neighbors’ parts perhaps excusable. Targeting gays is not excusable. But when the general rhetoric already sees them as subject to outside influence, treating them as traitors is simply a next step.
If “Gay Middle East” is hiding its real origins, it’s putting the people in Arab countries who choose to work with it and give it information at grave risk. Does it want to keep them at risk of arrest and torture? Does it simply not care? Its duplicity shows contempt for their safety and well-being. It owes them honest answers, which it so far has refused to give.

Networking: Michael Lucas pictures Israel

Many odd things about GME were already on the public record before the Arab activists’ statement. Ben Doherty used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to survey content produced by GME from 2003 through 2008. He found it started as a tourism site for non-Middle Easterners, with a seeming emphasis on sex tourism:

Some of the people currently or previously associated with the site – namely Dan Littauer, Avi Ozeri, and Scott Piro [the latter two also Israelis], –have a background in the tourism industry and public relations, and until 2009, GME tried to be a tourism resource. Before 2009, their site had a section about tourism to Arab countries with cruising tips. The site offered up coming out stories that were both implausible and prurient. They noted sodomy law and age of consent information for each country.

Beyond this, there was Littauer’s obvious political bias against reporting negative information about Israel; his refusal to talk to some of the most respected activists in the region; and his odd association with Tatchell in the UK, a figure known for his Islamophobia.

A key moment came in April 2011, when “Gay Middle East” boasted of how Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office had invited Littauer to contribute information on LGBT issues in the region, for its regular human rights reports.  Littauer was setting himself up to speak for Arab LGBT activism –without speaking to the activists. He seemed indifferent to their opinions on whether, or what, they wanted to contribute to the rights representations of an former imperial (and currently invading) power. The activists’ statement observes:

GBT organizations and activists in the Arab region have always approached requesting foreign intervention very carefully, and it has been the topic of much debate both within activist communities and between them and international organizations that have come to understand the complexities involved and possible backlash that such action would entail.

Meanwhile, GayMiddleEast.com seems to have an open door with the UK Foreign Office and do not think twice about asking them to intervene at any given opportunity. These issues were raised with GayMiddleEast.com by several people, but they refused to engage.

When I visited the region in June 2011, several people voiced increasing fear of “Gay Middle East.” Some were afraid of being blackmailed: Littauer had extracted information about their groups or movements, including names of activists working undercover. They were uncertain how he would use the information, or where it might go.  As these issues were raised with GME, its answer was to turn to Tatchell; the response Tatchell wrote for Littauer’s website contains his signature move of interpreting any criticism as a “smear.” As the activists’ statement says,

GayMiddleEast.com’s disingenuous response to what it sees as a “smear campaign” against it …. obfuscates the legitimate reasons many queer Arab activists take issue with its work.

“We invite Gay Middle East to respond,” the activists wrote. An answer never came. Neither Tatchell nor “Gay Middle East” have ever understood that there are criticisms that demand response and dialogue, not just “smears” that deserve dismissal and rejection.   That inability to answer, to be accountable, to speak to rather than for, leaves them in the end without any credible claim to being activists: just self-promoters, gardeners of their reputations, driven by the passion for publicity.

So six months later, the question still stands: Has “Gay Middle East” got anything to say for itself?

Littauer, at least, has been busily tweeting about those who “smeared” him. His tweets reveal a bit more about GME’s vision. He recently wrote that my old colleague Rasha Moumneh, of Human Rights Watch, is “well known for her loony left militancy – she has a good mentor one shamed ex-HRW…”

The last bit of gibberish I think may refer to me; and, as a Virginia boy, I didn’t know that the German-British-Israeli Littauer, so presumptuously protean, also spoke Southern. But to adopt his demotic Alabaman, I’d just note that I’m ‘shamed, deeply ‘shamed, to be thought Moumneh’s mentor. I’m still young enough to be learning from other people, not mentoring them.

The more interesting point, though, is what Littauer thinks is “loony left militancy.”  He’s referring to a quote Moumneh gave to an article in IPS News. It reads, in its entirety:

“Repression of Arab LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) individuals under previous regimes no doubt existed. Having a non-Islamist government is no guarantee against the persecution of individuals for sexual and gender non-conformity,” Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Rasha Moumneh tells IPS. “However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist ‘takeover’ completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists.”

Now, both these points are true. The crackdown on homosexual conduct in Egypt from 2001-2004 — when hundreds, probably thousands, were arrested, almost certainly the worst such campaign in the region in modern times — took place under a secular government, enforcing a secular law that was a product of a secular-nationalist revolution. You don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists to start a moral panic and target despised groups. All you need is a vulnerable government looking for a distraction.

SCAF, with bloody hands

On the second point: the new Tunisian government is democratically elected (which should make it less vulnerable, rather than more).  If Tunisia is to become a normal democracy, its citizens and its self-appointed friends have to stop being paranoid about the passage of power. The election of a party may anger or disappoint its opponents, but it shouldn’t create fear for the system itself, any more than a Tory victory in Littauer’s adopted homeland entitles Labour to claim democratic process is collapsing.  When Littauer indicates that, he’s expressing his contempt for the revolution, and his fear of democracy. Meanwhile, in Egypt, it’s the armed forces and not the Islamists who are busily violating the population’s human rights, subjecting 12,000 people to miltary trial, and shooting unarmed civilians on the streets. To pretend that they are not the most urgent threat to freedom (as well as life) is wilfully to disregard the reality.

So what defines the “loony left,” for “Gay Middle East”? They tell the truth, and they respect democracy and democratic process.

And what defines the “reasonable right,” for “Gay Middle East”? I shudder to imagine.

That seems to say it all.