A Country in the Closet

(Jason Chiem/Guardian)

Abdul, a University
of California
student studying
abroad at the American University
in Cairo, met Amir at a local club.
The relationship was friendly and nothing more, until Amir called late one
night asking if he could come over. The two have now been dating for three
weeks, and in that short time Abdul has discovered Amir’s curiosity about gay
life outside of Egypt.

Currently, Amir plays bass for a small local band. His shows
often run into the early hours of the morning. Lately, after his shows, he
makes a phone call and visits his new love interest. Amir is not his real name
because as an Egyptian, his lifestyle was, and continues to be, prosecutable.

“He’s really shy and curious,” said Abdul, describing how
Amir looked through his belongings, books and pornography. “I don’t think he’s
looked at porn before,” Abdul said with a smile and a laugh. “He was mesmerized
by the videos.”

Amir also questioned Abdul about his straight roommate.

“He thought it was so strange to have straight friends who
didn’t judge,” Abdul said.

Abdul believes that none of Amir’s family or friends suspect
Amir is gay. The risk of being thrown in jail, and of being ostracized from
everything he knows, is a risk Amir will probably never take.

“I haven’t asked if anyone knows,” Abdul said. “I don’t
think anyone knows. I don’t think anyone will ever know.”

During one of their first dates, while watching a televised
soccer match, they managed to sneak a hug after a goal was scored. Abdul
explained that culturally, since men are so close, it is easy to hide such

“When we walk across the street and he grabs my hand, I
don’t know if it’s a boyfriend thing, or just natural,” he said. People in the
streets wouldn’t judge such an action as inappropriate. Nevertheless, Adbul
said Amir is “very aware of how people notice him.”

On Feb.14, Amnesty International released a statement that
four men were arrested in Cairo for
being suspected of having HIV. This recent arrest, according to the statement,
brings the total of suspected HIV-positive gay men currently in custody to 12.
Of the men previously detained, four have received one-year prison sentences
under a vague and broadly interpreted Egyptian law on morality and sexual

Cairo has a
history of persecuting homosexuality. In a 2004 report, Amnesty International
claimed to have the names of 179 suspected gay men who were arrested, beaten
and tortured under the reach of debauchery laws since 2001. The report
speculated that Amnesty International’s figures paled in comparison to the
actual numbers of harassed individuals; many harassed, suspected gay men are
never brought to trial or even charged.

The most public and internationally recognized crackdown in Cairo
was in 2001, with the arrest and trial of several men, known now as the Cairo
52. The police raided a Nile River
disco, the Queen Boat, and the local papers subsequently listed the names and
personal information of all the men alongside labels such as
“Satan-worshippers” and “sexual perverts.”

Despite the growing fear among Egyptian gays of the
continued threat of violence, Abdul was not worried about coming to study in Egypt.
A gay friend of his had studied in Cairo
before, and assured Abdul that there was a large community there. Abdul
encounters far more unwanted sexual passes than prejudiced harassment.

“I was surprised how many people grab their crotch and smile
at me,” Abdul said. “They have little signals: whistles and kissy lips. One
time I did it back and had to run away.”

It was a come-on he wasn’t in the mood for deflecting, he

In addition to the presence of gay culture on Cairo’s
streets, the online community continues to flourish. Many Web sites, such as
Gayegypt.com, are hosted abroad in places like the UK,
but nevertheless serve a vital role in sustaining the underground network of
gay life in Egypt.

“It’s all online now, and the sites are all in Arabic,” said

Even online, Abdul notices differences from American gay

“[Gay men in Egypt]
always say they’re tops because the punishment for the top is less than the
bottom; they’re less of a man in that sense,” he said.

Abdul said that, because of the aggressive nature of men in Egypt,
most gay men in Cairo find it hard
to accept the idea of a loving, mutual relationship between two male adults.

Still, Abdul wants to try. Since he finds most men here are
interested in only sexual relationships, he is reluctant to enter a sexual
relationship with Amir in the hope that they will form a more tangible
connection. Up to this point, they have been keeping things as casual as they
can under the necessary veil of secrecy.

During a brief phone call with Amir, as he prepared for
work, Abdul whispered softly in Arabic. He missed Amir, he said, and wanted to
see him later. Certain that Amir looks toward a future where he lives a life of
secrecy, married to a woman, raising children and likely expressing his hidden
desires in online chat rooms, Abdul is eager to show him a life where people
can be open, even if it’s only with each other — away from oppression,
stereotypes and judgment for one’s sexuality.

“Sexuality,” said Abdul, “is just who you have sex with. It
doesn’t define who you are.”