Recall the media coverage at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal, times it by about a thousand, and you get an idea of the hysteria currently surrounding gay men in Egypt. That’s not an arbitrary analogy. The social ramifications of coming out as a ‘gay man’ in most parts of the Middle East are the same as for some chap on a council estate in Barnsley declaring in a packed pub at closing time that he has a 12-year-old girlfriend. Two detained gay rights campaigners who waved the rainbow flag at a recent Cairo pop concert, and thus provoked the clampdown, are presently learning that the hard way.
Their unprecedented public LGBT activism took place during a performance by a rock group called Mashrou’ Leila, whose Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno is one of those baffling individuals who feels compelled to tell the whole world that he is gay every time he opens his mouth. Amid 24-hour news coverage, the security forces — by using internet dating sites, scouring social media and talking to local snitches — arrested 60 allegedly gay men. Obviously, that’s 60 too many. We should recall, though, that Egypt is a country of 95 million people, and those arrested mostly deny being gay. So either the police were not making much of an effort to round up the queers, or — more likely — there are in fact almost none in Egypt.
Of course, that’s not the same as saying that there are no Egyptian men who engage in gay sex. As someone who lived in the country for more a decade, is fluent in Egyptian Arabic and has written a book on the country that includes a chapter on male prostitution, I can testify quite emphatically that the exact opposite is true. And therein lies the rub, as it were.
Western correspondents filing dispatches about gay persecution in Egypt and the wider region are ignoring the more nuanced reality. Just as predictably, bigots determined to show how Islam restricts sexual freedom are also having a ball. But the latter especially are wide of the mark. The Koran singles out sex between men as a transgression, but uniquely in the Islamic holy book, proscribes no punishment. And there must be four independent witnesses to the act of anal intercourse (all other forms of gay sex seem to have escaped Allah’s attention). So it’s just a warning not to have sex in the middle of the street. Even then, for those caught, social rehabilitation is encouraged. Elsewhere, the Koran describes ‘cup bearers’ awaiting the faithful in heaven: beautiful, beardless, servile youths who never age or defecate. The implication is that they will be forever young, handsome, ready and willing. It’s almost enough to make a stubborn atheist contemplate deathbed conversion, just on the off-chance.
Hence the lack of witch-hunts throughout Islamic history. And from the 9th until the early 20th century, the love object in Arabic poetry was nearly always a beautiful boy. With the exception of Isis’s crumbling caliphate, the carefree attitude largely continues today, and is only threatened by the encroachment of western gay identity politics.
To illustrate how, I can give two of the countless examples I witnessed. A Saudi friend studying at university blurted out over coffee that he had fallen madly in love with an Afghan boy working in a carpet shop, and asked for advice on how to pull him. ‘Buy a carpet and ask that he delivers it,’ I suggested. ‘I’ve already bought three but it’s always his ugly brother who knocks on the door!’ he replied, in pangs of despair. ‘I’ve spent a fortune.’ It sounded like something out of One Thousand and One Nights.
In Tunisia, two friends came round for dinner. A Justin Bieber special started on the cable TV channel, and I reached for the remote to turn it off. ‘What are you doing?’ one of them screamed. ‘Leave it on — that boy is so do-able.’
As with the Saudi, the Tunisians had not given any indication that they were ‘gay’. In fact, they spent the rest of the evening using my computer to chat with a French women one had hooked up with a few months earlier when she was holidaying there. Like most of the young, unmarried Arab men I befriended over the decades, they knew a gorgeous boy when they saw one, but would have considered it absurd to attach to such desire an all-consuming social identity symbolised by the rainbow flag.
Last week, an Egyptian parliamentarian, Mustafa Bakri, inadvertently hinted at why this flag triggers such panic. He called for those arrested to swiftly be put on trial ‘to put an end to the defaming of Egypt’s image and its youth’, because they aimed ‘to use this event to claim Egypt is a country of homosexuality, and this is not true.’ To which the entire Egyptian male population must have mumbled: ‘Er, yes it is!’ But by arresting a few dozen ‘gay men’ and associating their crimes with alien western identity politics, everyone else was able to distance themselves from a phenomenon that few are not, to some extent, implicated in — particularly the young — while at the same time sensibly believing that it should remain private.
Still, not to worry. The commotion will blow over and Egyptian boys, like Arab boys everywhere, will get back to banging each other like rabbits as they have been doing for millennia. It would take more than the rantings of an MP to eradicate such a deeply entrenched tradition. The golden rule, though, will remain: discretion is the name of the game. And that’s the lesson the rainbow flag activists should now take on board.
The Lebanese singer’s tedious declarations of his gayhood in interviews had, after all, been politely ignored, and he had been allowed into Egypt to perform with his band on the perfectly rational premise that what a person does in bed has no relationship at all with what they do on the stage (or anything else). After he left, but before the scandal broke, he had told his fans that it had been the band’s best concert ever. So it’s obvious that if two of them had not waved the rainbow flag, nobody would have been arrested.
Sure, it’s a compromise, but to my mind not much of one. Who needs the gay ghetto and the equally ghastly dating apps, still less the infantile nonsense that passes for gay cultural expression, when the souks and coffee shops are teeming with charming boys perfectly happy to jump into bed as long as they trust that the next day you will not tell all and sundry what you got up to?
John R. Bradley’s books include Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East.