There are currently 22 Arab nations in the Arab League including Somalia, the country of my birth. They have many things in common, including a huge appetite for Egyptian arts culture. Oum Kalthoum left us with eternal melodies in her songs, Naguib Mahfouz etched characters in our minds in his novels, and Youssef Chahine gave us unforgettable queer scenes in his films.
Today, unfortunately, Egypt has been leading the scene in institutional homophobia as well. Gay people are used in political power grabs between the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and whatever dictatorship that rules in that time. Since the past fifteen years Egypt has dominated the Arab news for its treatment of gays. In 2001 we saw the abuse on the men of the queen boat, we have read the entrapments of the gay social networks, and the recent crackdown on cultural institutions like gay-friendly bathhouses.
Of course, Egypt is far more than its repressive governments. It’s still a culture that promotes a lot more than its government would like us to believe. It’s a culture of immense history, known for its hospitality, and has a unique position in the reigion.
Here are five ways the Egyptian culture queerizes the Arab World:
Gay Ancient Couples
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are believed to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. They were royal confidants and had the shared title of “Overseer of the Manicurists” during the Fifth Dynasty under the pharaoh King Niuserre. This was around 2400 BCE. In some depictions, Niankhkhnum appears with Khnumhotep in which Khnumhotep occupies the position usually designated for a spouse. However, the most important depiction comes from the one in which they stand nose to nose and are embracing one another. Basically, Egypt gave us an undeniable case of true love between two men in the Ancient World. This means there were also other couples!
Egyptian culture is a very inclusive culture. Unlike others in some Arab cultures, gay life is not absent from Egyptian life. We can find gay characters in music, literature, and cinema. There are many famous personalities who are known to be queer, even if on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. When I was the editor of Huriyah magazine, it was the only country we could really use to host our Arabic edition… because it was easier to mail out gay material there than any other country. It’s also a culture that is very metropolitan, especially in large cities like Cairo and Alexandria, where European lifestyle intermarriages with traditional Arab culture. Combine that with its ancient history, and I’m sure you will understand why its culture remains inclusive.
A Willful Community
The most important aspect of gay life in Egypt is its strong and willful community. Gay Egyptians understand the temporarily harsh situations of their lives, and they refuse to die away. They rest on a long history of inclusiveness and continue to fight in their own way, creating possibilities for the future generations through activism and the arts… while daring to risk their lives in order to fully enjoy their lives on a personal level. For every Egyptian you hear has been arrested, there are 10 elsewhere in the country that are not arrested. They arm themselves with knowledge, both spiritually and scientifically. There are many gay groups on social media, several websites, and podcasts, for example, that keep them in the know about what is going on.
The gay community worldwide has been a strong ally for the gay community in Egypt. Time and again, the international gay community and its allies have shown the importance of a united voice. They protested against the arrests, they wrote about the mistreatments, and they spread the word about how awful the Egyptian government has been. They pressured their governments, and worked with their human rights organizations, to make changes. There are many gay Egyptians who are alive today because of that. This strong ally has also sent an indirect message to other Arab countries; that gay people are not up for grabs.
Egypt has one of the most welcoming tourism for the gay community in the Arab World. As part of its larger tourism industry, thanks to the interest others have in its anicent history, the Egyptian government has long been looking the other way with gay tourists, as they come from countries that won’t accept anything less. This, in exchange, provides with the gay community in Egypt the much needed interaction with more open and self-accepting gays from more open and accepting countries like those in Europe or North America. This interaction has had tremendous influence on gay life elsewhere, as well.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.