She doesn’t look like a classic madam. About 50 years old, Hagga lives in a simple flat in the chic Cairene quarter of Muhandisin. Her black abaya (cape and headscarf) evince a more traditional outlook. Even her language is full of religious references. “Tomorrow you can have two girls, God willing. For the furnished flat you have to pay extra. May God make it easy for us.”
Summer is the peak season for the business of furnished fiats, complete with a “housemaid” who can come at any time of the day or night and in any shape, color or size. That is when the khaligiyyin — the Gulf Arabs — invade the city looking for cool air and a hot time.
Nearly a million Arab tourists — mostly Saudi nationals — visited Cairo last year. They constitute more than a third of all tourists to Egypt, and their numbers are growing every year. Nearly 100,000 Kuwaitis were also part of last year’s summer party. One of Cairo’s poshest boulevards — Arab League Street — is commonly called Salmiyya Street, after the famous shopping street in Kuwait City. Just a stone’s throw from the shopping crowds, the expensive first rows of Egypt’s National Circus overflow with extended families from the Gulf. In the city’s amusement parks, giggling veiled Gulf girls ram their bumper cars into those of their male counterparts. Young Gulf men and women who are into Arabic disco music pay $100 or more per person for a table right in front of the stage where Egypt’s pop idols perform. In the nightclubs on Pyramids Road, some Gulf men kill time by throwing money at Egyptian belly dancers, who these days represent the fierce new blonde competition from Russia.
For some, this sort of entertainment is not enough. Every year Gulf men revitalize the prostitution business in town. Though officially illegal, Egyptian authorities habitually close their eyes to it “because of possible diplomatic embroilments,” as one Egyptian political scientist puts it, not to mention “the lucrative prospects for hard currency.” These profits do not find their way into any official economic statistics. A representative of Egypt’s vice squad, located in the upper stories of the Mugamma‘, Cairo’s Soviet-style administration building, declines even a request for an off-the-record conversation about Egypt’s sex tourism “industry.”
Neither is sex tourism a topic for Egypt’s countless research centers and universities. “We have other priorities,” explains a researcher with the Cairo-based Institute for Sociological and Criminological Studies. Yet it is difficult to close one’s eyes to this phenomenon. Even Egyptian men with mustaches (thus resembling Gulf Arabs) are openly solicited by pimps on Qasr al-Nil Street in downtown Cairo. In some fancy Nile-view restaurants, the clientele switches after midnight, from dining families to clusters of Gulf men and provocatively dressed single women who gather around the bar. Men straight from Riyadh, Jidda or Kuwait City in their white dishdasha robes are sometimes solicited directly at the airport with offers of “special furnished flats.”
There is an entire network involved in the business, which turns this forbidden enterprise into somewhat of a public event. On one street in Zamalek, the doorman, Abu Muhammad (all names have been changed) immediately understands the request: “A flat for one day to relax, especially at night.” The flat-broker quickly calls the apartment owner: The rent is negotiated by phone, with an appropriate commission for the broker, and hush money for the doorman, who takes care of all the logistics.
In a dark two-bedroom apartment, the housemaid Fatima prepares ice for the whiskey. She is responsible for the guest’s comfort till the arrival of the “real girl.” What might this include? “For a few pounds,” says the 40-year old woman as she turns on the air conditioner, “I am prepared.” Fatima looks like a typical woman from a poor quarter, trying to survive by cooking and cleaning houses in wealthier neighborhoods. She has worked here since her husband died two years ago. She talks proudly about her four children, whom she can afford to send to school. Sometimes the flat is rented to vacationing families, sometimes to single men, most of them from the Gulf. She prefers the former — “but what can you do,” she adds. “It’s business.”
She untangles how this enterprise operates. News of flats rented by the day or week spreads among the pimps, and the prostitutes stream in — “like ants,” says Fatima. Single prostitutes go from one flat to the next during the day. Sometimes, she explains, the first request comes in at 5 am. Then the prostitutes make the rounds till late afternoon, only to be replaced by a tougher night shift.
The social background of the women varies significantly according to studies and statistics about women arrested for sex crimes. Aisha, 20 years old, comes from the lower-class quarter of Imbaba, recently the stronghold of militant Islamists. With her new hairdo, a thick layer of makeup and a cloud of perfume, she does not look like a Gama‘a Islamiyya bride. Unlike Fatima, who cannot read or write, Aisha has a high-school diploma. One of her school friends introduced her to the business a few months ago. She is looking for other work with her diploma, but she now earns in a few days what a public-sector accountant makes in a month.
Doctors speak privately about an increase in the number of AIDS cases due to “unclean blood transfusion” (mainly from outside the country), drug abuse and, last but not least, prostitution. Asked if most Gulf men use condoms, Aisha burst out laughing. She herself gives no thought to possible risk. Egyptian officials have had a hard time facing up to the problem. Sawsan al-Sheikh, the spokeswoman of the Egyptian AIDS Society, claimed until last year that “illegal sexual encounters” are not common, thanks to Islamic teachings. She completely denies the existence of homosexuality. To give prostitution an Islamic cover, some women enter into secret marriage contracts with their summer visitors. Known in Egypt as zawag ‘urfi, this contract is made without witnesses and typically ends in divorce by summer’s end. Most of Egypt’s Islamic scholars condemn this use of zawag ‘urfi.
In addition to their summer trysts, some Gulf men also come to Egypt to look for wives, especially in villages around the Delta town of Mansoura, where, according to local folklore, Napoleon’s soldiers began mixing with the local population on their short Egyptian expedition nearly two centuries ago. Today one can spot their putative descendants — “dream women” with fair complexions and fine hair. This reputation has attracted enough attention on the other side of the Red Sea that in formal marriage agencies servicing Gulf men have begun to appear. Some older women make their living as marriage brokers. Upon request, agents present photos of women from the villages. The chosen woman is then invited for an “interview under four eyes.” Once the deal is done, the bride and her new husband quickly make their way back to the Gulf, often the next day.
In the province of Giza, adjacent to Cairo, other villages are also known for marrying their daughters to Gulf Arabs. The village of Hawamdiyya has a reputation for particularly cheeky young women: “Oh, you daughters of Hawamdiyya, of the colorful scarfs and gallabiyyas,” a popular proverb goes, “your kohl-black eyes enchant the studs. When they see you sway and strut, they lay down at your feet.”
Proverbs like this make their way to the Arabian Peninsula. Marrying a daughter to someone from the Gulf looks like good business for impoverished farmers living around Mansoura or Hawamdiyya. Tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds can change hands as a dowry. The marriage broker, too, gets 10 percent for her efforts. A new cement house, a new fridge, a video machine, perhaps a job for the bride’s brother in the Gulf — these are common expressions of appreciation by the new son-in-law and his family. Some of these villages have developed into two-tier societies: The “haves” who married their daughters to Gulf men, and the “have-nots” who were not able or refused to play the game.
Despite sex and marriage tourism, Egypt has hardly become the Thailand of the Middle East. But popular Egyptian sentiment against Gulf Arabs is growing. The treatment of Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia — an Egyptian doctor recently received 80 lashes for his complaint that his son was raped by a Saudi school headmaster — aggravates attitudes toward Gulf men looking for sexual entertainment on the banks of the Nile. In some of the fancy boutiques in Cairo’s World Trade Center, a favorite shopping place of Gulf Arabs, signs have begun to appear in the shop windows: “We don’t cooperate with Saudis.”