Session after session, the men stood packed against the cage bars, their eyes furtive behind masks made from torn handkerchiefs or underwear. That and their white jail uniforms gave them a ghostlike look: disincarnate in the sweaty chaos of the courtroom, incarcerated wraiths.

They had been arrested, dozens of them, in May 2001 in Cairo — some in a raid on the Queen Boat discotheque, some picked up off the streets. They were charged with homosexual conduct (fujur, or “debauchery,” in the terms of Egyptian law), and with forming a blasphemous cult. The press savaged the men for months; newspapers accused them of Satan worship and service to foreign powers. They wore the masks in both self-defense and defiance: to prevent the photographers who mobbed each hearing from spreading their pictures on front pages, and to protest the government’s determination to milk a public relations coup from their humiliation. One later told me that, before every session, prison guards ransacked their cells to confiscate every scrap they could use to cover their faces.

Their masked images made their prosecution probably the most internationally famous confrontation between homosexual conduct and the law since the London trial of Oscar Wilde. Yet it is worth reflecting on how those images were received. For an Egyptian audience, surely they depicted shame: the absence-as-evidence of a practice that, never mind speaking its name, did not dare show its face. Many in the West, by contrast, saw the men’s caged anonymity as the seal of injustice. Did the ghost of old stereotypes also obtrude in their dissemination worldwide? There was something almost prurient in the fascination with men who had voluntarily veiled themselves — as if both their behavior and their brutalization had made them obscurely feminine, assimilated them to an antiquated vision of the East as a territory of mysterious invisibilities, where desire was repressed but omnipresent.

The Queen Boat trial was historic. It made the specter of “homosexuality” visible in Egypt and the region — while driving its actual lineaments and lives into complete concealment. One is tempted to see the trial as one of those seminal culture clashes where “East” and “West” affirm incommensurate, irreconcilable images of each other. In fact, the cliches that were brought into play themselves masked a common understanding.

Egypt’s government praised the prosecution as defending “authentic” culture. Authenticity had no truck with human rights. Again and again, the state-owned press condemned rights activists as libertine agents of decadence. “What human?” one columnist demanded of the “debauchees.” “What rights?” [1]

But many in the United States and Europe subscribed to a different version of this story of cultural authenticity besieged by Western corruption. They took it as given that repression — both political tyranny and the silencing of sexual discourse — is deeply built into Arab societies, or Islam, or the developing world in general. In the process, they unwittingly affirmed that rights are modern and geographically specific, and that the freedom to make sexual choices is not moored to any cultural tradition.

Worldwide, sexuality has become a battleground where “rights talk” comes up against “culture talk.” Those who talk rights often lack the courage, or the sophistication, of the abused people whom they defend. Rights talk is losing, and not only in Cairo.

Authentic Torture

I work for a human rights organization. The arrests in Cairo have taken up much of my life for three years now. Even before the Queen Boat arrests, I knew from an anonymous source in Egypt that men who had placed gay personal ads on the Internet were being entrapped by police sending fake answers. On the night of May 11, 2001, as I worked late in my office in New York, my inbox began filling with e-mails from another anonymous man, whose roommate had been seized in the discotheque raid. His messages spread news of the arrests around the world.

I followed the trial, from a distance and then firsthand. I attended its last session in November, and saw the authorities’ curious desire to advertise injustice: only reporters, domestic and foreign, were admitted to the courtroom, while lawyers and families screamed and beat the door from outside. In early 2003, I spent three months in Egypt, researching and writing a forthcoming report for Human Rights Watch, In a Time of Torture:The Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct.

Human rights work thickens the skin and anneals the senses, but by those three months’ end I was traumatized. I found that hundreds of men have been arrested for homosexual conduct since early 2001. Human Rights Watch now knows the names of 179 whose cases have been sent to prosecutors, but surely that is only a fraction of the total. Police raid homes, tap phones and use innumerable informers to identify men suspected of homosexual acts. Undercover detectives answer Internet personals, arrange to meet lonely men and drag them to jail. Once arrested, men are tortured — beaten with whips or hoses, suspended in excruciating positions, burned with cigarettes, subjected to electrical shocks. In three known cases, after a murder victim was identified as having engaged in homosexual conduct, dozens or hundreds of men who have sex with men were hauled in and tortured — partly to extract a confession, partly as sadistic reprisal. One such victim, who was held for weeks, told me:

There were hundreds of us, 300 or more. I saw unbelievable methods of torture. They brought in this person Shadi. You could hardly tell his features, his eyes were swollen and his face had swelled up like a football from the beatings… We saw another gay man — they brought him in, they had dislocated his shoulder. They had tied his hands behind him and picked him up by them and hung him from the doorframe. Then they tied a butane gas container to his legs to stretch them. And [when they returned him to the cell], you can’t imagine, they handcuffed him to a ring in the floor. And they did not allow him to go to the bathroom at all… They left him that way for four days. I asked him if he would let me help him urinate in a bag. He wanted to refuse for the sake of my dignity but I insisted. No one would believe this even if they saw it. I helped him urinate in a big plastic bag — it was big and it was full of urine, and the urine was red from how long he had held it. [2]

Another victim from a different case showed me the scars of cigarette burns on his limbs.

They wanted me to confess to being gay and to name other gay people. Cigarettes on my arms. Electricity. Telephone wire around my arms and my penis. At the police station, we were tortured every third day, with two days in between. There was fifteen minutes with the electricity. They took telephone wire and wrapped it around my fingers, my toes, my ear, my penis. It was connected to a kind of telephone they cranked up by hand to produce the shocks and it was like death… One guard in prison was the most evil among them… Did he treat us worse than the other prisoners? Oh, yes. There were others who were the scum of the prison, who were beaten and insulted, but he treated us like the servants of the scum of the prison. We were the lowest of the low. Such misery you cannot imagine. He would open our cell at night as we were sleeping, and come in and slap us. I had religious booklets to console me. He told me I was too filthy to deserve them, and took them and tore them up… He made these cigarette burns on my leg. [3]

The Queen Boat case began the crackdown, not with the aim of defending an endangered culture, but with meaner motives. The lead defendant was related to a powerful political clan. People close to him believe that, in the months before his arrest, family members had cast aspersions on the sexuality of a presidential relative. In revenge, State Security built a case attacking him not only as a homosexual but as a blasphemer, part of a “cult” along with manual laborers and shoeshine men, to humiliate him and warn off anyone responsible for such rumors. The kulturkampf started as petty political payback.

But a cultural war it became. The media frenzy sent the message, to the public and the police, that “sexual perversion,” in conspiratorial alliance with foreign forces, was no longer merely a private concern but a national menace. Paranoia about cultural penetration focused on the porosity of an information society; police trawled the Internet to entrap and capture gay men subversively placing personals. The claim that some people were beyond the reach of human rights led to crossing them off the roster of the human. The defense of “culture” turned into a festival of torture and brutality. What happened in Egypt, furthermore, could happen in much of the rest of the world.

Culture as Monolith

The flag of “culture” has been raised in country after country, to justify assaulting political dissent and the integrity of private life. In Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Uganda, political leaders have called homosexual conduct “un-American” and threatened arrest, deportation or death. In international gatherings, the Organization of the Islamic Conference uses “culture” to silence discussion of issues it sees as anathema: reproductive and sexual rights, the protection of women against honor crimes or domestic violence, and any mention of sexual autonomy or sexual orientation. The Egyptian delegation has often led the way at these gatherings. [4]

Since the Queen Boat events, some liberal metropolitan intellectuals have also sought to play off putatively cohesive “tradition” against culture-corroding rights. One well-known polemic, by a writer sympathetic to protecting homosexual conduct per se, locates a “Gay International,” comprised of a few gay-identified organizations with global aspirations and working in tandem with the “Human Rights International,” made up of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and their ilk. Rights claims, this author argues, require people to assume identities to make their victimhood intelligible. Those working in the West at the intersection of “gay rights” and human rights encourage intellectually and sexually colonized subalterns in the Arab world to classify themselves as “homosexual” or “gay.” They practice an “incitement to discourse,” proselytizing for gay identity and gay politics in places where such concepts have no indigenous roots, and promoting a Western binary of homosexual/heterosexual as a universal divide. This particular critique goes on to echo the Egyptian press in reviling the Internationals’ Arab fifth column as “Westernized, Cairo-based upper- and middle-class Egyptian men who identify as gay and consort with European and American tourists.” [5]

For the record, I belong to both Internationals, and I am flattered but bewildered by this vision of their influence and coherence. Identity, consumerist individualism and a mercenary “freedom” are not promoted in Egypt by a few NGOs with minuscule budgets and infinitesimal cultural power. Vast corporate and commercial forces underlie the flow of images and information that is creating hybrid cultures almost everywhere.

This hardly means that advocates for rights should passively accept accounts of human possibility served up by the satellite dish. Yet any narrative of identity and its relationship to rights that relies on a distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic is flawed. What is “authentic”? In every society, sex — accepted or “deviant” — has vast symbolic meaning; it is too tied to cultural as well as biological reproduction ever to go unmediated or unconstructed. There is a problem with the category of “authenticity” itself.

Consider the law that criminalizes men who have sex with men in Egypt. The provision, which the government claims defends deep-rooted Egyptian values, stems from a law against prostitution passed in 1951. The law indeed arose out of anti-colonialist fervor for recovering national integrity. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and secular nationalists wanted to erase the shame of licensed brothels maintained by the British, where Egyptian women serviced the country’s military overlords. Moral frenzy, however, is not friendly to fine discriminations. Not content with criminalizing da’ara, or commercial sex practiced by women, the legislators also threw in the term fujur, vaguely defined as “promiscuity.” Subsequent judicial decisions clarified its meaning. In law, it came to describe non-commercial sexual acts between men. [6]

Yet the rush to pass restrictive sex laws did not grow exclusively from an indigenous outrage. It took its rhetoric from European and American models, particularly the long, sensationalistic and deeply racist campaign against the “white slave trade” — the supposed forced sale of women, especially white women, into prostitution in the non-white world. The increased legal attention to non-conforming sexual behavior, the identification of “deviant” communities and the tabulation of their habits and haunts and physical peculiarities, the creation of vice squads to police personal life and keep its idiosyncrasies from the public view — all of these tools for policing public morality had come to Egypt earlier, from Europe. There, from the early nineteenth century on, various sexual species had been singled out as objects of social control; the prostitute in particular was seen as the point where sexuality entered the public sphere and became an object of policing. [7] Michel Foucault has studied how the medical identity of the homosexual emerged throughout that century. Arguably, the homosexual’s legal identity — his appearance as an object of the law’s concern — grew from the regulation of prostitution and the detection, by analogy, of similarly semi-public sexual communities to suppress.

The point is that the legal regime which enforces stigma, and makes the arrest and torture of so-called “gay” men possible, cannot be treated as the product of an “Egyptian” tradition. In fact, few if any provisions in Egyptian law dealing with sexual crimes are rooted in either shari’a or “custom.” Most are modeled on France’s Napoleonic criminal code. In a similar irony, relevant throughout the region, “honor crimes” — impunity given to murderers of women whose sexual conduct violates a family’s “honor” — are usually seen in the West as a mark of tribal resistance to modernity. But the legal provisions which permit them, in many Muslim and other countries, also come from the Napoleonic code. In France, they remained in effect until 1975. [8]

This is hardly to deny that older, traditional categorizations — or criminalizations — of sexual behavior are remembered in Egypt, and inflect the current crisis. It is rather to observe that no culture is impervious to influence or exchange. To deny that cultures change is to deny that they are made by human beings, who live in time, or that they are made up of human beings, whose essence is in difference. Such an argument is particularly bizarre in the case of post-colonial societies, where hybrid culture has been imposed by force. Yet unfortunately it is also particularly seductive in such societies, precisely because the recovery of an unattainable purity postulated before the caesura of conquest seems to be a remedy for humiliation.

What must be resisted is the political presumption that all interchange is conquest. That belief turns states into cultural as well as political security camps. It also brings modern technologies of power to bear on enforcing “traditional” values in personal life — seen as the unguarded gate through which subversion may enter.

“Alien” Identities

If it is not true that concepts of universal rights can be juxtaposed to a pristine and “authentic” native culture, is it true that rights talk leads to imposing identities on individuals, and to silencing their articulations of their own experience? Many men have sex with other men in Egypt, and most would not identify as “gay” or “homosexual,” these being words from other languages and traditions. Many see their sexual role, penetrator or penetrated partner — active or passive, barghal or kodyana in local slang — as an important axis for understanding their sexual desires. Yet those roles are not absolute. Many men who called themselves kodyana or “bottom” to me were married, for instance, and they took on a different role in a different segment of their lives. One identity in one act or situation may give way to another elsewhere.

Yet the fact is that many men do identify as “gay,” and they are not only rich, Westernized Cairenes. In Tanta, a provincial city, I heard the word (in English) used as a self-description by shop assistants and bakers. Certainly the lack of any non-pejorative term in colloquial Arabic makes the import attractive. Yet it also does indicate the indigenous development of a collective identity based not on sexual role, but on the object of one’s sexual desire. In that social space, terms arise to express a commonality among men who have sex with other men. The development of the slang word khawal is suggestive. It described male transvestite dancers from at least the nineteenth century. Khawalat then had a social niche, and performed as a respectable substitute for dancing women. [9] Now the term is almost uniformly derogatory — so much so that victims of police abuse described it to me as an overwhelming insult. Yet whereas it once was clearly limited to the passive partner in anal sex, it now often encompasses both partners. Much as many of those men use “gayness” to describe a common identity transcending role, khawal increasingly inscribes a suddenly common stigma.

In other words, social understandings of sexuality are not fixed. Constantly mutable, they move in the context of larger cultural changes and interchanges. Those borrowings and revisions negate the notion that any interpretation can be pinned to permanence, accused of being alien or applauded as “authentic.” Moreover, to assume that men in Cairo or Tanta adopt an alien identity passively at the prompting of Western models denies individual inflection or equivocation. A term cannot enter a language with all its previous cultural baggage intact. It takes on new meanings to fit new facts and lives. To hear the term “gay” in Egypt and judge that a rubber-stamp mimesis is at work ignores the creativity which is basic to the work of culture. Human rights protections guard freedoms of expression and thought; they include, rather than preclude, the right of people to define and name themselves. They affirm people’s right to participate in culture, not only in its protection, but in its growth and change.


I came home from Cairo in November 2001, the image of the masked prisoners in the courtroom cage still filling my mind. Turning on the TV a few months later, I saw the grainy footage of grotesquely featureless masked captives from the Afghan war led into their Guantanamo cages, hooded and chained and gagged.

The shock of congruence has never left me. The Egyptian convicts, after all, were tried in a security tribunal which permitted no appeal, as enemies of religion and the state. When Egypt rammed through a renewal of the emergency law creating those courts in 2003, it cited the USA Patriot Act and other anti-terrorist measures as justification.

The paranoia and loathing, the fundamentalist defensiveness, provoked by culture talk are sometimes portrayed as a particular pathology of Islam or of the developing world as a whole. [10] They are not. They grow in intricate ways from an emergent, dangerous security paradigm — the reconstruction of a politics centered on security rather than on welfare.

On the one hand, caught on the confused battlefield of a “war on terror” which knows neither concrete enemy nor end, states invoke “security” to justify any repression or intrusion, to make the arbitrary normal, to render their subjects’ lives infinitely more precarious and less secure. Yet on the other hand, many societies are menaced in this brutal new world. The prospect of literal invasion hardly seems remote, as the US military presence multiplies on every continent, and allies or proxies prosecute subsidiary wars in Chechnya, the Philippines, Colombia. Faceless economic forces and capital flows mock national borders and budgets, producing wealth or poverty almost at random. States experiencing their powerlessness against such enormous threats turn to policing culture, to patrolling personal life, to defending reified versions of the past. Unable to influence geopolitics or control their own economies, they pursue the enemy within, in the secrecy of the individual and the reticences of intimate life.

A few days after September 11, 2001, the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote: ‘In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterion of political legitimation… Because they require constant reference to a state of exception, measures of security work toward a growing depoliticization of society. In the long run, they are irreconcilable with democracy.” [11]

Egypt has taken this path. Its government sees the twenty-first century as the era of perpetual emergency. Men having sex with men were and remain scapegoats sacrificed to the fear of the outside, yet they are not the only victims. The day after the Iraq war broke out in March 2003, State Security men arrested hundreds, possibly thousands, of anti-war activists. Many were tortured. I saw students beaten bloody by armed riot police. The state’s aim was to break the back of the dissenting left.

The claim to sexual autonomy, the prospect of undisturbed intimacy, are early and easy sacrifices before the reach and the surveillance powers of the security state. Public freedoms follow. The talkers of rights talk are still tentative and uncertain, cowed by the claims of a reified “culture,” afraid to offend. In Egypt and elsewhere — in the US and Europe –many hesitate to sully the cause of human rights by addressing sexuality or defending “deviance.” While the talkers temporize, the wiretaps click and the officers strap on their Kevlar. In the end, all I can say is: you’re next.


[1] Wagih Abu Zikra, writing in al-Akhbar, February 17, 2002.
[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Walid (not his real name), Cairo, April 24, 2003.
[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Gamal (not his real name), Damanhour, April 11, 2003.
[4] At the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001, Egypt fought to prevent the organization by which I was then employed, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, from addressing a panel on human rights. Similarly, at the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003, Egypt led opposition to a proposed resolution on sexual orientation and human rights, introduced by Brazil. In an almost comic moment, in 2002 an Egyptian UN representative quizzed a presumably startled Sergio Vieira de Mello, then the High Commissioner for Human Rights, about his position on oral intercourse, stating his government “had particular concerns about same-sex marriages, as well as oral sex and other behavior by consenting persons. He wondered how promoting such behaviors and practices would help stop the spread of HIV.” UN press release, GA/SH/3712, November 4, 2002.
[5] Joseph Massad, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” Public Culture 14/2 (2002).
[6] I am particularly indebted to Hossam Bahgat and Helmi al-Rawi of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights for their groundbreaking and detailed research into the origins of the present law.
[7] France, for example, had decriminalized prostitution (like sodomy) during the revolution. Yet the emergence of public health as a science, and its firm support by the instruments of law, ensured that prostitution remained subject to the state’s stringency. One of the most influential works of the nineteenth century, Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet’s De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (Paris, 1837) studied the lives of female sex workers with a cold eye not to their moral redemption but to their more effective regulation by the vice squad. It served as a model of statistical method, and entwined a trinity of terms– “hygiene,” “morals” and “administration” — which remained inextricable in the approach to sexual offenses into the twentieth century. Parent-Duchatelet’s work contributed to the adoption, in Britain between 1864-1869 and in its colonies later, of “Contagious Diseases Acts,” which legalized sex work but subjected female sex workers to medical inspection. These laws in turn became the pattern for regulation in Egypt under British rule. Out of that regulation in Egypt grew, in the end, the criminalization of male homosexual conduct.
[8] See Lama Abu-Odeh, “Crimes of Honor and the Construction of Gender in Arab Societies,” in Pinar Ilkkaracan, ed. Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies (Istanbul: Women for Women’s Human Rights-New Ways, 2000), pp. 363-380.
[9] Bruce Dunne, “Sexuality and the “Civilizing Process” in Modern Egypt,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University, 1996, p. 116.
[10] See, for example, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “The True Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Policy (March/April 2003).
[11] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 20, 2001.

How to cite this article:

Scott Long "The Trials of Culture," Middle East Report 230 (Spring 2004).

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