A gay Egyptian leaves his homeland: Manu's story
The New Yorker 29/03/2019
Some bits of the story written by Peter Hessler for The New Yorker about his Egyptian friend, Manu. Click on the link to read the full story.
Manu fled Egypt a little bit at a time. […]
He was thirty years old, a handsome man with a shaved head and hooded eyes. I didn’t know that he was gay until he told me, not long after we met. He remarked that from an early age he had learned to be careful about his appearance and his mannerisms.
His plans for departure were also meticulous. He researched countries that grant asylum to gay people, and Germany seemed the most promising. But it was hard to get a German tourist visa, because of the ongoing refugee crisis. So Manu intended to establish himself as a regular traveller, hoping to reassure the German authorities that he wasn’t a risk to overstay his visa. […]
A couple of months earlier, Manu had travelled to Istanbul. Cape Town was next. […]
When I first met Manu, he rented a run-down apartment with some foreigners in the district of Dokki. It’s unusual for an unmarried Egyptian to live apart from family, and Manu’s five older siblings periodically tried to set him up with a wife, but he found it easy to make excuses. On weekends, he drank heavily in the furtive bars that are scattered around downtown Cairo. He often went to gay pickup spots, like the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which crosses the Nile to Tahrir. Many of his friends came from predictable groups: liberals, activists, foreigners, other gay men.
But he also associated with people who surprised me. A couple of times, I stopped by his apartment and found him hanging out with a group of police-academy students whom he had met in his neighborhood. They were typical macho, conservative cops, but they enjoyed Manu’s company. There was also a young Muslim Brother, a man I’ll call Tariq, who came to parties hosted by Manu and his roommates. Everything at these gatherings—the drinking, the presence of homosexuals, the casual mixing of unmarried men and women—should have been anathema to an Islamist. But Tariq was always there, enjoying himself.
Something about Manu’s separation from normal society seemed appealing to his peers. Egypt is hard on young people, in part because there are so many of them—more than sixty per cent of the population is under the age of thirty. Jobs have always been in short supply, and there’s intense family pressure to marry early. With genders segregated in most communities, sexual repression is a constant weight on people’s psyches. Young men in particular often convey an unsettled, slightly volatile air.
Manu, though, had come to terms with some of these pressures earlier in life. He grew up in Port Said, a provincial city at the northern end of the Suez Canal. His father ran a successful coffee shop, but he treated his staff harshly, and at night he tried to relax by smoking hashish. He often beat Manu. The boy had a gift for languages, and he begged to be enrolled in a private English school, but his father refused. So Manu eventually learned English on his own, along with Italian.
In Egypt, most public middle and high schools are separated by gender. As Manu and his male classmates entered their teen-age years, their socializing and roughhousing often had a sexual element. Sometimes a boy would act like a girl, in a joking way, and the others would touch and grab him. It wasn’t unusual for boys to proceed to more intimate activities in private. Manu became interested in a good-looking classmate, and soon they were having sex. After a couple of years, the relationship ended, and Manu paired off with another boy.
He had no words for what he was doing. In Port Said during the nineteen-nineties, there wasn’t a proper Arabic term for a gay person, other than the slur khawwal—“faggot.” Shez ginseyan, the more formal term for homosexuality, literally means “sexually abnormal.” As far as Manu was concerned, “abnormal” hardly described an activity that, in his estimation, was enjoyed by most of his classmates.
With Manu’s second partner, sex was intense but silent, and they never discussed it directly. Their private code word was “football.” Let’s play football, one would say, if he was in the mood. The other boy seemed tortured by his desire, and periodically he cut off the relationship. But invariably, over a period of four years, he returned to the code: Let’s play football.
Years later, Manu moved to Cairo in hopes of a more open life, and like most homosexuals in the capital he incorporated the English words “gay” and “straight” into his Arabic. But he distrusted these labels. His experience in Port Said had convinced him that sexuality is more fluid, an idea that has a long history in Egypt. Even that modern slur, khawwal, derives from an old term for cross-dressing male dancers. More than a century ago, these figures were popular entertainers at weddings and other events, where they were often seen as sexually available to men. This tradition is long gone, but Manu recognized certain echoes. He believed that if men are surrounded by men, and if there’s a tacit acceptance of contact, then these men are likely to have sex. Later, because society demands traditional marriage, most of these same men will settle into heterosexual lives.
On visits back to Port Said, Manu sometimes ran into his old high-school partners. Neither of them said a word about what they had shared, although Manu found it easy to talk with the first friend. Now he was married, with small children, and Manu believed that he saw their past relationship as a harmless youthful fling.
The second partner, though, never married or had a girlfriend. To Manu’s knowledge, he no longer engaged in sex with men, and he had migrated to work in one of the Gulf states, which are even more conservative than Egypt. A couple of times, Manu ran into him in Port Said, and the interactions were awkward. Afterward, Manu felt depressed. He sensed that his friend’s desires, which had once been silent but powerful, were now also numbed: no words, no feelings.
Late one evening in early 2012, Manu was heading back to his apartment when a young man on the street approached him. He introduced himself as Kareem, and said that he was an Army conscript who couldn’t return to his base, because of an argument with his commanding officer. He offered Manu a Marlboro from a newly opened pack.
The brand should have been a tipoff—it was too expensive for a conscript. But Manu was near home, and he wasn’t alert to the possibility of trouble. When Kareem complained about the cold, Manu invited him in for a cup of tea.
Inside the apartment, Kareem’s demeanor changed. He said that he knew Manu was a khawwal, and he threatened to expose him. Manu asked one of his roommates, a large Austrian, for help, and he forcibly removed Kareem from the apartment. Manu suspected it was a setup, and he ran outside, hoping to flee the area. But the police were already there, along with Kareem—he was an undercover officer.
The cops marched Manu back to his apartment. They confiscated the notebooks from his work with foreign journalists, and then they transported him to a holding cell in the nearest police station. There, two officers prepared a crime report, reading Kareem’s account of the supposed events aloud to Manu:
He asked me to sleep with him. I told him, “No, I cannot do this.” But he had two friends and they grabbed me.
The report claimed that the foreign roommates had participated in an attempted rape, but one officer worried that embassies might get involved, so he edited out the foreigners. Other details were fabricated on the spot. After the report was finished, the commanding officer said, “Take him to the hospital and do an anal exam.”
There was no law against homosexuality, for instance, but gay men were often prosecuted under a charge of “debauchery.” When cops busted pickup spots, they routinely forced suspects to submit to anal examinations. After Manu’s arrest, he was handcuffed to a sergeant and taken down the street to a hospital. The staff said that they weren’t equipped to conduct the exam; at a second clinic, the doctor refused. The cops were en route to a third hospital when they were called to an appointment at the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor interrogated Manu as to why he hadn’t been trying to pick up girls on the street. “Why would you approach guys?” he said. “You fucking khawwal! ” He kept hissing the word—khawwal, khawwal, khawwal—and he informed Manu that he stood accused of attempted rape. But the proceedings couldn’t be completed without a witness statement, and Kareem was nowhere to be found.
While they waited, Manu was kept in a holding area, and a junior officer appeared with Manu’s phone. “Your father called,” he said, laughing. “I told him that we found you with a man. Sleeping with a man!”
But then the officer handed Manu the phone. “Find someone to help you,” he said. Manu called Tariq, his Muslim Brother friend, who immediately came to the station with a lawyer. Finally, after Manu had been held for nearly twenty-four hours, the cops released him on bail. They had never organized the anal exam, and Kareem still hadn’t shown up.
Outside the station, Tariq and a few friends were waiting, along with a distant relative who lived in Cairo and had been alerted by Manu’s father. When Manu saw his relative, he realized that the junior officer had told the truth about outing him on the phone, and he knew that he could never show his face in Port Said again.
During the next few weeks, the lawyer asked Manu for the equivalent of three thousand dollars, in order to bribe officials. After that, he said that the case was no longer being actively pursued, but it hadn’t been dropped. For safety, Manu moved out of the Dokki neighborhood.
He never learned what had prompted the bust. Perhaps a neighbor had suspected that Manu was gay, or maybe the cops wanted to force Manu to inform on the journalists he worked with. But why didn’t the cops follow up? And, after Kareem went to all the trouble to entrap Manu, why didn’t he appear at the prosecutor’s office? Why did the junior officer expose Manu to his father and then allow the phone call? Such questions were unanswerable in a country without any clear system, and where the police had always been defined by incompetence as much as by brutality.
After Manu was arrested, his father called the next day and asked him to come to Port Said. Manu declined, because he knew that the police must have described his sexuality in the crudest of terms. When he was a boy, his mother had tried to protect him from his father’s rages, but she had been dead for years. The relationship with his father had never improved.
Now, though, his father kept calling. “I haven’t told anything to anybody,” he said. At last, Manu agreed. His father greeted him warmly, although he never mentioned the arrest.
His health was declining, and he had lost his business in what he believed to have been a corrupt judgment on a lawsuit. He could have taken out his frustration on Manu, but instead there was a new tenderness in the way that he treated his son. Unlike other family members, he stopped speaking about marriage prospects for Manu.
The father died a few months later. His final surprise was his will—he had changed it to leave his apartment to Manu alone. An Egyptian father would do this for a son who had yet to marry, but that clearly wasn’t his motivation.
Manu had learned that it was impossible to predict how people would respond once they learned the truth about his sexuality. Over time, he became determined to live more openly in Cairo, despite the risks. Once, he talked his way out of a police bust at a popular gay hangout, and he had to move out of another apartment after a neighborhood thug threatened to knife him for being a khawwal. Manu asked one of his police-academy friends for protection during the move, and he told him the reason. It didn’t seem to bother the young cop, and afterward they remained friends.
Egyptians who didn’t consider themselves to be straight often had difficulty characterizing social attitudes toward homosexuality. One Egyptian in his thirties told me that he had been initiated into sex with men as a teen-ager by a cousin, who had given him a reading list of classical Arabic literature that described male couples. “The question started in my head: Is it wrong or not?” he told me. Like his cousin, he eventually married and had a child, but sometimes he still felt attracted to men. He didn’t describe himself as gay or bisexual; he preferred the English term “queer.” He thought that his behavior should have been seen as normal. “In Egypt, the connection between men is much stronger than the connection between men and women,” he said.
At pickup spots like the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, Manu often met men who identified as straight. In a culture where it was difficult to be alone with a woman, they seemed to view the bridge as the best alternative, and their ideas about what constituted a khawwal could be idiosyncratic. A man might insist on always being in a dominant sexual position, because in his mind this didn’t qualify as gay.
The only consistency was silence. No matter what people did, they avoided talking about it. Occasionally, Manu’s partners seemed overwhelmed by guilt, and they lashed out at him verbally or physically. Sometimes they even robbed him; over the years, he had three computers and four cell phones stolen. Manu saw this as an inevitable risk of meeting people in a culture that was simultaneously homophobic and full of male contact. “They love me, they care about me,” he explained. “But they also have this thing inside that makes them hate me.”
[…] After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the Presidency, in 2015, there were increased arrests at Cairo gay hangouts and parties.
By then, Manu had made his decision. He still had the police report from his arrest, and in Cairo he told his story to a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that he would have additional documentation. Manu sold the Port Said apartment and used the cash to pay for his visa trips abroad. In the end, that was the inheritance from his father: a path out of Egypt.
In December, 2016, Manu made his last trip to the Cairo airport. A passport-control officer inspected his documents. “Hey, Mohamed,” he said. “Why are you going to Germany?”
Manu said that he was giving a lecture, and he handed over an invitation letter. Through some contacts, Manu had arranged to attend a roundtable discussion hosted by a Berlin advocacy group. The German Embassy had approved the visa without any questions.
In German, the letter described Manu’s topic as “L.G.B.T. people since the Egyptian revolution.” From the way the passport officer stared at the letter, Manu was sure he didn’t understand. Finally, the officer asked, “What are you talking about in Germany?”
“Human rights,” Manu said.
The officer waved him through.
In Berlin, Manu attended the discussion, and he visited a lawyer. He went to Schwulenberatung, a non-governmental organization that serves the city’s L.G.B.T. community. After the Arab Spring, Schwulenberatung launched new programs for gay refugees. A caseworker gave Manu a letter that identified him as a member of a vulnerable subgroup of the refugee population. Next, Manu went to a processing center for refugees. The Berlin lawyer had instructed him to say two things.
“I’m applying for asylum,” Manu told an official. “And I’m gay.” It was the first time he had ever described himself in such a way to a government representative.
That year, more than half a million refugees arrived in Germany. The system was overwhelmed, and Manu was shuttled to camps in various places: Münster, Leverkusen, Cologne. But he asserted control whenever possible. At his interview for asylum, the government provided a Tunisian-born Arabic translator, but Manu dismissed the man. He knew that he had the right to choose both the language and the gender of his translator, and he refused to tell his story in his native tongue—he believed that homophobia was too deeply embedded in Arabic. Manu insisted on speaking English through a woman.
At some camps, officials tried to house Manu in large open dormitories. There had been attacks on gay men in such situations, and Manu always produced the letter from the N.G.O. and insisted on more private housing. Eventually, he was assigned to a site outside Cologne, where ninety-six shipping containers had been converted into housing for men. A single block of three containers was dedicated to gay refugees.
[…] During that first winter, he was often depressed. He hated the gay shipping container, as he called it. He shared the space with five Iraqis who had fled war-torn rural areas. They stole Manu’s food from the refrigerator, so he bought only pork products, because the Iraqis wouldn’t touch anything that was haram. They were all applying for asylum as homosexuals, but they believed that being gay was haram, too. Once, when Manu was trying to sleep, he overheard a conversation.
“We have to stop this someday,” one of the Iraqis said. “We can enjoy it now, but someday we have to stop.”
Another man agreed. They talked about how someday, after they had received asylum as homosexuals, they would find brides.
“At least we are Muslims, al-hamdulillah,” one said. “We know right from wrong. We can fix ourselves. But Germans live their lives without knowing right from wrong.”
Eventually, other refugees figured out why the block of shipping containers was isolated. One afternoon, a Lebanese resident threatened to kill Manu, shouting that he was a khawwal. After all the trips, and after all the distance that Manu had travelled, he found it exhausting—that same word, that same fear. But his resourcefulness was also the same, and it worked even better in Germany than it had in Egypt. Manu immediately filed an incident report that went to the police, and he applied for government funding for a private apartment, citing the threat. After two months of intensive German lessons, he understood enough to find an inexpensive apartment in a leafy suburb. The place was small, but the sixteenth-floor view was beautiful. The day Manu moved in was the happiest of that long winter.
Last summer, I visited Manu in Cologne, and I was surprised by how much his appearance had changed. He wore hoop earrings, and he was strikingly fit; he went to the gym compulsively. Even his mannerisms were different: looser, more natural, as if something inside him had relaxed. He told me that a gay friend from Cairo had recently visited and declared, “Manu, you’re more gay!”
In Cologne, Manu avoided other Middle Easterners, and even the support groups for gay Arabs. “When an Arab is around, I don’t feel free,” he said. He believed that this feeling would pass with time. But he said frankly that he sometimes wondered why the Germans had opened their country to so many people like him. He often thought of the Iraqis in the shipping container talking about how someday they would stop being gay. “It was a horrible conversation,” Manu said. “All I can hope is that years in Germany can change this behavior.”
[…] He had recently been accepted for government job training in the bureau that handles work programs, housing, and other refugee issues. Manu wanted to contribute to the system, because he felt grateful to be there.
The majority of his language classmates came from the Middle East. Manu liked the subtle propaganda of the government-produced texts, and he liked seeing his classmates’ reactions. One lesson described a gay couple, and a Turkish student expressed disgust, but other students pushed back. Another time, a bearded Syrian declared that he would never let his wife remove her hijab. An uncovered Iranian woman argued fiercely in broken German. “This is Germany,” she said. “If you don’t like it, then you can leave.”