In Egypt, public male-on-male affection isn't queer, it's commonplace
My arrival in Cairo could not have been more romantic. The flight from London landed just before midnight. A swollen yellow moon hung in the middle of the clear black sky, and the wind from the desert, flowing with the soothing force and heat of a hair dryer set on low speed, caressed my airplane-grimed face like a fresh dry towel.
But after that blissful first brush with all things exotic, T.E. Lawrencian, and mysterious, all cliched bets were off. Way off. The driver sent by the hotel was a towering beer keg of a man -- a former army colonel, he soon informed me, who had retired to take up husbandry. Namely, his own. 'I have five boys and some girls too,' he bellowed as I loaded my luggage onto his Jeep. 'How many boys do you have?' None, I stupidly replied. 'Have a cigarette,' he groaned, as if to say, you might as well die young. I don't smoke, I signaled. He put the cigarette in my mouth. I shook my head and mumbled no thanks, but he lit it anyway. I fake inhaled and exhaled better than Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy. Remember, I was in a foreign country, in an empty parking lot in the middle of the night, with a man built like Tony Soprano. I would have smoked a dried alligator tail.
I arrived at the hotel with a breast pocket full of cigarettes and a shoulder sore from happy slaps. If I understood the driver's broken English correctly, I had also committed to getting right with Allah and making at least three sons with the next fecund woman who crossed my path. And so the lying began.
Like many gay men, I have a theatrical relationship with masculinity. I don't mean theatrical as in flamboyant, but artificial, playful, performative. Masculinity, or to be more precise, the traditional trappings of masculinity -- stalwart and stoic talk, an attraction to the rough and outdoorsy, a blunt demeanor -- are, to me and my kind, merely a handful of behavior patterns to be pulled out of the dress-up box, another form of drag. Many gay men do not naturalize guy behavior; we synthesize it. To us, it's a shtick, something we do for fun or, in less liberal spaces, survival. I'll never 'pass' as a butch straight man, but I can talk to repairmen and hardware-store clerks. It's simple: Say as little as possible.
But in Egypt, all the butch codes are turned upside down. Men walk hand in hand in the street. Men lounge in each other's arms in cafes and fall asleep in kittenish knots on buses. Grown men smack each other playfully the way Western teenage boys pat their girlfriends' bottoms. One sultry afternoon, I ate lunch at a businessmen's restaurant and watched amazed as the suited men tickled each other's palms to emphasize conversation. Of course, few of these touchy feelers were actually gay, or not gay in a way I understand.
Men and women in Egypt live separate social lives. An apparent consequence of this segregation is that men here are as physically comfortable with each other as straight Western women are among themselves. Male-to-male affection is so natural and so widely enjoyed that it creates a kind of innocence barrier. Homosexuality (which is sometimes prosecuted under creative interpretations of Egyptian laws) is never suspected.
The streets of Cairo replicate this gender division. Main boulevards are packed with brightly lit shops and are almost exclusively the domain of women. Ladies rich and poor roam the shoe shops, sock vendors (Cairenes are obsessed with hosiery), and music stalls in boisterous gangs, pestering the clerks for fun. The side streets and alleys that crisscross the shopping drags are, conversely, dark, narrow spaces full of quiet ahwas (cafes). Men cluster here by the hundreds. Sitting on rickety cane chairs, their elbows perched on precarious tin tables, they drink cup after cup of defibrillator-strength tea and share cigarettes. The closest Canadian equivalent would be a musty legion hall, except nobody is drunk and everybody is glad to see you.
My instinct was to skip the manly alleys. But after a tentative toes-in proved successful, I realized that my evident maleness was more than enough. For the first time in my life, I was read as male without qualifiers. Pensive conversations, more fake smoking, tea slurping, and multiple back punches quickly followed. I was one of the guys!
It didn't last. As my mother has reminded me since the third grade, I'd soil the clouds in heaven.
At Kawkab al-Sharq, a cafe dedicated to legendary singer Umm Kulthum -- the Barbra Streisand of Egypt -- I ordered an elaborate dessert made of fresh fruit and chilled cream. As soon as it arrived, I was surrounded by giggles. The parfait was apparently a lady's dish, something grandmothers ate. You'd think a cafe dedicated to a pop diva would be a safe place to let the fag out, but no.
Deep inside the Egyptian Museum, in front of a towering statue of Ramses IV (whose subjects knew a thing or two about man-man love), a hunky young security guard asked if I was alone. 'No wife?' he smiled. No, no wife. 'Oh, yes, no wife -- want to come with me?' He indicated a half-lit hallway crowded with warped sarcophagi -- a good place to snog, if you don't mind the mummies. Luckily, I'd been warned by gay travel websites that the museum's guards are notorious hustlers. But how did he know I was a mark? What the hell is a gay signifier in a city where men do everything but make out on the sidewalk?
I spent my last day in Cairo at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, a sparkling monument perched on a craggy red mountain. The view from the marbled terraces is literally breathtaking, thanks to the ring of greasy brown smog that surrounds the city. As I stepped out of the blue-tiled holy place, dizzy from carbon monoxide and beauty, midafternoon prayers were called from loudspeakers. The holy Quran sang out from the thousands of big and small mosques below. To someone who lives in fragmented, multiculti Toronto, such demonstrations of unity, of shared faith, are mesmerizing. I sat on a low bench and let the sounds course through me, vibrate in my bones.
Full of brotherly love, I wandered down the mountain and hailed a cab. The driver was a chatty sort. 'So, Canada?'
He looked away, stared at the road -- odd behavior for a Cairo cabbie. I was sitting in the front seat close beside him (back seats are for women only). He looked at me sheepishly and turned off his radio. 'Canada, yes?'
'So, yes. In Canada, yes -- man can marry man?' I knew the same-sex marriage debate was big news, but not this big.
'Yes. Men can marry men.'
Another long pause, more furtive road-watching.
'Yes, I see. So, they have one wife, together? Is good, one wife. Saves money.'
I could only agree.
R.M. Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist. Reprinted from the Walrus (Oct. 2006). Subscriptions: Canadian $39.75/yr. (10 issues) from Box 915, Station Main, Markham, ON L3P 9Z9, Canada.