Cairo's Man Show

In Egypt, public male-on-male affection isn't queer, it's commonplace

| Utne Reader March / April 2007

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.

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