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Moi aussi, j’accuse: An open letter to an Egyptian state intellectual A letter addressing Farouk Gouida and Egyptian intelligentsia regarding the LGBTQ+ crackdown

October 6, 2017

Dear poet, journalist, grand intellectual, flag-bearer of all that is “natural,” carrier of the poets’ appeal to heaven* –

May this, sir, find you well.

To begin with, I would like to congratulate you on your amazing achievements. I read with growing interest your two pieces — “A Pervert Ceremony” and “No Freedom for Perverts” — and they provided me with further compelling evidence that it is Egypt, and not the United States, that is indeed the land of opportunity. For, would someone with such mediocre language abilities, such lazy methods of deception and hypocrisy and a sheer reliance on the crude force of ignorance and the authority of a “state intellectual,” be considered a writer anywhere else in the world? I think not. Not even in a wall newspaper.

No, really. I do read the writing of the conservative American right, for instance, in which they argue that American society does not need same-sex marriage because, according to them and based on an increase in divorce rates, it has proven detrimental to the institution of marriage and monogamy in Scandinavian countries. (The phenomenon of increased divorce rates is one we share in Egypt, much to our president’s chagrin and triggering his dissatisfaction with Al-Azhar – may he be reassured by the news from India.) This is a flawed and reactionary argument, but at least it is … well, an argument, in the sense that it can be engaged with and debated on the basis of logic, within an existing democratic tradition and with coherent language (English having to an extent been spared an atmosphere in which words are regularly used to mean one thing, when in fact they mean the opposite, as is commonly the case with contemporary Arabic; meaning that an article can, for instance, simultaneously defend street children and sound like a call for their execution).

The debate on same-sex marriage is too complex to be summarized here, and I have not personally developed a clear position on it yet. It is, after all, a question that belongs to a historical, social and intellectual context that hardly concerns us, not just — as you have kindly opined — because we refuse to mimic, or depend on, the West, but because even if we wanted to, we could only do so within a limited permitted scope. (Please see Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre [The Wretched of the Earth, 1961] on why newly decolonized states should resist at all costs the growth of a national bourgeoisie. Much damage could perhaps have been avoided if our thinkers at the time — your peers and predecessors — had paid more attention to the Arabic translation of Fanon.)

I haven’t read much by you, nor even little to be honest, though I do remember a specific rhyming poem in Friday’s Al-Ahram newspaper about kneeling on a green dollar bill, etc. (with what was most probably an easy rhyme scheme that relies on common conjugations ending in waw and nun), plus a few saccharine love poems, disconnected from the trends of the more developed Egyptian poetry (worse even than those of Ahmed Shawki and his ilk, for whom the comparison itself is really an insult), and of interest, perhaps, to collectors of pseudo-literary curios. (That such pieces find any interest at all is understandable only in the context of late capitalism and the complexity of human nature. Many succeed precisely because they fall below a certain threshold of mediocrity. Which can be amusing. Others succeed because there exist those who genuinely consider such drivel to be high art, which is not amusing at all, but such is the rule of so-called market democracy.) 

Please note that I am not simply engaging in the common practice of disparaging your works — disparageable though they are — simply because I dislike the role you play as an intellectual snitch. I can easily imagine there being real poets and writers, just as lowly and reactionary in their thoughts and choices as you are, but who are still essentially better writers. The great poet Amal Dunqul is not short on nationalistic and misogynistic impulses, nor is Naguib Surur, who also displayed a range of phobias. But their humour, their talent and their depth of perception are miles beyond the reach of your wildest (and very straight!) dreams.  

In case you ever read, I’d urge you to check out Richard Jacquemond’s Entre Scribes et Écrivains: le Champ Littéraire dans l’Egypte Contemporaine (Conscience of the Nation: Writers, State, and Society in Modern Egypt, 2002), as it affords you a generous amount of space as a case study of the perversities of contemporary Egyptian literature. Jacquemond analyses the role of the Egyptian nahda-style “enlightenment intellectual,” who, in the best-case scenario — which again, is far from your reach — demands for himself the authority to determine what is beneficial, moral, artistic, refined etc., without fighting for any real freedom of expression or for experimentation beyond an established standard. I am reminded here of your colleague Salah Montasser, whose journalistic masterpieces on the dangers of smoking we were made to memorize in school. Later, we’d discover his successful role in banning, not smoking, but certain books at the American University in Cairo (following a crusade he led alongside the late Galal Amin, author of an article on “the dangers of the pseudo-educated”). I have no doubt that, in addition to status, you have both accumulated a decent fortune of taxpayers’ money in the long-standing institution where you are entrusted with winning the nation’s hearts and minds against the spectral enemy of bad habits.

Amid a plethora of banality and contradictions, two points have particularly struck me in your articles: First, you deny the persecution of Egyptian gay individuals, as long as they do what they do behind closed doors — and you refer to offended messages that you have received on the email address at the bottom of your column, as a marker of an open mind, presumably (and perhaps of a desire to help in the manner of your other old colleague Abdel Wahhab Mutawea, whose page-length agony column represented a kind of archive of the romantic trials and tribulations of (always straight!) Egyptians). Second, you claim to speak for the hard-working and downtrodden people of the land.  

So, first (happy anniversary!) –  

Denial can have a benign aspect (as I briefly explain in this response to the — also offended — readers of an article I wrote about an obscured crime of Gamal Abdel Nasser that took place shortly after the 1967 defeat. Happy 50th anniversary, by the way). I also cannot overlook some minor progress, a small victory for rights advocates, implied in those angry letters, and your specific problem being with public expressions of identity, not with any sexuality in itself.

But, since you don’t follow the news (and I don’t mean whatever passes as news in Al-Ahram) and would not know much about the current crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community, let me take the liberty to refer you to a 2004 report: “In a Time of Torture: the Assault on Justice in Egypt’s Crackdown on Homosexual Conduct,”* which outlines many of the police practices that have been repeatedly used — the strategy of entrapment, for instance. You should enjoy reading it, even if it is unlikely to cure you of your homophobia and ignorance, for it is a fine piece of documentary journalism, an example as rare as it is painful of how investigative journalism can be done in Egypt, of how the writing can be so technically exquisite that it lends a human face to both oppressed and oppressor, and restores to the story the multiplicity of layers that gets lost in the standardized familiarity and speed of mainstream press. 

There is, for instance, the story of the poor mother — one of the downtrodden people you claim to represent — whose son was thrown to his death out of a high window during “interrogations.” She talks of how the security men spat on her tears of grief. Then there is the dramatically interesting character Raoul — the smart, educated, opera-savvy informer, who finds intellectual satisfaction in assisting the police in trapping their victims. He comes across as a big-screen hero and seems to revel in his ability to immediately recognize his targets. (In the aftermath of the revolution in 2011, I dreamed of the possibility of finally exposing Raoul and discovering the mystery behind the existence of such an intelligent, if dark, life form in the underbelly of the Egyptian security apparatus.)

Reading the report, you would also learn how simply knowing what the English word “gay” means is enough evidence to arrest a passerby and throw them into a police van: the mouth of a hellish abyss where, as part of a myriad of arbitrary punishments, they are likely to be raped by criminal offenders under the supervision and encouragement of the police. 

Two notes on the above:

  1. À propos of spitting, I recently finished Fuad al-Takarly’s unforgettable and shocking Iraqi novella, Basqa fi Wag’h al-Hayah [A Spit in the Face of Life1948], the year of the Nakba. The novella has a somewhat apologetic retrospective introduction, which is rather long in comparison to the main text, but beautiful and historically illuminating. It was only published after its author had accumulated decades of literary prestige that he thought would let him finally get away with it. How, to your mind, could such a novel be defended in light of the concept of “promotion”? How could one prove or deny that it promotes incest, or atheism or nihilism for that matter? Who defines the distance between self-expression and advocacy in a work of art or performance, when even the straightforward content of an ordinary article, like the one about street children referenced above, could be denied by the voices claiming to be “educated” and “non-hysterical”? And, on the other hand, should the state then be blocking Facebook, with its loudly promotional rainbow filters?
  2. You may not be able to access and download the report, because Human Rights Watch has joined the growing list of websites currently blocked in Egypt, which also includes Mada Masr, where these words are published. I shall, therefore, email you a copy of the report and enclose a non-open version of this letter.

Secondly (“it will be a long night it seems”) –

Let’s move on from the story of the downtrodden mother, and even the fact that the crackdown is part of a comprehensive and ongoing government strategy of brewing infights to pit all segments of the population against one another: minorities against minorities, subjects against subjects, dividing people into classes, sectors, and genders, to distract them from fighting back. A prime example of this is the so-called “war on terror,” one of the Western and colonial imports that are permitted in the region, although those Western and Western-nurtured armies that destroy our lives are now often inclusive of openly gay soldiers who, along with their heterosexuals peers, are more militarily advanced than our macho, exclusively heterosexual, “normal” (to use your dated language) male soldiers, who have been perpetually defeated in every war in the past 100 years. (On that note, happy October 6 “victory” anniversary — I suggest you read Latifa al-Zayyat’s memoirs, Arwa Saleh’s Al-Mubtasarun (The Stillborn, 1997)or even some of the diaries left behind by the military men themselves.) Anyway, let’s move on from all that.

In 1898, August Bebel, the leader of the Social Democratic Workers Party in Germany, took the floor in the Reichstag to present a petition circulated by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which demanded the repeal of the infamous Article 175 of the German Penal Code, known as the sodomy statute. Amid growing commotion, he argued for a motion supporting the petition, which had been signed by him “and by a number of colleagues from other parties, and further by people from literary and academic circles, by jurists of the most illustrious standing, by psychologists and pathologists, by experts of the highest rank in this field.”

In addition to the content of the petition itself, and Bebel’s caution against a scandal that would exceed the Dreyfus Affair in its notoriety, what was the main argument that he presented in his speech?

It was the committee’s conclusion that homosexuality is widely spread across all segments and classes of society and includes people from all walks of life, so that if the police were to actually enforce the law, the Prussian state would have to build two new penitentiaries to accommodate the detainees. An essentially economic argument, you see: large funds out of the taxpayers’ pockets, which in our case are largely empty, at the expense of other, more pressing needs; and the threat of policies that would disrupt an immeasurable number of lives and throw everyone into open warfare, with no tangible outcome that would benefit the country, let alone its citizens, whose interests in this case probably lie in there being no Cairo Festival City to begin with; no concerts with unaffordable tickets and no flags with undecipherable messages.  

According to a security source, the police campaign has revealed that there are many gay Egyptians. Despite all the persecution and torture, they don’t just vanish. The bold ambition behind the Queen Boat campaign — to, in the words of one of its high-ranking instigators, “rid the country of all perverts” — could not, and never will, be accomplished. “Do you think it’s just you and me? No! There are so many of us,” said one of your fellow journalists, albeit a fictitious one whose character — if we are to believe the rumors — is based on a real person. (Rumors in Egypt are often a major source of information in the absence of legitimate free channels of mass communication.) In the popular film based on the popular novel, The Yacoubian Building (2002) — both manifesting a pseudo-humanist sensibility tainted with a commercial reformist agenda — we are invited to sympathize with the cultured, intellectual gay character, who exploits his high social status to groom and seduce rural migrants. He himself is presented as a victim of — surprise! — his own childhood, having suffered from parental negligence and sexual abuse by a Nubian servant, and is — naturally — heading toward a tragic end. 

The historic petition did not succeed in repealing Article 175. It took six more decades for consent between adults to be recognized, and another decade for the legal consent age to be lowered, and even longer for it to be implemented across the Federal Republic of Germany — a full century after the petition. These decades saw the rise and fall of the belle époque, its idealistic dreams shattered on the rocks of World War I — with far-reaching and ongoing consequences — when social democracy and socialism fell down the spiral of nationalism (another possibly beneficial reminder, as we move closer to the anniversary of the end of that war. Another happy anniversary to you, dear nationalist, heterosexual poet!). Fascism emerged, the Reichstag was burned, Hitler came armed with, among other things, the bad faith of the conservative center, politicized pseudo-science and horrific Diogenesian racism and power worship. Among the many persecuted by the Nazis, gay people were not spared. 

Wilhelm Reich escaped Nazism, but was ostracized by his fellow Communists and ended his life in an American prison. His psychological theory is built on the idea that fascism is a socio-political phenomenon that has its roots in sexual repression and inhibition (he was talking mainly about Western societies, and only mentioned our Arab, Islamic societies in passing). There is a perceptive, if distorted, reference to that in a torture scene in the film 18 Days (2011), one of the earliest films on the Egyptian revolution, when the detainee under “interrogation” tells the two police torturers that they are compensating for their lack of manliness. Reich’s story, along with others, tells us that the West is not a role model for liberation or “sexual revolution,” and not for any of the illusory reasons you present. This might be the best use of Joseph Massad’s critique of the Arab LGBTQ+ movement and its connections with global and Western nongovernmental organizations, particularly in light of the current crisis. 

After World War II, on the other side of the Atlantic, the famous Kinsey Reports, two studies on human sexuality in males and females, were published, at long last bringing society face-to-face with its sexual truth: that of diversity and of the prevalence of forbidden desires and practices, unspoken at best, and falling on a sexual spectrum, not an idiotic dichotomy of normal vs perverted, or male vs female, or hot-blooded vs frigid. History changed course and continued to move forward, slowly but surely putting an end to practices like forced anal examinations, invented by a now-forgotten French medical-legal experts, and still used in our part of the world, in imitation of the West, you see, only the ugly 19th century Victorian variant thereof. (Read, if you will, the first volume of Michel Foucault’s history of Western sexuality.) 

I assure you that things change and will continue to change, and sooner or later it becomes clear who has been on the right side of history. You speak of openly gay politicians in a Europe that we should not mimic. It was only a few short decades ago that England saw its own crackdown on LGBTQ+  individuals. And until much more recently, the US police had the right to arrest any woman or man wearing less than three gender-appropriate pieces of clothing! (On one of those occasions, gay activists rose up and confronted the police. Shortly after, the first openly gay politician was elected, and though he was assassinated, the movement carried on from one triumph to the next, linking itself to other causes and allying with other struggles along the way.) The French guillotine was not abolished until 1971, and its last victim was an Algerian. Capital punishment is gradually becoming a thing of the past in many parts of the world. One of these days, Egypt’s wholesale executions will be viewed in a completely different light, as they already are by some of us.

And so, in the face of the current brutal crackdown on LGBTQ+ people, a leftist political group like the Bread and Freedom Party in Egypt could issue a half-hearted and uninspired statement to just demand the release of party member Sarah Hegazy, while — out of consideration for its current and potential homophobic followers — completely ignoring the context of her arrest. Another group — the Revolutionary Socialists (their website is also currently blocked in Egypt) — a political organization that usually adheres to a strict Marxism that dismisses identity politics and considers feminism and queer activism a form of distraction, and a distortion and fragmentation of class struggle (it is worth noting that some global Marxists have addressed homosexuality as a bourgeois disease) — could bravely declare that punishable sex crimes should not be homosexuality or the waving of a flag, but rather “virginity tests, mass harassment, sexual abuse in prisons and detention locations, forced sex work, and female circumcision.” These are all crimes you might have heard about, except it is usually only the last one on the list that whets the appetite of state-appointed reformers like yourself, dating back to the conferences of one Suzanne Mubarak.

The Revolutionary Socialists’ statement is a culmination of a qualitative development that took place over the last few years. We now seem to have an actual feminist movement in Egypt that is often radical, and far from the elitist discourses of the women of the National Democratic Party. Intersectionality has entered the scene: the need to unite class struggle with the struggles of race, gender and culture, and the impossibility of advancing one without the others. The ease with which state or society is able to persecute a group based on their sexuality or religious beliefs, for example, always spells an indirect disadvantage for every oppressed ethnic group.

Still, it would be unrealistic to try now to unite the efforts of Nubians, who are protesting against historic injustices and are currently facing teargas attacks and arrests, with the efforts of LGBTQ+ activists. Or Copts. Or Bedouins. Or any political opposition group. Like everyone else, Nubians are either blind to their own interests or blinded by them. And, like the majority of the people of this land that we keep hearing is big enough to accommodate us all, Nubians have also internalized homophobia, sectarianism and even racism in reaction to the sectarianism, racism and classism they face. 

It would also be absurd to equate structural discrimination with prejudice. There is a difference, for instance, between Israeli Zionism on the one hand, and anti-Semitism among some Palestinians on the other. Or misogyny, and a hatred of men among some women or feminists. Or classic and neo-colonialism, and anti-Western xenophobia. Or classism and class exploitation, and resentment towards the rich. The latter is most nastily exemplified in discriminatory reprisals against concert-going young men who visibly belong to a more privileged class when they are exposed to be gay — a sad substitute for critically rejecting class disparities and confronting the military institution that has, throughout the dark ages of its rule, spawned and nurtured old and new exploitative and thieving classes.

But it remains true that just a few years ago, the Revolutionary Socialists’ statement would have been an unthinkable dream. Remind me, by the way: have you ever written about any of the injustices referred to above, or have you only recently discovered the existence of the downtrodden poor and the alleged injustices they suffer at the hands of the fans of Mashrou’ Leila, who are one of the big things happening in Arab music right now?

Under different circumstances, I would have liked to discuss with you the linguistic achievement, which you would not appreciate or understand, that is their latest album, with its recurring themes of death, myths and the body, which might remind us of another vicious campaign, old and recurrent, against “satanic” music. That too took on class-tainted dimensions and joined the Queen Boat on the list of Mubarak-era moralistic achievements, becoming another chapter in the history of cultural persecution that state-appointed enlighteners like you have faced with nothing but silence or worse: bold displays of indignation at the silence of the state. If you are lamenting with obnoxious crocodile tears what “remains” of “our values and beliefs” in an “Islamic” country — where the state, and not the abstract specters you write about, has systematically massacred and persecuted some for being too Muslim and others for stepping too far outside the boundaries of “the church” (and, God forbid, acting like citizens with full rights) — then let us also dare to weep for the systematic curtailing of imaginations, the wounding of intellects, and corrosion, if not downright murder, of academic research.

I have begrudgingly used episodes in Western history to argue my case, because the real arbitrator between us — that is a queer history and a history of sexuality in general in Egypt — is yet to be written. A Ramadan sitcom recently showed a future Egyptian dystopia where two phantasmagorical armies are at war, an army of men against an army of women. The men are shown to use camphor oil, which is commonly said to decrease libido. Just toward the opposite sex? Perhaps. In any case, it seems that those measures that had started under Mohammed Ali Pasha’s rule to curb homosexuality in the military escalated during his tenure in a way that betrays, above all, their ineffectiveness.

Another history that needs to be written is that of the cultural wing of the Egyptian right. See From the Secret Archives of Egyptian Culture by Ghali Shukri, for example, another previously impossible post-revolution edition from Maktabat al-Usra (Family Library).

Postcolonial African and Indian intellectuals emphasize the role of colonialism in imposing sexual regression, which has remained to this day in their societies, while the colonizers have, to a large extent, moved on. They point out, for instance, how intersex people were not only respected but also revered in India, until British colonial rule criminalized and stigmatized them. It was only recently that they came to be accepted again in Indian law. And, how homosexuality was socially acceptable in Africa until the murderers and looters of Europe came with their teachings about civilization and religion. (It is also worth noting that India has, like Egypt, witnessed a terrifying wave of sexual violence against women in recent years.) We, too, are yet to gain full autonomy before we can really hold colonialism accountable for what it has done.

I would have liked to discuss how I personally — having said all of the above — have my own reservations about the rainbow flag, not just because I dislike flags in general, but for reasons that I am prevented from getting into it because of the unconducive, sensationalist nature of this conversation (which is connected to the oppressive intellectual conditions that have produced the likes of you), and because the debate has moved on to graver concerns. As I write these lines, there are young men and women suffering humiliation and torture that leaves the kind of trauma that even the most empathetic among us cannot begin to imagine. And this, simply because a few of them — in a desperate desire for freedom, coupled with a false sense of power and the recklessness of believing they were protected by the privileges of a derivative Egyptian bourgeoisie, as well as the relative immunity of Hamed Sinno in comparison to the downtrodden poor among LGBTQ+ Egyptians — dared to raise a flag that spells diversity, tolerance, love, and pride, at a time when development means national massacres, North Korean weapons, building more prisons in the desert and stealing the very last drop of money from the poor.

Today, as Edward Said put it, “Humanism is the only — I would go so far as saying the final — resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” I accuse you, along with your contemporaneous and preceding grand intellectuals of Egypt — the real ones as well the false — of not only letting us down as a people, but of effectively contributing to the creation of a hideous future, one where people have no dignity, reason has no value, there is no freedom in love, and no imminent hope in revolution. Our only hope is to outlive you and transcend that future.

We’ve come a long way from Émile Zola’s naturalists to normative writers. It’s been quite a journey, and I apologize for any distress I might have caused you by inviting you to think, read or contemplate. You are a big name after all. “Writing” for you is easier — and perhaps more fruitful than for many of us.

Notes:

* “Carrier of the poets’ appeal to heaven” is a reference to a hadith in which the Prophet Mohamed said of Imru’ al-Qais, the iconic pre-Islamic poet, that he would lead a host of poets to hell.

* EIPR has released a more recent report, published after this letter was originally written, on the crackdown on LGBTQ+ individuals in Egypt: https://eipr.org/sites/default/files/reports/pdf/the_trap-en.pdf

AD