Rivers of deceit

Khaled Diab

On 11 May 2001, 52 men were arrested in and around the Queen Boat floating nightclub in Zamalek, Cairo. About half of them eventually wound up serving prison sentences of up to five years.


May 2006


The Queen Boat tragedy took me by surprise and represented my coming of age regarding homosexuality in Egypt. Although I was well aware of the Islamists’ and ultra-conservatives’ views on homosexuality, I had always assumed that we lived in a secular society and, since there was no law against being gay, those who disapproved could burn in their self-righteous fury. Besides, when it comes to people outside their own family sphere, Egyptians tend to have a commendable ‘live and let live’ approach.


But I hadn’t counted on the desperation of a morally, politically and economically bankrupt regime wishing to pander to the Islamic current. Ironically enough, the public prosecutor – that newest arbiter of public morality – brought the case before the same kangaroo state security courts which are usually used to bully and oppress Islamists and other dissidents under Egypt’s quarter-of-a-century-old ‘state of emergency’.


The press soon filled with lurid tales of debauchery, satanic rituals, male weddings, false prophets and deviant cults. It reminded me of the case, a few years earlier, of the heavy metal ‘Satanists’. But this was of an entirely higher magnitude. In short, every explanation was proffered but the true one: that police raided a nightclub popular with gay men, but catering to straight people, too, for no apparent reason (several of the foreigners on board, including an ex-boss of mine, who were all released confirmed that it was just a normal Friday evening at a discotheque) – other than deflecting public attention.


Prisoner of conscience

For me, the case had a personal angle. One of the defendants was an ex-colleague from my teaching days. Paradoxically, Shushu was one of the least politically minded of my circle of friends, yet he became a prisoner of conscience (spending more than a year in jail) who was maltreated and exposed to humiliating medical examinations to ascertain his sexuality. The contrast between the terrified image of him trying to mask his face in the defendants’ cage and the last time I saw him, a few weeks earlier, on the beach in South Sinai, carefree and nursing his tan, was saddening.


About a year after the initial arrests, the president’s office overturned the original convictions and called for a retrial. Shushu came out “a broken man”, a close friend of Shushu’s told me during a recent visit to Cairo. “He wasn’t the Shushu we all knew before. He was extremely bitter. He blamed us all; he believed everyone had abandoned him.”


His life and career ruined, Shushu, who had once confided to me that he had no desire, unlike so many other young Egyptians, to leave the country, because he liked his life there, had no more reason to stay. A female colleague of ours pulled strings at the Canadian embassy to speed up his application for immigration at the Canadian embassy. “Amazingly, everything was ready in three weeks,” my friend told me.


Still, Shushu hesitated. He wasn’t so keen on the idea of leaving Egypt, his family, and the people he loved. “I couldn’t believe his procrastination,” my friend said, incredulous. “I told him: ‘Look Shushu, you’re up for retrial soon. If you don’t leave now, you may go back to prison.”


Shushu fled to Canada in the nick of time. He was retried in absentia, receiving a three-year sentence. He has now regained his old spirit and much of his previous optimism. “You know, he came to visit me in Canada,” my friend recounted fondly. “It was only for the weekend. But Shushu being who he is came with several suitcases!”


The powerlessness of the pen

The case broke some six weeks before I moved from Egypt to Belgium. Up until I left and despite my efforts, my bureau chief at Reuters adopted a wait-and-see approach and would not let me, or anyone else, write an in-depth feature about the case. None of the Cairo press I freelanced with wanted to touch it either.


I found the same sort of attitude within the Egyptian human rights community. Hafez Abu Saada, the head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told me on the telephone that his organisation would only speak up for these men if allegations of torture emerged. He admitted to me that the EOHR was embattled enough due to government allegations that it was a foreign-sponsored agitator and they didn’t want to alienate popular opinion too much by appearing elitist.


I felt a strong sense of powerlessness and frustration at my inability to do anything to help a friend and question so blatant an injustice. This drove home the sobering realisation that – contrary to that ancient Arabian adage from a perhaps more enlightened time – the pen is not always mightier than the sword.





ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.