"In the country of boys": new book on gay life in Egypt sends shockwaves through Egyptian society



 
A few days ago, the controversial book of Egyptian journalist Mostafa Fathi on the lives and struggles of homosexual men in Cairo hit book stands in the Egyptian capital. Expectedly, Fathi’s novel has created a stir in Egyptian media and among conservative Egyptian society. MENASSAT called up the author in Cairo to speak about his groundbreaking novel.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
Egypt Balad El Welad
Mostafa Fathi, Egyptian journalist and author of the new book "In the country of boys"

BEIRUT, July 14, 2009 (MENASSAT) — In Egypt, homosexuals are to a large extent vilified by both the authorities and the country’s mass media. Eight years ago, on May 11, 2001, police raided the floating gay disco “Queen Boat” in Cairo, arresting 52 men. Several of the detained were charged with offenses such as "habitual debauchery" and "obscene behavior." Human rights groups say the arrestees were beaten while in interrogation and forced to undergo humiliating anal examinations to "prove their homosexuality."  The Egyptian media had a field day with the trials of the men, scorching the defendants and calling them “agents against the state.” 

In a 2008 crackdown against men infected with HIV, the Egyptian authorities arrested around a dozen men, chained them to hospital beds and forced them to undergo tests for the virus. Suspicions that the men had engaged in homosexual conduct prompted forensic examinations to "prove" that the men had had gay sex.

At this point in time, and given these incidences, publishing a book that impartially discusses the lives and romantic relationships of homosexual men in Egypt is a rather bold move. In fact, even hinting at the mere idea of publishing such a book is a daring initiative. For author Mostafa Fathi, problems arose on the horizon long before his novel arrived on the shelves of Cairo bookshops.

Following a string of media reports on Fathi’s plan to release Fi Balad el Welad, the Egyptian security services developed a keen interest in the book, according to the author.

“The state security services said they wanted to read the book. This is the first time I hear of such a thing. They wanted to change some things, but the book was in the end published without any changes,” Fathi told MENASSAT.

Fathi went ahead with the publishing and the 110-page novel is currently available in Arabic in most of the large bookstores in central Cairo. A German version of the book is expected within weeks. Given the topic of the book, several bookshops were at first mildly excited over putting Fathi’s novel on their bookshelves.

Introducing "the other"

Through the book’s central character, Issam ––  a young man in his twenties living in Cairo, Fi Balad el Welad illustrates the lives of gay men in Egypt, juxtaposing everyday life and love with the misery of not being accepted by your society because of your sexual orientation.

Fathi says his book is the first to tackle the topic of homosexual life in Egypt from a human and unbiased perspective. He had an urge, he says, to tell the stories and hardships of Egypt’s homosexuals.

The main aim of the book, adds Fathi, is essentially to introduce “the other” to Egyptian society and lift the taboo on the subject. “We need to get used to differences in our society, whether it’s the gays or the Bahaiis. The book comes as a shock to people but they need to wake up and understand. said Fathi.

Understand that Egypt really is the “country of the boys”?

Well, perhaps not. But Fathi emphasizes that homosexuality in Egypt is widespread to an extent “you wouldn’t imagine.”

“You find homosexuals everywhere in Egyptian society, in all sectors. The media, engineers ––even religious figures, both from Muslim and Christian communities. Homosexuals exist in all different social classes,” he said.

Reactions


Nearly a week after its launching, Fathi says reactions to the novel have been overall positive with a few exceptions. Many of his friends and colleagues have expressed support ––and astonishment––over his book initiative.  “They told me the book is nice but shocking. And here in Egypt, they say, we’re not used to being shocked.”

Still, emphasizes the author, homosexuality is such a taboo-labeled subject to the extent that many Egyptians might not dare to buy a “gay book” in a public book store. This does not exclude those wanting to read the book, stresses Fathi.  “I had a friend who wanted to buy the book but he was too scared to go to the store and buy it.”

Then there is, of course, the group which is expressly displeased with Fathi exposing the untold stories of Egypt’s repressed gays. A few days ago, Fathi discovered that someone had started a public campaign against him on Facebook. But as a former outspoken blogger in a police state, Fathi has grown accustomed to threats and smearing campaigns.

“They accuse me of tarnishing Egyptian society. But I am not scared. I mean, before I became a journalist I used to be blogger. So I know what it’s like.”