We really needed to talk. This was a difficult situation that we needed to find a way out of. He absolutely refused to share me with anyone else, and he wasn't prepared to lead a life with me where he was in the shadows, constantly in second place after my family. And he certainly didn't want to be my secret lover or be complicit in deceiving someone else, an innocent person.
But I do want to get married and to have a family, both of which would be impossible with him. I suggested that he could get married too. That way we could both have our own family, but carry on seeing each other in secret. He rejected that idea, too, saying it was hypocritical and deceptive. He said you can’t correct one mistake by committing another, and that his desire to have a family and children didn’t justify a lifelong marriage that was based on deception and lies.
I told him that’s not how I see it. Married life is about more than sex. I’m determined to offer Leila everything I can in terms of comfort and security. I’m going to work hard to build the best possible life for us.
We couldn’t seem to find a middle ground. And yet splitting up was out of the question, especially after seeing how painful the last few days had been. I begged him to stay with me, even if it was just until the wedding. I’m terrified about getting married—I need him by my side. He was pretty upset about it, but he agreed. That was when I knew I couldn't let him feel like Leila was more important than him. But at the same time, I do need to give Leila the attention she deserves. I can’t let her sense that there’s someone else in my life who is more important. I can never let my guard down. I need to always be there for them, both of them, and to meet their every need.
Leila is great. She’s easygoing and doesn’t ask much of me. I can see the happiness on her face whenever we meet, and that makes me happy, too. I praise her a lot and try to make her feel like the most beautiful girl in the world, which always makes her blush. She’s always telling me how happy she is and how excited she is about our life ahead of us and all the wonderful moments that she’ll share with me.
We spend most of our time together doing up the apartment, buying stuff for it and getting ready for the wedding. I’m trying not to cut corners. My finances are back to normal and we don’t need to scrimp, so I told her not to worry about money, just to plan the wedding of her dreams.
So, I introduced her to Samir. I told her that he’s my best friend and the person who’s closest to me. His being male should rule out any doubts she might have about our relationship. I don’t think it would be too easy to read between the lines. She likes him and they’ve quickly become friends, in a way. She always stands by him when the three of us go out together. Nothing can save me when they team up against me, except perhaps Salma when she comes out with us. She’s always on my side.
We tend to have nights out together, the four of us, at cafés and restaurants around Amman. Leila organizes everything. Samir is usually reluctant to join us and would prefer to see me on my own. So I’m constantly begging him and trying to persuade him to come, because I’m much happier and more relaxed in his company.
Occasionally we bump into some other gay friends of ours. I usually feel awkward and avoid saying hello, especially if it’s one of my camp friends. It’s obvious from their looks and everything about them that they’re clearly gay. I’m worried Leila will sense something. I don’t know what I would say if she asked me how I really know these people.
One day, it happened exactly as I’d feared. I suddenly bumped into Tamer, a young Egyptian guy whom I’d first met at a friend’s house. He called my name and rushed to give me a hug. I said hello but kept it brief. I tried to keep a distance between him and Leila, to avoid having to introducing them.
That night I really felt bad for Tamer when I thought about everything he’d gone through. He probably really needed his friends’ support and my reaction that day can’t have helped. He had bleached his hair and it was longer than before and parted on the right. He had a small earring in one ear. The strong scent of a feminine perfume wafted from him. He had face powder on, giving him a pale yet slightly shiny complexion. He held his hand out softly like some kind of aristocratic lady. He winked at me and whispered,
“So, is that your fiancée? Not bad—she’s quite a looker!”
I looked at him sharply, to get him to keep it down. I ended the conversation quickly and promised to give him a call in the next few days.
Tamer is a very feminine man or, as he prefers to see himself, actually a woman. Among friends, he calls himself Nawal after the Lebanese singer Nawal al-Zoghbi, whom he adores. He knows all her songs by heart. He takes every opportunity when he’s at a party with gay friends to wear women's clothes and show off his talents as an artiste.
He grew up with his parents in Saudi Arabia. He was already extremely effeminate as a child and he seemed to get even more camp as he got older. He told me once about something that had happened when he was in primary school, when he reached the third year. The school was split into two: one school for boys and one for girls. He came home crying and asked his dad why they had put him with the boys and not the girls.
“Son, you’re a boy—that’s why,” his father replied.
“No, Dad, I'm a girl,” said Tamer.
The father remained quite sure that his son was a boy, while his son was convinced that he was a girl. When he was older, his father decided to send him to university in Egypt, assuming that it was the decadent life in Saudi that had contributed to his son's feminine side and that a harsher lifestyle in Egypt would turn him into the sort of man he could be proud of.
Of course, Tamer enjoyed a lot more freedom in Cairo, far from the watchful gaze of his father, and he soon made a lot of friends in the gay and transgender community. He started going to the Queen Boat every weekend with his friends, a nightclub on a boat on the Nile, near the Marriott Hotel. The club was well known as a place where gay men could go to dance, hang out, and meet other men.
One night the Egyptian police decided to raid the club and arrest everyone there. Tamer wasn't in the mood for going out that night and hadn't intended to go to the Queen Boat, but he gave in when his friend insisted.
As they approached the club, they noticed the police cars everywhere, but somehow they didn't appreciate the danger. They didn't realize that the police had raided the club and were arresting everyone in sight. When they got closer it started to dawn on them what was going on.
Tamer saw his friend, a waiter at the Queen Boat, being led away by two police officers. The waiter tried to warn Tamer with his facial expressions not to come any closer and to get away quick. The warning didn't work and in fact just incriminated Tamer, as the policeman on his right noticed and ran to arrest him too.
Because Tamer was so camp, there was no doubt about him being gay unlike some of the other men, so the officer didn't think twice before insulting him and shoving him into the police van with the others who had been arrested in the club.
That night was a terrifying experience for Tamer, as he was transferred from one police station to another with all the others, until he was finally held in one police department. That was when it really started to hit home. The interrogations started. The security services did everything they could to get the detainees to confess to gross indecency.
Dozens of men had been arrested, but within a few hours several had been released. The guys they released were the more butch-looking ones, because, the way they police saw it, being gay was associated with looking effeminate. They released the foreigners because they hadn't been the target of the arrest operation and also to avoid any diplomatic complications. Then they released anyone from influential families, after they were inundated with phone calls.
And finally, they released everyone who was wearing white boxer shorts, on the grounds that, in their minds, being gay was also associated with a Western influence. As Egyptian underpants are traditionally white, anyone wearing underwear of any other color was clearly under the spell of the West and was morally depraved. Unfortunately, the boxers Tamer was wearing that night, an international brand from a new store that had just opened in Cairo a few months earlier, were green.
The police used several torture methods that night to extract confessions from the detainees, including setting the police dogs on them, whipping them with the tubes from shisha pipes and hosing them down with cold water. To start with, Tamer refused to confess, but since childhood he’d been terrified of dogs, so when he saw them approaching he broke down and signed the confession they’d prepared for him.
A few days later he found himself being taken to a state hospital. He was surrounded in the operating theater by several doctors of both genders. In one of the most degrading moments of his life, Tamer was subjected to an anal examination, summarized in a report issued a few hours later with the phrase “Used from behind.”
It was like he’d landed in some terrifying nightmare. Those days he spent in prison consisted of one monstrous scene after another, completely devoid of any human justice, where men were replaced by savage monsters that reveled in torturing their victims. A dark cloud of humiliation, pain and fear descended on his world.
Gross indecency wasn't the only charge leveled against him. He was also charged with several other crimes in a political game that he only became aware of later. As well as gross indecency, he was also accused of devil worship, belonging to an illegal religious group, and collaborating with the enemy Israel.
It wasn't beyond the Arab regimes to exploit moral taboos for the sake of popular legitimacy and winning a cheap political victory. The social and moral rejection of the gay community in the Arab world made them an easy target to score points with the general public. After going to court, Tamer gradually realized how sinister and squalid all these machinations really were.
Someone who was related to a former Egyptian president had intended to run in the presidential election against Hosni Mubarak. The family were political heavyweights, so the current government felt an urgent need to act before things got critical. The mukhabarat compiled a report investigating the entire family in the hope of finding some dirt on one of them who was known for having homosexual inclinations.
Besides his sexual preferences, this person also collected pictures of himself with other men in various sexual positions. He was very creative, too, and in his imagination he had invented a kind of fictional character, a reflection of the man he longed for. Among his papers, the mukhabarat officers stumbled across something he’d written describing how he loved and worshipped this character like some kind of god.
It was the ideal basis for a story that would cause an outrage in Egyptian society and put an end to any hope this family had of a future in politics. In people’s minds, his worship of this fictitious character would be synonymous with him worshipping the devil. The sexually explicit photos were all the proof they needed to confirm the allegations against him. Homosexuality was something the Arab press tended to portray as going hand in hand with devil worship, and the gay community was there to complete the story as proof that such people existed, fellow adherents of this cult. But for the final nail in the coffin, they also needed to pad out the story with some connection with the Zionist conspiracy to turn it into an issue of national security. And so, they threw some detail about his previous visits to Israel into the mix.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian police had arrested a number of men charged with soliciting homosexual activity on the street, a week before the raid on the Queen Boat. This operation was part of the grand plan to lump the two groups together and add prostitution to the list of charges.
Every single charge laid against Tamer was enough on its own to leave him exposed and gave the prison wardens ample pretext to treat him with contempt and aggression. His effeminate looks alone were enough to turn on one of the wardens who, like so many others, suffered from pent-up sexual frustration in the repressive Egyptian society which refused to accept any kind of relationship between the two sexes outside of the institution of marriage.
The warden started off chatting him up gently, trying to lure him into satisfying his sexual desire. When Tamer rejected these advances, the guard turned violent, beat him and raped him. His cries echoed around the prison, bouncing off the walls of the other cells. But the guard just got more fired up and turned even more brutal.
When his father came to visit him in jail that day, Tamer didn’t dare tell him what had happened. Shame held him back from admitting that he’d been raped. By the time he stood before the judge, though, he had plucked up the courage to mention it. He imagined that the judge might have a modicum of humanity in him and would stand up for justice. Tamer was almost bowled over from shock when he heard the judge’s reply,
“Well, take a look at yourself. Who can blame them?”
“Who can blame them?!”
Tamer realized that he lived in the most chauvinistic society on the face of the earth, a society where femininity was seen as nothing more than the potential to turn men on and satisfy their sexual urges. It was a culture where it was the woman who was blamed for any kind of sexual liaison outside of marriage, where a woman’s natural expression of her femininity was seen as a free invitation to men to abuse her and treat her with contempt.
It was a reversal of roles where the definitions of “criminal” and “victim” were turned on their heads. A man could be the victim of desires that were aroused by a woman’s slightest gesture. She was the guilty party because his arousal was her doing, and if he raped her it was a natural response for which she alone would bear the consequences. Tamer here was no different to any other woman in the eyes of the judge, who subscribed to all these same cultural prejudices. Tamer’s obvious femininity had provoked the guard to rape him, so he was himself to blame and it was he who would face punishment.
He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment during which he was subjected to every kind of abuse and humiliation imaginable, including beatings and rape. When he was released a year later, the court's ruling was overturned by the state, under pressure from international human rights organizations which argued that the first trial was unjust.
A new verdict was issued, but this time Tamer was sentenced to three years in jail from the date of the retrial. The sentence was more than he could bear after the torture he had been through the first time round, so he tried to escape from his life by committing suicide. Fortunately, he didn't succeed and a few days later an American human rights organization managed to get him out and get him to Jordan until they could arrange for him to claim humanitarian asylum somewhere in the West.
My life seems so easy compared to his. We've both found ourselves outside of the traditional parameters of the definition of a “man” in our society. Being so obviously camp has meant he’s had no way of hiding or blending in or playing the role society expects of him. It’s different for me in that my sexual preferences are less apparent. My sexuality is something private and I appear to others as they want to see me. I play along with their game to avoid getting hurt.
I go and sit back down in the café. On my right is my fiancée and on my left is my lover. I feel like I'm the protagonist in a comic farce, some complex character which the playwright has endowed with an animal instinct for camouflage, a skill I’ve honed not only to survive, but also to thrive, in a society that is more concerned with the make-believe than with reality.
© Fadi Zaghmout. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Ruth Ahmedzai. All rights reserved.