CAIRO – Gay rights activists have historically often been outspoken and highly visible homosexuals –
Mayor Harvey Milk, for example, or first openly homosexual member of parliament Uzi Even.
Not only is Egyptian journalist, now author, Ahmed Saad soft-spoken and unassuming, but he is also a devoted Muslim and, he says, a heterosexual.
Aged just 20, with delicate features and a thin build, Saad initially appears more like a pensive young scholar than a passionate gay rights activist in a conservative Muslim society. Yet he says he seeks to defend gay men, even though his attitude toward homosexuality is hardly liberal.
Hostility towards homosexuality has deep roots in Islamic culture and tradition, and many Muslims believe that it constitutes a crime warranting execution. Saad asserts, however, that this attitude represents a blatant misunderstanding of Koranic text: “God,” he insists, “sentenced the homosexuals to death [at Sodom and Gomorrah] only after they refused his guidance.”
From Saad’s point of view, refusal to change is the true transgression – not homosexuality itself. He believes that every homosexual deserves a second opportunity to be straight.
“DON’T FORGET that homosexuals exist among those closest to you and need your help,” implores Saad as an author’s note in his first book, Shab Takaya, published by Al- Alamiya last month. (The title translates literally as “pillow boy” and is a derogatory term for homosexuals; the author uses it as a criticism of the society that stigmatizes them.)
The story begins when a young boy named Haytham is mysteriously found hanging from a rope in his room as part of what initially appears to be suicide. As the tale progresses, the novel’s nameless protagonist – a journalist like Saad himself, whose speech Saad says reflects his own views – seeks to uncover details surrounding Haytham’s death. Saad uses his protagonist’s journey to explore – and condemn – the treatment of homosexuals in Egyptian society.
Yet the extent to which Saad actually defends homosexuals remains a matter of interpretation, which explains why since the book’s publication, Saad has received threats and insults from heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. His book argues for societal acceptance of homosexuals and an end to stigmatization.
Nonetheless, Saad envisions an that treats homosexuality as a curable illness. “Society has a critical role to play in treatment,” writes Saad’s anonymous protagonist, as “any disease, whether physical or psychological, demands support from society and especially from the patient’s close relatives.” Without “the right kind” of support, “the patient’s frustration grows” until he surrenders himself to the disease.
Convinced that their lifestyles are unhealthy and go against God, Saad said in a recent interview that most homosexuals would seek treatment if provided a supportive atmosphere and the opportunity to do so. As to the minority who refuse treatment because they believe in exercising what the West calls individual liberty, most can be disabused of such ideas, he argued. For the remainder, his words were harsh: “As Sodom and Gomorrah’s homosexuals were executed for failing to heed God’s words, so should homosexuals be ‘stoned to death,’ as decreed by Islam, if they refuse to change.”
“The homosexual does not live alone by himself in society,” asserted Saad, whose small build and reserved demeanor bely the determination with which he conveys his message. “If [a homosexual] is freely left to practice his sexuality openly and without shame, he endangers society in its entirety. He will influence children and infect them with his disease.”
The young author is not an easy conversationalist. But once he gets going, he expresses himself articulately, choosing his words carefully and employing an elevated standard of colloquial dialect readily identifiable as belonging to media personalities and the educated elite.
Yet Saad does not hail from elite society. He comes from Minya, a city in Upper Egypt, and currently lives with his aunt in Cairo’s Mattariya area, a place known (though this is true for most of the city) for its poverty. He came to Cairo to attend a government trade school and work as a journalist at an Egyptian youth magazine called Shabab (Young Egyptians).
GOVERNMENT PERSECUTION of homosexuals in Egypt is well documented. International criticism reached a climax in 2001 when 52 men were arrested aboard a boat in what become known as the “Queen Boat affair.” Forced to undergo beating and forensic examinations, they were vilified during trials that followed as Egyptian media sources revealed their real names and addresses while branding them as agents against the state. In the end, under international pressure, 23 men were handed three-year jail sentences and the rest were acquitted.
However, many argue that homosexuals face the most danger in Egypt not from the government, which is primarily concerned with preserving its survival, but rather from society, where they risk blackmail, assault and murder, even by the members of their own families.
What stands out about Saad’s book, then, is that it highlights social – rather than governmental – persecution, an element of homosexual abuse that often goes unnoticed in developing countries.
Nevertheless, Saad’s story is not the first to deal with the plight of homosexuals in Egyptian society. His pleas for greater, albeit emphatically limited social tolerance echo ones made in Mostafa Fathi’s bestseller, Balad al-Awlad (Country of Boys), published in late 2009, though Fathi defended homosexuals using secular notions of individual liberty, not strict interpretations of Islam.
Nor is Saad the first to call for a gentler approach to homosexuality in the name of Islam. Faisal Alam, a Pakistani American, gained widespread attention in the West when establishing the Al-Fatiha Foundation in the US in 1998. The organization helps gay Muslims come to terms with their sexuality in the context of Islam, while promoting what its mission statement calls “Islamic notions of justice, peace, and tolerance.” In 2001, members of Al-Fatiha were sentenced to death in a fatwa issued by Al-Muhajiroun, an international organization that seeks to restore an Islamic caliphate.
GETTING HIS book published was not easy. Saad spent months approaching major publishing houses and bookstores, one by one. All rejected his book for the same reason: the taboo nature of its subject matter, even though the Fathi book had succeeded in breaking the barrier when introducing the subject to Egyptian audiences one year earlier. Fathi’s determination in the face of widespread rejection had led him to create a new publishing company, Shabab Books, to publish his book. Saad, for his part, eventually landed a contract at Al- Alamiya, but the few stores that then agreed to carry it have generally failed to put it on display. To purchase Shab Takaya, indeed, one must ask for it by name or topic.
Saad said he based his characters on what he saw and heard from people he met through manjam.com, a dating site popular among gay Egyptians. Since he could not present himself as a journalist because no one would agree to talk with him, he said he pretended to be gay himself – a deception he considered “the only way possible” to meet gays in person and learn about their lives.
The experience taught him, the author said – in what may seem particularly antiquated from a Western perspective – that society “causes young men to be gay.”
All of his story’s gay characters trace the origins of their homosexuality to being abandoned by their parents, provided an improper upbringing, influenced by their peers or raped.
The boy Haytham’s homosexuality, for example, stems from a father who provides “no tenderness” and whose “harshness grows year after year.” His mother, for her part, “exists merely as a vehicle to give birth, for she lacks any principles of upbringing.”
After one of Haytham’s schoolmates “whispers into his ear... convincing him that [homosexual] behavior was permissible,” Haytham’s conversion to homosexuality was complete.
According to Saad’s protagonist in the book, homosexuals may be divided into “those who surrender to the matter, and those who see the matter from all its medical, societal and religious aspects. The former proliferate in the West, where they are free from religion and “the morals connected to it, and the surrender to instinctive takes hold.” The latter, see “homosexuality as an infestation patiently dealt with by patient and doctor.”
In heroic struggle, “they expel efforts, endure suffering, beckon God’s aid and hope for his reward,” a reward that is virtually guaranteed as those who fail to succeed nevertheless find redemption: “They do not despair, no matter how small their measure of success, for the mission brings them closer to God.”
The problem with Egyptian society, according to Saad, is that its pervasive intolerance precludes homosexuals from seeking help; “If I tried to change,” says one of the story’s characters, Mahmoud, “mine would become the second hazy murder case. I would be buried next to Haytham.”
“We know that homosexuals possess the capacity to change, because every sin in Islam has a way of avoiding it,” asserted Saad, fervently opposing what he labels a predominately Western view that people are born with a fixed, unalterable sexual preference. “Every problem in Islam carries a solution.”
By JORDAN GERSTLER-HOLTON