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The rainbow flag is raised during the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in Cairo on September 22nd 2017 (Credit: Egyptian Streets)

A brief glimpse on the etymology of the word homosexual in the Arabic language is reflective not only of the widely held belief and internalized homophobia in contemporary Egypt, but also of the nature of the laws persecuting queer bodies and viewing them as a threat to Egyptian society’s morality[1]. Multiple variations exist: Luti is derived from Quranic verses, referring to the practices of male sodomy the people of Lot engaged in that resulted in their destruction in the sinful city of Sodom; the more derogatory Shaz or ilq literally translates to deviant, pervert,  or faggot — mind you, it’s still the most common linguistic utterance used in the Egyptian dialect; the recently coined Mithli, meaning same, is the closest to the English word homosexual or same-sex lover.

Much like feminism — only recently acknowledged in the Arabic language as nasaweya — homosexuality is seen as un-African/Arab or Egyptian. It’s vilified as an imported Western product that tries to taint the Islamic Arab cultural values and lure its youth into debauchery and immorality to further destabilize the region. Homosexuality is also condemned as a pathology that needs psycho-medical treatment or as a major sin. Its sinful nature is interpreted in Quranic verses and Hadiths of the prophet that state how homosexual acts invoke God’s curse on earth and in the afterlife [2]. Alternative interpretations of Queer Muslims reconciling both their religious beliefs and sexual orientations have been made, but they are not recognized as valid by religious institutions or predominantly conservative societies in the East. While there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality, there are plenty of laws that were purportedly put in place to combat prostitution but which actually persecute LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. The charges issued under these laws vary from inciting debauchery to engaging in immoral acts, to inducing sexual deviance[3]; the sentences fall between 1 and 12 years of imprisonment.

Homophobia and violence directed against bodies that dare challenge the heteronormative patriarchal norm are nothing new. So why write about this now? In recent days a wave of allied support and LGBTQ+ pride as well as a counter-hate sentiment in Cairo have taken social media by storm. The events unfolded as follows: the biggest Mashrou’ Leila concert that took place in Cairo this past September saw a bittersweet display of the pride flag. The raising of the flag was met with surprising acceptance and even support by concert-goers and social media posts. Ultimately, however, the government and Egyptian society’s hate, animated by a fear for love and freedom, calls for the punishment of LGBTQ+ bodies and their allies.

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A mural painted by the artist eL Seed in a part of Cairo inhabited by garbage collectors (Manshiyat Naser) quotes a third-century Coptic bishop: “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.” (Credit: David Degner for The New York Times)

You read the words of Mahmoud Darwish,

his nostalgia, revolution and melancholia swirl the desert dust over times and places

to reach your eye.

Yes, I swear. This is how the tear settled on my dry cheek.

And Nizar Qabbani whose eroticism, love and poetic (but also political) fight for social justice make you tingle and long for something.

You don’t know what it is you seek or long for

something that the poem will never make tangible.

You let the words and language sink in

You notice how smoothly your eyes glide across the Arabic calligraphy on the yellowed pages

How much easier internalizing their words and worlds is getting

You sense the physical and metaphysical barriers dissolving

Barriers of your many selves.

The displaced and the disowned,

or like Edward Said, those “out of place.”

The one that claims she’s home,

but will always have a soft spot for a man who speaks in her tongue.

Tongues intertwine as the barrier gradually shifts

What put it there? How and when did it come into being? Who let it? Who is to blame?

The blame game makes it easier.

You think, dream, make love and write in another’s tongue

Some would say a colonizer’s tongue.

Yours is shackled by a barbed wire,

the same one endlessly running through Palestine, Syria and Iraq.

Is it a barbed wire, or streaks of crimson blood interlaced with dirt left behind from the last missile?

Or perhaps it’s the red wine you spilt trying to reach for the glass

after a touching poem, or a great orgasm.

But you let it.

You were happy about it at some point of time. To be fluent in many other languages

as yours rots and decays like the slums and streets of Cairo.

Cairo.

A permanent layer of dust, grey ashen dust, seems to have settled on everything

from decayed buildings to jagged streets,

to a man’s once white galabeya,

and most probably to the Coptic woman’s black attire.

You just can’t see it, because black hides it all. Even her son’s blood.

You observe as your chauffeur drives you in the air-conditioned car.

You’re disgusted.

You’re disgusted not at the sudden hyper-awareness of your privilege, but at your privilege itself.

Your privilege and pacifism.

You go back to your book.

You’ll write about this, you think.

You should do something

…one day.

But will you?

You arrive at the pub downtown.

Your friends already ordered the red wine.

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