• Arts
  • December 25, 2009
  • 17 minutes read

Uncloaking art in Egypt

Uncloaking art in Egypt

 CAIRO: What people see, hear, and read matters. It shapes what individuals think and how they act. Consequently, LGBT rights activists in Egypt and the Middle East are particularly sensitive to images and representations of sexuality propagated in the public sphere.

In Egypt, there remains a lack of public discourse concerning sexual orientation and although the arts have a rich history of representing homosexuality directly or indirectly, the popular conversation remains constrained.

According to Hossein Alizadeh, the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, “The positive function of the media and the arts is that they can make movement to reexamine assumptions about sexuality,” he said in a recent conversation with Bikya Masr.

But in the present, he continued, “there is a great deal of misinformation and therefore a lack of helpful language in the press… it will be years before something substantial changes.”

“Covered by the cloak of mortality and social norms.” This decade was book-ended by two significant examples of representations of gay characters in literature, each representing different approaches as to how literature can function to address limits on social freedoms and human rights in Egypt.

In 2002, Alaa Al-Aswany published the Yacoubian Building, widely considered to be the best selling novel in the Middle East, with a gay male in its complex of characters and plots. And at the conclusion of the decade in 2009, Mostafa Fathi published “In the World of Boys” a short youth-novel with a gay protagonist.

Both novels serve as fodder for the open conversation for which Alizadeh aspires. As 2010 approaches, both authors and texts provide insight as to where the conversation is going. Both spoke with Bikya Masr recently.

In the World of Boys

Mostafa Fathi’s “In the World of Boys” has enjoyed quick success, not without, and partially due to, controversy. The book, which has been banned from several bookstores throughout the city, is about a centimeter thick and its appearance fits its content, looking more like a tract than a novel.

“In the World of Boys” makes an unusually blunt argument for a work of fiction, functioning as a human rights platform that pleads for equally treatment for people regardless of their sexual orientation.

The short novel does so by chronicling the life of Assam, a young “boy” living in Cairo, who openly identifies as gay. Expectedly, the story features trial and rejection, but at its center Assam remains its undisputed hero. Laced throughout the narrative are references to Mohamed Mounir, Assam’s musical fixation. The book concludes with some lyrics from Assam’s favorite artist: “I don’t care about your color; I don’t care where you live.”

Fathi wants to add sexual orientation to that list. With his central and “ordinary” depiction of Assam, Fathi intends to argue: “Assam (and everyone) has the right to do whatever he wants if it is not harming, especially with his body. What people do with their bodies is not our business. When people make it their business they are acting like God when they are not”, he said.

Fathi is the first to tell you that at Q and A’s he meets the people who are unready to accept his message. But on the other hand, he says his inbox is flooded with encouraged individuals, who find his book as the first open affirmation of their identity.

He said, “Many youth tell me this is the first novel they have read cover to cover. I have had several gay and lesbian youth treat me like a hero for recognizing them.”

On another occasion, Fathi recounted, a journalist met with him for an interview concerning the book. The journalist began the interview confrontationally, said Fathi: “He said, ‘why do you write about these people? We should take them in the street and kill them.’” The interview continued and by its conclusion, the interviewer leaned in and confided in Fathi, “’I, am gay’.”

Instances like these Fathi said, encourage him to continue pressing toward open dialogue. “So many of us in Egypt are not willing to talk about the truth, to be honest. I am trying to get people to be truthful.”

The Yacoubian Building: A different story

Praise abounded upon the release of the Yacoubian Building and Alaa Al-Aswany was all but donned with the Mafouzian mantle to revive Arab literature. Four years later the novel was adapted to film, likewise heralded with messianic-potential to put Egyptian cinema back on the international map.

Unlike Fathi’s book, the Yacoubian Building’s homosexual character is not immediately central in the narrative, but rather is one among a knot of characters whose lives interweave complexly.

Al-Aswany told Bikya Masr, “you write only when there is a very big difference between what happens and what should happen.”

In that vein, the Yacoubian Building is (in)famous for its broad and blatant exposure of social ills in Egyptian culture. Thus the narrative lays bare betrayal, sex, crime, and corruption at all levels of society. Al-Aswany does not single out the homosexual character’s identity, but instead places it within the composite nexus that is Egyptian life. He is not a hero but one of many in a twisted story of difficult fates.

The character, Hatim Rasheed is the upper-class editor of Le Caire. Born to a French mother and Egyptian father, he lives a cultured life. Other characters in the novel know of his sexual orientation but not because of open identification. His one romantic relationship which the novel details is carried out in secrecy with a married lower-class soldier. During a flashback, the story reveals Hatim’s troubled youth, marked by neglectful parents and a sexual relationship with a servant from a young age. Feelings of neglect are rehashed when his lover eventually leaves him to return to Upper Egypt with his wife. Hatim last appears murdered by another prospective lover he attempted to seduce.

Attentive to such a widely disseminated image of a gay male, some activists were disappointed with the character. Mostafa Fathi said he found the portrayal of Hatim Rasheed as “negative” because he found that Hatim’s death inculpated him, a moral judgment. Hossein Alizadeh said that Hatim’s bi-nationality endorses the idea that homosexuality is “imported from the West” when in fact there is a long history of accepted homosexuality in Egypt.

To these criticisms, Al-Aswany insists that Hatim is not an archetype. He said, “This character does not represent all homosexuals in Egypt. We have no right to draw conclusions about society in literature… literature is an indication about society not a conclusion.”

He continued, “literature is not a tool of judgment. We don’t write to judge others. Literature is a tool of human understanding. So I do not think I judged Hatim in my novel. I tried to get closer to understand his suffering.”

Knocking at the Door

Therein lies a key difference between Fathi’s and Al-Aswany’s approaches. For Fathi, his book is an unapologetic tool of judgment as well as understanding. It is moral laden. Al-Aswany, on the other hand, prefers to keep his cards closer to his chest.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the distinction in their literary approaches are differing their perspectives concerning the issue of gay and lesbian rights in Egypt.

Fathi said that he sees acceptance of gay and lesbian rights as a watershed, “the end of the road,” and thus is working for its fruition now. He added, “accepting people’s freedom with their bodies is the most essential. If they will accept this, they will have to accept everything else, if he is Baha’i, Jewish, etc.”

But for Al-Aswany, addressing gay rights as a singular issue is narrow in its focus, if not tangential. He said, “You cannot discuss the rights of homosexuals in a society where nobody has his basic human rights—you cannot be a part of the people and defend the rights of minorities while everybody is deprived of his human rights. We are living under dictatorship. That is why it is very bizarre to Egyptian people that many westerners are focusing on the homosexual issue because many people that are not homosexuals are also abused and they are suffering from dictatorship and from torture.”

Hossein Alizadeh agrees, “Liberation must be available to everyone—the whole society must have a right to their sexuality. An organization like mine exists to fight for women’s rights, and the rights of heterosexual couples the same…not privileges but rights”.

From their two different perspectives, Al-Aswany and Fathi have injected significant material into the conversation for which Alizadeh labors.

He said, “It is a battle in which people must continue knocking at the door.”