Tuesday, 30 December 2014

SEX AND FALAFEL



Egypt  is driven by two engines - religion and sex. They share the  same bed  performing acts of sado-masochism on each other. I like to watch. They switch roles, controlling each  other in turn, using  sexual wiles or surahs to seduce.  Promises of hellfire and damnation are the real  turn-on as  poor manacled sex struggles  to come up for air. It wasn't always like this in the Islamic world. Between the eighth and tenth centuries sex was openly discusssed and written about by respected Islamic scholars. Literature, poetry, medical tracts and self help manuals all spoke frankly about sex. Religious figures did not see faith and sex as incompatible. They wrote with surprising frankness on every sexual subject, well, almost. I doubt muff-diving figured prominently. It was a golden age for Arabic culture but  today's Arab world is in deep denial over its sexuality and since the 19th century these erotic works have all but disappeared.

Sex was rewritten with the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism. In the 1920s the Muslim Brotherhood pointed their sanctimonious  fingers at colonial 'immorality' as a major cause of Egypt's loss of independence . A little old man sitting in an Egyptian prison has a lot to do with todays 'morality'. Sayyid Qutb, an ambitious MB member, had visited America, and described it as a 'satanic tree and corrupt plant." Like most unmarried men in Egypt today,  he had never had a sexual encounter with any woman. When Gamal Abdul Nasser imprisoned him along with his mates,  he had nothing else to do but put his miserable fundamental thoughts to paper, including blasting the West's cesspit of sexual chaos. 

As successive governments failed to provide the basic necessities of life, people turned to Islam and its social and political organizations. The new MB repackaged Islam  and offered a vent for protest and civic involvement which were denied by Nasser, Sadat and finally Mubarak. Following the Arab Spring,  the  oppositional void provided an open door for Islamist candidates. Sex was pushed even further underground.

A few years after Qutb's scribblings were brought to an end by a death sentence,  an Austrian psycho-analyst  invented the sexual revolution. In the 1930s, Wilhelm Reich, a Marxist analyst,  famously coined the saying, "A nation that orgasms happily, is a happy nation," to illustrate his belief that a true political revolution could be possibly only after sexual repression was overthrown.  A sexual evangelist, he held that satisfactory orgasms made the difference between sickness and health.  It was a panacea for all ills, including Europe's rising fascism. 

In her excellent book, Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Fekl  scrutinises sex in the Arab world. She  cites two studies on female sexual dysfunction in Egypt.   Of 1000 married women in Cairo,  nearly 70 percent had some sort of sexual dysfunction including not reaching orgasm. Another study in Upper Egypt showed that half the women interviewed were sexually dissatisfied. In a quick poll of my western female friends who have had sex with Egyptian men, most  complained of the lack of sexual satisfaction due to premature ejaculation. This might explain why Egyptian men are buying Viagara by the bucketful - not to get an erection, but to maintain it. Clearly, all is not well in the Egyptian sexual world.

In any society, where the most instinctive and creative act is oppressed, sex will find a way to express itself. But, like a plant struggling for light,  it will be hidden, shameful and twisted. By the time I reach my home in Cairo, I will have been undressed over 50 times by the eyes of men I have passed in the street.   Countless taxi drivers have tried to entertain me with  porn on their mobiles, probably  thinking I will hop over  to sit beside them and perform whatever is in their small, neanderthal minds.   I have been asked by a writer to be his dominatrix - leather, collars, whips the lot. He had asked his  wife to dominate him,  but she found it distasteful. "I can find no outlet for my desires here. It's impossible. It makes life hell," he said apologising for his request.

In most encounters with an Egyptian man, no matter how brief and business like, he will always steer the conversation to sex. And if he can't bring himself to talk about it,  will reveal itself in other ways, such as the long, clammy hand hold, inappropriate comments, constant touching of the back. They would never do this to  an Egyptian woman, unless she was a prostitute. 

A well known  Egyptian journalist once invited me for a drink. I thought we would have an interesting discussion on Egyptian media and the Revolution. But no. Within minutes he was asking  me for details of my sexual fantasies. I declined, but he eagerly shared his.   He  wanted me to pretend to be his step-mother and seduce him. His first sexual encounter had been at the age of 14 when his mother's best friend seduced him. They were lovers for 18 months until she left for Kuwait with her husband. "I have taught you all you need to know about sex and now you need to enjoy yourself," she had said. 

He stared morosely into his beer. "I never thought it was going to be so difficult to have sex let alone enjoy it," he said and  whispered "Mum" in my ear. I left.

One man contacted me via the social media after noticing a photograph of me with bare feet. He was a foot fetishist and Egypt was hell for him. "I have to go to north Beirut to find  women's feet available to me. It's not something that's catered for here. You can't talk about it."  

 Egyptian men  I don't know, have approached me on Facebook, and sent me unsolicited pornographic pictures, or made lewd suggestions, etc. I've had to block over 50 men. No other  nationality does this.

Several men have  begged me to end their virginity. "I'm fed up having to watch porn. I want the real thing," one of them said. I turned them all down. Pity is not sexy. 

A beautiful, unmarried  Egyptian woman whom I met by chance at a concert immediately started to tell me about her sex life. " I've never had a full sexual experience," she said. "It always has to be so quick because I'm using a friend's bedroom and there's a time limit because I don't want to get her into trouble."

An architecture student  who works part-time in a lingerie shop told me her mother had caught her masturbating in the bath. "My mother  told my  father who beat me until I was bleeding and  couldn't stand," she said. "I left the next day and am now paying my own way for my studies," Determined to find sexual satisfaction, she and her friends drive out to the Cairo-Alex desert road and take it in turns to have sex in the desert. "We also have group sex when we can find the privacy," she said.

I know married men and single straight men who are having sex with men. A gay European friend is amazed at the amount of offers he receives. "It's never happened to me before. I feel like a film star. I get approached in the street," he said. "They are usually straight men who are just desperate for any kind of sex. They can't do it with women because of the taboos. It's also easier. No one asks any questions if two men go into a room on their own."

Same sex couples wander through the streets holding hands,  stroking each other's hair and gazing into each other's eyes and no one blinks. But men and women can't even hold hands. I've been booed and hassled while walking arm in arm   with my boyfriend, who by the way, is constantly sexually harassed  by Egyptian women.  Signs of affection are frowned on between the sexes. I made a big mistake of kissing an artist goodbye thinking he would be more open that most Egyptian men. He took a step back as if I had attempted to stab him and said people would think badly of me. When I met a male Egyptian friend  after he had lost his mother, my instinct was to hug him, but I knew his conservative relatives would see it as an act of foreplay.  

My first landlady in Alexandria was a retired prostitute. *Zeinab once had fifteen women working for her.  "Don't be fooled by what people pretend to be here. You can buy any sex you want, as long as you have the money and know where to go," she said, rolling a splif. "And the religious ones are the worst. Quite often, the bigger the zibiba (a prayer mark on the forehead)  the harder it is for them to keep their dicks  in their jelabeyas."

*Abdou tells a disturbing story. Prior to becoming an atheist he had been a Salafi for six years...these are the guys who want to haul us back to an  8th century desert. His faith began to founder when he watched a video by a well known sheikh. A young man asked him, "Whenever I see a pretty girl I get an erection. What shall I do?" 

The sheikh advised him to buy a water melon, cut a hole in it and fuck the fruit. I've never eaten water melon since, neither has Abdou.

On 30th June last year, thousands of Egyptians bravely  marched  in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood government. A new bunch of out-of-touch old men came in, as unlikely to revive the glories of an earlier Islam as their predecessors. Egypt  may think it has rid itself of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Sayyid Qutb and his buddies still rule - controlling the basic principle around which the rest of human life is pivoted.

 



*Names have been changed.












   


  

Monday, 8 December 2014

BLOOD ON THE WALL - A DIARY OF INCOMPETENCE - UPDATE

Sunday 23rd November

At 10.40 pm,  seven or more masked men waving machetes, sticks and knives, burst into a Sudanese restaurant/cafe in the Osman area of Cairo. They attack the cafe customers  and attempt to behead two men. Cafe worker, Ahmed, 25,  has his head his split open, and his arms hacked in an attempt to defend himself. His ear is practically severed.  Another man, Khalid, 19, is tied to a chair but is saved from being decapitated by  but is saved by passers-by. Cafe owner, Gamal, 35 and Sudanese, has left  the cafe to collect paint rollers and buy sugar and coffee. When he returns,  the walls and floor of the cafe are covered in blood. Ahmed and four other injured men are on their way to  nearby hospitals. Later, Gamal realises his Tablet had been stolen in the attack  along with personal documents  containing his  address and that of his family.  


Osman
 Osman is bleak and isolated. In  winter the wind blowsthrough, raising sand and in summer, the heat is searing. It's been tacked on to 6th October, a souless satellite town built in the desert and  a mix of gated condiniums, cheap housing and shopping malls. Osman was added by Hosny Mubarak to house Egyptians from the City of the Dead,  displaced by an earthquake. More recently  Syrian and  Sudanese refugees (mainly Sudanese)  have moved into the area. Most of the Sudanese refugees are from Darfur, South Sudan who found their way  to  Salloum, a wretched  refugee camp on the Egyptian-Libyan border before coming to Osman. The area offers  cheap housing, and work can be found in nearby factories. Gamal, who lives outside the area,  invested all his savings in opening the restaurant because, as he says,  "There is  nothing there in the area for the Sudanese people. I wanted to do something for them...life is very hard. They need somewhere to meet and relax.' Immediately after the attack, he closed the cafe for  fear of his and his family's  safety. He will not return, even though it is his only source of livelihood.
Osman
Monday 24th November
It becomes apparent that the attack on the restaurant is just one of a series  that regularly target Sudanese refugees in Osman. Earlier this year,  an 11-year-old Sudanese boy was allegedly raped by three Egyptian men. The identities of the men are apparently  known to the police, but there have been no arrests. On the night previous to the attack on the cafe, Mehdat, 27, had an arm practically  sliced off in an machete attack. "It's nothing new," says one unofficial community leader, "We are regularly mugged, raped, attacked by Egyptians here and the police do nothing. We are in a state of seige.' By the end of the week over 70 people will have moved out of the area, children kept  from school, husbands afraid  to go to work because they want to protect their families even though they will earn less. Rumour is rife, but a picture is emerging of the attacks,  implicating   Sudanese gangs from outside the area, possibly orchestrated by Egyptians. It is not sure Ahmed will make it.

Tuesday 25th November
Breaking his bedside vigil at the hospital, Gamal goes to the Section 2 police station in 6th October  to report the crime and ask for protection.The police station is responsible for the Osman area. He is told that  nothing can be done  unless he  gives them the names and addresses of the criminals. Gamal visits  the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee  agency) offices in 6th October  hoping that it will provide  the protection it is mandated to do. He needs to take his stuff out of the cafe but is not sure how safe he will be. Along with a  growing crowd of frightened Osman residents, he waits outside its  barred office. Abandoned by Egyptian authorities, the agency  is their only hope for protection. Their hands reach out through the  bars, waving their documents, hoping to catch the attention of a UNHCR worker..   A security officer stares at Gamal through a security gate. He asks if he can see a protection officer - it is a matter of urgency. The officer refuses with a blank 'No'  "It's a security case. My family and I are in danger." says Gamal. 'No,'  the officer repeats. Another officer thrusts a list into Gamal's hand of of UN numbers to call. Later, Gamal and his partner pack up their flat and leave. Doctors say Ahmed will recover.

Wednesday 26th November  
Frustrated by lack of protection, Osman residents demonstrate outside the UNHCR in 6th
October. One Sudanese woman says she has moved out of Osman with her 15-year-old daughter but cannot afford to live anywhere else. They are sleeping  on the small green opposite the UNHCR offices along with other refugees. Emam is a member of an association of  Osman female residents. She says  that eight women have been raped this year. There are many women living alone in Osman without their husbands.  They  are either missing in Sudan or have been killed. They are too frightened to leave their homes. "We won't let our children go to school," Emam says, and adds that the Sudanese residents  tried to set up their own school but had to close it when some Egyptians began stoning the children. 

Zainab has strange scars on her arms  which she says are all over body. 'From when I was
in Darfur,' she says, and falls silent. She clutches  a piece of paper from Medecines Sans Frontieres, which documents the medical treatment she received after being raped. The document describes how Zainab was asked to work as cleaner for an Egyptian woman. She  went to the house and was forced into a room by the woman and raped by three Egyptian men. She has three children and she says she is  sleepng in the open with them outside the UNHCR office. She is pregnant, but won't say if it is as a result of the rape. Women chant around their banner calling for protection and action. The UNHCR has said it is in a meeting to discuss the Osman problem and someone will come out later to meet them. When the protest has ended, no one reports having met up with any UNHCR official. 

"I am coming every day to try to get to see someone," says one man, "I have lost my job because of it and the office never answers it phones." Another man claims he has an appointment with the UNHCR re his refugee status in 2017.

 Ahmed undergoes a seven hour operation. Doctors say he will recover. Mehdat is in another hospital in Cairo and is not faring so well. He may lose his arm. His wife and baby daughter sleep on a bed beside him but the hospital is charging them  20LE day. The family don't have the money and they no longer have a home. "I can't go back to Osman. There is no security," Mehdat says, ' I dont like this hospital. My arm is smelling.'  The medical costs of both Ahmed and Mehdat are to be met by the UNHCR although nobody from the agency has been to see them, although BISTIC, an NGO for refugees that works alongside UNHCR has visited. 

Thursday 27th November
Gamal spends all morning ringing the UNHCR Egypt, but no reply.  He is now living with his elderly parents and siblings, including a brother who is severely disabled as a result of torture by the Khartoum regime. He risks returning to the restaurant with friends to photograph the damage and the  blood splattered over the floor and walls.


Friday 28th November
Gamal continues ringing the UNHCR. Still no response. He feels he is putting himself at risk again  by going to the office in 6th October. "For sure, some of the members of these gangs will  be there," he says.

Saturday 29th November 
Frustrated, Gamal returns to the UNHCR office in 6th October. He stands with a growing
number of Osman residents, most of whom want to present their case to a protection officer.   Gamal finally catches the attention of one of them. She tells him he must phone the office. He tells her he has been doing this for several days and there is no response. 
  "Keep trying" she says dismissively.
 "I need to see a protection officer. it's an emergency case,"  Gamal says balancing himself against the wall and bars.
 "I am a protection officer," she replies curtly. 

Gamal loses his patience and begins to shout. She moves away, then returns to hand him  a paper through the bars with the phone number of the Protection Office. 

Sunday 30th November 
Mehdat has been told to leave the hospital by a doctor because he had gone to the police to report his case without telling the hospital. He stands outside on the hospital steps with his wife and baby, and no money. A friend advises him to try and get back into the hospital. 

Tuesday 2nd December 
 Ahmed is moved to a UN safe house through BISTIC. Neither the police, nor a UNHCR officer, has been to see him. Gamal and his family  has been visiting him regularly, taking food - it's  the only time they leave the house.  "I feel responsible for what happened to him," Gamal says. "It happened in my cafe.  I feel very bad and I want to  do all I can to help." 
Mehdat  returns to the hospital in which he has no confidence. Doctors have told him he may lose his hand. The safe house which Mehdat claims  was promised to him by a BISTIC worker has not materialised. 

Friday 5th December  
Via the intervention of a journalist, Gamal is given an appointment to see a protection officer at the office in 6th October on Monday 8th. His hopes lift and he prepares his documents, and photographs of the restaurant for the meeting. A friend, who has been trying to set up a new business in Osman, calls to say an X has been cut into a notice on the office door and smeared with blood.  "Leave now," Gamal says.

Monday 8th December 
Mehdat receives the news from BISTIC  that he is to be moved with his family to a safe house. Gamal receives a phone call from a protection officer to say he need not come to the office. An interview is conducted over the phone. 

The officer asks, "Why didn't you open the restaurant again?"

"Obviously, it's not safe any more," Gamal says incredulously. "Nowhere is safe in Egypt." 

He says he was asked who he thought was responsible for the recent spieght of vicious attacks. "I don't know. It could be organised gangs or organised by governments. Who knows? THis is the job of the police.   She just asked me a lot of questions, like what did I want the UNHCR to do? She should know.  She suggested I collect my stuff and start a business somewhere else - as if I have the money to do that!  In the end she told me there was nothing she could do  and  told me to contact BISTIC to ask about a safe house. She said she would look into getting protection while I took  everything out of my restaurant, and would find a lawyer, but she refused to give me her number for further contact."  

Shortly after the call, Gamal received another call from  UNHCR Egypt offering another appointment to see them......

Tuesday 9th December
Gamal turns up for his early morning appointment at the UNHCR 6th October office. He tells the security guard he has an appointment.

 "No you don't," says the guard.

"Please check,' says Gamal giving his name. The guard shakes his head.

Gamal tries to be calm, and insists the guard checks with an officer that he has an appointment. FInally, the guard is told to let Gamal through. The interview is conducted by telephone at a counter, with the UNHCR office on the other side of of a plate of  glass. The officer appears sympathetic and confirms that Gamal has a lawyer and that the restaurant cannot be cleared until the lawyer has seen it, and that possibly a safe house can be found for him and his family. 

"I'll call you," she says. 

"Don't take too long," Gamal says. "I might not be around for long." 

Thursday 11th December
Reports of another attack on a Sudanese restaurant in Cairo. One killed. Report yet to be confirmed. 

Saturday 13th December 
Ahmed moves back to his flat in Osman, despite fears for his safety.  

Sunday 14th December
More protesters outside the UNHCR offices in 6th October.  Gamal has another meeting there with a UNHCR officer. This time it is held behind the barred wall, near the security gate. There is no privacy. He is told the UNHCR cannot offer protection, apart from offering Gamal and his family a 'safe' flat. He would have to find the flat and it must cost no more than 500 LE a month (£50). UNHCR will pay the deposit and the first month. "This is impossible to find in Cairo. The only place you will find such a low rent is in Osman and places like it," Gamal says. "We will have to stay where we are." He wants protection for when he goes to collect the contents of his restaurant, but the UNHCR are not able to provide this and the police certainly won't. He is however, given official refugee status. He is also told to expect a call from the office in two days time.

Mehdat has declined The UNHCR offer of a 'safe' flat and moves back to Osman, while his wife and child stay with relatives.  "They are killing us in Egypt," Gamal says, "Everyone here is." 

January 2015 Update
                                                                                                                                            

Frustrated by not being able to contact UNHCR Egypt by phone, Ahmed  camps outside the 6th October in freezing cold temperatures. Gamal and a relative accompany him and stay awake all night, wrapped in blanekets. When UNHCR staff arrive in the morning they warn Ahmed that if he does this again, his case will be dropped. Nevertheless, he manages to get the appoointment he wanted. 


Gamal grows increasingly frustrated. He has been receiving threatening phone calls, and  makes  several more visits to the UNHCR offices in 6th October. Yet again he faces the rudeness of the security guards "They think they are case workers and it is not their job to question people and get information from them," Gamal says. He is  told he has a lawyer to help his case, but doesnt hear anything more for days. Following the intervention of a British journalist and a friend, Gamal  and his family are allocated a UNHCR volunteer and, finally, things start to move. He is referred to an NGO that assists refugees to find work, but there is nothing suitable. His brother's case concerning medical treatment abroad, seems to be moving forward. "I am not going to believe it, until it happens," Gamal says, looking tired and thin after two months  of continual stress.
             
 
  


   
'The protection of 33.9 million uprooted or stateless people is the core mandate of UNHCR.'




 
 


                                     All the names in this diary have been changed.