Picture: Reuters (Egyptian men charged with homosexuality are held in a cage)
Happen to be one of the men who were on the infamous “Queen Boat” that was raided by under cover police agents on the early morning of May 11, 2001. I currently live in the United States and would like to share my story with you.
I had a rough day and I really felt like going out. I called up a friend of mine to see if he would like to go out with me to the “Queen Boat” – a boat that is docked on the bank of The Nile River off the Island of Zamalek, opposite of the Marriot hotel. My friend said that he was tired and in no mood to go out. He suggested that his house mate and our mutual friend go out with me instead because he had had a really bad day. Our friend Fadi was fired from his job simply for being Christian and could not do anything about it. Fadi was reluctant at first but I kept pestering him until he agreed to go out with me. We agreed that we will meet there, outside the boat. I finished up getting ready and then took a cab to the boat. Fadi was waiting for me, it was a little before midnight. We greeted each other with the usual kiss on each check. We walked across the path way from the sidewalk to the docked boat. The boat had 3 levels, the club was at the bottom level. We went down the stairs, paid at the entrance and entered the club.
Music was blaring, some people were dancing, others were at the bar. As we walked to our seats I remember thinking that it was unusually empty. Usually there would be a lot more men at this hour on a Thursday night. I didn’t think much of it and continued walking to our seats. We ordered a couple of beers, Fadi started smoking, we chatted, looked around…. After a while more people started arriving but it was still not as “packed” as it usually is. There were male couples dancing together sensually and seductively on the dance floor, there were guys mingling at the bar…I remember thinking to myself – nobody can miss this is a “gay place”. I leaned over to my friend and said “I wonder what the waiters & bartenders think about all this – they must know that we’re gay…” Eventually, my friend got up to go to the restroom and “cruise around”. He left his cell phone and cigarettes on the table. I stayed behind and continued drinking and people watching. I recognized two people – my ex-boyfriends ex and the British principal of the school I used to work at. I’m not sure if they saw me too but I didn’t make any effort to say hello to them.
After a few minutes, people started walking off the dance floor, the music was turned down and bright lights came on. That was really strange– I looked at my watch (can’t recall exactly what time it was) and I remember thinking its still way too early, is the club closing already? I stopped a waiter and asked him what was going on. He said in a monotone as a matter-of-fact: “The police came and they arrested folks…its happened before.” My heart sank, I gripped the arm chairs with my fingers tensely. I looked around. There were still some guys at the bar and waiters were walking back and forth. I could not see anybody in police uniform. Thoughts were racing through my head. What am I gonna do? Did Fadi get arrested? I got up, paced back and forth thinking, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do? I called my mom-she was staying at her mothers house that night. I just needed to hear her voice. I did not tell her what was going on or where I was. I told her I loved her, wished her a good night and hung up. I stopped pacing. My heart was beating quickly, my hands were starting to sweat. I looked down at the table where I was sitting. Fadi’s cell phone and cigarettes were still there. A waiter approached me and asked if what was on the table was mine. I said no, they belong to my friend and I’m going to take them to him. He said in that case we need to write down your name and number because when they (the men) are released they usually come back looking for their stuff.
He went to the bar, I picked up Fadi’s things and walked towards the bar. I remember thinking to myself, I can’t give them my real name or number. But what if they ask to see my ID? Shoot! Oh maybe I can just tell them I don’t have my ID on me… I told the waiter my name was Assem Seif (thinking that was ambiguous enough, I certainly wasn’t going to give them my last name which is quite uncommon) and I changed the order of some of the numbers to my cell phone number. The waiter wrote the information down and luckily did not ask to see my ID. I remember thinking to myself, ok I’m going to do this, I’m going to try to leave. What else am I going to do? Was the police going to come back and arrest the rest of the people? Were they still here or did they leave? My whole body was so tense and my heart was still beating very fast.
I walked toward the door that would lead me to the stairs to go up to the ground level. As I got to the door, there were two men standing there (not in police uniform) and there was another guy who was also trying to leave. One of the men asked me, “What do you do (for a living)?” I responded: “I teach.” He asked, “What do you teach?” I said “English (as a second language).”The man wasn’t looking at me as we talked, he was looking behind me, his eyes searching the place. Suddenly the other man standing at the door yelled in Arabic: “I saw you dancing and gyrating your hips (like a woman) on the dance floor!” as he slapped the man standing next to me. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I did not react, I was in shock. The man let me through and I climbed up the stairs to the ground level. There were about two other men there from the club and other men that seemed to be undercover cops. I started pacing back and forth and then I said I’m going to try to get out of here. I asked someone, “Can we leave?” He said, “Didn’t the ‘pahsa’ (a highrank officer) ask you to wait?” I said, “The ‘pasha’ did not tell me anything.” And just like that I started walking towards the path that leads from the boat to the street. I really do not know where I got the courage to respond in that way. I got to the path, I did not look back and kept walking. I said to myself ‘walk confidently and slowly, don’t look nervous then maybe they won’t suspect anything and won’t arrest you.’ I managed to get to the street. Out of the corner of my left eye I noticed a police van and police officers in uniform. I did not look at them and kept walking on the sidewalk and eventually to the street. I did not look back. I crossed under the 26 of July bridge and turned right towards Ahmad Mazhar street. I took out my cell phone and called my friend that I called earlier. When he answered, I said, “Maher, the police came to the Queen boat and they arrested people. They arrested Fadi. Did Fadi connect with you at all?” He said no. I said, “He told me he was going to the bathroom but he never came back.” He asked me what I was doing and I said I’m walking home. I hung up. I looked behind me – it appeared that nobody was following me. I remember breathing heavily, my heart was still pounding. I started increasing my pace and kept saying over and over “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my….”. I eventually really picked up the pace and started running.
I ran home. I remember reaching my building, climbing up 4 flights of stairs, opening the door to my family’s apartment and closing it behind me. I locked the door, walked to the hallway, opened the door to my sisters room – she was still awake. I told her what happened and I told her not to tell our mother about it. I did not want her to worry. I really can’t remember my sisters reaction. I remember walking out of her room, walking into my mothers room (I was sleeping there that night). I called Maher again. He said he was going to go down and look for Fadi at the ‘Kasr Al Aini’ police station. I told him I still had Fadi’s phone and cigarettes. I hung up. I remember changing into my pajamas in complete and utter shock. It was as if my mind and body were completely separated. My body was doing one thing (taking off and putting on clothes) and my mind was doing another – replaying what just happened and thinking “Is the police still going to come after me? Are they gonna find me? Are they gonna know where I live? Are they gonna torture Fadi to get my contact information?” When I was done changing I got into bed and under the covers. I crawled up into fetal position, closed my eyes tight and started praying/reciting versus from the Koran. And somehow I fell asleep. Fortunately, I was never arrested. I really do not know how I managed to flee unscathed that night. It was truly a miracle. The other men who were not so lucky, including my friend Fadi, (I found out later) were tortured at the police station and were forced to sign depositions that they were gay, devil worshippers and part of a satanic cult. Some men were raped by foreign objects or by other male police officers. Some were electrocuted. Some had vicious dogs set on them. Some were hung upside down and beaten with a stick on the soles of their feet. And of course as if all this was not enough, they were all abused and humiliated verbally. They were called faggots amongst other derogatory names. As the men were being raped, the officers would say, “So you like being f*cked, well here you go…”.
After a few nights at the police station they were transferred to prison. Their crime: debauchery, fabricating verses from the Koran, conducting “gay weddings” on the boat, participating in orgies on the boat, being part of a satanic cult…. The following Sunday, their face pictures, full names, age, professions amongst other identifying information were published in almost every Egyptian newspaper and magazine….. I managed to leave Egypt on August 2, 2001. I was able to seek asylum based on the fact that I was being persecuted by Egyptian police and officials working for the Mubarak regime because of my sexual orientation. I have been living in the San Francisco Bay Area ever since. Two years ago, I became a US citizen and was able to visit Egypt for the first time in 9 years. Some of the “Cairo 52” men were released, some were imprisoned for 6 months, a year, 3 years – one person was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Some men managed to flee the country to France, USA, Canada. Others were not so lucky. Can you imagine being in exile from your home just because of who you are? That is tragic and should not be the case. Although in the US I am safe and my rights as a gay man are protected under state and federal law, I long to be safe and have the right to exist in my home country, Egypt.
< This article was originally published in 2012 in Egyptian first LGBT magazine and the only edition. Sadly after only sixteen days the magazine boxed up it’s make believe offices and left to be unforgotten. The magazine’s last Facebook post was on the 27th of May 2012, it read “We have been forced to shut down the online magazine due to security reasons. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience and cooperation”