Written by Malak al-Gharib
Copy Edited by Eliza Marks
Translated by N.H.
Artwork by T. A.
I was walking down Al-Bursa alleyway in Downtown Cairo when I saw a man yelling at the top of his lungs, arms waving about, “Use Budr even if it is not for you!” He then let out a loud zaghrouta1. My jaw dropped as I stared at him in amazement. This was in 2011, post-Jan25. At the time, I did not really know anyone from the LGBTQ community in Egypt and knew nothing about queer Egyptian culture. The whole scene playing out in front of me looked like it had been directly lifted from Abla Kamel’s movie My Aunt France3 or something. I did not know, at the time, the context surrounding this scene. A context that compelled a man to ululate at a Downtown coffee shop. Now, however, this scene has become a familiar one. Sometimes, I am even the kidyana4 ululating during certain situations.
Welcome to the world of Budr2. This world is very particular to the queer community in Egypt. It is not you will see on the silver screen or even your TV. Budr is a type of slang used between members of the queer community in Egypt. It developed in the 20th century and was used in place of words and phrases used in everyday language. Budr could be used without the risk of being understood by people outside the community. Many phrases carried special meanings, such as “security crackdown”, “police informant”, “thief”, “beating/slapping,” and preferred sexual positions or roles, such as muwgab5, saleb6, qadeeb7, person with a small qadeeb, etc.
Despite there being no formal or official law criminalizing homosexuality in Egypt, this secret language continued to develop due to the oppression the queer community has faced and continues to face in the form of police crackdowns since the Nasserist era, when the fujoor law8 was passed. Most gay men and transwomen, who were arrested during police swoops, were tried according to this law. Of course this type of oppression stems from society, which gives itself the right to verbally and physically assault any gay man who discloses his sexuality in public.
This language developed with time and took maybe decades to get to where it is today. Many reports say that Budr acquired most of its vocabulary from sex workers and dancers from the previous century. This is true. If you watch any number of classic Egyptian films that took place in that community, you’ll hear several similar phrases, even if they meant something different back then. However, we cannot ignore that many phrases were born within the context of the queer community in Egypt.
Despite its development within the queer community in Egypt, Budr does not enjoy a revered status. Many deride the language and its speakers and consider it to be problematic.
When I first started getting into the queer community, many readily accused Budr speakers as bee’ah—a word that denotes belonging to a low socio-economic background. Budr speakers were deemed inferior, especially gay men who used female pronouns in their speech. “You’re a man, and you’re supposed to speak like one.” “I don’t like effeminate gays.” I remember hearing these words during random discussions with members of the community.
Perhaps one of the main reasons this form of bullying is so prevalent in the queer community is because members of the queer community do not feel safe, and because many are victims of bullying themselves by heteronormative society.
After a long journey that involved delving into the many sides and classes within the queer community in Egypt, Budr became my litmus test for filtering out the men I went out with on dates or hookups. Budr could easily reveal who among those men were sexist or classist. Sexist people reacted violently to being addressed with female pronouns, because they saw that as personally demeaning or degrading. Those who used the word bee’ah to describe Budr speakers were revealed to be classist.
Besides being a means to hide from the prying eyes of the police, Budr was also used to combat the spread of Egyptian heteronormative diseases in the LGBTQ community: sexism, classism, and various forms of hate speech that attacked individuals on the basis of color, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, and even on the basis of which neighborhood they lived in, which brands they purchased, and what schools they graduated from. There are other sides to Budr that people find problematic, such as the use of tahfeel9 through rhyming Budr couplets, similar to the famous Egyptian radh10, which has long been used in verbal battles between members of the LGBTQ community. Some people find this problematic because of its associations with bullying culture in Egyptian society in general. I believe, however, that a distinction should be made between bullying as a culture and societal crime and Budr as a vernacular that could be considered to be part of our queer heritage in one way or another.
I believe that Budr, like any language, can be manipulated depending on the context its speakers want to use it in. English, Arabic, and French are used to bully people, but nobody accuses all speakers of those languages to be bullies. The same applies to any other language or vernacular. Bullying culture in our society must be fought, but we must also pinpoint the real reasons behind it.
Bullying is a form of violence. It is prevalent in the queer Egyptian community and queer communities in the MENA region and worldwide. In Egypt, the most prevalent form of bullying is verbal. There are other types of course, but verbal bullying is the most common and takes the form of verbal battles between members of the community.
These verbal battles often take forms similar to Egyptian radh, which is also considered to be a form of altercation specific to our heritage. Radh often takes place between women from shaabi areas11 in Cairo and Alexandria. Many commonly-used budr phrases are used during these altercations.
Perhaps one of the main reasons this form of bullying is so prevalent in the queer community is because members of the queer community do not feel safe, and because many are victims of bullying themselves by heteronormative society. As a result, they automatically turn into bullies because of the bullying they have been subjected to. They want to protect themselves by appearing in a position of power, in which no one can take them down in a verbal battle.
The solution to this problem lies in breaking the cycle of bullying itself in the queer community and not in stopping the use of Budr as a vernacular. There needs to be awareness raising campaigns on the negative impact of bullying on our community and an implementation of anti-bullying policies in spaces in which different members of the queer community convene, in addition to providing effective support programs for victims of bullying. Each member of the queer community should also take the matter into their own hands by raising awareness, on an individual level, on the negative effects of bullying and by creating more safe spaces in our communities. All previously published articles on the topic of how to create these initiatives should also be republished, as they are many in number and their impact should not be underestimated. As for Budr, it should be used with a greater sense of awareness. It is a double-edged sword, like the invention of dynamite, which was primarily invented to facilitate the process of mining and ended up being used in wars not long after. Budr as a language was primarily developed to help create safe spaces in the queer community, away from the nosiness and intervention of strangers. Please do not abuse this language. Instead try to protect its original purpose.
Lastly, I know you are probably filled with curiosity and would like to know more phrases and words from this language. Unfortunately, because this language is used till this day to protect members of the queer community in Egypt, I cannot reveal the secrets of this language on a platform like My.Kali, which receives a high number of visits. Let us, however, hope we will soon get rid of homophobic and transphobic policies put in place by Egyptian institutions. When that happens, we can create an open discussion about the heritage and history of one of the oldest queer communities in our region. Until that happens, publicly disclosing the vocabulary of this language can in itself be read as “an act of budr”.