A VOICE FROM CAIRO
by Jim Gladstone
Last August, in the midst of a three-continent itinerary
fueled by frequent flier miles and the hospitality of
far-flung friends, I found myself with a 26-hour layover
in Cairo. From the moment I arrived, I felt the grip
of globalization on Africas largest metropolis.
Walking the jetway into the international
airport terminal, I laughed aloud when my ears made
sense of the pumped in instrumental background music:
In the dry, dusty heat of summertime Egypt, here was
Edelweiss, American composers Rodgers and Hammersteins
sentimental ode to pastoral Austria. Insidious, I thought,
unable to imagine the stunning positive influence that
media technology would have here in the year ahead.
The 50-minute taxi ride westward from
the airport to Giza was a video game-worthy scramble
through chaotic intersections and bustling nighttime
sidewalks. Id arrived on the first evening of
Ramadan, and after an initial day of fasting and atonement,
dusk had brought a bustle of shopping and feasting to
the city streets. Driving across the Nile, we traversed
slender Gezira Island, home to some of the citys
wealthiest residential neighborhoods and Egypts
primary embassy row.
Early the next morning, I walked a mile
from my hotel to the desert plateau where the Great
Pyramid, along with two smaller pyramids and the Sphinx,
looms over a swath of arid desert.
Before I was able to lose myself amidst
the archaeological wonders, I spent ten minutes avoiding
the aggressive sales pitch of a gargantuan kaftaned
tout named Mohammed who, at one point, grabbed me around
my waist and tried to forcibly lift me onto the saddle
of his globally monikered camel, Michael Jackson.
Having seen so many films and photographs
of the pyramids over the course of my life, Id
been nervous that theyd disappoint in person,
but as with the Christ of Rio de Janeiro, the Grand
Canyon, and Mont Blanc, the up-close impact of their
astonishing scale transcended the power of second-hand
It was humbling to remember that each
of the more than two million massive limestone and granite
blocks that makes up these haunting forms was hauled
and lifted by slaves and impoverished laborers, all
working in service of their societys elite classes.
Even more humbling was the echo of that ancient exploitation
I was about to encounter.
I cabbed back to central Cairo, Ramadan
casting a sleepy lull over the city by day, and made
my way to the café Groppi, a downtown fixture
since 1924. Once an epicenter of intellectual and social
high life in Cairo, this pastry shop and teahouse with
its mosaic-tiled exterior has fallen into dusty disrepair
in recent decades. The threadbare main room, empty but
for a waiter lingering against a back wall and an old
man paging through his newspaper over a cup of tea,
took on an inspiring vibrancy when I was joined by a
young gay Cairene eager to share his buzzing head full
of hopes, dreams, and fears.
Please dont use my real
name when you write about this, the handsome,
outspoken 25-year-old requested, Im sad
to say, but its dangerous because of the homophobia.
Just call me Adam.
Id arranged this meeting with
Adam (who writes about the arts and culture for a left-leaning
Egyptian magazine) via Facebook. Earlier in 2010, he
had received a fellowship that allowed him to join dozens
of young people from throughout Northern Africa at a
conference in Sweden.
The program was based on using
social media to promote and defend social change,
he told me last August, not realizing that he would
soon be engaged in a populist uprising with Facebook
and Twitter among its key tactical weapons. It
made me feel like I had a network of support that went
If Edelweiss playing at the airport
and camels named after moonwalking megalomaniacs are
part of globalisms downside, the Internet and
social media are part of the upside. And so, as it turns
out, can be Hollywood movies:
About four years ago, Adam
told me, tearing up as he spoke. I saw Brokeback
Mountain. It was a pirated digital copy on the Internet.
Films that deal with gay subjects are banned from cinemas
here. This movie was so beautiful. I had never seen
anything like it before. And I was so upset at the pain
these men felt, and the hiding they had to do. I could
see myself in it. This is when I really started to identify
as gay. I started to read about it, go to lectures when
I could find them, to seek out others.
While Adam went on to find a small cadre
of gay friends in Cairo, he struggles with the lack
of an open, active gay community. Since his teenage
years, he has been passionately engaged in the pursuit
of womens rights in Egypt, itself still a controversial
cause. In a country where, according to Adam, government
elites leverage Muslim religious beliefs not out of
piety, but to advance their own wealth and power, the
notion of gay rights still goes largely unspoken.
Adams gay friendships and romances
are made fragile by their furtiveness. He has experienced
theft and physical abuse at the hands of casual connectionsoffenses
that cannot be reported to police because homosexuality
itself is illegal. Throughout our conversation, Adams
inspiring inner strength and confidence in his right
to be himself was undercut by the fundamental alienation
imposed on gays by societies that deny them the right
to associate with each other and draw strength and support
from their commonalities.
I want to see Egypt change,
Adam told me over cups of thick muddy coffee and puffs
from a sheesha, but Im not sure that I can
grow here as a gay man.
What do you think? he asked
me. Will I have to move away from my country?
Half a year later, after following Adams
Facebook chronicle of his daily frustrations and his
first real romance, my long distance friend was suddenly
battling to change his country. After losing contact
with him for several days in late January when Cairos
Internet access was disrupted by the Mubarak government,
I got back in touch with Adam, who described the turmoil
in vivid detail:
On the 24th of January,
he e-mailed me, There was talk of demonstrations,
but I didnt really believe it could happen. Then,
on the 25th, I was at work when suddenly people began
flooding into the streets.