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by Jim Gladstone
gay travel cairo
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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 Africa’s 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 Hammerstein’s 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. I’d 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 city’s wealthiest residential neighborhoods and Egypt’s 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, I’d been nervous that they’d 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 imagery.

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 society’s 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 don’t use my real name when you write about this,” the handsome, outspoken 25-year-old requested, “I’m sad to say, but it’s dangerous because of the homophobia. Just call me Adam.”

I’d 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 beyond Egypt.”

If Edelweiss playing at the airport and camels named after moonwalking megalomaniacs are part of globalism’s 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 women’s 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.

Adam’s gay friendships and romances are made fragile by their furtiveness. He has experienced theft and physical abuse at the hands of casual connections—offenses that cannot be reported to police because homosexuality itself is illegal. Throughout our conversation, Adam’s 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 I’m 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 Adam’s 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 Cairo’s 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 didn’t really believe it could happen. Then, on the 25th, I was at work when suddenly people began flooding into the streets.”

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well as i supported the egyptian revolution for all egyptian people and my friends who live there and spread the word through the internet media,, i will support this next revolution for equal human and gay rights for all, not mattering sexual orientation
- hector e. lopez , ca. u.s.a.

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