They Have Starbucks in Cairo, Too


By Jordan Gerstler-Holton

Globe-trotting gays penetrate Egypt deeper than ever.

For most residents here, vacations represent an impossible luxury, but Omar has traveled -- within the last year alone -- to Lebanon and Thailand with men he met online. A year ago, he leveraged his Manjam contacts to land a job as executive assistant at an international NGO. The job pays $600 a month, a considerable sum in a country where nearly a quarter of the people live on less than $2 a day.

It is July, nearly the height of summer, and Omar’s bright yellow shorts could hardly draw a sharper contrast with the surrounding drab, teetering structures built of brick and mud.

From Manjam’s business section you can enjoy a massage from Karim, 25, for $50 an hour. Tall and broad-shouldered, with bulging biceps, he asked to meet me at City Stars, a popular Saudi-built mall that caters to Egypt’s wealthy elite.

Karim pauses to slurp a Starbucks Frappucino before explaining the nature of his trade. “I make it clear to the client beforehand that my business is only massage,” he says, scorning Manjam prostitutes who masquerade as professional masseurs. Karim admits to sometimes having sex with clients, too, but “just for fun.”

Those looking for gay-friendly lodging can stay at a bed & breakfast in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, not far from Egypt’s southern border with Sudan. “You’re welcome in my house, if you want to experience the real Nubian culture,” writes Sadat, 35, in his online page. The mustached, dark-skinned Egyptian is seen riding a camel in a turban and white galabiya.

“If you already know Nubian people, you will know that we are very honest and fair to tourists,” he reassures potential visitors. In the comments section of his online profile, Westerners thank him for a wonderful visit, which only costs about $12 a night.

Sadat says he doesn’t offer sex for money, but writes on his profile that he is “both passive and active” and “takes it all.”

Under previous secular governments, Egypt wanted to avoid the international backlash that would inevitably follow any crackdown on homosexuality, according to Dr. Said Sadek, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. “Regarding gay foreigners, the practice [was] to expel them quietly,” he says, though gay tourists continued visiting the country with little trouble.

Omar Tiraz, a spokesman for President Mohammed Morsi, dismisses fears that the President, a socially conservative Islamist, will crack down on gays. “We’re mostly interested in building our country,” he says.

But others remain unconvinced. “Under Islamist rule, many groups in Egypt will become vulnerable for cheap, quick political gains -- minorities, women, atheists, and gays,” says Sadek. “This is for sure, based on similar experiences in countries dominated by Islamist governments.”