News & Opinion
They Have Starbucks in Cairo, Too
Globe-trotting gays penetrate Egypt deeper than ever.
October 19 2012 10:20 AM EST
February 05 2015 9:27 PM EST
Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection
In early February 2011, with Egypt's uprising in full force, Nic, a 51-year-old lawyer based in London, turned to a gay social network to find out what was happening. "Being gay, at least, there was a common interest, one thread there," he recalls. That was when he met Omar, a 24-year-old Egyptian who declined to give his real name for fear of being outed. After chatting for over a year, Nic traveled to Cairo in March and April to see him.
Gay tourism is hardly new to Egypt. For over a decade, travel guides have touted discos, train stations, public restrooms, and even Tahrir Square, the iconic center of Egypt's revolution, as gay cruising grounds. However, burgeoning gay social networks now facilitate connections with greater ease -- and across borders -- at a time when socially conservative Islamists are taking control of the country.
The most popular gay social network in the Arab world is Manjam, which has 100,000 members in the region, including 28,000 in Egypt.
Despite opposition to homosexuality in conservative Muslim countries, Greg Mills, Manjam marketing manager, says the company has "never directly experienced any problems from any government."
Uwe, a 39-year-old airline strategy consultant, and Carlos, a 28-year-old Spanish teacher, are married and live in Germany. They met Omar on Manjam two years ago, shortly before their first trip to Egypt. Since then, Uwe has returned 10 times, and Carlos five.
"We have more of a gay social life in Egypt than we have in Germany, and we go out with friends more in Cairo than we do in Cologne," says Uwe.
Rights groups report that Egypt's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, who remained concealed during the recent revolution, continue to face harassment, arrest, and even torture. Of more than two dozen gay online network users interviewed for this story, however, few believe their online activities put them in danger.
"I figure, what are you doing on the site if you're not gay yourself?" says Omar with surprising confidence, straining to be heard over loudspeakers blasting the Islamic call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Along the unpaved surface, a wobbling truck kicks up dust. Mangy dogs scouring for food among heaps of garbage make way for the passing vehicle.
This is Omar's district of Al-Duwayqa, which made headlines in 2008 when a rockslide flattened an entire neighborhood, killing more than 100 people and leaving thousands homeless. Otherwise, the area is virtually undistinguishable from the other informal, squatter-constructed communities that dot the sprawling Cairo metropolis.
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."