I attended a public discussion about a book on gays in a petrol station on Tuesday. Egypt.
The book is a novella called 'Fe Balad El Welad' (“In the Country of Boys”) by journalist Mostafa Fathy, and the petrol station as I recall was Ta3owen. It was held in a bookshop (located inside the petrol station which, God help us, is located in Nasr City) called the J.C bookshop/cafe. Sharshar unhelpfully kept referring to it as Jesus Christ.
We arrived 10 minutes late, which meant we arrived 50 minutes early. We bought books, we drank tea, we stared at a man sporting a bouffant mullet.
By the time Fathy made his arrival the place was reasonably full. He got the ball rolling by inviting questions, and then effectively rolled said ball into a discussion ditch by (inadvertently) inviting a question from a man who on the basis of scripture regards homosexuals as malevolent aliens but decided, what the hell, he'd come along to the discussion anyway we yebden 3alayna shwaya [enrich the discussion with his contribution].
The inevitable discussion ensued, the man’s (“Engineer Mohamed”) first argument was that rather than discussing homosexuality, writers should be covering other “more pressing” issues in Egyptian society. His true agenda was revealed the more he talked, and talk he did, informing us that if he discovered that his boss was gay he would “seriously consider” leaving his job, and that he feels compelled to encourage homosexuals who cross his path to repent and denounce their satanic practices of falling in love and organising parades and enjoying musicals.
Fathy responded by suggesting that since bedroom activities aren’t any of your business Engineer Mohamed, and since you’re not God, and since your complete absence of a sense of humour and human empathy places you beyond advances of any kind, gay or straight (I made that last bit up. I said that inside my head), perhaps you could live and let live and treat people as human beings rather than obsess about their orifices.
This back and forth continued for approximately 29 years until Moftases could stand it no longer and, in an unorthodox move, asked a question about the book. This instigated a trend, and more discussion which did not mention the word Lot ensued until a man who announced himself as a lawyer started on some spiel the point of which none of us could understand. He declared that God has “forbidden relationships between a man and a man” at which point Moftases playfully interjected “and between a woman and a woman” knowing that it would throw the lawyer as indeed it did. He stopped briefly, mouth open, either flummoxed by the idea of Sapphic desire or reminiscing about his last download.
Like a wriggling queen drawn to an Abba revival party the conversation inevitably ended back with Engineer Mohamed and his dull religious crusade. By this time Moftases was doodling and Abadodo was off smoking fags (I mean having a cigarette, not out on a homophobic rampage) every five minutes and me and Sharshar were writing childish things on the sugar packets.
Interestingly though, books periodically fell off the top shelf behind Fathy for absolutely no reason at all, and we all wondered whether a higher power was trying to smite the sexual deviants in the room but had missed.
The book in case you’re wondering reads a little bit like Gays for Beginners and is a collection of angst-ridden trials endured by an Egyptian man coming to terms with being gay. None of the characters identified as gay are entirely at ease with themselves and all except the protagonist are at some point subjected to some form of violent gay bashing. All in all it had the feel of a plea for tolerance masquerading as literature – and Fathy made no secret of the fact that the idea for the book emerged from his original plan to write a series of articles on the subject.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it - I did. And, as a friend remarked, it’s a brave first step towards open discussion of a subject which rarely receives sympathetic – or indeed any - media coverage.