Intolerable: Growing Up Gay in the Middle East

In this exclusive excerpt from his powerful debut, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, gay Arab author Kamal Al-Solaylee reflects on the first time he discovered the underground gay scene in Cairo.

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October 02 2013 6:00 AM ET

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the youngest of 11 children, as he writes in his affecting memoir, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes. He was born in Yemen to "an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at 14, and had 11 children by the time she was 33," according to the book. Al-Solaylee's family moved from Yemen to Beirut to Cairo, then back to Yemen seeking political and ethnic stability and safety throughout the latter half of the 20th century. While the Al-Solaylees sought shelter and security, Kamal was waging his own internal war as he came to terms with his sexual orientation.

But coming out as a gay man in the Middle East in the early 1980s seemed an almost insurmountable hurdle. So Al-Solaylee sought out and received a scholarship to attend college in the United Kingdom, and from there emigrated to Canada. As a Canadian journalist, Al-Solaylee has written for The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Xtra! and The Toronto Post, among other publications. He currently serves as the director of the undergraduate journalism program at Toronto's Ryerson University. 

After an exile from their home country of what was then South Yemen and a few years in pre-civil war Lebanon, the Al-Solaylee family moves to Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1970s in search of a safer life. It’s there that the young Kamal realizes he’s gay in a society where homosexuality is taboo. In this exclusive excerpt, the author talks about discovering Cairo’s underground gay scene in the early 1980s, a period that coincides with the early AIDS epidemic and the rise of political Islam in the Arab world.

CHAPTER SIX: Cairo

The visit to England gave me a confidence boost and I found the courage to call the Liverpool gay helpline and ask for information on finding other gay men in Cairo. Much to my surprise, the helpful operator said that the international gay guide Spartacus listed some bars in downtown Cairo as meeting places. “Are you sure?” I asked in disbelief. It was hard for me to imagine the possibility of meeting other people publically who felt the same way that I did, given how isolated my early years as a gay teen had been. “Well, the Tavern at the Cairo Nile Hilton comes up in various guides,” he replied. I knew the hotel but had no idea where that tavern was, or what to do when I got there.

Though I was already twenty, I was very naive and inexperienced. But even in the Cairo of 1984 the possibility of meeting gay men, particularly Westerners, was too big an attraction for me to miss. I remember going to a fancy hair salon in Cairo and asking the stylist to straighten my long hair with a flat iron. I wore my best wool sweater and cotton pants — I was anything but fashionable — and walked to the Nile Hilton in Tahrir Square, a landmark in Cairo since 1959. Once I identified the Tavern pub, I circled its doors a few times before I walked in. When I did, I had no idea what to expect. There was an Australian lounge singer doing a version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” a few leather seats, a big screen that divided the place into two and a rectangular bar with a terrifyingly stern-looking Egyptian barman. I had never until then consumed any alcohol, and when I found a seat at the bar, I couldn’t think of anything to order except a gin and tonic because I’d heard of it in American movies. I had no idea what it would taste like. I began sipping it — it didn’t taste so bad — and looking around. To my horror I immediately spotted a family friend, who either didn’t recognize me or chose to ignore me. I began to connect the dots. So, lots of men on their own or talking to other men. Very few women, Egyptian or Western. The men were all trying to catch each other’s eye. Older white men. Younger Egyptians. Lots of furtive glances and nervous laughter. The lounge singer started humming “Sometimes When We Touch,” which I had never heard before but immediately thought the most romantic song ever.

Then it happened. A Swiss businessman said hello and raised his glass. I thought he’d probably mixed me up with the waiter and was just ordering another drink. I don’t remember how we got talk- ing, but it would be the very first time I ever chatted in person to another human being who identified himself as gay. It would be the start of many Thursday-night encounters at the Nile Hilton Tavern. I loved nothing more than being chatted up and seduced by older Western or Egyptian men. It became a sport, and I’d always felt I’d lost the game if I wasn’t invited back to a hotel room or at least got a ride home and a fondle in the car with one of the Egyptian busi- nessmen, who were almost always married and couldn’t take me home anyway. Not that it was always that easy. I had nightmares about being caught or contracting HIV, which was just beginning to be the great epidemic that would define sexuality in the 1980s. But the pleasures outweighed the restlessness and fears — including the very real threat of being arrested and charged with sodomy. Building a network of Egyptian and expatriate gays changed my life. I wasn’t alone, and even if I still lived a secretive life, I had some older men to guide me through it.

Ahmad, a tailor, and his boyfriend, Bill, an American high-school teacher, took me under their wing. Both were in their late thirties and communicated largely in broken English and Arabic. Ahmad came from a poor working-class background and his English was largely picked up from previous sexual encounters with other Americans and Brits. Occasionally, I’d act as a translator between the two. I couldn’t have been happier. They introduced me to Cairo’s authentic gay scene — as opposed to the one based on meeting foreigners in hotels — which centred around a seedy part of the city known as Haret Abu Ali. Of the many chapters in my life, this one seems the most surreal to me now. It was like discovering that a lost city we’d only heard of in fables existed all along and was just a cab ride away. Belly dancers who’d seen better days had ended up there performing in cabarets for a clientele of wisecracking tough Egyptians and groups of gay men. Westerners would come as guests of the Egyptian gay men for the novelty factor, but you had to understand Egyptian Arabic to make the most of the comedy acts or the music. Even though I hated that kind of music, I quickly appreciated its camp value and its meaning as part of the Egyptian gay experience. I’d always loved belly dancing anyway and the religious crackdown in Egypt meant that there were fewer and fewer dancers. For a brief moment, I was living in a Cairo that recalled the golden days of the 1950s and early ’60s that I saw on TV.
Of course it wouldn’t last.

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