Intolerable: Growing Up Gay in the Middle East

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Originally published on Advocate.com October 02 2013 7:00 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.

Above, from left:s,isters Hanna, Hoda, Raja (front), mother Safia, the author, brother Wahbi, brother Khairy, and father Mohamed. This picture was taken in Beirut in 1968, during one of their weekend outings.

In 1986 Mohamed insisted on relocating the remaining members of his family to Sana’a. Keeping two households had become too big a financial burden for him. I didn’t need to visit Sana’a to know I wouldn’t be happy there — not after I’d finally settled into Cairo’s underground gay scene. I saw what living there was doing to my sisters when they visited the family home in Cairo on their summer vacations. For one thing, they complained about life in Sana’a all the time. After the relative freedom they grew up in, they were having to adjust to a society where women had to cover their heads and wear an abaya — a black, loose-fitting coat to hide the contours of the body. For the first time, they experienced full-blown misogyny and discrimination, both as women and as Aden-born Yemeni citizens. Sana’a of the 1980s was a very closed society and rarely welcomed strangers. To the average Sana’a male, women from Aden who were educated in places like Beirut and Cairo were loose by definition. I don’t think that attitude has shifted much in the past thirty years, despite all the uprisings and anti-government protests.

On a political level, President Saleh ran the country like a private club and a police state. My sister Ferial was under security investigation for many months and denied an identity card — the most essential document a Yemeni citizen needs — because she was more outspoken and independent than my other sisters. The rest experienced various but milder forms of intimidation and harassment before they could work legally.

The combination of living in Yemen, an extremely conservative society, and being under my father’s and brother’s thumbs, both of whom were equally rigid by now, meant that my sisters had to internalize the dominant culture’s attitude towards women. “What’s the use?” Hoda would tell me when I suggested she should relax a little now that she was visiting Cairo, “I’m going back to prison in a few weeks.” It was both a physical and psychological prison. When we went out for lunch or dinner in Cairo, I noticed that my sisters left it up to me to do all the ordering and talking with waiters. Just a few years before, I’d left those decisions to them. They surrendered their voices to the nearest male relative, which on those occasions meant me. When we went shopping, they’d gravitate towards the most conservative clothes and avoid items that could give the wrong signals — high heels, bright colours — even if they covered whatever they wore with the abaya. How different were these shop- ping trips from the times we looked for bikinis for the summer sea- son together.

As a man, I knew I’d probably fare better than my sisters in Yemen’s male-dominated society. It’s a privilege to be a man there, period. But not a gay man. Leaving Cairo now would be one thing; leaving it for Sana’a another.

I didn’t have a choice. I’d failed to secure any scholarship to complete my studies abroad, and all the flirting and sleeping around hadn’t landed me a partner who might whisk me off to somewhere in the West. I had flings and silly crushes but no relationships.

Above: "Shortly after leaving Cairo and its underground gay scene behind for a new life in Sana'a, I had no choice but to socialize with Yemeni men — men with whom I had little in common and whose names and stories I've completely forgotten now," says the author.

After fifteen years it was time to say goodbye to Cairo. My mother flew back from Yemen to help with selling the furniture and to pack years and years of clothes and collectables. When she and my sisters had departed for Yemen a few years earlier, they had left most of their belongings in Cairo. Perhaps they were secretly hoping they’d return after a year or two of Sana’a. Maybe if they left some clothes in Cairo, Yemen wouldn’t seem so permanent.

Wahbi and I were responsible for arranging the furniture sale and using the proceeds to buy our plane tickets. Neither of us was any good at that sort of transaction and the shrewd second-hand furniture dealers saw through us. One after another they made lowball offers — everything for three or four hundred Egyptian pounds — hardly enough to pay for one ticket, let alone two. It was a handy reminder of the gap between us as Yemeni expatriates and Egyptians and, to my brother, another reason why we should leave. We saw ourselves as part of Cairo society, and they saw us as rich Arabs to whom a few hundred pounds would make no difference.

Back then, you didn’t just call a second-hand store and ask them to come and have a look; you actually had to go there and bring the owner or an employee home. When I was asked to bring back a furniture seller from the working-class neighbourhood of Imbaba, I took a taxi there and expected a ride back in the shop owner’s truck. I did get a ride back. On a donkey cart. I had seen them on the streets of Cairo before and in movies but never expected to ride in one. I don’t know if I ever told any of my friends in Cairo about that experience. To me now, it’s just another quirky Cairo story. At the time, I was mortified. When we eventually made it to our street, the salesman, as expected, made an even lower offer than the rest.

That’s when my mother stepped in. Safia may have been illiterate, but she knew how to bargain, having shopped in Cairo’s food markets for years. When the salesman was about to stage the first of his many walkouts to force us into accepting his offer, Safia made him a counter-offer. I can’t remember the exact figure, but it was above what we told her two airline tickets to Sana’a would cost. She asked him to accept it now and she’d throw in some clothes —  including some of her fur coats, which she hadn’t worn since the early 1970s — or he could leave right away and not come back. A minute or two later we had a deal. Cash in hand. For about a week or so, we had no furniture except the beds, which the seller returned to pick up on the day we left for Sana’a.

I’ve taken many plane rides before and since and have moved from continent to continent in the last two decades, but nothing came close to how frightened I felt holding that one-way ticket from Cairo to Sana’a. What would I do in Yemen, and what would Yemen, a country that punished homosexuality with public hanging or lashings, do to a twenty-two-year-old gay man like me?

Kamal Al-Solaylee, an associate professor and undergraduate program director at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, was previously a theatre critic at The Globe and Mail. He has written features and reviews for numerous publications, including the Toronto Star, National Post, The Walrus, Literary Review of Canada, Xtra!, Quill & Quire, and Toronto Life. Al-Solaylee holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Nottingham. He lives in Toronto.