During a friendly debate with a cab driver over the current political situation, he reaches over and repeatedly squeezes my thigh, in order to emphasize the key points in his argument. At the grocery store, the clerk hands me my change and smiles, “Here you go, sweetheart.” Whenever I shake hands with my brother-in-law, he pulls me towards him and plants two cartoonishly loud kisses on my cheeks.
In Egypt, it is not uncommon for men to display affection or camaraderie through physical interaction, often to the extent of violating what some may consider their personal space. In fact, this is common to the point where it doesn’t necessarily signify affection as much as it does regular, everyday politeness – for example, my grocer doesn’t even know my first name, but I’m still his “sweetheart” habibi.
However, for those unfamiliar with the local culture, similar examples of male bonding can be a source of confusion and, in some cases, concern. A clueless foreigner on the streets of Cairo might assume that two men with their arms linked are gay lovers. Congratulating the couple on their bold statement, however, would be a mistake that would almost definitely lead to a severe beating – and that’s the best-case scenario.
Even Egyptians such as myself, who believe thigh-squeezing isn’t as much an acceptable method of requesting someone's attention as it is a case of sexual harassment, would think twice before accusing an overly touchy male of homosexuality. Because despite what all the male-on-male kissing and hand-holding might imply, Egyptian society still operates under the firmly held belief that homosexuality is “wrong.” Furthermore, there can be no greater insult to an Egyptian man than one that questions his sexuality, or general "manliness."
Considering how hands-on Egyptian men typically are with each other, is there hypocrisy in their homophobia?
Sociologist Ray Jureidini believes that “there is no contradiction between displays of affection – such as holding hands, walking arm-in-arm or kissing – and sexuality or sexual orientation.”
Jureidini, who spent six years in Cairo before moving to the American University in Beirut, explains that the typical displays of affection Egyptian men share with one another do not necessarily translate into, nor are they provoked by, sexual attraction, adding that “men who display this type of [behavior] may be just as homophobic as those who do not.”
“There are many [situations] when men are ‘allowed’ to display expressions of closeness without it being interpreted as homosexual [behavior],” Jureidini states. “This can be witnessed in sports, for example – particularly team sports. Egypt is no different in this respect.”
In terms of homophobia, Jureidini also believes Egypt is “no different” from virtually any other society. “In pretty much every society [you will find] homophobia expressed among males [as part of their] process of establishing their heterosexuality,” he claims. “In all societies, men of all ages express hostility and revulsion towards homosexuality.”
“There is a state-sanctioned policy against homosexuality” which Jurdeini believes contributes to the perpetuation of homophobia.
Jureidini also points out that in Arab families, kissing and hugging between fathers, sons, and other male relations is more acceptable than in “families from Anglo-Western countries" – further evidence supporting his view that the characteristics of male relationships in Egypt and the Arab world have more to do with culture than homosexuality.
However, not everyone is convinced.
“I understand that this type of behavior isn’t perceived as being homosexual in nature, but that doesn’t make it any less hypocritical,” says Amin, a 29-year-old gay Egyptian who requested his name be changed for the sake of personal safety. “Yes, it’s a cultural thing, but that’s what it’s become today, not necessarily how it started out. I don’t think the cause behind this type of behavior is cultural – it has more to do with repression and sexual frustration.”
As a gay man who has spent his entire life in Egypt, Amin is convinced that homosexuality still plays a role in modern Egyptian male bonding, even if on a subconscious level.
“Look at how repressive our society is, and consider all the bizarre manifestations of that repression – from widespread sexual harassment, to men being overly physical with one another, to the way they joke with each other and the language they use,” he argues. “If that part of the equation didn’t exist, then maybe I’d be able to see things differently.”
“You could just as easily look at a society where child marriage is normal and blame that on cultural reasons, instead of recognizing that it must have started because some people are pedophiles,” Amin reasons.
Despite his insistence to the contrary, Amin does not speak for the entire Egyptian gay community. Thirty-year-old Mansour (also not his real name), for example, does not see any hypocrisy in the situation.
“The fact that some men walk around holding hands is a cultural thing, which we share with countries like India and Pakistan,” Mansour explains. “It’s a type of intimacy not uncommon in certain countries.”
“If you come from a Western culture, then this type of behavior will seem weird to you, but different cultures do things differently, and they look at things through a different perspective. A lot of Egyptians see how foreigners interact with each other and, to them, it seems like a cold and detached way to behave.”
Mansour also points out that the perceived incongruity between male bonding and homophobia in Egyptian society “is similar, in a way, to all the veiled women that wrap themselves in layers but still breastfeed their babies in public.”
“It’s not like they have a secret urge to expose their breasts,” he says.
Hypocritical or not, there’s no arguing that the methods of male interaction are by now a defining feature in Egyptian society, guaranteed to confuse outsiders as much as annoy anyone with an appreciation for the concept of personal space.
Well aware that his actions were (probably) not sexually motivated, I still couldn’t help but feel increasingly irritated by the cab driver’s endless touching. Eventually, and against my better judgment, I said something about it.
“You know, that’s not necessary,” I tell him, with a forced and unconvincing smile. “Squeezing my thigh like that. I can hear you just fine.”
Caught off guard, the driver remains silent for a few moments, and I briefly regret saying anything at all. Any threat of violence quickly disappears, though, when he offers a hushed, and clearly embarrassed, apology.
A few awkward minutes later, as I get out of the cab and pay the driver, he leans over towards me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he says, sincerely. “I didn’t know you were getting upset. I mean, we’re just men, having a conversation.”