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from the November 2017 issue

Bahaa and Shareef Escape to New York

Two men in a devout Muslim community face drastic consequences when they publicize their relationship in this excerpt from a novel by Egyptian writer Ezzedine Fishere.


Shareef can’t believe how much he loves Bahaa and how little he cares about the consequences. This love was maybe his last chance to get a good grip on his emotional security and self-confidence. But to do that, Shareef knew he had to do something else—he had to come out of the closet. The problem was that Bahaa wanted to keep their relationship secret, something that Shareef grumbled about constantly. And, over time, Shareef’s grumblings turned into rejection, then rebellion and, finally, crisis.

The crisis started the day after Mother’s Day, when the family celebrated Shareef’s mother’s sixtieth birthday. She tells Shareef that she’s got a bride for him. He’ll propose to her and they’ll get married after he graduates, she says. Shareef tells Bahaa he can’t keep living in the closet and he needs them to come out once and for all. Bahaa looks at him for a long time—he knows Shareef’s serious since he constantly brings it up—but this time, from his tone of voice and the look on his face, he senses something’s different. Bahaa objects and tries to make Shareef understand that it’ll be suicide and that it’s not just about him but about Bahaa too, their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages.

But Shareef’s determined. And Bahaa keeps objecting. He tells Shareef he’s looking at the situation through his own eyes, not from the perspective of his lover. Bahaa takes Shareef by the shoulders and, laughing, says he has to stop playing leading man and try to see things from someone else’s point of view. But Shareef’s not listening. He defends himself and his idea passionately, not leaving any room for argument. Bahaa understands his choices: either give in to Shareef and head off on this potentially dangerous adventure or back out calmly then and there. That’ll be painful but he’ll live. And Shareef will eventually understand why he couldn’t go along with it.

There’s a third option they talk about a bunch of times: leaving Egypt and settling down somewhere else, probably New York. Bahaa thinks it’s crazy when Shareef brings it up for the first time. How are we going to get there? It’s not that easy. How will we even get a visa? And work? Where would they get the money? What’ll we do in New York where we don’t know anyone? At the time, Shareef gave only vague responses: he’s got some friends who’ll help them; he has some money; a new life, freedom; and just think about it, New York! Shareef brings up the idea from time to time but he drops it as soon as Bahaa protests.

They don’t agree. They keep talking about it for eight days, face to face and on Whatsapp. Bahaa knows it might be the end of their life in Egypt, but he also understands that refusing would be the end of his life with Shareef.

And he doesn’t want to lose Shareef. Maybe because it’s the only relationship he’s ever had. Maybe because it brought him the stability he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Maybe because Shareef, despite his self-centeredness, makes him happy. Maybe because with Shareef, he found some measure of happiness in the middle of his otherwise difficult life.

At the end of the eighth day, Bahaa tells him he’s not convinced but he won’t give him up. He’ll go along with it but only if they get ready to leave right now. They’ve got to have an emergency plan in case the situation explodes in their face. And that was that.

The catastrophe spread so quickly I don’t think they could’ve grasped the repercussions at that moment. They decide to come out first to their inner circle. Shareef posts two lines on Facebook, only for close friends. He writes that all love is legitimate and that he and Bahaa are lovers and that the freedom to choose is the right of every individual, even if the majority disagrees with this choice.

He and Bahaa sit waiting for the response. No one comments for several minutes but then private messages pour in asking questions. The two re-explain what Shareef wrote, and that’s when things start getting out of hand.

One of their friends asks why they think anyone cares about their sexual life. Or if they want to embarrass them by pretending to be some kind of heroes. And why right now, in the middle of the unfinished revolution? Some friends say it’s political—and stupid—since all they’re doing is serving the Muslim Brotherhood by disfiguring liberalism by linking it with sexual deviancy. Shareef responds with something about freedom and not giving it only to some people. But his friends say that freedom has limits in every society and these are its limits in Egypt at the moment.

Some of his gay acquaintances send alarmed messages. Why’d you do this? Why’d you expose the world’s hatred and open the gates of hell on us? Why are you being so narcissistic? Do you want to be famous? Do you want asylum in a foreign country on the backs of those of us forced to stay in this swamp?

Like that, of the dozens of people they thought were their closest friends, only very few defend their right to choose. And they, too, quickly disappear and cut off contact with them, even on Facebook. Everyone’s finished with them, thinking that all they’re doing is trying to get famous, that they’re not only acting capriciously but also putting themselves and their friends in danger.

That’s when Shareef flies off the handle. All of a sudden, he grabs his telephone and, with two taps on the screen, he changes the audience of the announcement from “close friends” to “public.” Without even asking Bahaa. And things get even crazier from there.

Bahaa’s screams of protest and his uncharacteristic anger last a minute or two as Shareef’s Facebook page sits quiet. Then the messages start coming. Without stop. “Friends” announce their shock at Bahaa and Shareef while others regret trusting them. Some wonder if they’ve secretly been raping children or preying on kids. Supporters of the ruling Islamists condemn them, as expected, by the hundreds, with abuse and threats, condemning them to hell. And then come hundreds of “virtuous” revolutionary youth who denounce them, wondering about the nature of their “plot” against the revolution and whether they’re “pawns.” That’s how their announcement was quickly turned into yet another battleground for the political conflict raging in the country. As for the personal angle of their announcement, it’s pretty much ignored.

Shareef gets a message from Jihan, his former “beard,” and she writes just one word: “despicable.” Then Tamer,  Shareef and Bahaa’s boss, contacts Shareef and gives them the choice between submitting their resignations immediately or getting fired. Tamer says he has twenty-four hours to decide and tells him not to come to work no matter what. He’ll collect their things and send them to them. He’s totally unrelenting.

Bahaa’s furious at Shareef. Making a decision like that on his own is a crime in and of itself. It reflects either a pathological self-centeredness or a hidden contempt for Bahaa, a conviction that he’s nothing more than a piece of flesh. Bahaa tells him that if it wasn’t for the circumstances, he’d leave him immediately. Shareef’s angry too and tells Bahaa he’s only proving he doesn’t understand how deep Shareef’s problems are. But they don’t have time to keep fighting. Things get totally out of control a few hours later when their families get involved.

Shareef’s sister is the first to call. Clearly upset, she tells him that his Facebook page has been hacked and that whoever did it posted some disgraceful things there to harm him. Shareef smiles and tells her the page wasn’t hacked. She’s quiet for a while and then asks in a broken voice: “What do you mean it wasn’t hacked? Did you see what they wrote?” Shareef responds mechanically that she must mean what he posted about his relationship with Bahaa. She’s silent for a long time and then stutters: “Yes . . . but . . . really?” And he replies: “Yes.” Then she asks him: “Have you gone crazy? What’s this? What are you saying? You? Shareef?” He tells her again: “Yes.” She keeps asking questions, disparaging him, incapable of believing it. Maybe he’s made a mistake, maybe there’s some kind of treatment, maybe . . .

He tries to keep calm and respond patiently as she stammers on. She then says something about the family. Hasn’t he thought about his mother, father, relatives, them, and even her? “What’s this selfishness? This is a nightmare. You’ve gone insane. What’s happened to you? May God destroy the revolution. This is what we got from it. I can’t believe it!” She breaks out in tears as she hangs up.

His sister’s reaction was a tame preview for how the rest of the family reacted. His father has the same message for him but he’s cruel, harsh, and violent. That, in addition to the slap across his face. His father tells him in a grave, melodramatic voice that Shareef is no son of his and that he’ll renounce him unless he not only backs off this nonsense and declares his Facebook page was hacked but also deactivates this “cursed” page and finds a treatment for his “abnormality.” As far as his father’s concerned, the atmosphere inundating the country poisoned Shareef and all his son wants is to be different from everyone else. Shareef’s relatives then disappear and not just from his Facebook page. His family completely abandons him.

The most painful response comes from his mother, who doesn’t even acknowledge the situation. It seemed like she’d aged years as she became all gloomy and her face looked dried out. She didn’t call him so he went to see her. She comes out of her room a half hour after he gets there with a glassy look on her face like she doesn’t even see him. She asks him about work and if he’s eating well, about his apartment and if it’s clean, and then nothing. When he tells her he wants to talk about something sensitive, she gets up and says she’s tired, that she doesn’t have the energy for sensitive subjects. She pats him on the shoulder somewhat tenderly and leaves, going back to her room.

The response of Bahaa’s family was much simpler. They call him to the house and when he gets there, he finds them all waiting for him. One of his brothers asks if what his “boyfriend” wrote on Facebook is true. Bahaa nods shyly and that’s when the three brothers beat the crap out of him until their father says it’s enough. They stop, leaving Bahaa crumpled on the ground with bruises on his face, arms, and legs. His father gets up, spits on Bahaa, and leaves. His oldest brother tells him that he’s kicked out of the house and it’s forbidden for him to come back, call, or even return to their neighborhood. If he does, they’ll turn him in to the police on some cooked-up charge and get rid of him and his filth forever. He then tosses a bag of his clothes in his face and tells him to get out. During all this, his mother hid her face in her veil so no one could see her tears.

Of course, there’s a campaign of support for Shareef and Bahaa. People they don’t even know and they’ve never met before take it upon themselves to defend their right to choose. At first, Shareef and Bahaa are dazzled by hashtags like #TheRightToChoose and #InSolidarityWithBahaaAndShareef. Famous bloggers, revolutionary leaders, writers, and media types join the campaign and many ask to interview them in an act of solidarity. At first, the two agree. Some of these famous people come and take photos with them and put them up on Instagram and other social media. Then they disappear, except for some comments from time to time reaffirming their solidarity.

Shareef and Bahaa expected most of this, if not the campaign of solidarity by opportunists. But expectation is one thing and experience is something else. It’s easy to say “My family will cut me off” or “they’ll be disgraced and they’ll toss me out like garbage.” But when that really happens to you, you feel this silence, this coldness, this alienation between you and your mother. The sharpness surprised them, as did the sharp pain they felt.

They didn’t expect it. They didn’t know how it would feel. And what’s more, they didn’t get any satisfaction from coming out. Even Shareef—and this whole thing started because being in the closet was his own personal crisis—even he didn’t feel any catharsis. Instead, it was the opposite. His feelings of oppression, isolation, and self-incrimination only increased. These were simmering inside him all the years he lived in the closet and masqueraded around. He was thinking that coming out would put an end to these feelings but it only brought them out in the open. The sense of isolation and oppression closed in on him everywhere he went: on the street, at work, and even on Facebook.

A deep silence settled in on their life. It enveloped them and isolated them from the world, almost like they were in a fish tank. Their professional life is over after they’re fired. Shareef tells Bahaa not to worry since they can create their own business and concentrate on clients outside of Egypt. And Bahaa doesn’t say anything. His anger at Shareef prevents him from talking openly about it. He’s devastated at what’s happening and that prevents him from stirring up anything between them.

At any rate, their social life collapses. No friends, no acquaintances, and no family, of course. No one. Shareef isn’t all of a sudden part of the “gay group”—neither is Bahaa—and now they’re not part of any group. They go to Left Bank in the middle of this storm and when they walk in the door, the place goes silent. Most of the people there know them but they get completely quiet when they see the two come in. And those who don’t know them get quiet since they’re surprised by this sudden wave of silence. Ahmed Eid, our common friend, is nice to them, as always. He takes their orders and brings them a plate of fruit gratuit. But the tension in the place overwhelms everything and after five minutes, Bahaa says he can’t stand it anymore so Shareef pays the bill and they get up to go, ignoring Ahmed’s polite protests.

The silence weighs on them. But then the real catastrophe happens. And it takes only a few minutes. They’re in the apartment one evening and, at exactly ten o’clock, there’s a bang on the door. Bahaa gets up to see who it is and when he opens the door, two men grab him while a bunch of people, including some neighbors, rush into the apartment. The two are arrested and taken to the police station to stand before the public prosecutor the next morning. And the police do what you’d expect. The two weren’t raped, thank God, but they were beaten and humiliated much worse than ever before or since. Pictures of them on their way to the station spread online. And there are other pictures of them almost naked, probably right after they were beaten and their clothes stripped off at the station. They’re transferred to the prosecutor in the morning where they face a number of charges, including depravity, abomination, and immorality.

The public prosecutor is sympathetic to them. He says it’s the neighbors—the owner of the apartment in particular—who got the police involved. The police weren’t thrilled about arresting them but the owner and the neighbors said they’ll break down the door and deal with Shareef and Bahaa themselves if the police don’t do something. So the police and prosecutor figure they’ll keep the peace by arresting Bahaa and Shareef. That’s when the prosecutor issues the investigation and arrest warrant.

The case was all over the papers, and with pictures. Shareef and Bahaa were shattered by it all—the arrest, the detention, the prosecutor’s “investigation,” the medical examiner, and all the stories and coverage. And worst of all for them was having it come from their neighbors, who they’d always gotten along with.

Lucky for them some NGOs get hold of the story on the night of their arrest and send lawyers to help them before the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides to release them on bail until the trial and tells their lawyer to stay in touch with him while they’re out. The lawyer gives them keys to his own apartment and then goes to their place to get their clothes and all the personal things that the police didn’t seize or destroy, most importantly their passports. The next morning, Shareef and Bahaa buy tickets to New York on different airlines and the next day they leave Egypt for good.

 

From  كل هذا الهراء [Kul Haza Alhura’a]. Published 2017 by Al-Karma Publishers. © 2017 Ezzedine Choukri Fishere. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jonathan Smolin. All rights reserved.

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