If you’ve been watching the news, you couldn’t help but be stunned by what has been happening across the Middle East. Leaders who have ruled with impunity, losing control through the power of the people after years of repression and lack of freedom of speech. I’ve been keenly watching what was happening in Egypt, a country I called home for 12 months and where I’ve led many adventure tours for travellers from around the world. I wondered what the impact would be on the country and on travellers?
Thankfully, the road to transition has been largely peaceful and travel restrictions to Egypt have long since been lifted by the UK Foreign Office; life is returning to normal. Following the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the new presidency has begun and apart from volatile neighbours, normality has returned to life in Egypt. But there are fewer tourists – and the local economy is hurting!
Being gay in Egypt
Egypt is a country with so much to offer and following a recent trip back, it was as if I had never been away. I was welcomed back as if I was family, not just by my Egyptian friends but by locals I had never met before. There is a renewed sense of optimism in a country where tourism plays a big part of its economy, where travellers have always poured in to view some of the most spectacular attractions on the planet.
So what’s it like being a gay man living or travelling in a country where homosexuality is not tolerated? I have always arrived with an open mind; although acutely aware of the political and religious views that shape the attitudes of Egyptians and their neighbours with regards to being gay.
Although homosexuality is not in itself illegal under Egyptian law, homosexual acts in public are illegal and gay people have been convicted for breaking laws on public decency. For me, it’s always about educating myself to local laws and customs whether I’m travelling to Cairo or San Francisco. I don’t believe in imposing my lifestyle on anyone else just as I don’t want anyone to impose theirs on mine. It’s about respect and responsible tourism.
The one thing I’ve always been a firm believer in is that my sexuality should not dictate where I, as gay man, can or cannot travel to. I’ve also never bought into the argument that gay people should boycott countries where being gay is illegal – after all, it wasn’t so long ago that being homosexual was against the law in the UK, the USA and in many other countries.
Whether it’s banned or simply frowned upon to be gay in Middle Eastern countries, it still happens! Are gay bars and clubs banned? Yes but they still exist. Are gay men and women still forced into marriages? Yes. Is it ok for gay people to hold hands or be affectionate in public? No, but then there’s places in the UK that I’d be careful to do that in.
But with calls from the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, not for a religious or military regime to take charge, but for a true democratic process to be instigated politically in Egypt, one can only hope that tolerance for minority groups increases. Boycotting these countries because they don’t yet share our views would be to miss out on everything a country such as Egypt has to offer. Should our sexuality completely define us?
The Buzzing City of Cairo
Cairo is an amazing city which is modern enough to function commercially yet retains enough of its ancient past and charm to make it a beautiful, alluring place to visit. Sure, Cairo is a sprawling desert city, alive till the early hours of the morning, filled with congested traffic, beeping horns, dust and people, however there are also pockets of calm and oasis which reveal a pulse and personality so defined you know you couldn’t be anywhere else but in Cairo.
When I returned recently, I resorted to my favourite past time – people watching from the comfort of one of the many local outdoor tea shops. More than watching life go by, it always gives me the opportunity to scratch under the surface and see how the locals live their daily lives, how they interact, the correct local prices for goods, and perhaps start conversations which could either lead to me learning something about the country or people, or simply buying a carpet or papyrus. More importantly to me, I find the heartbeat of the country, what people are thinking and feeling, setting my understanding for the remainder of my trip.
As well as being home to the Pyramids and Sphinx in Giza, I love wandering around the labyrinth of corridors in the city’s Khan el Khalili bazaar – a maze of colour, sights, sounds and smells. For hundreds of years, people have been selling their wares here, and you can still watch traditional tradesmen crafting their goods as their forefathers did before them. There’s the sweet aromatic smell of shisha from smoking cafes wafting through the air, as well as fresh juices. It’s always on my list as something not to be missed.
The city also has an array of mosques and temples, evening jazz clubs, night street food markets, mules pulling carts, men in galabayas and ladies in head scarves. There are a multitude of smells, noises, and sounds from Arabic music playing from passing cars and cafes, wafts of cheap delicious kofta and meat skewers that leave your stomach grumbling with hunger. The River Nile is the lifeblood of the city, snaking its way through.
What to do in Egypt?
Of course, there is a huge diversity to Egypt and for most people Cairo is simply the first taste of the country. In the south, referred to as Upper Egypt, the stunning desert city of Aswan on the banks of the Nile is home to the nomadic Nubian people, very dark and classically African in appearance with a fascinating history. They retain a lot of their old customs and traits from making natural medicines to sailing feluccas (small open air sailing boats) up and down the Nile. Aswan has an incredible market which at times can be like running the gauntlet to keep your wallet intact as there are so many items just calling out to be bought. However if you are a keen souvenir shopper, look no further as you’ll find a wide array of crafts to tempt you from shisha pipes, carpets, statues and medicines, to eager salesmen inviting you in for sweet tea over friendly negotiations. It may sound as busy as Cairo but it’s not. Aswan is famed for being a peaceful slow-paced African town, appealing to the eye and friendly. A short flight or early morning bus ride twill take you to Abu Simbel, two monstrous monuments built as a dedication to Ramses II and his wife Nefertari. They were relocated to higher ground when the Aswan Dam was built – the sheer scale is something you have to see to believe.
I’ve travelled on many feluccas but for style, comfort and pure relaxation, sailing on board a luxury Nile cruiser is the way to go. For me, the trip by boat from Aswan to Luxor is perhaps my favourite past-time in Egypt, where I’m able to sit back and view life along the banks of the Nile, home to 90 percent of the population. Along the way you will see farmers and cattle, excited children waving from shore and townspeople going about their business. We also stop at two of the most spectacular temples in Egypt, Kom Ombo and Edfu. When I visit these temples, which are for the most part intact, it helps me to appreciate the powerful kingdoms that once ruled this great country.
Luxor is one of the most visited cities in Egypt, often referred to as ‘the world’s greatest open air museum’ due to the amount of temples and sites on offer – it’s easy to become overwhelmed so I recommend using a tour guide. The city is split in two; the East Bank and the West Bank where the majority of tombs are found including that of Tutankhamun. Crossing the Nile before sunrise, we land on the West Bank, where hee-hawing donkeys are waiting to transport us to the Valley of the Kings, a truly magnificent sight. This desert town is a far cry from the frenetic pace of Cairo and the stunning corals of the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula but offer such a multitude of sites.
Although it’s been a number of years since I lived in Egypt, I look back fondly on my time there and feel privileged to have had the experiences I did, perhaps the most exciting and self-affirming time in my life. In the many times I’ve visited since my sexuality has never caused me to feel threatened or in danger in Egypt because I am respectful of local customs. I don’t avoid countries due their legal position on homosexuality – If I did I would be the ultimate loser, not having the opportunity to see, hear, feel and understand the rhythm of a country so foreign to my own and to meet wonderful and interesting people whether they be gay, straight, foreigners or locals.