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Exposing Oppression in Egypt
by David Khalili on June 17, 2008
Up and coming filmmaker Maher Sabry exhibits his passion for human rights activism through his stunning work. All My Life, Sabry’s debut feature length film, is the first unapologetic look into the struggles and pleasures of gay men in Egypt. The film centers on the Queen Boat case of 2001, where fifty-two men were arrested at a gay nightclub in Cairo and tried in the national security court. Sabry won the prestigious Felipa de Souza Award in 2002 from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission for informing the international human rights community about the arrests in the Queen Boat case.
Here, he shares his experiences with the creation of All My Life, his thoughts on the current state of LGBT rights in Egypt, and his connection to the Queen Boat case. All My Life premiered at Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Sunday, June 22, 2008, 8:30 p.m. Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.
David Khalili: How did you begin your career in film?
Maher Sabry: Actually, I started my career in theater. I had my first degree in English literature and drama from Cairo University. In the ’90s during school and after, I was involved in the independent theater movement in Egypt. From there I participated in some independent films and video works, in front of and behind the camera. I also made some digital experimental shorts. Finally in 2002, I came to the States where I studied cinema.
DK: Can you tell us about the Queen Boat case in Cairo, Egypt?
MS: Well, to begin with I want to tell you about the political situation in Egypt. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has been ruled under a state of emergency for most of the last three decades—1981 to 2008. The Emergency Law allows arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention without trial. A renewal of the emergency laws was rammed in 2003. Lawmakers cited “anti-terrorist” legislation in the United States as a justification for continuing Egypt’s endless state of emergency.
On May 11, 2001, fifty-two men were arrested, mostly from aboard a gay nightclub called the Queen Boat, but many others were arrested from the streets through informers. They where accused of forming a “satanic cult,” where they practice homosexual sex as part of their rituals. There was no evidence except their signature on interrogation papers that they signed under torture. The defendants were vilified in the Egyptian media, which printed their real names and addresses and branded them as agents against the state. And so were sent to trials in front of the high security court, a court designed to try terrorists under the Emergency Law. The trials lasted five months, where lawyers for the defense argued that the cases should be dismissed on the grounds of false arrest, improper arrest procedures, falsified evidence, and police intimidation, but all the evidence of torture and false arrests were ignored by the biased court. A fifty-third man, a teenager, was tried in juvenile court. His picture and name were published in the newspapers in spite of laws that protect underage convicts’ privacy. On November 14, 2001, twenty-one of the men were convicted of the “habitual practice of debauchery,” under Article 9c of Law No. 10 of 1961 on the Combat of Prostitution. One man charged with “contempt for religion,” was sentenced to three years of prison. And the so-called “ringleader” was convicted of both charges and received the heaviest sentence, five years hard labor. The teenager in juvenile court was sentenced to the maximum penalty of three years in prison. All of the sentences were to be followed by similar years of probation. In Egypt during the probation time, a person is free during the day but has to spend the night in the police station detention cell.
In May of 2002, both the guilty and non-guilty verdicts were overturned, except for the two men who had been convicted of contempt for religion, and their sentences were upheld. The fifty men were sent to a new trial in front of a civil court; provoking international outrage. This trial was held at Qasr-al-Nil Misdemeanors Court in Cairo and presided over by Judge Abdel Karim, the same judge who had presided over the first trial. The retrial ended in March 2003, where twenty-one men were handed three-year jail sentences.
DK: How were you involved with the Queen Boat case?
MS: On the night of the arrests, a friend of mine who was on the boat called me at 3 a.m. and told me about what happened and about the arrest of another friend there. He wasn't arrested because he is fair skinned and looks to many people like a foreigner. There were many foreigners at the nightclub that night and none were arrested. Some Arabs were there and were arrested but they were acquitted the same night when the police discovered that they were not Egyptians. By 8 a.m. I tried to find a lawyer but it was a Friday, the weekend in Egypt, and after a long search I found a couple of lawyers and I paid them to find the whereabouts of the arrested people, and both of them told me later that they couldn't find anything and it looked serious. Even one of them paid me back my money. During the same time, I contacted human rights groups in Egypt, who didn't want to get involved. One of them actually told me that human rights matters in Egypt has “more serious” issues and they don't want to lose their credibility with the people if they take on this case.
Finally, a human rights center called Hesham Mubarak Law Center, no relation to President Mubarak, agreed to send one of their lawyers to follow the case. As he went from one police station to another, the police denied the arrests and refused to allow the lawyer to meet the detainees. After bribing some of the people who work in the police station, he found out that they were moved from a police station to another and that there are lots of secrecy about this case. On Sunday morning, May 13th, the newspaper came with outrageous titles and sensational stories about the detainees. They also published the names, addresses, and places of work for those who where arrested.
At this point, I started contacting human rights organizations around the world from the USA, Mexico, and Canada in the far west to Australia and Japan in the far east. I used the pseudonym “Horus,” a name I used for years in Egyptian gay forums and groups over the net. I emailed these organizations everyday about what has been published in the media about the case and about what I've been doing contacting local groups, lawyers, or just standing with families trying to get any information about the case. At one point, I was starting to lose hope, as I sent an email everyday but never was contacted back or even heard of any action from any group.
It was then that I was contacted by gay activist Scott Long, who now works for Human Rights Watch. His email was simple: “Who are you?” But it gave me a push to keep on going. Finally, I was contacted by other groups and organizations and I helped them as well as they helped me.
DK: How is All My Life connected to the Queen Boat case?
MS: All My Life tells the story of people whose story remains unheard. It is a tale of difference, of those who have been silenced and forced to disappear. The story of the film occurs against the backdrop of the choreographed crackdown on gay men and the notorious Queen Boat arrests of 2001. Two lovers in the film were survivors of the arrests, and how it affected their lives and relationship.
DK: How has All My Life been received by the audience?
MS: I can answer this question after the premiere of the film, June 22, 2008 at the Frameline Film Festival.
DK: What is the main aspect of the film you’d like viewers to take home with them?
MS: Although the film deals with the Queen Boat case in its background, the story as a whole is mainly about judging people to feel safe and better. Rami, the main character, is sure nothing will happen to him like those men on the Queen Boat, as he is more careful. My statement of the film is: “We all build fences around ourselves to protect ourselves from pain; that’s why it’s easy when we see others treated unjustly, to assume that they must have done something to deserve punishment. It's especially easy if they believe differently from us or live a lifestyle we don’t approve of. Then it comes around to us, and others say the same and so on until we all know what it feels like to be oppressed.”
DK: What other films are you working on?
MS: There is a documentary about the Egyptian media addressing the LGBTQ issues in Egypt that I’ve been working on side by side with All My Life. I hope to finish it this year. Also there is a film that I started preparing for with a friend of mine about hijab, it's origin, it's politics, and the economics about it as a measurement of the new wave of fundamentalism replacing the previous secular government.
DK: Do you have advice for aspiring filmmakers?
MS: When I told my colleagues and teachers that I was going to film a feature and they found that I don’t have any money, they smiled or raised their eyebrows. Some said that I’m crazy and some said I’m too ambitious, but I worked on this film for four years and didn’t let money or bad luck from stopping me. I did that while working to pay the rent and was totally broke most of the time. Despite the risks—all the Egyptian scenes were shot guerrilla-style due to government restrictions on street filming—it was absolutely indispensable for the film to be shot both in Egypt and California.
After years of living amongst the kinky people of San Francisco, David Khalili sought to complete his ethnographic work on this humble group. However, in the end he decided to write his thesis on sexual silence amongst Middle Eastern queer folk for his master’s degree in sexuality studies at San Francisco State. Currently, he maintains a blog omniphilia.com for sex related news and advice. When not writing, he spends his time researching websites of poor taste.