The Pain and Pleasure of Queer Life in Egypt
For gay men, the nightclub is often a place of refuge and revelry. But one night in May 2001, the Cairo police raided the Queen Boat, a gay-friendly nightclub on the Nile, and dramatically upended the lives of fifty-two men. They would become known as the “Cairo 52.” In jail, they were told to strip off their clothes to show if they were wearing colored underwear, thought to be a sign of gayness, although all were wearing white. They were then subjected to invasive procedures by doctors to “determine whether or not they were gay.” Some were forced to record confessions admitting to their homosexuality. Images of the Cairo 52, covering their faces with white cloth to protect their identities, would become emblematic of the persecution of gay men in Egypt, where homosexuality isn’t explicitly outlawed, but where gay people can be arrested for “debauchery.”
The Queen Boat incident, and the images of the Cairo 52, have long been on the mind of Mahmoud Khaled, a young Egyptian artist based in Cairo and Oslo. In 2017, for a commission by the Istanbul Biennial, Khaled made a project called Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (2017), a fictional tribute to one of the Cairo 52, who, in Khaled’s imagined biography, relocates to Turkey and makes a new life for himself in Istanbul. Two photographs from the collection of the “proposed museum” were included in Khaled’s solo exhibition I want you to know that I am hiding something from you (the title is a reference to Roland Barthes’s 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse), presented at Helena Anrather Gallery in New York in fall 2018. The exhibition included numerous beguiling works that meditate on queerness in the Middle East and beyond—a staged conversation between two men on Grindr, a series of photographs from the now-shuttered gay nightclub Splash in New York, a video of a man getting a tattoo scored with Jacques Brel singing “Ne me quitte pas”—and announced the arrival of a formidable talent in contemporary art.
I recently spoke with Khaled about the legacy of the Queen Boat incident and the politics of revelry and desire in queer life.
Brendan Embser: Were you aware of the Queen Boat incident at the time it happened? And how has that episode influenced your thinking and some bodies of work that you’ve made?
Mahmoud Khaled: Yes; I remember waking up one day in the morning and reading about the raid in all the newspapers. I was in university, and I saw the images of the fifty-two men all over the place that day. I think this memory is very iconic for my generation. The incident was more reduced to a very abstract image for me; then the Human Rights Watch report was released afterwards with all the details of torture and investigation—all these horrific details made that reduced image very politically and emotionally charged.
The image I’m referring to is the “crying man,” dressed in white and covering his face with a white fabric to protect his identity; we only see his hand and his ear and a tiny part of his hair. This image later became the point of departure for a project I did in Istanbul. The image became established in the newspapers, and because the media was orchestrated by the government, everything was very well planned in terms of outing and destroying the reputation of the fifty-two men who were arrested by releasing all their information, names and professions and addresses and everything, even before the court finalized the case.
This image of the crying man, which is of course a very anonymous person, became representative, and up until now the New York Times, the Guardian, whenever they wanted to write a story about the gay scene in Egypt they would use this image. It became like a stock image for the political situation of the gay scene in Cairo. This crying man became almost like the “Jesus” of the community.
Embser: What was the political atmosphere like leading up to the incident? Was there a sense in the late 1990s or early 2000s that a crackdown was imminent?
Khaled: One theory is related to the government and their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, because the Muslim Brothers used to brand themselves as the power that could protect Islamic and society values, et cetera, while the government was not marketing themselves as such. So every now and then the government has to arrest a bunch of gay men to show that they are protecting the values of society more than the Muslim Brothers, and that you can do that without aligning yourself with radical Islam. So gay people are always a card they play with in their political games.
When the Human Rights Watch released their report, it was like a horror show for everyone because you could get the sense of all the details of what happened—and think to yourself that this might happen to you the day after. Everyone was so conscious of what they were doing, where they were going, what kind of parties. It also started to become an identity, and the existence of these feelings became so politicized. Even if you didn’t think of homosexuality as an identity, you had to start thinking about it as an identity, because this might lead to you being in prison.
Embser: Let’s take the image of the crying man, which has, as you said, become kind of an icon or stock image. Can you describe your project to make a museum for this unknown man?
Khaled: I developed a certain relationship with this image and tried to make it more poetic. By him hiding his identity in the image, he is also saying a lot—he’s giving us a lot of information. So because this image has been totally abstracted and stigmatized, I tried to make a monument for it. House museums commemorate the legacy of certain individuals, writers, politicians, collectors, et cetera, who are no longer with us, but whose houses become remarkable—they need to be transformed into exhibitions, in order to keep alive the legacy of the person who used to live there. So that’s how I started to think of the house museum: as a memorial that could commemorate the existence of that man who is stigmatized and unknown. The main artistic desire was to make this image more human.
Embser: And the idea is to give him back his life.
Khaled: Somehow, yes.
Embser: And where exactly is this museum?
Khaled: It is a proposed/imagined museum that can happen in any city in the world except Cairo, because almost all the fifty-two men, when they were released, they left the country. It was impossible for them to continue living in Cairo because their names, addresses, and professions were published in the newspapers and they basically lost their lives. They mostly all asked for asylum in many different places, so now these fifty-two men are all over the world. And any of their houses can be transformed into a house museum that can commemorate the event and the victims, which is why this house museum can happen anywhere in the world—except Cairo.
The whole idea of the museum is to think of exile in a productive way. The first proposition of this museum happened in Istanbul in 2017 as part of the Istanbul Biennial. It’s a proposal for a monument that is coming out of exile, but not necessarily a bad exile. I didn’t want to imagine a person who left Cairo and lost his way in the world; I really didn’t want to imagine a bad exile. The protagonist I constructed in the project was obviously a well-off man who could afford to buy a modernist villa in a middle-class neighborhood in Istanbul, where he could stage the whole world in his own exile. So what the installation is trying to do is to give you an experience of a staged world of someone else. His art, his desires, his basement, which he actually transformed into a darkroom, his taste in music, the kind of plates he uses to eat at dinner parties and stuff like this. I wanted to imagine someone who managed to construct his proposed idea of the world in his own exile/house.
Embser: The image itself is also represented in an artwork, is that right?
Khaled: The point of departure of the project started in 2015, when I showed an object made out of wood and a hand-painted mirror in a group show in Cairo accompanied with the following caption: “Proposal for an object that can operate as a memorial displayed in the entrances of middle-class houses in Cairo, commemorating a group of fifty-two happy young men dancing on a floating structure in Zamalek.”
I wanted an object that can act as a subtle gesture of remembrance to be placed in an entrance of a house in Cairo, because that’s where people normally place a mirror so they can see themselves when they enter the house and leave the house. Then two or three years later I had the chance to make this three-floor house “museum” for the Istanbul Biennial, where this gesture/object could be placed at the entrance—and that’s the only place where you can see that image of the crying man painted in the entire installation.
Embser: That idea of imagined lives is also played out in the conversation you staged on Grindr in a 2013 piece called Do You Have Work Tomorrow?. When I saw this work in your exhibition in New York, I didn’t know, at first, that the conversation was fictional. I read it like you would a text and found it extremely powerful and poignant. I later learned that the piece was initially commissioned by the web platform Ibraaz. How did the production of this work come about and how did it change when you showed it in a gallery?
Khaled: This work is inspired by a real experience, but it is based on a script I wrote and it is all fictional. I staged the conversation with myself. I was talking to myself on two phones, and then I took the screenshots and that’s what I proposed to Ibraaz. Probably they were expecting an image! Like an actual photographic project. Later on I was thinking about the physicality of the image of this work. I like to be in the process of creating a physical image, because now we deal with immaterial images all the time. We have images on our phones but we can’t touch them, we can’t smell them, we can’t exchange them physically. I wanted to transform online, immaterial work into a real physical work with traditional photography format.
So these black-and-white images were developed in a darkroom, which removes the time and place from the work, which is something I wanted when I was working on the piece. It’s too immediate when you look at the piece online as a screenshot: you can tell when it was produced through the layout of Grindr—this was 2012 and 2013—it looks different than what we’re using now; even the phone screen size is different. Once you see the image, you immediately can tell when this thing was happening. I wanted to remove this from the work and complicate this relationship between the image and the time and place it was produced in. That’s why the idea of the black-and-white print came out, which also gives a strong physical existence to the image. Framing every single moment of this conversation was also important for me, conceptually, because normally our relationship with texts, on WhatsApp or iMessages, are just memory—you don’t capture it or frame it.
Embser: The framing seems to give value, in the art gallery sense and in the reception of the work, because the frames somehow demand that you take the panels very seriously as individual objects but also together as a thread.
Khaled: Exactly, I agree! Also, if you think about the screenshot itself as text, there’s no form. It’s formless, completely. When I went to the darkroom to print, the performativity of printing the images created a form, an effect, created some depth to the background of the text, which needed to be highlighted by the “frame.”
Embser: The conversation starts out in the typical way these conversations tend to do, but then it takes a few turns toward the immediate urban context, with the car on the street. Soon, when the flirtation veers into politics, there’s a feeling that the platform is being misused. Grindr is supposed to be for sex, not politics. Could you talk a little bit about the texture of the dialogue?
Khaled: This piece started by imagining myself as a film director. I wanted to film a scene and have two men talking together, for example in a bar. It’s exactly the same in this piece, but I didn’t want them to talk in a bar—I wanted them to talk on their phones together. You can tell from the details of the conversations that it’s Cairo, but the work doesn’t deliberately say that. It’s a city, and we don’t know exactly when. But it’s happening apparently in a city that is under curfew, going through a strong political change. There’s a lot of violence going on from how they describe the situation in the conversation. In the meantime, both of them are trying to normalize this abnormal moment and still look for love and flirt and talk about sex, but still the political atmosphere is dominating the conversation.
So the dialogue fluctuates, jumping between politics, love, desire, and class. But it’s still also talking about location, about locating who you are talking with and how important it is to know how far away that person is standing. The idea of moving and talking about the car as a mobile vehicle (although it was parked in the context of this conversation), instead of talking about a house in a specific fixed location, is because they’re both supposed to be out in the street, protecting their properties and neighborhood. This is a very stressful kind of duty, but it comes out of that intense, precious, and liminal political moment their city is experiencing. Also you never know what’s going to happen if you’re holding a stick or a knife for the first time in your life to protect your house—you don’t know who’s going to come and attack you. But in the meantime, while you’re supposed to be doing that, you’re still trying to find normalcy in this moment and looking for love and intimacy in this situation. The conversation is trying to imagine this scene between the two men and also trying to speak about the overdominant political discourse.
Embser: What the piece manages to achieve through text is the kind of intimacy you get by listening to audio. Like when you listen to a podcast, the voices come so quickly into your ear and your mind. With this piece, you get us to switch modes so that when you read the text it’s almost like listening to a private conversation made public.
Khaled: Yeah—and also retaining the text, taken out of the phone, is a very violent act. Because all the texts we have are very private. Taking someone else’s phone and looking at the conversations they’ve had on Grindr or WhatsApp is a very violent act. So taking this and putting it into a gallery was a way of trying to stress this tension between public and private in the materiality of the text.
Embser: In a way, the opposite of this work, in the ludic sense, is a series of black-and-white pictures taken several years ago at Splash, the former gay nightclub in Manhattan. Did you revisit these images specifically for your exhibition?
Khaled: Yes; for me this is the highlight of the exhibition since it is the only work I made for the occasion of the show. I had this material in my archive for more than ten years, and I love them—they are very attractive and exciting images. But I didn’t know what to do with them. They’re very seductive, and I was quite obsessed with the content of the images because they’re all like sexy bodies and party and fun. But I wanted to get over my obsession with the images to process them conceptually in a proper way and understand why I want to work on them.
I didn’t remember at all where or when or why I went to that club, but then I realized that this happened in 2008 and it was my first time in New York, and I went to Splash because I got an ad online or a pamphlet in the street saying that they were doing a fundraiser. The go-go dancers were collecting money and all this money would go to AIDS research. They announced it in a really nice way and it seemed like so much fun, so I went there with no expectations. I didn’t even know Splash was such a big-deal place for the gay scene in New York back then. So I had a PowerShot camera, because in 2008 the cameras on our phones weren’t that advanced. Eventually I had around four hundred pictures.
Embser: All from one night?
Khaled: Yes! I spent a long night there [laughs]. But then I didn’t know what to do with this, because it was just a fun party and they didn’t really mean anything to me conceptually, and I really didn’t know how to process it. But when I was working on that show, I made a mock-up for the space, to imagine how to lay out the exhibition in the gallery. But I felt like something was missing in the experience of the curatorial narrative, and it was something to do with my relationship to New York and my relationship to sexuality and understanding the body, and then I felt the urgency of working on these images to complete the cycle of the show and the experience of it.
There’s an intentional strong contrast between this work and the Grindr text. The Grindr work is basically an anti-image. At the end, it’s all text and it’s formatted in a way that makes it look like a classical old photograph in a white cube gallery, but you actually don’t see a pictorial work in the frame. While in Splashed Memory of a night Out, you see clearly composed images, composition, body as a subject and an object, the cut, the framing, and the lighting and all this.
When I Googled Splash and realized that it had closed in 2013 and there was a heated discussion about the gentrification of Chelsea, the images became more important to me. I started to think that the images are not just beautiful images of a bunch of men dancing. They definitely had gained a different meaning. I worked with a great technician in a photo lab and we found a way to transform these very low-res images taken by an old digital Canon PowerShot into large-format negatives, and then take the negatives into the darkroom and work on printing them. So at the end, the presentation of this work is one piece composed of twenty images. They have to be presented all together. I always have to have a reference for a presentation, so I imagined a big theater showing these images at the entrance of it in order to celebrate that history—it’s like the archive of that theater. I wanted to present it in a way that I think shows the history of that club in New York, like an archive celebrated in a way that also celebrates an era in the history of the city.
Embser: Do you see a connection between the image of the crying man and those images from Splash in some form?
Khaled: Yes and no. I think in Splashed Memory of a night Out, the images are celebrating bodies and sexuality and freedom, but also you could tell from certain images that there are buckets full of money with stickers that say “AIDS” on them, so you know that all the celebration and fun is also a form of activism and resistance. It has different layers. The crying man is starting from a very oppressed point of departure and going into a very emotional, poetic, productive and protective place, which is the house of the crying man.
Embser: The Queen Boat incident happened at a moment when queer men were seeking a space for revelry, a space like Splash, and perhaps a space that only exists in the imagination of the two men whose dialogue you constructed in the Grindr piece. What has the pursuit of revelry meant to you?
Khaled: It’s obviously a human need that we all share, but specifically for groups like LGBTQI there is a political urgency for it. It’s basically a celebration of existence and togetherness, and a transformation of the banal and the quotidian into an organic form of resistance.