The Refugee and the Thief

Published by The New Yorker March 25, 2019

Manu fled Egypt a little bit at a time. First, he flew to Cyprus, because he knew a travel agent who helped him get a visa. Manu spent a few days in Larnaca, and he got a tattoo in Nicosia, and then he returned to Cairo. The next stop was Saudi Arabia. Visas were easy to get for Egyptians performing the ‘umrah pilgrimage, and Manu had a relative in the country. It may have been the first time in history that a gay man was going to Mecca as part of a plan to escape a Muslim country, but Manu wanted his passport stamped.

At the Great Mosque of Mecca, he sat alone in the courtyard from midnight until dawn, because he liked the way it looked at night. His given name was Mohamed, and he had been raised Muslim, although he had abandoned the faith long before. Still, he figured that he might as well have the experience of performing the traditional tawaf pilgrimage walk, so he circled the Kaaba counterclockwise seven times, as was customary, and then, for good measure, he made another seven circuits. That was typical: Manu never did anything halfway.

He was one of the first people I met after I moved to Cairo with my family, in the fall of 2011. Earlier that year, during the Arab Spring, President Hosni Mubarak had been overthrown, and Manu translated for me when I reported on protests at Tahrir Square. Later, he took a job as a researcher for the Guardian’s Cairo bureau; though we rarely worked together, we became close friends. He was thirty years old, a handsome man with a shaved head and hooded eyes. I didn’t know that he was gay until he told me, not long after we met. He remarked that from an early age he had learned to be careful about his appearance and his mannerisms.

His plans for departure were also meticulous. He researched countries that grant asylum to gay people, and Germany seemed the most promising. But it was hard to get a German tourist visa, because of the ongoing refugee crisis. So Manu intended to establish himself as a regular traveller, hoping to reassure the German authorities that he wasn’t a risk to overstay his visa. In 2016, during my last year in Egypt, he was trying to convert his savings to U.S. dollars, so I changed money with him whenever I needed local currency. After five years of political instability, the black-market price for dollars was twice the government-set bank rate. Manu wasn’t the only Egyptian I knew who was trying to get out.

That June, on the evening before my family returned to our home in Colorado, Manu stopped by around midnight to say goodbye. He laughed when he saw our belongings: fourteen bags, two children’s car seats, one double stroller. Some luggage was still only half packed, and my wife, Leslie, and I had hardly slept during the past week. That year, Ramadan fell in June, so business hours were irregular, and even simple tasks took forever. It occurred to me that anybody who saw the mess in the apartment would assume that we were the ones fleeing the country.

A couple of months earlier, Manu had travelled to Istanbul. Cape Town was next. I wished him good luck, and he offered to help us the next day, but I waved him off. It didn’t need to be said: for people like us, leaving Cairo was easy.

A van was waiting at dawn. We had arranged it through our usual service, but the driver was new; he seemed unfriendly. He grumbled about the luggage, and, when I tried to install the children’s seats, I realized that the back seat belts were broken.

A few friends had come to see us off, including Hany, a driver who had picked up our twin six-year-old daughters, Ariel and Natasha, from school every afternoon that year. His Toyota had working seat belts, and now he offered to take me and the twins to the airport while Leslie accompanied the luggage in the van. On the way, Hany and the girls sang children’s songs in Arabic.

Mama zamanha gaya . . .”

He was softhearted with the twins—a couple of days earlier, all three of them had been weeping when they returned from school, because of the impending departure. I realized that the airport drive would be one of our last memories of Egypt, so I filmed them singing on my phone.

Mama is about to arrive . . .”

The terminal wasn’t too busy. At the check-in counter, I looked over our pile of possessions: one double stroller, two children’s car seats, twelve bags.

Count again.

Then the panic—calls to Hany, to the van driver. The two missing bags were carry-ons, and both drivers said that we hadn’t left them in their vehicles. I texted Manu and asked him to check with them and with the head of the car service, in case I was missing some detail in Arabic. I telephoned Sayyid, a friend who was the neighborhood garbageman, because he had been at the apartment. Sayyid remembered taking the two carry-on bags out to the curb.

One bag contained my computer, along with two cameras and about eight hundred dollars in foreign currency. My work files were backed up on Dropbox,but I had never been able to synch my photos and videos, because of some problem with our Internet. So I had copied everything twice onto portable hard drives. Leslie had recently made two long research trips, filling a set of notebooks with material for the book about Egypt that she planned to write. Usually, she would have transcribed her notes immediately, but things had been too hectic. I had packed the backup drives and the notebooks in the second carry-on, so that they would be separate from the computer.

First carry-on, second carry-on—it made no difference now. Manu told me that the boss of the car service seemed nervous about the driver. “He said, ‘I hired this guy for the first time, and I don’t know him,’ ” Manu reported.

At the airport, a sleepy-eyed police officer sprawled in a chair beside the luggage X-ray machine. “You have to contact your embassy,” he told Leslie and me. After the U.S. Embassy issued a report, he explained, the police could review security-camera footage.

“But the Embassy isn’t open now!” I said.

“Wait until it’s open.”

We pleaded that our flight was about to depart, but the officer offered no solution; he never even stood up from his chair. This was perhaps the worst time to get robbed—most fasting Muslims were recovering from the heavy suhoor meal.

After the plane took off, Leslie opened her laptop and started writing down anything she could remember from the research trips. Ariel and Natasha read quietly in their seats, oblivious. I realized that we had just lost almost all family photos and videos from the past year, and I scrolled through the few pictures that remained on my phone. The only video was the one from that morning.

She’s bringing a goose and a duck saying, ‘Wak wak wak!’ ”

In Colorado, a friend advised us to check Find My Mac on iCloud, which would track any registered device that connected to the Internet. When I logged into the iCloud Web site, it led me to a Google Earth image of a slum in Giza, on the western side of the Nile. From the perspective of an Orion satellite, the neighborhood looked like a rusting circuit board: tiny alleyways threaded around endless square rooftops, gray and brown and virtually indistinguishable. But one rooftop was marked on the screen with a blue dot.

Somewhere beneath that dot, while our plane was still in the air, somebody had turned on an old iPod Touch from one of the stolen bags.

We tried everybody with Cairo connections: friends at the U.S. Embassy, friends at European embassies, friends who worked with the government. American Embassy staff explained that they didn’t issue theft reports. In their opinion, the officer had misinformed us because he didn’t want to deal with the hassle. One U.S. diplomat wrote:

Without a police report, the Egyptian authorities will not pursue any action. Even with a police report I wouldn’t expect this to result in the recovery of your missing possessions. Unpleasant to hear, but the police are unlikely to put much effort into a search for your items.

After our first day in Colorado, the blue dot vanished from the satellite images. I was sure that the thieves had tossed the outdated iPod; for years, its only purpose had been to play the sound of ocean waves in the girls’ bedroom at night, in order to drown out prayer calls and other Cairo noises. I asked Manu if somebody should go to the neighborhood and spread the message that we would pay for the hard drives and Leslie’s notes, no questions asked. “They’ll think it’s a trap,” he said. “They’ll just get rid of everything.”

Manu believed that there was no option other than getting the cops to search the building, and he offered to help. Of everybody I contacted—the diplomats, the well connected—the only person who believed he could motivate the Egyptian police was a gay guy in the process of fleeing the country.

When I first met Manu, he rented a run-down apartment with some foreigners in the district of Dokki. It’s unusual for an unmarried Egyptian to live apart from family, and Manu’s five older siblings periodically tried to set him up with a wife, but he found it easy to make excuses. On weekends, he drank heavily in the furtive bars that are scattered around downtown Cairo. He often went to gay pickup spots, like the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which crosses the Nile to Tahrir. Many of his friends came from predictable groups: liberals, activists, foreigners, other gay men.

But he also associated with people who surprised me. A couple of times, I stopped by his apartment and found him hanging out with a group of police-academy students whom he had met in his neighborhood. They were typical macho, conservative cops, but they enjoyed Manu’s company. There was also a young Muslim Brother, a man I’ll call Tariq, who came to parties hosted by Manu and his roommates. Everything at these gatherings—the drinking, the presence of homosexuals, the casual mixing of unmarried men and women—should have been anathema to an Islamist. But Tariq was always there, enjoying himself.

Something about Manu’s separation from normal society seemed appealing to his peers. Egypt is hard on young people, in part because there are so many of them—more than sixty per cent of the population is under the age of thirty. Jobs have always been in short supply, and there’s intense family pressure to marry early. With genders segregated in most communities, sexual repression is a constant weight on people’s psyches. Young men in particular often convey an unsettled, slightly volatile air.

Manu, though, had come to terms with some of these pressures earlier in life. He grew up in Port Said, a provincial city at the northern end of the Suez Canal. His father ran a successful coffee shop, but he treated his staff harshly, and at night he tried to relax by smoking hashish. He often beat Manu. The boy had a gift for languages, and he begged to be enrolled in a private English school, but his father refused. So Manu eventually learned English on his own, along with Italian.

In Egypt, most public middle and high schools are separated by gender. As Manu and his male classmates entered their teen-age years, their socializing and roughhousing often had a sexual element. Sometimes a boy would act like a girl, in a joking way, and the others would touch and grab him. It wasn’t unusual for boys to proceed to more intimate activities in private. Manu became interested in a good-looking classmate, and soon they were having sex. After a couple of years, the relationship ended, and Manu paired off with another boy.

He had no words for what he was doing. In Port Said during the nineteen-nineties, there wasn’t a proper Arabic term for a gay person, other than the slur khawwal—“faggot.” Shez ginseyan, the more formal term for homosexuality, literally means “sexually abnormal.” As far as Manu was concerned, “abnormal” hardly described an activity that, in his estimation, was enjoyed by most of his classmates.

With Manu’s second partner, sex was intense but silent, and they never discussed it directly. Their private code word was “football.” Let’s play football,one would say, if he was in the mood. The other boy seemed tortured by his desire, and periodically he cut off the relationship. But invariably, over a period of four years, he returned to the code: Let’s play football.

Years later, Manu moved to Cairo in hopes of a more open life, and like most homosexuals in the capital he incorporated the English words “gay” and “straight” into his Arabic. But he distrusted these labels. His experience in Port Said had convinced him that sexuality is more fluid, an idea that has a long history in Egypt. Even that modern slur, khawwal, derives from an old term for cross-dressing male dancers. More than a century ago, these figures were popular entertainers at weddings and other events, where they were often seen as sexually available to men. This tradition is long gone, but Manu recognized certain echoes. He believed that if men are surrounded by men, and if there’s a tacit acceptance of contact, then these men are likely to have sex. Later, because society demands traditional marriage, most of these same men will settle into heterosexual lives.

On visits back to Port Said, Manu sometimes ran into his old high-school partners. Neither of them said a word about what they had shared, although Manu found it easy to talk with the first friend. Now he was married, with small children, and Manu believed that he saw their past relationship as a harmless youthful fling.

The second partner, though, never married or had a girlfriend. To Manu’s knowledge, he no longer engaged in sex with men, and he had migrated to work in one of the Gulf states, which are even more conservative than Egypt. A couple of times, Manu ran into him in Port Said, and the interactions were awkward. Afterward, Manu felt depressed. He sensed that his friend’s desires, which had once been silent but powerful, were now also numbed: no words, no feelings.

Manu e-mailed updates about his search for the stolen bags:

Yesterday I went to the airport twice and the police station in Boulak once and the report hasn’t been filed yet . . .

I sent the Orion satellite images, along with a list of items in the bags: some clothes, a pair of sandals, twin pairs of children’s shoes, a copy of “The Alexandria Quartet.” The airport police instructed Manu to visit cops in Giza; in Giza, they sent him back to the airport. There was no consensus on what was needed to file a theft report. After more than a week, somebody at the airport finally informed Manu that the authorities scrubbed all security footage on a seven-day cycle. Manu’s police-academy friends were of little help:

I called Bahgat who gave me some contradicting advice, called Magdy who was not at all useful but is trying to look like he is . . .

I checked the iCloud Web site for a couple of weeks, but nothing appeared. It seemed time to give up, but one morning I logged in for a final look and saw the blue dot. The iPod was beneath that same Giza rooftop.

Some lawyers told Manu that it might help if Leslie and I received documentation from an overseas government representative, so we started calling the Egyptian Consulate in Houston. Meanwhile, Manu kept pushing the cops. He had been targeted by police in the past, and I told him to call the search off if he felt unsafe. But he insisted this was different: now he was the one reporting a crime.

Late one evening in early 2012, Manu was heading back to his apartment when a young man on the street approached him. He introduced himself as Kareem, and said that he was an Army conscript who couldn’t return to his base, because of an argument with his commanding officer. He offered Manu a Marlboro from a newly opened pack.

The brand should have been a tipoff—it was too expensive for a conscript. But Manu was near home, and he wasn’t alert to the possibility of trouble. When Kareem complained about the cold, Manu invited him in for a cup of tea.

Inside the apartment, Kareem’s demeanor changed. He said that he knew Manu was a khawwal, and he threatened to expose him. Manu asked one of his roommates, a large Austrian, for help, and he forcibly removed Kareem from the apartment. Manu suspected it was a setup, and he ran outside, hoping to flee the area. But the police were already there, along with Kareem—he was an undercover officer.

The cops marched Manu back to his apartment. They confiscated the notebooks from his work with foreign journalists, and then they transported him to a holding cell in the nearest police station. There, two officers prepared a crime report, reading Kareem’s account of the supposed events aloud to Manu:

He asked me to sleep with him. I told him, “No, I cannot do this.” But he had two friends and they grabbed me.

The report claimed that the foreign roommates had participated in an attempted rape, but one officer worried that embassies might get involved, so he edited out the foreigners. Other details were fabricated on the spot. After the report was finished, the commanding officer said, “Take him to the hospital and do an anal exam.”

In 2010, in Alexandria, police beat to death a twenty-eight-year-old named Khaled Saeed, who had been sitting in a cybercafé. Saeed was educated and he had no criminal history; it wasn’t clear why he was targeted. When photos of his corpse appeared online, there was a public outcry. The event became a catalyst for the first protest of the Egyptian Arab Spring, which was held on January 25, 2011—National Police Day.

After Mubarak’s fall, two officers were sentenced to short prison terms for their roles in Saeed’s death. But the larger question of police reform remained unresolved, in part because Egyptian authoritarianism wasn’t really a system. It was more an atmosphere that enveloped the country, and repression had the unpredictable quality of a weather event: police generally seemed lazy, but their brutality could strike at any time, often without any sense of protocol. This made reform difficult—it wasn’t enough to simply remove a leader or a group of leaders.

There was no law against homosexuality, for instance, but gay men were often prosecuted under a charge of “debauchery.” When cops busted pickup spots, they routinely forced suspects to submit to anal examinations. After Manu’s arrest, he was handcuffed to a sergeant and taken down the street to a hospital. The staff said that they weren’t equipped to conduct the exam; at a second clinic, the doctor refused. The cops were en route to a third hospital when they were called to an appointment at the prosecutor’s office.

The prosecutor interrogated Manu as to why he hadn’t been trying to pick up girls on the street. “Why would you approach guys?” he said. “You fucking khawwal! ” He kept hissing the word—khawwalkhawwalkhawwal—and he informed Manu that he stood accused of attempted rape. But the proceedings couldn’t be completed without a witness statement, and Kareem was nowhere to be found.

While they waited, Manu was kept in a holding area, and a junior officer appeared with Manu’s phone. “Your father called,” he said, laughing. “I told him that we found you with a man. Sleeping with a man!”

But then the officer handed Manu the phone. “Find someone to help you,” he said. Manu called Tariq, his Muslim Brother friend, who immediately came to the station with a lawyer. Finally, after Manu had been held for nearly twenty-four hours, the cops released him on bail. They had never organized the anal exam, and Kareem still hadn’t shown up.

Outside the station, Tariq and a few friends were waiting, along with a distant relative who lived in Cairo and had been alerted by Manu’s father. When Manu saw his relative, he realized that the junior officer had told the truth about outing him on the phone, and he knew that he could never show his face in Port Said again.

During the next few weeks, the lawyer asked Manu for the equivalent of three thousand dollars, in order to bribe officials. After that, he said that the case was no longer being actively pursued, but it hadn’t been dropped. For safety, Manu moved out of the Dokki neighborhood.

He never learned what had prompted the bust. Perhaps a neighbor had suspected that Manu was gay, or maybe the cops wanted to force Manu to inform on the journalists he worked with. But why didn’t the cops follow up? And, after Kareem went to all the trouble to entrap Manu, why didn’t he appear at the prosecutor’s office? Why did the junior officer expose Manu to his father and then allow the phone call? Such questions were unanswerable in a country without any clear system, and where the police had always been defined by incompetence as much as by brutality.

That spring, in 2012, a Muslim Brother named Mohamed Morsi was running to become the first post-revolution President. Tariq was busy with the campaign, but he often checked in on Manu. He never said a word about his friend’s being gay. For a Muslim Brother, the issue should have been unequivocal: the organization’s leaders had declared homosexuality to be a violation of Islam.

I frequently met with Tariq during this period, and he believed that Manu had been targeted because of his journalism. “He’s too trusting,” Tariq said. “But he’s a good person.”

I couldn’t tell if Tariq accepted Manu’s sexuality or if he just feigned ignorance. People in Egypt often avoided mentioning certain things that seemed obvious, and their behavior could seem contradictory to an outsider. I thought that it probably resulted from the various social pressures: rigid traditions of faith, family structures that could be claustrophobic, and decades of political and economic dysfunction. Sometimes a person’s contradictory behavior felt like hypocrisy, but often it was simply a way to survive a flawed environment. And perhaps in certain cases it represented a form of human decency.

In Colorado, I looked at the Orion satellite images every day, and usually the blue dot was on the Giza rooftop. The building sat in the heart of an ashwa’iyat, one of the unplanned neighborhoods that are home to most residents of greater Cairo. There appeared to be a large water-treatment facility nearby; from above, the round tanks lined up in neat rows like the dots of a domino. The Find My Mac feature even tracked the iPod’s battery status. I sent updates to Manu:

I just checked and the iPod is on again. Looks like they charged it, al hamdulillah [all praise be to God]. A couple of days ago the battery was very low.

A diplomat at the Egyptian Consulate in Houston agreed to certify a theft description provided that it was written in Arabic and notarized. So Leslie and I went to a notary public in Montrose, Colorado. “I don’t think I’m supposed to notarize something I can’t read,” the notary said, but she signed it anyway. The Egyptian diplomat stamped it, and I sent it off to Manu.

He kept going to the Cairo airport, and eventually he met a friendly policeman who put him in touch with the commanding officer at a station near the blue dot. Like some of the cops Manu met, the officer seemed to think that the iPod Touch was a sophisticated tracking device, and he asked if Apple could request it to photograph the thief’s face. He seemed disappointed by Manu’s answer, but finally he called together a crew of ten plainclothes cops. All of them piled into an old microbus, along with Manu.

An hour earlier, I had checked—the iPod was on. It had been more than a month since our luggage was stolen.

Eamonn Vitt