Balls Deep in the Arab Spring
General chaos ensued. The predictable close calls with bombs, bullets and machete-wielding maniacs aside, one experience in particular stands out from my time in the region as especially worthy of rendition in Critic: how I somehow became involved in a seedy, morally questionable, amateur Egyptian pornography.
Central to this story is my good friend Omar*, a 28-year-old sex-obsessed bodybuilder. Few individuals I’ve encountered in this life have exhibited such high levels of human kindness and genuine decency as Omar the Egyptian. Some of this story’s more grisly details may throw that claim into contention, but I assure you, he has a heart of gold and the best of intentions.
I met Omar while he was working at a hotel during my first trip to Cairo in 2009. Since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt’s once-thriving tourism industry has been plunged into disarray. Frequent scenes of political violence have dissuaded risk-averse Westerners from visiting, in turn leading to thousands of Egyptians – including Omar – losing their jobs and livelihoods.
There is a great irony in mainstream perceptions of the Middle East. Sure, the region is plagued by chronic instability, but in terms of general interpersonal violence and crime, I felt a great deal safer aimlessly wandering around the labyrinthine alleyways of Cairo, Damascus and Amman at night than any comparably large European or American city. That may be gender-specific – travelling alone in the region as a woman presents its fair share of obstacles. But based on my experience, the Middle East does not deserve its sordid reputation as a tourist destination only for those with a serious death wish.
Anyway, back to my pornographic exploits. I stayed with Omar at his family home in a lively, overcrowded and somewhat dilapidated little corner of Cairo called Al-Matariyyah. Cairo is not for the faint hearted. It overloads the senses, drains whatever energy you have, and fucks with your mind in a big fucking way. In sum, it’s awesome, albeit an acquired taste.
One night, after a non-stop barrage of shisha, hash and animated political discussion, Omar insisted I meet his fiancée, Fatima*. A five-minute walk later we were waiting outside her house. Omar then confided in me that he was apprehensive about the marriage. He loved her, but had heard from many friends that the high point of marriage is the wedding itself and quickly after one “begins to hate life.” I unconvincingly attempted to reassure him everything would be fine. Eventually, a young woman in traditional Muslim dress with a shy demeanour emerged onto the street. The encounter was fleeting, slightly awkward, and very formal; the complete opposite of the twisted sexual odyssey that defined our second interaction.
It was (and still is) a special time in Egypt. The revolution jolted Egyptians out of the apathetic and cynical slumber that had characterised my first visit. The atmosphere was one of cautious optimism and palpable anger; everyone was talking politics, and a renewed sense of pride and empowerment could be felt on the streets. Omar and his friends had been on the vanguard of the February revolution, and it was an absolute privilege to hear their battle stories first hand.
During my last days in Egypt, I faced a dilemma. I had arranged to visit a friend in Italy for a week or so and then head to Lebanon. The anniversary of the revolution was around the corner and Omar and co insisted that I come back and experience the events and emotions myself. After a little bit of thought, I decided that being in the middle of a small part of history was well worth the extra expenditure and booked return flights.
Upon my return, it was obvious that Cairo was on edge. Most of the people I talked to in the street were adamant the anniversary would degenerate into a wanton bloodbath between SCAF, the transitional military government, and protesters unsatisfied with the revolution’s progress. I began feeling a little anxious. Omar and co promised that they would look after me in the event that everything went to shit, but when you are in the midst of a million-strong mob and things get violent, there is only so much a handful of friendly faces can do.
When the much-anticipated morning arrived, I heard the familiar wolf-whistles on the street below, signalling it was time to head out into the great unknown. Then something inexplicable happened: Omar refused to get out of bed and emphatically stated he did not want to head downtown. This was puzzling; Omar’s lobbying was the main reason I had come back, and now, over the course of a few hours, he had completely changed his mind. Confused and a little concerned about my good friend, I nonetheless jumped on the metro with a decent-sized contingent of young hot-blooded revolutionaries and headed towards Tarhir Square.
Another friend called Youssef* had organised an entourage of mid-ranking Muslim Brotherhood members to escort me around for the day. When it became apparent that the prophesised bloodbath was fortunately not going to happen, the brothers’ incessant, often aggressive competition for my attention became a new source of constant stress. Although there were a few violent incidents here
and there, overall the day was an amazing feast for the senses.
Part-protest, part-celebration, the anniversary was a testament to the colourful political mosaic that had emerged in Egypt since the revolution. I also managed to achieve one of my lifelong goals during the day: to be in the middle of a thousands-strong “Allah Akbar” mob – I even partook in a few “Allah Akbars” myself, much to the amusement of my pious escorts. Content with how the day had unfolded, my thoughts turned to Omar and I decided to go and get to the bottom of his sudden change of heart. The next 24 hours were unequivocally the weirdest of my life thus far.
I returned to find Omar slumped in a chair in his room, listening to terrible music and looking at pictures of scantily dressed woman. He appeared fragile and a little dejected. I soon learnt that Omar’s seemingly schizophrenic apprehension about the day was more than justified. Only a month earlier, during a confrontation with the military in downtown Cairo, Omar’s best friend was shot in the face and later died whilst standing beside him. To describe the conversation that followed as “deep and meaningful” would be a gross understatement.
Omar then proposed a beer in town, pedantically clarifying in the process that he was, in fact, a good Muslim and usually did not drink, but since I was his guest he had an obligation to partake in the wicked ways of the West. A night of beer, belly-dancers and aimless wandering followed, complete with a lynch mob, Arabic rap-battles and lots of sex-related chat. By the time we returned to Omar’s in the early hours of the morning, I was physically and mentally exhausted. Omar refused to let me rest, keeping me up until sunrise with some very sentimental pillow talk.
Immediately after expressing how sad he was that I had not converted to Islam and therefore could not jam out with him in “paradise,” he began to systematically go through his favourite porn videos with the vigour and attention to detail of an esteemed film critic. He also informed me that he and his fiancée had been sexually active for a while and that it was great to finally have someone to talk to about it. I could have never anticipated the depraved places that talk would end up taking me.
For a lot of Egyptians, and especially for Omar, I felt like my presence permitted the discussion of topics normally surrounded by taboo. I gave them an outlet to vent their innermost curiosities about sex and all its associated complexities. The recurring fascination with Western sexuality I encountered contained a great deal of cultural misunderstanding; the hyper-sexualised representations of Western women in films, music and porn appeared to have convinced many Egyptian males that the West was nothing more than a frenzied sex free-for-all. Elements of this perception are true, but the fundamental dissonance between what Omar thought was normal for me and what is actually normal paved the way for the debauchery ahead.
“Matty, would you do me the biggest favour anyone has ever done?” Omar said as the sun was coming up and I was to finally get some sleep. I instantly responded in the affirmative; Omar had been an unbelievable host and we had become very close friends.
“Would you film me and my fiancée with your camera?”
What the fuck? Shocked at the proposition, I dismissively laughed it off and finally managed to joe out.
A few hours’ sleep later, I awoke to Omar’s wrinkled mother standing over my bed holding the phone. It was Omar giving me directions to meet him and his fiancée after her exam finished. 45 minutes later, while en route, I had a sudden flashback to our drunken conversation earlier that morning. “Jesus Christ, surely not,” I thought. I started to get a little nervous as I entered the last leg of the journey and hoped to some God that what I thought might happen wasn’t going to.
As the three of us travelled by bus to the house they intended to move into after the wedding a few hours outside of Cairo, nothing seemed too unusual. “It was nothing more than uninhibited drunken chat,” I thought to myself with relief.
From the outside, the house did not look too dissimilar to Luke Sywalker’s swell pad from the original Star Wars. Inside was a different story. Apart from a mass of cigarette butts and discarded Pepsi cans, the house’s only contents were an old ragged mattress and a small stereo. I started to worry again; the place was exactly how I’d envisaged Alf Stewart’s infamous rape dungeon.
I walked into the kitchen to find Omar standing behind me. “Did you bring your camera?” he asked. The dreaded confirmation had happened. I told Omar that this whole plan of his was entirely fucked and I did not feel particularly comfortable about it.
“What the hell does Fatima think about this?” I asked. “I’ll tell her soon,” he replied. Shit – the already morally ambiguous situation I had found myself in had ascended to new levels of seediness. In a flustered and frustrated state, I swiftly left to buy a pack of cigarettes and think about how to handle the situation.
When I got back to the dungeon 20 minutes later, I was greeted by Omar’s best Jason Gunn impersonation: a big cheesy grin and two thumbs up. My will to resist was gone. I took a deep breath, accepted whatever was going to happen in the sacred name of experience, and entered the room.
The traditional Muslim dress Fatima had been wearing had been replaced with see-through lingerie, and Omar wasted no time in baring his quite impressive all. Resigned to my fate, I sat down on a speaker and turned on my camera. Things got hardcore pretty quickly; foreplay was obviously not a major priority.
Once things got going, all the weirdness and apprehension dissipated and I got quite enthused about my unfolding amateur production. Omar assumed the role of actor/director, assertively dictating me around the barren windowless room. “Close-ups Matty, more close-ups!”
Those words will be seared into my brain for the rest of my life.
Just as I had achieved a modicum of comfort with the situation, Fatima began to lunge at me in a very sexual way. Omar actively encouraged this and started insisting that I partake in the twisted sexfest, which by this point would not have been entirely out of place on Extremetube.
A sigh of indifference later, I put my camera down and reminded myself that I only live once. Several unspeakable acts followed as Omar exited the room for a much-deserved smoko.
Another half hour passed and, though impressed with Omar’s superhuman stamina, I was starting to have serious concerns about making my 7pm flight. I exited the room to chain smoke and reconcile what had just happened with whatever semblance of morality I still had left. All I could think about was how absurdly divorced the whole situation was from most people’s preconceptions about the Middle East. This kind of stuff isn’t supposed to happen in a conservative Muslim society, is it?
My initial politeness quickly gave way to stress and harassment. Filming had long since ceased and I kept popping inside at three-minute intervals to tell Omar to hurry the fuck up and finish himself off. When the big climax finally happened, I’d never been so relieved to hear an ear-piercing orgasm in my life. And like so often after an orgasm, the reality of what had just happened only then began to properly sink in.
On the way back, I sat awkwardly between Omar and Fatima – for two whole hours. Very little was said and there was a sense that everyone felt a little ashamed of their actions. The awkwardness and tension may have been unbearable had my mind not been obsessively preoccupied with time, and my lack thereof.
We dropped Fatima off at home and continued back to Omar’s. “I think Fatima feels weird about what just happened,” Omar said to me. Captain Obvious Omar went on: he had apparently explained to Fatima that this kind of stuff happens all the time where I’m from. It doesn’t, and I couldn’t help feeling that my lack of clarification on the subject would cause problems for both parties in the future.
Unfortunately, uploading the video was well beyond the ability of Omar’s ancient computer. Without warning, Omar darted out the door, presumably to an internet café. Fuck. After a quick cost-benefit analysis I concluded I would have to find another way to retrieve the camera. Convinced I had already missed my flight, I flagged down a taxi and requested that he drive like a maniac towards the airport.
A couple of kilometres down the road I saw an equally distraught-looking character darting in between traffic. It was Omar. I told the driver to stop and called out his name. Omar ran over with a hopeless look on his face. “Matty, it didn’t fucking work!”
The camera had taken a minute of video and then switched to photo mode. The screen was broken so I had not picked up on the malfunction as it was happening. The entire twisted endeavour was all for nothing, and the disappointment plastered across Omar’s face reflected how much the whole idea had meant to him. I gave him a half-hearted apology, and he gave me a big hug and reaffirmed his fondness for me as a “brother.”
I then jumped back into the taxi and reiterated the urgency of the situation, to which the driver reiterated his love for speed. With a maniacal grin, he started zig-zagging between traffic through narrow streets at 140km. Normally that would have scared the shit out of me, but given the context and the day I had just had, I sat back, held on, and thought to myself what a wonderful world.
Several months later, Omar and Fatima parted ways. It may have had something to do with Omar’s general reservations about marriage, but I cannot help feeling that the events described above were somehow instrumental in the engagement coming to an end.
One could extrapolate any number of themes from the events of that day; for instance, how globalisation is influencing sexuality across the world. But this story is not about greater truths or meaning: it is about the boundless limits of human weirdness and human experience.
And it is about sex. And how ultimately we all like it – for better or worse, it is very easy to get caught up in the moment.
It is about three people existing in strange times in a strange place with a great deal of uncertainty about what to do. But it happened. And I could never bring myself to say I regret it. I am heading back to Egypt at the end of this year and I wonder to myself what will happen if Omar has a new fiancée and the same enthusiasm for amateur pornography. I suppose I’ll find out sooner or later.