Guide The Thief

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The father died a few months later. His final surprise was his will—he had changed it to leave his apartment to Manu alone. Manu had learned that it was impossible to predict how people would respond once they learned the truth about his sexuality. Over time, he became determined to live more openly in Cairo, despite the risks. Once, he talked his way out of a police bust at a popular gay hangout, and he had to move out of another apartment after a neighborhood thug threatened to knife him for being a khawwal.

Manu asked one of his police-academy friends for protection during the move, and he told him the reason. One Egyptian in his thirties told me that he had been initiated into sex with men as a teen-ager by a cousin, who had given him a reading list of classical Arabic literature that described male couples.

Like his cousin, he eventually married and had a child, but sometimes he still felt attracted to men. At pickup spots like the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, Manu often met men who identified as straight. In a culture where it was difficult to be alone with a woman, they seemed to view the bridge as the best alternative, and their ideas about what constituted a khawwal could be idiosyncratic. The only consistency was silence.

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No matter what people did, they avoided talking about it. Sometimes they even robbed him; over the years, he had three computers and four cell phones stolen.

Manu saw this as an inevitable risk of meeting people in a culture that was simultaneously homophobic and full of male contact. Ahmed had a gentle manner, and he talked with Manu for hours, complaining about the things that young men often complained about: lack of job prospects, lack of money, lack of marriage possibilities. They had sex that evening. Manu was gazing out the window when Ahmed approached him from behind and shattered two beer bottles in rapid succession against his head.

There had been no provocation. He remembered that Ahmed came at him with a third, heavier bottle, and somehow Manu fought him off and pushed him out of the apartment. After locking the door, Manu collapsed, bleeding heavily. He called two foreign friends, who helped him get to the hospital. Manu received stitches, and a scan showed bleeding in the brain. Ahmed pleaded that he wanted to talk, and Manu stood shaking with fear behind the locked door until they left. At the time, I was on a long trip, and when I got back Manu seemed different. His head was scarred, and he had sworn off the Qasr al-Nil Bridge.

By that point, the Arab Spring was clearly over in Egypt. The security state steadily reasserted itself, and, after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the Presidency, in , there were increased arrests at Cairo gay hangouts and parties. By then, Manu had made his decision. He still had the police report from his arrest, and in Cairo he told his story to a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that he would have additional documentation.

Manu sold the Port Said apartment and used the cash to pay for his visa trips abroad. In the end, that was the inheritance from his father: a path out of Egypt. He could take the bags immediately if he signed a statement that Girgis had simply been holding everything on our behalf. The other option was to press charges. The officer seemed happy to avoid paperwork.

There had never been a proper theft report, and now there was no case—legally speaking, the incident had never happened.

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Most of our foreign currency was gone, along with a few items of clothing, but everything else was in the bags. Manu said that Girgis owned a white van, and I prepared to contact the car-service boss. But then Sayyid, the garbageman in our old neighborhood, reported that Hany was telling a story about how he had helped find the stolen bags. I knew, though, that people often used Sayyid as a way to broadcast things around the neighborhood, because his job brought him to every doorstep. I sent Manu an e-mail.

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He responded that he had misspoken—the thief drove a white Toyota sedan, not a van. I e-mailed a photograph of Hany smiling happily with the twins after a trip home from school. Manu wrote back:. Hany had a number of regular clients in the neighborhood, and once in the past I had asked him how he got started.

He explained that a woman in our building had left something valuable in his car and he returned it. On a trip back to Cairo, I visited the woman, suspecting that the story was a lie. We passed the gun-toting laundry and the tanks of the water-treatment plant, and we came to the building with the blue dot. He looked sheepish when he answered the door. He seated us in the living room. The first thing I noticed, sitting atop a bureau, was a framed photograph of Hany with my daughters. Now Hany told a story: One day, a couple of weeks after we left, a man showed up in the neighborhood with our two bags.

Hany took the bags, and he had been holding them for us. Manu showed him the satellite images. I told Hany that people sometimes do things they regret, and I just wanted to know the truth. He talked again about the mysterious man with the bags, but now he fixated on the iPod, saying that he had waited patiently for it to be used as a means of communication.

Hany kept talking about the messages and the mysterious man, but he never admitted his guilt. At last, Manu and I left. And the response to guilt was tortured; it left people unable to acknowledge their actions or even speak about them. Hany must have made a spot decision to steal the bags, but something prevented him from following through, and for weeks he slept above the evidence of his crime. It bothered me that Hany had tried to spread a false story around the neighborhood, so I visited Sayyid and told him the truth. Not long after that, Hany was struck by a car in the street, and he disappeared from the neighborhood.

Sayyid said that he and others saw it as divine justice. Last spring, I returned to Cairo again. I was surprised to see Hany parked in his usual spot, waiting for his regular customers. I started to leave in order to avoid a scene, but Hany waved and limped over.

He smiled and asked about the twins.

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He pulled up his pants leg—an ugly scar ran across the skin, and he wore a brace. The phrase came out automatically; Egyptians always say it when somebody is sick or hurt.

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It felt ritualized, this act of behaving in public as if something had never happened. In December, , Manu made his last trip to the Cairo airport.


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A passport-control officer inspected his documents. Manu said that he was giving a lecture, and he handed over an invitation letter. Through some contacts, Manu had arranged to attend a roundtable discussion hosted by a Berlin advocacy group. The German Embassy had approved the visa without any questions. In Berlin, Manu attended the discussion, and he visited a lawyer. After the Arab Spring, Schwulenberatung launched new programs for gay refugees.