Another lockdown in the news. Not like the one in Egypt; that was a revolution. Back in those days, we would gather and watch Mubarak’s final speeches, surrounded by thousands of people in Tahrir Square. We would spend the day protesting and then nest together during lockdown hours. Sometimes we organized lockdown parties. We stuck together, sharing our homes and beds with friends and strangers. Now a pandemic is in the headlines. Alone in my flat in Berlin, I watch a livestream of Merkel's speech announcing the lockdown.
When Mubarak addressed the nation, he urged us to be responsible, for the sake of Egypt. He warned of the abyss we would fall into if the revolution continues. He reminded us of his long years serving the country and in a broken voice, he said he would die on Egypt’s soil. It was a familiar tactic: It is either him or chaos. The father of the nation guilt-trips us for starting a revolution. The lockdown was a collective punishment for demanding freedom. We were told to stay at home for the sake of National Security.
Now, Merkel addresses the German nation. She says that the coronavirus is the most serious challenge the German nation has faced “since the German reunification, no, since the second world war.” The mother of the nation guilt-trips her citizens to follow the rules, act responsibly, and stay home. This lockdown comes in the name of Public Health.
With such major events, conspiracies are bound to emerge: the revolution was a western plot to destroy Egypt, the coronavirus was made in a Chinese lab, and the list goes on. Dismissing conspiracies is a rite of passage to enlightenment, but certainly, they have their purpose, and also their appeal. They create a sense of identity, belonging to a group, an understanding of the world.
The day lockdown was announced, I went to meet my friends, my alternative queer kinship in our Berlin exile. They are all too familiar with the sense of the end of the world. It has ended for us many times before. With my friends, I find solace. We are in this together, at least right now in this living room. We reassure each other, making promises that we will not be quarantined separately, that we have to stay closely in touch, that we cannot leave each other alone. “Especially you,” one of them says pointing at me. Among them, I am the only one who lives on his own. If we survived a revolution and the so-called refugee crisis, we will be able to handle a pandemic. But I am not completely reassured. Part of me is restless. I need a stronger diversion. I feel a sudden urge to have sex. Perhaps it is the sense of impending doom, of a catastrophe approaching. Is this why people crave sex during disaster and war? A sort of Libido in Thanatos?
Can we have promiscuity in a pandemic? Let me tell you how.
I live in Neukölln, but now I am at my friend’s in Wedding. If I log on to Grindr, I am fresh meat. I chat with a cute Spanish guy nearby.
- I am on PrEP and you?
- I am HIV positive undetectable.
I tell him I can be there in 20 minutes. I hug my friends goodbye. We tell each other to be careful. I don't tell them where I am going. I don’t want to hear any patronizing comments about my choices.
I walk to his place. In a few minutes, we are next to each other on his sofa. His body shines beautifully in his tiny underwear. He rolls a joint while I stare at the dream catchers hanging on his walls. I notice the leftover white powder on the table. They were having a little house party the night before, he tells me. Who am I to judge? He passes the joint, but I decline. I have just made a resolution to quit smoking altogether because of the coronavirus. New pandemic, new me.
“I am glad you came, most guys just chat and never show up,” he says. I reply with a deliberately slow “I know.”
Will we kiss?
One of my queer friends told me that on his last hook-up, he agreed with the guy not to kiss lest they contract the virus. It sounded like an ineffective protection measure to me, unless they kiss as they did in very old Egyptian movies, with mouths closed. I cannot imagine hooking up without kissing. We kiss and have sex, and then I kiss him goodbye. In a pandemic, a kiss can be deadly but it could also be the last kiss; it has to be done wholeheartedly.
I walk back to the nearest metro station. Berlin streets are empty. The air is cool, with intermittent whiffs of urine. Is coronavirus floating around too? I begin to reflect on the encounter. Foucault said that for homosexuals, “The best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi.” He was contrasting Casanova’s “the best moment of love is when one is climbing the stairs.” Heterosexual imagination is anticipation. We build intricate courting rituals leading up to the act of sex. We don’t need the anticipation game. An eye exchange in public or a brief exchange on a dating app is enough to make a sexual encounter possible. Promiscuity is a natural result of a society where homosexual courting is not accepted.
Homosexual imagination is reminiscence. Only when the sexual act is consummated, we wonder who this person was, and what happened there. I remember his beautiful skin and endearing accent. I congratulate myself for resisting the joint. I feel relieved by the fact that I was the top in the sexual encounter. This time, during a pandemic, it makes me feel safer, more protected. Wait a minute. Isn't this the effect of hegemonic masculinity? A sort of safety which comes through the refusal to be vulnerable, to surrender. I suddenly have an epiphany. Perhaps being a strict top is not just the reproduction of the heteronormative norm, maybe it’s also a form of hypochondria.
At the sexual health center where I work, I often get that question during counseling sessions. Is it safer to be a top than a bottom in sex? Things are more complicated than that, I would say. Sexuality is more fluid than that, I explain. Viruses do not care about sexual position identity, I might add. Still, some clients are not convinced of my deconstruction. They ask for statistical facts. I had to arm myself to answer such questions. One study on HIV transmission reported that bottoms have a 1 in 72 chance while tops have a 1 in 909 chance of infection for each condomless act. See? Even biomedical science is on the side of tops, I mean on the side of masculinity. Bottoms are not only socially, but also biomedically disadvantaged. Bottoms are the angels of the queer community. They carry the weight of the world on their butt cheeks.
I wake up the next day with a sore throat. Miss Corona is that you? I immediately regret last night's pleasures. I remember all the scary social media posts I read about the disease. Am I willing to risk my life for a fleeting encounter? In an interview a year before his death from AIDS complications, Foucault lamented that gays, having fought and risked so much, were turning to authorities for guidance: the government, doctors, the church. He found it absurd. “How can I be scared of AIDS when I could die in a car. If sex with a boy gives me pleasure…. Don’t cry for me if I die,” he preached. Foucault lived his politics till the end. I am not sure I will follow my passion in the same way. I would rather not catch Corona or another sexual infection for that matter. Can you imagine catching a sexually transmitted infection during a lockdown? I remember all the bad experiences I had with German sexual health centers. The judgemental attitude and irrelevant questioning. No, Foucault, I am not sure I want to live my politics and not succumb to fear and anxiety this time around. The fleeting warmth of a hookup wavers in front of the risks. Promiscuity has to go into lockdown.
Over the days after lockdown, I am left to myself in isolation. I am working from home. No contact, physical or social. A friend posts stories of himself baking fancy cakes in his quarantine. I leave a comment on how amazing they look. He tells me I can come over to pick up a piece, on the condition he leaves it in front of his doorstep without opening his door. I am not interested in the delicious offer anymore.
Okay, fuck this, I have to meet someone. I meet two friends who are willing to meet despite quarantine. The park is almost empty, except for some joggers and a few families with their children. The three of us are sitting 1.5 meters apart. We think we are following social distancing rules. We look like a witch circle conducting a ritual of some sort. We talk about past pandemics. The conversation picks up. Why don't we study these topics in history class?
A police car appears. Six police officers step out of one vehicle. One of them approaches us with a spark in his eyes. My heart drops; I am always hoping to avoid any interaction with the police. Since I moved to Germany, I feel I am walking on thin ice, in fear of breaking some rule, which could show on my record, and jeopardize my prospect of staying longer in Germany. Nevertheless, I try to reassure my friend who began to move, I ask her to stay still.
“Do you speak German?” The police officer establishes our foreignness from the beginning. I say yes and immediately regret it. A friend once told me the best strategy for dealing with the police is to play dumb.
“Do you belong to the same household?”
I want to say we are a queer family. I want to ask why the law does not recognize this kind of family. “No,” I reply.
“Do you have a real reason to be outside?”
“You must leave.”
Contact is only allowed between two people, they have to belong to the same household. German quarantine rules. Why not three as in the Netherlands? Why not five as in Italy? Two is the most heteronormative number. We pack our stuff and go. I hide that I am shaking. I wonder how the police officers practice social distancing rules with six of them crammed into a car.
Before they leave, the police officers remind us that one of the new rules is to carry our passports with us the whole time and provide evidence of why we are leaving our homes. I think of how he victoriously smiled as we were leaving. A lockdown is a heyday for racial profiling. During the revolution in Egypt, I was working at a refugee organization. I remember their accounts of increased stop and search, harassment. The stories of women who were raped in the back alleys in Cairo during the lockdown. Our revolution was their fear. Whether within or across borders, freedom of movement is reserved for a few.
There is a history as to why I don't share a household in Berlin. I live in a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf says. "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." When I arrived in Germany, I lived in refugee camps, in terrible conditions. There was no privacy. The security staff would open the doors without knocking. They wanted to see if any of the refugees were misbehaving. Then I had my share of German flatmates. A few were good, others were just downright controlling, or were trying to hype their image as progressive Germans. Woolf was commenting on the importance of equal access for women to become great writers. I wonder what she has to say about a queer refugee who aspires to write.
Even meeting friends in the park has become verboten. As if there was not a pandemic of loneliness in Berlin in the first place, as if social distancing was not the norm already. I experiment with sexting and cam sex, but skin hunger is real. I go to the park alone and make friends with the animals there. I watch a duck family swimming together. I envy them for having each other. Friedrich Engels posited that monogamy as practiced currently is quite a recent addition to the scripts of how humans made their bonds. At some point in history, humans moved from hunting and gathering to agricultural settlements, this also meant a change in how families are structured. From maternal kinship to paternal kinship. From primitive promiscuity to a monogamous family. Marx and Engels were arguing that private property and capitalism, later on, were the origin of the nuclear family. There is much to be said about the role of economics and religion in sustaining this structure. Not all of us do monogamy though. Birds make pairs who stick together, while chimpanzees do not.
Queers have complex relationships with their biological families, but with time I begin to understand why families exist. Perhaps one of the reasons humans make families is that in times of hardship, as in a pandemic, we should not be left on our own. My friends promised we would be locked down together, but it didn't happen. Those were just promises. “O friends, there are no friends,” Aristotle allegedly said. And Derrida wrote his Politics of Friendship drawing on this very contradiction. Friendships make us, complicate us and break us. Friendships are enduring yet discontinuous, profound but never take center stage. That’s reserved for romantic love. Pandemics reveal things for what they are. Pandemics are not for the promiscuous, the single, or the spinsters. I can see it quite clearly now: Coronavirus is a heteronormative conspiracy.
He bikes on his way home after one of his solo trips. He usually avoids biking through parks at night. He associates it with danger. This night, he changes course and bikes through the park. It’s a breezy night with a clear sky, and the moon faintly lights the road. He begins to hear some beats. It becomes clear, as he goes, that it is music, techno music to be exact. He draws closer to the source. A rave is going on. Secret and spontaneous. No lining up, bouncers, or guest lists. He recognizes queer faces in the crowd. Some are dancing, some are kissing, others laughing. The police arrive. They step out of their wagons. They circle the crowd. The tension rises. They direct a large spotlight on the crowd and turn it on. The whole space is revealed. The crowd cheers.
Ahmad Awadallah is a writer, psychosocial worker, sex educator, retired pharmacist, and recovering workaholic. For the last decade, moving between Cairo and Berlin, their work has focused on the intersections of health, sexuality, gender, and migration. They are currently based in Berlin and work with Berliner Aids-Hilfe, providing counseling and information on HIV/AIDS and sexual health. Their writing has been featured on several platforms and can also be accessed on the blog Rebel with A Cause.