In Egypt, A Village Fights For More Than Just A Soccer Field

Soccer field near Luxor
Soccer field near Luxor
Yasmine Laveille

LUXOR â€" It's hot in the minibus that takes us to a village about 10 kilometers from Luxor's city center. We ask the driver to drop us off at the house of Hajj Tarek* on the main street. Dotted with farmland, sugar cane and modest concrete houses, the village looks like many other Upper Egyptian rural areas.

It's twilight on a beautiful March day in 2015. We enter the headquarters of a local family association situated in a small room with a few seats, a dusty shelf, an old Dell computer and a large desk. While drinking tea, Hajj Tarek, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and leading village figure, introduces us to a group of men in their thirties and forties. They are public sector employees, farmers, shop owners and drivers, who have been involved in a land dispute with local officials for years.

Residents have been struggling with authorities because the village has only one youth center for approximately 35,000 inhabitants. In the 1990s, several residents began to use a vacant piece of state land as a soccer field. They had plans to build a youth center, but they were stopped because of the land's ownership. Around 2010, a local official temporarily seized the land, which officially belongs to the Ministry of Endowments. Consequently, residents embarked on a complex administrative process asking the Ministry of Youth and Sports to buy the land from the Ministry of Endowments. The sale would formalize their use of the land and avoid further attempts to seize it for other purposes.

After years of bureaucratic intricacies and several protests by the villagers at the governorate headquarters in Luxor, the Ministry of Youth and Sports continues to refuse to purchase the land, under the pretext that the price is too high. Because the two state bodies failed to reach a consensus, families came to a temporary arrangement with the authorities, whereby they were allowed (up until 2010) to use the land in exchange for an annual rent of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,300) paid to the Ministry of Endowments â€" a considerable sum for the villagers.

Then came the Arab Spring

If the 2011 uprising was essentially more noticeable in Cairo and other big cities, it has nevertheless affected the lives of the more distant populations of southern Egypt. The economies of the Aswan and Luxor governorates have suffered especially from the country's instability, which drove away millions of tourists. Many of the south's youth, who were employed in the tourism industry as hotel employees, drivers, tourist guides and small merchants, have lost their livelihoods. In addition, the Upper Egyptian countryside has been hit hard by the deterioration of public services. These include recurrent electricity cuts, water and fuel shortages, and thousands of people dying each year from widespread diseases, including hepatitis C and renal failure, the result of pollution and poor health care.

This is the direct result of Cairo's years of neglect and disregard for other areas. Stereotypes of passive, ignorant, conservative Upper Egyptians have led to a widespread belief that the region has remained distant from the political events and changes that have taken place since Jan. 25, 2011. Yet many Upper Egyptians have taken to the streets during and since the uprising.

Residents of the village also saw the revolution as an opportunity to increase pressure on decision-makers and solve the longstanding issue of the soccer field. Khaled*, a 41-year-old government-employed technician, believes the revolution "opened a door." Residents first bombarded with petitions a long list of state and city administrative entities involved in the issue.

After being denied several requests to meet the governor, Youssef*, a 45 year-old electrician employed in a government body and one of the most active villagers pursuing, decided with two of his friends to organize a sit-in outside the governorate building in Luxor. They demanded the right to legally use the soccer field.

Criminalizing protest

The protests didn't constitute a rebellion against the government. Instead, it was a demand addressed to the "powerful state," asking it to give them back their right to enjoy the green space. A November 2013 law, which criminalized protests and led to the imprisonment of thousands of activists across Egypt, has deterred villagers from organizing more protests. They have resorted to administrative and legal steps instead, through writing petitions and the like. But they have so far been unsuccessful. Worse, they have been subject to several intimidation attempts and indirect threats, while their leaders have been threatened with lawsuits for illegally occupying land.

Photo: Kristina

None of this would have happened if the Ministry of Youth and Sports had agreed to buy the land from the Ministry of Endowments a long time ago. "The two ministries belong to the Arab Republic of Egypt," a local parliamentary candidate says. "What's the problem? Routine and administrative corruption." Excessive red tape and bureaucracy has remained pervasive despite the 2011 revolution, the candidate says.

Since June 30, 2013, prospects to solve this issue have appeared more distant than ever. The current president doesn't seem any more interested than his predecessors in reforming failing state institutions and tackling the red tape. But despite obstacles, residents express their determination to continue the fight.

"It's a matter of life or death," Khaled explains.

Southern Egypt being ignored

In the village, residents claim they are fighting for a public service for everyone. Social and educative purposes justify the need for this field: It's better to provide the youth with a space to gather and practice sports rather than leave them to spend the entire day being idle, taking drugs or even falling into violence or terrorism. Beyond practical issues, residents have questioned their perceived marginalization from the rest of Egypt, while reclaiming their rights as Egyptian citizens.

According to Khaled, Upper Egyptians have suffered since the end of Gamal Abdel Nasser"s era, when the region was disregarded. He complains that no major development project has been undertaken in the area since the construction of Aswan's High Dam. While significant construction projects have been recently launched in the Suez Canal region and Greater Cairo, it seems that Upper Egypt and many other remote and poor regions have been once again forgotten.

Youssef also blames the authorities' ignorance of poor people, claiming they have obtained nothing since the 2011 uprising. "The people who live in Cairo don't feel what has happened to us: There is no work, no jobs, no tourism, and 90% of people in Luxor work in tourism," he says. "The coming revolution will be a bread revolt. Only the working class will participate. It will trump 2011, 2013 and all the revolutions. No one will be able to control it."

Denouncing the state's virtual absence in the south and demanding better provision of public services, Upper Egyptians have nonetheless called for the central political power to perform its traditional duties of protection and (re)distribution of resources. In the long term, issues such as the field may further fuel popular discontent.

This is how Youssef imagines it. "We entered the bottle, and we were shut inside. One day, we'll break it and escape. And on that day, no one will be able to stop us, because we're suffocating in it."

*Names have been changed in the article to protect the privacy of residents.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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