I am publishing this article under the name Aliyah, although I grew up mostly being known as Rebecca, my other name. Aliyah is my Hebrew name after my grandfather, who was born in Egypt. He left when most Jews did because of the rising antisemitism and changing political climate. His education as a doctor allowed him to go first to Europe, and then finally settle in Rhode Island where my mother was raised. She married my father, an Ashkenazi Jewish American, and had my brother and me. I wasn’t raised with much exposure to Egyptian culture, but I noticed, and recognized my heritage especially as I got older, partially by meeting and talking to other people of similar heritage and how they always treated me like family.
It was because of this that I was so proud to start working with the Shrouk El Attar Trust (SEAT), where I now coordinate the volunteer program. The Shrouk El-Attar Trust is a new charity based out of the United Kingdom. It was founded by Shrouk El-Attar and the other trustees after years of work helping LGBT+ people in Egypt and the surrounding countries. It works through several different channels. One of them is through sending money to organizations with which Shrouk has long-standing connections. These organizations also work through a variety of channels, supporting individuals and leading campaigns to help further acceptance of LGBT+ people in Egypt.
Additionally, SEAT directly supports LGBT+ individuals in need from around the Middle East and North Africa. We fill requests and help contribute to crowdfunding campaigns and work in tandem with other organizations.
The Shrouk El-Attar Trusts does its own content creation as well. It focuses primarily on creating content in Arabic about the experiences of LGBT+ people. The largest body of work so far is El-Kanaba, a video series where Shrouk interviewed a variety of people in Arabic about LGBT+ experiences and more. The videos originally premiered on Instagram live and now are available to watch in part on YouTube, and in full on Instagram (find the first episode here!). Shrouk also has started another video series where they use their own experience to educate people on life as an Egyptian queer person and videos on the asylum-seeking process.
To raise money for SEAT, we have several methods. Firstly, we raise money from individuals. We ask for donations directly, and also Shrouk leads various belly dancing lessons, talks about the history of queer belly dancing, and other assorted topics in which they are an expert.
I met Shrouk at one of these events, as I wanted to learn more about Egyptian Queer history, belly dancing, and to understand more about my heritage. It was immediately such a comforting, familiar environment. Shrouk shared their personal experience of being a refugee in the United Kingdom and tied it into a larger lesson about Egyptian LGBT+ culture. I deeply admire Shrouk’s ability to work towards a better world despite the heavy experiences that they’ve had.
Shrouk also taught us a short dance routine, where they encouraged us to dress up. I stood in front of my closet confused. I wasn’t sure what would be appropriate. When I did ballet as a child, I dressed hyper-feminine, and my idea of a dance costume barely resembled my butch style that I had so carefully cultivated as an adult. I eventually settled on a binder with a sheer shirt layered over it and a pair of pants that fell low enough that exposed my belly. It was such a healing experience for me, to be able to dance as myself, a queer butch lesbian in an Egyptian space.
When they mentioned that they were creating a trust to help further this work, I excitedly reached out to see if I could be of help. Shrouk and I built the position together, and I met with the trustees, often to ensure I was doing good work. It’s been an honor to have worked with them. This is a group of people who understand the intensity of bigotry worldwide and want to work to help. They’re not coming from the outside, with a sort of savior complex that many NGOs do, they want to help their queer family.
While I worked as the Director of Research and Community Outreach with SEAT, I did a lot of what people would consider boring work; however, I am an organization nerd and loved all of it, from organizing emails and documents to reaching out to other organizations to build connection. I truly felt I was working with a community.
I found this to be an interesting situation, as I was treated with respect, kindness, and even love by everyone I worked with nearly immediately. However, the whole time I was questioning my right to belong in doing this work. I am the descendent of Egyptian emigrants, who left because it wasn’t safe there, and I am also queer. My grandparents didn’t know that when they came here, and I only ever met my grandfather, my Papou, who didn’t live to see me come out. However, because of fear, shame, and bigotry, my Egyptian heritage has been buried. Looking back, I wonder if my passion for this work comes from pushing against ideas that Jewishness and Egyptian-ness couldn’t co-exist anymore.
I frequently find myself wondering to what extent I belong in certain spaces. It’s all internal. Every time I’ve met another Egyptian, they’ve treated me like family. At the same time, I grew up a certain way and there’s no ignoring that. My little rural neighborhood only identified me as ‘different’ based on my Jewishness, nothing based on my Egyptian background.
At the same time, I’ve found so much joy in exploring my Egyptian heritage. More specifically, I’ve found passion in exploring the Karaite Egyptian history, one that many people don’t know about. Sometimes I find myself torn between worlds. I am queer and I am of Egyptian descent, and I am Jewish. Some may say those things are not possible, but every time I feel pride in myself, I feel like I bring the world a little closer.
This isn’t just my work though, and it isn’t solely my experience. The work that the Shrouk El-Attar trust does in cultivating Queer Arab pride is key to this. We need to help to create a world where we belong and where we can feel pride together as ourselves. A large, worldwide community, where we take care of each other regardless of borders, status, anything. That world will be our home.
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join or support the organization.
Aliyah, who also goes by Rebecca, is a recent graduate of the New School where they studied Global Studies, Gender Studies, and Jewish Studies. They specialize in Egyptian Karaite Jewish Histories, about which they recently conducted an oral history project for their senior thesis. They are of Karaite Egyptian and Ashkenazi Jewish descent.