Two months ago, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Essam Ghoneim el-Attar planned a holiday visit to the Middle East. He’d planned a short visit with family in his hometown of Cairo and then a visit to Ankara, Turkey, where he once lived. Instead, he was arrested on New Year’s Day by Egyptian police at the Cairo airport and accused of spying for Israel.
El-Attar claims he was subsequently tortured into signing a confession. He remains in custody in Egypt pending the outcome of his trial.
El-Attar, who was better known in Canada by the name Joseph el-Attar, was well known in Toronto’s gay community. Acquaintances describe him as friendly, outgoing and flamboyant, but none of his friends contacted by Xtra were willing to comment about him on the record.
Many of el-Attar’s closest friends in the gay scene say they’ve tried to distance themselves from him since the story of his arrest first broke. Many of them are Arab nationals or Muslims who fear repercussions from family or from authorities in their countries of origin if they are identified as gay in the media. Nor do they want to be associated with a spy — regardless of whether the charges are founded or not. Others are worried that anything they say may negatively impact el-Attar’s trial.
El-Attar was a regular customer at Timothy’s on Church St, where he was known to come in as many as four times a day. His photo was easily recognized by many other regulars. He was also a regular at Woody’s, Play and Crews, where bartenders remember him for drinking Rev and tipping extravagantly.
Most acquaintances are reluctant to comment on his sexuality, but one former roommate suggests el-Attar may not have considered himself gay.
“He wasn’t out,” says the roommate, an Algerian-Canadian woman who asks not to be identified. “He was saying, ‘I do whatever I want and I don’t let anyone touch me from behind,’ like the fact that he wasn’t taking it from behind made him not gay.”
She also says that el-Attar’s outward friendliness is not all there is to him.
“He had some Arab friends and he’d always smile toward them, and as soon as he walked away he would say that they were gays and faggots and that’s not right,” she says.
Other Arab friends note that el-Attar’s attitude to other Arabs was often tinged with a sense of superiority, and that he often bragged that he entered Canada as an economic immigrant, not a refugee. One friend notes that he didn’t eat at the Arab-owned Pita Pan at Church and Wellesley, preferring the Turkish-owned A La Turque restaurant across the street.
“He would say he’s not Arab, that Arab people are not educated,” says one acquaintance.
Friends are uncertain about allegations published elsewhere that he converted to Christianity. They note that he attended services at the Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto, but add that many Muslims attend to learn about Christianity and to meet other gay men. They also note he wore a cross around his neck and had a tattoo of a cross on his shoulder, but speculate that these may have just been fashion statements.
In absence of evidence, which Egypt refuses to make public, friends see little cause for el-Attar’s imprisonment.
“I hope he’s not involved, so he can come back. He was a good one,” says one Church St business owner.
El-Attar’s case has received much attention in Egypt, where the media has played up rumours that el-Attar converted to Christianity and is gay. In his brief court appearance on Feb 28 el-Attar denied both, claiming that he was planning to return to Egypt to get married.
Egyptian authorities allege that el-Attar volunteered to spy for Israel while he was living in Ankara to avoid a civil suit in Egypt. While in Ankara, he applied for refugee status at the United Nations, which approved his application and referred him to Canadian authorities. He eventually settled in Toronto where he worked as a personal banking assistant at a CIBC branch on Queen St West. From this position, he is alleged to have reported on the financial situations of prominent Arab-Canadians to Israel. CIBC has refused to comment on the case.
The Canadian government has not issued a statement on the matter. Foreign Affairs spokesperson says that consular officials have been present at two of el-Attar’s court appearances.
What is clear is that the case has sent a chill through the usually close-knit Arab and Muslim gay circles. Few of the people that know him locally are speaking openly about el-Attar’s case, which may be in turn influencing Canada’s authorities tepid response in the matter.