Web forums like arab-gay.com and manhunt.net are inaccessible in many Arab countries, blocked by state-run web filtering software. Using proxy servers men can get around the bans to the blocked sites, connecting with potential dates and building a knowledge base for gay life in the Arab world.
One blog from Syria, largely considered a repressed society, details a tourist's guide to gay hangouts in Damascus and Aleppo.
"You could almost pick up guys everywhere, you just need to have a good gaydar. ...There are four hammams in Damascus where you could play safely, but always be careful," he writes, then listing the most popular "hammams," or bath houses. He goes on to name the Safwan Hotel in Lattakia as "the most famous gay-friendly hotel in the region."
From his home in Mecca, Samir can surf the web forums and Facebook groups that connect him to the gay Arab world. But he does so with care, fearing that authorities will follow and flag gay activity online.
"You cannot be safe and intimate online. ... he government can track everything. If they have their eye on you, they can follow your every move," he says.
If Samir's approach seems paranoid, it's conditioned by horror stories of harsh crackdowns by Arab governments on gay life. In Egypt, where police have systematically arrested and tortured suspected homosexuals, vice squads have logged on to chat rooms posing as gay men. Forming friendships under a false identity, the police set up an expected first date, then meet their "suspects" with a brutal arrest.
"I was waiting for that guy I chatted with on the Internet a couple of days before that day, right in front of McDonald's [in] Heliopolis. … It was almost 1 p.m., when I found four big guys surrounding me," one victim of police brutality told Human Rights Watch after being set up on a false date.
"I was fighting and yelling in the street. I was dragged, almost carried to the police car ... taken to [the station], the 'Adab' Section, which takes care of prostitution, raping and, recently, homosexuality." Human Rights Watch documented dozens of Web-based entrapments -- men arrested by Egyptian police then tormented with beatings, electrocution and anal examinations.
The vice squad's practice of covertly hunting gay men in chat rooms cooled once the teeming gay Internet scene in Egypt slowed down. Fear and suspicion effectively shut down one of gay Egypt's few free outlets. At one point online entrapment was yielding one arrest per week, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Web was part of a greater crackdown in Egypt, a country that was once a liberal environment for homosexuals. (One gay Palestinian who has studied Arab homophobia described 20th century Egypt as the "San Francisco of the Middle East.") Social and authoritarian attitudes toward homosexuality began to change after the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, and grew steadily harsher through the 1990s as the secular state gave way to a growing Islamic puritanism.
Government-led assaults on homosexuals intensified in 2001. The pivot point was a mass arrest known as the "Queen Boat" incident. In the early morning hours of May 11, 2001, police raided a floating nightclub called the Queen Boat, a then-popular gay hangout moored on the Nile River. Suddenly surrounded by uniformed and undercover members of the Cairo Vice Squad, dozens of gay men were arrested, detained and tortured.