Out in the world

Michael Luongo, editor of 'Gay Travels in the Muslim World', got the cold shoulder here in Israel.

gay writer in baghdad book baaar 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
gay writer in baghdad book baaar 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007 told a packed audience at Columbia University in New York City that “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” squeals of laughter echoed through the auditorium.
Pundits and gay activists across the US laughed too, pointing out Iran’s anti-gay laws and human rights abuses.
But Michael Luongo, travel writer and editor and former gay sexresearcher, had heard such comments before and understood them to meansomething different from what other Americans were hearing.
To Luongo, men in or from Muslim countries who use such expressions arenot necessarily denying love, attraction or relationships between men,but instead may be rejecting the Western definition of homosexuality asan identity based on romantic or sexual feelings or behavior.
By the time Ahmadinejad’s remarks were being played over and over onYouTube, Luongo had already returned from tours in nearly a dozen Araband Muslim countries and had spent time contemplating the Easternversus Western paradigm of gender, sexuality and identity.
As a result, in 2007, an anthology of 17 first-person stories hecollected and edited, Gay Travels in the MuslimWorld, was published. In 2009, the book debuted in Arabic.According to Luongo, it was the first book on homosexuality everofficially presented at an Arabic-language book fair.
Luongo’s all-male writers – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – in countriesfrom Bangladesh to Oman have extremely diverse voices and backgrounds.There are stories that read like letters to friends sharing detailsabout flirting, courting, cruising, dating and mating. Others veer moretoward the tone of writers like Henry Miller, Jean Genet or William S.Burroughs, where sex is all mixed up with game playing, betrayal,drugs, petty crime, prostitution, near rape and even murder. A fewwriters step back a bit to explore local mores and codes, including onhow separation of sexes and early arranged marriages in traditionalsocieties complicate sexual identity and practice. Throughout variouscountries, comments not dissimilar to Ahmadinejad’s denying localhomosexuality are voiced.
Two of the five Muslims who contributed to the collection acknowledgethe controversy of backing a non-Muslim and non-native to the region tocollect and publish stories that risk being called orientalist,voyeuristic or even dangerous.
Afdhere Jama, a US-based Somalian Muslim author and editor ofHuriyah magazine in English and Arabic, penned inthe introduction: “It has been the practice of Western travel writersto somehow always make exotic whatever other people they wrote about,and certainly very few would argue that any other people have been morevictimized by this practice than Muslims, for so long. [But Luongo’s]travel writings in post-9/11 Afghanistan, Turkey and the Arab worldalways left me educated about the current climate and situation of myown Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Contributor Parvez Sharma, a gay, Muslim, Indian filmmaker, whodirected A Jihad for Love, explained his take onLuongo: “It might be easy to dismiss him, saying there here is yetanother white man creating the next frontier for gay tourism, and wemight wonder how long it will be before planeloads of Chelsea boysdescend upon the locals in Kabul. But I see Michael engaged in a taskfar more important. Writing in the gay mainstream press, he is actuallycreating the first, post-Taliban, nonacademic media representation ofMuslim men who have celebrated their love for one another openly andfor centuries.”
DURING LUONGO’S travels in Muslim countries, questions about gayidentity would come up over and again; and finding hundreds of menwilling or even happy to talk about it was much easier than heanticipated. Once the book was published in Arabic, Luongo headed outlast year to Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, and was received withopen arms at book receptions in Cairo, Beirut and Amman, he says. InSyria, he met individually with booksellers and community members.
Finding a warm welcome in the gay communities in Israel and the WestBank was much more difficult. Palestinian gay organizations andcommunity members distanced themselves from him. And in an e-mailforwarded to The Jerusalem Post, a prominent Israeligay leader wrote to Luongo: “While maybe interesting for the Westerngay tourist, your book does nothing to assist LGBT people in the Arabworld. The LGBT communities throughout the Arab world have significantand long-lasting challenges ahead, which they are bravely, slowly andsafely approaching. This is a delicate process, and I believe yourbook, like ‘an elephant in a china store’ [as the Hebrew expressionsays], will only serve as a setback to this process. Publicized bookevents in Israel would only serve to add fuel to this fire.”
Back in the region this month, working on a series of travel articles,Luongo was able to hold a small book event in Tel Aviv, but at a spacenot affiliated with the gay community.
Luongo, 41, grew up in New Jersey and started his writing career aftergraduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree inliterature and a master’s in urban planning. During graduate school hesupported himself by doing academic research on sex and healtheducation for the university psychology department and the CanterburyChrist Church University. In 2002, he was coeditor of a textbook on gayinternational travel, published by Continuum Press.
He also traveled in and wrote extensively about South America, and in2005 penned Frommer’s Guide to Buenos Aires.Hayworth Press also gave him a niche for commissioning books andstories about the LGBT community, under the heading “Out in the World.”Throughout his gay writings, he has financed his research and bookpromotions by writing freelance travel articles for the gay andmainstream press. In 2009, he won a journalism award from the Societyof American Travel Writers for an article published in The NewYork Times.
Luongo, a non-practicing Christian, increased his travel research inthe Arab and Muslim world after being on a plane home to New York Cityearly on the morning of September 11, 2001. Getting home hours beforethe terror attacks, he was stirred awake by the falling of the WorldTrade Center. A few days later, he threw a camera around his neck andmade his way to Ground Zero with his brother-in-law, a New Jerseypoliceman. He took photos and hauled rubble to help uncover a buriedfire truck, while witnessing the uncovering of clothing remnants,bodies and the accompanying smells of death.
Stunned by some of the mainstream newspaper coverage, Luongo started tofeel that September 11 elicited a deep-seated homophobia and xenophobiain the Western world. He found Jerry Falwell and his followers blaminghomosexuality (and other minorities) for terrorism and newspeopleanalyzing if terrorist Mohamed Atta was gay. And he came acrossexposés, like one in the British Scotsman, that madestories of local men flirting with troops headline news, he says. Hisexperiences and his reading led to a desire to travel in Muslimcountries to bring back stories to English-speaking audiences.
Meeting with the Post in Jerusalem this month,Luongo explains the intentions and hopes of his most recent work.
Why was it important to to you to travel in Muslim countries to find stories about gay culture there?
Sometimes when I bring up the subject, people say, “Everyone getskilled for being gay in the Muslim world.” You do have terrible things– honor killings or the hangings in Iran – but I try to show that incontext. For example, I went to Baghdad and you can sit in a gay cafeand you can buy my book without being killed. But it could be that nearthere someone is being killed, and that means things are not so simpleor black and white; they have nuances. I wanted to break downstereotypes and show that it is not just a case of gay people beingkilled in Muslim countries and the West is a holy Emerald City forgays, an ideal. I wanted to understand the subtleties within a region,and individual parts of a region.
I also wanted people to understand that identity can be nebulous andfluid, more so in Muslim countries than in the West. Things are notdefined in the East as they are in the West: Some gays and men who havesex with men within Muslim countries might not readily accept the labelof homosexual. Wherever people are segregated by gender, men will havesex with each other, because men have to have sex, but this is notdefined as “in the closet,” a paradigm that men are either open orhidden – already a Western definition.
Men also hold hands with each other in public, which really doesn’tmean anything, but can keep that which is hidden in public. Behavior isnot identity. In the US behavior becomes identity and wecompartmentalize and label everything. But in many Arab and Muslimcountries, they don’t for example have street signs and people figureout where they are going.
At the same time, regardless of the book being on gay issues, thestories are themselves travel stories, some by Westerners, some bypeople from the region. On that level they show the need to continuetraveling, [to] break down fears and misunderstanding of a region.
Where did those few stories that refer to betrayal, crime, harassment,gang rapes or other sex-related violence fit into your goal ofdispelling fears and stereotypes?
For example, when [author] Richard Amen tells his story on Moroccowhere his friend gets killed, I’m not sure I agree with [hisconclusions]; it wasn’t the type of story I necessarily wanted topromote. But it was Richard’s voice, not mine, and the story did showthat there could be a dark side and a hustler culture there that feedson gay tourists.
The late Palestinian activist and Columbia professor of literatureEdward Said was known for writing about “orientalism,” the perceptionthat Westerners and non-Muslims or non-Arabs always exoticize or make acaricature of Arab and Muslim culture. As a non-Muslim Westerner, haveyou been concerned about this?
I’m asked a lot why I did this book since I’m not Muslim or MiddleEastern. People are critical when you are not from their environment,and I say, “Why didn’t someone else do it?” I was in Iraq two times, in2007 and 2009, and I went to gay cafes and the places where people arebeing killed. My view is that if you want to know what something islike, you have to go there. A lot of Muslim women said, “Only Muslimsshould be doing this,” so I said, “So go and do it.”
Meanwhile, if there is an opening for something that needs to becovered and I know I can do it, I go and I cover it. It’s one thing towrite about something by making phone calls, but you’ll never know thenuances – in Baghdad, for example – if you don’t go there. Most gaywriters who cover Baghdad have not been there. There is one story inthe book that is “orientalist,” but the majority are about exploringyour way through a foreign culture.
Edward Said’s protégé Prof. Joseph Massad argues that the term“homosexuality” is Western and imperialist as it is imposed on Muslimsand Arabs based on their behavior, not their identity, according toWestern ideas. Do you see it in the same way?
I gave a talk at Columbia University and invited Joseph Massad, but hedid not come, but his students did. I agree with him that there aremany things, like “gay identity” as a concept, that are a Westernimport. The definition of homosexuality comes from the West. However,that doesn’t mean that there are not gay people who grew up in theMiddle East or who live there and identify themselves as gay. To notacknowledge that some people identify themselves as “homosexual” is tooverlook a portion of the population. I don’t think the term gay orhomosexual is “imperialist,” though the anti-gay laws that exist inthese countries are due to French colonization. Like in Lebanon andMorocco, to be gay is illegal: This is a French colonial law. Thecountries part of the British Mandate did not pass laws againsthomosexuality. This is because they were so uptight that they couldn’ttalk about sexuality and if you couldn’t talk about something, youcouldn’t make it illegal.
Did the Koran or the practice of Islam influence the people youinterviewed or those whose stories were included in the collection?
I am not an expert on the Koran and the stories don’t really examinehow the religion influences belief or practice. The Koran really didn’tcome up much in conversation. In Afghanistan people brought up Shari’a,though, explaining that for any event to be proven as against Islamiclaw, you need four witnesses to the act, so if something happens inprivate it’s legally as if it never happened. This is the same law thatis unfortunately used very badly against women, if raped with nowitnesses. But the same concept of witnesses works to protecthomosexual acts that have no witnesses; it’s as if they never occurred,according to Shari’a law. It is important to note that I speak topeople who tend to speak some English or who tend to have activistnatures, and people who speak English are more influenced by Westernculture and so they tend to be more liberal on religious issues – thatis one thing that biases my work. Even the act of having translatorsimpacts the conversation.
There is a lot of sex in the writing; is this erotic literature?
There are stories with sex, but it is not erotic literature. Myphilosophy was if the sex fits with the story it’s fine, but if not,not. Also, the truth is that gay men are sexual.
How were you received in the Muslim countries?
The book was well received. In Lebanon people were so happy that thebook came out. One Lebanese man said that he needs to read my bookbecause, even as an Arab, there are so many Arab countries he’s neverbeen to. A distributor from Casablanca came to my booth in the Beirutbook fair and said he was distributing in Casablanca. In Egypt, peoplehad heard about the book: I was on my cellphone talking and an Americanwith his Egyptian partner asked me, “Are you Michael Luongo?” In Egyptwe had an event and people had heard about the book, but what wasinteresting was that gay Egyptian journalists contacted me only afterthe event, because they were wary of coming to the event. In Syria, Iwould never have a public event because it would be too dangerous forpeople there, but I did have one-on-one meetings with academics andother people interested in the book there.
What was the most poignant thing that happened in your travels?
A Lebanese Christian schoolteacher told me that when students came tohim confused that now he had a book in Arabic he could point to forthem to read.
Was there anything that really surprised you?
The most surprising thing was that the book was available in Baghdad.Also, the reception, how happy some people in the Middle East were; howit was not a big deal to do a public event in Lebanon and in Egypt,considering problems for gays there. It would be arrogant to say thatthe book changes things, but it does show that certain discussions canhappen. Everyone said it couldn’t be done.
There were some funny events around the translation, correct?
The Arabic translation was supposed to come out in 2010 and a yearearly I received a call from the son of the Arabic publisher, who said,“It’s done.” So I called my translator from Baghdad, who came later asa refugee to the US, and [asked him to read the translation] and hesays, “ The title is ‘Pervert travels in the Muslim world.’” I wasshouting every Italian Catholic [obscenity] that you can’t write. Thepublishers had used the word “shaz” that literallymeans “different,” but is used sometimes as “pervert.” The PC word is“mithlee.” They did not use the wordshaz in a homophobic way, but in the standard Arabicthat is most commonly used. But I complained that “I’m not going to abook fair in Beirut and standing under a sign that says ‘pervert,’” sowe agreed to reprint some of the books for the book fair. The Arabicpublisher later said that maybe the book will have better distributionusing shaz after all, because it can mean manythings.
Where was it most difficult to promote the book?
Here in Israel. I was trying for five months to arrange events, butnobody was getting back to me. In the West Bank, it was very difficultto meet gay people at all. I think that even the gay Jewish groups andgay Arab groups still are generally not happy with how Westernersportray Muslims and Arabs. Everyone says Israel is so gay-friendly, butthe book being about Muslims made it problematic. I had a small eventin Tel Aviv at the Rosa Luxemburg Center, but it was not connected toany gay groups.
In New York, a book event at the City College of New York was difficultbecause the Islamists came. The event was going great but these guyscame in towards the end in traditional clothing with beards andskullcaps and at first I thought, ‘How great that these conservativeguys came to the event.’ A lot of young Muslim women come to my eventsand it was explained to me that the Islamists come to these events tointimidate women into silence and their very presence can do that. Aprofessor in charge of the event quickly ended the event after theycame.
How did the event in Tel Aviv go?
There were maybe 20 people there, including two Palestinians. What wasfascinating to me was that Lebanon is a forbidden place here, buteveryone was especially curious about Beirut. The book was publishedout of Beirut and actually Beirut’s nightlife is more exciting than inTel Aviv. During the [Second] Lebanon War, some Israeli men got onlineto talk to Lebanese men and some [Lebanese men] were upset, but othersreally wanted to connect. In Israel, everyone is curious about Lebanonand in Lebanon everyone is curious about Israel and Israelis. Gay mendo have a connection to each other that crosses boundaries of politicsand religion, and you could say that these men wanted a connection, andI think that is what the book is really about.
Did you discover any commonalities or differences between the Muslim countries that surprised you?
Beirut blew my mind how different it is than any other Arab city. It isextremely Westernized; everybody wants to have fun, I was surprised tosee girls with low-cut shirts and short skirts. In Kuwait, you don’tsee women go out at night, but in Dubai you have a local population anda huge expat population that influences everything. [For the booktitle] I use the term “Muslim world” broadly, because every country isvery different. Jordanians asked me, “Why am I being lumped togetherwith Afghans?” But you need some terminology when you are [talking to]a Western audience.
What’s next?
More on Iraq... gay Iraq... the history of attacks, and interviews withreligious authorities and politicians. I think it’s been covered inpieces and a lot of it is third-hand by the gay media. The issues forgay men are sort of a “canary in a coal mine” for what could happen toother minority groups in Iraq, like women and religious groups. I’dlike to look at the anatomy of an attack on this group and discover howdid this all come to be. Gay men are easily targeted, so what happensto gay men is often a harbinger for what happens to other minoritygroups.