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 sex researcher, had heard such comments before and understood them to mean something different from what other Americans were hearing.
To Luongo, men in or from Muslim countries who use such expressions are not necessarily denying love, attraction or relationships between men, but instead may be rejecting the Western definition of homosexuality as an identity based on romantic or sexual feelings or behavior.
By the time Ahmadinejad's remarks were being played over and over on YouTube, Luongo had already returned from tours in nearly a dozen Arab and Muslim countries and had spent time contemplating the Eastern versus Western paradigm of gender, sexuality and identity.
As a result, in 2007, an anthology of 17 first-person stories he collected and edited, GayTravels in the Muslim World, was published. In 2009, the book debuted in Arabic. According to Luongo, it was the first book on homosexuality ever officially presented at an Arabic-language book fair.
Luongo's all-male writers – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – in countries from Bangladesh to Oman have extremely diverse voices and backgrounds. There are stories that read like letters to friends sharing details about flirting, courting, cruising, dating and mating. Others veer more toward 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 few writers step back a bit to explore local mores and codes, including on how separation of sexes and early arranged marriages in traditional societies complicate sexual identity and practice. Throughout various countries, comments not dissimilar to Ahmadinejad's denying local homosexuality are voiced.
Two of the five Muslims who contributed to the collection acknowledge the controversy of backing a non-Muslim and non-native to the region to collect and publish stories that risk being called orientalist, voyeuristic or even dangerous.
Afdhere Jama, a US-based Somalian Muslim author and editor of Huriyah magazine in English and Arabic, penned in the introduction: "It has been the practice of Western travel writers to somehow always make exotic whatever other people they wrote about, and certainly very few would argue that any other people have been more victimized by this practice than Muslims, for so long. [But Luongo's] travel writings in post-9/11 Afghanistan, Turkey and the Arab world always left me educated about the current climate and situation of my own Muslim brothers and sisters."
Contributor Parvez Sharma, a gay, Muslim, Indian filmmaker, who directed A Jihad for Love, explained his take on Luongo: "It might be easy to dismiss him, saying there here is yet another white man creating the next frontier for gay tourism, and we might wonder how long it will be before planeloads of Chelsea boys descend upon the locals in Kabul. But I see Michael engaged in a task far more important. Writing in the gay mainstream press, he is actually creating the first, post-Taliban, nonacademic media representation of Muslim men who have celebrated their love for one another openly and for centuries."
DURING LUONGO'S travels in Muslim countries, questions about gay identity would come up over and again; and finding hundreds of men willing or even happy to talk about it was much easier than he anticipated. Once the book was published in Arabic, Luongo headed out last year to Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, and was received with open arms at book receptions in Cairo, Beirut and Amman, he says. In Syria, he met individually with booksellers and community members.
Finding a warm welcome in the gay communities in Israel and the West Bank was much more difficult. Palestinian gay organizations and community members distanced themselves from him. And in an e-mail forwarded to The Jerusalem Post, a prominent Israeli gay leader wrote to Luongo: "While maybe interesting for the Western gay tourist, your book does nothing to assist LGBT people in the Arab world. The LGBT communities throughout the Arab world have significant and long-lasting challenges ahead, which they are bravely, slowly and safely approaching. This is a delicate process, and I believe your book, like 'an elephant in a china store' [as the Hebrew expression says], will only serve as a setback to this process. Publicized book events 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 space not affiliated with the gay community.
Luongo, 41, grew up in New Jersey and started his writing career after graduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor's degree in literature and a master's in urban planning. During graduate school he supported himself by doing academic research on sex and health education for the university psychology department and the Canterbury Christ Church University. In 2002, he was coeditor of a textbook on gay international travel, published by Continuum Press.
He also traveled in and wrote extensively about South America, and in 2005 pennedFrommer's Guide to Buenos Aires. Hayworth Press also gave him a niche for commissioning books and stories about the LGBT community, under the heading "Out in the World." Throughout his gay writings, he has financed his research and book promotions by writing freelance travel articles for the gay and mainstream press. In 2009, he won a journalism award from the Society of American Travel Writers for an article published in The New York Times.
Luongo, a non-practicing Christian, increased his travel research in the Arab and Muslim world after being on a plane home to New York City early on the morning of September 11, 2001. Getting home hours before the terror attacks, he was stirred awake by the falling of the World Trade Center. A few days later, he threw a camera around his neck and made his way to Ground Zero with his brother-in-law, a New Jersey policeman. He took photos and hauled rubble to help uncover a buried fire 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 to feel that September 11 elicited a deep-seated homophobia and xenophobia in the Westernworld. He found Jerry Falwell and his followers blaming homosexuality (and other minorities) for terrorism and newspeople analyzing if terrorist Mohamed Atta was gay. And he came across exposés, like one in the British Scotsman, that made stories of local men flirting with troops headline news, he says. His experiences and his reading led to a desire to travel in Muslim countries 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 gets killed 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 in context. For example, I went to Baghdad and you can sit in a gay cafe and you can buy my book without being killed. But it could be that near there someone is being killed, and that means things are not so simple or black and white; they have nuances. I wanted to break down stereotypes and show that it is not just a case of gay people being killed in Muslim countries and the West is a holy Emerald City for gays, 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 and fluid, more so in Muslim countries than in the West. Things are not defined in the East as they are in the West: Some gays and men who have sex with men within Muslim countries might not readily accept the label of homosexual. Wherever people are segregated by gender, men will have sex with each other, because men have to have sex, but this is not defined as "in the closet," a paradigm that men are either open or hidden – already a Western definition.
Men also hold hands with each other in public, which really doesn't mean anything, but can keep that which is hidden in public. Behavior is not identity. In the US behavior becomes identity and we compartmentalize and label everything. But in many Arab and Muslim countries, they don't for example have street signs and people figure out where they are going.
At the same time, regardless of the book being on gay issues, the stories are themselves travel stories, some by Westerners, some by people from the region. On that level they show the need to continue traveling, [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 of dispelling fears and stereotypes?
For example, when [author] Richard Amen tells his story on Morocco where his friend gets killed, I'm not sure I agree with [his conclusions]; it wasn't the type of story I necessarily wanted to promote. But it was Richard's voice, not mine, and the story did show that there could be a dark side and a hustler culture there that feeds on gay tourists.
The late Palestinian activist and Columbia professor of literature Edward Said was known for writing about "orientalism," the perception that Westerners and non-Muslims or non-Arabs always exoticize or make a caricature of Arab and Muslim culture. As a non-Muslim Westerner, have you been concerned about this?
I'm asked a lot why I did this book since I'm not Muslim or Middle Eastern. 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, in 2007 and 2009, and I went to gay cafes and the places where people are being killed. My view is that if you want to know what something is like, you have to go there. A lot of Muslim women said, "Only Muslims should be doing this," so I said, "So go and do it."
Meanwhile, if there is an opening for something that needs to be covered and I know I can do it, I go and I cover it. It's one thing to write about something by making phone calls, but you'll never know the nuances – in Baghdad, for example – if you don't go there. Most gay writers who cover Baghdad have not been there. There is one story in the book that is "orientalist," but the majority are about exploring your 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 Muslims and Arabs based on their behavior, not their identity, according to Western ideas. Do you see it in the same way?
I gave a talk at Columbia University and invited Joseph Massad, but he did not come, but his students did. I agree with him that there are many things, like "gay identity" as a concept, that are a Western import. The definition of homosexuality comes from the West. However, that doesn't mean that there are not gay people who grew up in the Middle East or who live there and identify themselves as gay. To not acknowledge that some people identify themselves as "homosexual" is to overlook a portion of the population. I don't think the term gay or homosexual is "imperialist," though the anti-gay laws that exist in these countries are due to French colonization. Like in Lebanon and Morocco, to be gay is illegal: This is a French colonial law. The countries part of the British Mandate did not pass laws against homosexuality. This is because they were so uptight that they couldn't talk about sexuality and if you couldn't talk about something, you couldn't make it illegal.
Did the Koran or the practice of Islam influence the people you interviewed or those whose stories were included in the collection?
I am not an expert on the Koran and the stories don't really examine how the religion influences belief or practice. The Koran really didn't come up much in conversation. In Afghanistan people brought up Shari'a, though, explaining that for any event to be proven as against Islamic law, you need four witnesses to the act, so if something happens in private it's legally as if it never happened. This is the same law that is unfortunately used very badly against women, if raped with no witnesses. But the same concept of witnesses works to protect homosexual 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 to people who tend to speak some English or who tend to have activist natures, and people who speak English are more influenced by Western culture and so they tend to be more liberal on religious issues – that is one thing that biases my work. Even the act of having translators impacts 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. My philosophy 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 the book came out. One Lebanese man said that he needs to read my book because, even as an Arab, there are so many Arab countries he's never been to. A distributor from Casablanca came to my booth in the Beirut book fair and said he was distributing in Casablanca. In Egypt, people had heard about the book: I was on my cellphone talking and an American with his Egyptian partner asked me, "Are you Michael Luongo?" In Egypt we had an event and people had heard about the book, but what was interesting was that gay Egyptian journalists contacted me only after the event, because they were wary of coming to the event. In Syria, I would never have a public event because it would be too dangerous for people there, but I did have one-on-one meetings with academics and other 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 to him confused that now he had a book in Arabic he could point to for them 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; how it 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 that the book changes things, but it does show that certain discussions can happen. 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 year early 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 as a refugee to the US, and [asked him to read the translation] and he says, " The title is 'Pervert travels in the Muslim world.'" I was shouting every Italian Catholic [obscenity] that you can't write. The publishers had used the word "shaz" that literally means "different," but is used sometimes as "pervert." The PC word is "mithlee." They did not use the word shaz in a homophobic way, but in the standard Arabic that is most commonly used. But I complained that "I'm not going to a book fair in Beirut and standing under a sign that says 'pervert,'" so we agreed to reprint some of the books for the book fair. The Arabic publisher later said that maybe the book will have better distribution using shaz after all, because it can mean many things.
Where was it most difficult to promote the book?
Here in Israel. I was trying for five months to arrange events, but nobody was getting back to me. In the West Bank, it was very difficult to meet gay people at all. I think that even the gay Jewish groups and gay Arab groups still are generally not happy with how Westerners portray Muslims and Arabs. Everyone says Israel is so gay-friendly, but the book being about Muslims made it problematic. I had a small event in Tel Aviv at the Rosa Luxemburg Center, but it was not connected to any gay groups.
In New York, a book event at the City College of New York was difficult because the Islamists came. The event was going great but these guys came in towards the end in traditional clothing with beards and skullcaps and at first I thought, 'How great that these conservative guys came to the event.' A lot of young Muslim women come to my events and it was explained to me that the Islamists come to these events to intimidate women into silence and their very presence can do that. A professor in charge of the event quickly ended the event after they came.
How did the event in Tel Aviv go?
There were maybe 20 people there, including two Palestinians. What was fascinating to me was that Lebanon is a forbidden place here, but everyone was especially curious about Beirut. The book was published out of Beirut and actually Beirut's nightlife is more exciting than in Tel Aviv. During the [Second] Lebanon War, some Israeli men got online to talk to Lebanese men and some [Lebanese men] were upset, but others really wanted to connect. In Israel, everyone is curious about Lebanon and in Lebanon everyone is curious about Israel and Israelis. Gay men do have a connection to each other that crosses boundaries of politics and religion, and you could say that these men wanted a connection, and I 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 is extremely Westernized; everybody wants to have fun, I was surprised to see girls with low-cut shirts and short skirts. In Kuwait, you don't see women go out at night, but in Dubai you have a local population and a huge expat population that influences everything. [For the book title] I use the term "Muslim world" broadly, because every country is very different. Jordanians asked me, "Why am I being lumped together with Afghans?" But you need some terminology when you are [talking to] a Western audience.
More on Iraq... gay Iraq... the history of attacks, and interviews with religious authorities and politicians. I think it's been covered in pieces and a lot of it is third-hand by the gay media. The issues for gay men are sort of a "canary in a coal mine" for what could happen to other minority groups in Iraq, like women and religious groups. I'd like to look at the anatomy of an attack on this group and discover how did this all come to be. Gay men are easily targeted, so what happens to gay men is often a harbinger for what happens to other minority groups.