HONOLULU (eTN) – A few months ago, I was given a copy of a book to review called, “Gay Travels in the Muslim World.” Time constraints and job demands have hindered me from taking the time to give the book a read, so I decided to contact the author of the book, Michael Luongo, for an interview discussing his book instead. The below conversation is the result of that interview.
eTN: What is your book about?
Michael Luongo: Well, the book “Gays Travels of the Muslim World” is about… it’s a collection of essays by gay Muslim men and non-Muslim Men. I write about Afghanistan; there are 17 other writers who write on countries ranging from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Marisha, and even Los Angeles, so it’s a variety of different places. The book kind of looks at some of the issues we’ve had since 9/11, and the relationship between the West and the Middle East and kind of also does that from a gay perspective.
eTN: How is it relevant in today’s travel and tourism?
Luongo: Well, I think what makes it very relevant, and it’s a point I that always make in the readings and the lectures that I do, the book looks at what it is like to actually travel directly within Middle Eastern Muslim countries. I’m using this broad term, Muslim countries, which is not the Middle East, it’s a variety of different places. The book also looks at the fears that many people have before they experience a Muslim country. We know that that’s a major issue since 9/11, which has directly impacted tourism within most of these regions. The experiences of the travelers beyond just the gay issues, are issues of being feeling very welcome, the issue of hospitality, the issue that things are nowhere near as bad as the media would have one think when someone is a traveler within these regions. It looks at gay issues clearly, but it also looks at the issue, in particular, of a Western traveler, going to countries like Bangladesh, going to countries like Afghanistan, which I do, which I think is extremely welcoming of foreigners in spite of what you read in the news; the experiences of people going to Egypt, the experiences of people going to Morocco. The book also really lays it out very clearly that there is no reason to fear traveling within Muslim countries regardless of your sexual orientation.
eTN: Do you see a niche market ever catering to the specific gay community?
Luongo: Well, I think historically when we look at countries like Morocco, countries like Egypt, really since the Victorian era, there has been a lot of quote unquote gay tourism within North Africa. As an example, we know that even people like Oscar Wilde would travel there. There’s also… in Morocco; entire history in the 1940s and 1950s of gay men would didn’t feel welcome in the West, traveling to these countries where sexuality was very fluid and undefined, so we have that historical niche. I do believe that within the context of Shariat law, which allows a certain amount of activity in a private setting, that homosexuality isn’t as frowned upon as the news would have us believe, so clearly there’s a niche market. We do know that there are companies, in particular for Morocco, in particular for Egypt, in particular for Jordan, the quote unquote more liberal places; Egypt, whether it’s liberal, is up for interpretation. Beyond that, if you are looking at the niche marketing to gay men in particular, the love of history, the love of architecture, the love of culture, is really something that could be exploited within many of these countries.
eTN: For those that do not know, what is wrong with being gay in the Muslim world?
Luongo: Well, I think in, and again this is something that the book tries to talk about, and it’s a little hard to put into a bullet point for the news. In most Muslim countries, this is a broad brush, to do is not to be, so the behavior itself is not problematic. It is actually quite normal, within the context of most Muslim countries, for men to have sex with men, that may or may not be acknowledged by society at large. You see it quite prevalently, actually, in countries that separate men from the women, and people must express themselves sexually. Unlike in the West, where we tend to put labels on everything, people in the Middle East and in Muslim countries don’t necessarily label behavior as part of identity. The problem within many of these Muslim countries is when behavior becomes identity, and the identity asks for a political acceptance. When we do see the problems in the Middle East and in Muslim countries, it’s because these people, and I think people should ultimately be allowed to have gay rights in the future or now. What we see in the news has to do with behavior becoming identity and asking for political acceptance. So that’s the problem that we’ve seen in Egypt with the Cairo 52. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the arrests of the… it was basically a gay bar on a barge on the Nile, and it was too visible, and Mubarak had decided to crack down on it. So when it becomes too visible, when it looks like it could become a political entity, that’s when there’s a problem. We’ve seen that in Iran. The book doesn’t really touch on Iran, but we’ve seen when Ahmadinejad talks about not having gay men like you have in the West, but what he is referring to is, there isn’t a political movement; there isn’t a visibility in the same way that there is in the West. Not that there aren’t gay people, but that they don’t have political power. So the clashes that you see, often violently and horrifically, have to do with behavior becoming identity becoming asking for political acceptance. We, in the West, have experienced these horrific things. We still continue to experience that, but it is something we are probably more familiar with 30 or 40 years ago with Iraq civil rights, women’s civil rights movement, and with the early days of the gay civil rights movement.
eTN: How has your book been received by the public?
Luongo: I would say that in virtually every gay publication in the United States has written about it. The problem is that the book has not received a lot of mainstream press from the United States. It did receive press. The New York Post kind of sensationalized it on page 6, but it was sort of a sensationalized review. The Progressive did a review of it; an excellent review of it, but mainstream press hasn’t really paid too much attention to it. It’s very well reviewed in gay press. Around the English speaking world, if we are looking at Canada, if we’re looking at Britain, Ireland – I’m not sure what’s been done in Australia – it’s very well reviewed both in the gay press and in the mainstream press. What I find, and I think that anyone who’s familiar with the United States and its view of the world, we often don’t really understand the rest of the world, so I find that many mainstream publications just don’t understand what to make of the book. Wherever I go, in terms of lectures and in terms of readings, it is very well received; I get into great discussions. One of the things I find very interesting at universities, is that young Muslim women, straight Muslim women, often veiled, sometimes in complete chadur, will come to the events and be involved in fantastic discussions. The book is about homosexuality in the Muslim world; there are related issues for women in the Muslim world, so we get into these fantastic discussions, and that wasn’t quite something I had expected. There has been very little negative reaction. There are times when American Muslims are not very receptive to discussing the book, but most people will be very polite in their discussions of the book, and it has been reviewed in the Arab American Monitor. They did a great piece about the book. So it’s, in general, if it’s reviewed, it’s well accepted. When people actually get to hear the message, it’s very well accepted, and it’s not meant to be a challenge. It’s really meant as a challenge to Americans to take a better view of parts of the world.
eTN: You mentioned a little bit of the Muslim community – in general, here and abroad, how have they received your book?
Luongo: Well, I’ll tell you a few interesting things. I do think that we have a lot of homophobia in the United States that we don’t discuss, and I do think that immigrant communities develop a tremendous amount of homophobia living in the United States. So that’s been one of the things that I think is one of the challenges in talking about the book among Americans – not among gay Americans – Muslims in the United States or either people from other countries or their children who were born here. What I find in getting into discussions with people from Muslim countries, is people are very aware of these issues, but they often know that it’s difficult to talk about in their countries. Some people find it refreshing that such a discussion is going on. Some people will find it funny that I am bringing up these issues. I was at the London Book Fair in April; it was in London, but the theme of the book fair was the Middle East. So you have basically all of the Arabic publishers of importance and who could afford to come to London, from all over the Muslim world, were in London. And I got into fantastic discussions with publishers from Egypt, from Lebanon, even people from Saudi Arabia, about the topic of the book, and I think that… what I find is that many countries and their intellectuals and their publishers are willing to talk about these issues, but there’s a little bit of a worry about what will happen if the issues are brought out more openly within the home country. I’ve been able to get into fantastic discussions in Afghanistan on homosexuality without any fear for my safety. I’ve often been able to get into discussions in Jordan on these issues without any fear for my safety. So it depends on the country, it depends on the situation, it depends on the approach, but in general, most of the conversations have been good. Some people find it a humorous thing, and then, of course, there are some people who don’t want to talk to you at all.
eTN: That’s good to hear. What was your personal motivation for writing the book?
Luongo: Well, a huge part of my personal motivation for writing this book, and it has influenced all of my traveling writing, really, in the Middle East and the Muslim countries. I’m a New Yorker who directly experienced 9/11. I dug through the rubble of the twin towers a few days after the incident; it was actually the Saturday after, which I think was September the 15th.
eTN: I know that.
Luongo: My brother-in-law was a police officer, so certain citizens, quote unquote, were allowed to go in and help to hunt for dead bodies. My first thoughts, when standing at ground zero, were of Beirut, though I’ve actually never been to Beirut, and I said to myself, now I know what it’s like to live in a war-torn country in a way that I think most Americans have never experienced – to stand in the midst of the rubble. I swore from that point that, as a travel writer, I would try to concentrate on visiting places most people would never want to visit, and writing about those experiences. Really, what the idea of travel for the purposes of peace, which is something that you guys talk a lot about on eTurboNews, and so I decided to visit Afghanistan, I decided to visit various Muslim countries, even during Ramadan and write about those experiences. Some of those I did for mainstream publications, for instance for the New York Times, they had the first post all about travel piece for the New York Times in 2003, but I also wanted to look at the issues of homosexuality within these countries because I began to read quite homophobic pieces, written by largely straight male journalists, who experienced some of the male intimacy and perhaps misinterpreted some of the male intimacy that is actually allowed within most Muslim countries, and also articles about the Taliban possibly being gay; that Afghanistan was somewhat tolerant of certain behaviors and situations. So all of these things piqued my curiosity. I had done for Gay City News, which is a New York newspaper, a gay New York newspaper, we did a series on 4 different Muslim countries, which I had written, and I decided there’s a book in this. In another book I had done before this, many of the people who submitted chapters, they wrote about Muslim countries, and I said to myself, clearly there’s a book in this, and so that was part of the genesis of the book. Really, it was part of the writing that I had done since 9/11 on Muslim countries anyway, encouraging people to visit them, and then doing it through a gay perspective as a gay man, really was another challenge to some of the really horrific headlines that we often read about these countries from many perspectives. So that’s sort of part of the background on how that came about over a period of years.
eTN: Okay, excellent. The book, regardless of sexual orientation – gay, straight, or bisexual, what have you – may be a difficult read for some. Why do you suppose this is?
Luongo: That it’s a difficult read regardless of the orientation?
Luongo: Well, because it does visit war zones, and it’s really the only book I know of from a gay perspective that looks at war zones. It does visit Iraq, it does visit Afghanistan, it does visit some places that people might consider somewhat Totalitarian regimes, like Egypt. It does look at some difficult things; it looks at some ugly things, but I still think that people, regardless of their opinion of the government of another country, they should still visit that country if they can, and people to people, is really about breaking down barriers of all kinds. We know, living in the United States, that there are many people who, since our new – well it’s not our new government anymore – but since the change in government in 2000, have absolutely refused to visit the United States. This has been something that you have covered in eTurboNews – the decline in visitors to the United States in spite of the drop in the dollar because they’re not treated very well by the government – visas, new restrictions, new fingerprinting – everyone’s treated as a criminal when they come into the United States. We, as Americans, are quite unaware of this as a problem, but we’re aware of it in other countries, but my view is, in spite of the difficulties, in spite of what you think of someone’s government, it’s really important to encourage people to visit other countries regardless of the problems. I know many people who will never visit Egypt because they said, I can’t see poor people. I know many people who won’t visit Saudi Arabia – and Saudi Arabia is covered in the book – because of the way that the country treats women, but the fact of the matter is, by simply visiting other countries, you create a dialogue that governments alone can’t create, and that’s one of the challenges also of the book and one of the problems that people have with the book.
eTN: From your different perspective, what sort of challenges do gay travelers face when they visit a Middle East destination?
Luongo: Well, I think, depending on the country, it’s best not to be open in the Western sense. One of the things that throws a lot of people off is the fact that men hold hands in Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. That does not mean that if you’re a blonde, blue-eyed American, you should be doing the same. It doesn’t mean that it’s accept… when Muslim men hold hands, it doesn’t mean that they’re gay. So that’s one of the recommendations – if you look extremely Western, you should not hold hands in public in the same way, however, some men may want to hold your hand, and that’s perfectly acceptable if somebody initiates that. It’s fine for two men to share a bed together, but I think being open in the Western sense can be problematic. There are ways in which people can get into discussions within these countries to say that they’re gay without directly saying that they’re gay. I’m 39, and I’m not married; I haven’t had a girlfriend in many, many years – when you begin conversations, and you talk about these things, people realize that you are gay, but they won’t say it directly, and it’s fine to be that way as long as it’s not said directly. Sometimes I am very direct, sometimes I’m not direct. So this kind of talking around something is highly advisable. Those are ways that… and I think what’s extremely important for anyone who is a gay Westerner to remember – and the Cairo 52 is a perfect lesson in this – you are really not in danger as a gay Westerner within any of these countries, however, the gay people, or people who have sex with men or however somebody chooses to identify within these countries – your interactions with these people and your conversations can put them in severe danger, and remember you leave, and they stay. So the danger is not for you but for the people with whom you’re interacting. You must remember in certain countries – Dubai is an example – which actually is sort of seeking out gay tourists; Emirates Airlines has done some gay marketing – it can still be a pretty dodgy place if you’re gay, even if you’re a gay Westerner, in particular for the quite a few gay people from around the world who are working within the hotel and tourism industry, which is a fairly gay industry no matter what country you’re in. So you’ll find that you’ll be able to interact with people, but they may talk around an issue. This is something that’s very common with all issues within many Arabic and Muslim countries, where people are never direct about any point. It’s just part of the culture, and discussing gay issues and homosexuality – it’s talked around-about, and that’s part of the culture. Do you know what I mean?
Luongo: So those are some of the recommendations that I often make to people. The most liberal country on gay issues within the Middle East is Israel, but Israel is, of course, is prone to… if you’re Christian, it might not be the best place; if you’re Muslim, it’s clearly not a good place. So in spite of Israel being one of the most liberal on the gay issues, it has so many other issues in addition. Countries like Jordan have a slight infrastructure, countries like Lebanon actually have quite a huge gay infrastructure, and ironically, the French countries, which had written laws against homosexuality, the former French speaking, former French colonies, wrote anti-homosexual laws that yet tend to be the most liberal on issues related to homosexuality compared to British countries. Each country is really different. The key thing would be talking around an issue and also making sure to ensure the safety of the people with whom you are interacting.
eTN: So, today – this very day – if someone wanted to go to the Middle East, which – you mentioned Lebanon, Jordan, Israel – are the safe places for them to travel to?
Luongo: Yeah, I would recommend those as safe places to travel to. Even Egypt can be. The problem is Egypt has a horrific… if I recommend Egypt, many activists will tell me, well, look at what happened to the Egyptians – the Cairo 52, which it’s a horrific arrest of these men; terrible beatings in jail, trials without lawyers; it’s really horrific what happened to these men – at the same time, as a tourist somewhat, it is another travel reality, if you are somewhat removed from these things as a tourist, but, really, Jordan I found you could get into very interesting conversations where…
eTN: In Amman, you’re talking about?
Luongo: Yeah, in Amman, and also within the ruins of Petra. You can wind up getting into conversations with people on these issues, and it’s amazing sometimes how people bring these issues up to you. If they see a group of three men of a certain age together, they kind of think, they’re probably gay men and will begin talking about some of these issues. So it can be done. There are certain countries where it is somewhat more difficult to discuss publicly, but it can be done, and I think tourists are also somewhat… either that there are problems, and it is terrible that there are problems for people of a country, it is a little easier for people not of the country, when they are visiting, but I wouldn’t recommend that anybody stir up gay rights issues and run around with rainbow flags. Things have to be done…
eTN: That would be, actually, next question. I asked you which ones are safe; now, which ones are gay friendly?
Luongo: Well, gay friendly is a relative term. I would say clearly Lebanon is a gay friendly country, Israel is a gay friendly country, Jordan, I would say to a degree, is a gay friendly country. Some people say Morocco is. I found it to be that way, but it’s not gay friendly in the same way that Germany… If we’re using a very Western marketing term, it doesn’t quite apply in exactly the same way to a Middle Eastern Muslim.
eTN: Yes, of course.
Luongo: It’s gay friendly within the context of its own culture.
Luongo: I think that’s a very key distinction –it’s not the same… it’s not the same as going to Germany or London…
eTN: Right, right, absolutely.
Luongo:…which would be gay friendly, but it’s gay friendly within the context of its culture.
eTN: What do you expect your readers to gain from this book?
Luongo: I think readers will gain an understanding… from the perspective of travel, they’ll clearly gain an understanding amongst these various countries, and I think it will open up their eyes from a travel perspective on regions that they – not even from a gay perspective – but that will be interesting to visit and are quite welcoming to visit. I think also, very importantly, people will see the breadth and depth of the Muslim world. We are looking at countries stretching from Western Africa to all the way to Bangladesh. So we’re looking at the full gamut of Muslim countries and how different each one is. I’m standing here in San Francisco; you’re in Honolulu right now – we’re in the Christian world, regardless of what we think our religion is. The United States, Europe, South America – this is the Christian world, but we would never use the term, the Christian world, I’m in the Christian world, I’m traveling the Christian world, and clearly Paris, Texas is very different from Paris, France, which is very different from Brazil versus Denmark in their relationships to Christianity and to homosexuality. So, what I also point out in the book is that in the Muslim world, it’s a huge world, it’s a diverse world. Every country is different, and where Islam has touched, each place is different, and Islam is expressed differently within each of these places. So that’s another thing that people will get out of it. I think people will also – whether they’re gay or straight – they’ll begin to realize that despite the black and white headlines, and in spite of the images, perhaps, of gay men being hung in Iran, in spite of the images of people, perhaps, being beheaded in Saudi Arabia, there are ways in which homosexuality and gay issues can be expressed within the context of these cultures and that things are far more nuanced than anything we can read in a newspaper. Through the eyes of these 18 travelers, myself included, I think it opens a very broad new world for any reader of the book, whether they’re gay or straight.
eTN: Any additional comments?
Luongo: Well, I want to clarify that the book is not a challenge to Islam, it’s not a… I think it’s a way for Americans to get to know certain aspects of Islam. It’s not a challenge at all to it or to the police. It’s not meant to be a book that… It’s not meant to be a flowery book that creates controversy, though some people think that it is. It’s really a book that’s meant to open people’s eyes to the different ways in which they can approach Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. It’s meant to create a dialogue rather than to cut off communication, and it’s meant to encourage Americans, Europeans and people from the Middle Eastern countries themselves to kind of push their own boundaries and perhaps look at things in different ways and in new ways and to challenge their own viewpoints about various prejudices that they have, whether it’s about gay issues or whether it’s about experiencing different countries…It’s a book that I’d recommend to anyone, whether they’re gay or straight, and useful for people studying religion, useful for people studying travel. It is not a guide book. That’s a thing that I’d like to make clear. People think it’s a guide book, and you’ll be able to like look up places in Amman, places in wherever, but it’s really a book about cultural experiences.
eTN: How is your book doing sales wise?
Luongo: Well, it’s doing very well sales wise. The problem is the book could have done really, really, really well sales wise, but what happened, just after the book was published and when all of the press hit, the company that published it was sold to another company – Taylor and Francis – so for two months they stopped publishing it while they transitioned, and now, of course, they’re publishing it. So it does do well sales wise when it is available, when they can ship it and when they can get it into stores, it sells out. In that sense it’s doing very, very well throughout the English-speaking world. I am hoping to do an Arabic translation and a French translation for distribution in the Middle East. I think it’s an important book to bring to the Middle East, and whether we can do that in Arabic or whether we can do that in French, whether it can be distributed in English as it is, that’s something that I’m hoping to also be able to do.