Secret Liaisons in the Middle East

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©Ian Phillips /

“Let me see them.” My friend smiled at me as we chatted about the place I had visited a little over a week before. We glanced furtively around the French-style café where we were seated at a window overlooking a floodlit garden surrounded by a stone wall.

What I was about to show him were simple things, but illegal to possess in his country. They were Israeli shekels. Khaled was animated as I pulled out the 20-shekel bill, printed on plastic paper, a see-through Star of David on one side. A few coins clanked against the polished wood surface of the table. He held them in his hand, remarking on the material. “Israel is a place I have always wanted to go to” was his thoughtful response, an expression of longing coming over his face. But we were in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, which has been at war with its southern neighbor off and on for decades. He would never be allowed to go there. Even if he found a way, he could face arrest there or on his return home.

Over two months later, this quiet event was recapitulated in a public way in Israel. I was speaking to a crowd of Israeli men at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tel Aviv when the subject became gays in Lebanon. “We’ve heard there is better nightlife there than here,” one man said, wanting to know about the bars and clubs. The comment shocked some of those in the audience. Beirut was as forbidden to him as Tel Aviv was to Khaled. All the men in the room suddenly leaned forward attentively, wondering what the Lebanese capital, once the Middle East’s most cosmopolitan city, would be like.

The same man came to chat with me after the talk. “During the Lebanon war,” he said, referring to the fight between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, “I made a profile on Gaydar and started to talk to gay men in Beirut. . . . Some men were mad at me because I was Israeli, but some were glad I wanted to know about them.”

Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that gay people have the answers, that our special condition oversteps boundaries, overcoming the political, religious, and social barriers that keep nations at war with their neighbors. But at times I felt tempted to conclude that this was the case during my recent tours of the Middle East for the Arabic edition of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a collection of memoirs by gay Muslim and non-­Muslim men, which I edited.

I began my tour last December, in Lebanon, at the Beirut Book Fair, where Gay Travels was the first gay book ever to be officially programmed at an Arabic-language Middle Eastern book fair. During my two-month tour, I visited Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. I have since returned to the Middle East for an intense visit to Israel and the West Bank.

Even from the beginning of the first tour, in Beirut, I was struck by the way in which gay connections could overcome boundaries and stereotypes. In Beirut, a few Saudi men came to talk to me, asking me when I would come to Riyadh. I had already known from other book fair visits–where Saudi vendors spend lavish sums of money on gaudy displays, notably lacking in any real books–that there was curiosity there.

Doing a tour in the heart of the places covered by the book has been a challenge in many ways. I might believe in bridging gaps, but certainly the countries here don’t always think that way. I am lucky I have two U.S. passports–the standard ten-year issue and a special two-year one that allows me to avoid having every place I’ve visited stamped in the book. For one trip I routed through Jordan, a country that seems to have made peace with most of its neighbors and has often served as the clandestine meeting place when individuals need to see each other face to face.

Beirut was an amazing city to visit, and full of ironies. It’s the most gay-friendly city in the Arab world, even though being gay is technically illegal there. They’ve created an intricate system, not exactly a “don’t ask don’t tell,” but something more akin to turning a blind eye to the presence of gay people and activities. After all, gays add to the joie de vivre for which this French-kissed Mediterranean city is famous. This doesn’t mean that things are a paradise for them. HELEM, the main gay rights organization in the country, its name based on an acronym that spells the Arabic word for “dream,” held a conference about overturning Article 534, the Vichy, France-era statute on “unnatural acts” that’s often used against homosexuals. I found that it was not difficult to talk openly about being gay with Lebanese politicians, the current law notwithstanding.

Syria was another matter altogether. Other travel writers extol the wonders of Damascus, but none ever mentions how truly creepy the place can be. Pictures of the brilliantly blue-eyed president-cum-dictator Bashar Al-Assad stare out everywhere, even in places where gay men gather in the center of town. It’s a reminder that you’re always being watched. I have a friend who ran a gay travel website for the country, but even he is now cautious.

The nascent Syrian gay movement is completely secretive. Despite two weeks in Damascus, I was never able to contact the leaders, so closely do they hide their identity. The leader of the group was alternately described to me as Scandinavian, Irish-American, and Canadian-Syrian, his whereabouts elusive. I never planned public events here for my book, only one-on-one meetings. Crackdowns are always a possibility when things get too visible. Most of the gay men and women I met told me that as long as GLBT people gather with no political agenda, they’re largely ignored. However, private gay parties held in secret locations on the edge of Damascus have recently been raided.

Jordan is another story still. It seems a modern paradise, an Americanized version of the Arab world, where shopping malls filled with international brands are built in an Islamic style, a perfect merging of worlds. The face of the country, to outsiders, is the glamorous Queen Rania, of Palestinian descent, always on Western television speaking about women in the Arab world, her hair unveiled, dressed in stylish Western clothes. Once you enter Jordan, you barely see her image, but images of her husband, King Abdullah II, son of King Hussein, are plastered everywhere.

A few years ago, Amman began to see the opening of more gay-friendly spaces, but a crackdown soon ensued. The country seems modern and progressive on first glance, but this is largely a veneer, a Potemkin village of tolerance. I held an event in Jordan, attended by some members of a group who asked me not to mention them in print, and we had a discussion about the crackdown. One of the men working in the organization had said, “Now is not the time to do too much”–until things settle down.

Still, the international character of the city, a base for Americans involved in the war in Iraq next door, means that there’s an intense interaction between locals and gay foreigners. Out Traveler has even profiled a young, handsome gay Jordanian model, Khalid, who runs a website on gay life in Jordan called My Kali. He and I met at my reading, when he came wearing a fun 1980s hat that reminded me of Debbie Gibson on the cover of her album Electric Youth. In spite of the fears of some of his compatriots, he still covers issues of importance to gays in Amman.

Israel proved the most difficult country in which to do an event for the book: It took months of planning and two visits. The problem wasn’t that the book was on a gay topic but rather, I think, that it looked at Muslim and Arab issues. I had a meeting in Tel Aviv at the AGUDA, the gay center, and one of the activists told me that “anything pro-Arab is seen as anti-Israel.”

Perhaps the most interesting event was in Cairo, a place infamous for the Cairo 52 case, in which several Egyptian men who were on a floating gay nightclub, the Queen Boat, were arrested and tortured in a horrible show trial in 2001. Most people thought I would never be able to have an event there, but I did; I was hosted by El Balad bookstore, across from the American University of Cairo’s downtown campus. Nearly 40 men and women attended, including a few journalists. I was told the event could have been shut down at the last minute by the Egyptian police, but it went on as planned. The event was concurrent with the Cairo Book Fair, the world’s second-largest book event after the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It turned out it was easy to have an event in Cairo. Taking books into the country–not so much. Arab Diffusion, my Beirut book publisher, was afraid that if they brought my book to the Cairo fair, all of their books would be seized. At the reading, the attendees made many jokes about who in the room was part of the secret service. After the event, several gay journalists from Egypt e-mailed me, voicing their fear of writing about the book.

I’m writing this essay from Ramallah, in the West Bank, where I’m working on mainstream travel articles on Palestine. That’s how I finance all my gay work in the Middle East. This work–both gay and mainstream–has taken me to the most newsworthy places of our times, including, twice, Baghdad.

My travels have also brought many surprises, such as learning that Gay Travels is for sale in Baghdad–as it is throughout the Middle East from Morocco to Iraq. Yet writing this from Ramallah, so close to the Israeli border, I have found a few more challenges. The gay Palestinian groups I know were reluctant to provide me with contacts here. Ramallah is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city–full of bars and clubs and gourmet restaurants.

If all you know of this city is Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, you would be happily shocked. But for all its cosmopolitan nature, there is virtually no sign of gay life here. Even Baghdad, where gay men were being killed, seemed an easier place to reach gay men and get them talking about their lives. It shows that to break down barriers, there’s no substitute for being there.

Visit travel writer Michael Luongo’s website at Excerpted from The Gay & Lesbian Review (July-Aug. 2010), a bimonthly journal of history, culture, and

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