A gay traveler in the Middle East

American writer/photographer Michael Luongo’s latest book, "Gay Travels in the Muslim World," a compilation of personal stories by Muslim and non-Muslim men, has stirred considerable controversy in recent months. But it’s the twisted translation–rather than the book’s daring content–that has raised eyebrows and earned the writer notoriety in the gossip pages of the New York Post.

In the first Arabic-language translation of the book, the title read “Pervert Travels in the Muslim World” — a blunder that Luongo says wasn’t intentional, but rather an unfortunate mistake.

Luongo, who is currently touring the Middle East for his book, initially worried that the translation might jinx his trip. But things seem to have gone just fine after the Arabic translators in Beirut tweaked the title and used a more polite Arabic word for gay, mithli, instead of the more derogatory term, shazz.

Last week, Lungo had a book signing at the BIEL exposition center in Beirut–a “historic” event, as Luongo puts it. He may well be right–"Gay Travels in the Muslim World" marked the first time for a gay book to be formally presented at a book fair in the Middle East.

“It was small but steady, and, I think, successful," Lungo told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "Overall, I think it was great.”

The book signing appears to have borne fruit on the business level as well. Writing in the Huffington Post, Luongo says he was approached by both a Saudi Arabian who wanted him to speak about his gay book in the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom, and a young Egyptian publisher who asked Luongo to discuss the book at his Cairo store in January.

“The bad translation was actually a good thing,” says Luongo, pointing out that the affair ended up giving the book a public-relations boost. Now that the problem has been fixed, Luongo hopes the book’s contents will become the focus of discussion.

The book features contributions from a variety of characters, including a gay US soldier who served in the Middle East and a gay Egyptian-American. It also includes an account by the producer of acclaimed gay film "Jihad for Love." Luongo himself penned the chapter “Adventures in Afghanistan,” which describes his experiences as a gay man traveling through that war-torn country.

"Gay Travels in the Muslim World" is also the first-ever gay book to have been translated into Arabic after first having been published in English.

Several factors inspired Luongo to write the book, including the writer’s own travels in the region and heightened fears of terrorism and Islam in America following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. One of the aims of Luongo’s book is to challenge readers’ assumptions about both homosexuality and Muslim culture, while breaking down stereotypes by presenting the stories of gay men who either live or have spent time in the Middle East.

Luongo was also moved to write the book by the large number of American media reports that discussed gay issues in the Middle East, largely from a negative perspective–often written by people who had never been to the region. Luongo felt the image of "the gay Middle East" was being distorted and portrayed unfairly.

In terms of gay issues in the Arab world, says Luongo, “there’s bad, but there’s also good and undefined–this book explains the undefined.”

So far, reactions to the book appear to have been largely positive. Academically speaking, says Luongo, the book has been well received. For many ordinary people, it was an eye-opener.

“’WTF’ were a lot of the reactions," he said. "Once they read the book, they have a better understanding of the Middle East.”

In the US, promotions he did for the English-language version of the book last year drew large crowds.  Besides a Taliban-produced website condemning the book, the author says he’s received little negative feedback, with the exception of some “nasty emails and comments on the web.”

Luongo’s book is one of the most recent additions to "queer literature" in the Middle East, a genre that has surged in recent years. In 2006, British journalist Brian Whitaker authored the book "Unspeakable Love" on gay and lesbian life in the Arab world. Earlier this year, Beirut-based lesbian group Meem  published the book "Bareed Mistajil," which features personal accounts by lesbian women in Lebanon. The same group also runs the Internet-based weekly magazine Bekhsoos, the Arab world’s first publication for queer women.

Luongo’s visit to Beirut has been hectic–but the author has still had time to enjoy the nightlife in the Arab world’s most freewheeling capital. On Christmas Eve, Luongo danced the night away at a wild Christmas party hosted by Lebanese gay organization Helem, schmoozing with posh drag queens in glitter and bare-breasted “Arabian bears.”

Luongo’s next stop will be Syria, followed by scheduled visits to Jordan and Egypt.

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