It's not always about the numbers. It's about something actually happening, and that is why I view the Tuesday, December 22 book signing at the Beirut Book Fair for the Arabic Version of Gay Travels in the Muslim World as a success.
Things began almost immediately at 6 p.m., with yes, another Saudi purchasing the book, though he wasn't someone working for the government. He had dual bases, in Syria and in his native country. He bought the book as a gift for a friend and joked about wrapping it well to bring back home.
You always hope for media attention, but here, this was a double edged sword. TV Al Jadid, or NEW TV, came to film me, both for their news cast and for a documentary about gay life in Beirut currently being made by one of their producers. The outlet did not come to interview me, but rather to film the event. The cameraman, who spoke virtually no English, simply let the cameras roll, forcefully repositioning people and making me hold up the cover of the book as I signed, all as his children played on the ground at his feet.
Needless to say, in a country where to be gay is still technically illegal, this kept people away. Bertho Makso of LebTour, the gay travel company, told me that many people hovered on the edges of my publisher Al Intishar Al Arabi's stand, afraid to venture close to my table.
Still, people came at a brisk pace, and Bertho had brought a few friends in tow, including an American ex-pat from San Francisco. A few locals even asked for copies in English, something I had not thought would happen in Lebanon. A contingent of international journalists based in Beirut who planned to interview me later, and who were friends of friends, came by to offer their support. They even bought books (when of course, maybe they should have gotten review copies!) An activist from Damascus also came to meet me that evening, taking a 3 hour taxi ride across the border.
After an hour the camera man left, but by then, the amount of people coming for books to be signed and chat with me had died down. I went with Ali Mroue, the son of the publisher of Al Intishar Al Arabi and his strikingly beautiful wife Samar, and Bertho and his friends to a café in the BIEL center. "This is a first step," Ali told me as we lounged sipping espressos, adding, "not a lot of people came, but this will be on the local news tonight, and everyone will see it." He was clearly happy with the outcome, a relief from his initial worries about being the first Arabic language publisher to have a book signing in such a public venue.
Beyond the TV camera, we knew also that there were several timing issues impacting how many people had come. We were just a few days before Christmas in a country still officially half Christian, and the traffic had dwindled at the two week long Beirut Book Fair. Some vendors had already been packing up their wares that day; others had already left. And beyond that, HELEM, the country's gay group, had had a major press conference the night before and their Christmas party was that same evening. We had no idea when picking the date of the signing we would come across so many events vying for the attention of Beirut's gay community.
We all ventured back into the exhibition hall, and I bid goodbye to Ali and Samar and Bertho and his friends. I had many people throughout the building to thank for the two year long process that culminated in this evening's signing. As I made my rounds, I knew I would see some of the publishers in their various home countries along my journey.
It was on to HELEM's party myself after that to talk about the day and dance late into the Beirut evening. "Ah you were the one with the gay book tonight," many of the men and women told me, asking me how my evening went, apologizing for not being able to attend. Glitter from drag queens and sweat from shirtless men were smeared all over me as I conversed in English, French and my terrible Arabic. I also strategized for the next leg of my trip on this six week journey through the Middle East, but we'll have to wait until 2010 begins to hear about the next adventure for the Arabic version of Gay Travels in the Muslim World.