I begin writing this from Aleppo, Syria, where I am packing to finally leave the region on a 3 flight journey back to New York. I'll use this blog post as my final update, telling about my last days and giving an overview of my seven week trip, highlighting three countries I did not report from before -- Syria, Jordan and Israel.
The final stop of my book tour for Gay Travels in the Muslim World was to visit Aleppo's souq, the largest covered market in the Middle East, and connect with the owners of the oft-written Oscar Wilde Memorial Shop, run by a collection of gay Syrian uncles, cousins and nephews, leaving them copies of the book in both English and Arabic. They were hard to find, even with a map and detailed directions given to me by Mido, a friend in Damascus who has a gay Syrian travel website, but once I stumbled onto the cloth shop, colorfully standing out amidst the adjacent spice vendors, I was sure I was in the right place. All the more so when one of the salesmen, a young handsome man named Mohammed, walked out of the stand to greet me, including telling me, "sometimes they call me Oscar." I spent a few hours with them, sipping sweet tea and talking about my book tour in the region, and getting the scoop on gay tourism in Syria. In high season, Mohammed said that, "100 gay men will come to visit the shop each day. So many ask us to show them things in the city." He and his uncle proudly showed me various books and articles they had been featured in, saying the local Syrian vendors have no idea about their orientation. The write-ups might seem fun, but there is a dark side. Later, finding out we had been followed by the secret police on a visit to an ancient church, Mohammed had told me he had been detained because he was gay in the past, and his uncle, while gay, is also married, living a double life his wife knows nothing about. These were the kinds of stories I heard often during my two visits to Syria.
My time in Jordan was very brief, just a few days, and I stayed with my friends Mario and Mohammed who held a reading for me at their house. The first night, we went to Books@Cafe the fun and very friendly bar/restaurant/bookstore that is one of the best places for anyone to spend an evening in Amman. They don't currently stock my book, but plan to do so in the near future, in both English and in Arabic. The event here was small, but enthusiastic, with local gay bloggers, including Khaled from My Kali, an openly gay model and journalist, who plans to do a writeup of the event for his site. There were some local activists there as well, who keep a low profile. Jordan outwardly seems progressive to most Americans, especially with the beautiful, unveiled, Queen Rania as the public face of the country, and I think indeed it has a liberal side. (And I actually met the Queen in 2003, introduced as perhaps the first member of gay media to meet her at of all places, Jesus's baptism site on the Jordan River.) It also however has a repressive side, and many gay popular places have been shut down in recent years during a government crackdown. I have always found Jordan a wonderful place to visit, but this duality on gay issues throws an interesting twist into the place. It was a wonderful event however, with a very detailed discussion after, and I was sad to leave Jordan so quickly, taking a flight to Israel.
Israel turned out to be the biggest disappointment, and a surprise. It proved impossible, despite five months of pre-planning, to have an event in the country. I had strongly hoped to have one here, considering the amount of news coverage the book received in Israeli papers, and because one of the contributors, David Muller, is an Israeli citizen. The issue was not the gay one, but rather the conflict between Muslims and Jews. It was the only country in the region where I sensed anger at my visit. I was able to have a meeting with activists in the Tel Aviv Gay Center, and though it was a good meeting, it also made clear some of the issues in the country. One of the activists mentioned that any book which looks at Arabs and Muslims positively is automatically considered anti-Israel, and the activsists themselves had an argument about the wall and other issues. The Jerusalem Open House wanted nothing to do with the book, and an email from them makes me think they also completely misunderstood it. In spite of this, I have a lot of people to thank for trying to help me hold an event in Israel, especially my friend Russell Lord of Kenes Tours, which had been the official travel company of Jerusalem's World Pride in 2006, and the journalist Rachelle Kliger. Still, as polemical as Israel was, it was nice to reconnect with friends and simply be in such an ancient, storied place. It's ironic though how easy events were to plan for the book in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, and how impossible it was in Israel. I plan to revisit the country soon, and will try to see if the second time around, anything changes. I think it is also important to note that I blog only now on Israel because of the difficulty of visiting other parts of the Middle East if you've been there, and I also had lots of trouble at the airport in Israel, based on my visits to Lebanon and Syria. Still, as a friend says -- if you have been to Israel and try to visit the rest of the Middle East, they don't let you in. Israel might make your time at Ben Gurion airport a living hell, but at least they let you in eventually.
I've blogged about the rest of the events from my trip -- after this I went to Egypt where I had a fantastic event at El Balad books and spent a lot of time at the Cairo Book Fair. Though back in New York now, I am still hearing from young Egyptian journalists, some closeted, who had heard about my event and wished to cover it. For many though, they know that to simply write about Gay Travels in the Muslim World will bring about suspicion for them at work. After Egypt, I went back again to Beirut, and then on to Syria again to see Aleppo. I really did not want to leave the region but I had to.
It was an interesting journey, and I hope to visit the region again soon, including other parts I have never yet been to, Tunisia, Algeria, and other parts of the Gulf. Maybe I'll finally take up the offer from so many members of the Saudi Arabian government who have met me at book signings and asked if I am ever coming to Riyadh. We'll see what the future holds. In the meantime, I wait to see what random emails, articles and other contacts are introduced to me soon, as I prepare to work on Volume II of Gay Travels in the Muslim World. Thanks for being with me on this journey.