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Middle Eastern book tour to begin for controversial gay themed book

The Middle East is famous for hospitality, but will that extend to the tour for the Routledge Press book, Gay Travels in the Muslim World?

The book, edited by Michael Luongo, is the first and only gay themed American book ever to be translated into Arabic. The tour begins at Lebanon’s Beirut Book Fair where Luongo will be signing the book today at the Arab Diffusion. After Lebanon, Luongo will travel through Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt, among other countries during his six week tour.

“I’ve had conversations for the past two years about presenting this book in the Middle East, but until now, that just hasn’t happened,” said the 41 year old editor, noting he had tried to present the book at the Emirates Airlines Book Fair in the past.

“Ironically, the Arabs who were part of the Fair said yes, but the Europeans, afraid of controversy, said no. Homophobia is complicated, isn’t it?” So far in Lebanon, there has been a positive reaction, and Luongo said even a member of the Saudi government bought a copy of the book and asked about possibly presenting it in Riyadh.

The book has been a consistent gay travel best seller in the United States and was originally published by Haworth Press in 2007, until the company was bought by Routledge/Taylor & Francis in 2008.

In 2009, the Lebanese publishing company Arab Diffusion launched the book in Arabic. This itself was not without controversy as the publisher used the Arabic word “shaz” in its translation for gay, a word meaning “different” but which can also mean “pervert,” and historically used to mean gay. The lost-in-translation problem made headlines across the globe, including in the New York Post’s Page 6 gossip column. Arab Diffusion has agreed to recover the book using the more sensitive word “mithlee” a modern Arabic literal translation of homosexual.

“It was a real headache at first, and unintentional on the part of the publisher, and there were also issues of using a word more likely to escape Middle Eastern sensors since it can be interpreted in different ways,” said Luongo. “But when I talked with Middle Eastern civil rights groups they said it brought up in a very strong way, the problems they have with terminology in the Arabic language and the media coverage of gay rights issues. So that is at least a positive outcome.”

Gay Travels in a Muslim World is an edited collection, with stories by Luongo and several other authors, some of them gay Western men who have traveled in the region, and gay men from Muslim countries. Featured writers include Jeff Key, a gay U.S. soldier who had been in Iraq, and Parvez Sharma who directed the movie A Jihad for Love, a film about gays in Muslim countries. Afdhere Jama of the gay Muslim news site Huriyah, wrote the book’s foreward. Luongo writes on Afghanistan, and areas covered in the book are as diverse as suburban Los Angeles, Morocco, Egypt and Bangladesh. Luongo’s own travels have taken him through most of the Muslim world, including the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Luongo is an adjunct professor at New York University, where he teaches travel writing, and is also a freelance journalist, having written for many publications in the United States and Europe.

“I think that it is necessary to look at these issues directly, rather than second hand. The Middle East and Muslim countries are also full of things we can’t always explain from a Western perspective and even words like ‘gay’ don’t properly define what is going on.”

Luongo has been surprised by the negative, but also with the overwhelmingly positive responses he gets from the new Arabic version. “Some people thought I was crazy, when trying to get this into Arabic, but I think ultimately it creates a positive dialogue on these issues in this region, in a way meant to reach across audiences, since these are at heart travel stories about connecting to regions that as a whole Americans, gay and straight, avoid.

"That the book is available in Arabic for anyone to read within these regions is a breakthrough. A place like Lebanon is considered liberal and a no-brainer for the book, but friends have told me the Arabic version is sold now in bookstores on Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, perhaps the most dangerous place for gays in the region. That is a miracle in itself.”