For rather obvious reasons, information and even anecdote about gay life and travels in Muslim countries - especially those in the Middle East - are relatively hard to come by. Certain websites, such as GayMiddleEast.com, do a nice job providing news and information on the limited or nascent gay culture in places like Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, and elsewhere. And in relatively tolerant, secular countries such as Turkey, Israel, and Morocco - where many gays live and visit - you can find helpful resources like the Turkey Gay Guide, The Gay Map to Israel, and the GlobalGayz.com page on Gay Morocco. But overall, the resources are highly limited.
With this in mind, the new book Gay Travels in the Muslim World, edited by longtime gay travel journalist Michael T. Luongo, has been a tremendous boon to GLBT travelers and others curious about gay culture in the world where it's generally thought to be forbidden, hidden, or repressed, Muslim culture. Harrington Park Press, a division of Haworth Press, published this rich collection of 18 essays in 2007. Luongo, who is Senior Editor of Haworth's "Out in the World" Gay Travel Literature series, has traveled to every continent and more than 75 countries, and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including Out Traveler, Passport, Advocate, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler. Rather recently, he spent time uncovering the gay underworld (as best he could) in Iraq, and he contributed one of the book's most lucid and vivid essays, "Adventures in Afghanistan," based on his explorations of Kabul.
Luongo's essay, like most of those in this collection, offer plenty of surprises to those of us with preconceived ideas about life in those parts of the world that we perceive as off-limits to gay travelers. He notes the "at times, anything-goes, Casablanca-esqure atmosphere" of Kabul, and points out that most Afghanees he talked to about gay issues suggested he venture to that nation's "gay capital", Kandahar.
The books essays offer glimpse into a many nations, some more familiar to Westerners than others. Jay Davidson writes of his experiences in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, a U.S. Marine vet of the Iraq War who grew up in rural Alabama describes his interaction with a gay Iraqi man, travel agent Thomas Bradbury chronicles his bumpy but sweet decade-long romance with a man in Antalya, Turkey. Other stories touch on gay travels in Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Arab villages in Israel's Galilee, Oman, and Bangladesh. There are tales that deal with sexual and romantic relationships (albeit in a subdued manner - this is not a collection of erotica), cultural outlooks, political and religious views - but in the end, in most cases, these candid, curious, and often poignant stories bridge these related topics. For when it comes to gay culture in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or even comparatively open Morocco and Turkey, it's rather impossible to discuss same-sex relations with delving into politics and religion.
Luongo has culled together a diverse mix of stories, and Gay Travels in the Muslim World is relatively short (200 pages) and feels frustrating only in the sense that after reading these 18 essays, it's easy to crave for more insights and information about gay Muslim life. In this sense, Luongo has no doubt accomplished at least one important aim of his, to pique our curiosity about traveling to these richly historic nations. And, of course, in tackling a taboo subject with such candor, Luongo and his contributors risk upsetting the Muslim establishment while also offering hope to the untold thousands of closeted and supressed gay residents of the Muslim world. It's easy to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when gay travel essays about the Middle East become relatively commmonplace. Until then, we can thank Michael Luongo and Haworth Press for this engaging, courageous collection.