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Michael Luongo's Gay Travels in the Muslim World [2 July, 2008]

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Edited by Michael T.  Luongo; Harrington Park Press; 200 pages

Gay Travels in the Muslim World Michale Luongo’s anthology of gay travel writing attempts to go beyond the recognizable Western symbols and tropes of “gayness”: rainbow flags, Pride parades and stories about coming out.  A number of the authors point out that it’s the West that fuses gay identity and gay sex; men in many Muslim cultures are unafraid of holding hands in public without being particularly gay.  Luongo writes, after trying to discern between gay romance and everyday gestures in Kabul, “I wonder if I was seeing a society that simply took any form of love, including affection between men, as a wonderful thing.”

Authors honestly foreground the entanglement of race and desire, the exoticizing that comes with that and what happens when the very presence of (mostly) white gay men in tourist traps also makes them part of the commercial structure.  Encounters aren’t always peaceful.  In Martin Foreman’s “A Market and a Mosque,” the author writes about Sylhet, Bangladesh—a small city that appears, on the surface, to be reaping the benefits of global migration.  The influx of money from immigrants sending money back to Sylhet has resulted in a new boom economy of sorts, especially for young men who trade sex for money.  Foreman thinks he has a special connection to the place: “… since most of the Bangladeshis in the UK [Foreman’s native country] live in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, I feel a kind of affinity with the place.  Whether or not Sylhet feels an affinity with me is a different matter.” 

This leaves Foreman puzzled at the hostility of Sylhetis to the foreigner in their midst.  Back home, he reads about a bomb explosion in Sylhet, intended to kill the new British High Commissioner: “… for some Sylhetis at least, the bonds that tie their homeland with Britain are bonds not of love, but of hate.”  Foreman may be incapable of understanding that more global money doesn’t mean more devotion to neoliberalism, or an instant alleviation of poverty.  Or, he’s still trying to piece together the complex threads of sexuality and economics.  Either way, the tale at least lends complexity to the notion of gay travel as purely sexual.

Yet, Luongo doesn’t explain why the book only focuses on gay men.  Women only appear as silent robed wraiths or giggling schoolgirls.  But gender matters.  The definitions of queerness/homosexuality, especially in the West’s relationship with Islam, are weighted with the hierarchies ascribed to gender roles: the question of who gets penetrated and who gets to be the penetrator comes up often here.  Including the travels of women seeking sex with women would have shed more light on the link between power, economics, gender, and sexuality.

Richard Ammon’s “Love, Sex, and Religion: Betrayed in Muslim Morocco” strikes a discordant note.  It’s about the murder of his friend Gerald, killed by “a young Arab Muslim boy,” who had been the former’s sexual protégé.  Ammon’s anger at his friend’s death is understandable, but the essay fails under his inability to recognize contradictions.  Ammon rails against “a whole cadre of hetero Muslims [who are] betraying themselves as well as homo men’s desire.”  In an anthology that strives to render sexuality and desire more complex than the familiar Western homo-hetero paradigms, Ammon’s piece is disturbingly vengeful, condescending, and reductive.

Indeed, only three of the 18 pieces are by Muslim men.  By not providing more material on what it means to be a gay Muslim traveler, as in Rahal X’s essay, the book turns “gay,” “Muslim,” and “traveler” into mutually exclusive categories.

Gay Travels is a mixed bag worth dipping into, with caution.  While it offers insights, it doesn’t relinquish the hierarchies implicitly built into travel literature.  When it comes to travel, it seems that only Westerners travel ironically and self-consciously and write tales of their adventures, while Easterners merely fester in their chains.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 2 July, 2008

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