I have to admit that at first I was afraid to enter, but it was what I spent two years working on - the debut of the Arabic version of my book, Gay Travels in the Muslim World, here in the Muslim world itself.
This edited collection of stories by gay Muslim and non-Muslim men were set to make a very public appearance at the Beirut Book Fair - the first time a gay book would be presented at a Middle Eastern book fair. The two week expo and the largest book event in the Middle East, is held in BIEL, an expo center on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean. The misty smell of the sea was in the air as I sauntered cautiously through the building's lobby.
The place reflected the region - beautiful Lebanese women in tight, fashionable clothing, their swarthy young male counterparts in low rise jeans, shirts stretched on body-built shoulders, contrasted with those from the gulf region, where the real money is here, men dressed like sheiks in pressed pure white robes, their wives with them, fully covered from head to toe, only a slit for their eyes. Everywhere around all of them were children, something we should have more of at Western book expos, and then the frumpily dressed intellectuals of Egypt, in suits a size too big, a few years too old.
There was little to guide the Westerner here though. None of the pamphlets or maps were in English, or even in French, the historical second language of this former colonial outpost. Offhand, there seemed to be no Americans, and just a scattering of blonde Europeans here, part of Frankfurt Book Expo contingent. I had to ask for help. A friendly young man, of course named Mohammed, came to my rescue, telling me where I would find my publisher, Arab Diffusion, known in phonetic Arabic as Al Intishar.
I had already been told by Georges Azzi of HELEM, Lebanon's gay rights group, that the publisher had given the book prominence, a large poster of its cover on the wall. I found the poster was next to one on a book about the CIA, making me a little skittish in what kinds of conspiracies my own book might be considered a part of. The book was also everywhere in the stand, piled in a corner and on the aisle as everyone walked around. I introduced myself to Nabil Mroue, the owner of Arab Diffusion, and the father of Ali Mroue, who was my initial contact in selling the book to them. He was a quiet, intellectual man, speaking softly to me in English, one of several languages he knows, and introducing me to his staff, and his other son Nadim. I wandered around to get a feel for the Fair, looking also for people at the various Middle Eastern publishing houses I had met at other fairs around the world. In contrast to New York or London, the Beirut Book Fair is rather calm, but plenty of Arabic writers were around, surrounded by fans and cameras.
While I was gone, Mr. Mroue had looked for people he wanted to introduce me to, and I saw he was helping one man purchasing many books, mine included. This man, who worked for the Saudi government, put the book into my hand, asking me to sign it, the first of several times I would do so today. We chatted for a few minutes and we even talked about having me speak on the book in Saudi Arabia. (This was the third time someone from the Saudi government had asked me this at a book fair.)
Soon others came to congratulate me for the Arabic version of the book. One was an Egyptian book seller who had heard of the controversy of the initial problems with some of the language of the translation. A dissident who had been arrested three times by Mubarek's government, he asked me to come to speak in his bookstore in Cairo, where I plan to pass through in January. Others who came were fellow writers, others publishers who had long wanted to carry such a book and others ordinary people who had come to the book fair. One of these was a gay high school teacher, delighted to see such a book in Arabic. He told me some of his students, seeking advice on sexuality, would ask him for things to read and there was little he could recommend. Now he would have a resource.
In all, having entered the book fair with such trepidation, I feel my first day here was successful, and Mr. Mroue had sold quite a few books, and Mohammed, the friendly greeter I met on the way in, even made sure to say goodbye. The real test comes with the official signing event for the book, Tuesday December 22 at 6pm Beirut time. I don't know how many are likely to come, but word is certainly getting around. HELEM will do a blast for the book to their mailing list, and Bertho Makso, who runs LebTour, a gay travel and event company in Beirut, will also send out invites. That should be an interesting, and very visible day for the book, and my report on it will be the next time I check into the Huffington Post from this six week long Middle Eastern tour for Gay Travels in the Muslim World.