Author's blog: April 2006

7 April 2006: 'Did I see your photo?'

Articles about Unspeakable Love in the Daily Star and an-Nahar today. The Star gives it the best part of the back page, while an-Nahar has about two-thirds of a page inside.

Back to Starbucks (yet again) for a long interview with Time Out Beirut, which has just published its first edition. Though it's modelled on the London listings magazine, the Beirut version will not have a gay and lesbian section - they were afraid it might get them closed down. The editor, Ramsay Short, does want the magazine to have a controversial edge, however, and has decided that a feature on Unspeakable Love might do the trick.

After the interview I return to the hotel and ask for my room key. One of the men behind the reception desk looks up and a cryptic conversation ensues.

"Er ... do you mind if I ask you a question?" he says.

"No, go ahead."

"Did I see your photo in the newspaper this morning?"

"Quite possibly."

"I thought I recognised you." There's a pause, and he adds: "It's OK."

6 April 2006: The day after

Unspeakable Love is already in the bookshops of Beirut. One shop, right by the American University, has it in the centre of the window, sandwiched between Edward Said and Milan Kundera.

Off to Starbucks in Hamra for another interview - this time with Tetu, a French magazine which has a gay and lesbian focus. When I order a cappuccino the man behind the counter goes into raptures about their new caramel macchiato. It costs an extra LE500 and he obviously has instructions to plug it as hard as he can. I tell him I tried it yesterday and it was the yuckiest drink I've had for ages.

Tetu arrives in triplicate - reporter, photographer and interpreter - all of them young women. They are a bright bunch. The interview lasts over an hour and their questions are very thoughtful. After a few shots inside the cafe, the photographer - equipped with an impressive large-format Hasselblad - sends me outside to pose in Hamra Street with one hand in my pocket.

Laila phones and we go for a walk downtown, starting in Martyrs' Square which last year was the hub of the so-called "cedar revolution". A semi-permanent structure now covers Hariri's grave, and inside it is carpeted, with elaborate displays of flowers. As we arrive, a limousine pulls up and a couple dressed in black go inside to pay their respects. There's a steady trickle of other visitors, but nothing like on the scale that was seen last year. The place is increasingly reminiscent of a Christian shrine, though Hariri was a Sunni Muslim. An illuminated sign recalls that it is now 417 days since his assassination.

Having spent so much time in the square during the heady days of March and April last year, I found the visit a huge anti-climax.

From there we headed to Place de l'Etoile and Dunkin' Donuts, where my gigantic "medium-sized" cappuccino came with a red plastic straw. The downtown branch of Dunkin' Donuts achieved notoriety a few years ago by trying to ban "gay-looking" customers (pages 46-47 in the book) but despite that is still regarded as a popular gay haunt. Since it's early afternoon when we visit there are only a few customers and we see none of the public displays of "affection" that used to upset the management.

More recently, UV - a club off Monot Street - which held gay nights on Thursdays, ran into trouble for the opposite reason. Its door staff started barring gay people for not looking "gay" enough. Customers took offence and switched en masse to the Orange Méchanique club in Sin el-Fil. They say UV is now closed.

From Dunkin's Donuts we walked to the seafront and the scene of the bombing that killed Hariri almost 14 months ago. The road is still closed and taped off, with guards standing by. From a distance we could see the bomb crater, though most of the loose wreckage has been cleared away.

After that, we headed off to Helem's office where Georges Azzi described their recent "incident" with the police. It started when the governor of Beirut decided he wanted Helem closed on the grounds that it was "promoting" homosexuality. Several of Helem's organisers were then invited for several hours' questioning at the police station, and the police later had a look round Helem's office.

According to Georges, one officer enquired: "Do you have sex in your meetings?"

There is unlikely to be any further action against Helem, though George said it's strange how the interior ministry and health ministry seem to be working at cross-purposes. Helem has a small wooden plaque in its office - an award from the health ministry for its efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

5 April 2006: The big day

This is launch day in Beirut and a lesbian friend from Egypt ("Laila" in the book) is coming over for the occasion. British visitors to Lebanon can get in easily - you just pay a small fee for a visa at the airport. Egyptians are less welcome, unless they are rich or can aqt least pretend to be rich. In order to be allowed in, Laila had to borrow $2,000 in cash and wave the wad of money in front of immigration officials, even though she is only staying for a few days.

I meet Laila in Hamra and we join Saqi's staff for a lunchtime snack in De Prague, a fashionably bohemian place that has a poster advertising Unspeakable Love by the door (Helem members have been very industrious in distributing them).

This is Laila's first trip on her own outside Egypt and she's thrilled with Beirut. "For the first time, I feel comfortable walking in the street," she says.

In the afternoon, together with Mai Ghoussoub and Anna Wilson  from Saqi, I head off for our unadvertised talk at the Lebanese American University (see April 3). The audience consists of one student and about 10 teaching staff. Nevertheless, we have a good discussion. After the difficulties with the American University of Beirut about holding a meeting there, I thought it was important to do this at LAU, regardless of how many people turned up. If you can't discuss sexuality rationally in a university, where can you discuss it?

Over to Zico House for the second meeting of the day. Despite the unpredictable weather, around 60-70 people are crowded into the room, with a bit of overspill into the corridor. As at the LAU, most of the people are women.

André Gaspard, co-founder of Saqi, opens with a heartfelt speech about why he wanted to publish the book. He also springs a surprise by announcing that Saqi has decided to have it translated and published in Arabic as soon as possible - probably before the end of the year.

Manal Khodor of LBC television starts off the discussion by asking me questions, then the audience join in. It seems to go well, and a couple of radio journalists want interviews afterwards, as well as a student writing for a Lebanese university magazine.

The party and book-signing at Walimah's restaurant starts at 8.30 and continues until around 1am. The place seems constantly packed, with a succession of people coming and going. I lost count of how many books I signed.

4 April 2006: Brokeback in Beirut

After a long delay, Brokeback Mountain is showing at three cinemas in Beirut. A brief note in the Daily Star's entertainment guide describes it as "the furtive love story of two cowboys". The paper adds: "Expect a few clipped scenes courtesy of the censor and judge for yourself whether or not the movie was robbed of its best-picture Oscar".

Early morning phone call from Saqi (the publishers) with my programme for the day: meeting with Manal Khodor of LBC television who will be chairing the discussion at Zico House tomorrow. Then interviews with the Daily Star and an-Nahar.

Manal has certainly been doing her homework. She brought with her a well-thumbed copy of the book with bits underlined and notes scribbled in the margins. The reporters from the Daily Star and an-Nahar - both of them young women - seemed very interested and asked plenty of intelligent questions.

In the evening, I visit "Ghaith", a Syrian living in Beirut whose story is told in my book (pages 28-32), to give him a signed copy. Just before I set off to his flat, a thunderstorm starts, with heavy rain. It continues all night. Ghaith has been talking to his mum on the phone in Damascus and everyone there is thrilled to have so much rain. Personally, I'm not. I didn't bring an umbrella. Whenever there is a loud clap of thunder it triggers car alarms all over Beirut.

Ghaith has already seen Brokeback. Though he speaks fluent English and watches lots of American films, he had trouble understanding the dialogue. Fortunately there were Arabic subtitles. It's unclear how much the censors have cut out. The scene where one of the wives spots the two men kissing is still there.

So far, Beirut is the only place in the Middle East where Brokeback has been shown. It seems there have been no public protests - which possibly augurs well for my book. The cinema wasn't full when Ghaith went. He said there were quite a number of "macho men" in the audience who left before the film finished. He thought they had been expecting something more raunchy and got bored when it turned out not to be like that.

It's worth noting that some Lebanese are boycotting the cinemas because the film has been cut. "Why should I pay to see a censored version when I can see the whole film on DVD?" one of them said to me. It's illegal, of course, but pirated DVDs of Brokeback are being widely circulated - not only in Lebanon but in other countries such as Egypt.

3 April 2006: Off to Lebanon

Two or three months ago, Saqi raised the question of a launch event for the book. They were looking for a place to hold it in London but I suggested it would be a bit of a wheeze to do it in the Middle East instead. Saqi thought about this for a while, then agreed.

Beirut was the obvious choice - in fact the only Arab city where we were likely to get away with it - and we set to work on the plans. The trick, if we pulled it off, would be to get some media attention but not so much attention as to get the book instantly banned.

Part of the plan is to hold a public discussion of homosexuality, based around the book, followed by a book-signing party. The American University seemed an obvious place for the discussion but when we enquired we learned there were "difficulties" about the subject matter. Eventually, another educational institution (I'm not allowed to say which one before it happens) agreed to let me give a talk, on condition that it will not be advertised - because they don't want any protests. That will be on Wednesday afternoon.

Later, in the early evening, there will be a public meeting at Zico House, a fine old building in Beirut which is home to various radical causes, including Helem. Helem is working with Saqi to publicise it, and seems to be doing a great job. I've had several emails from people in Lebanon saying they will be there.

31 March 2006: Gay Muslims

With publication near, I have set up a search for any mentions of "Unspeakable Love" that appear on Google. There's already some discussion at a website called "Eye on Gay Muslims" which relates partly to the book and partly to an article that I wrote about Brokeback Mountain. 

29 March 2006: At last, it's here

Copies of the book have finally arrived from the printers. Holding it in my hands for the first time was a bit like holding a new-born baby - except that the pregnancy in this case has lasted rather more than nine months. It was almost a year ago that I sent off emails to two publishers with my first draft. Andre Gaspard of Saqi gave me his answer about three hours later: yes, he wanted it.

Up to that point I had not discussed the book with any publishers and, looking back, it was a rather stupid thing to do. Saqi, in one of its periodic brainstorming sessions, had decided that homosexuality in the Middle East was a hot topic and had commissioned a book from someone else just before I contacted them. Fortunately the other writer hadn't started work and they were able to de-commission him, but it could easily have turned out differently.

I asked Andre if Saqi would have objections to any of the book's sexual or religious content. He said not, though he had some other criticisms. "Ditch the first chapter, start with chapter two, and write an introduction," he advised. I thought about it and decided he was right.

Over the next two or three months I revised the draft, added some new material and sent off copies to various people for their comments. There were more revisions, though not very many, when their comments came back.

Somehow, I had got the idea that once I handed the finished manuscript (email attachment, actually) to the publisher, my part of the job would be more or less done. It wasn't. Months of phone calls and discussions followed: about the cover, the title, the blurb and catalogue details, questions about foreign publication rights, meetings with the editor, meetings with the publicity organiser, things to be checked and attended to, long before we got to the stage of reading proofs.

For several weeks we struggled over the title. There was a general consensus that it should convey the idea of "forbidden love", but "forbidden" was used for a book about honour killings in Jordan which later turned out to be a fraud.

Searching through the thesaurus for alternatives, I eventually came up with "unspeakable". Some of the people at Saqi liked it. Others thought it was too long and negative-sounding but they gradually came round to the idea.

One potential difficulty is that "Unspeakable Love" doesn't translate very readily into Arabic. I have tested the English title on Arab friends and they understand it at a literal level but I usually have to explain the double meaning:

unspeakable: (adj) that cannot be expressed in words; indescribably bad or objectionable - Oxford English Dictionary

Another early issue was the cover design. I told Andre that I thought the covers on most books about the Middle East were dreadfully cliched and unimaginative. So, please, no silhouettes of palm trees or minarets, no crescent moons and - going to the other extreme - no rainbow flags, either. We needed something that conveyed the idea of "gay" and "Arab", but in a subtle way that would not cause offence in the window of a Beirut bookshop.

After looking around for a while, Saqi came up with some pictures by Youssef Nabil, an imaginative portrait photographer from Egypt. His style is highly distinctive because he shoots in black-and-white, then colours the prints by hand - which gives them a slightly surreal, early-cinema quality. There were several pictures in his portfolio that might have been suitable for the cover, but we didn't have permission from the people in the pictures to use them for that purpose.

In the end, Youssef shot a new series of pictures specially for the book. The one eventually chosen shows two men sitting on a couch, with one resting his head on the other's lap. In the original version, the couch was a dazzlingly bright green but with Youssef's agreement Saqi changed it to brown. They also tightened the crop to focus on the two men's faces.