Bertho (far left) with one of his tour groups.
Bertho and I sit in a Beirut coffee shop and trade our tales of Aleppo. I try to lace mine with a dramatic finesse, but they're so familiar (shelled streets, frontlines, militant Islamism, etc, etc.) that, next to Bertho’s, they sound mundane. “Aleppo is amazing, it was one of the nicest places we used to go to,” he says. “There were eight or nine hammams [Turkish baths] in the Old City, and four or five of those were gay. And when I say gay, they were, like, so gay.”
His Aleppo is a liberal wonderland, a place where men can get it on with other men in the public baths and a gay tour group can rent out a whole hotel with no problems. My own civil war version is a city so grim that even the locals call it "the hole of sorrow"; a city dominated by Islamists who take offence when a woman – let alone a man – wears make-up. In my mind I try to reconcile the two, but I can’t. And I’m jealous. Bertho’s Aleppo sounds like a lot more fun than al-Qaeda’s.
But, of course, that’s to be expected. And I have only myself to blame, because I came to Aleppo as a doom-seeking journalist in the city’s unhappiest hour. Bertho’s trade, meanwhile, is all about the good times – the kind of good times that have stopped rolling in Aleppo and everywhere else in Syria, bringing his once regular trips there to a crashing halt. And this is just the latest example of how his work, like mine, is always dominated by politics, because how can it be otherwise when he is a gay man taking groups of other gay men on tours around the Middle East?
Bertho became the Arab world’s first and only gay holiday rep in 2005. It happened almost by accident – he’d taken a couple of curious online friends on archaeological tours of Lebanon, his home country, when he realised that he could make a business out of it. So he set up a website and started organising trips to the country’s famous ancient sites. But soon it clicked that he could set himself apart from his numerous competitors. He asked a friend to redesign his website with a "gay friendly image", and that's how his company, Lebtour, was born. “If I was going to do gay tours to Barcelona I’d have so much competition,” he says. “All the gay people go on holiday there. But, with Lebtour, I wanted to cater to a more selective group.”
Selective, but also ballsy, I say. After all, the Middle East is not a region with a reputation for being particularly open towards homosexuality. In most Arab countries, being actively gay is still punishable by law, even if, in practice, the authorities are unlikely to prosecute. In Lebanon the law prohibits "abnormal sex", but many people – especially in cosmopolitan Beirut – are openly gay. “No one’s going to come and kick your door down,” says Bertho. And yet, even in Lebanon, homosexuals are periodically arrested and gay bars occasionally, and arbitrarily, shut down. But he insists that the region’s reputation was no barrier to the burgeoning success of his business.
Word spread and an initial trickle of customers turned into a regular stream. Most come from the United States, Canada and Western Europe, and are pleasantly shocked at the level of acceptance they find in laid-back Lebanon. “Most gay tourists who come for the first time say that they’re not expecting this,” he says. “The biggest problem is when there are demonstrations in Beirut and they block the roads with burning tyres. The Americans aren’t used to that.”
But then, for the first time but not the last, the region’s politics got in the way. In 2006, Lebanon and Israel went to war and the country’s blossoming tourist industry withered overnight. So in order to keep the business afloat, Bertho started running tours to Syria instead. “And it was the best destination ever,” he says. “We’d go on tours of the hammams in Aleppo, and in Damascus it was a paradise for gay people. We never had any problems, never ever.”
With a joyful flourish Bertho illustrates his point. “Once I took my biggest ever group to Syria – there were 35 of us,” he says. “I was the only Arabic speaker, so at the border I took all of the passports to the guard to sort out the visas. He asked me, 'Where are your women?' And I told him that the women were coming on the next bus. And he started laughing because it was so clear that there were no women and that we were a group of gay men.”
I can’t quite believe that it could have been so easy, so I ask him if he's openly gay. He responds with a pitiful look: “Come on! It’s obvious!” It was a stupid question and I immediately feel stupid to have asked it, considering Bertho has his arm wrapped around his boyfriend’s shoulder as I say it.
Bertho has a wrestler’s physique, the heavy beard of a between-jobs Russell Crowe and a general aura that suggests he might be at home leading the charge at Provincetown Bear Week. "I'm a bear," he tells me. Bertho even runs bear-specific tours, whipping out his phone to show me a picture he took of one such outing. In the photo a group of men stand in Lebanon’s Baalbek, gathered behind an adaption of the gay pride flag that's embellished with a paw print. Baalbek is a famous archaeological site in the north of Lebanon; it's also the heartland of the country’s Shia militia, Hezbollah.
“Lebanon is a religious country – all of the countries in the Middle East are,” Bertho says. “And religious people will stand against anything that they believe doesn't respect their religion. But Hezbollah doesn't care whether you are gay or straight, because, for them, it’s all about Israel. Sometimes the local people ask what the bear flag is, so I tell them it’s the flag for fat people. Sometimes you shouldn’t explain too much.”
After Syria Bertho started taking his tours to Jordan. It’s the only country in the Arab world where homosexuality is unambiguously legal, but he tells me, despite that, its social norms make it a less tolerant place than both Lebanon and Syria. “There’s only one café there that's gay-owned, but I’ve never even felt that that is a gay place,” he says. “But people wanted to do all three – Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Next week I’m taking a gay scuba diving group there.”
Now he has plans to launch new tours in Egypt and Oman, but Middle Eastern politics has got in the way again, and this time on a scale that is perhaps intractable. The Arab Spring may have started as a wave of uprisings in the name of freedom of speech and democracy, but it quickly turned into a coup for the region’s long-suppressed hardline Islamists: a resurgent (though currently deposed) Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a huge and ever-growing armed Salafist movement in Syria. And, as you may already have guessed, hardline Islamism is not good for gay business.
“The last time I went to Syria I didn’t realise that it would be the last time,” Bertho says. That was January of 2011. Two months later a group of school children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime slogans on a wall in Dera’a, and then the demonstrations began. Two and a half years on and Syria has sunk into all-out civil war, with Bashar al-Assad’s brutally repressive regime on one side and an Islamist dominated, foreign-funded and almost equally brutal opposition on the other. “Bad versus worse,” as Bertho puts it.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled to Lebanon to escape the conflict are gay men who have watched their once tolerant country crumble around them. Bertho says that he has met men from Aleppo and Homs who knew they had to leave as soon as the regime lost control in their areas. “The danger to them is not from their families or the society, it’s from the Islamists who are taking over in the areas where the regime falls,” he says. He tells me that he has met men who have been arrested, beaten and raped before managing to make their escape – and all because they are gay. “I do believe that the Syrian regime has to change,” Bertho says. “But at the same time I am hoping that Bashar can beat the Islamists in Syria and stay in power.”
For a while it looked as though Egypt could be going the same way. The dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2011 uprising made the country a “very different place”, according to Bertho. When we meet he has just returned from a research trip there to scope out the gay-friendly places he can take his tour groups to. “I found some gay shisha cafes in Cairo, but in general the people are very scared,” he says. Egypt’s laws on homosexuality are far more draconian than Lebanon’s; there you can end up in jail, being forcefully administered with hormone injections, if you are discovered to be actively gay and the authorities decide that you need "curing".
But he also sensed a new revolutionary mood in the air. “Even though the people are scared, they are willing to go out and protest,” he says. “And the gay community is playing a big part in that. There are ten million people in the Muslim Brotherhood, but there are 80 million in Egypt. They cannot win.”
Exactly one week later, after three days of renewed protest in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian army booted President Morsi out of power. “I’m proud of you, Egyptians!” said Bertho when I contacted him for his reaction. “I hope this will be a lesson to others around the Arab world.” Maybe Egypt is changing; maybe gay tours will be possible there yet.
But there are places that Bertho insists he will never go. “Iraq,” he says without hesitation. “I’m not crazy.” The country has the worst reputation for gay rights in the region, and it is very well deserved. Until two years ago gay men were killed on the street in broad daylight on a regular basis. Many gay Iraqis fled to Lebanon, and Bertho has heard their stories firsthand. “I have to love a country to take people there,” he says. “I will not go there before they change.” Dubai is off his list, too. “If my customers want to go to Dubai they can do it themselves. Maybe it’s actually the easiest place to have sex because they are all so frustrated, but I hate the country and I hate its discrimination. And anyway, there’s nothing for tourists to see there except high rise towers.”
And maybe Syria, once his number one destination, will also be off the list for good. Once again, it won’t be Bertho’s decision – it will be the Middle East’s careening politics, always beyond his control, that will decide. “The best thing that could happen for me is that Bashar beats the rebels and stays in power,” he says. "Because if that happens I will start taking tours back into Syria the very next day. But if the Islamists take control then I can never go back to Syria and they will be coming to Lebanon next, and then you will be writing an article about me asking for asylum in Europe.” And, as if to reinforce his words, as we leave the coffee shop we spot the black flag of the Salafists, the same one I have seen so many times in Aleppo, fluttering over the street.
For now the holiday plans are cancelled. Nervous Western tourists, both gay and straight, are reluctant to travel to a region soaked in volatility. Bertho used to spend three weeks in every month taking his tour groups around the Middle East, but now he is lucky if he does just one. “Holiday insurance doesn't cover warzones,” as he puts it. So, as he waits to see what will happen to Syria and decides whether he can start up in Egypt, he has started organising hammam parties in Beirut instead. The next evening I go for dinner with some gay friends from Damascus. One tells me that he has just come from one of Bertho’s parties. “It was crazy,” he laughs. “Too crazy for me. It was so gay in there.”
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannahluci
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