Mark O'Halloran is a screenwriter, travel writer and actor who lives in Dublin,Ireland. For an upcoming book, O'Halloran's been traveling to the 20 mosthomophobic countries around the world. We asked him to write about hisexperiences in Syria and Iran.

Aleppo was the first really authentic Middle Eastern city I had been to. I wastraveling from Istanbul to Tehran, slowly, by rail, bus and air, and it was myfirst stop inside the Syrian border. Aleppo claims to be one of the oldestcontinuously inhabited cities in the world, and though it can genuinely claim aconnection to the "Grand Tour" literati set of the late 19th and early 20thCenturies (Agatha Christie began writing Murder on the Orient Express whilestaying in the Baron Hotel in Aleppo), it has since lost most of its glamour andall of its celebs. It sits on the edge of the Syrian Desert, the poor neglectedsibling to the more sanctimonious Damascus, and from a distance it shinessilver, like powdered bone, and stuns you into silence. And in short I wasafraid.

I had come to Syria in order to discover more about gay life there, but now, inthis medieval environment, I felt a little out of my depth. However, on the cuspof a panic attack I got lucky. I met Mohammad.

Mohammad was 25, tall and splendidly handsome with sallow skin and dark eyes. Hewas also as gay as Ramadan. I noticed him leaning against a wall in a narrowalleyway near my hotel, and as I passed he spoke.

"Hey! Where you from?"

I felt slightly flustered. "Irish. I'm Ireland." He really was that beautiful.

"OK," he said, pausing before leaning in a little closer and adding, "And do youknow the Mr. Oscar Wilde?"

It wasn't really the question I had been expecting to be asked in Syria. "Yes,yes I do," I replied.

He then leaned in even closer and spoke in more hushed tones. "OK. I… I am likethe Mr. Oscar Wilde."

What the fuck? I was beginning to find it hard to breathe. "Oh. Really?"

"Yes," he said, and then he leaned in so close that his lips practically touchedmy ear and he whispered. "Yes. I am a vegetarian."

I gathered from the knowing looks he was giving me that this was code. Notterribly good code but code nonetheless.

"I see. I am a vegetarian also." I said.

Mohammad was pleased with this.

"I think we understand each other," he said.

So that was that. Within an hour of getting there, I'd met my first Syrian gayman, and he gingerly led me through the aromatic laneways of the Aleppo souq tohis uncle's shop and the center of gay life there. The shop itself was calledThe Mr. Oscar Wilde Shop, and it sold silks and pashminas and beautifulembroidered cloths. Rather surprisingly, the store's walls were plastered withpictures of Oscar Wilde. (Aleppo seems to have a fascination with Ireland'sfavorite homo, and apart from some unsubstantiated reports that Wilde visitedonce, it was a fascination I could never quite figure out.) The proprietor ofthe shop, Mohammad's uncle, was as camp as a Bedouin settlement and had a linein double and even single entendres that would put your average drag queen toshame. He and his nephew very kindly set about educating me in the ways ofSyrian gay life. My first lesson was the most important and has held me in goodstead throughout the Middle East: The joys of Bluetooth.

As we all know, Bluetooth wireless technology is a short-range communicationssystem intended to replace the cables connecting devices. But on the gay scenein the Middle East, it has become an invaluable means of communication andhere's why. For a scene that can at best be described as clandestine, the needfor discretion is paramount. There have been instances in the past where gaywebsites have been used to entrap or blackmail gay men. For a picture message tobe sent via Bluetooth, the users must be within a 20-meter radius of each other,and a picture received in this manner cannot be traced back to its sender. Thusinstant and safe flirting can happen. So just turn on your Bluetooth, giveyourself a handle (I use "Irish Gay," which I think is nice and succinct) andthen sit in one of the many cafés around Martyr Square in Damascus, say, orDaneshju Park in Tehran and suddenly your phone will start buzzing with incomingpics (I received comedy pictures of Saddam Hussein, love birds, flowers andother more intimate portraits). After receiving a picture, you know that thesender is most probably at a table nearby, and through a process of deductionand a few nods and winks, you find each other and introductions are made.Charming and ingenious, I think, and a portal to another world.

I found my Bluetooth to be particularly busy in Iran, which was my next stopafter Syria. There was not a town, a city or a village that I visited therewhere my phone did not buzz gently in my pocket as some lonely gay attempted tobridge the technological divide and find amity.

I had been looking forward to coming to Iran for a number of reasons. Firstly,because I bear more then a passing resemblance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, andsecondly, because he was the reason that I had decided to undertake thesejourneys in the first place. When he spoke at Columbia University and claimedthat there were no gays in Iran, I became so incensed that I decided to go thereand find them for myself (not that you actually have to look that hard). Sincethen, the concept for the book I am writing expanded, and in it I now travel tothe 20 most homophobic countries in the world and find out about gay life andhistory in each. A project of reclamation, you could say. But for me, Iran wasthe big one, and I had come prepared. With 50 percent of the population underthe age of 30, Iran's young, educated and tech savvy residents are also Internetobsessed, and there are numerous, extremely busy Iranian gay websites. This washow I made contact with the three amigos who were meeting me off the plane atImam Khomeini Airport.

It was the first day of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, when the country shutsdown for ten days, and my new friends, I reckoned, were just delighted to havesomething to do. So I found myself climbing into a taxi with my new homobest-mates en route to a gay party in north Tehran that was being thrown in myhonor. Our driver had discovered I was from Europe and insisted on playing mehis Mariah Carey CDs. So here we were, four homos in a taxi speeding acrossNorth Tehran on the way to a gay party. We were like a joke in search of a punchline and the night was still young. Iran was going to prove a revelation. Upyours, Ahmadinejad.

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