Middle Eastern contrasts

Entry #2 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.

Doha, Qatar.

I honestly can’t remember if I have been to this city before, but even if I had, then it would have been 20+ years ago and we have both changed radically since then. Skyscrapers dominate the landscape and the only reminders that this is an Arabian country are the dhows in the bay, and the regularity of seeing men in perfectly laundered white dishdashes and their accompanying spouses covered in head to toe black. There are degrees of cover up though; from simple head scarf to total anonymity. I supposed those degrees of privacy made it slightly better, if only for the ladies who could at lease see where they were walking.

So, being a woman, do I thus equate with those dressed in black, albeit that they are from a completely different culture and background? I don’t think that connection is a prerequisite for my gender, though there are accepted connections. For instance, when I had a spa treatment earlier that evening, the area I used was exclusively for–and the treatments given by–women. But that is generally how I prefer it anyway.

I wanted to maximize the less than 48 hours I’d have in this city, so after that slightly self-indulgent spa treatment (which felt so good after a 12 hour flight) I took a taxi into another part of Doha, which I wanted to be the focus of my evening entertainment. I knew this place would remind me further of the contrasts that this city has—that every city has–although these contradictions seem more amplified in parts of the Middle East.

‘Crystal’, at the glitzy W hotel, is one of the club hotspots in Doha. Costly entry is limited to membership, and even then, mostly for couples and foreigners. But it was Ladies Night, and so I just flashed my passport, batted my eyes as the visiting blonde from New York, and was swept in behind the velvet rope. I was slightly nervous that my LBD might have been too much above the knee, but matching it with a stylish cream blazer added the sophistication that I wanted to exude.

Inside, the music was international and a mix of current house tracks and grittier urban selections. The guests were mostly 20s and 30s men of Arabic descent (though Western dressed), along with a smattering of women of Middle Eastern origin, and a few Europeans. I was one of only a handful of blondes and I could see attention follow me as I scoped out the room. One guy (who introduced himself as an Egyptian guy called, naturally, Mohammed) swooped in and offered to get me a drink, but I wanted to see what else was going on first. Besides, Ladies Night is one of those outrageously sexist evenings that often happens in Gulf countries: ply the ladies with free drinks, then the men will follow—and buy them more. Back in my male times in the Gulf 20 years ago, this always seemed so unfair. This time I had no complaints. What surprised me more about the practicalities of these drinks however, was that unlike New York Happy Hour “well drinks” (unbranded cheap liquor that is very conducive to hangovers) the default gin and vodka here was top notch brands like Tanqueray and Grey Goose. I stuck with my gin and tonics and got more into the groove as the Gordon’s found its way into my rhythm buds.

The atmosphere also made it seem like I visiting a club from a different era. Yes the music was all current, but this club was smokey. Not as bad as the the smoke-filled dens of the 80s that I used to visit where you really could cut the atmosphere with an iron-lung, but this was still a throwback to a different era. As a fervent non-smoker it gives me renewed pleasure visiting bars and clubs around the world where smoke has now been banished, but there is still a sense of rightness entering a bar where people are smoking. Maybe that’s simply the familiarity I feel having worked so many places like that in the 80s and 90s.

I drifted between the two bar areas in the club, sizing up the occupants but trying not to make definitive eye-contact. There didn’t seem anybody there that I felt overly attracted to, and besides, I was more interested in soaking up some Mark Ronson and David Guetta than anything more physical. I still find it curious that my musical tastes have gone full-circle with my own transition: from club DJ (guy), to indie chick (or guy initially), and back to house music maven. Not that I spurn alternative tracks these days–far from it–but the love of hearing (and moving) to club tracks has never been stronger in me.

Mohammed found me again, and from what I could gather, he’d racked up a tally greater than my three gin tonics. But he was actually quite fun to talk to (a much as you can talk to anyone clearly above 110 decibels) and that he found me attractive stroked my ego nicely too—as did his wandering hands. He touched me and I found myself drawn to the sense of adventure that meeting someone in a club imbues. The forth gin tonic helped too. We started making out, and I remembered my friend Portia’s voice in head: “good kissers are hard to find.” Seemed like I had found one. In fact, even though he was a VIP member in the club, one of the bouncers actually told him to tone his affections down a tad. What are the rules for kissing in Qatari clubs—I had no idea.

We left, together, and although I repeatedly told him that he wasn’t coming back to my hotel, he never stopped asked me. (I was already looking forward to the hotel breakfast buffet, some pool time, and a tennis lesson the next day, and so I had no intention of letting that agenda go off-kilter; regardless of how well he used his tongue.) Then, he told me we could go to his place; which initially sounded like a good plan but then headed south. Or I think more accurately, west, as the taxi ventured further out of the city center. I suddenly started to sober up. The taxi went down some side streets, and some back streets. There was not a sole around.

At least it was a residential area but his apartment building was not the classy number I had anticipated. When he opened the door all I saw was a basic living room with two basic beds on each side. Also, it was not empty. There was (I was told) his cousin and presumably his cousin’s girlfriend, though she could have been a hooker for all I knew. This was going downhill fast, and all the sweet talk (and sweet kisses) in the taxi on the way there immediately counted for nothing. He started kissing me again.

“No,” I said, and then a much firmer “NO”. Scenes from ‘Law & Order: SVU” flashed through my mind; where officers asked rape victims whether they had made their refusal clear. I didn’t feel physically threatened in such a way but I knew I had to leave, and leave soon. I ran out of the apartment building while Mohammed followed behind. On the street I was quite a distance from the main road. Well I assumed I was; I had no idea what direction it would be anyway. 2.30am, and I was lost in the backstreets of a city I didn’t know with not a soul (or a taxi) in sight. Panic. Huge panic.

Mohammed caught up to me and tried to comfort me, initially with his arms around me, then his tongue, and after those options didn’t work, with words.

“I’m scared, I’m scared…” was all I could say.

“Don’t worry,” he said with intended reassurance, “I am with you.” Not a great consolation as this was the very cause of my anxiety, but still it seemed to have an effect. I took a deep breath and rested my head on his shoulders. A hint of calm returned. He held my hand and we walked towards the main road. On the horizon I saw a taxi approaching and my adrenaline level dropped further. The car stopped and we got in together. I told him he needn’t accompany me but he insisted. I supposed that was a mix of male hierarchy which dominates this country, but I knew that he still had plans on my underwear, despite me making it clear that he wasn’t getting access to that or my hotel that night. Just an hour or so earlier I really wanted him, now I just wanted to be away from him.

When we arrived at the hotel, and I saw the security guard at the entrance, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Not that I had felt positively threatened over the past few hours, but there was a singular reassurance in seeing a man in a uniform who I knew would represent my interests. Mohammed made one last play to stay, but even though a hint of appeal had returned to my sexual psyche, I refused. But so did he refuse to give me his mobile number or email or any other contact information. That spoke volumes about his deeper intentions. I felt further vindicated. One last kiss (he was still a good kisser) and I jumped out of the taxi, and walked into the hotel lobby, not even glancing behind.

My heels clacked on the polished marble, and the night staff welcomed me warmly as I made my way to my room. My bed was soft and welcoming. I was alone, but for all the high-jinx adventures of the past hours, that suited me well. Had I been reckless? Yes. I had been caught up in an exotic moment that had tipped into an erotic one. I knew the outcomes could have been so much worse, and I chastised myself for letting myself go in such a way. But regardless of where we are in the world, don’t we all want to feel loved, or needed, or just wanted?

As sleep drew in, and the luxurious fabrics of the room comforted me, I heard echoes of the nighttime call to prayer outside.