Entry #3 of an occasional journal of thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a trip from New York, through Doha to Dubai and then on to Australia.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The two days in Doha flew by, and the unexpectedly cold wind that had dominated my second day there subsided enough for some pool time on the morning I left. But even though it was a beachside hotel, the waters of the Arabian Gulf were far too chilly for a dip; I’d forgotten that winter doesn’t only happen in New York.
I’d also forgotten that the vast majority of staff in the major hotels are not local at all; mostly they are from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Maybe that fact is the reason for the high level of service that I find so welcome here. Yet the overwhelming presence of overseas workers leads to the bizarre situation that any local Qatari person usually has to speak English—not Arabic—in hotels and restaurants, even in their own country. I imagine that’s rarely a problem as most have been educated overseas anyway. Yet it was interesting to see the binary colors of white dishdashes and black abayas around the hotel lobby and restaurants; if only to remind me that I was a visitor in a very different country to both the one I grew up in or live in now.
I wondered about peoples’ stories. Most of the (I presumed) local women I saw were dressed in black from head to toe in clearly functional if not very flattering style—which is actually the whole point of them. I found it hard to imagine having to present myself in such a way. I suppose I lived behind my own type of anonymous veil during parts of my transition, but that was just logged over a few years, not a whole lifetime. As someone who loves clothes (and shopping for them) I have no idea what it would be like to only exit the house when dressed in such a way. I suppose Qatari women can dress nicely when at home, but to me, half the point of dressing up is so that others can see. But such is the fundamental difference in strict Muslim culture: women dress so anonymously and unflatteringly to prevent temptation to other men. While I can maybe understand the ludicrous premise of this hundreds of years ago, surely Arabic culture has advanced from this base position in the centuries since.
The more I wondered about the women under the abayas, the more I started to consider the horrific ordeal that many will have been put through: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). That this is still euphemistically called “female circumcision” makes it even more abhorrent. Searching for parallels, I could find none whatsoever to the SRS procedure that I have been through. Every surgeon qualified for SRS wants to maintain as much sensitivity as possible, not remove it as a way to “control my sexuality” as is the supposed raison d’etre for FGM. Countless generations on, women in the Middle East continue to be butchered in this way.
My own transition is so complete that there are very few friends who have not met me as a woman. Geography dictates that I’ve not been able to physically catch up with everyone around the world on my friend rolodex, but this trip to Dubai would mean that two more old friends of mine would soon be crossed off that list.
I’ve known T&V since the late 80s and I was a DJ working in Abu Dhabi. In fact, I knew them very well as individuals before I knew them as a couple; she a teacher in one of the international schools, he a DJ on the local English language radio station. She came into my club on one of her first days in the city (it was club policy to get the expatriate girls used to the freestyle attraction of Ladies Night as soon as possible—the more fresh meat the better) while he filled in for me in the DJ booth when I had a night off. I got on very well them both but it was still quite a surprise to me that some years later (long after I had left Abu Dhabi) they told me that they had become an item. I hadn’t anticipated that they would ever be a couple, but the more I considered it, the more I felt their yin and yang synced. Now together for 25 years and with two lovely children, I almost feel like I was partially responsible for their matchmaking.
They came to see me in New York when I was in the early stages of transition—not that I realized I was transitioning at that time. Back then I was cross-dressing on occasion, mostly to attend weekly parties for the transgender community—not that I realized I was within that demographic either. I think I was probably shaping my eyebrows and waxing my legs at that time, but hormone therapy, physical changes and, most importantly, my own self-realization was some years away.
Like everyone else on my friend list, I sent them The Announcement about my gender flux and new self once I was permanently in Nicky mode, and they were (like most, but not all others) very supportive. Surprised, yes, but T sent me a refreshingly honest email of validation soon afterwards, which I also included in Tea and Transition. This trip was the first time to meet them face to face, as me, the woman. He will be collecting me from the airport and although I know our friendship is beyond any of this, I still wonder about the first impressions of those who knew me before but re-meet me in a whole new way. Now, as I fly over the borders of the UAE and see the giant Burj Khalifa skyscraper on the waterfront, I am truly looking forward to reconnecting. Old friends, with a renewed lightness of spirit.
* * *
I had prepared myself for that moment when I pass through customs, wheeling my baggage trolley into the outside world and that he’d be there with the same air of nonchalance that is his hallmark. I approached the moment with some nervousness but was deflated somewhat when I didn’t see him. I knew I’d still recognize him, but had I come out of the wrong door or been blinded by the Middle Eastern sun? I wandered around the meet & greet while others were met and greeted. Just a couple of minutes later, I saw him walking briskly from the car park towards me, accompanied by his 12-year old son. I looked at him and he seemed to look through me, searching for someone else. Then as I walked towards him, he recognized me.
“Hello!” he said, “that was good timing… Give me a hug!”
“I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place,” I countered, not wanting to bring up the matter that I’d been there a few minutes already. I remember some years ago when I was collecting my Mum from a long-distance flight somewhere that I’d been late arriving at the airport—something I never wanted to repeat.
“This is Rod, by the way,” introducing his son.
“Hello Rod, I’m Nicky.”
“Ooh, haven’t you got a soft voice now,” father T added.
From someone who still works with his voice and to someone else who has worked on voice as part of my transition, that was one of the nicest things I could hear.
Later on, I asked him if he had been nervous meeting the new-ish me.
“Um, no, not really,” he mused, “but I was very curious.”
His wife, V, arrived home slightly later than we did, but on seeing me, her broad beam of welcome came ahead of hearing her amazement-laden, still thick, Scottish accent.
“Look at you!” she exclaimed.
And that was the point: it was still a surprise to others from my past life meeting me anew, even though I’d been me—and this way—for several years already. But it didn’t take long for us to be talking clothes, and fashion, and how men just don’t get it.
That evening, they threw a barbeque. It wasn’t exactly in my honor, but they did want me to meet some of their friends. That was when V announced her biggest concern.
“We fine with all your gender stuff, but we have no idea to cope with a vegetarian!”
And that summed up well what our friendship was all about, still. It didn’t matter about differences, and we could exchange stories and laugh about how we all got to the respective points that we have. Gender, of course, was a topic to discuss, but ultimately immaterial.
* * *
Over the next five days, it was not only a joy to spend time with them, but also with their kids. That’s something that seems to happen particularly naturally to me these days. As a woman, I tend to bond easily with children, and really enjoy spending time with them. OK, only the nice ones of course, but this was never particularly easy or enjoyable for me as a man. Another one of the surprises in self that I didn’t see coming.
I think it took them more than a couple of days to become totally comfortable with me as I am (and there were a few pronoun and past-name mishaps along the way) but I accept that’s simply the way it is when you knew someone for so long in a different gender. My old news was still new to them.
I again enjoyed the reverse sexism that is Ladies Night (three free drinks at the Q43 bar) in Dubai, and the conflicts of Arabic culture that had expressed themselves to me in Doha were less evident in the more multi-cultural metropolis that is Dubai. I knew that there was sexism beyond the Ladies Night phenomenon, and genderism too. I had hoped to have some time being interviewed on T’s drive-time radio program but it wasn’t going to happen.
“I’ve really tried to think how we could package it in such a way to do something on air,” he said over a glass of wine one evening, “but I really can’t. It is still against the law to be gay here…” and then anticipating my interjection added, “not that is the same thing as you have been through, but we simply can’t talk about religion, politics, or sex on air—and you could be misconstrued as the latter. In fact, I don’t even think there is a word for ‘transgender’ in Arabic.”
Reluctantly, I accepted that reality. However, bizarrely, during my stay there, the ruling sheikh announced two key, newsworthy, and totally unexpected government positions: a minister of happiness, and one of tolerance. I wondered whether, for the countless number of gay Arabic men who cannot express their true selves in public, this could even be the first tentative step in wider acceptance. If so, then it will still be many years away, and for transgender individuals even longer, but maybe the seed is now sown. Although I only got to speak to a few ex-pats on this stay and explain some of the factors that being transgender means, perhaps next time, the tentacles of acceptance and tolerance might yet be able to reach further. Perhaps the unforgiving, un-nurturing and barren sand-scape that dominates the lands of Arabia can yet foster growth; not just in the skyscrapers of Dubai, but in a deeper understanding.
Next stop, Australia.