Reconnections

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.

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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.