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Being Gay in Abu Dhabi

Breaking sharia law was a lot of fun — and a little scary too

Photo: Lingbeek/Getty Images

OnOn my first evening in Abu Dhabi, we take a taxi to McGinnigans, an Irish pub where everyone — all the expats — end up on Friday nights. Just like almost everything else in the United Arab Emirates, it’s in a shopping mall — boldly marked with green illuminated lettering out front.

I drink beer, then a whisky, maybe two? I dance a bit with my friend Debbie who’s lived here for several years and her colleague Fran (also a teacher). Sometimes I just walk around, eyeing everyone hungrily. I suss out who the gay guys are; there are two Moroccans; I’ll sit down at the table where one is sitting later on and he’ll look slightly panicked as we make small talk and I realize he’s waiting for someone else. I move on after telling him to enjoy his night. There’s a beautiful Arab guy, sitting alone in front of the beer taps at the bar, nursing what looks like a gin and tonic. Debbie tells me I should strike up a conversation, gives me dirhams (I still haven’t withdrawn any cash) to buy a water so that I can stand next to him. I’m old enough, drunk enough, and brave enough to say hello, asking him if he’s from the UAE — he says yes — he turns away to stare at the rows of booze bottles ahead of him. I realize that it’s hopeless: He’s either too scared or not interested.

Then there’s an Aussie, sexy in a brutish sort of way, that I chat to briefly. I can’t remember what we said. Debbie says at one stage he cupped my face with his hands — but of course, we didn’t kiss. Back home in South Africa maybe I’d have had the courage to lean in, but I can’t shake off the sense of danger here, even in a club as permissive and charged as this. Yes, everyone’s drunk and most are dancing and the pop is American but this isn’t America, and it’s not South Africa — it’s the UAE. Don’t push your luck, mate.

I wanted to go home with this guy; I liked his confidence, his smile; the flicker between interest and indifference. But I don’t. He’s busy talking to a bunch of other people — his friends, I assume — when Debbie and I go. The taxi ride is a blur of a golden highway and the concrete sinew of the Sheikh Zayed Bridge. I’m talking — can’t remember exactly now what about, but it’s about love, I think, and maybe my parents, and I’m suddenly a little bit teary.

My phone is surely being monitored like everyone else’s here but I’m secretly hoping they don’t really care about a horny gay foreigner.

I woke up relieved — mostly, that I’m alone in bed at Debbie’s; that I haven’t had sex with the Aussie or the shy Emirati or anyone else. It’s simpler that way. But still, I’m yearning, determined (though I’d never admit it). Although I haven’t used those apps in months and months, now I’ve got three of them — including Grindr, that I can’t log on to and wonder if they've been blocked by the UAE government. My phone is surely being monitored like everyone else’s here but I’m secretly hoping they don’t really care about a horny gay foreigner. Before I dared to open Scruff here for the first time, I joked with Debbie about getting arrested and she smiled, said that she knows people, and it’ll be fine. Even though we were both joking I found that somehow reassuring.

A Lebanese guy I’ve been chatting to on Tinder, Abdul, is keen to meet up. There was a typo in the number I gave him on Tinder, so I text him on WhatsApp, apologizing, and suggest we meet at Loca, a Mexican place that is very popular with expats. He replies:

“I forgive you by virtue of your chest hair. 10/10 would sit on it. Woof.”

And at the end, three wolf emojis.

So, he’s seen the profile pic; the one I took on a run, a sweaty selfie with, yes, a bit of chest hair.

“Haha, I’m not sure if the fellow patrons at Loca would approve of such a move,” I write back.

“Considering they’re all fellow raging homosexuals, they’d encourage it,” he replies.

“Haha, really? Clearly, there’s much I need to learn about Abu Dhabi!”

“I’ll be your senpai,” he replies, using the Japanese word for mentor.

He tells me that the city’s charm lies in the mostly cheap places run by the expats of ethnic minorities — the Uzbeks, the Ethiopians, the Indians — and suggests we visit some of them. And that’s just dandy — because I’m not interested in Ferrari World or the numerous malls; I want something real, and something cheap too — this place is fucking expensive.

As I come out onto the street, Abdul pushes off the back of the taxi he’s been leaning against. He’s a big guy (6 foot, 4 inches tall, he tells me later), a mop of curly black hair with the sides and back close-shaved, and a beard. He’s wearing a tight T-shirt, tight jeans, and a wide smile.

He shakes my hand.

“Nice to meet you,” I say, realizing that one of the apartment building’s other residents probably heard that. Is it obvious we’re going on a date?

In the taxi, our conversation flows easily. He tells me he wants to move to South Africa — and I ask him why on earth he wants to do that.

“Because it’s not Europe and it’s not America and it’s far away from here,” he replies.

“What’s wrong with Europe and America?”

“They’re so hegemonic. Anyways,” his voice drops to a mumble, “South Africa has great looking people.”

I ask him what he wants to do after he’s finished studying and he says he was contemplating becoming a benevolent dictator — the Arab world could use one of those, he reckons — or the owner of a pan-Arab TV station, but right now he has no idea at all.

At Ray’s Bar on top of the Emirates Towers, we walk around, looking at the city below us — the royal palace, towers, a theme park, and the blank, earthen canvases of new islands awaiting construction. So much has been built. So much is still to be built, but I don’t really care about any of that.

Over the next two hours, we continue our talk.

He tells me that his parents (one is a computer programmer, the other a pharmacist) have asked him a couple of times if he’s gay and he’s avoided answering. Instead, he’s asked them what’s wrong with that, and they get into a theological debate. Obviously, they know (he watches RuPaul’s Drag Race with his gay friends at home — how could they not know?), but they want to be absolutely certain. They need that certainty so they can take action.

He tells me he’s okay with being disowned, should that happen. He’s financially independent — the last four years at New York University Abu Dhabi have been on a scholarship. It’s losing touch with his three siblings that he’s afraid of; they look up to him, they need him, he says.

He tells me about the thesis he’s just handed in (on Lebanese political organizations). He’s on Zoloft for depression and a recent bout of generalized anxiety; he’s tried to kill himself three times. He’s written some fiction — one story is about some humans being able to photosynthesize — but preferred his filmmaking classes to writing.

I tell him that my day today was pretty momentous — I finished the very rough first draft of my book. It’s about being gay, having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and growing up with devout Christian parents — all the difficult parts of me, I explain.

He turns away from me, sort of shivers with delight then turns back to face me, beaming.

“You have no idea how awesome that is.”

He asks what the premise is so I begin rambling on about the plot, realizing there’s no easy way of summing it up.

I tell him about my ex, Bear — how dating a doctor, a patient, and loving someone, had gotten me over my fear of sex, of catching something, how it had made me feel sort-of-normal.

Abdul talks about gay life here. Generally — like most illegal things — if you don’t do anything in public, you’re fine, he says. And if you do, there’s a decent chance you’ll get away with it anyway if you’re a Westerner, he reckons. There’s a cruising spot down by the Corniche, hidden from the road, and right next to the sea. He knows about an American guy who was giving an Egyptian guy a blowjob down there and got caught by the police. They threw the Egyptian into the police vehicle, then asked the American where he was from.

“Oh, Tucson? My sister’s studying there,” the arresting officer said, waving him farewell. The Yank was free to go.

At some point, near the end of our first cocktail or perhaps early on during the second, our legs (the ones that could be seen by everyone else in the room) have started touching. Initially, I’m nervous about this but he’s so chill about it that I let my leg remain there.

We ponder the idea of having another drink, but happy hour has just ended. Smiling at me, he says that the combination of antidepressants and alcohol he’s already had is all he needs to be buzzed. “I’m a cheap date,” he tells me, eyelashes fluttering.

We've started joking about getting married — perhaps the implausibility of such an eventuality makes me totally comfortable discussing who’d get which passport, where we’d tie the knot, and where we’d settle.

In the cab, we touch our legs without any worry. The driver can’t see — it’s too dark, surely — but I wonder to myself if the tiny camera in the center can.

At the Syrian restaurant we end up choosing, there is only one other table occupied — by two Somali couples, I think. Abdul orders for the both of us: a za'atar and melted cheese pizza type thing, shawarma, hummus and pita bread, a chicken stew, and some kind of minced balls that are breaded and deep-fried.

Again, talking, talking. He’s never been with a girl; he felt one girl’s boob at a party once while kissing her — it felt strange, fleshily gratuitous. She had gone around insisting that boys make out with her, he tells me, imitating her plaintive, insistent squeal. He had gone on a couple of dates with girls in his freshman year; none of them had led to sex, though he’s not averse to the idea. He hates the idea of labels, and doesn’t refer to himself as “gay.” It’s a recent Western construct anyway.

Our legs start touching again. I pick at the food, have no appetite, in fact, I feel a bit nauseous. I want this, I want to be here, with him, but I’m still on edge. There are tons of people, men mostly, walking past the window behind him. One of them looks in at us, his eyes glancing down at the legs and then up at me, then carries on walking, expressionless. I’m relieved the meal is near its end. Hopefully, if he reports us, we'll be gone by the time the police arrive.

In the cab, he looks at me and asks, “Where would you like to go? Sorry, I should’ve checked before we got in.” He can see that I'm nervous because he adds, "No pressure, it’s completely up to you."

“Let’s go back to yours,” I reply.

He instructs the driver where to go as I lean back and relax. The nausea is finally subsiding: It has been decided.

It doesn’t take long for us to get to NYU. I follow him through campus; up one elevator, along the High Line — an outdoor bridge connecting the lecture theaters to the residential buildings. He signs me in as an overnight guest.

He’s also warned me that as much as he wants me to make him scream, he does have a roommate so we’ll have to be quiet. For a brief moment, I thought he meant someone actually sharing his room, but thank God he has his own. They just share a bathroom and a small anteroom.

His window is almost the length of the room. Al Reem Island — where Debbie lives — glistens at us from across the water. Much closer: earth, illuminated. I untie my shoelaces. He sits down next to me on his single bed. We kiss — it’s the first time our lips are touching; his are shockingly soft.

Slowly clothes are shed. I explore his body — scratching the shaven hair near his ear, licking his armpits, biting his nipples, kissing his forehead, stroking his beard. The chain around his neck gives his hairy chest a metallic taste.

Later, after wiping up, we cuddle and kiss until we fall asleep. It's surprisingly comfortable in this tiny bed; I like the nearness, the touch of skin, the mingling of our sweat. I wake a few times, but never for very long. By 8 o'clock, light begins leaking in from under the curtains. I lift them up. Outside, trucks are zooming across the glare, along barely finished roads. The sky and sea are the same unforgiving blue.

I gently kiss Abdul awake; I can’t help myself — he’s just too fucking cute. I ask him to lie on his tummy, able to admire him by daylight: the fleshy curve of his butt, the wide shoulders, the muscular arms.

The roommate is awake. Abdul stands in the doorway chatting to him briefly, and then when the guy’s gone back into his room, I slip into the shower. He ends up seeing me on my way out anyway — there’s a trace of amusement as he says “hello” when we walk past.

We have breakfast at the Library Cafe. Ellie Goulding is playing on the speakers. There are Middle Eastern investment magazines (the freebie-type ones found in airport lounges) and back issues of Esquire on the racks.

We talk about South African politics — he wants to know when President Zuma will be kicked out. He explains the Lebanese political system; the intractable infighting, the religious factions, the strength of Hezbollah. We could keep talking for the whole morning (and probably the whole afternoon) but he has a class at 10:25, so a few minutes before that he walks me out into the heat, past the palm tree thicket, down towards the main entrance where a few taxis are waiting.

He kisses me goodbye and says “Keep in touch,” grinning at me.

Back at Debbie’s, I swim 30 lengths of the pool, then chat to my sister on Skype. I tell her about Abdul. She asks about Debbie, what her employers are like, and I reassure her that they’re great. It’s not a lie, they’re very good to her, but it can't hurt to reiterate it on the phone, in case I’m being listened to.

I spend the day on my laptop writing, answering emails, tying up loose ends. Debbie doesn't get home until after seven; the father of the kids she tutors wanted to have lunch with them, so she didn't get to sit down with them until quite late. We have dinner at a pseudo-French bistro in Yas Mall where robed men murmur into Bluetooth earpieces or tap their iPhones. I’ve been meaning to message Abdul to say how much I enjoyed last night and when I pick my phone to do so (Debs is in the bathroom), I see he’s already messaged me:

“Thanks for a great time last night/this morning. I had fun.” There’s a smiling tongue emoji at the end.

I tell him he’s beaten me to the punch — I’d been about to message him saying the same thing. I tell him I’m keen to see him again before I leave.

He takes almost four-and-a-half hours to respond — and in that eternity I wonder whether maybe he’s not keen to see me again. But when he does, he says he’d love to. He’s going to Dubai with friends tomorrow afternoon, what are my plans?

I suggest we meet up in the morning.

“I still have your scent all over me it’s quite sexy,” he texts. He suggests noon; he’ll buy me lunch at NYU. "I’m trying to think what we could do," he continues. "I wouldn’t have time to go into the city but it’s also your vacation."

“Don’t stress about that mate, you’re the only sight I need to see tomorrow :-)” I write back.

“You are the absolute cutest,” he replies.

I’m withdrawing money from the ATM in the NYU Welcome Center when I spot him. I pull the cash out and face him. He hugs me tightly. I’m a little startled when he also kisses me on the lips.

We walk to the cafeteria. There are pizza and sandwiches and stuff. He’s recommended the laksa, so I go for that and Malaysian fish cakes. He gets sushi from out of a fridge.

“Thanks for treating me to my first American campus lunch,” I say.

“Oh this isn’t American, this is very much the UAE: wholly inauthentic and staffed by cheap immigrants,” he sighs. "I hate this country."

We find an empty table by the window in the corner. We talk, about nothing all that consequential. He tells me he watched anime until one or two in the morning. He’s also started watching Dear White People on Netflix, which he’s loving too.

He lifts a leg, folding it so that his foot rests on the bench. The basketball shorts he’s wearing ride up slightly. He grins.

“You’re giving me at least a semi,I tell him.

I notice two effeminate guys who sit down at the table next to us.

“Seems like this is the gay corner,” I say.

“Every corner is the gay corner here,” he replies.It’s a liberal arts campus.”

Afterward, in the elevator, he presses me up against the mirror, kissing me. As the doors open, I walk out onto his floor, my head rushing.

He checks and finds that his roommate is home. He clenches his hands, sighs, turns around. He breathes in deeply, steeling himself, says, “Whatever.”

I follow him in, saying hi to the roommate.

“Guess I better pack quick,” he says, chucking a few things into a Tog bag. He disappears to the bathroom, returning with a black swimsuit, stops and leans forward to kiss me. We are less leisurely this time — clothes come off quickly.

Afterward, he walks me all the way down to the taxi queue.

“How can I kiss you goodbye without the driver seeing?” I ask.

“Like this,” he says grinning and tilts me slightly, though I'm sure we’re still in full view of the driver when he kisses me. I kiss him back anyway.

As the cab pulls away from the curb I try to assess the ethnicity of the driver. He might be from the Middle East. Hopefully, he’s not Muslim. I can see it now: him driving me straight to the police station after what he’d seen.

“Do you often drive NYU students?” I ask, thinking perhaps if he thinks I’m a student he won’t do anything. They must be kind of off-limits. We drive to where I wanted him to take me: Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat island’s contemporary and cultural arts center. There’s an exhibition featuring pieces from the not-yet-opened Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s collection — they’re mostly about movement and performance; most are lame — I’m too much of a philistine to appreciate them.

What matters is that it holds me, soothes me. I am safe. Somehow I can’t see the police storming in here.

I go into the final exhibit: Ravel Ravel Unravel, spending about half an hour watching the three videos that form the piece. One is DJ Chloe mixing, the second is a hand playing piano, the third is mixing again, but you can only see hands — the rest of the person is obscured. The sounds come from different speakers around me — it’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D” by Maurice Ravel, warped and distorted but thick and full. I don’t care what it means, or what the artist, Anri Sala, is trying to say. What matters is that it holds me, soothes me. I am safe. Somehow I can’t see the police storming in here.

I can’t stop thinking now about the two little pimples on my upper thigh I noticed earlier, though — they’re itchy again, I can feel them against the fabric of my pants. What if they’re herpetic? What if I’ve given Abdul herpes? He’s had sex with enough guys to make it a distinct possibility that he has genital herpes already; it doesn’t bother me if he does — frankly, I couldn’t care less. I’m far more worried about passing it on to him if I were to have it.

But this isn’t really about an itchy spot, is it? It’s really about having just said goodbye. It’s really about having enjoyed hanging out with him, about his smile and his taste, his jokes and his vulnerability, about knowing I might never see him again — that’s really what’s unsettled me, hasn’t it? But I can’t put that into words — or at least I couldn’t that afternoon. There are only the videos, the piano, and orchestra crashing comfortingly through the speakers.

This time I message first. I thank Abdul for lunch, which he paid for, courtesy of his meal plan. “My only regret is that it wasn’t longer. Have a rad time in DXB! Miss you already, dude x”

He replies that evening, apologizes for it having been so rushed, but says he’s really glad he’s met me.

I reply when Debbie and I are driving the next morning to Dubai. “Really glad we met too :) I hope it won’t be too long before our paths cross again (and not just because I’m hooked on that Arabian bubble butt of yours — you’re enchanting company with your clothes on too).”

It’s best to reserve that for people he knows well, and for people he might end up having sex with — and right now I don’t fit into either category.

Abdul doesn’t reply. Not on Friday, not on Saturday. He accepted my Facebook friend request, so there’s that at least. Did he do so begrudgingly? Has he lost interest, is he too busy chatting to the next person he’s hoping to hook up with? He has enough friends already. It makes sense he wouldn’t want to waste energy on chatting to me now. It’s best to reserve that for people he knows well, and for people he might end up having sex with — and right now I don’t fit into either category. He says he might visit South Africa in August if he gets the leave from his summer research assistantship, so maybe he’ll make contact again if a trip really does materialize — but until then he probably doesn’t see any point.

Alexander, you nostalgic, sentimental, romantic fuck.

I try not to think about it — Debbie and I watch Mary Poppins at the Opera House. On Saturday we visit the galleries in Alserkal Avenue, walk through the alleys of Alfahidi and visit the grand mosque. It’s hard to ignore though — the silence grows heavier until it becomes an ache. I miss him. Have I been ghosted? I don’t want a lot — just a reply; anything that can echo, even faintly, the magic of Tuesday night, the headiness of Thursday afternoon.

Debbie drives back to Abu Dhabi on Saturday afternoon and I find myself alone in the hotel room. I shine the bedside lamp at my leg, scrutinizing the two little red dots that look identical to the ones I had on my thigh a few months ago. Back then, I sent a picture to Bear, who reckoned they definitely weren’t herpes. Still, I’m having trouble believing this. This is my OCD, I know, but despite knowing that I can’t escape it — I can’t escape the overwhelming sense that I’m condemned and contagious, that I can’t have love, that I won’t have love, that it’s too late.

I’m not completely unaware of how ridiculous this is. I remind myself that my OCD is flaring up because I’ve just said goodbye to someone I felt a connection with. It’s flaring up because I’m flying halfway across the world tomorrow. But the OCD’s intensity is also, I’m finally starting to realize, fueled by the surreal, scary fact that the exquisite intimacy that Abdul and I shared could’ve gotten us both arrested and thrown in jail had we been caught.

Alone in the taxi on the way to the airport the next morning, I start listening to “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D” with my earphones. I check WhatsApp. There are two blue ticks instead of the grey ones. I can no longer pretend otherwise: Abdul has definitely, undoubtedly opened my message; he has read it; he has decided to not respond.

After going through immigration, I wander through the duty-free shop feeling a little giddy, like I’ve just come up for air after being underwater too long. Although I’m extremely sad to be leaving Abdul behind, I also feel an overwhelming relief to be leaving a country which considers me to be a criminal.

Two days later, in Bali, the UAE is starting to feel very far away. I’ve completely given up hope of ever hearing from Abdul again and trying to make peace with that — there’s really nothing else I can do. Coming in from a surf, I check my phone. He’s messaged me:

“You’re too damn sweet. I hope we meet in the not-so-distant-future as well.”

I put the phone down. He thinks I’m sweet! Trickling into the crack of emptiness that’s been there ever since we said goodbye (and perhaps well before that) is something. It’s not hope, not even resolution, but it’s something nonetheless. The message, the stated possibility that he’d like to see me again, has left me smiling. Yes. Even though it might not happen (in fact it probably won’t), I’m still smiling; I’m feeling okay; I’m feeling sated — for now, at least.

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