I was in Doha, the capital of Qatar, with bits of four days to spare and an empty hotel room with the promise of a constant supply of clean sheets and towels, so I figured I'd check out the hook-up sites and apps to see what was up.
I travel a lot, and in addition to talking to bookstore clerks about who the big local writers are, seeing what the latest architecture looks like, and trying out cool new boozes, talking to and having sex with the locals is one of the things I like most about travel.
But maybe Qatar was different. It was the first stridently religious Muslim country I'd ever tried any of the apps or sites in. I'd heard the emirate, still far more traditional than its frantically Westernizing UAE cousins to the south, was slowly liberalizing on the road to its 2022 World Cup. Women with off-the-shoulder dresses were no longer being hissed at in the streets, for instance. But I'd also heard there were plans afoot to somehow identify gays at the border, and gay publications, as well as soon-to-be-ex FIFA chief Sepp Blatter were already warning football fans about maybe not kissing your boyfriend after a big goal.
I'd looked into the laws about such things, as I always do before traveling to a new place. In Qatar, the maximum penalty for same-sex sexual activity (or any extramarital monkey business between anywhere) is death. I could see how that could put a damper on the hook-up scene.
I'm no Ben Carson, but I think there may be a direct neurological link between empty hotel rooms and sex drive. Someone should look into it. Anyway, despite the pall of death, I logged in, and within about a minute, I started hearing those familiar little moist-sounding electronic pops.
You gotta love it. The human sex drive is a mighty and hilarious thing, and these apps and sites are the gateway through which this veritable force of nature is released across the planet.
I should point out that I was not subject to the death penalty. As far as Qatar is concerned, I'm lost anyway, soul-wise. I'd just get put in prison, maybe tortured, I'm guessing raped, and then deported. But if you're Muslim, the law says death, or at least imprisonment and 100 lashes. And these guys popping up on my screen with their endearingly displayed body parts all looked pretty Muslim.
I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that sex trumps death. It's the same penalty for all forms of extramarital sex in Qatar and several other countries. People have fucked through plagues that killed a third of the known world and the more recent one that seemed engineered to specifically kill the world's most enthusiastic fuckers. I once had sex with a guy who told me he climbed into his young wife's hospital bed and they fucked, joyously, memorably, and I'm guessing painfully, just days before she died, and just weeks before we fucked.
Except it is surprising, because this is the non-secular Muslim world, and everything we've been thinking for about the last 14 years points to a monolith, a medieval set of values and choice of punishments, not just among the crazies in the hills of Tora Bora or the ruined ruins of Homs, Aleppo, and Palmyra, but in millennia-old civilizations and enthusiastic economic and military allies of the West.
This is one of the many powers of travel. A place never looks the same on the ground as it does from the height of Google Earth or the arm's length of even a responsible news report. This emirate is as against men with other men's penises in them as they are against calling their Prophet a naughty name. But, look at this glowing screen. Look at those hopeful, horny, possibly brave, mostly young men, erupting out of this tiny desert nation with Goldblumian inevitability. Life will find a way, at least if by life, you mean semen.
I had meetings and lunches and suppers and drinks, but amid those, in the early mornings, late nights, and occasionally stolen hours in between when the thing I was doing happened to be in the lobby of my own hotel, I had some sex, and learned a thing or two about the religious Muslim world in the process.
At first, I thought vaguely that these sites and apps would be a good way to track just these sorts of people, my sorts of people, were the government to want to do that sort of thing. Saudi Arabia, just a few kilometers west, has been accused of doing just that. And the first couple of guys I messaged back—apologies, guys—were asked more questions than I usually ask about where they were and who they were and could they take an incriminating picture posed just like I say so I know it's you and not some be-robed cop using stolen porn to reel in the unwitting unholy.
I didn't always get their names, but with the exception of the one guy in the polo shirt and basketball shorts who didn't have more than two or three words of English (or at least didn't offer more than that to me), I did talk with them. I really like postcoital get-to-know-you talk, with its combination of intimacy, honesty, and stakes-free carelessness that seems to lead to conversations that mostly sound pretty honest instead of fabricated, which would be just as easy.
I want to be careful about the guys' personal details here—all but a couple of these guys were Muslim and most were Qatari and so would be candidates for the chopping block—so I'll make some up to obfuscate.
There was the bodybuilder who lived with his boyfriend, whom he considered his husband, or the guy with the sprung, rabbit-like body, all nervous energy, who got impatient with my leisurely approach to fucking him, and flipped me in what must have been a practiced wrestling move and got most of the way into me—which I'm fine with but dude, roll on a condom—before I kicked him over and restored order. He worked for a big Qatari corporation. Our conversation was much like it has been in other hotel rooms in other cities, talking about home, other trips, other sex. I asked him if it was tough, having sex with guys here with the laws so strict and scary. He laughed a laugh I've grown accustomed to on the road, the oh-you-stupid-callow-foreigner laugh. No, he said, it wasn't tough. There's a quotation inscribed in the entrance hall of Doha's grand Museum of Islamic Art from the 13th-century historian Rawandi: "He should be aware of his enemies, like a chess player who, while observing his own move, also watches over his opponent's." These guys seem to have gotten the hang of it.
Then there was a builder who re-upped his annual contract more than half a dozen times instead of going back to his home country. I went to his apartment, which he shared with one other guy who seemed to be out. I asked him about the working conditions I'd heard about on the news. "It's not good," he told me as he walked around the room toweling the cum off his belly and picking his clothes up off the floor—he wasn't much of a cuddler, this guy—"but it's better than at home."
I asked another quiet, serious guy, about whether there was any way to meet people in Doha offline. He said there was a hotel bar he went to. Qataris aren't officially allowed in hotel bars, but it turns out that if you're not wearing your thobe, you aren't assumed to be Qatari. I went to the bar later to see for myself. It certainly wasn't a gay bar, but there were single, young, brown men who ordered drinks they didn't drink and stood at the bar making the same kind of anxious, hungry, hesitant eye contact I've read about in novels and memoirs that describe the North American scene five and six decades ago.
There are many different sorts of what we might call sexual miasmas in the world. There's the confident cruising of catching someone's eye on a street at a time and in a place where catching someone's eye is playful instead of dangerous, or the pressurized pick-up in a club or at a party where the whole reason to be there is to find someone so not to at least try is basically failure, and there's the desperation of that same club or party as the crowd starts to dwindle and you've got no one on the line. There are more extreme miasmas, like window shopping in a bathhouse, the mash-up of a group thing, or what I assume is the basically RPG approach that takes over in prison.
Doha felt like none of those things. Doha felt distinct. The closest thing I can come up with is what I imagine a lumber or oil town might have been like a few decades ago. It had that kind of avidity, an enthusiasm just this side of desperation, a focus on sex to the exclusion of any consideration of relationship or friendship, but with an abiding interest in at least some shared words to place you, place themselves, pick up a story or two, the talk about pent-up unspeakable things as much an attraction for some as the sex. Most of these guys weren't trapped here by any means—they could fly to Berlin or New York whenever they wanted to—so the restrictions were contingent, fungible.
On my last night in town, I took a walk through the souk. It's new, but looks old, and even has intentionally run-down bits where the spice and fabric shops for the foreign workers are. I'd wandered around for about ten minutes when a tall, broad, beautiful man fell into stride beside me and asked where I was from. I told him, and angled into a gift store. He followed. His English was vestigial—he was from Sri Lanka—but he was persistent, and friendly, and hot, so we talked and we walked, and he offered to show me his favorite spots. He told me about his work, and how he lived in a dorm with five other guys, but that it was OK, because the room was free, and he was making more here than at home. After another five minutes, he grabbed my little finger with his and squeezed. Four or five minutes after that, he led me into an alleyway, grabbed my crotch, and asked if I had a place where I could fuck him. We walked around a little more while I figured out whether this was a good idea. Deciding it totally was, we headed to my hotel. I asked him to wait outside while I made sure it was OK that he came in. A last-minute twinge made me want to check something. So I got to my lobby, hooked up to the wifi, and plugged the words Doha, souk, gay, and police into Google.
The first three results told me that police occasionally pick up foreign workers caught in compromising same-sex situations and, in exchange for not arresting and deporting them, turn them into bait. The rights of foreign workers are not highly developed in Qatar, and this seemed to fall right into line with other stories of passport and wage withholding. I'd noticed my guy texting a few times as we walked, and when I came out of the hotel, he was texting some more. I told him I'd changed my mind, and he left.
So, that was either a close call or a missed opportunity, but whatever the case, the episode—as well as the whole atmosphere of these meet-ups, secret but not secretive, the guys more furtive than frightened—called to mind not the secret police of East Berlin or whoever enforces Iran's codes of conduct, but someone I met a couple of weeks ago in DC. He was in his 60s, and told me about how things were there when he was a teenager. There was a wooded area just outside town where guys would wander and meet at night. And every once in a while, he said, there'd be a big search light that would sweep through the trees once, twice, and then out. He never saw the police come in and make any arrests, though everything the guys were doing was at least three kinds of illegal. The cops just wanted you to know that they knew you were there, and that they'd let you do all those things you were doing as long as you didn't step out of line and force them to do anything about it.
It's not a happy and healthy gay-for-all, but it's not being thrown off tall buildings either, and it's not the way I'd gotten used to thinking about life in the religious Islamic world. The news gives us triumphs and disasters; everyday life, by definition, isn't news. But for what it's worth, everyday life for a man-fucking man in Qatar, citizen and guest-worker alike, seems un-dramatic, un-frightening, operating on pretty much the same principles as it does anywhere else in the world with internet connections and selfies.
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