Thirteen hours. Just 13 hours to convince myself I wasn’t flying into a trap. Somewhere in the sky between Miami and Doha, Qatar, I had to reconcile the promotional visions of Middle Eastern idyll—museums shaped like white desert flowers, futuristic skylines—flashing on my Qsuite screen with the reality I would face as a Latino cisgender gay man when I landed.
The Middle East has always been on my travel list: Its ancient culture and strong ties to Roman history evoked a sense of wonder and made me want to be an adventurer. Traveling to these countries meant respecting their customs and culture, but how would I balance that with my queer moral compass?
Not all countries in the Middle East and North Africa hold the same position on LGBTQ+ rights: In Saudi Arabia, same-sex activity is punishable by death; in Lebanon, the right to change your legal gender has been allowed since 2016. At least 67 countries worldwide prohibit same-sex relations between consenting adults, according to Human Rights Watch, and at least nine countries have laws criminalizing forms of gender expression. Qatar punishes travelers who engage in same-sex activity with jail time—up to seven years. Yet the country, the region, and the relatively unknown (to me) LGBTQ+ community still drew me in.
In a little over a year, I would visit three Muslim-majority countries, Qatar being my first by coincidence. As I did my usual pretrip prep, I wondered: Would I have to hide my identity? (I had learned this skill during my upbringing—no one in my Catholic Puerto Rican family knew or cared about LGBTQ+ issues.) Would I feel safe? Could I truly experience a new culture with this fear in the back of my mind?
The short answer: yes, yes, and yes.
Once the long flight was over, I checked into my hotel room at the St. Regis Doha. Settling in, I found the space comparable to Western hotels. The restroom’s faucet was in the same place. Toilets still flushed, even in the same direction. The light switches went up and down, just like everywhere else. All kidding aside, this level of sameness and normalcy immediately made me feel safer, reassured. Courage up, I went out to explore, first to the Msheireb Downtown area, which felt like any other modern outdoor mall in the United States.
Walking in a haze because of the jet lag and the desert heat, I made my way to what I had seen multiple times on the plane: the National Museum of Qatar. The current iteration (open in 2019) was designed by architect Jean Nouvel to resemble a desert rose crystal commonly found in Qatar’s deserts. Within the massive structure is a showcase of Qatar’s natural and national history: some 8,000 objects and artifacts that depict Bedouin culture, tribal wars, and economies of state, from pearl diving to gas and oil. It was simultaneously beautiful and overwhelming.
After exploring the museum, which contained the old palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, considered the father of modern Qatar, I returned to the hotel and heard the calls to prayer for the first time. The chants bellowed from a loudspeaker on a tall building next to a mosque; I was mesmerized by words I didn’t understand. Each pause and start immediately enacted a breathing technique I often used to avoid anxiety. With deep breaths during every call, my mind slowed. It was a new sense of calm, foreign but welcome.
Traveling to these countries meant respecting their customs and culture, but how would I balance that with my queer moral compass?
Back at the St. Regis, I sank into my hotel bed, exhausted. Both my physical and mental capacity had diminished, and my habit at this point was to scroll on my phone. I started browsing social media, curious what I would find in this conservative but modern Arab country. With hardly any expectations, my index finger quickly pressed Grindr, the most effortless gay dating application I could find. My eyes widened when I saw a pop-up in Arabic on my screen. Was I being tracked? Was I doing something that could get me in trouble? After a quick translation, I realized the message was a warning, and it shook me. The notice was meant for anyone using the application to be careful of impostors luring suitors for nefarious reasons. That same-sex activity was illegal in Qatar, with a penalty of seven years imprisonment for travelers. I quickly closed the application and shut off my phone.
The entire day traveling through Doha was a beautiful fever dream that ultimately led me to believe someone like me could live there—until I opened the dating app and saw that message. My queer moral compass was broken at this point, and I didn’t know which direction was north.
Looking back, I realize my family rarely made a discriminatory joke but would subtly shake their heads whenever something LGBTQ+ was mentioned on television. This form of subliminal homophobia shaped my identity in more ways than one; I certainly perfected my ability to blend in with the majority. With brown skin and darker features, I didn’t expect to stand out in a crowd in Morocco and hoped I could be myself.
My knowledge of this North African country came from magazine stories much like the one I’m writing now: images of Yves Saint Laurent’s vacation home, or maze-like marketplaces where sellers were more outgoing than I could ever be. Each of the stops in my itinerary—Casablanca, Fès, the High Atlas Mountains, and Marrakesh—showed a different side of Morocco’s diverse landscape and people. It felt welcoming, until it wasn’t. I checked into one of Marrakesh’s most luxurious, historic hotels, and was stopped by security at the entrance when returning from a tour. The guard shouted words vaguely familiar in Arabic, but I didn’t understand. I froze, stuttered, and explained in English that I was a hotel guest. I imagined he was yelling for me to get out. The guard continued screaming at me in Arabic; I could only stare blankly until a guide who had escorted me earlier noticed what was happening and began speaking to the guard in Arabic. After the exchange, the guard apologized in English with a heavy accent. Still not fully understanding what was happening, my guide explained that the guard assumed I was Arabic and attempted to sneak into the hotel. My ability to hide in the majority backfired.
Separately, during a tour of Yves Saint Laurent’s house and gardens, a group of trans travelers sat beneath an olive tree. The cobalt blue walls of the Laurent house somehow made these travelers glow brighter than anyone else in the space. They reclined comfortably, despite the fact that trans people in Morocco had no legal right to change their genders. Their faces were layered with shadows from above the tree, and it made me smile. This lens helped me understand that Yves Saint Laurent (an openly queer man) had left a positive legacy in Marrakesh.
Traveling to Jordan after visiting both Qatar and Morocco, I found my tensions had eased in more ways than one. Since 1951, Jordan has legally allowed same-sex activity. Bahrain, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan are the only Islamic countries with laws allowing same-sex behavior. While the rules differ in each country, Jordan is known as a traveler’s paradise due to destinations like Petra, Amman, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea. On day one of my visit, I took a tour of Downtown Amman with Alaeddin Rahmeh from Underground Amman. As we walked the Jabal Amman neighborhood, murals of famous Arabic performers lined narrow streets. Rahmeh pointed out different artists who contributed to the murals and how many women used their art as a protest. Walking up a shifty staircase with various murals on each side, I spotted an outdoor coffee shop. It reminded me of cool coffee shops in cities like New York. Inside was an orange door with different signs at the end of the hallway. One of the signs said, “Learn Arabic @ Jadal” in English.
The tour ended at Beit Sitti, a family-run restaurant with cooking classes that showcase their local history. Three sisters created the restaurant as an ode to their grandmother, who inspired their love of food. Old photos of family members in frames of varying sizes covered one wall; a heavily antiqued, floral-inspired living room invited us to recline. A dark oval wooden dining table stood in the center, and the memories of being in my grandmother’s house overwhelmed me. Our cooking class took place on the terrace with amazing views of Amman, where we learned to maaloubeh (upside-down chicken and rice) and fattet magdoos, a fried bread topped with eggplant and tomato stew, as comforting as a meal gets.
As I walked off my meal, wandering from small shop to small shop, I heard the same call to prayer I heard in Qatar. The words “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest, Allah is the greatest) and “Hayya’ ala-s-Salah, Hayya’ ala-s-Salah” (Hasten to the prayer, Hasten to the prayer) floated around me in the middle of a busy street. My breathing slowed and my heart dropped a beat. Amman felt more progressive, like it was inviting me to stay, relax, and learn—about their language, their art, and their food.
On day four, I stopped by an interesting Bedouin-run eco-camp in Wadi Feynan. While only there for a night, I joined a group hiking up a hill for the sunset. Each step in the barren desert made me love the country. Each foot forward represented the separation of fear and the acceptance of what different cultures could teach me.
Doing more: Lebanon-based Helem is “the Arab World’s first LGBTQIA+ rights organization.” Established in Beirut in 2001, it offers community, service, and advocacy opportunities.