So the World Cup in Qatar is underway. Despite football fans being told, shakily, that “everyone is welcome” at FIFA’s international cash cow in the minuscule Middle Eastern country, the fact remains it is illegal to be gay, and abuses and arrests of the Qatari LGBTQ+ community have been reported as recently as October 2022. This is my side of the story, based on one or two first-hand experiences
When I emigrated from Britain for a second time in January 2014, my first port of call — an extended stop-over in on my way to a new life in Australia — was Qatar.
STA Travel in Ealing had actually booked to have the briefest of transfers at Muscat airport in Oman, but just days later I mentioned my plans to a South African acquaintance I’d met once or twice in London called Frikkie van Zyl, and he mentioned how he was due to start a new job with Qatar Airways and why don’t I join him there in the capital Doha for a few days instead?
Until that very trip I’d only visited two Middle Eastern countries and both times it was to accompany someone else on their big idea: I joined my mother for a week in Luxor, Egypt in 1997 and then in 2005 three long humid weeks in Dubai as guest of my then partner Jamie, who’d already booked the whole trip for his 30th birthday before we met.
As you can imagine, my week with Mum was a completely celibate affair. I was far too apprehensive about being in a country with zero tolerance of gays, though that didn’t stop me being hit on twice by shopkeepers. “You come back later on your own?”, one of them whispered to me nervously. I denied I batted for the team and was as nervous as he looked. Anyway, I was more than a little peeved I assumed I was gay when I was trying to do everything as possible not to stand out. Pah, takes one to know one, eh?
In Dubai, I did actually voice my concerns with Jamie before I agreed to go, and told him I was uneasy about the lack of civil rights, official state sponsored homophobia etc.
“Oh, I just go for the luxury” was his typically shallow reply. This boy could make a puddle look deep, the chubby little loser.
We arrived at our first accommodation, the absolutely stunning Al Maha Desert Resort, and as we waited to check in, got talking with a middle-aged English woman who was the absolute spitting image of Carol Thatcher, the Iron Lady’s daughter. In fact, I’m still not sure it wasn’t actually her.
Jamie and I were in the matching cream linen suits we’d worn at his birthday party at the Sanderson hotel in London’s West End. The lady took one look at us and exclaimed
“You two look like you’ve just got married.”
I squirmed and looked around sheepishly, praying none of the natives heard her.
See, it doesn’t do to be obviously gay in much of the Middle East, and very little has changed in the decades that have followed.
Come twenty-fourteen and I was still as apprehensive as ever when I landed in Doha. Qatar operates a form of Sharia Law and homosexuality can be punishable by stoning or seven years in jail.
Until Qatar Airways had found Frikkie an apartment to lease, they were putting him up in the Holiday Villa Hotel & Residence, an upmarket monolith opposite Muntazah Park, and conveniently only 15 minutes from Hamad International Airport. The colourful Souq Waqif market, and long and winding Corniche promenade were a short cab ride to boot.
Tellingly, Frikkie had warned me of one thing before I arrived, late on a warm Wednesday night: absolutely no typical western huggy, kissy greeting in public. True to his word, he proffered his hand in the most self-consciously formal way possible.
“I always get the feeling I’m being watched here,” he told me when we got up to his twin room. He’d even changed his Facebook name so his new employers couldn’t find a damning record of his ‘decadent’ gay past in Blighty.
The next morning, Frikkie gave me one useful tip before he left for work.
“Be careful if you switch Grindr on. The secret police monitor it, so it might be best if you remove your profile photo and anything that identifies you.”
After breakfast, gym and a dose of sunbathing by the pool I logged in, despite the pall of death, and within about a minute, I started hearing those familiar little moist-sounding electronic pops. My heart was pounding heavier than a Sumo wrestler topping Karen Carpenter.
To be continued….