Leap of faith
Setting: Dubai International Airport. State of being: jetlagged and frenzied.
I cursed my stone age travel phone for about the 1,000th time, trying to connect to the internet. Every time, an error message popped up. I cursed the Dubai airport for the 1,000th time, as well. I was in glitzy Dubai. Shouldn’t I at least be able to connect to the airport Wifi?
I had just spent a nerve-wracking half hour or so arguing with Dubai airport officials regarding my Diva Cup, a decidedly controversial object in the United Arab Emirates. And now, I was supposed to meet up with Mo*, a couchsurfer with whom I had been in contact as of a few days ago. But the internet wasn’t working, and my heart was beating faster by the minute. I just needed to get one message out on WhatsApp. Just one. To tell him that yes, I had arrived in Dubai, and I was sitting in a Costa coffee shop in the airport, waiting for him.
But let’s rewind a bit. Who the heck is Mo?
Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure. My heart wasn’t just beating fast due to the shoddy internet connection.
My layover in Dubai was scheduled to be eight hours long. When you’re desperate to travel and soak up any minute in a country that you can, an eight hour layover can be a blessing. A few days before boarding my plane, I had cast out a message on the Dubai couchsurfing board, explaining my situation. I would be there on a Friday morning, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. What could one see during this brief window? Of course, the fact that I was there on a Friday morning complicated things. Friday is a holy day for practitioners of Islam, meaning that the metro shuts down, as do a number of the establishments around the city. And here I was, about to waltz into the city, determined to see what I could of Dubai.
But Mo responded to my message. He offered to meet me in the airport, drive me around Dubai, and take me out to lunch. When I read his message, from the safety and comfort of my home in Baltimore, it was with equal parts apprehension and excitement. I mean, this had to be crazy, right? He was a man, who knew that I was a woman traveling by herself… and I was going to get a the car with him to be driven around a foreign city?
I read his reviews on the couchsurfing website, from other travelers who had met him and vouched for him. Everyone had had a positive experience with this guy. He didn’t have a picture of himself on his profile, an omission that amplified my nerves a slight bit. I bit my lip, concerned, and then hit the “reply” button.
“Okay,” I began to type…
For the next few days, I mulled over the possibility of meeting him. After my layover I would be heading on to Bahrain for work, and would need to arrive there in one piece. I didn’t want to think about all of the “what ifs”, but they of course crossed my mind. I also thought about the promise of a meet-up such as this, and how cool it could be to get a guided tour of Dubai by a local, and what I could potentially learn from the experience. Eventually, my curiosity won out. However, I decided that I would sit down with him in the airport before making any final decisions. If I felt comfortable after looking him in the eyes and having a face to face conversation, then I would consider the possibility of getting in the car with a stranger to be driven around Dubai.
Which leads me back to the Dubai airport. I had just passed through exit security, and there I was. Waiting, pacing back and forth, trying to relax but hyper alert, about to meet Mo. If only my damn internet would work.
Finally, a connection! I immediately opened WhatsApp and let him know where I was. I’m the girl with the short hair, I told him. In Dubai I stuck out like a sore thumb. Even in the international airport, the number of men and women dressed respectively in thobes and abayas was striking. I surveyed the passing men, Emirati and not. Which one of these guys could be Mo?
Finally, a man wearing the typical white cotton thobe of the Emirati nationals made his way over to the coffee shop. He glanced at me and I glanced at him, and we shared that questioning look of, “Are you that person who I’ve been communicating with via the internet?” I stood up. “Mo?”
He nodded, asked, “Alissa?” and reached out to shake my hand. He had dark skin and dark hair, and a serious expression that seemed even more serious against his traditional white clothing. I don’t know why I was expecting someone in jeans and a T-shirt, but I immediately berated myself for the silent assumption. He sat down across from me.
And then we started to talk. The typical getting-to-know-you conversation of who are you, what’s your deal, etc. I explained that I was going to Bahrain for work and then Jordan for play, and that all of my connecting flights were in Dubai. Mo told me that he was from Dubai and had lived there most of his life, but that he had also lived briefly in the United States. There were aspects of his experience living in the United States that he enjoyed, but he preferred life in Dubai. He asked me some clarifying questions. “Even when I was living in the States, I never understood why you Americans…” At a few points I got him to laugh, and it felt like a huge accomplishment to see such a warm smile break out on that generally very serious face. I was still nervous, but I felt better. Maybe possibly ready to take that leap of faith.
Finally, he turned to me and asked me what I wanted to do. “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable,” he said. I shook my head, though my heart was pounding just a little bit. “I’d like to go out and see Dubai,” I told him. And that was that. We stood up, I gathered my things, and we made our way to his car.
Riding through Dubai
We got in the car and Mo drove us out of the airport. As we headed out, Mo attempted to teach me how to pronounce ‘Bahrain.’
“Bahrain,” he said again and again, expelling air during that first ‘ah’ sound. I tried to repeat the sound, searching for a way to make my throat imitate Mo’s pronunciation. Needless to say, it was not going too well. I would learn later that it was the letter ‘ح’ that was giving me so much trouble, a sound that doesn’t exist in English or in Spanish.
“Anything else you want to know how to say in Arabic?” Mo asked. We were cruising down Sheikh Zayed Road, in the direction of downtown Dubai.
I thought for a moment. “How do you say, ‘I don’t speak Arabic’?”
“.أنا لا أتكلم العربية”
Meanwhile, Mo drove me around Dubai. He showed me the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. Evidently Dubai is a city of extremes. We drove out onto the Palm Jumeirah, a human-made archipelago, and saw the luxurious Atlantis Hotel. We drove along the beach and stepped out near the Burj Al Arab, where I watched, fascinated, at the contrast of European women jogging along the boardwalk in spandex shorts and tank tops while, mere feet away, Emirati women walked around covered head to toe in black abayas and hijabs.
In the car, Mo and I talked about everything. He told me about the history of his country and his city, and the politics in the region. He expressed how rapidly the city is changing, and how few Emirati nationals actually live here. Dubai is a city heavily populated by foreigners, especially of Asian and European descent. Even in the brief glance that I was given at Dubai, it was apparent how striking the contrast was between the local culture and the foreign influence.
We talked about couchsurfing as well, as couchsurfers tend to do. Mo told me that he would never host a couchsurfer in his home. Unlike Americans, he explained to me, it is very common for Emirati people to live at home with their families until marriage. Being unmarried himself, this was exactly Mo’s situation.
“But you feel comfortable having couchsurfers in your car?” I asked, surprised.
“Sure,” he responded. “What do I have to feel uncomfortable about? I’m not afraid of you,” he said matter-of-factly, “You are afraid of me.”
His words rang through the car. It was my instinct to be defensive, to deny, to prove myself to be fearless. But he was right.
“Do you know where you are right now?” he asked. Dubai. Somewhere in Dubai. In the car of a man who I had met two hours ago.
It wasn’t meant to be threatening. It wasn’t said with malice or with implications. But it was a reminder that I had taken a risk, and that I was the one primarily at risk in the situation, a woman alone in a foreign country with my life in the hands of a stranger.
I never once felt fear towards Mo as a result of his words or actions. On the contrary, he showed me nothing but kindness and respect, and the whole time that we were together there was never even a hint of a boundary being crossed. However, in spite of that, and in spite of genuinely enjoying my time with him, while I was with him I was never truly able to relax. This was not because of Mo in particular, but rather the situation of me, a woman, placing trust in any unknown (or known) man to not cause me harm.
Sexual assault and violence against women are incredibly common. In mentally preparing myself to meet Mo, and while I was with him throughout the day, I had two recurring thoughts: 1) I could get sexually assaulted. And 2) And if I do get sexually assaulted, I will certainly get blamed for it. (To be clear, sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, but the narrative that we are taught looks for ways to blame the victim – “what were they wearing?”, “how much did they have to drink?” – as opposed to blaming the assault on the perpetrator of the assault.) It’s grim and unfortunate to have that in the back of my mind while having a very pleasant and eye-opening cultural experience, but ignoring those thoughts would be painting a false portrait of my feeling of safety during that day. I believe that many women in similar situations would have similar thoughts, and it’s my (and our) reality due to the very real threat of violence against our bodies.
Perhaps someone reading this is shaking their head and thinking, “Well, if you feel this way, then why did you decide to do it in the first place?” This is a common but misguided thought. Sure, I could have stayed in the safety of the airport, but I wanted to have the opportunity to have a cultural experience in Dubai, as I think any traveler would, regardless of gender. I know that I do not have the same freedom of movement as a male traveler (or as a man, in general), but my desire to participate in cultural exchange means that I will take some calculated risks, understanding the unique risks that I face as a woman. But let’s talk about the crux of the matter. The answer to preventing violence against women does not lie in all women staying at home/not traveling/not traveling alone/only traveling in designated “safe spaces”… because the world is simply not safe for women, neither at home, nor out in the world. (Case in point: intimate partner violence is real and there are plenty of women who are not safe in their homes.) In my case this day, I could have stayed in the safety of the airport, but something just as well could have happened to me there. So instead of talking about the many ways in which women can and do restrict their movement, the conversation needs to discuss changing a culture of violence against women. This, I firmly believe, is dependent on men (the primary perpetrators of violence against women) holding themselves and other men accountable for how their everyday actions may contribute to a world that is not safe for women.
Where to begin? See this article: “What Men Can Do To Stop Violence Against Women“. See also this article about male entitlement, and my Unlearning page which is full of great resources on the subject.
As for Mo and I, the moment passed. We continued cruising along the highway, somewhere in Dubai.
Handfuls of rice
“Are you hungry?” Mo asked. “What would you like to eat?”
Whatever is typical cuisine in the UAE, I responded. It was going to be a bit of a challenge, finding an Emirati restaurant open on a Friday, but Mo had a place in mind.
“You’re going to have to eat with your hands, though,” Mo said.
We pulled up to a restaurant and climbed out of the car. The majority of the tables in the front of the restaurant were empty.
Mo spoke with one of the restaurant employees in an exchange of rapid Arabic, and then we were directed past all of the empty tables, down a short hallway in the back of the restaurant, to a carpeted nook off of the hallway that was about the size of a large closet. There were pillows on the floor and everything was colorful, decorated in hues of pink and red and orange. Mo directed me to take off my shoes, and we stepped into the little room and sat down on the floor. “Can you tell that we like our privacy?” Mo asked.
We ordered dishes of chicken and rice, and I was instructed to go wash my hands. I followed Mo down a hallway to a sink. He washed his hands and once he was finished I went to do the same, but he made a face and pointed to the women’s bathroom around the corner. “You’re supposed to use that one.”
“Oh!” I went over to the women’s room, mulling over the possibility of me accidentally using the “men’s sink.” I’m privileged in that it’s not an issue for me to go find the the women’s bathroom, but for a gender non-conforming individual, travel in the UAE could be infinitely more complex, and even dangerous. For more information on LGBTQIA+ rights in the UAE, see this page.
Back in our little room, a server came by and laid out a plastic sheet, and placed dips and bread in front of us. “We don’t eat with our left hand,” Mo explained.
“Why not?” I asked.
Mo smirked, and explained to me that the left hand was considered the “bathroom hand.” I promptly withdrew my left hand from the vicinity of the food.
Eventually, the restaurant staff brought out the main course, big plates of chicken and rice. “You need to cup your hand like this,” Mo told me, demonstrating, “And you can use your thumb to push the rice onto your fingers.”
I watched him deftly eat a handful of rice, and I attempted to mimic his hand hold. Of course, when I attempted it, more rice spilled back onto my plate than I actually got into my mouth. A work in progress. I tried not to make too much of a mess as I ate the very savory meal. We ate together in companionable silence, and he was decidedly less messy than I was but didn’t comment on what were probably my bad manners. Finally, full and (at least on my end) sleepy, Mo and I finished our meals.
“That was great,” I told him. Mo grinned.
And then it was time to go. We paid and headed back to the car, and Mo drove us back to the airport.
Outside of the departures drop-off area, Mo and I both got out of the car. It was hard for me to express to him how thankful I was for everything that he had done for me that day. I was so touched that a complete stranger would go to such lengths for me. It was so generous and selfless. I had learned a tremendous amount from Mo that day, both about his world and his culture, but also about the potential of human beings to be so kind and giving. I thanked him profusely, and let him know that if he ever were to make it back to the United States, I would be more than happy to return the favor.
And we said goodbye. I made my way back into the airport, my heart very full. Travel introduces you to all sorts of people from all walks of life. It’s amazing how even a few hours with someone who you meet while traveling can open your eyes to so much. I will be forever grateful for this day.
Thank you thank you.
*Not his real name.