I’ve officially been to Dubai three times, all on layovers. The longest block of time that I have spent in Dubai is eight hours. And you may already be rolling your eyes, scoffing, thinking, “Alissa, there’s no way that you can possibly know Dubai after eight hours.” A sentiment that I wholly agree with! But, I do believe that eight hours is a sufficient amount of time to have had genuinely rich cultural experiences in the city. Because of that, I include Dubai as a place that I have visited, and a place to which, of course, I would like to return.
Some context: In January of 2015, my (then) company sent me to Bahrain for two weeks for work. They allowed me to extend my trip, so I decided that afterwards I would take a week-long vacation in Jordan. All of my layovers would occur in Dubai.
Some additional context: At the time, I was four months and change into my first “real job” out of college. I had very little vacation time, all of which I would be using in Jordan. If my company hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go and work in Bahrain for two weeks (to which I enthusiastically replied, “Um, YES!!!” before I even knew where the country was on the map), I would have assumed that international travel would have been impossible for me, at least during that first year of work. So, because I knew that in my (then) present situation, my opportunities for international travel beyond this work trip would be few and far in between, I was determined to make every second of this trip count.
Which brings me back to my layover. I was going to land in Dubai at 8:00 a.m., and my flight to Manama, Bahrain wasn’t until 4:00 p.m. There was no way that I was going to sit cooped up in the airport that whole time. So, after getting up at 4:00 a.m. to drive the hour and a half from Baltimore to Virginia, to wait for the flight, to sit through the (12 hour) flight, I finally land in Dubai.
Okay. Here we go.
Getting intimate in exit security
I had arranged to meet up with a couchsurfer in the Dubai airport, so I just had to go through customs and then the day would be mine. I was a little bleary-eyed from the long flight and the long day, but the excitement of getting out and about was keeping me going. The Dubai airport has a type of “exit security”, meaning that you have to pass your bag through another metal detector before leaving the secure part of the airport.
I approached the exit security area and chose a lane operated by two women. I had my purse and a duffle bag with me, and dropped them both on the conveyor belt before passing through the metal detector. When I was about to grab my stuff and head onwards, the women stopped me. In broken English, they explained to me that they needed to search my bags.
I waited patiently while they went through my stuff. My duffle bag posed less of a problem, however, than my purse. They searched every nook and cranny of my purse. They took out my medicine bag, popped open the travel-sized Advil case, and looked at every single pill. They gave made a raised-eyebrow, “Really, Alissa?” look upon discovering a small stress ball in my purse. But, the real cause for examination came when they found the small purple pouch that contained my Diva Cup.
Diva Cup 101: A Diva Cup (or any menstrual cup, I just happen to use the Diva Cup brand) is one of the most useful travel items I can recommend to those of us who menstruate. It’s a small cup, made from medical-grade silicone so it doesn’t contain any bleaches, dyes, or other creepy unknown chemicals, that you insert into your vagina during your period. And that’s it. It sits there, you don’t notice it, and the cup just catches the blood. After twelve hours, you take it out, dump the blood, wash it, and repeat.
Menstrual cups are products that can last for years, making them a great option for those of us who want to menstruate sustainably (unlike pads and tampons, a menstrual cup creates zero waste beyond the initial packaging waste). It’s also incredibly cost-effective. The initial cost of a menstrual cup is about 30 dollars. I have read that the average menstruating body spends approximately 2,000 dollars in their lifetime on menstrual products. That’s a lot of money. Personally, I’d rather add those 2,000 bucks to my travel fund, as opposed to supporting menstrual product companies by buying pads and tampons, especially given that menstruation is one of the ways that women are taught to be ashamed of their bodies. Especially given that women are primarily taught this body-shame from the very companies trying to make a profit off of our bodies. No thank you.
So when I see one of the Emirati airport officials pull my Diva Cup pouch out of my purse and go to open the little pink drawstring, I couldn’t help myself when I said, “Please don’t touch that.” It was a gut reaction, I swear. Needless to say, they ignored me, and pulled the innocent little cup out of the pouch.
I could feel myself turning red, watching these two women scrutinize my Diva Cup. I try not to get embarrassed about this kind of thing, but it’s a fairly intimate object that goes in a fairly intimate part of me. Part of my embarrassment also stemmed from the slight disgust of having someone else touch my Diva Cup. I mean, come on, do they not know where this thing goes?
One of the women asks me what it is. I balk. Um…
“It’s a feminine product,” I explain. “For menstruation. Periods. It’s an alternative to pads and tampons.” The whole time, these women are giving me blank stares. The extent of my Arabic at the time consisted of “marhaba.” I was screwed. I kept trying. “You use it to catch the blood. You know, period. Blood. Um…”
It wasn’t working. They didn’t understand me, and I had no better way to communicate with them. Finally, one of the women asks me, “Sexy toy?”
I could feel the culmination of about 24 hours worth of stress and frustration, all in a split second. The patient traveler in me resigned, tired from the day and the flight and this conversation that was not going well at all. So I just sighed and said, “Fine. It’s a sexy toy.” At least that they would understand, right?
Because, the woman explains sternly to me, this is not allowed in her country. She tells me that they are going to need to confiscate my Diva Cup. Then she asks for my passport.
Panic sets in. “But, wait! It’s not a sexy toy! Please don’t confiscate that. It’s not a sexy toy.”
I was digging my own grave. “Please come with me,” the woman tells me, and I follow them, butterflies in my stomach. Bad enough that I’m about to lose my Diva Cup, but there’s something utterly terrifying about being a traveler in a foreign country and seeing your passport be taken away from you. We walk over to another conveyor belt to meet two male Emirati airport officials. The woman proceeds to hand my passport and Diva Cup to one of the male officers. The four of them scrutinize it, speak in Arabic, survey my beet-red face while I stand there, shell-shocked, panicked, and thoroughly embarrassed.
The women leave and it’s just me and the male officers. They look at me like I’ve got three heads. I turn to one of them and speak as calmly as I can muster.
“Please,” I said to him. “It’s not a sex toy. It’s a menstrual product. I need it. Please, please don’t confiscate it.”
I’m trembling. And thankfully, the officer takes pity on me. “It’s okay, we’re not going to confiscate it.” Maybe he just wanted me to stop talking about menstruation. Arabic is spoken, I’m made to wait around for a couple of minutes, and finally I’m handed a little doggy bag with my passport and my Diva Cup. I stammer out a “thank you”, and clutch the bag to my chest as I get the hell away from those airport officials.
Sleepy reflections over coffee
I located a coffee shop in the main part of the airport and sat down to write and think. At the end of the day, this experience was funnier than it was traumatic, and I have to acknowledge that I am privileged to generally be able navigate through airport security without incident. My bags are rarely searched; I’ve never been pulled aside because I “look suspicious.”
This experience was eye-opening for a number of reasons. At the time, I was most impressed by the window that I was given into Emirati culture. I marveled at my ability to commit a cultural transgression in this country within an hour of the plane landing. I marveled at the idea that I was in a space where I could have had a sex toy confiscated (had I actually had one, of course), and what that could say about the sexual expression in a country like the United Arab Emirates. I marveled about being so far out of my element, and about the realization that I really knew nothing about the Middle East, its people, and the diversity of its cultures at all. The subsequent three weeks that I would spend exploring a few parts of the region wouldn’t be enough, but the experience would be incredibly rich, eye-opening, and educational.
I proceeded to have a wonderful layover, followed by a great two weeks in Bahrain and a great week in Jordan. I passed through the Dubai airport two more times after that, and passed through security in both Manama and Amman as well. And I never had another issue getting my Diva Cup through security.
And the journey continues! Dubai, Part 2: Riding In Cars With Strangers