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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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. Follow Bert Archer on Twitter. Sign up for the best of VICE, delivered to your inbox daily.
Despite the pall of death, I logged in, and within about a minute, I started hearing those familiar little moist-sounding electronic pops. Doha Airport. Photo by the author. Newsletters are the new newsletters. More VICE.
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