When people hear me say, “I miss the Middle East,” they react with deep-seated confusion and concern. The last time I printed a transatlantic flight ticket with Arabic inscription was this January for a winter trip to Amman, Jordan. It was my fourth time back to the Hashemite Kingdom and my first as a transgender man. Despite my new social identity, the 11-hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Queen Alia International Airport was one of relief — a break from Yale’s often suffocating neo-Gothic culture. Arriving in Jordan immediately entailed a paradigm shift from a neurotic college student to a global citizen situated in the context of conflict, allyship and cultural repression. Gone were the moments spent worrying about dining hall hours or 7 p.m. section.
My sisters and I were fortunate to grow up in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Russia and Jordan. From Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we camped in the Sahara, from Islamabad, Pakistan, we vacationed in the mountains of Waziristan, from New Delhi, India, we threw ourselves around the Taj Mahal, and from Moscow, Russia, we toured Orthodox monasteries. The concept of “home” never really bothered me until I reached senior year of college, when a grueling physical and social transition from female to male left me pining for a household outside of New Haven.
During my last trip to Jordan, I savored the drive from Airport Road to Abdoun, where Westerners and wealthy Iraqi immigrants live in elaborate stucco houses. On the way to Amman proper, vendors and chipped minarets line the streets as men done with the workday smoke argileh, or hookah, from storefront pipes and schoolchildren play soccer. The American embassy, protected by a legion of tanks and security personnel, sits in the middle of Abdoun as a political fortress. Beyond its gated walls, however, lies a hybrid community of marine officers and midlevel diplomats working in a region they want to better understand.
The Middle East is indeed hard to understand: Israel violently subjugates Palestinian territory while propagating a form of political secularism that bashes Iranian authoritarianism. Iran finds a foe in Saudi Arabia, which bombs the Persian country’s Houthi allies in economically starved Yemen. The United States pays for missiles directed at Yemen and finds a close petro-friendship in Saudi Arabia — a kingdom that punishes homosexuality by death. Meanwhile, Gulf States such as Qatar and the UAE bask in historically high gross domestic products that nourish constant skyscraper projects and citizen opulence. Countries such as Jordan, however, do not enjoy the luxury of sunbathing in oil dollars, as they need to confront Islamic state forces raging in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that yield a cataclysmic refugee crisis.
From the standpoint of a foreigner, the Middle East’s political landscape is as complicated as its cultural one. Many Middle Eastern communities — such as the Bedouins in Jordan — wear hospitality on their right hand sleeve, as if it’s a God-given obligation to invite every passersby for a cup of Turkish coffee or mint tea. Yet trust — hospitality’s ultimate offshoot — is incredibly difficult to come by. Moreover, Middle Eastern culture denigrates liberal sexuality in any form, yet accepts homoerotic social gestures such as cheek-kisses and handholding among men.
In spite of this complexity, I’ve found solace in how the Middle East treats family. In America, “family” is an institution in constant flux and reinterpretation. Fortunately, this means that gay couples can adopt and women can receive abortions. Unfortunately, this means that “family” is an instrument of politics — another trite concept that both the Left and the Right can paint to suit their own party needs. In the Middle East, however, family is a sacred principle of quotidian existence, and to use it as a propagandist tool is nothing short of heresy. I have yet to experience another culture treat family with such utter seriousness as I have in the Middle East, and for that I am thankful.
As a transgender man, I have been semi-scarred from navigating the Middle East’s transphobia. I have instead tried to obsess over the French language or passionately scrutinize Scandinavian health care systems or fall in love with northeastern farming. Yet these affections only felt superficial and ill-serving. My affinity for the Middle East stems from an instinctive clutch to family and an intellectual curiosity that pursues beauty in multilayered geopolitical nuance.
When senior year started, I bought a fake Ottoman carpet from IKEA, hung a red keffiyeh next to my bed and nailed shirts from Jerusalem and Petra, Jordan, to a wall. I stuck magazine pictures of a teal minaret in tribal territory above my desk. Tomorrow I will buy a cable chord from Target so I can stream Al Jazeera as I labor over final papers.
Home can be strange, and it’s not always conventional. But it’s there to stay in reinforcing singularity.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .