Article by Jay Dubbs
Photographs by Alaa S
Art directed by Khalid Abdel-Hadi
Digital art-work by Jawad Qumsieh
Hair, nails and Make-up by Sarab’s own.
Making-of video by Ala’a Abu Qasheh
She’s like Jordan’s own Aniston: smart, driven, unique! Stories about her circulate restlessly, like she is the character of which soap opera writers dream Now, it’s all about Sarab, Jordan’s very own pin-up Transgender, or as would say, “SheMale”!
This born romantic opens up about surgery, family, her passions, and more. But what matters far more to Sarab is the personal! Here is a My.Kali exclusive!
We were going to meet with a legend in Amman’s LGBTQ community, Jordan’s very own pin-up Transgender! This was a big deal, and a real privilege to meet Sarab, the name behind a thousand rumors, and a pioneer in the community. When this legend contacted My.Kali for her first ever in-depth interview, we jumped at the chance!
Puffs of cigarette smoke and an air heavy with anticipation lingered above us as we sat with Sarab for the first time. I was half-expecting to interview a diva with a larger-than-life ego, but I totally mistaken. We found Sarab seated in a corner booth with her best friend, hair tied back and a baseball cap thrown on. She greeted us warmly and as most Arab women do, as if we were old friends, and she insisted on ordering our drinks as soon as we sat down. Her warmness and generosity does not detract from her powerful stage presence. Sarab knows what she wants and will stop at nothing to live her life by her own rules. Our drinks arrived at the table, and without missing a beat, Sarab pours herself out to us.
My.Kali: We want to know Sarab, from the beginning. Tell us what has brought you to this moment in your life, today.
Sarab: I was 14 years old, or maybe 13 years old ,when I discovered who I was. I was raised in a family full of girls, And I always felt like one. I was very spoiled at home, and I was very close to my mother. My father wasn’t really around, so she was my whole life.
Do you believe that the closeness you felt for your mother made you more aware of your femininity?
It wasn’t simply a matter of this. For example, when they began taking me to doctors, it showed that I actually had a high level of female hormones. While I always felt as if I was a girl, I feel that there were three major factors which nurtured my female identity. The first factor being that I was raised amongst women; my sisters used to dress me up and put makeup on me. Secondly, I was very close to my mother and she spoiled me quite a bit. Lastly, I have an increased level of female hormones, which I believe contributed to the biological side.
Did you feel comfortable in your home environment?
Very comfortable! I never felt bad because I was this way. I only got upset when I was treated like a boy. I have a brother, but my father was responsible for him. My father used to take my brother to work with him, and teach him things; he was never this way with me. My mother raised me. I remember expressing who I was to my family for the first time when I was about 13 years old, and their reaction was to immediately send me to a psychologist. My parents talked to the doctor and the doctor told them what I was feeling is abnormal.
Honestly, I stayed up all night crying because I felt that no one understood me or how I felt.
Have you always felt like a woman, or did something happen in your life that changed who you became?
My entire life, since as far back as I could remember, I have felt that I am a woman. From my earliest memories, I knew I was a woman, and when I saw my sisters put on dresses, I’d want to join them. I never thought anything was wrong with it.
Did you come out to your family about your identity?
I came out to my sister first when I was in school. I told her bluntly that I am gay. Then I confronted my entire family. The news reached my extended family, my uncles and aunts. My family began meeting to decide on a cure for me and for my life. They never asked about how I felt, their only concern was what ‘people’ would say, how society would react. I began to feel unloved and unwanted. There was no problem with who I was when I was a child. I dressed up like a girl, I would put on makeup, and it was normal. No one questioned it! The backlash only happened when I came out, but I grew up in a home where it was unacceptable to lie. I felt that I needed to come out as a woman, because I had to be honest with myself and my family.
You said you were close to your mother. How did she react when you came out to her?
It was a complete 180, for as much as she loved and spoiled me, she resented me with the same passion. Her perspective was that she had 9 girls and 2 boys, and she wanted to keep both of her sons.
Did your family decide on a “cure”?
The first decision my family took was that I should be treated medically for my identity. They forced me to go to a doctor and get “treated”.
You did not want to get treatment?
Absolutely not. Not at all. It isn’t like I was a smoker and I wanted to quit. This is me, this is who I am. This is who I am on the inside. They sent me to an incompetent and ignorant doctor, who didn’t know anything. His advice was that start dressing like a man on the outside, so you could change how you feel on the inside. I was about 13 and I didn’t understand life, but I knew enough to tell the doctor that there was nothing he could do to me that would change who I was. At around the time, my family and doctors began making me take testosterone shots. I used to cry and fight every time we went to the doctor, And I would beg them and tell them I didn’t want to take the shots. I didn’t want to change or feel any other way. No one believed me.
There is always the question of is being queer biological, genetic, or it stems from how we are raised, and other similar notions. How do you feel about that, relating to yourself?
Look, I was given testosterone and I didn’t change. If they gave me a million shots, they wouldn’t be able to change who I was. This is something I am, it would be impossible to change who I am. They finally took me to a doctor who understood, and he told my family that I would never change. Something that God gave someone from birth does not change.
Did anything change after that?
I was basically a prisoner in my own home from the age of 14 to 17. I had to come home right away after school, and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else. I wasn’t allowed to dress how I wanted, or be myself. When I was about 17, my entire family gathered again and told me I had to change whether I liked it or not. Mind you, it was an all-men’s meeting. I told them I refuse to change who I was, so my uncle stood up and pointed a gun at me. Imagine! I was facing a bunch of crazy and extremely religious men,Religious the way they choose to interpret. So I looked at my uncle and told him ‘shoot me’ and I will die right here and I don’t mind. I didn’t mind because you would put me to rest, because I am not living my life the way I want to right now. If my other family members didn’t step in, my uncle would have shot me. He actually fired the gun several times but my family stopped him from shooting me. Anyway, I was later sent to Europe and even to Iraq to see specialists and experts. Most of them said it was impossible to change me. I found out later that my uncles conspired to have me killed.
It reached that point? What did you do?
The most important thing to them was the name of the family, my sisters’ reputations, and religion. Okay let us say what I am doing is sin. There are many things that are sinful. There is a God above me and he is the only one who can judge us as human beings. People cannot judge me. Eventually, I was kicked out. I was told I had to leave or I would be killed. I ran away to a good friend’s house. A friend I knew for a long time. He was gay.
Did you have a lot of LGBTQ community members or friends around you?
No, there were very few of us. During the 90s, there were very few of us, and we were not organized or gathered. Not like today, today it is a lot easier. At this point my situation was dire. I was always spoiled at home and this was the first time being outside of my home. While I was staying with my friend, I lived off eggs. My friend tried to provide for me, but he was struggling financially, as well. We barely ate, and I began drinking heavily. I tried to drink as much as I could. I drank so I could just sleep. I fell into a dark depression. I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I put my arms out and I slit my wrists and waited for death. There was a pool of blood underneath me. My friend showed up and ended up taking me to the hospital. The hospital notified my family. I was young, alone, and had nothing to my name. My family only allowed me back into the house after I agreed to shave my head and agree not to step foot outside of the house. I already felt that I had lost everything, so I agreed.
After all of this how did you feel?
You know, sometimes I look back and wonder how I survived everything that I have been through. I attempted suicide again after that and was told I would be imprisoned if I tried again. After all of this I realized that I am strong and I will be who I am regardless of the consequence or any societal or religious norms. I grew my hair back and began dressing like a woman again. When I became 25 I made a decision that I would be out and who I am and I refused to have anyone stop me. My extended family cut me off, I began running away and coming back home. I lived my life for a while.
“As much as my mother loved and spoiled me, she resented me with the same passion. Her perspective was that she had 9 girls and 2 boys, and she wanted to keep both of her sons.”
What do you mean by you lived your life?
I would leave the house dressed as a woman, go out and do the things that I wanted.
Did you leave the house and then change into your clothes?
Never. I never got dressed in secret. I would always get dressed at home, put on my make up and walk out just the way I was. This is my life.
How do you get your clothes?
Friends brought me clothes, or I would get a few things here and there whenever I had the chance. At some point I had to go to my brother’s wedding. I was forced to wear a suite. I felt as if I would choke in the suite, so I made a women’s one instead.
Does it say Sarab on your ID or have you changed your name?
My ID has my male name on it. I cannot change it.
You cannot change your ID, have you ever thought about “transitioning”?
I began going to a doctor and he gave me the hormones I need. I cannot have a sex change in Jordan, it is against the law. I have never had any cosmetic surgeries.
If you had the opportunity to surgically transition, would you?
Yes I definitely would, but it’s not allowed in Jordan, where my whole life is. However, I grew accustomed to it and learnt to live with it. This whole thing makes me feel somehow special!
How is your love life, here?
I have a boyfriend. Honestly I consider him my husband but obviously we are not married. We’ve been together for about 8 years
Would you marry him if you could?
Of course I would in an instant. He considers me his wife and I consider him my husband, but Arab society doesn’t allow for it.
Do you want a family, to have children and live this kind of life?
I would love to have two children. Sometimes I put my hand on my belly and pray that I could have children of my own. I’d want to have a family with my boyfriend. I am very doting; I take care of everyone I know. I love children. I adopted an orphan child from SOS, take care of all of his needs.
Honestly, I expected to meet a diva today. You have proven otherwise, you are very down to earth, honest and warm.
I am just honest. I cry and laugh and dance just like anyone else, but I also carry a lot of pain inside. Until today, when I want to live my life and do what I want, I have to fight with my family and hear something about it from everybody. I continue to live, because it is my right to live this way. I told you that after all this exhaustion, I tried to kill myself again. But at the end of it, I question what I would accomplish if I died now.
Okay, like I told you when we sat down, we want to get to know the real you. How does Sarab identify herself, who are you?
I am transgendered, as you say. In the US they consider the word “shemale” as a negative thing. I am transgendered, but here, we call it shemale.
How does your identity affect your movement or travel?
I always have a hard time at the airport. The problem is the name in my passport is male. They ask me if I am a man or a woman. They get confused when it is time for me to get searched. They call me “ma’am”, but see a male name on my passport. So they mistreat me and embarrass me in front of the other passengers.
How do you feel at those moments?
I feel like sh*t, of course. Jordan is different than Turkey, for example. They respect me and bring a woman to search me. They know I’m a shemale and they don’t harass me about it. There is a different level of respect abroad.
After knowing we would interview you, we hoped that we could finally print a story that could make others going through similar experiences feel that they are not alone. The loneliness we all felt when we were young. How would you want a young girl/boy in Karak or Irbid or even in Kuwait or Tunisia to feel when they read this interview?
I felt like I was the only one for a long time. I would love for someone to see this article and see someone who they can relate to, someone that made it. Hopefully they can find power in that.
On the topic of being a young girl, did you have any crushes growing up? We want to know about Sarab’s first love!
My first true love is my husband now. Every love has its time though. If we really wanted to talk about innocent love, I remember being in 4th grade and having crushes on boys. There was an older boy I had an innocent crush on when I was about 12. It ended in heartbreak ,because of my family. I gave him my phone number on the bus one day after school, and that evening he called my house and my sister answered. My father filed a complaint against him at school and at the police station. He was kicked out of school, and banned from most of the schools in Kuwait because of the accusation. We never really spoke again. That was my first innocent love. Back then, we actually loved.
Sarab, we know that a lot of known newspapers and television stations have contacted you for interviews.
Yes, and I refused because I don’t want to be shot in the street!
Why do you want to be interviewed now? Why My.Kali?
This is different. This is an online magazine dedicated to LGBT readers. This is inspiring. However, it is not television that will display me as a freak. I was asked to be on well-known television stations. I never understood why honestly. I guess they want to know about how I live, what I do, how my life in Jordan is.
Did you feel more comfortable giving an interview to My.Kali because it’s a magazine that identifies with the queer community?
Yes! I hate to be seen on TV as a freak. I am not for display.
When did people start hearing about Sarab? How did you enter the LGBTQ “scene” in Amman?
People heard about me because I am myself and I am straightforward. People started hearing that Sarab is the first person to dress as a woman and sit in a coffee shop. Back in ‘08, a known queer club called RGB approached me to do a show.
How did RGB hear about you?
I frequented the club and so the owners approached me to do a show and I created ‘The Sarab Show’. I did about 9 shows.
“I told them I refuse to change who I was, so my uncle stood up and pointed a gun at me. Imagine! I was facing a bunch of crazy and extremely religious men, religious the way they choose to interpret…”
Other than the RGB show, did you have any other jobs/work in Amman?
I owned an accessory shop for a short time, near the 7th circle. I had to close it because of the fuss and people bothering me. People would come to the store, pretend to want to purchase something and just stare at me. There were also good moments when gays would come and visit the store. They would talk to me and want to take pictures with me. That made me happy.
In the end I had to close the store because of the harassment. I can’t even work if I wanted to.
Why did you not hide like others who are in your situation?
This is my life. This is who I am. I want to wear a dress and go to a restaurant just like anyone else. Even though I have been and am harassed and assaulted in the streets because of it.
Every woman gets harassed in the streets. Do you think it’s the same for you or is it different?
Yes, women get the occasional whistle or cat call in the streets. It is much different for me. Men would follow me and call me names like faggot. They would tell me that I am a sinner and threatened me. They used words that really wounds…
What would you do in those situations?
I am the type of woman that doesn’t sit quietly for it. I would always yell back and defend myself. Tell them it’s none of their business. Emotionally though, I get tired. In the end, I honestly, I want to run away…
You say that as a joke, but there are a lot of people in Jordan and in the Middle East that could only dream of leaving their countries and run away to Europe or the United States. Would you go if you had the chance?
Of course I would. I wish I could leave. I was banned from following my dreams here!
What are the dreams you have or had for your life?
I was stopped from completing school. I was also forbidden from pursuing my dream of acting. I wanted to study theater and become an actress. My family told me I could not.
Would you like to go back to school?
I would love to go to a university, but I can’t because of the way that I look. People would never accept me at university as a woman. There would be a lot of harassment. All of these things have been taken from me, because my society rejects my being and it’s like that, and people are like that as well.
Do you feel more comfortable in some places over others in Jordan?
Yes, many of the 5 star hotels. People in these places know how to treat you with respect. There have been instances in public places where I am mistreated for who I am. Once at a store and I when was trying on clothes, I was asked to leave the dressing room. I told her I am a woman and I am a customer and I have the right to try on clothes. I called the general manager of the store and complained about their employee. They ended up apologizing and told me that I could take anything I want from the store for free.
Okay we have a silly question, when you go out to a nice dinner what do you wear?
I dress up in 100% lady. I wear nice dresses. I get my hair done, jewelry, makeup that works. During the day, I am very casual, mostly tracksuits and heels. When I am dressed up I feel extremely comfortable. I feel best when my inside is reflected on my outside.
We know that there is a gay and lesbian community in Amman. Are there others like you? Is there a transgender community in Jordan, similar to the lesbian and gay community here?
There are but I don’t interact with them. Their lives are very different from mine. They have had circumstances in their lives that have caused them to fall into prostitution and other things I am not involved in. I respect them, and I am not better than them, I love everyone. I simply did not allow myself to get into those circumstances.
Has anyone from the community ever approached you to chat up?
I remember when I was working at RGB once someone told me two young girls wanted to meet me. They were very frightened when they met me because they had heard a lot of bad stories about me. I hugged them, and sat and talked with them.
You mentioned that these girls heard stories about you. We have heard a handful of rumors about Sarab too, and I am sure you have heard stories about yourself.
Yes I have heard the rumors! Most of them at least!
What are some funny stories you have heard about yourself?
I heard that I was driving drunk and leaving the Intercontinental Hotel when I got into a car accident and died. My friends called me and asked me where I was, and that they heard I was dead. I told them that I was home and still alive, obviously! I also heard a rumor that I had left my dying father at home so I could go to a Halloween party. What else did I hear? Oh right, I heard that I was leaving Safeway and I was wearing a short skirt and a bunch of young boys attacked me. None of that ever happened. I have heard many other and very vicious rumors!
We heard that you were kicked out of Safeway because you were asked for your ID and you refused to give it to them?
No, this never happened. I was never kicked out of Safeway.
Why do you think people make up these stories about you?
You never know. I mean, no one can do what I have done. It’s because I went against everyone and everything. I went against society, against my family, against the government and did what I wanted to do. If they want to kill me then let them kill me, there is nothing I can do about it regardless.
Do you know your rights as a citizen in Jordan?
Yes, everyone should know the law. However, even if you know the law, you are not living amongst the law. You are living among people and a society that has certain ideas. They have a much distorted perception of gays in society.
Do you think that this applies just to Jordanian or Arab society?
Absolutely not. Even in a city like San Francisco, the supposed “Gay City”, they are still fighting just to get gay marriage rights. People are still beaten in the streets in the United States for being gay.
Do you feel that the queer community in the Arab world or in Jordan has changed in the past 10 years?
Not in the Arab world as a whole, but in Jordan, maybe. For example, a transgender friend was visiting me from Kuwait. When she arrived at the airport in Jordan she was completely strip searched, she was completely naked. Imagine this is still happening here.
We are about to wrap up our interview. If you wanted to send a message to the next generation, the young people reading this, what would you tell them?
Live your life, however you want to live it.
*Names has been changed
* This interview was conducted in 2012, and merged with My.Kali’s photographs of Sarab of 2013 and 2015.
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Back with a new cover, new content and new stories. #MyKali’s March/April 2015 issue Features #Jordan’s most transparent #transgender, @sarabyasin photographed by @amersweidan, makeup by @the_handmade_dealer, co-styled by @fadifzumot, cover design by @atefd and art directed by Kali. #beamman #LGBTQI