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LEBANON: Memoir sheds light on the life and struggles of Arab transsexual from Algeria

March 30, 2010 |  8:52 am

Photo 001dsds The threatening letters and phone calls at night trickled in at a steady pace. They had become a part of everyday life for Randa, an Algerian transsexual and one of the pioneers in the Arab world's gay and transsexual activist movement.

One letter dropped in Randa's mailbox said, "We will kill you." Another one read, "You are a threat to all Muslims in Algeria." In mosques around the country, Randa's name was being circulated. Still, she refused to be intimidated and shrugged off the threats.

But one day, a friend showed up at her house in Algiers, the Algerian capital, with a worried look on his face. He had bad news. 

"One my friends took me for a ride in his car and told me, 'You have 10 days to leave the country,'" Randa, the author of a new book about her experiences, said in an interview with Babylon & Beyond. "Influential people had come to talk to him." 

She knew she had to move quickly, but she had no idea where she'd go. Getting a visa to Europe would certainly take longer than 10 days. No, they'd get her before that, Randa figured. A visa to Lebanon, however, would only take a few days. And she had friends in Beirut. 

So, Lebanon it was.

A year later, Randa, wearing a long black dress, high heels and sporting new black hair extensions, is greeting crowds of guests and reporters with a smile on her face at a signing for her memoir in the garden of a Beirut art studio.

The biography, "Memoirs of Randa the Trans," co-written with Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghyieh, was recently published in Arabic by the Dar-Al Saqi publishing house and recounts Randa's life story and struggles as a transsexual in Algeria and Beirut.

It is most likely the first book of its kind to be published in Arabic, but Randa doubts it will make it to Algerian bookstores considering the sensitive subject.

The publishing of her biography, says Randa, fulfills her goal of humanizing the transsexual to the public.

"A transsexual is also a human being, someone who thinks and who interacts in society just like other people," she said. "Otherwise, we are seen as 'things' or simply as sexual objects." 

Growing up as a transsexual in conservative Algeria was a hellish experience for Randa. From an early age, she felt entrapped in her male body and kept insisting to her mom that she was a girl.

"She said 'no, you're a boy' and started to correct me," said Randa.

Things got worse at school, where Randa was constantly harassed by classmates for her feminine looks and behavior. Even the teachers were on her case, she says. In a particular humiliating incident, Randa remembered her teacher calling her "little girl" in front of the entire class.

"It was horrible at school," she said. "The verbal and physical aggression just got worse and worse. ... My parents made me change school five or six times. I remember them cutting my hair really short to make sure I'd look like a boy."

It got to the point that Randa's parents, fearing for her safety, prohibited her from going home from school unaccompanied.

But the despite the hardships and humiliation, Randa says she excelled in school and always got the best grades. She received a diploma in nursing and started working at a clinic.

Bigger problems rose in 2006 when Randa started one of the first support groups for gays and transsexuals in Algeria. They set up a website, and the group started reaching out to Algerian gays, lesbians and transsexuals and lobbying for their rights, to the deep disapproval of the Algerian authorities, Randa said.

At one point, Randa was scheduled to travel to Egypt to discuss transsexual issues on a TV show. Her friends repeatedly advised her against the interview, saying she was crossing the line by going on an Arab TV channel. But Randa said she didn't care about the risks, believing that someone had to get out in the open

"I don't care about risks when I have a goal. I just do it," she laughed.

When she got to the airport in Algiers, she was told that her ticket had been canceled. When she finally managed to get someone from the TV program on the phone, she was told that the show had been canceled at the last minute and that the interview would be rescheduled.

They never called back.

Around that time, Randa had also began her physical transformation from male to female. She began taking medication that was shipped secretly to her from a doctor in Europe. The Algerian doctors she approached resisted, fearing they'd lose their licenses if they helped her.

Her visibility and activism intensified the threats and intimidation, and soon it became time to leave Algeria.

Though Randa doesn't feel completely secure in Lebanon, she says tolerance for transsexuals is much higher in cosmopolitan Beirut than in other Arab cities.

However, she said that she believes that sooner or later she will also have to leave the Middle East and settle in a Western country if she wants to lead a relatively normal life.

Simply finding a job as a transsexual in the Middle East is a daunting task, she said. 

When she applied for a nursing job at a hospital in Beirut, the employer hailed her resume and experience but told Randa it was against the hospital's policy to hire transsexuals.

The only jobs she was offered sounded pretty sleazy: exotic dancer or entertainer at nightclubs. Once, someone suggested she should try prostitution -- a common solution for transsexuals who are outcasts in this region, according to Randa.

Finally, after being on the job hunt for nearly a year, Randa said she recently found work with a Beirut-based gay-rights group.

Randa says it will take long a time before people change their perceptions about transsexuals.

"It's a much bigger problem ... and has to do with the patriarchal society here, in which the man has absolute authority," she said. "For them, the transsexuals were men and abandoned the authority and all the privileges they held as men to become what in their eyes is less than a woman. They wonder what's wrong with this man who wants to become lower than woman."

But Randa remains defiant in her struggle.

"I don't want to become a queen or change the world order," she said. "I'm just a human being who wants to live in dignity."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: The invitation to the signing of "Memoirs of Randa the Trans," in Beirut last week. Credit: Dar El-Saqi publishing

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