I’ll be honest. I haven’t read any of the books by Jack L. Chalker, he wrote many and now he’s dead. But his genre was sci-fi and a common theme was: body swapping, being somebody else. Well, most of us fantasise about this. A little thinner, a little taller, a bit richer a bit more confident. It is common in psychology to find people who aren’t happy with who they are. So what if for a day you could be anybody? Who would you be? Let us say that this is a particularly popular wish, desire and dream nowadays. We have films like: Freaky Friday (1976) where a mum and daughter are swapped into each other’s bodies for a day to understand the issues faced by the other; Trading Places (1983) in which an upper class man and a lower class man are swapped as a sort of social experiment and, The Change-Up (2011) which is, I guess a kind of a male fantasy (I’ve seen none of them but I get the idea as I guess you do too!).
Well, in this current age most of us have Facebook, LinkedIn or a similar data gathering tool. In this era of social media obsession, what we want to be is what we post, who we are is the person in bed in a dark room thinking thoughts that we never can say out loud and can never do. There are filters on all camera apps, there’s Photoshop. It’s now possible to airbrush out what we don’t want to be and with Instagram makeup fashionistas as it is to make our noses thinner and our lips bigger. To be clear – and based on my reading of articles on psychologytoday.com – in life people who want to be somebody else lack the ability (confidence/cash) to express themselves in the way they want. Most of us I guess see aspects in others that we ourselves cannot achieve. See the food court, high heels, extended eyelashes, $1,200 dollar phones. They/we eat a salad in public, and then binge on a biryani in the bathroom. If you desire something which is impossible, you will be disappointed and frustrated each and every day. Phycologists say body swapping fantasies normally include: (1) simply wanting to be another person (2) be a different gender (3) be born to different parents (4) be born in different country (I score three from four). It’s so easy to say, “be positive” it is so easy for these Western born (male & white) Doctors and self-help gurus to say “look to the bright side.” Basically however this is true: desire what is possible and then try to achieve it because, desiring something which is impossible can only lead to sadness and disappointment. I want to say this diagnosis is designed to keep us quiet, to stop us asking “why” but honestly, wishing to be 16 again (I’m five years older) is totally pointless.
Anyway… For me, in this exercise of body swapping fantasy I’d like to experience reality not fantasy. Who exactly then would I like to be? Well, Doctor Porter of course! He is so sensitive, he has a car, he goes to the gym and he does not have any kids. The question one or two may ask is why be him? You could’ve chosen Yacoub Shaheen, or Mehmet Akif Alakurt. You could have been U.S. President Donald Trump or at least one of the astronauts on the International Space Station. The reason is this: I’m good at fantasy when confined to the compound and imprisoned in the home. Reality means being an anonymous other. I want to be a man for a day. To be, for 2,640 minutes, an ordinary normal man (there is no way I would sleep not even from one of the 158,400 seconds). Why, well to walk around the malls, visit the hotel pool and experience that. He is different. People think he is normal, but he seems not to be. My mentor Dr. Porter is so punctual and caring. No other Doctor in the Department of Philosophy’s open-plan offices, here at the University of Hussain, is always there. He is punctual and has time for old students as well as current ones. He only drinks black coffee. No girl has ever seen him eat junk food. He has a Instagram page, he’s a good horse rider, and many students follow him. His wife is Moroccan and beautiful. We all have dearly wished to be her! But no, I will be him.
Let me be clear with you my dear reader, in this life there are masculine, feminine, and in between people. This has nothing to do with sexuality. Sexuality is defined as the sexual parts that human beings are born with, and these tell us if the person is a boy or a girl (but science says 1 in 100 may be born into the wrong body, this is accepted in some cultures, in others it is not). I said I want to be a man, and I totally mean to be a real man for the whole day. In the environment that I am living in, men are everything whereas women are to be controlled and hidden. Men are allowed to do everything, and even if it is wrong, well he’s a man so he’s going to be forgiven. I am a woman and I have always been controlled. So, for one day I want to be a man. I’ll be the controller, I’ll drive my sisters (would they be my daughters now?) to the Al Ain zoo where we will take lunch and discuss how to free the imprisoned monkeys. Then we’ll go to the “Promenade” at Jumeirah beach, they’ll wear their Adidas superstars and Juicy Couture t-shirts.
That was my plan. But when I woke as Dr. Porter, the plan changed. My wife was back in Morocco (her mother was sick). In the bathroom I examined myself in the mirror, my black hair was now blonde and missing in the middle. The body was one aspect but the feeling, that was the real difference. I was about to dress for working but I decided to cancel classes, why not? I would quickly give that student who was so keen to do her homework and ask questions an A on BlackBoard (that’s me!) then go to the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel. It was a mixed gym and I was interested to know how much I could lift. I planned to run as fast as I could too. As I was about to leave the apartment I went to reach for my ‘abayah and shayla (“cloak” and “veil” in Arabic), but smiled. No need today. As I walked to the car I noticed that some women looked to the ground as I got near them, others looked at me with a kind of lust in their eyes. I wanted to visit myself, was Dr Porter in Amna’s body? I hope he didn’t have a heart attack at the shock from waking up as me. or I’d be him for ever. Part of me wished he did have a heart attack, I’d grab his/my New Zealand passport and fly first-class to Auckland.
The gym was a bit of a disappointment, it was almost empty. The only people using it were Arab and Westerner housewives (or maybe they worked only in the afternoons?). They seemed a bit bored. I noticed they looked at me. I also had to say hello because, they knew me here. One even asked me about Alia. When I spoke it was hard not to laugh. My words my thoughts but said in a man’s deep voice. I loved my accent. I kept on speaking loudly when I was in the car. The freedom was amazing. The most noticeable difference is that nobody looked at me with the eyes that said: “why aren’t you at home?” “where’s your brother?” “Who’s your father to let you come to the Mall alone?” To the mall, that is what I’ll do. I knew how to drive. The family driver had let me and my older sister drive from school to home and even I would drive a bit on the desert highway after university. But only to add to my Snapchat and Instagram accounts. I was going to drive fast. Dr. Porter had a Ford Mustang. But, no, I didn’t want him to get any radar tickets.
I drove to the capital city’s biggest Mall. Inside I walked and walked, I kept looking at ladies, they kind of looked back to me. My thoughts were mine, my body language was not. I decided to sit in a coffee shop and watch people. This is what I did as myself. But now, I did not review handbags and shoes, I was focused on how tall then men were, did they have more hair than me? Was their belly wider than their chest? I was focusing on my new gender. I was comparing myself with my gender. I felt a bit bad because Alia tried calling me many times. There was no way I could speak as him to her. She’d know I wasn’t him. But I did SMS her and I particularly focused on paying her compliments. She was shocked at first but I sent to her a selfie and then typed: I’m a changed man, I like to pretend looks aren’t important but I want to let you know you are truly beautiful, I always think it but now I’ll say it. Basically I said to her what I wanted my future husband to say to the real me. I also typed this, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” it was from the Cambridge university dictionary but we say a similar saying in Arabic.
As the sun began to set, I realised that being in a man’s body was basically not that different. Yes I had freedoms of movement (and this was truly divine). But, I was still comparing myself to others, looking at people as objects of desire, disgust or indifference. I still wanted to be better than others. Every look was a judgment of a type. What did I learn? We are, after all, humans. I considered the thesis of Joseph Conrad, in our soul we are all wildly animalistic. Never judge a book by its cover, those sweet charming students, those sincere and sensitive teachers are basically the same. Behind the cover of their smiling faces is a dark inner self. The question this gender metamorphosis did not answer was this: must it always be like this? Will humankind ever rise above our base instincts, competitive tendencies and envies?
Inspirations and/or Recommended Readings
Chalker, J. L. (1989). The Identity Matrix. Riverdale, Canada: Baen Books.
Conrad, J. (2012 ). Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin.
IMDb (2011). Body Swap Movies. Retrieved from, https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000924797/