Two Palestinian teenagers stroll amid the mounds of rubble left by last year’s Israeli military offensive, listening to the tinny beat of a Turkish pop song playing on a cell phone.
Nadir Mohammed Saleh and Ahmed Fayiz Abed Rabo are cousins and next-door neighbors. With their gelled hair, buttoned-down shirts and jeans, they look much like any other 16-year-old Palestinian boy. But looks, Ahmed says, can be deceiving.
“Only my appearance, my haircut and clothing, makes me look like a boy,” Ahmed says, gesturing with his hands across his face. “Inside, I am like a female. I am a girl.”
Until last summer, both Nadir and Ahmed were — for all intents and purposes — girls. They wore female headscarves, attended girls’ school and even answered to the female first names Navin and Ola.
Both Nadir and Ahmed were born with a rare birth defect called male pseudohermaphrodism.
Deficiency of the hormone 17-B-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (17-B-HSD) during pregnancy left their male reproductive organs deformed and buried deep within their abdomens.
At birth, doctors identified Nadir and Ahmed as girls, because they appeared to have female genitalia.
As a result, they spent the first 16 years of their lives dressing and acting like girls. It was a role that grew increasingly difficult to play, as they hit puberty and their bodies began generating testosterone, resulting in facial hair and increasingly masculine features.
“They used to travel by car to girls’ school and back,” says Nadir’s father Mohammed Sadih Ahmed Saleh. “Because of their facial hair, it was difficult for them to go out into the street. Psychologically they were distressed.”
Finally, on June 22, with the support of their families, both Nadir and Ahmed transformed themselves into boys.
“They transferred on the same day,” Saleh says. “Clothing, they switched to the other [boys’] school on the same day. They cut their hair on the same day. Both of them helped each other get through this crisis.”
There are an unusually high number of male pseudohermaphrodite births in the Gaza neighborhood of Jabalya, where Nadir and Ahmed live.
Dr. Jehad Abudaia, a Canadian-Palestinian pediatrician and urologist practicing in Gaza, says he has diagnosed nearly 80 cases like Nadir’s and Ahmed’s in the last seven years.
“It is astonishing that we have [so] many cases with this defect, which is very rare all over the world,” Abudaia says. He attributes the high frequency of this birth defect to “consanguinity,” or in-breeding.