I kid you not, that was the headline of Fortune Magazine’s recent article on Qatar.
What surprised me more, however, was the accompanying photo. Taken of the West bay area of the capital city, the image reminded me of the helicopter shots of another famous peninsula-like city, Manhattan.
What do you think of when you see this image?
In need of laundry, lunch and ahem, some service? Here’s an example of a well targeted ad – the audience is men who are left in Doha while their families travel on summer holiday – but the creativity calls up the worst of sexism.
What do you think? Did they go too far? Or is this meant to be in tongue in cheek?
The flavor of your summer depends on where you live. Like anything in life.
But I can’t shake the suspicion summer here is unique from life elsewhere, unless you have lived in a beach town during the winter. The impulse towards uniqueness must also be a human compulsion. Hear me out, though, on summer in the desert.
Unlike a beach town which has a seasonal peak, rather than escaping to the desert, those who can, escape from the heat, leaving behind a skeleton population, which in a disaster movie, would most likely be described as “essential personnel” by a big chested general with muscular arms as he strode through the street.
For our family, this summer is no different than the others preceding it. Except maybe that we are going away later than everyone, which again conjures up survivor-like feelings, though this time of a social apocalypse. We, along with the others that are left behind (“to work” as my husband gruffly puts it) band together against the zombie causing level of heat, which when combined with boredom, can be lethal to the pursuit of happiness in these the most idyllic months of the calender.
People are taking advantage of Ramadan occurring over summer this year, overlapping with the school holiday, to travel for longer than normal. The requisite one month stretches to two months (you read that right my-reluctant-to-take-two-consecutive-weeks-American reader). They wave with glee, a sticky hand of each child in their grasp while climbing the metal staircase into the plane’s belly.
Friendships are challenging to maintain in such a seasonally driven place. You may be facing the pressure of work, family, and the unfulfilled desire to see friends who live only a mile up the road.
In a nomadic place like Qatar, which may have migrated from tents into skyscrapers, associations between people are still based on place. Your interaction with a person will start up, be paused – either by the long summer or winter holiday – and then end. Because sooner or later, everyone leaves.
Whether expat or national, whether because of summer, winter, a degree, secondment, or wedding, everyone leaves. The leaving may be temporary, it may be permanent. Ten years later people have been known to return to find the entire landscape of the country unrecognizable.
The intermittent quality of relationships here is reminiscent of the friendships you had during school. Thrown together by a particular context, making friends (or enemies) with those in proximity, and the tearful promises to keep in touch.
The average expat/family stays for three years before moving on or moving home.
I thought I was safer blending into the national social scene.
But my Qatari friends go to graduate school in roughly the same cycle; they come back, work a job, and then are off for the next degree.
We have buffeted two and a half cycles of leaving. No coincidence we have two children. Averaging a child, a semi-permanent social connection, guaranteed to need you for at least seventeen years, or six cycles, means we need to leave soon. Or consider adding to the family.
And no matter how hot it gets this summer, that’s an idea I’m not yet ready for.
What’s ahead for your summer?
The weather in the world has been strange lately. Earthquakes in Iran, floods in Europe, and sandstorms in Qatar. Yes, sandstorms are strange even in the desert because they are a winter phenomena, not for summer time.
For many people, this is the chief compliant about Qatar: the weather. It’s pleasant enough eight months of the year but those four months from May – August are HOT. As in 40 degrees Celsius, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit hot. As in, you go outside and feel the flesh on your face shrink from the heat, flesh peeling hot.
As I used to say when I first moved here, Africa hot.
There is only one standard response this kind of heat evokes in people whether they are single, married, childless or parents. Driven inside by the oppressive heat, everyone comes to the same conclusion:
“There’s nothing to do here.”
Since the climate is so unlivable at the height of summer, no wonder most companies have a 25 day leave bank for employees. This number can rise as high as 45, depending on the institution. While American organizations still maintain the earn-as-you-leave-accural method, Qatar is one of the few places people can take the amount of leave they have accrued, say two or three weeks, and know their job will still be waiting for them. Thus the mass exodus every summer when families bundle away to grandparents, uncles, and aunts while singles hightail to exotic beaches while men from all over South Asian continue to wear blue overalls hanging from structures all over the country that continue being built.
It’s fashionable to complain about the weather without realizing that the very burden is the reason for the blessing.
What is your favorite complaint? Do you ever hear others settling into a familiar pattern of behavior?
P.s. I used Grammerly recently to grammar check this post, because baby brain comes up with creative spellings that seem real!
Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.
Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.
All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.
What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.
Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the
book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.
The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.
You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.
You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.
You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.
The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.
Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?
She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.
In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.
We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?
I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?
This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.
The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).
The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.
What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.
Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from. That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.
Shocking to most of the residents in Qatar yesterday was the sensation, yet again in less than a week, of earthquake tremors from a second Iranian quake, this one measuring nearly 8 point on the Richter scale. While most people missed the first one, the second was noted by people in almost all neighborhoods across the city of Doha. Coming as it did on the heels of the bombs planted at the end of the Boston Marathon, everyone was literally shaken.
“The world is changing,” people kept saying all day. “Qatar is changing.” Will we still be the sleepy place everyone thinks of as ultra safe, laughing at presenters who suggest earthquake preparedness or other hazards?
One thing is certain, people rushing out of buildings like the Tornado tower, will have to think twice about what to do next if there is an emergency. Glass falling all over the area known as West Bay is likely in any real quake or other incident in that neighborhood.
Yesterday there were several earthquakes in Iran. Across the Arabian Gulf in Qatar at 3pm Doha time people felt the some of the aftershocks. Nothing like what they had in Iran, with over 80 deaths, 800 plus injuries, and many, many more after affects.
But our buildings in the business district were evacuated all the same. The mood in the elevators, parking garage, and on the street was somber. Here’s what I was looking at while the tremors were reverberating through our floor and the city.
My fourth installment in the series of interviews that let’s domestic workers in Qatar tell their stories. I imagined the emotions, aspirations, and motivations of these women in my novel The Dohmestics. But in this case, real life beats fiction.
The more I hear about these women and their willingness to sacrifice years of their lives for their children, extended family and friends, the more humbled I am.
We both qualify in the category of expats. And yet their lives are so different from the considerations of mine.
What would you do for your family’s future?
It took nearly two months but someone finally trusted me enough to share her story. I’m amazed how many women are scared of repercussions from their employers. Not by the ‘bad’ ones who don’t pay well or are aggressive in their assignment of tasks, but also of the ‘good’ ones who work in fields like education, where one would expect (rightly or wrongly) more kindness to domestic staff.
Hear what this working mother has to say about why she went overseas to work as a nanny/housemaid.