Nothing ranks as high on an expat’s list of fears as being deported. Maybe death of a loved one while you’re abroad. Not your own death, because like the average teenager, you think your charmed expat life is immortal. Those who have lived overseas know all too well both death and deportation are likely scenarios. Neither is polite to discuss in public.
I wrote about both in The Dohmestics, my most recent paperback release, based on observations as an expat for nearly a decade. The novel explores the lives of six women: three employers and three housemaids who live in the same compound, or walled neighborhood. I found out how difficult the employer-housemaid relationship was to describe in the process of trying to get interviews as background research. Even friends were reluctant to let me speak to their helpers.
Then fact and fiction collided when we were told that a nanny in the neighborhood’s sister was in the detention facility.
That’s how we learned there’s something worse than being deported. Detention.
The sister, also a nanny had runaway from her employer who had her working at several homes in the extended family with little sleep or food. Yes, for some reason, we use the word “runaway” to describe a grown woman who has no other recourse to end her employment. Runaway: a word that has been to describe willful teenagers and slaves, those beings treated as human chattel.
She left her employer one day, walking out while the family was upstairs. She worked for a series of other families in various conditions: sometimes sleeping on the floor on the kitchen because the maid’s room was used a storage. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to iron and cook for her landlord who also charged her rent. Bouncing from family to family, a few years went by. An ailing mother, a maturing daughter: she wanted to go home.
She got an airline ticket – hard to come by at the tune of thousands of riyals – and went with her luggage to the embassy. They turned her over to CID or the criminal investigation department. She called, hysterical, because she was being held in a facility with hundreds of other women, some of whom had been there for a month, others for three.
The line was scratchy: they were default fasting because no one was being given food during Ramadan.
Despite being a women’s area, there were no sanitary supplies.
Anything you received, you had to get from someone on the outside.
We assembled a care package, the contents what you might take your daughter’s dorm room: peanut butter, bread, jam, Kotex, chocolate, laundry detergent.
More calls, from random numbers, from borrowed phones (hers had been confiscated) of other long timers. Rushed conversations to exchange file numbers and any updates.
She has a good chance of eventually going home. She has a ticket, no debt, no pending charges. Someone has to take interest in her to distinguish her case from the hundreds of others who are much, much worse. They are waiting on sponsors to pay fines for having a runaway (that word again), waiting for family to raise money to bring them home, waiting for a miracle to clear their debts.
“That’s the place people take their maids when they want to punish them,” a friend told me. “If they don’t want them any more, they leave them there.”
As you may recall, my first book was banned for being about Qatar and Qataris. I had no idea that love was a sensitive subject.
Maids, though, housemaids, I knew were controversial. They are the invisible army without the glamour (or indignation) of the 2022 World Cup stadiums to galvanize the international media to their cause. There is no country named in The Dohmestics because I hope it makes it into the hands of readers in Doha. But also because the treatment of these women, who sacrifice their lives for their children, fund unfaithful husbands, and prop up their home economies (personal and national), is commonly archaic across the Middle East – whether Lebanon, the GCC, or Egypt – and extends into Asia where high rise suicide jumpers in Singapore are so commonplace, they only make the news if they take a young child with them.
“I am not a housemaid,” I said enunciating the vowels for the embassy official who had missed my American dress, accent and husband. “I am here for a friend.”
Is the deportation facility in the novel? You’ll have to read it to find out. This is one instance when real life is worse than fiction.
If you alienate the middle, where the moderates are, all you’ll have left is the extreme. We’ve seen this happening in American politics as the Republicans and Democrats hurl insults at each other like parents at a toddler football game. And it’s happening in contemporary society in Qatar in the way people view or sanction behavior.
Take for example the decision banning of my paperback Love Comes Later in March. People in Doha, D.C. and everywhere in between, keep asking me why. Why was it banned? There are a few speculations based on the feedback my distributor gave me: “Because it’s about Qatar and Qataris.” A novel in English, about Qatar, written by an expat. A book that was researched for 3 years, in which the author attempts to represent Qatari life, as accurately as possible for an outsider, without the objectionable sex, politics or atheism, is still unpalatable.
Love Comes Later pops up among a list of titles that include Teaching Abdulla the Terrorist and If the Sun Doesn’t Kill You, the Washing Machine Will. Or more recently The Best Ever Book of Qatari Jokes: Specially Re-purposed for You Know Who. The description reads: “if you don’t burst out laughing from at least one Qatari joke in this book, there’s something wrong with you. This book has so many Qatari jokes; you won’t know where to start. For example: Why do Qataris wear slip-on shoes? You need an IQ of at least 4 to tie a shoelace.”
Take for another, the story of my friend Fatma. She is a dutiful Qatari daughter; she choose a mainstream major as a university student which is when I first met her. She wrote an essay for the Qatar Narratives anthology which was included in the book that became Qatari Voices. Fatma is not a rebel: “Many girls my age feel that they were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place—a place sealed with traditions and at a time that lies in between. But I could not be happier. I have traditions that keep me secure, definite, and relieved at a time that is full of risky choices.”
Fatma is proud of being Qatari. She wears her hijab “properly” (you can’t see any of her hair, her veil comes to her forehead). She’s so thin, Kate Moss would likely cut Fatma to avoid any chance of competition. But you’d never know because her abayas are not shaped to her body but hang loosely. She also loves jazz.
We exchanged a few messages about going out to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha, the club at the St. Regis hotel in Qatar.
They don’t let Qatari women in I messaged.
I’ve taken off my abaya and they do she replied.
You did? I asked sounding like a shocked grandmother. Taking off your abaya is something Qatari women do when they want to go incognito. Ironically it’s a way of hiding in plain sight: Qataris scan crowds for other Qataris, skipping over expats. I’ve known other friends who have done this to go out with people their families would disapprove of. In Fatma’s case, she wasn’t hiding from family in public, she was doing the necessary, as mandated by law, in order to do something else she loved: listen to live jazz music with female friends.
The week was long, and the nights short with the baby, so I lost track of the conversation and went to bed early. The next day she told me what happened. And her intention to write about it. “I, a Qatari woman, was banned from an event that celebrated the women of jazz. The obvious irony aside, I also was embarrassed when the guest relation’s manager politely, but firmly denied my entrance. What really embarrassed me though was the thought that as a citizen of Qatar, I was banned from enjoying this unique art form…in Qatar!”
The first few days, people rallied to her cause. Other women agreed the rule that no Qatari women are allowed in the club – Qatari men not in national dress are – was unfair and silly. Men supported her for speaking out. All of this conversation was in English, on Facebook, or the original blog that posted her piece, JustHere.qa.
Not everyone appreciated the irony that jazz appreciation, like so many other specialized new activities in Qatar, cannot be enjoyed by half the citizens in the country. As Fatma says: “Nonetheless, I tolerated that no ‘national dress’ rule, donned a colorful hijab, modest shirt and skirt and went for one purpose: to enjoy jazz as it’s meant to be heard – live. Now, it would seem that ‘national dress’ is no longer an issue. Women are the issue. Qatari women.”
Others joined the conversation in full force, her critics posting under nicknames.
Commentators on an Arabic site asked how dare a Qatari woman go to a club that serves alcohol and take off her abaya.
She was called “an infidel, atheist, slut, will never get married, should burn in hell, ignorant, outcast who belongs to here on papers only, a shame to her tribe.” She was told she “should leave.” One commentator deduced “this is what studying abroad does to women.”
Fatma completed her degree at the national university that has separate campuses for male and female students.
There are multiple layers of conversation here; about what is acceptable behavior for women, either in written or physical form, whether expat or Qatar. On both levels we see a society that has many ambivalent attitudes towards women’s place in the public sphere.
A week ago my novel, Love Comes Later, the first novel in English set in Qatar was banned from distribution inside the emirate. The reasons the officials gave were murky and you can catch up on why here. Or here. And here.
I wrote the first one with an eye to seeing it on the shelves in the stores in Doha. Now that I know that’s unlikely for the rest of the Qatar books, I’m wondering what shape the sequel will take.
The sequel, as yet unnamed, shifts the focus away from the three main characters of the first book, Abdulla, Sangita and Hind.
We narrow in on Luluwa, the younger cousin. She’s a twentysomething, university age student, someone at the nexus of change, the “hinge” generation, and as a woman, even more pressured to satisfy social obligations.
And her adventures are many. Including a tall, dark gentleman who keeps lurking around her uncle’s house.
Here’s an excerpt. Title suggestions welcome!
“I saw guys dangling from threads,” Luluwa said, grateful for the change of subject. “On at least the fortieth floor or higher in West Bay. The ropes were tied to the roof.”
“That’s the least of their problems,” Sangita snorted. “Those guys may not want to work but at least they have jobs. Those poor bastards who have no IDs and no way home are much worse.”
“Sangita,” Abdulla said sharply.
“What? Like she’s so innocent,” Sangita said, sitting up straight. “Open your eyes,” she said. “Can’t you see she’s a woman? When she hallucinates, she dreams of strange men.”
The silence was absolute. Luluwa didn’t bother breathing for a full minute. Abdulla’s gaze turned to her.
“I’m not seeing anyone,” she said.
“I can tell you’re lying,” he snapped.
“Like it’s okay for you to judge me,” Luluwa said. She jumped up from her seat. “Look at you. You were making eyes at someone while engaged to our cousin.”
Abdulla’s palm hit the top of the table, sending all the utensils rattling. “That’s not the point and you know it,” he said. “There are consequences. Things are different because —“
“Because I’m a girl!” Luluwa spat. Tears filled her eyes. “I can’t drive because I’m a girl. I can’t study abroad I’m a girl. God knows why he made me this way if he wanted to make my life a misery.”
“Luluwa,” Sangita hoisted herself up. “It’s not that bad. Look at all the freedom you have. You’re at uni and you come and go as you please. You live with us not your parents.”
Luluwa laughed, a sound that reverberated through the kitchen. “My cheating father or my vengeful mother didn’t set a very high standard, did they?”
Sangita began to speak.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Luluwa said. “Look what they’ve done to you in less than a year. You’re as bad as any of us.”
“Enough,” Abdulla thundered at the shocked expression on Sangita’s face. “To your room,” he said.
Luluwa blinked, a tear coursing down her cheek. The room spun slightly; she couldn’t think what brought her to say such awful things.
“Out,” Abdulla repeated, leaning across her line of vision. “Now.”
Sally came in, picking up plates as quietly as possible.
Luluwa spun around and left the kitchen. She stormed through the living room and then into her room. Unable to stop herself, in the grip of emotions she hadn’t know she had, she flung the door closed behind her. The wood gave a satisfying smack and shudder into the frame. She threw herself on the bed, as she had a hundred times before, waiting for Noor to launch into a story about her latest gossip. This time it was only Luluwa on the lavender bedspread. The thought of her best friend brought on the tears in earnest. Ever since Abdulla’s wedding, Noor had grown even more distant, even though they lived only a few meters from each other, the roofs of their houses in the family compound almost touching.
Luluwa sobbed, her eyes alighting on the photo of her sister. She had never felt alone with Fatima was alive; she always had someone to listen and give her counsel, someone patient, kind, loving, maternal, everything their mother was not. Her shoulders shook with the force of her fatigue. “Come back, Fatoom,” she said, her voice breaking. “Come back.”
“She can’t,” a man’s deep voice answered. “She can’t.”
Luluwa raised her face, meeting the eyes of the man she had seen in the courtyard. He was sitting on the bed beside her. She sat up in a rush, scrambling away from him, in her haste falling off the edge of the bed. This is a dream, a dream, a dream, she thought, clutching the edge of the bedspread. Wake up!
A head of curly black hair peered over the edge after her. The eyes, the irises not red but amber, peered over at her.
“How did you get in here?” She whispered.
“Same way you did,” he said. He smiled and the whiteness of his teeth blinded her. “Well, I walked through the door.”
She followed his gaze to the closed door. “If anyone finds out you’re here,” she said.
“Like that man in the kitchen who was yelling at you?” The stranger’s eyes turned dark, smoldering.
She could smell something burning, like chicken left in the oven too long. “Abdulla will be furious,” she said. She sat up, hoping this was the moment in the dream that he would dissipate. Luluwa willed herself to wake up in a pile of sweaty sheets.
“I’ll go if you want me to,” he said.
“Yes, yes, go.” She stood pulling him up with her from the edge of her bed. The instant she touched his skin she gasped. The heat emanating from his arm scorched the inside of her palm as though she had grabbed a pan too quickly from the oven. She fell back against the wall, cradling her right hand.
“Sorry,” he said. He hovered over her.
The feeling of heat drew closer and she averted her face, the warmth causing a flush to spread across her cheeks.
“I’m doing it again,” he muttered. “Sorry. You can’t come that close to me yet. I have to learn to control it.”
“How?” She asked. “How are you doing that?”
He gave her a small smile. “I’m not like you,” he said.
“If Abdulla calls the police, they’ll find out an Indian was in my room,” she said. “All hell will break loose. They’ll deport you.”
He laughed. The sound wasn’t musical but she couldn’t say she had ever heard anything like it.
“If they try to remove me before I want to go,” the skin around his eyes crinkled. She realized he was older than she had thought at first glance. “ Yes, as you have said, hell will break loose.”
Another rush of heat, warmth trailing up her arms, causing all the fine hair to stand at attention, the back of her neck growing sweaty. She felt drowsy, which didn’t make any sense, because wasn’t she already dreaming? He hovered over her again, lips close to her neck.
“Are you a vampire?” She breathed.
He laughed, again a sound warm yet eerie, drawing her further outside herself so she felt as though she were hearing her own voice from a spot on the ceiling.
“Nothing so modern or western as all that,” he said. Or did she hear him think it? Luluwa was having a hard time figuring out where his arm ended and hers began.
“I’m a jinn,” he said.
“What’s your name?” She asked, entranced by the rings of fire that had appeared in his pupils.
“You can not speak it in any of your human tongues,” he said or more like sighed, a whisper into her mind. “But it sounds like Javed.”
She shuddered, her body overwhelmed by the heat of him, sweat beading across her forehead.
“You came to punish me?”
His laugh echoed in her head, reverberating in her ears.
“No, my darling,” Javed said, his breath caressing her skin like a touch. “I came to save your grandfather. And I fell in love with you by mistake.”
She fell into him, her knees soft, her palms stinging at the direct contact with the skin of his chest. She couldn’t draw away, though the heat was increasing, the feeling now like a thousand stinging nettles.
“Careful,” he said, pulling away her hands, the touch of each of his fingertips singeing her wrists. “Don’t get to close to me.”
“Or you’ll burn me?” She lay back on the bed, like a doll, her limbs devoid of her will.
“No,” he said, hovering over her, his eyes now glowing flames. “If we’re not careful I will possess you. And then we’ll have real problems.”
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?
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.