I love the count downs that occur during the last week of December. There are the top music videos and most embarrassing moments; celebrity shockers and sports highlights. It’s the one week every year that my inner pop culture junkie can get her fill of the year that was. Even grander are those moments which observe the passing of a decade which we find ourselves in as 2010 draws to a close.
Before New Year’s Eve comes to Doha, however, is another event of equal resonance, if only locally in Qatar: National Day. Observed on December 18, a year ago this week, a blog post about National Day ignited a firestorm of controversy. A woman blogging on Qatar Living.com posted a piece about the antics of youth on the cornice, ending with the conclusion that the boys (for they were mostly) were symptomatic of the country and both needed to grow up. Spray painted cars, wheelies, people hanging out of windows – all of this, plus someone accosting her with a facemask on, led the blogger to call out her host country and also its people.
The response – over 600 replies to her posting – covered the range of emotions: defending, decrying, and debasing her claims. Whatever people were saying, the outpouring was something few people could have predicted. Hate pages for the blogger and the website sprang up on Facebook and gathered several hundred members. The post and the responses exposed feelings not just about a group of boys out on the town to have fun, but on a range of topics, some as innocuous as driving, to differences in compensation, polices such as Qatarization, and lack of respect for culture. Whatever the topic and rebuttal, people were arguing ferociously for “their” side.
A year later, what I’m ruminating about is not the incident itself, but what it revealed about those of us who share this tiny peninsula on the larger land of Arabia. The post and the subsequent reaction revealed the deep rooted tensions between ex-pats and locals in our small city state.
As someone who often has to code switch and defend expats to locals and locals to expats, I was saddened by how large the rift still seemed last year and can’t say that things are really drastically changing. The gulf in Qatar (pun intended) is not merely between the haves and the have-nots though that is evident when I sit in traffic next to the buses full of laborers. It’s also between us as people. The expats are not a homogenous group as they seem. There are distinctions between where people come from – Europe, America, and South Asia – as well as their occupations; oil, educational, sports. And locals have an intricate ranking system based on tribal ancestry, how long their families have been on the Arabian Peninsula, and who they are connected to by marriage or otherwise.
When one population is constant – the Qataries, and one population lasts only 1-3 years – the expats, there is no real window to confront these myths and stereotypes. A year later, coming upon National Day, I’m reminded that while we may all live next to each other, stand in line together, driving the same roads, we don’t actually see each other or engage.
New Year’s resolutions are known for triteness and being doomed to failure. Instead of waiting until January 1, I’ve started implementing “life changes” earlier so that by the time the New Year comes; it will find me already practicing my desired habit.
December 2010 is about daily exercise and the practice of being present with people. No messaging, or mobile, or internet. Just being present and really hearing what they have to say.
It is only by really hearing someone that we can stop seeing them as the “other.” And we know that the boundary between us and them is not as firm as we once thought.
Hotels, DJs, clothing manufacturers, want me to buy into the buildup of that other dread holiday – New Year’s Eve. I’ve had the rare opportunity to spend the most talked about night of the year in a different country over the past five years. This isn’t as glamorous as it sounds since often my companions for the evening go to bed before the witching hour, leaving me watching fireworks around the world via satellite.
Despite the hype and commerciality, the end of the year is good to evaluation and introspection, both of what’s happened and what’s to come.
For the sake of all the people living in Qatar, I hope 2011 finds us turning a new page together.
We’ve lived in the Middle East for five years and not really ever cleaned our own house. Now that we have our first live-in nanny/domestic, it doesn’t seem like we ever will.
First there was no need to clean much when I was single because I only used two of the five rooms in my three bedroom, two bathroom apartment. Same for my then fiancé, who lived in a two-storey villa with as many bedrooms as bathrooms (four of each). He essentially lived in front of the T.V., always ate out, and only ever slept upstairs. He wasn’t allowed to hire a female housemaid as a single man – a good rule in a country where men outnumber women in both the expat and local populations.
Compound life takes some adjustment, especially if you are part of the first wave of your company overseas as we were. Despite the best efforts of the company to ensure a work life balance for employees by spreading them out across housing complexes, for security and practicality reasons, they really can’t go very far. So you can get stuck living next to your boss or underneath those you supervise, around the corner from your nemesis. There is very little chance for privacy particularly in the early days of our start up when we were all driven together in a bus to work until people were received their residence permits and then driver’s licenses.
While a car and license could give you mobility, there was still no chance of anonymity. After all in a team of ten, word spread quickly if someone had a car and was bold enough to take on the roundabouts of Doha. If you brought your car over for a party, left it outside for a weekend while traveling, or even worse, were spotted while driving away in the morning from a house that wasn’t yours – tongues were sure to wag and rumors fly.
This fish bowl of scrutiny was not fertile ground for a romance but survive nonetheless we did and I was convinced after that first year, we could survive anything.
Then when got married, we moved to a townhouse that wasn’t ideal for either of us but the only thing available because the return from our nuptials overlapped with one of the largest spikes in Qatar’s housing market: the ramp up for the 2006 Asian Games.
Even more frustratingly for anyone who has done a move within the same city was the location of our first home together — literally across the main street from my bachelorette apartment. These tiny moves can be terrors because what begins as a few planned shuttle car loads grows and grows until you wish someone would come and repossess all your belongings just to absolve you of the responsibility of owning so much junk.
People who came over to our first domicile commented on how “small” our living room was. And by Doha standards it was rather like sitting in a bread box with the T.V. five feet in front of the sofa. It was brand new, never been lived in, but not a great place for a woman who had just made two of life’s major transitions – marriage and switching jobs – to struggle with ambivalent feelings towards her new life. There was nothing inherently wrong with either: my husband was attentive when he was home and my job at the national university presented new challenges.
The problem was that even after I added both together, I still had about four spare hours a day on my own. Having just stepped off the literal fast track of working for an American university, I had no idea what to do with twenty hours of free time a week. My mostly single expat friends, also caught up in the workaholic tendencies of moving to a country for work, had no suggestions either. I spent at least six months of that year asleep: literally, coming home from work by 2:00 p.m., walking upstairs, changing, and getting into bed, only rubbing my eyes open when he strolled in at six or seven o’clock. I have very few memories of that townhouse other than the one Thanksgiving potluck we hosted there. Most of the other celebrations we had at the home’s of friends because of concerns about the limited space.
My continuously optimistic, non-grumbling husband, who grew up just outside of D.C. would never openly acknowledge the flaws with our first space: he thought the complaints were a form of space relativism – the place was fine for us (though other people were moving out like lemmings) and big enough with three bedrooms and three bathrooms that we needed help keeping the dust to a minimum. Enter our first house help: a really nice guy from Kerala who wasn’t much of a conversationalist but had an eye for detail. He started out twice a month.
Then, the Asian games were over and more housing became available: as a newlywed my complaints about not having a decent size dryer finally gained me a stackable unit with yet an even bigger house with now five bedrooms and bathrooms. We still had just the two of us and no kids or visitors to really justify this amount of space but we were now on more equal footing with our other expat colleagues.
(I understand why Qataries often complain that expats come to their country and live in a style better than they would at home. It’s something about being in keeping with the standards of their own expectations.)
The maintenance on this new dwelling soon began to show its shoddiness: We had 8 leaks in no less than a few months. And we aren’t talking about slow drips that keep you up at night. Once we came upstairs after a huge birthday to find water pouring from the rooftop water container through the light fixtures on the landing. Another time I was sitting on the sofa in the living room, wondering what the noise coming from the kitchen was since I was the only one in the house. By the time I got up to investigate, a fast moving plume of water had descended from the ceiling and proceeded towards the front door.
The parade of construction men that came through the house on these occasions to “fix” the problem was as tiresome as they were ineffective. With no contract for maintenance work, the landlord’s solution was to replace faulty wiring/plumbing/etc. with spare parts from other units in the compound. Of course, it was no surprise when these ‘replacements’ also broke while we were home or away.
The crowning moment came towards the end of the first summer when the transformer plug for our electricity began giving out. The wiring was not in our house, but in the box on the street. From calling the compound manager once every day to have him reset it, we were speed dialing him every fifteen minutes over the course of night as the fuse got shorter and shorter. Our neighbors fared no better: a mix of families from two employers, we wanted to stay together as a community for the move for better management. This was not to bed. Our group was deemed “a bad influence” on the others because we were highly demanding and spoiled.
Yet another undesirable move: again not across town but only a few streets away and this time into one of the most congested parts of the city. Ironically this compound had gone up across from the nursery I ran to our second Thanksgiving in order to buy some plants for our sparse townhouse backyard. We lived with two oil burning generators for about eight months, conveniently outside our front door as we were near the front of the compound. The constant loud thrumming could not really be heard once the door was closed; but upstairs in our bedroom, the sounds of progress from the hypermarket (sort of like a neighborhood Wal-mart) accompanied us from 4 a.m. until we left for work – sometimes still present when we came home. Luckily our double plated glass was reflective – at least during the day – and they were denied the free entertainment they would have otherwise had (but got glimpses of when we were in the backyard from the higher levels of their scaffolding).
I often caught the construction workers, who were mostly South Asian, elbowing each other and staring as I climbed into my car for the morning drive. At first I would shrug my shoulders; then I would put my hands out, palms out, and mouth “What are you looking at?” On those instances they didn’t look away, I gave them the finger. Away from their families be damned. I’m never in the mood to be gawked at merely because I’m brown and not wearing hijab. And no, the staring is NOT a compliment unless you also think standing at the gorilla’s cage at the zoo is a form of admiration.
The early days in the fourth and latest compound showed signs of promise. The hanging rods in all of the closets were placed for adult size Amazonians. We asked for them to be lowered and they were – in all four bedrooms.
The landlord’s responsive bounty continued: he bought and installed the larger washing machine and separate dryer residents requested: soon there were carport covers as well to shield our vehicles from the heat. There was no water damage in the first six months; soon after Christmas the generators were moved out and construction on the clubhouse and pool started (along with a cacophony of sound now coming from the front of the house as well as the back). If we wanted to pull up bricks from our backyard and plant trees, or paint every room a different color, we were welcome to do with help even from the compound labor crew (so at our leisure and expense.)
Now a year on, we have a clubhouse, pool, small playground in the back of the compound for the twenty or so children who live there, a handle on the garage door (with key to open and close) plants out front maintained by the gardener and the construction completed on the glassy storefront of the hypermarket next door.
Traffic in the neighborhood hasn’t improved enormously – there are still some times of day to avoid going out if possible – but the opening of Doha’s first super highway “D ring road” has made getting across town a pleasure. Instead of thirty minutes to reach work or the cornice, it now takes about fifteen or twenty. The pileups to enter and exit the highway can be snarled but in most instances the euphoria of driving 100 km an hour to get there make up for it.
A year on into the fourth house, we are okay. We have immediate neighbors who are lovely: their three children keep me sane on days when I’m fed up with the computer, work, or looking for a preview of what life as a family will be like. The morning after I found out we were having a boy, I saw their youngest on his tricycle, smiling at me as though I were the only person in the world, and lessened the shock of the unexpected news.
Two nights ago our first full time employee moved in: a nanny who will double as house help us in our transition as parents. Finding her was an adventure. Moving her in made becoming parents in the Middle East a reality. As I type our cleaner of four years and four houses is showing her around the house and how he’s been taking care of us once or twice a month for the last four years. He now has his own thriving business and can barely squeeze our two storeys, five and five in – though he seems slightly sad that we are giving him up – so the transition is likely well timed for us all.
It feels like a changing of the guard: One for the nanny as well who has been with a family of five, three boys and two adults for nearly five years. She has come from the organized chaos of a house teeming with activity to ours: a house on pause, waiting for the expected unexpected upheaval of a new born.
I’m so grateful to have the help that new mothers and indeed women everyone could benefit from. Doubtless there will be adventures and stories to tell. There are rumors of human rights violations and exploitation of domestics– by expats and locals alike; the domestics themselves trying to steal the ‘sir’ from the madam; worries of child abuse leading to the installations of baby cams or voice recordings; theft, sexual promiscuity, and dozens of other stereotypes. Stay tuned as this may become a thread in the ongoing saga of a day in Doha.