ex-pat life

From Dunes to Dior


Chennai in India

Chennai in India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

July 2012 will mark seven years that I have lived in Qatar. Seven consecutive years is my record with only three other cities in the world. Doha joins a short list which includes Gainesville, Florida and Raleigh, North Carolina.

My formative years in American suburbia had erased most traces of my parents’ sub-continental pronunciation in my own speech. My “h” was “h”; not the “heche” of my parents.  I was American in sight and sound. However, on the inside, I was still Indian. By looking at me, you couldn’t sense there was a war being waged on the inside. To the outside world, identity was measured by clothing and speech—having an established Western orientation in both cases,  I was regarded as one of the crowd by my white, Southern classmates. On these counts I failed both tests and was eyed with suspicion by the other housewives at my mother’s parties. But blue jeans and flat vowels never hinted at  the inner world of my family or what happened when the front door closed on our home.
Inside life was governed by the same principles that had ruled my mother’s teenage years in Chennai, India. No movies after seven p.m. In fact, no women outside the house after dark, not for football games, parties, or sleepovers.

Like so many of the “American Born Confused Desi generation,” referred amongst ourselves as the ABCD generation, I was a socially emaciated, well-behaved Indian daughter who railed at endless parental restrictions. The split identity meant non-relatives never saw all of me. They only knew “white” me. Meanwhile my immediate family thought they might lose me to the outside world, so they mounted an “it’s better in India” campaign to override my resistance and

North America

North America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

suspicious of inferiority with reasons for our cultural superiority.

“A better maths education,” was one of my father’s favorite refrains as I remained confounded by geometry.

“No child shows an over-dependence on calculators,” he would say throwing up his hands on yet another weekend when I failed to solve one of his problem sets…

Respect for elders – children taking care of their aging parents – more of it in India.

“Marriage as a commitment.”

My mother wouldn’t  say more but implied where a boy and girl learn to love rather than fall into it is taken more seriously in India.

I didn’t ask the obvious question, although it hammered in my brain; If everything is better there, what are we doing here? I didn’t dare. Partly out of fear of my father, but also partly out of fear there would be no answer.

What if the secret behind our semi-nomadic life had no greater answer than my father’s wanderlust? What if a series of pharmacology grants was the single red line on the map leading us from a veterinary program in South India to a series of North American institutions?

I continued to play these two parts simultaneously; intensely outgoing and enthusiastic – “American” – and constantly communicating with my parents – “Indian.” I didn’t find the bridge that spanned the outside/inside gap until later, after college and graduate school, when my own desires for professional fulfillment and monetary rewards led me to move several times. This realization emerged slowly as pieces of a scattered puzzle – from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. – as I met more of my generation, children of immigrant parents from all over the world, juggling these competing demands. Then, for the second time in my life, globalization entered stage left, having already taken me as a small child with my adventurous father and sheltered mother from Chennai, India onto and all over the North American continent.

This time I traveled alone, east, not west, ending up four hours from my birthplace. I landed in the Arabian Gulf, thousands of miles from my upbringing in North America, and in an ironic twist, closer to the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, than any of my immediate family. Situated in Qatar, I found myself in a region often described as a human rights quagmire for migrant South Asian workers. The questions from my young adult years resurfaced within the minutiae of life in the Gulf. Their return disturbed my temporarily coalesced identity. Familiar, opposing pressures reappeared – the tension between an outside/public life and the inside/private one, the contradiction between physical appearance and personal affiliation – and my newly gathered reflection erupted like a cracked mirror, splintered pieces flying in all directions.

The splinters of being South Asian American in an Arab country and the echoes of my teenage angst are the stories I tell in From Dunes to Dior which will be soon be released as an e-book on Amazon.com. You’ll see some of the contrasts in Qatar in the book trailer.

In the meantime, enjoy one of my other four ebooks – on everything from modern motherhood to how to get started as a writer. The best part is they are ALL free to download until May 16, 2012. Drop me a line (or a review) and let me know what you thought about any or all of them. Happy reading!


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We Don’t Have to do it Your Way


Ramadan Glow 3 by Benjamin Sperandio

I was having lunch with a friend the other day and as our nearly one year old boys toddled around her house, we got to chewing the salads and also the fat of life as close friends (and it must be said, women) do. Everything from business ideas to family drama was on the table alongside the fried chicken and coleslaw. Then we got to what everyone’s talking about in the Muslim world these days: Ramadan.

I mentioned the person in the UAE who was recently fined for insulting the season on Facebook.

“Why are people so surprised things close in a Muslim country?” my friend asked.

We went a couple of rounds on this one, but more on this in a bit.

The seasons of fasting is around the corner of the weekend. In order to be home — and avoid breaking fast at 10pm when the sun goes down in Europe some say — Qatari families are coming home earlier from their sun soaked days in Nice, Barcelona, or the far ends of the earth. Because the start of school and universities are delayed until after Eid al Fitr, expats are heading to the airport (or indeed airport hopping) during what they consider a “dead” month.

This split on Ramadan is emblematic of the many cities that inhabit this capital we all share — at times like this– uncomfortably.

Let’s look at some of the reasons we differ on Ramadan.

A Plural Islamic Society

The losing of restaurants, shortened working hours, and synchronized schedule that affects the malls, government, and other key services is new to most expats who are generally from environments where religion is not only practiced in private but mostly on the weekends. To bring religion into everyday life can not only be new, it seems at odds with the “your life can go on exactly as it did before — see the McDonald’s?” strategy that many organizations use when recruiting new people to Qatar. This is blatant (well meaning) false advertising.

Strangely the Victoria Secret, Volvo, or Versace may have a calming effect on the person worried about settling in away from home. But access to the familiar whether in Mumbai, Miami, or Madrid doesn’t guarantee that life in a new  city or country is going to be blip free. At the most basic, the locations of your favorite anything will be in new places, therefore not the same.

Ramadan moves back ten days each year and as long it’s near the start of the school year, it will be a dizzying first encounter for many new arrivals. Not eating in public, avoiding drinking in your car; these are confusing signals juxtaposed with wanting to host the World Cup or the Tour de France. The constant juggle between modernity and tradition, between culturally appropriate and individual freedom is something everyone in Qatar is experiencing and there are no easy answers.

For the now, luxury brands and not eating in the workplace are not mutually exclusive.

A Believer’s Community

When you move to a country for a job, what you end up doing is working. Even those Muslims who are not from the Gulf or here without their families find Ramadan a lonely time because it is a season where the community supports itself in gathering closer to God. The gatherings within people’s homes, akin to looking in while people are circled around an Easter brunch, are closed off to those who don’t know anyone, don’t have invitations, or in general, are lonely. This is the opposite of the season, as many groups have iftars, or group dinners, sponsored for charity as much as entertainment, to gather together.

You can still fall through the cracks, however, and this means rather than drawing closer to God through those around you, you feel more alone than ever. This is no different than any other holiday season: Christmas or Diwali, when the overall effect is isolation rather than inclusion, it may feel more compounded because public life is truncated during the day and most people who are fasting will generally not be as available as they might otherwise be.

But back to the main subject during my lunch, which circulated around a central question: Why do visitors, guests, non-citizens feel so comfortable about criticizing their host country? Whether Ramadan, or Qatari National Day (which infamously sparked a firestorm online), my friend was curious exactly why people felt and expressed themselves vociferously.

“Would you hear an Arab talking about the 4th of July?” she asked me. “No, we’d say, okay, this is their country, let them do it their way.”

She had a point, and a crystallizing one — even if someone thought Christmas was excessive, Diwali pagan, and the Solstice unnecessary, these views would eventually disappear into white noise in most contexts because they do not have the entrenched charge that cultural critique takes on in Qatar.

A Minefield

There’s the us/against them factor, which we’ve discussed in the past; but also, if you are new and you are experiencing Ramadan for the first time, your grumble is the first to you and perhaps natural, no harm intended, more processing. But you’ll forget or be completely unaware that it’s the tenth or twentieth for the person, often Qatari, sometimes Arab or Muslim from somewhere else, to hear this by now, unoriginal reaction.

Child rearing, fashion, movies, culture — they are all blank canvases for us to express our opinions. If you live in Doha, however, the stakes seem very high and generally come down along racial or religious lines. When we are talking about Ramadan, or traffic, or friendships, we aren’t merely talking about the issue at hand but the psychic force of all the other ones as well come to bear. It’s like being in a distinguishing relationship, where arguments escalate, and you both care, or remember caring, or want to care — and you need a new way out of an old, destructive pattern.

This Ramadan, why not reach out to someone and do the thing the season was designed to do: spend thoughtful, intentional time at a meal, or in prayer, or some other activity that will make you feel more connected rather than alienated? Let’s bring out the best in each other, expat and Qatar, South Asian and western, rather than the worst that is circling around us in the all the too present stereotypes.

After all — you know you’ll have some time — what else are you going to do while waiting for everything to open?

How to Make Qatari Friends: Part Three

We’ve been discussing the relationships between Qataris and expats for a few weeks and I’ve tried to pose some new angles to lamentation: “I’ve never been inside a Qatari house.”

The reasons for this are many, but in the last two weeks, we’ve touched on a few key areas.

First: Expats in general do not have a long enough shelf life in Qatar to allow for relationships to develop.

Second: there is a mutual distrust in both circles of “the other” which include a bit of myth and fact that are compounded by isolation.

Lest you were thinking I was only going to cover more of the same ground , now we come to solutions of how to bridge this divide in the city that many of us call home – if only temporarily for some.  Yes, if you hang around long enough you may end up invited to a majlis or dinner; but even there you are unlikely to get past the courtesy hellos because the other attendees will still have the aforementioned reservations in mind. You, as the foreigner, will be there on the good graces of the host and for that reason tolerated.

The best way that I’ve found to make Qatari friends, or indeed friends from any other community in Doha besides my own, is to undertake something of substance together. In short: a project of mutual interest and benefit to everyone who is associated with it.

But if you’d like to be embraced, considered a friend, and share triumphs and tribulations —-find something meaningful to do together. This is the only way to break down stereotypes in any society, culture, country. You stand up and defend a race, a religion, a gender because you know someone who doesn’t deserve to be belittled.

It may be the most time consuming but it is the most tested form and has the most consistent results. You can sit around sheesha and karak places all night long, but until there is something you care about together, a shared goal, vision, mission, plan, that you sweat over and celebrate together; you’ll still not have the measure of who each other are. What’s of relatively low importance here is what the “thing” is that brings you together.

It could be supporting creative writers; it could be developing a concept for children in Doha; it could be establishing a local magazine, it could be creating a business idea – these are a few examples of projects I’m currently working on with the input of Arabs, expats, and Qataris. In essence: anything and everything you are passionate about get out there and start talking to people about it. Social media, real time conferences, or to your friends, figure out what you have in common with those around you and how to broaden that circle to include others.

For me the first hint that working together makes meaning possible came entirely by accident: I was bored to death during my second year in Qatar and I started to write more seriously. During this time someone suggested exploring my personal interest in writing through at grant for Qatar University to do an essay collection. There were so many uncertain elements: would we find writers? And then what about readers? Did a project like this stand a chance? The only way to know is not to decide beforehand, but to try it out.

Fear of failure had killed more good ideas and trapped more people in unhappiness than any other cause.

We tried it and 23 female writers stepped forward. The book launched at the opening of the Waqif Art Center– the first collection of its kind in Qatar – and people (including male writers) began asking: when will the next book be out? The Qatar Narratives Series, now in our 5th title, was created.

I crunched down all of this in answering one of the questions during the discussion held by the Doha Film Institute a week or so ago to check the pulse of the community regarding TEDxDoha and all things TED. The question: what are incorrect assumptions (or mistakes) westerners make about Qatar?

One of the main concerns is what we’ve been talking about already, the idea that the well-known Arab hospitality is little experienced by the vast majority of expats.

Brian Wesolowski, from ictQatar, and Creative Commons evangelist, began answering this seemingly sensitive subject. And what he said echoes much of what we’ve been saying: He found that he developed relationships with people in the local community as he started talking about Creative Commons. Through coffees, teas, and dinners, he let artists, photographers, designers; know that there was a platform ready for them to display their creativity. Brian was passionate about CC and through CC he gained an entire multi-national community.

It’s not easy, you’re thinking, what about my job, or my family, or my hobby? Well, if it were easy, everyone would do it. And that hobby? Well, it may just be your ticket to a more meaningful experience.

If you aren’t familiar with TED, the NGO that’s believes in “Ideas worth Spreading” then instead of crawling YouTube, spend a few (thousand) hours with experts in Technology, Environment, and Design.  In 15 minute segments, TED gives you access to the world famous including Bill Gates and Madeline Albright, as well as everyday practitioners perfecting their techniques all over the world. Offshoots of the official TED are TEDx, or independently organized events and in 2010 Doha hosted its very first TEDxDoha event, put together by the Doha Film Institute. Contact them if you’re interested in learning more about how you can get involved (and meet others interested in doing so).

Why You Don’t Have Qatari Friends: Part Two

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Why You Don’t Have Qatari Friends: Part One

On Thursday afternoon, I co-hosted a teleclass to go with the course I wrote for the Global Academy on living and working in Qatar. Both writing the course and preparing for the teleclass were cause for rumination on  6 years of living in Doha. The most interesting part of the teleclass was when participants asked questions. There was one person on the call who had been living in Qatar since February 2011; she dialed in from Doha like I did because she wanted to know more about the place she had made her home. The questions were fairly standard: clothing for women, women in the workforce, and then the equivalent of “why do Qataries keep to themselves?”

In other fora I’ve talked about the tensions between expats and Qataries. But in this instance, I don’t think the caller had a bone to pick, she was genuinely curious about how to develop friendships with people in her new home base. I suffered from this earnest desire when I moved here in 2005. I came to the Middle East to experience life in an Islamic society since my scholarly work was focused on gender and Islam. Soon I found myself living and working in an expat enclave, far away from the Arabs and Arabic I had hoped to learn more about. I experienced first hand what I relayed to everyone on the teleclass; the numbers don’t work in anyone’s favor.

The numbers in Qatar create a unique situation where the nationals are actually minorities in their own country. I can think of few other places in the world where this is the case. Even in the U.S., my home since childhood, people may grumble about “real Americans” (those born there or white) versus “Americans” (those like my family who have naturalized) but the fact is citizenship can be gained. In Qatar, you are only Qatari if your father is Qatar (mothers are starting to get more rights if they marry non-nationals) and there is an intricate ranking system amongst the various tribes, family names, and points of origin.

During this time, I told every Qatari woman that I met that I was trying to make local friends. She would smile politely and I generally never saw her again; this happened on a regular basis and one night, at a very high profile public event, I thought I might have finally struck gold. A prominent official introduced me to his daughter who was also attending. She was my age, she seemed really interested in what I was doing (yes this sounds like dating and is largely how it felt). He told me that his daughter would call me. He would repeat this smile and phrase for the next three years. Needless to say: she never called.

I did an even risker thing than moving to this tiny country situated on top of Saudi Arabia: I left the bastion of Americanism and went to work for the national university. There was the game changer: I was the only non-Arab, non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking employee in the entire building. Even the kitchen staff knew enough Arabic to take drink orders and conduct basic business. The numbers were finally in my favor – I was in the minority so I had no choice but to make connections, acquaintances, colleagues, who developed – over the course of three years – into friends.

The second thing I relayed to the teleclass, I also learned around my third year living here. When you have one population that is static (nationals) and one population that is a revolving door (expats), establishing new relationships becomes a dance with the law of diminishing returns. I used to offer lots of help, advice, rides, and listening ears to new arrivals. Quickly though I realized what  a draining proposition this is as I could predict in exactly what order, and what time of year, the topics they would want to discuss.

A summary of the first six months of the expat: The heat, the traffic, lack of bookshelves, the medical test, grocery shopping, how to find the spouse a job, inconveniences of Ramadan, the construction, getting an RP, and buying a car.

This isn’t to say that these aren’t all valid and important concerns; it’s just listening to them, helping people through them, and then two years later, having to do it all over again for an entirely new group of people, makes you realize how transient expat life is. Add to this the fact that by year four, nearly everyone I knew when I moved here had returned home, and you begin to see why making friends with expats might be an energy draining proposition.

I told the teleclass that nowadays when I see new people, I run in the other direction.

“You’ve gone local,” someone said and we laughed.

And honestly, it is a survival strategy that makes sense. If you have over 3 siblings, between them, your cousins, the larger circle of friends of these relatives, you have a ready made play set no newcomers needed. There are other cities that work like this and Pittsburgh was one of them; insular communities where everyone who went to high school together, now works and plays together.

I did eventually make Qatari friends – even now having dinner with the young woman who was supposed to be my friend in 2006  – but it was the outer edge of three years of living here. At that point, I guess most people realized I was likely to stick around and worth the investment. Or perhaps it took this long for the stereotypes about expats to wear off.

More on this soon.




On Being Abnormal

It happened again at a dinner party last night. Someone invariably was talking about a trip they went on where the local people were normal. And the city was normal. And the economy was normal. The latest land to be praised was Oman. Now granted, I’ve been to Oman and it beautiful, lush and green; Omanis are truly friendly people. But the comparison to Qatar is what put me on the defensive. From within our expat enclaves to talk about the other as abnormal is more than my postcolonial heart can stand. Especially since I know that the wall we feel between us and the local community is a mutual construction.

In Doha, I find myself in an awkward position, not unfamiliar as the child of immigrants. Being a third culture child: living in one, raised in another, fashioning your way, perhaps was the best experience for this life of in between apologist. Invariably this word normal has always gotten my back up. Growing up as a South Asian in north central Florida, I was anything but normal. I was the fly in the ointment as they say and very much felt it in the way my parents dressed, spoke, behaved and the resulting impact on what I brought to school to eat, the social rules I had to live by: in short my American teenage years were nothing like what we see on prime time U.S. television.

Now I am constantly defending Qataries to expats and expats to Qataries. Rarely do these two communities ever actually meet in a meaningful way. And whey they do, it’s more like crashing into one another. I’m often like an eavesdropper, hearing what each side has to say about the other, wishing I could call for a meeting of the minds. The complaints are so constant and familiar as to be unoriginal and borderline boring. If only they weren’t so serious in their examination of the other group. We dwell on the worst in each other.

The impatient Qatari man or woman is indignant at being made to wait in their own country in a line, for example, and pushes ahead of everyone else.

Or the skimpily clad expat woman, for another, is walking around the souq dressed as though she were at home, for another, because of the scorching heat, not realizing it’s Ramadan.

We live in the same city but never really on the same plain. And I can’t figure out what it is. But perhaps like the cause of war, there is no one specific reason, just a mishmash of facts and emotions. Some of it is the transient nature of the Doha labor market intersecting with the need to maintain the boundaries of these various nationalities. People come on short term contracts, to make money, never expecting to stay and also not really encouraged to think of Qatar as home.

Dress is a distinct way to make sure no one ever forgets where the other person is really “from” and to where they will return. While we are together, even eating, shopping, or visiting each others homes, there are visual reminders we are different.

In an environment where one group is here today and gone tomorrow – a phenomena I’m growing increasingly sick of as one of the ones left behind – I see now why the group that’s staying doesn’t really bother with the new group. After all, now I’m the one running in the other direction in early August as the new arrivals are trooping out of the airport and onto the immigration buses for their medical screenings. I know exactly what they’ll want to talk about for the first six months they are here: Ramadan, driving, the heat, dust, censored movies, and migrant workers. No one wants to learn Arabic because they don’t need to use it. No one knows any Qataries either because they don’t work with any or those that they do with rarely come to office. And the Qataries that are working outside of the government or ministries often feel outnumbered at the office the same way they would have been at City Center or Villaggio. It’s not that these events and feelings aren’t important to discuss – after all what else can you talk about when you first arrive but what you know? The sad fact is that many never develop their conversation or their relationships beyond these initial impressions.

But it’s many of their companies that are the ones promising expats that their lifestyles – implied: their mindsets – don’t have to change in order to move to Doha. Being a moderate state has its draw backs: alcohol being sold in hotels, burgeoning night life, the pace of change constantly on your front doorstep and price the seemingly endless tide of people coming and going, while you keep living your life.

In the past, before the financial crisis, and pre-2022 host city status, most people wouldn’t come to the desert without great motivation. Hence the now well known financial and lifestyle incentives pile up for the adventurous expats. But you’re not necessarily getting what you pay for, as most career expats can tell you: those who are abroad are either there for the adventure, or there because nowhere else will have them. These poor specimens are often the ones Qataries single out when explaining they feel that they are being passed by for blue eyed, blond haired non-expert, living in a fancy house and driving a nice car on their money.

Meanwhile, the same foreigners, or indeed even credential non-white expats, see the in day to day effects of Qatarization – people not coming to work, young men skipping industry altogether to drink coffee at Starbucks, colleagues that are not motivated – as proof that a merit based society will never thrive.

And we reach another impasse as stereotypes are circulated, confirmed, and recirculated.

As one of the people who has hung on, now in my sixth year, I’ve grown almost deaf to these complaints. People always want to know how I did it, how did I make Qatari friends? The answers are so easy as to blatantly obvious but they demand the one ingredient not many have the luxury of: time. I was around, I engaged in meaningful work (in my case writing projects), I had multiple opportunities to show that I cared. Though in an interesting side bar, I have to admit that no one over the age of 40 is a good friend, though I have many older colleagues I feel great mutual respect for.

Maybe there is something modern about the notion of having an expat friend come over on a Friday to the family house, be invited to the ladies majlis, or go to visit in the hospital after she has given birth. Most of my male and female Qatari friends are under the age of 30, hovering closer to 25.

These relationships, like any friendships, are not easy to build and often harder to maintain given the various demands that everyone is juggling. But that is the thing that’s normal. Take it from someone who has seen several cycles of expats come and go; the mistrust on both sides is about the only thing normal about life here. Nearly everyone that I went to my medical screening with in 2005 has left Doha.

So as a survival mechanism I started making friends with Qataries. If I was staying and they were staying, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. But then a strange thing happened: even my Qatari friends started going abroad to purse further studies, or temporary assignments, leaving me once again bereft, the only answer being to make more friends.

“Where is the famous Qatari hospitality?” a lot of people ask at dinner parties. I hear stories of their travels elsewhere in the Middle East where complete strangers invite them in for meals, or give them directions and walk the entire walk, etc. etc.

The United States cannot really claim to be a bastion of civility to foreigners and as recent headlines show, neither will Europe win any words for raids on xenophobia. The numbers do not make it easy for the average Qatari, vastly outnumbered in their own country, rushed into speaking, studying, living in a foreign tongue, to open their hearts or homes to just any of the tens of thousands of people passing by. Add to this the context of gender segregated socialization and you’ve just halved the opportunities for interaction again.

It is not easy for either side to see the other across this wall of indifference. And there are people who benefit from this consistently wide gulf between us. For the sake of Qatar, and my friends on both sides, I hope more people keep reaching across. It is the only hope any of us have at living an abnormal life and creating connections between these historically different communities.




Someone Else 2

A few years ago I wrote about how my craving for chocolate munchkins at Dunkin’ Donuts helped get through a very lonely period. Every time I went to the DD in our neighborhood and there were none of my tasty delights left on the shelf, I wondered if someone else also loved the taste of the cake and glaze, the perfect balance between sugar and sweet, as much as I did. That blog entry was playful but expressed profound issues. It is also one of the few pieces my husband – ever confessed as my faithful, non-reading fan-remembers and has actually read in entirety.  I’ve borrowed it for all these reasons and also because something else happened in the neighborhood recently that may be a watershed event.

This month I’ve been confronted by another shared experience – this time much uglier than the crime of selfishly taking all of one type of doughnut at the store.

It’s indifference.

The ugly head of looking away is rearing everywhere so much so we are running out of excuses of why we don’t get involved. Whether on the international scale as the UN Security Council looks away at the slaughter of peaceful protestors in Bahrain or the pursuit of antigovernment people in Libya, or the personal of avoiding the truths that simmer only a few doors down from where we call home.

The international community may be caught showing impotent they are while distant parts of the world burn in fury at decades of abuse.

I sit in judgment of global leaders, whole countries, and then realize the lesson comes home to my door step – as various themes have been doing since the start of the Egyptian revolution.

Someone in my neighborhood needed help a few weeks ago and I was too busy coming and going, to work, to play, to church, to the store not to notice it. She was caught in the unfortunate circumstance that so many women find themselves: at the mercy of her employer who decided she couldn’t transfer her sponsorship to someone else and without explanation sent her home.

Turns out that many people around me knew this was happening and a few tried to do their part to persuade the employer to do the right thing. They wouldn’t budge and the end result was the same: the devastated young woman was sent away without regard for her family, her future, her livelihood.

Admittedly I don’t know all the sides of the story but the basic principle is the same: someone in the neighborhood needed help and I wasn’t there.

Idealistically you think you’ll be there for someone if they needed you. This is what good people do. We step forward when we’re called. But what if our day to day is so hectic, frenetic, and manic, that we can’t hear those pleas?

I confronted a friend whom this young woman had asked for help and who had been turned away.

“I didn’t have room to keep her stuff,” my friend told me.

This is the case, the summary, of what’s wrong. We don’t have room because our lives, our minds, our days are so cluttered with things of no consequence that things that truly matter to us can’t get access to our hearts.

“When someone asks us for help, we have to help them,” I said to my friend. She didn’t feel she could have risked herself for this person.

And I don’t know what I could have done. Maybe I would have been even more ineffectual than the people who did try to get them to see reason. Maybe not. Perhaps my getting involved would have made a tense situation irreparably awkward for future exchanges. Perhaps not.  The truth is we’ll never know. Because while I smiled at this person, waved, and even stopped to ask how she was once or twice, I wasn’t there when she really needed someone.

The pontificating around Gaddafi, certifiably a corrupt, embezzling, bloodthirsty dictator, whose latest international broadcasts have proven his hold on reality is tenuous at best, seems to have moved towards action. The UK has agreed to freeze his assets. Germany and others-including the unlikely Peru-have called for Gaddafi to step down and the regime to stop killing its citizens.

But will it be too little too late? Are we in fact sliding towards civil war as the world keeps going to work, eating lunch, and putting our children to sleep, safe in their middle class beds, in the stable countries of the world?

I don’t know. But I do know that much in the way that my mini-revolution started, it hasn’t stopped, only grown strength as people around the Middle East stand up and speak for themselves.

The irony is that this is the democracy that the west could not have engineered. And now that is has happened organically, spontaneously, unpredictably, world leaders don’t know what to do with it.

The people have spoken, are speaking, will speak.

And I will try to do the same for those around me who need someone to be their advocate. In the hopes that when my time comes, someone in the neighborhood will be there to speak for me.

The Year that was 2010

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.

Being on Vaction in Your City

My mom is visiting us as we await the birth of our baby and she is the first visitor we have had in a year. The last one was stopping through on her way back from Nepal with a boyfriend and sister. It was one night and two days — in the midst of a work schedule that I couldn’t move because of visitors from our London office.

This month long visit is completely different: my mom is here to hang out and that’s exactly what we have been doing. She’s showing our nanny how to make certain dishes and available to run errands, or to start recipes while I’m still upstairs sleeping. She typed up my birth plan – something on my to-do list for at least two weeks and fields calls from my insistent auntie in India who wants to know exactly what is going on.

In short: it’s amazing. For someone who has spent 75% of her time alone over the last five years, having company has been an unexpected joy. We go to have tea with my former students and lunch with friends who have a one month old. She waits patiently in the doctor’s office as we are an hour past the scheduled time to meet with the doctor.

It’s such a luxury to have companionship. And if I hadn’t spent so many afternoons alone over the years, toiling at my desk, writing one project or another, or in the office, trying to cram in the last bit of efficiency, I think I would take this completely for granted.

For now, I’m enjoying it, rather than feeling crowded as I worried I would, between the nanny, mommy, my belly, and me. Rather than climbing the walls and chewing my nails in the last five days before our due date, I’m eating well, enjoying movies, hanging out with the neighbors, taking time to meet new arrivals.

In short: I’m living my life in Doha which I rarely get to do during the year when I’m working like a gerbil on her wheel, trying to get to the carrot.

It hasn’t all been easy, as the temperatures and dust have been climbing outside. But since Mom has jet lag, our naps are synchronized as well.

Yesterday my husband said: “Why doesn’t she watch T.V.?”

Because since arriving on Saturday, the sight of her sitting on the sofa with a 400+ page book is now familiar.

“This is the difference in how we grew up,” I said to him, “that’s why I love reading.” (Became a writer, work for a publishing house, went to graduate school in literature).

I told this story to my mom and it turned out she was actually intimidated by the three remotes it took to turn on the various functions of the TV, DVD player and cable! She prefers a mix of movies (catching up on the OCEANS series over the last two days while I’m in the slow process of waking up or at Arabic class) AND reading.

It’s the calm before the storm and she’s on vacation as much as I am.

We are creatures made for fellowship. We love to exist in community.

And I’m so glad that this one has found me at this moment.

Are there moments you have felt particularly connected to others? Celebrate them for what they are: glimpses of the divine.

A Short History of Two across Four Houses in Five Years and now: Nanny Makes Three

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.

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