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.
Thanks to Kate Lord Browne for asking me to participate in this blog hop. KLB is the author of ‘The Beauty Chorus’ and ‘The Perfume Garden’, which was shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year. She also writes the Ahlan! magazine Book Club column, the first of its kind in the Middle East, and lives in the only true desert country in the world with her family.
Courtesy of this blog hop, you’ll get a window into world of writing via me and three other writers as we answer the same 4 questions.
1) What am I working on?
My mind, or shall I say computer, is a bit of a muddle right now because I’ve got 2 books that need heavy revisions and not enough hours in the day. One is a novel that’s set in the Arabian Gulf and explores the relationships between maids and their employers called The Dohmestics. This is my second title due out in paperback this summer. The other is a novel set in Laos in 1975, about war in Southeast Asia and immigrating to America, The Opposite of Hate. This is my next eBook. Looming deadlines are good motivators to get going as is controversy; the sequel for my banned novel, as yet unnamed, is lingering at 15000 words. Needless to say, it will be a busy summer of writing.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My work is a blend of history, culture, and place. The books stand out because they explore places that many readers may not know about: Laos or Qatar – examining spaces within these countries that wouldn’t be accessible to outsiders.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write to take the reader places s/he couldn’t go on their own.
4) How does my writing process work?
Dear oh dear it’s not streamlined. I am usually writing a draft of one project, revising another one, and marketing all the published ones (8 to date). Generally I’m working triage, on whatever title is getting a facelift or scheduled for next for publication or promotion.
A friend, who is also Kuwaiti, came into my office, eyes wide, full of regret. She had been employing an undocumented cleaner. Someone she describes as one of many who “fall through the cracks of the outdated, extortionate, unjust Kafala (or sponsorship, work permit system used in this region including my Kuwait) ) system.” She grew up in a household with house help; she was not not unware of how it works. Yet when her cleaner did not show up several days in a row to work, my friend tried to do some investigating. Through a network of people connected to her cleaner, she was able to piece together a chain of events, locate the prison where she was being held, and eventually, secure her release.
Here she describes her experience with the quagmire of having a part time worker in and out of her home.
“My cleaner came to this Qatar under the Kafala of a cleaning company. She paid them a huge fee to come to Qatar to earn a living. When she arrived, she went through all the procedures to complete her sponsorship papers, finger prints, blood tests, photographs etc. she was given a photocopy of an official looking large stamp in her passport and told this said she was legitimately a resident. She was then told to find her own work, but to check in every two years to pay another large sum of money to update and renew her sponsorship, which she did. Little did she know they’d taken her money, and reported her as a ‘runaway’ and never completed her sponsorship papers.
When her flat was raided by the police, she naively showed the police the photocopy of the visa in her passport that she was given by the company. The one that said she had legal sponsorship. She was still taken to prison. They took away her phone. She had no access to the number of the company, her purported sponsors. She asked the police to call her sponsors. They repeated her only concern should be that she’s being deported.
In the meantime, on the outside, I was trying to do everything I could to secure her stay in the country. I called her ‘sponsors’ office to see if they’d agree to transfer the sponsorship to me. They denied ever knowing her.”
Her experience is one that speaks to the volumes of people who are caught by the middle men; the brokers who promise sponsorship and vanish. As she observes: “In a transient place where employers and employees have a high turnover such as here….there so much quick money to be made from it. I see prisons full of cleaning ladies.”
My friend didn’t want me to write about this until she had guaranteed her cleaner safe passage home. Her impassioned arguments are not only to policy makers but to GCC citizens: “If we are ever to progress we need to review our work permit laws. If we can ever get away with saying the Kafala system is not slavery, we need to do away with labelling people as ‘Runaways’. The amount of money changing hands for the labour force is mind boggling and we don’t dare call it human trade? ”
When I was researching for my novel, The Dohmestics, scheduled for release in paperback this June, I heard all sides of the employer/employee conundrum. Those of housemaids who appreciated their employers and were saving up to send two, three, four, or five children to university. Those of maids who were given a bed sheet to sleep on the kitchen floor instead of their own room. Those of maids who were deported after coming home intoxicated. Or pregnant. On and on. What remains clear is that while everyone might discuss the migrant workers, the men in blue jumpsuits building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, the housemaid or her day laborer equivalent, the cleaner, is ephemeral and perhaps even more vulnerable because she is in the most private space in the Arab world: the home.
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.
Yellow sun. Orange sun. What has she done? At first glance everything seems so ho-hum. Etel Adnan in All Her Dimensions is not an exhibit that grabs your attention like other work in the same building. You may hate or love performance Mona Hatoum, for example, or find Manal Al Dowayan’s project on Saudi teachers is too narrow, but at least they elicit a visceral reaction.
With Adnan, there’s nothing to offend or excite: no human shapes, no bifurcated animals, no female genitalia. All these have been present and offended members of the public in recent examples of public art in Qatar. Only endless empty landscapes: yellow, orange, red, and green. The primary colors appear again and again in unmediated, unrelenting, unapologetic repetition in effect creating a visual blindness. “Sweet,” you might murmur to a friend. “I don’t get you,” someone said hovering over a Josephesque tapestry.
Etel Adnan doesn’t mix her paints, you see. The oils come out of their tubes and onto the canvas. Her angles, her shapes, her instinct feels like my three year old on a Saturday morning: carefree, oblivious of the fact he should be interesting to warrant an entire floor of the Arab Museum of Modern Art.
On the surface her art is sweet, even feminine, acceptable to the public Islamic register. Her pleated, accordion fold leporello are playful; the Arabic poetry inscribed upon on them borrowed for Adnan, long an exile of the Arab world, has lost fluency in her mother tongue.
At the tune of 50,000 USD a canvas, these are worth much more than the thumb tacked paintings in my children’s playroom.
The price tag makes you take notice, if the landscapes or black and white sketches do not. You do some digging. Adnan’s strength, many argue, is as a writer who dabbles in painting. 89 years old, a lightening rod for her politics, she is a feminist Lebanese American writer, filmmaker and activist. Her private life, illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, is private in the exhibit itself; an interesting move to support alternative lifestyles while at the same time covering it.
A wall of quotes in English, Arabic, and French illuminates Adnan’s politics: “I tell myself that it would be better to let loose a million birds in the sky over Lebanon, so that these hunters could practice on then, and this carnage could be avoided.” Perhaps this is why the relentless, endless landscape: empty of humans who can wreck so much violence.
Regardless of the reason, you’ve spent this much time thinking about her. Which in itself says something.
Since I first began contemplating writing a novel about modern love in Qatar (back in 2009) the possibility my book would not be sold in the country where it was set, researched and written lurked in the back of my mind.
It didn’t restrain me necessarily, so much as presented an artistic challenge. Could I write within the sensibilities of the public culture and still have something to say? I fancied myself an Oscar Wilde of the desert; a writer of my times producing content as part of the society I lived in. In case you’re unfamiliar with the big three objections of said public culture in the GCC they include: no sex, no atheism and no politics. Some readers may be disappointed to hear there’s none of any Love Comes Later.
What there is, however, is a sustained examination of life in Qatar for modern twentysomething Qataris. The online news outlet, Just Here, has some insights which situate this latest verbal only decision to ban this book.
There’s a death by car accident; reluctant engagements; difficult conversations with parents; and of course, one passionate kiss.
I’ve no concrete details about which of these chain of events in particular is in violation of the censor’s interpretation of public sensibilities.
But I will keep you posted.
In the meantime, maybe you want to have a read for yourself?
I was lucky enough to combine work/leisure over the winter holidays, visiting with family and meeting readers in the United States.
Today Love Comes Later becomes widely available in paperback to readers in Qatar.
Or you’d like something else? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know!
I’ve been looking for a publicist. Imagine my surprise, when in the middle of a recent chat about books, author platform, and realistic publicity goals, she asked me what people in Qatar thought about the conflict in Syria. Apparently the war has finally caught the attention of the average American. We had this conversation despite stats that Miley Cyrus has garnered 12 times more hits than the Syrian crisis.
The arguments for this conflict are dismally familiar: an Arab dictator, using chemical weapons against his own people. The specter of the Iraq war looms, reminding us the childhood parable, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not necessarily a story for kids. Unlike the Cold War, we are wary of arming freedom fighters today who will likely become our antagonists tomorrow.
I have lived in the Middle East for the last 8 years. I studied Arabic in Damascus for six weeks. An amazing city, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital is dying along with her residents.
And yet I still didn’t pass the New York Times’ quiz on Syrian News.
The situation is complex; the history is contemporary.
Many of us may not have been alive during the draft but we have seen the photo of the young Vietnamese napalm victim.
You may not remember what the conflict in Somalia was about but you probably saw the movie Black Hawk Down.
We couldn’t have pointed to Rwanda on a map but cried buckets as Don Cheadle portrayed Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda.
Perhaps that moment hasn’t come in Syrian conflict. Maybe at the height of this media age, we haven’t had the soundbite that will move us to action.
The United States has a track record of being burned in conflict (Vietnam) and then staying out when the world’s largest military could be useful (Cambodia). Such flip-flopping of foreign policy makes people skeptical of America’s intentions.
Maybe the world has lost its stomach for war; after all, John Kerry’s off hand suggestion that Syria turn over weapons to the U.N. has already been accepted in principle by Russia.
The fact is the conflict has been building with thousands of men, women, and children dying.
Perhaps now they are getting the attention they are due. Experts say we are called to action because chemical weapons are illegal. What about the other thousands who have died since the conflict started?
Perhaps their photos didn’t shock the international community as much as the shrouds of all shapes and sizes a few weeks ago.