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.
I kid you not, that was the headline of Fortune Magazine’s recent article on Qatar.
What surprised me more, however, was the accompanying photo. Taken of the West bay area of the capital city, the image reminded me of the helicopter shots of another famous peninsula-like city, Manhattan.
What do you think of when you see this image?
In need of laundry, lunch and ahem, some service? Here’s an example of a well targeted ad – the audience is men who are left in Doha while their families travel on summer holiday – but the creativity calls up the worst of sexism.
What do you think? Did they go too far? Or is this meant to be in tongue in cheek?
Last week from a sofa in a hospital room, after having delivered our second baby boy, I woke up at 1 a.m. Adrenaline or jetlag like false sense of sleep saturation had me reaching for my phone in the pitch black of the room. Across the coffee table, a good friend who had volunteered for night duty was resting. The baby was in the nursery. I went on Facebook.
The news feed of many of American friends, at home and abroad, was filled with the news of the bombing at the finish line of the Boston marathon. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the photos and had to turn off the phone to stem off the hormonal induced shock at the images, facts, and sounds.
As the facts unfolded – 3 dead, many more wounded – a puzzled reaction swept the part of the world I live in, the Middle East.
What about people in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, was the question circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. Where is the empathy, shock, horror, concern for them?
A former student and now friend posted “I’m sorry to hear about Boston, sorry for all the casualties. Pray for Syria, it deserves far more sympathy. Pray for Syria twice as much!”.
Having studied Arabic in Damascus a few years ago, I have been watching the escalating tensions there with dread and anger at a “leader” who would treat his people as pawns.
But the assertion of my student made me uncomfortable.
Can we weigh on a scale those who are more deserving of empathy? Is it judged by the number of causalities?
Or, as mainstream American media seems to suggest, do we rate based on a scale of how the tragedies happen? Are civilians in peace time, running a marathon or going to work, more deserving than those who are living in a country entrenched in civil war?
I don’t know. I do know from my hospital bed, recovering from having a baby, that most frail and dependent of creatures, the symbol of all that is possible of humanity, I resisted the notion that my loyalties predict my sympathies and said as much to my friend on his wall:
“I understand what you are trying to say but let’s remember our hearts can juggle compassion for all. Clearly the media, government and politics cannot. I stand with Syrians as the land where I learned Arabic and hope that governments will stop turning blind eyes. Sympathy is not a competition. The more we learn that, the more we can come together as one. (not intending to lecture, your post did strike a chord with me as a new mother X2 from this past Sunday). I want my children to live in a compassionate world, better than the bi-partisan one I inherited. Now we pray for Iran, regardless of how we feel about nukes/presidents/etc.”
We had a great discussion (yes on Facebook wall posts as he was abroad).
Later in the week the question came again on Twitter: “Boston boston. Pls send your view: rape in Delhi why again and again?”
The commenter was talking about the rape of a 5 year old girl whose body had been dumped in a dumpster and found with foreign objects, including a candle, inside. I had read of the case with horror and posted about it on social media as well. As an Indian woman, mother, wife, and daughter, I was ashamed, distraught, and troubled by not only this incident but all of them since the watershed December case with a pharmacy student on a bus. Indian media commentators were asking: why did we care so much about her? What about the 5, 6, 10 year olds (and the ones we never know about about)? Don’t we care about them?
All of which brings me back to the same question: how much room do we have in our hearts? Can we only care for those who know immediately? Or is there some larger, universal ability to feel compassion that comes with our “advanced” technologies in the era of 24 hour media?
I do know when I saw the photo of the 19 year old, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the remaining bomb plotter, my heart clenched. Somewhere, something went horribly wrong for this younger brother. I couldn’t help but think of my own boys, presently 2.5 and 1 week old. What would they grow up to do? Would the older one mislead the younger? And could the younger use this as his excuse for wrecking havoc?
In the end, it all comes down to relationships. Right?
Shocking to most of the residents in Qatar yesterday was the sensation, yet again in less than a week, of earthquake tremors from a second Iranian quake, this one measuring nearly 8 point on the Richter scale. While most people missed the first one, the second was noted by people in almost all neighborhoods across the city of Doha. Coming as it did on the heels of the bombs planted at the end of the Boston Marathon, everyone was literally shaken.
“The world is changing,” people kept saying all day. “Qatar is changing.” Will we still be the sleepy place everyone thinks of as ultra safe, laughing at presenters who suggest earthquake preparedness or other hazards?
One thing is certain, people rushing out of buildings like the Tornado tower, will have to think twice about what to do next if there is an emergency. Glass falling all over the area known as West Bay is likely in any real quake or other incident in that neighborhood.
Yesterday there were several earthquakes in Iran. Across the Arabian Gulf in Qatar at 3pm Doha time people felt the some of the aftershocks. Nothing like what they had in Iran, with over 80 deaths, 800 plus injuries, and many, many more after affects.
But our buildings in the business district were evacuated all the same. The mood in the elevators, parking garage, and on the street was somber. Here’s what I was looking at while the tremors were reverberating through our floor and the city.
My fourth installment in the series of interviews that let’s domestic workers in Qatar tell their stories. I imagined the emotions, aspirations, and motivations of these women in my novel The Dohmestics. But in this case, real life beats fiction.
The more I hear about these women and their willingness to sacrifice years of their lives for their children, extended family and friends, the more humbled I am.
We both qualify in the category of expats. And yet their lives are so different from the considerations of mine.
What would you do for your family’s future?
Since 2005, I’ve lived on a quasi-island otherwise found in the dictionary under the category of peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides, perched on the top of the Arabian Peninsula, sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been our home for over seven years.
The population has grown in the last few years and with this has come more entertainment options including the opening of the Swiss brand Ikea (tomorrow). Yes, when you live on a peninsula and more or less fly to most destinations, the arrival of Ikea is a lifestyle changing moment.
They say that expat life involves two buckets: a sh*t bucket and a money bucket. When the first one outweighs the other, it’s time to move on. This adage may be why people are shocked when they discover my husband and I have lived in Qatar for seven years. The average stay of a white collar expat in Doha is three years. By this measure we have been here two and a half expat cycles.
What’s our secret? We have another bucket. One for laughing. When our son acts like a demon possessed child at the park, running up and shoving children away what he wants to play with (an action that would have him and us ostracized at any American playground) we reprimand and shake our heads. When the guy in front of us slams on his brakes so he can pop the curb to make up a parking space, we follow suit and pull up next to him. When my single, childless students, still living at home with their parents complain about how busy they are, I point to my protruding belly, ripe with pregnancy number two, and we share a giggle.
Laughter may not change the facts of an aggressive toddler, bad driving, or self indulgence. But a good cackle does make it easier to let go of negativity. The more I laugh, the less I feel personally affronted by whatever obstacle is in my way.
Though he has a temper like the Incredible Hulk (and the introverted non-Hulk personality to match) my husband can laugh at himself after he’s had a chance to cool off. The reason I married him is because he would show me, in off beat moments, how my actions, words, or phrases, sounded to him. Through imitation, he made me laugh.
I even joined a standup comedy troupe to share the stories of our multi-ethnic family’s adventures in a racially defined society. After a few years with the group, I made a short documentary about the intersection of humor and culture called Laughing with an Accent.
Have a laugh. Or two or more. You need them to get through life, expat or otherwise.
*This post is part of a month long challenge to post everyday. Learn more from host Terri Giuliano Long.