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.
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!
When I moved to Qatar in 2005 many thought I was headed to Turkey. I’m not sure why since they don’t even share one letter in common.
Perhaps because Turkey was the most exotic place my friends in the United States had heard of.
In the months after I relocated, my friends would email and ask me how I was doing in Dubai. Again, the splashy Emirate is the one most familiar to those who grasp for a fact about the Arabian Gulf — other than, of course, Saudi Arabia.
In the years since then, major donations to Hurricane Katrina victims, a global financial crisis, hikes in the price of crude oil and the award of the world’s largest sporting event, the World Cup, for 2022 to Qatar, more people know where we live.
The small emirate has muscled its way into global politics and international sports; and now, as all politicians find out sooner or later, the thorn in the rose accompanying great ambition is equally great scrutiny. The media maelstrom over “workers” constructing the stadiums for 2022 has been building for months. The reactions to these news reports are even more telling that Qatar has a deeper problem than social change: the emirate is engaged in rhetoric entrenched in the vestiges of imperialism, or cultural superiority.
Yes, Qatar has a long way to go in supporting the rule of law – particularly the enforcement of existing statutes – and enforce the protection of the rights of guest workers. The laws are in place but notorious abuses by private companies lead to unpaid workman’s compensation claims, unpaid wages, unsanitary living conditions, and the worst accusation, human trafficking. And yes, it’s important to be conscientious spectators.
I’m not defending these violations. In fact, during my time here, I have tried to aid people who have been disadvantaged by the kafalah or sponsorship system. The sponsor has all the power; the spaces to negotiate against someone who wants you out – most likely because they don’t want you to tell others how terrible they are – are miniscule if not non-existent. Yet we still try, knowing that we have to do the good we can. Owning the right to someone’s future is a power – the right to say whether or not someone can stay and work for someone other than you – that few of us are familiar with in the international community. A power we can’t imagine. A power we can’t have as expats, reserved only for nationals. Perhaps this makes us even angrier.
What I find as troubling as the downsides of having a bad kafeel, or sponsor, however, is the glee which greets the reports of guest worker abuse. Whether journalists sweeping in broad stroke regurgitated content about “worker” misery, or commentators on these articles, a strident chord points the finger saying, “See! I told you they were barbarians! Those rich Arabs!” The contrast of the Qatari driving a luxury car and paying only $200 a month to a housemaid is no different to my mind than the average American who picks up a Latino handyman at the gas station for household repairs, giving him cash and a McDonald’s meal at the end of the day.
Are we so different? In scale perhaps. Maybe proximity. Or even more significantly, opportunity.
A society that has problems is human. Yes, the conditions of the Nepalese workers, as many as 85 who died working in Doha’s summer temperatures, is inhuman. Nuanced reporting such as the Guardian’s piece is what we all need – expat, outsider or national – to understand the depth of the problem. To put faces and names to the “workers” who are quickly become a conversational item in a dialogue that is as much about how we talk about social change as the ethics behind a set of stadiums.
Villianizing an entire nation, and victimizing a population, casts oppositional roles, roles which are difficult to reform, and even more difficult to have any conversational about at all.
If we are interested in change, if we do want better conditions, then we have to give people back the dignity of individuality, on all sides.
We know these companies rely on national informants, people who live in Nepal, India, or the sending countries, who are profiting from the bait and contract switch as much as the private companies cutting corners. They are pieces of a global puzzle that has built this nation building machine powering the Arabian Gulf. A machine that has been decades in the assembling; starting with the talent to supply the fuel we use when we drive vehicles around the western hemisphere.
Where was the outcry then, as the Gulf states quietly built the stockpiles of cash many now envy them for? Is this unlike equipping the Taliban to overthrow the Soviets and then being surprised when they overthrow their masters?
If we care for the “worker” then we will not come from a place of judgment on systems that are in the process of changing. A social and economic change for Qatar akin to the shifting of technoic plates; a reordering of the fabric of society.
In the meantime, what was the name of the man who died when a wall fell over on him building our facility? How we find out his name, his family, we try to help get the body home?
If we are upset about the maid who is working 20 hours a day, we try to get her a new boss, use our authority to convince the sponsor to transfer her.
Yes, it takes time. It will involve each of us who are willing, regardless of our nationality. This is the start of all great reform; the level of the individual, well below what the rule of law can reform, the level of human conviction. Otherwise all we have is talk.
Of course, pointing the finger takes only a few seconds.
The rhetoric building around 2022, pushes us back into sides, back into a binary opposition of the ‘moral’ West and the ‘amoral’ rest or in this case rich, abusive Arabs.
From littering to car seats to civil rights or marriage equality, the development of western society has happened at its own pace through the concerted efforts of passionate individuals. If we alienate those willing to work towards a more equitable future of guest workers with our blanket judgments, we risk halting that development.
Download the free Kindle App so you can access eBook titles right away.
I’m thrilled to announce my first eBook “box” collection is now available: Days and Nights in Arabia, features award winning fiction and memoir.
Love Comes Later, a literary romance – cue the love triangle – set in Qatar and London.
From Dunes to Dior, a memoir of living in the Middle East as a South Asian woman.
The Dohmestics, an ensemble cast of female employers and their housemaids, desert style.
Plenty to keep you entertained on your plane, train, or car ride back home.
You can give (or receive) all 3 of my books set in Qatar for $5 off what they would cost individually.
PS: Did you know you can gift eBooks like you can Amazon gift cards? All you need is your recipient’s email address.
What was your favorite present this year? I’m about to head downstairs to find out for our family.
I had the rare treat of hearing a friend read her work out loud to a new audience earlier this week. She’s someone I’ve known for years and hearing her read published work filled me with such pride.
Maryam touches on many issues related to the status of migrant laborers in Qatar. Her poem “The Invisible Army” brings a human angle to a big picture issue. This piece is part of a large anthology of Arabian Gulf poets, many of whom are accessible in English for the first time.
Enjoy this video, the 28th in my year of 52 short films project for 2013. I’m not likely to make it all the way to my 2012 resolution before January 1st, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun trying.
Showed this video in class – my students are doing oral presentations – as an excellent example of a creative argument. Excellent, I explained to them, because of the use of irony, humor, and context to persuade us of the issue he’s passionate about.
We all – including students from other Gulf countries – cracked up.
I love that the younger generation of Khaleejs have a sense of humor and reform.
This is where change can begin.
I kid you not, that was the headline of Fortune Magazine’s recent article on Qatar.
What surprised me more, however, was the accompanying photo. Taken of the West bay area of the capital city, the image reminded me of the helicopter shots of another famous peninsula-like city, Manhattan.
What do you think of when you see this image?
In need of laundry, lunch and ahem, some service? Here’s an example of a well targeted ad – the audience is men who are left in Doha while their families travel on summer holiday – but the creativity calls up the worst of sexism.
What do you think? Did they go too far? Or is this meant to be in tongue in cheek?
The flavor of your summer depends on where you live. Like anything in life.
But I can’t shake the suspicion summer here is unique from life elsewhere, unless you have lived in a beach town during the winter. The impulse towards uniqueness must also be a human compulsion. Hear me out, though, on summer in the desert.
Unlike a beach town which has a seasonal peak, rather than escaping to the desert, those who can, escape from the heat, leaving behind a skeleton population, which in a disaster movie, would most likely be described as “essential personnel” by a big chested general with muscular arms as he strode through the street.
For our family, this summer is no different than the others preceding it. Except maybe that we are going away later than everyone, which again conjures up survivor-like feelings, though this time of a social apocalypse. We, along with the others that are left behind (“to work” as my husband gruffly puts it) band together against the zombie causing level of heat, which when combined with boredom, can be lethal to the pursuit of happiness in these the most idyllic months of the calender.
People are taking advantage of Ramadan occurring over summer this year, overlapping with the school holiday, to travel for longer than normal. The requisite one month stretches to two months (you read that right my-reluctant-to-take-two-consecutive-weeks-American reader). They wave with glee, a sticky hand of each child in their grasp while climbing the metal staircase into the plane’s belly.
Friendships are challenging to maintain in such a seasonally driven place. You may be facing the pressure of work, family, and the unfulfilled desire to see friends who live only a mile up the road.
In a nomadic place like Qatar, which may have migrated from tents into skyscrapers, associations between people are still based on place. Your interaction with a person will start up, be paused – either by the long summer or winter holiday – and then end. Because sooner or later, everyone leaves.
Whether expat or national, whether because of summer, winter, a degree, secondment, or wedding, everyone leaves. The leaving may be temporary, it may be permanent. Ten years later people have been known to return to find the entire landscape of the country unrecognizable.
The intermittent quality of relationships here is reminiscent of the friendships you had during school. Thrown together by a particular context, making friends (or enemies) with those in proximity, and the tearful promises to keep in touch.
The average expat/family stays for three years before moving on or moving home.
I thought I was safer blending into the national social scene.
But my Qatari friends go to graduate school in roughly the same cycle; they come back, work a job, and then are off for the next degree.
We have buffeted two and a half cycles of leaving. No coincidence we have two children. Averaging a child, a semi-permanent social connection, guaranteed to need you for at least seventeen years, or six cycles, means we need to leave soon. Or consider adding to the family.
And no matter how hot it gets this summer, that’s an idea I’m not yet ready for.
What’s ahead for your summer?