Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.
Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.
All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.
What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.
Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the
book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.
The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.
You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.
You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.
You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.
The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.
Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?
She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.
In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.
We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?
I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?
This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.
The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).
The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.
What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.
Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from. That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.
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?
Recently my husband became a certified diver. This meant Friday morning trips with his friends to the waters off the north coast of Qatar. This past weekend he wanted me and our two year old to come along and enjoy the beach while the gang was under the water. I managed to convince a friend to join us – even though we left at 6:30 a.m. – and we did have a great time.
What struck both of us as we were setting up, however, were the spots of white tissue and blue bottle caps scattered over the sand. “Why can’t people take their trash with them?” I asked.
She was as dismayed as I was in taking in the 100 meters or more of beautiful sand, pocked with the remnants of breakfast, lunch, and dinner barbeques.
“We’ll enjoy the morning and then do some pick up,” I suggested.
“That’s karmic yoga,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
The two year old played, with a bevy of aunties, the title Asians use for older women, whether they are related or not, at the ready to make him the sand sculptures of his dreams. Airplanes, crocodiles, and birthday cakes were his structures of choice.
We had lunch and then got two trash bags each. One to collect trash and one to use as a glove. Everything from stale flat bread, to leftover shrimp pizza, went into one of our three bags. Within fifteen minutes we had collected plastic bottles, tissues, bags, discarded children’s shoes, and scraps of paper. Being social media hounds, we posted our findings on Facebook and Twitter. The comments we received on the photos were telling.
“What a great idea,” someone commented. “We do cleanups here in my home state. Wonder if that would work there. Of course it would be Expats to the rescue.”
“I explained to my son about Muslim absolution,” someone else wrote. “And he asked why they litter so much if they’re supposed to be clean.”
I’m not denying that many a time in traffic I’ve been behind someone who has tossed trash out their window. Or that I got into a face off during the recent Sports Day, with a girl and two teenagers (who were likely her cousins or brothers) for tossing a finished soda can onto the green space in the park. These people were all Arabs of some kind. But I could see that they were in my interactions with them. I didn’t assume they were.
The innocuousness of picking up of trash revealed that our friends thought that most of the people who litter in Qatar are Arabs. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I do know of the twenty or so diving groups I saw that morning, only one of them seemed to be of Arab origin. In the four hours we were there, the majority of the people on the beach there were expats.
Switch to another big cause for me these days: children without seat belts, riding in the front seat or standing up in the backseats of cars. I started taking photos of these darlings last week at red lights. Again some of the comments revealed that everyone thinks this practice is done by Arabs. Even though the first photo was of an Asian looking child in the arms of his mother, showing me his toys through the open passenger side window, the association people had was that Arabs are the primary violator.
What struck me about both these instances is that assumptions about behavior based on nationality seems to come to the forefront immediately. Nationality and “why doesn’t the government do something” are knee jerk reactions to what we would otherwise consider civic responsibilities. Maybe it’s a system that pays people based on their passports – not their merit – that is to blame for the root of this ethnic divide. For the same job, it’s completely legal for companies to pay different wages to Egyptians versus Sri Lankans versus Americans. Is this where the root of mistrust begins?
I’ve been inspired by these instances to not wait for the civil authorities to decide to address the issue. After all their attempts to encourage recycling and better driving have not proved entirely successful. Rather than continuously looking to others, I’m interested in the power of individuals. Why can’t every person who sees trash on the beach pick some up? Not every piece, but whatever they have time for?
And every parent who sees someone riding without a seat belt, encourage them to use one?
In a place like Qatar, where mistrust abounds between groups, expat and national, Arabs and non-Arabs, it would be nice if we as expats could do something positive to give back to these communities which are our temporary homes.
Instead of always complaining about not being invited into Qatari homes, or never experiencing Qatari hospitality, could we pick up trash, regardless of who left it? Could we talk about the importance of child car seats? After all, we assume a certain cultural superiority when we say that littering is wrong, knowing we come from countries where this behavior is fined. Ditto for children in car seats or seat belts.
Maybe we wouldn’t be ‘better’ people or more civilized if we didn’t have our home governments governing our civic actions.
What would we do if we didn’t have to? Who are we when laws aren’t enforced? These are the questions echoing in my head.
Next week, I’m taking this question on to another, more controversial question: the treatment of housemaids which also seems to vary according to nationality. Stay tuned.
It took nearly two months but someone finally trusted me enough to share her story. I’m amazed how many women are scared of repercussions from their employers. Not by the ‘bad’ ones who don’t pay well or are aggressive in their assignment of tasks, but also of the ‘good’ ones who work in fields like education, where one would expect (rightly or wrongly) more kindness to domestic staff.
Hear what this working mother has to say about why she went overseas to work as a nanny/housemaid.
In the first few weeks of my husband wooing me, on my desk every morning I would find a Kit-Kat bar and a can of Coke. Later that year, I saw a photo of myself. The butt on the woman in the photo was not one I recognized. My mind’s eye hadn’t caught up with reality. The sedentary lifestyle of the desert and my slowing metabolism eradicated the vestiges of the Gandhian thin, ninety-nine pound, size zero wearing teenager who sailed through college and graduate school without exercise.
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.
The first in my 52 films series, this is Rodelyn’s story of how she came to Qatar.
I hope to interview many more women who work as domestics here in Doha as the real life stories behind my third novel, The Dohmestics.
These women are very shy but I hope more will come forward to use this platform to tell us about their lives.