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.
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?
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.
Women’s health has been the subject of international headlines over the last six months. From the recent U.S. presidential election to the outrage at violence against women in India, women’s bodies are very much still public debate. I’m pleased to support Linda Parkinson-Hardman and her project to create an anthology for women, by women, about a common – if not much discussed – procedure. Consider supporting as you or a friend or loved one may one day find yourself with this very dilemma.
I knew this guy, years ago, who was brown haired, brown eyed, and exuded such an intense energy that you hoped some would rub so you could cram for your final. We grew up in the same North Florida town. If it sounds like I had a crush on Scott Melker in high school, I didn’t. Honest. He and the others in his class were like Titans to us freshman who had yet to hit puberty. We watched them rule the halls of suburbia before Glee or High School Musical mass produced such qualities. My classmates hoped one day we could be as cool, that we could prove we were in the same species as his class, if ever reached that exalted status of being seniors.
Graduation loomed and we went our separate ways.
Scott went on to to finish an Ivy League degree which transformed into becoming a mashup and remix artist. Me, after a few more years of awkward teenage angst, on to state run universities for a PhD with interests in writing and the Middle East. Yet, decades later, we’re in the same tribe, this time not of dystopia, pimples and pep rallies, but of creativity. One I’m much happier to share.
He now takes the songs we love and turns them into songs you will love even more. Like any cool guy, he’s got a million nicknames, including Johnny Cashin’ Out, Skeetwood Mac, Booty Huxtable, Skeevie Tricks, A$AP Scotty, Holla Peño, Melkradamus, Melka Flocka Flame, Ricky Exit-Row-Zay, Lil’ Yung Melks.
I caught up with Scott a few days after the launch of his second longest mix, The Melker Project 2, to talk about his unusual journey into creating music.
Check out the samples of his work below and his advice for partying with co-workers (worth a read before the holidays!).
How would you describe your music words or less? It can really be described in 2 words – organized chaos.
Try to describe yourself in one sentence. Wasted Ivy League education.
How would your friends describe you in 20 words or less? Reliable, trustworthy, fun. Also insane, rebellious, ADHD, loud, sometimes obnoxious.
Where would you live if you could live anywhere in the world? New York City, of course. That’s why I live there!
Did you have support for your decision to be creative? Yes – I am fortunate to have understanding parents and supportive family and friends. My parents didn’t flinch when I graduated from Penn and decided to pursue music. They have flown all over the world to hear me play.
Do you have a day job? The short answer is no. I have not had a boss in nearly a decade. However, I do work as a consultant for numerous businesses, doing various music related projects. I work with legitmix.com, which is a company that has revolutionized the remix industry – they allow DJs and producers to sell their remixes legally. It’s mind blowing. I also handle music programming for Flywheel, which is an international, upscale indoor cycling studio.
What’s your creative process? It really depends on the project. When I am doing a full-length mix like this, I try to identify a basic concept and create a skeleton of core songs and remixes that I want to use. However, as I build the project, most of the best parts are created on the fly. For me, inspiration comes at unexpected moments, and often from trial and error. I am also limited by access to a cappella versions of songs. Finding stripped down vocals is very difficult, so I can only work with what I can dig up.
For an individual remix, I usually know exactly what I want to do. For example, when I composed “Dirt Of Your Shoulders Vs. Born To Die,” I wanted to pair Lana Del Rey with an iconic Hip-Hop anthem, and I envisioned Jay-Z’s voice sounding perfect over her brooding vocals. The challenge was creating a beat that would enhance the samples and loops that I had chosen from Born To Die.
Do you mix a laptop/desktop or a studio? I have a home studio, and use both a laptop and desktop to create my music. I also still use turntables for a majority of my work, which is definitely rare these days. Most of my recording and remixing is done into Ableton Live.
Do you have any advice for other artists? Ask yourself this question – would you continue to pursue your art full time if you were not making money? If the answer is yes, then keep going. If not, find something to do that will turn that answer into a yes.
Where to find The Melker Project:
I was hard at work getting in my NaNoWriMo word count. An early morning nursery run and forced seclusion to makeup for the other three weeks in November when I produced my first short film and hosted a delightful Thanksgiving.
I hit my goal of 4,000 words this morning and did what any respectable writer does, hopped over to Twitter for a mental break. Imagine my surprise when I saw my city of residence, Doha, the capital of the city state of Qatar, trending worldwide. For you non-tweeps, that means so many people in the world are using that hashtag that it’s now like a thing. Why are so many people tweeting about the city whose previous distinction was that it was most likely to be mixed up with Dubai? Doha is trending due to the influx of people expected for the COP 18 conference
You’re probably thinking I like showing off acronyms, but I didn’t make up the short code for National Novel Writing Month, nor can I take credit for the UN Climate Change Conference.
Don’t worry, I’m not being elitist. In fact, I’m proud to host fellow blogger and science writer Emily Alp because she is going to give you a run down of all the acroynms related to the world’s largest conference on the issue that more and more people are find impinging on their everyday lives: climate change.
Emily explains the hows and whys of this annual gathering: “Convention of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings have been happening in cities around the world for the past 17 years. The meetings involve active participation by representatives from virtually every country (a.k.a. party) in the world in talks about climate change. The first such meeting, COP1, was held in Berlin in 1995. Shortly thereafter, in 1997, at COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, the parties put forth the Kyoto Protocol, which laid out a strategy to legally bind specific countries to reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets.”
Read the full piece and stay tuned to Emily’s blog as she’ll be posting daily throughout the conference.
For those of us who live in Qatar, this is both an interesting and concerning event. The emails about the expected 20,000 delegates (no that’s not a typo) have put residents into a quandary about how much worse the traffic (already bursting at the seams). The ironies of our SUV loving, gas guzzling home hosting the world in a discussion about emissions and all things environment are many.
Stay tuned for updates as we brace for the next two weeks. I’m interested to see how long Doha remains a trending topic on Twitter.
2008 was a traumatic year for me. During that election season the veneer of civility was ripped off American politics and society. Republicans and Democrats showcased our worst fears to the world. As a brown person in a black and white polarized political sphere, I wanted to run and hide.
Conservatives were afraid that with a black president their interests would not be represented.
Liberals were afraid that another election would be stolen by the electoral college.
Perhaps there is no way to encourage a true democracy in a two party system. Maybe the only outcome is partisanship.
In our fear, we turned on each other. There’s a reason it’s called the White House some t-shirts said. Obama supporters were accused of resorting to race to end any argument. Social media made it worse: people, my friends, on Facebook and Twitter revealed how deep the divide was. We held our collective breath.
When the young Obama family addressed the nation from Grant Park, I gave a sigh of relief. The vitriol was over. He proved that yes, a determined group of people could make voting history. We all went back to our daily lives, smiling, pretending as though the racial, social, and fiscal concerns we had painted onto the two candidates had vanished.
Reading my Twitter stream in 2012, I’m in time warp. Only this time the rhetoric has – incredibly – increased in viciousness. What’s our boy president done today? Someone from a self-identified rightist group tweeted. I’ll spare your our exchange. The fact that the person used ‘boy’ a term with historical significance dating back to slavery and lasting into the Jim Crow era to describe a sitting president confirmed for me that we are not finished with the underlying issues of the first presidential campaign.
I don’t mind talking about issues — I want to talk about the issues. Let’s talk about drone strikes or bailing out banks or why Guantanamo is still open.
Let’s stop insulting one another. Because like or not, whether it’s Romney or Obama on November 6th, on Wednesday, November 7th, we all still have to live together.
Nearly five months have passed since the fire at a local mall killed children, daycare workers, and fire fighters. There was a five month period when the mall was closed, with rumors swirling about when it or whether it would open, and employees on unpaid leave, worried about the fate of their own families.
Last week saw Villaggio open its doors to the public with the section damaged from the fire still walled off from the rest of the store fronts.
“Sales!” Some were saying. “70% on brands.”
That’s luxury brands, a top commodity in Qatar, among the locals as well as expats. But not everyone is flocking back to the site of such unmitigated tragedy.
“I don’t feel like going there,” a Qatari friend said.
“Even the way my family talks about it bothers me,” another shared.
Many are concerned that the safety issues that led to the cause of this incident haven’t been addressed; others that the official reports surrounding the incident itself haven’t shared much information. Regardless of where people stand on shopping, or not shopping at the recently opened facility, there are swirls of other emotions at play for many in Doha. Attempts to leave floral tributes at the walled section, close to where the incident occurred, have been thwarted. The flowers and cards, left in memory by others in the community – mostly mothers – to commemorate the day that ended in shock and horror for the entire nation, disappear shortly after they have been left.
“If only the management and security of Villaggio had prioritised the evacuation of the people in the mall as quickly as they are evacuating the flowers no one would have died.” — Jane said, mother of triplets, Jackson, Willsher and Lillie Weekes, who all perished in the fire.
While at first the grief and responses of shock, support, and sadness were sharp and quick, resulting in a gathering of the public at the nearby Aspire park and nation wide prayers, time, as they say, can dim memory.
I can’t fathom losing a child, much less more than one, and then feel that I couldn’t recognize their passing in some tangible way in the city in which their death happened. Grief, if you’ve ever faced it’s tentacled grip, comes and goes; there are yearly triggers, there are daily pauses in which you think “I can’t wait to tell —” and then the loss comes again, as if afresh. The public attempts to memorialize the space, where even now new arrivals to the city may be shopping without knowledge of events that have transpired, have been stopped without explanation.
A few concerned community members posted Jane’s quote on their Facebook pages last Thursday along with this declaration not to let these memories be forgotten: “Did you know that attempts to leave flowers and cards at Villaggio in memory of those who perished have been removed? These symbols may be gone, but those who have passed will never be forgotten.” I was among them, asked friends to consider posting the message, because as a mother, daughter, sister, and wife, the idea that my children, siblings, or husband would vanish from memory would be as sad as the original loss.
These children and the adults who will never have another birthday, celebrate their graduation, wedding, or birth of their own children, can live on, as long as we remember them. For many of us in Doha, who were not family members of those who died, we would still like to remember them. I see this is as a sign of community, the ability to support those, even strangers, with empathy that we ourselves might need one day. The idea of a place to commemorate the public intention to so towards the survivors among the families seems a good way of doing so.
A Qatari friend offered this cultural explanation as to why the flowers and memorabilia were being removed:
“Basically it is not to prevent people form grieving their loved ones. But because the act of leaving flowers, or mementos are not common in Qatari culture and religion and are considered by many heresy. The funeral in Islamic tradition is only 3 days. Then life must move on. Any signs of continuous grief is not acceptable. People can be remembered in their hearts or in their private homes but not in public. This is why you don’t see glorifies status of any leaders. You don’t even see their pictures in public places, only in people’s private homes. What you are doing is pure western tradition, This is why it has been prevented. As you said those who passed away will never be forgotten and it will be a dark day in Qatar’s history indeed.”
I explained that this was a new perspective, and thanked her for sharing with us. With so many of the victims being non-Muslim, the question of a memorial at Villaggio may be yet another instance of the multiculturalism in Qatar going through major learning pains tied to growth.
What do you think? Is grief better expressed in private? Or, as in this instance of so many losses, so many people wanting to halve the sorrow by remembering, is it better to have a public place to share?
My latest release, Love Comes Later, is a contemporary multicultural romance, set in Doha, Qatar and London, England.
One of the great things about websites and indie publishing is that you can offer readers extra features.
Here’s my first one, based on feedback from beta readers who asked for family tree of my Qatari characters.
We hear songs, watch movies, and yes, read books about that most elusive of emotions: love. No matter if your culture practices arranged marriages (Indian/Arab) or not (the west). No matter if your parents are divorced (fell out of love) or not. No matter if you are married (harder to stay in love?) or not. I could tell you how at one point in human history marriage was thought of a business transaction, a way to consolidate wealth within families or across countries. Or that modern society has not eased up on women to have a man (and a baby or two) in order to think we have it all. You’re smart. You know these schemes around the world’s most sought after prize — finding one’s soul mate.
Love is at the core of contemporary culture. Despite your best efforts, there’s no way to avoid it. From Bollywood to Hollywood the themes are the ones passed to us by the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Star crossed lovers; repudiated love; timid love; the plot lines are as familiar as the headlines for celebrity breakups. Were, for example, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes ever in love? Or was it a career furthering scheme drafted in the cold light of day between agents? What will happen to Suri Curise, the tiny fashion maven?
Those are questions for a very different story than the one I wrote inspired by the dreams, wishes, and desires of young people living in Qatar.
Love Comes Later is my second novel, a meditation on how non-western people of this generation will find happiness. I’m excited to say the book is now available for purchase on Amazon.com.
As a writer I’m not immune to the questions of the commercial love machine. After all romance readers account for a large portion of book sales year round. Romance writers are like country singers; they come out with albums on a yearly basis and their fans make them best sellers. I’m not sure if I’m going to become what’s called a genre writer and stick only to romance from now on. This story, of three protagonists, Abdulla, Hind, and Sangita, came to me as a love triangle.
I can tell you that based on the five books I’ve released this year, the novel is the one everyone gets excited about. Short stories and essays may get a passing look, but a novel still seems to inspire more wonder and likelihood of risk on a new author. This new project will help me further test my hypothesis… or you can share your thoughts on my theory and enlighten me.
If you like your romance more visual than textual, then have a look at the book’s YouTube trailer. As always, writers need readers, so please take a second and let me know what you think!