On Thursday afternoon, I co-hosted a teleclass to go with the course I wrote for the Global Academy on living and working in Qatar. Both writing the course and preparing for the teleclass were cause for rumination on 6 years of living in Doha. The most interesting part of the teleclass was when participants asked questions. There was one person on the call who had been living in Qatar since February 2011; she dialed in from Doha like I did because she wanted to know more about the place she had made her home. The questions were fairly standard: clothing for women, women in the workforce, and then the equivalent of “why do Qataries keep to themselves?”
In other fora I’ve talked about the tensions between expats and Qataries. But in this instance, I don’t think the caller had a bone to pick, she was genuinely curious about how to develop friendships with people in her new home base. I suffered from this earnest desire when I moved here in 2005. I came to the Middle East to experience life in an Islamic society since my scholarly work was focused on gender and Islam. Soon I found myself living and working in an expat enclave, far away from the Arabs and Arabic I had hoped to learn more about. I experienced first hand what I relayed to everyone on the teleclass; the numbers don’t work in anyone’s favor.
The numbers in Qatar create a unique situation where the nationals are actually minorities in their own country. I can think of few other places in the world where this is the case. Even in the U.S., my home since childhood, people may grumble about “real Americans” (those born there or white) versus “Americans” (those like my family who have naturalized) but the fact is citizenship can be gained. In Qatar, you are only Qatari if your father is Qatar (mothers are starting to get more rights if they marry non-nationals) and there is an intricate ranking system amongst the various tribes, family names, and points of origin.
During this time, I told every Qatari woman that I met that I was trying to make local friends. She would smile politely and I generally never saw her again; this happened on a regular basis and one night, at a very high profile public event, I thought I might have finally struck gold. A prominent official introduced me to his daughter who was also attending. She was my age, she seemed really interested in what I was doing (yes this sounds like dating and is largely how it felt). He told me that his daughter would call me. He would repeat this smile and phrase for the next three years. Needless to say: she never called.
I did an even risker thing than moving to this tiny country situated on top of Saudi Arabia: I left the bastion of Americanism and went to work for the national university. There was the game changer: I was the only non-Arab, non-Muslim, non-Arabic speaking employee in the entire building. Even the kitchen staff knew enough Arabic to take drink orders and conduct basic business. The numbers were finally in my favor – I was in the minority so I had no choice but to make connections, acquaintances, colleagues, who developed – over the course of three years – into friends.
The second thing I relayed to the teleclass, I also learned around my third year living here. When you have one population that is static (nationals) and one population that is a revolving door (expats), establishing new relationships becomes a dance with the law of diminishing returns. I used to offer lots of help, advice, rides, and listening ears to new arrivals. Quickly though I realized what a draining proposition this is as I could predict in exactly what order, and what time of year, the topics they would want to discuss.
A summary of the first six months of the expat: The heat, the traffic, lack of bookshelves, the medical test, grocery shopping, how to find the spouse a job, inconveniences of Ramadan, the construction, getting an RP, and buying a car.
This isn’t to say that these aren’t all valid and important concerns; it’s just listening to them, helping people through them, and then two years later, having to do it all over again for an entirely new group of people, makes you realize how transient expat life is. Add to this the fact that by year four, nearly everyone I knew when I moved here had returned home, and you begin to see why making friends with expats might be an energy draining proposition.
I told the teleclass that nowadays when I see new people, I run in the other direction.
“You’ve gone local,” someone said and we laughed.
And honestly, it is a survival strategy that makes sense. If you have over 3 siblings, between them, your cousins, the larger circle of friends of these relatives, you have a ready made play set no newcomers needed. There are other cities that work like this and Pittsburgh was one of them; insular communities where everyone who went to high school together, now works and plays together.
I did eventually make Qatari friends – even now having dinner with the young woman who was supposed to be my friend in 2006 – but it was the outer edge of three years of living here. At that point, I guess most people realized I was likely to stick around and worth the investment. Or perhaps it took this long for the stereotypes about expats to wear off.