Ever been called out in print?

What’s it like to be talked about publicly? Not sure how any of Hollywood feels about being on the cover of US Weekly, but I got a small taste of public circulation this week, when I found out that I was named as one of the ‘foreigners’ working at a national Arab university in a letter to the editor written by an irate former employee to an Arabic daily.

            The sum of her grievances?

Why are non-Qataris allowed to work at Qatar University?

            This question brings the issue of “qatarization” – the process of turning over jobs currently occupied by foreigners to qualified Qataris – straight to my doorstep. Qatarization is the new buzz word for the country, another facet of a community outnumbered by the people living within its borders. Why are there so many non-citizens doing the cooking, driving, selling, cleaning, teaching? Rampant wealth is one reason; the medium income in Qatar is $60,000 according to one report. Take a reasonably wealthy population, mix in a region of workers desperate for income (South Asians) and you have a state where labor is racially defined to extreme class and socio-economic definitions.  If you are Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi, you are likely a construction worker, maid, driver, cook, or errand person. If you are American, British, Australian, or Canadian, you are likely an engineer, teacher, or involved in the oil industry.

            Here I am, a Western educated South Asian, in the middle of this vortex; I am at the same time both Western (accent, dress, degrees) and Asian (skin color, place of birth, family). I violate two registers – I’m a South Asian woman performing outside the roles assigned to me – and I’m a Western working outside the American universities in Education City. I am a category unto myself. How did I get here?

            Because of a third segment of society, the segment which ignores the obvious limits of the question posed in the Al Ray letter, the segment which recognizes merit will be essential to the process of readying this society for a time when the oil funds will dry up and people will have to roll up their sleeves.

            If you are an educated Qatari, someone with a Ph.D. from abroad, you are likely a president or vice-president of a major national organization, someone who has seen the benefit of experience and expertise, regardless of nationality, and cultivates relationships regardless of class or ethnic issues.

            But these broad minded leaders are the exception while a pervasive polarized view of labor is why the letter writer feels justified in questioning the number of non-Qataris working at a Qatar institution. She has no frame of reference for an open industry, where people are hired based on their merit, instead of their nationality or ethnicity. The letter details complaints against specific employees by name, who besides me include Syrians and Egyptians who dare fulfill job functions which include representing the university abroad even though they are not natives of Qatar.

            How can a non-Qatari represent Qatar or an institution named Qatar University?

The writer asks, unaware that her hostile attitude puts unnecessary barriers between those who choose to live in Qatar and those who identify with the reform project begun in 2000 at the university.

            Her questions echo the impasse between Qataris and ‘guest workers’: most ex-pats will tell you Qataris don’t enjoy working and haven’t earned the titles many of them hold. Qataris will tell you foreigners get the best salaries and live in accommodations much nicer than what they ever had at home.

            There is distrust, befuddlement, and anger, on both sides; compounded by the fact most ex-pats don’t know any Qataris, much less work with any, and vice versa. The polarization of this society mimics the segregated society of the United States – except this is socially and economically reinforced – in addition to racially defined.

            Most people in my office find the newspaper letter amusing. They say not to pay it any mind and that most people know that I am here to help, to work in cooperation towards a better university.

            The letter deflates some of my elation at having finally crossed the imaginary line at work into friendliness and cordiality with everyone on my floor. The first year I spent largely in silence; like the monkey at the computer trying to come up with Shakespeare as women in abayas titter past my doorway. Now people come to my office to greet me, linger in the doorway, look at photos of my recent vacation, and ask me questions about my husband, my wedding, my family. They share secrets with me abou
t breaking fast while on their periods (anyone menstruating is exempt from religious observances) and where to get the best deals on fabric. I’m glad for their friendship and for the projects underway, which I oversee, which will, ultimately make this a better place to be a student.

            However, the Al Sharq letter reminds me that there are mixed opinions about my presence here; and a clear example that there is still a lot of work to do on reducing the gap between the various populations living in this very small country.


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Reader Comments

  1. jksmyth

    Wow! Tell it like it is, Baby!…

    You’ve touched on so many truisms about Qatar and its “Qatarization process” — that even I’ve observed in my short time here — and you’ve given expression to them through clear, concise language and with a righteous argument to back you up.

    Merit merit merit — this is what makes for the positive, admirable side and the success of world societies that do have a positive, admirable side and have enjoyed some success. Qatar has depended so much and so long on nepotism and though they want to fix that very problem, they don’t like the means they need to employ, to achieve that end — namely, hiring non-Qataris to educate and lead Qataris to success. They aren’t willing to give up the nepotism they enjoy in order to dispel nepotism (or something like that).

    The social divisions here in Qatar are well defined in your article — the polarization of the population into separate and disparate camps they don’t co-mingle. Personally, this has been a disappointment. Being a champion of “multiculturalism,” ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance, and I may as well throw in World Peace while I’m at it ! — it has been painful to realize that without great effort, ex-pats only see other ex-pats and know little of the Qataris’ culture and home lives.

    I think you should send this as a response letter to the editor.

    Oh! One thing that bothered me — I didn’t get this reference: ” like the money at the computer trying to come up with Shakespeare” — please explain!

    • Mohanalakshmi

      Hey jk – thanks for writing and sharing your experience. Typo alert! I meant, “like a monkey at the computer trying to come up with Shakespeare” which is how I felt the first few months there, very much on display.

      I think the consensus decision to understand the place where this letter comes from and to proceed as normal; a path I’m willing to take, because, as I said, most people at work enjoy our partnership.

      I just thought the entire thing was too interesting not to muse over it….. and your prespective proves just that.

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