The Year that was 2010

I love the count downs that occur during the last week of December. There are the top music videos and most embarrassing moments; celebrity shockers and sports highlights. It’s the one week every year that my inner pop culture junkie can get her fill of the year that was. Even grander are those moments which observe the passing of a decade which we find ourselves in as 2010 draws to a close.

Before New Year’s Eve comes to Doha, however, is another event of equal resonance, if only locally in Qatar: National Day. Observed on December 18, a year ago this week, a blog post about National Day ignited a firestorm of controversy. A woman blogging on Qatar posted a piece about the antics of youth on the cornice, ending with the conclusion that the boys (for they were mostly) were symptomatic of the country and both needed to grow up. Spray painted cars, wheelies, people hanging out of windows – all of this, plus someone accosting her with a facemask on, led the blogger to call out her host country and also its people.

The response – over 600 replies to her posting – covered the range of emotions: defending, decrying, and debasing her claims. Whatever people were saying, the outpouring was something few people could have predicted. Hate pages for the blogger and the website sprang up on Facebook and gathered several hundred members. The post and the responses exposed feelings not just about a group of boys out on the town to have fun, but on a range of topics, some as innocuous as driving, to differences in compensation, polices such as Qatarization, and lack of respect for culture.  Whatever the topic and rebuttal, people were arguing ferociously for “their” side.

A year later, what I’m ruminating about is not the incident itself, but what it revealed about those of us who share this tiny peninsula on the larger land of Arabia. The post and the subsequent reaction revealed the deep rooted tensions between ex-pats and locals in our small city state.

As someone who often has to code switch and defend expats to locals and locals to expats, I was saddened by how large the rift still seemed last year and can’t say that things are really drastically changing. The gulf in Qatar (pun intended) is not merely between the haves and the have-nots though that is evident when I sit in traffic next to the buses full of laborers. It’s also between us as people. The expats are not a homogenous group as they seem. There are distinctions between where people come from – Europe, America, and South Asia – as well as their occupations; oil, educational, sports. And locals have an intricate ranking system based on tribal ancestry, how long their families have been on the Arabian Peninsula, and who they are connected to by marriage or otherwise.

When one population is constant – the Qataries, and one population lasts only 1-3 years – the expats, there is no real window to confront these myths and stereotypes. A year later, coming upon National Day, I’m reminded that while we may all live next to each other, stand in line together, driving the same roads, we don’t actually see each other or engage.

New Year’s resolutions are known for triteness and being doomed to failure. Instead of waiting until January 1, I’ve started implementing “life changes” earlier so that by the time the New Year comes; it will find me already practicing my desired habit.

December 2010 is about daily exercise and the practice of being present with people. No messaging, or mobile, or internet. Just being present and really hearing what they have to say.

It is only by really hearing someone that we can stop seeing them as the “other.” And we know that the boundary between us and them is not as firm as we once thought.

Hotels, DJs, clothing manufacturers, want me to buy into the buildup of that other dread holiday – New Year’s Eve. I’ve had the rare opportunity to spend the most talked about night of the year in a different country over the past five years. This isn’t as glamorous as it sounds since often my companions for the evening go to bed before the witching hour, leaving me watching fireworks around the world via satellite.

Despite the hype and commerciality, the end of the year is good to evaluation and introspection, both of what’s happened and what’s to come.

For the sake of all the people living in Qatar, I hope 2011 finds us turning a new page together.

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