On Being Abnormal

It happened again at a dinner party last night. Someone invariably was talking about a trip they went on where the local people were normal. And the city was normal. And the economy was normal. The latest land to be praised was Oman. Now granted, I’ve been to Oman and it beautiful, lush and green; Omanis are truly friendly people. But the comparison to Qatar is what put me on the defensive. From within our expat enclaves to talk about the other as abnormal is more than my postcolonial heart can stand. Especially since I know that the wall we feel between us and the local community is a mutual construction.

In Doha, I find myself in an awkward position, not unfamiliar as the child of immigrants. Being a third culture child: living in one, raised in another, fashioning your way, perhaps was the best experience for this life of in between apologist. Invariably this word normal has always gotten my back up. Growing up as a South Asian in north central Florida, I was anything but normal. I was the fly in the ointment as they say and very much felt it in the way my parents dressed, spoke, behaved and the resulting impact on what I brought to school to eat, the social rules I had to live by: in short my American teenage years were nothing like what we see on prime time U.S. television.

Now I am constantly defending Qataries to expats and expats to Qataries. Rarely do these two communities ever actually meet in a meaningful way. And whey they do, it’s more like crashing into one another. I’m often like an eavesdropper, hearing what each side has to say about the other, wishing I could call for a meeting of the minds. The complaints are so constant and familiar as to be unoriginal and borderline boring. If only they weren’t so serious in their examination of the other group. We dwell on the worst in each other.

The impatient Qatari man or woman is indignant at being made to wait in their own country in a line, for example, and pushes ahead of everyone else.

Or the skimpily clad expat woman, for another, is walking around the souq dressed as though she were at home, for another, because of the scorching heat, not realizing it’s Ramadan.

We live in the same city but never really on the same plain. And I can’t figure out what it is. But perhaps like the cause of war, there is no one specific reason, just a mishmash of facts and emotions. Some of it is the transient nature of the Doha labor market intersecting with the need to maintain the boundaries of these various nationalities. People come on short term contracts, to make money, never expecting to stay and also not really encouraged to think of Qatar as home.

Dress is a distinct way to make sure no one ever forgets where the other person is really “from” and to where they will return. While we are together, even eating, shopping, or visiting each others homes, there are visual reminders we are different.

In an environment where one group is here today and gone tomorrow – a phenomena I’m growing increasingly sick of as one of the ones left behind – I see now why the group that’s staying doesn’t really bother with the new group. After all, now I’m the one running in the other direction in early August as the new arrivals are trooping out of the airport and onto the immigration buses for their medical screenings. I know exactly what they’ll want to talk about for the first six months they are here: Ramadan, driving, the heat, dust, censored movies, and migrant workers. No one wants to learn Arabic because they don’t need to use it. No one knows any Qataries either because they don’t work with any or those that they do with rarely come to office. And the Qataries that are working outside of the government or ministries often feel outnumbered at the office the same way they would have been at City Center or Villaggio. It’s not that these events and feelings aren’t important to discuss – after all what else can you talk about when you first arrive but what you know? The sad fact is that many never develop their conversation or their relationships beyond these initial impressions.

But it’s many of their companies that are the ones promising expats that their lifestyles – implied: their mindsets – don’t have to change in order to move to Doha. Being a moderate state has its draw backs: alcohol being sold in hotels, burgeoning night life, the pace of change constantly on your front doorstep and price the seemingly endless tide of people coming and going, while you keep living your life.

In the past, before the financial crisis, and pre-2022 host city status, most people wouldn’t come to the desert without great motivation. Hence the now well known financial and lifestyle incentives pile up for the adventurous expats. But you’re not necessarily getting what you pay for, as most career expats can tell you: those who are abroad are either there for the adventure, or there because nowhere else will have them. These poor specimens are often the ones Qataries single out when explaining they feel that they are being passed by for blue eyed, blond haired non-expert, living in a fancy house and driving a nice car on their money.

Meanwhile, the same foreigners, or indeed even credential non-white expats, see the in day to day effects of Qatarization – people not coming to work, young men skipping industry altogether to drink coffee at Starbucks, colleagues that are not motivated – as proof that a merit based society will never thrive.

And we reach another impasse as stereotypes are circulated, confirmed, and recirculated.

As one of the people who has hung on, now in my sixth year, I’ve grown almost deaf to these complaints. People always want to know how I did it, how did I make Qatari friends? The answers are so easy as to blatantly obvious but they demand the one ingredient not many have the luxury of: time. I was around, I engaged in meaningful work (in my case writing projects), I had multiple opportunities to show that I cared. Though in an interesting side bar, I have to admit that no one over the age of 40 is a good friend, though I have many older colleagues I feel great mutual respect for.

Maybe there is something modern about the notion of having an expat friend come over on a Friday to the family house, be invited to the ladies majlis, or go to visit in the hospital after she has given birth. Most of my male and female Qatari friends are under the age of 30, hovering closer to 25.

These relationships, like any friendships, are not easy to build and often harder to maintain given the various demands that everyone is juggling. But that is the thing that’s normal. Take it from someone who has seen several cycles of expats come and go; the mistrust on both sides is about the only thing normal about life here. Nearly everyone that I went to my medical screening with in 2005 has left Doha.

So as a survival mechanism I started making friends with Qataries. If I was staying and they were staying, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. But then a strange thing happened: even my Qatari friends started going abroad to purse further studies, or temporary assignments, leaving me once again bereft, the only answer being to make more friends.

“Where is the famous Qatari hospitality?” a lot of people ask at dinner parties. I hear stories of their travels elsewhere in the Middle East where complete strangers invite them in for meals, or give them directions and walk the entire walk, etc. etc.

The United States cannot really claim to be a bastion of civility to foreigners and as recent headlines show, neither will Europe win any words for raids on xenophobia. The numbers do not make it easy for the average Qatari, vastly outnumbered in their own country, rushed into speaking, studying, living in a foreign tongue, to open their hearts or homes to just any of the tens of thousands of people passing by. Add to this the context of gender segregated socialization and you’ve just halved the opportunities for interaction again.

It is not easy for either side to see the other across this wall of indifference. And there are people who benefit from this consistently wide gulf between us. For the sake of Qatar, and my friends on both sides, I hope more people keep reaching across. It is the only hope any of us have at living an abnormal life and creating connections between these historically different communities.




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Reader Comments

  1. Carol Henderson

    Good post, Mo.

    One of the best things about the writing workshops is the trust and commonality that builds, if briefly through the written and shared word,
    among the participants–the expats and Qataris.

  2. Rakesh

    Excellent post Mohana. I was raised in Doha and lived there till i was 17 after which i moved to Central Florida . When asked to describe my life in Qatar, people were a) surprised that i never learned Arabic b) could not claim to have a single Qatari friend.

    Ever since I was a child I’ve always rued the cultural gap between Qataris and expatriates. You are right when you say that it is difficult for people above the age of 40 to be your friends. I’ve made it a point to visit Qatar once a year; often for 3 months at a stretch. When I visited last Christmas, there was a glimmer of hope. My alma mater – Dukhan English Speaking School – built for children of QP employees in Dukhan, had a large number of Qatari students. It was not uncommon to see Qatari, South African, Philipino and Indian Students in a group.

    One solution could be to get Qatar Foundation to begin a department of cultural outreach. An organization that facilitates the co-mingling of Qatari and expat communities through cultural and educational programs. These events could be organized such that mutual interaction between groups are unavoidable; where attendees are not just passive observers, but participants.

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