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.


Surprised by "The Kingdom"

After seeing the trailer, complete with machine guns and exploding Suburbans, I wasn’t expecting to like the Jamie Foxx/Jennifer Garner action movie, “The Kingdom”. In fact, as the trailer finished, I turned to my husband and said: “More of the same. Now everyone will be calling us and saying, Is it really safe there? 

The fact is the movie confirms many of the stereotypes Americans already have about the Middle East: oil barons, nervous around women, America haters, and unafraid of violence towards the innocent, even civilians, the trailer showed all that in about three minutes.

Then the reviews of the movie came trickling in – confirming the shallow plotting – and my assumptions about the limited artistic potential of this project. Given the characteristic Doha delay (waiting to see which movies are picked up by the arbitrary local distributor, whose selection criteria for bringing films remains a mystery) we waited and then forgot about this film.

This past weekend, however, it popped up on two screens at the City Center theater, the biggest one in two.

Given that it was one of two English options (the other being “Nancy Drew” we did the usual and went to see it. Heard the saying “beggars can’t be choosers”? It’s true.

To my surprise I found the film much more thoughtful than I had anticipated or hoped for. Granted, there was the requisite grenade throwing and machine gun totting, even a moment where Jennifer Garner gets wrapped in an abaya before being greeted by a Saudi Prince (the U.S. Embassy offical says, “we got to tone down the boobies” before putting it on her shoulders). And the scenes which depict the attack on an American civilian compound, mid-company barbeque and softball game, are harrowing and unrecognizable from our carefree lives in Qatar.

What was gripping were the stories of the Saudi police officers, men just as concerned that the bombers are caught as the Americans. Not because they fear political action, but because, as Al Ghazi, the colonel in charge of the unwanted American visitors says, “I have two daughters and a precious son. Those people got up not knowing it was their last day.” Al Ghazi and a minor character, Hayatham, are standouts while the rest of the Saudis in the film are essenitally protrayed as militant jihadis. 

The violence of this movie distrubed me; it’s so counter to the past three years of livingin Qatar. And this heightened by the fact that on my left was a young Qatari male, shoes off, feet in the chair, chewing his popcorn and burping throughout the movie.

What did he make of all this?
What was he thinking when the bomb maker says “Allah Akubar” after seeing the deaths of hundreds of innocents, including children?
Was he upset? 

Or when the jihadists kidnap one of the F.B.I. agents, wrap him up, film a threat, and then take out a sword to cut his throat?

My peaceful return from safari in Kenya was disturbed by this movie (see Kenya photo gallery). 
It was a rip into the idyll of life in Qatar. 

The end of the movie sums up our impasse: “We’re going to kill them all” both Jamie Foxx’s and the Abu Hamsa character say to various teary people in their lives. 

Regardless of the rest of the movie – this sentiment gets to the core of entrenched nature of this conflict – and should make us all sit up and pay attention.

The Hierarchy of Uniforms

If you’ve been to any kind of service establishment lately, restaurant, hotel, shop, then you may have noticed that not everyone working there was wearing the same thing.
This is particularly true of hotels, where the various service people are designated by their uniforms.
Case in point: the latest hotel we stayed in at Masai Mara, Kenya. It was a tented safari; granted “luxury” since there were bathrooms inside the tents with running water. But even in this semi-casual environment it’s clear who does what.
The khaki pants and animal print blouse (red and white stripes) work the bar and the restaurant.
The all over green are the night watch men (which makes them blend into the camp’s lush foliage).
The all over khaki are the camp’s rangers who take you out in the jeep everyday on game drives.
It’s almost like we are conditioning ourselves and others to see the service instead of the person; the women in white blouses and black pants were the managers of the whole operation.
There is a practical purpose to this: when you are a guest it’s easier to see who does what so you know what to ask for.

But at the same time there is something… reductive about it. Granted, the custodian is probably okay with is dull brown uniform because he doesn’t have to get his normal clothes dirty. But at some point it becomes “us” against “them”, doesn’t it? Perhaps I was really aware of this because in our last two trips we have been the only non-white vacationers at both our destinations (Kenya and the Maldives).

It’s a little disconcerting being at these luxury playgrounds of Europe, where families with four children come for a week, when the price is at least $350 a head. Then there are the couples (do they always seem to be from Germany? Best vacation days in Europe!) who have been where we are at least a week before us and staying at least a week after.
None of these people have been overly friendly; this past week I nearly confronted a woman who looked me up and down, literally, all the way to my shoes! Perhaps this is the irony: since we weren’t wearing the uniforms, it was clear we were not there to work but to vacation. And this turned countless heads.
The reaction from staff is always the opposite. In the Maldives, being so close to the coast of India, there were countless Indian and Sri Lankan employees who were happy to serve us and looked after us with an added level of care. As if to say, “we’re happy one of us made it to this place.”
So it’s part guilt and part pride that we take these vacations and try to even out the class and race issues in our own small way. After all, what would you do if you saw an Indian and a “Chinese” looking guy, holding hands, speaking English with American accents?