Middle of January may seem a bit early to be looking towards summer. Call it post vacation blues, but plans are underfoot, both for family travel as well as blog content (amongst a range of other things including the publication of more books! As part of my resolve in 2012 to keep upping my game and trying out new material, I’ll be participating in the Savory Summer Blog Hop this June.
I will be blogging about many things food related which will be a new experience for me as someone who enjoys food but isn’t exactly a self-proclaimed “foodie”. Join me in this adventure to eat, eat with, eat off of, cook, cook with, and in general enjoy summer.
I love Ramadan, have from the first time I experienced it in Qatar. The fact many places are closed in the middle of the day removes the temptation to run around the city in an exhaust induced daze, wilting from heat and hating humanity. Instead it’s sort of like desert hibernation: I withdrawn into myself for entertainment until friends are free in the evening.
This is the end of the second week, exactly halfway through. Muslims (and those wishing to share the experience) have not eaten food or drank water from sun up to sun down for the last fifteen days. The contrast between day and night is often dizzying. At work everyone is somber, quiet, waiting to go home and wile away the hours until sunset. At night the city comes alive as cars careen the streets taking passengers to visit one another, manage errands that have been delayed, and in general stay up until the wee hours in the morning for the last prayer before sunrise.
This particular year is my first time as a full time freelance writer. Instead of spending the better part of the day promoting the work of others, create as much as I can; the words keep forming on the page, sentence by sentence, until my next social obligation. Rather than decline into stasis, Ramadan allows me to make use of all the hours I have to myself, uninterrupted by lunches or afternoon meetings. But already, as others, I’m thinking about the time when fasting will end and we return to “normal.”
In the past few weeks, as others have strained not to swear, fight, lie, or any of the other things that would invalidate their fast, I’ve started to withdrawn from that great sustainer I’ve depended on for most of my life: friends. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, have started a family, am married to an introvert, or some combination of all three, but I’m starting to wonder about life as it was before.
What I’m not missing during Ramadan are the negative interactions that tend to be a part of life in a very small community. When people “are people” as the saying goes, how do you deal with the disappointment? The questions all boil down to a central theme with an elusive answer: why don’t more people treat others the way they want to be treated? Said another way: why aren’t people the same kind of friend to you, you are to them? My only solution seems to be to avoid the cause of the problem.
I wanted to say hi, a friend said, because I don’t want to be one of those people you’re talking about who only call when they need something.
I used to not mind, the person who called after a long time, suddenly popping up, ten minutes into the conversation asking, (you already saw this coming) for a favor. The call was also a chance to renew a shared relationship – no dancing around the word friendship – and so a connection would be revived.
In Doha this context shifted slightly: there was suddenly less room to avoid those who in a larger pond would likely only be acquaintances. Seen at the same events, with the same likely suspects, you’re forced to have conversations about summer, Eid, winter holidays; or the plans for whatever vacation was around the corner.
It was hard to tell in the first few years who was genuinely interested in you as a person and who just wanted a night out on the town (especially if you are a generous person who often reaches for the check). In a high school like atmosphere where you live, work, and befriend those in your proximity, these aren’t friendships but rather alliances of a sort, of the feudal kind, made to beat back the threat of boredom and loneliness.
The extrovert in me didn’t mind having repetitive conversations. After all, extroverts just love to hear themselves talk, about anything. Then a funny thing happened. The predictability of the conversations started to fray at my other defining characteristic: a love of variety.
Where are you from, where do you work, how long you been here became a litany that even me, hyper extrovert, began to dread.
Because if people liked your answers, then they hold on to your contact details. Most people call this networking. Surely that term applies mostly to reciprocal exchanges of information, referrals, favors?
For an extrovert personality with a serious helping handicap, this situation became parasitic. I was like an injured athlete at the competition. I couldn’t look away, but I knew it would only do me further injury to get involved.
The list of people who called once or twice a year began to grow. One year blended into two, then three, most of the out of the blue calls were around getting g someone a job or passing along a resume. And now they all have invariably the same theme: can I help them get their book published; give them advice on getting started in writing, recommend an agent?
The fact is I really like people. They were my favorite hobby in fact: meeting new people, learning about them, keeping up, and collecting them as part of a human menagerie. Malcolm Gladwell in his best seller The Tipping Pointeven coined a term for the type of person I am: connector.But the obvious evidence that people were counting on my weakness, in fact playing on the fact I rarely let an email go unanswered (even if on maternity leave) or couldn’t not reply to a cry for help grew apace with the sinking suspicion of being used was mounting. And the end result was that my usefulness to people, that very thing I used to love to give away freely, was now the thing I hated about myself.
The vulnerability left me exposed to others, who had called for a reference, or asked for a piece of advice, the same people who never answered when in the same town, or who were too busy to invite you along to a party you’d already sent a gift for, these people who gladly took the first fruit of your time.
Yet, when it came time to return the favor, when you need a referral, follow through, a sign of caring, the idea of reciprocity vanishes. The lights are on, yet no one comes to the door to answer your knock.
Make no mistake, all the people I’ve helped over the years, they were thankful. Some even had the grace to be slightly abashed. I know we haven’t spoken all summer, I’m sorry for that…. one recent text began. I replied. Of course I did. To delete would be to become someone I don’t know. But the more of these I get, the more I realize this is the kind of reputation I want to consider reforming.
They know they can behave badly and yet rely on inert goodness.
But is the definition of grace. Unmerited kindness.
Joy is spelled Jesus Others You, the pastor said last week in the service. I listened, thin lipped, as a knife twisted in my heart, where all of these unrequited actions stemmed. I have practiced the JOY philosophy since first hearing it’s rationale as a teenager, the message singing straight to my core like a hot arrow.
But joy is the last word that would describe how I feel about people.
Here I am, torn between a religious ideal and giving up on humanity all together. Shall I continue in my endless well of assistance because in eternity I may have the reward – please let it be the type of friendships I give – for my trials?
Or perhaps I will become one of those hermit writers; living at the keyboard and speaking only when spoken to. The question then is equally murky: How long would it be before someone did, just for the sake of company?
I was having lunch with a friend the other day and as our nearly one year old boys toddled around her house, we got to chewing the salads and also the fat of life as close friends (and it must be said, women) do. Everything from business ideas to family drama was on the table alongside the fried chicken and coleslaw. Then we got to what everyone’s talking about in the Muslim world these days: Ramadan.
I mentioned the person in the UAE who was recently fined for insulting the season on Facebook.
“Why are people so surprised things close in a Muslim country?” my friend asked.
We went a couple of rounds on this one, but more on this in a bit.
The seasons of fasting is around the corner of the weekend. In order to be home — and avoid breaking fast at 10pm when the sun goes down in Europe some say — Qatari families are coming home earlier from their sun soaked days in Nice, Barcelona, or the far ends of the earth. Because the start of school and universities are delayed until after Eid al Fitr, expats are heading to the airport (or indeed airport hopping) during what they consider a “dead” month.
This split on Ramadan is emblematic of the many cities that inhabit this capital we all share — at times like this– uncomfortably.
Let’s look at some of the reasons we differ on Ramadan.
A Plural Islamic Society
The losing of restaurants, shortened working hours, and synchronized schedule that affects the malls, government, and other key services is new to most expats who are generally from environments where religion is not only practiced in private but mostly on the weekends. To bring religion into everyday life can not only be new, it seems at odds with the “your life can go on exactly as it did before — see the McDonald’s?” strategy that many organizations use when recruiting new people to Qatar. This is blatant (well meaning) false advertising.
Strangely the Victoria Secret, Volvo, or Versace may have a calming effect on the person worried about settling in away from home. But access to the familiar whether in Mumbai, Miami, or Madrid doesn’t guarantee that life in a new city or country is going to be blip free. At the most basic, the locations of your favorite anything will be in new places, therefore not the same.
Ramadan moves back ten days each year and as long it’s near the start of the school year, it will be a dizzying first encounter for many new arrivals. Not eating in public, avoiding drinking in your car; these are confusing signals juxtaposed with wanting to host the World Cup or the Tour de France. The constant juggle between modernity and tradition, between culturally appropriate and individual freedom is something everyone in Qatar is experiencing and there are no easy answers.
For the now, luxury brands and not eating in the workplace are not mutually exclusive.
A Believer’s Community
When you move to a country for a job, what you end up doing is working. Even those Muslims who are not from the Gulf or here without their families find Ramadan a lonely time because it is a season where the community supports itself in gathering closer to God. The gatherings within people’s homes, akin to looking in while people are circled around an Easter brunch, are closed off to those who don’t know anyone, don’t have invitations, or in general, are lonely. This is the opposite of the season, as many groups have iftars, or group dinners, sponsored for charity as much as entertainment, to gather together.
You can still fall through the cracks, however, and this means rather than drawing closer to God through those around you, you feel more alone than ever. This is no different than any other holiday season: Christmas or Diwali, when the overall effect is isolation rather than inclusion, it may feel more compounded because public life is truncated during the day and most people who are fasting will generally not be as available as they might otherwise be.
But back to the main subject during my lunch, which circulated around a central question: Why do visitors, guests, non-citizens feel so comfortable about criticizing their host country? Whether Ramadan, or Qatari National Day (which infamously sparked a firestorm online), my friend was curious exactly why people felt and expressed themselves vociferously.
“Would you hear an Arab talking about the 4th of July?” she asked me. “No, we’d say, okay, this is their country, let them do it their way.”
She had a point, and a crystallizing one — even if someone thought Christmas was excessive, Diwali pagan, and the Solstice unnecessary, these views would eventually disappear into white noise in most contexts because they do not have the entrenched charge that cultural critique takes on in Qatar.
There’s the us/against them factor, which we’ve discussed in the past; but also, if you are new and you are experiencing Ramadan for the first time, your grumble is the first to you and perhaps natural, no harm intended, more processing. But you’ll forget or be completely unaware that it’s the tenth or twentieth for the person, often Qatari, sometimes Arab or Muslim from somewhere else, to hear this by now, unoriginal reaction.
Child rearing, fashion, movies, culture — they are all blank canvases for us to express our opinions. If you live in Doha, however, the stakes seem very high and generally come down along racial or religious lines. When we are talking about Ramadan, or traffic, or friendships, we aren’t merely talking about the issue at hand but the psychic force of all the other ones as well come to bear. It’s like being in a distinguishing relationship, where arguments escalate, and you both care, or remember caring, or want to care — and you need a new way out of an old, destructive pattern.
This Ramadan, why not reach out to someone and do the thing the season was designed to do: spend thoughtful, intentional time at a meal, or in prayer, or some other activity that will make you feel more connected rather than alienated? Let’s bring out the best in each other, expat and Qatar, South Asian and western, rather than the worst that is circling around us in the all the too present stereotypes.
After all — you know you’ll have some time — what else are you going to do while waiting for everything to open?