The Revolution Within

It started on January 25 and hasn’t ended yet: the revolution that was 30 years in the making –the popular uprising of millions, young/old, male/female, in Egypt. What the peaceful protesters in Tahrir – Liberation – square want is the remove of the 82 year old dictator Hosni Mubarak. Implicit in his stepping down is the conclusion that his son, Gamal, will not be immediately ushered into office, or indeed ever hold an official position in the Egyptian government. It is the end of an era — of U.S. backed foreign interests in the Middle East, of a population so downtrodden many described them as “lazy”, of life long dictators siphoning national funds to finance their vacation homes abroad.

Living in Qatar brings me geographically closer to the eleven day old uprising than my home base on the East coast of the U.S. Working for a Middle Eastern company and with a largely Arab staff (three people from Egypt) brings it directly into daily conversation about the well being of loved ones, fact versus rumor, waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting that “he” (aka Mubarak) will leave.

Add to this the larger circle of friends and colleagues at surrounding universities with ties to Egypt, mix in the excellent 24 hour coverage by Al Jazeera English on TV, the radio, via Twitter, and bake in the heat of friends posting status updates live from Egypt and you have a region more or less glued to the breaking-news ticker.

Against the backdrop of this history-making bravery, people I know personally are writing in international newspapers like The Guardian about being teargassed while trying to protest peacefully. Against this milieu of people saying what they mean, standing for what they believe, and in general living while they are alive, my petty irritations and conflicts seem so small.

In the midst of  international tumult and the constant broadcasts of pent up desire for freedom, it’s not entirely surprisingly that this week, after a long self-enforced silence, I broke and said what I was really thinking.

What I actually said may not be that important ( this isn’t like saying don’t think about elephants) but rather the way that I came to say it.

I had enough with the lack of respectful practices, disorder and chaos a particular set of people kept bringing into my life.

Since July I thought of ways to get out of being tied to them: over maternity leave, I was hoping we’d grow apart.

And as we started sleeping regularly again, I realized nothing had changed – though I had a seismic shift in my own life with the introduction of our new baby. With said baby, an odd thing happened. Instead of making me the crazy person everyone warned me of, the baby actually brought stability. Suddenly I wasn’t checking email all day and most of the night; I was home for meals instead of wandering from event to event. His presence called me home>

But more than being around. He gave me a reason to live a better life. I wanted to be more for him – happy, present, living up to my ideals.

Yet the difficult group relationship continued, with them walking through personal boundaries and in general wrecking havoc in a way that kept me fighting to stay positive and upbeat.

A long Christmas vacation during which I contemplated how to end this increasingly negative interaction. Returning from a long holiday — was difficult but I was much stronger than I thought. I was able to minimize the ever present irritations better than before. Though things were not perfect, I convinced myself to make the best of it, holding the baby close, and real friends closer – the rest receded a bit.

In the background though, like piano keys stuck together, a discordant note kept plunking.

They weren’t going to change. And my ability to ignore them was wearing thin as their discord further intruded into my resolution to live a life worth living while alive.

Last weekend the world couldn’t look away, and I was no different, watching mouth agape as pro-government thugs storm into the square astride horses and even on the backs of camels, beating those they came across with whips. It brought back childhood memories of students standing in front of tanks in another T-named square, Tienanmen. Unlike the Chinese, the pro-Mubarak supporters, paid thugs or undercover police, didn’t have the honesty to wear their uniforms into the square but came in dressed like everyone else to dilute the reputation of the peaceful protesters.

Like the Egyptians over the years, I had grumbled and complained about this group crowding my happy days and happiness. But I wasn’t ready for action. I wanted change but I didn’t know if I could deal with the discomfort. Was it easier for things to stay as they were? Could I weather the storm that this major shift would bring in my life, the life of my family?

In the middle of this week I, alongside  the example of millions of Egyptians who had finally tired of dictatorship above all else, had enough. We were ready to pay the price, come what may of having our say and reaching for impossible dreams. That of self-sovereignty.

I finally said what I had to say. Without emotion or drama or shouting. In a clear, unshakable voice, I spoke what had been on my mind for several months.

As the flags wave in Tharir square, we don’t know what will happen. And without this toxic group in my life, I’m not sure what will come next.

But the sight of Christians protecting Muslims gives me hope that Egypt won’t be overrun by the islamists as everyone is saying. Rather, unlike Iran or Iraq, Egypt will rise out of this revolution strengthened and renewed for the first time in three decades. This may sound idealistic, and no one is saying it won’t be messy. If you haven’t already seen the images of protesters with blood soaked handkerchiefs, then you don’t know the lengths people are willing to go to have their say.

The people of Tunisia and Egypt and have inspired me and even youth all over the Middle East region.

We can all create a life that we want, rather than the script the West (read: those who thought they were in charge of us) write. We don’t have to be puppets of anyone. It won’t be easy. In fact, it will be the hardest thing we’ve done.

But we know what life under dictatorships is like. The promise of freedom is too compelling to turn away any longer. Live the best life you can. After all, you know what the other option is like.

In what areas do you need to have a personal revolution? And from what parts of current or past history can you garner strength?

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.

Clash of Organizational Cultures

Not to be confused with the often quoted ‘clash of civilizations’ between the East and West, lately I’ve observed an equally significant disconnect between assumed expectations and the ensuing chaos when those around us behave otherwise. The physic disruption this kind of gap has caused in my own life over the past ten months is related to the way other people’s nonsensical choices contradict the symbolic order of my life as I’d like to live it. And the result has been irritation, rage, frustration: the desire to not stand and fight but to flee.

And I’m noticing the effect it has on others….

Little things, for example, such as the position of a desk in an office, to big things, such as who has access to what information and when, color how we feel about ourselves and our place in the order of the institutions we belong to.

Young people in Qatar are being educated in a different professional value system from those of their managers. Instead of basing respect on title or age, they are taught in their educational settings to give credit to those who contribute to the overall mission. They are encouraged to be treated with the same consideration as the higher members of the company, in accordance with a system that is more egalitarian than hierarchical.

This sometimes in direct conflict with a system that rewards age and also gives people with titles lots of privileges.
As someone who entered the workforce at the age of 20 in a professional capacity, I fought hard to distinguish my work persona from my student persona (it didn’t help that I stayed to work at my undergraduate institution after graduation).  And perhaps this is why I see the potential in so many of the younger people around me – despite the fact that I am now a 32 year old manager. I know that people like to have tasks that are meaningful rather than clerical and to feel a part of the greater purpose of an organization rather than just ordering paper clips.

Of course I’m a perfectionist and expect that things that are requested get done – as soon as possible or with an explanation as to why otherwise. Nothing irritates me like staff meetings where planning ahead or warnings fall on deaf ears (or students who have to have things repeated to them). But I am a relational leader and I’ve noticed that while others may not choose this particular style, it’s worth too much to me to give up just to strike fear into the hearts of others.

If only more managers knew how to cultivate the young people around them so that they would bring to work a sense of pleasure rather than duty or obligation. I have been trying to let go of tension and worry in general in preparation for the last two months of pregnancy.

I swing between feeling that this is such an ordinary experience, because women around the world do it all the time and wanting to treasure it and nurture the child at the same time. Generally I just collapse into a nap on the days that I can to get away from it all: work, home, the baby growing inside me. And generally, I feel more energized when I wake up, like I can hold on for another ten hours or so.

A friend was visiting and gave me a copy of the Shambhala Sun, a magazine that includes thoughts on “Buddhism, culture, meditation, and life.” The theme for the March issue was Mindful Living. Given all that is happening in my personal and professional life to get ready for this baby and the longest break from work I’ve ever had, it couldn’t have been better timed.

The entire issue was related to how to just be still. Be still and focus on the now. On simple things like your breath or even the sense of what you are about at the present moment. Life isn’t the past or the future – it’s the now, one of the contributors said.

And that’s the profound truth I’m taking into this next phase of my life as a mother and also a professional. I am trying to chip away at that idealist core in me that is always reaching for excellence and what could be possible – the logical order of the world as it should be – and accepting what it is. Flaws and all. Hopefully this is an important lesson the young people around me will also be able to put into their repertoire.

Are there valuable lessons you were taught or are being taught in the workplace or life?