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.




Next Stop: Happiness

For 2011 one of my main priorities will be people not just goals. While goals are important and I’ve written about goal setting elsewhere on this blog, this year will be more about who I am to those around me in addition to what I can do for them. This is a major shift for me but brought on by the sense of loss of the passing of four friends in 2010 as well as the introduction of a new member of our family. In the end, people are what matter and what last.

This is why the baby and I extended a week of our family vacation to do a road trip to my alma mater and then down to the town I grew up in. Since most of my childhood was spent moving house, the seven years I spent going to middle school and high school in the same place seems more rooted in me than many others. Not accidentally I spent another six years doing a BA and then MA in another city.

Now in mid-30s, there are only three cities I have spent six or more years in and Doha now has that distinction.

I’m not sure what the next year will hold but only that I hope not to feel less alone during it. In stopping and talking to friends on our impromptu road trip, I realized everyone is searching for the same thing. Happiness. Or Happyness as they said in the Will Smith movie.

There are no easy answers given our complex world. The more technology we have, the more we seem isolated from each other.

I do know that happiness for me is going to be practiced on a daily basis. Whether it’s the exercise hour I got in or the chat with an old friend or an article that got written to deadline, each day will present it’s own victory.

What are your secrets to happiness? Share your daily happiness with me. And let’s share the journey.

Being on Vaction in Your City

My mom is visiting us as we await the birth of our baby and she is the first visitor we have had in a year. The last one was stopping through on her way back from Nepal with a boyfriend and sister. It was one night and two days — in the midst of a work schedule that I couldn’t move because of visitors from our London office.

This month long visit is completely different: my mom is here to hang out and that’s exactly what we have been doing. She’s showing our nanny how to make certain dishes and available to run errands, or to start recipes while I’m still upstairs sleeping. She typed up my birth plan – something on my to-do list for at least two weeks and fields calls from my insistent auntie in India who wants to know exactly what is going on.

In short: it’s amazing. For someone who has spent 75% of her time alone over the last five years, having company has been an unexpected joy. We go to have tea with my former students and lunch with friends who have a one month old. She waits patiently in the doctor’s office as we are an hour past the scheduled time to meet with the doctor.

It’s such a luxury to have companionship. And if I hadn’t spent so many afternoons alone over the years, toiling at my desk, writing one project or another, or in the office, trying to cram in the last bit of efficiency, I think I would take this completely for granted.

For now, I’m enjoying it, rather than feeling crowded as I worried I would, between the nanny, mommy, my belly, and me. Rather than climbing the walls and chewing my nails in the last five days before our due date, I’m eating well, enjoying movies, hanging out with the neighbors, taking time to meet new arrivals.

In short: I’m living my life in Doha which I rarely get to do during the year when I’m working like a gerbil on her wheel, trying to get to the carrot.

It hasn’t all been easy, as the temperatures and dust have been climbing outside. But since Mom has jet lag, our naps are synchronized as well.

Yesterday my husband said: “Why doesn’t she watch T.V.?”

Because since arriving on Saturday, the sight of her sitting on the sofa with a 400+ page book is now familiar.

“This is the difference in how we grew up,” I said to him, “that’s why I love reading.” (Became a writer, work for a publishing house, went to graduate school in literature).

I told this story to my mom and it turned out she was actually intimidated by the three remotes it took to turn on the various functions of the TV, DVD player and cable! She prefers a mix of movies (catching up on the OCEANS series over the last two days while I’m in the slow process of waking up or at Arabic class) AND reading.

It’s the calm before the storm and she’s on vacation as much as I am.

We are creatures made for fellowship. We love to exist in community.

And I’m so glad that this one has found me at this moment.

Are there moments you have felt particularly connected to others? Celebrate them for what they are: glimpses of the divine.