Someone Else 2

A few years ago I wrote about how my craving for chocolate munchkins at Dunkin’ Donuts helped get through a very lonely period. Every time I went to the DD in our neighborhood and there were none of my tasty delights left on the shelf, I wondered if someone else also loved the taste of the cake and glaze, the perfect balance between sugar and sweet, as much as I did. That blog entry was playful but expressed profound issues. It is also one of the few pieces my husband – ever confessed as my faithful, non-reading fan-remembers and has actually read in entirety.  I’ve borrowed it for all these reasons and also because something else happened in the neighborhood recently that may be a watershed event.

This month I’ve been confronted by another shared experience – this time much uglier than the crime of selfishly taking all of one type of doughnut at the store.

It’s indifference.

The ugly head of looking away is rearing everywhere so much so we are running out of excuses of why we don’t get involved. Whether on the international scale as the UN Security Council looks away at the slaughter of peaceful protestors in Bahrain or the pursuit of antigovernment people in Libya, or the personal of avoiding the truths that simmer only a few doors down from where we call home.

The international community may be caught showing impotent they are while distant parts of the world burn in fury at decades of abuse.

I sit in judgment of global leaders, whole countries, and then realize the lesson comes home to my door step – as various themes have been doing since the start of the Egyptian revolution.

Someone in my neighborhood needed help a few weeks ago and I was too busy coming and going, to work, to play, to church, to the store not to notice it. She was caught in the unfortunate circumstance that so many women find themselves: at the mercy of her employer who decided she couldn’t transfer her sponsorship to someone else and without explanation sent her home.

Turns out that many people around me knew this was happening and a few tried to do their part to persuade the employer to do the right thing. They wouldn’t budge and the end result was the same: the devastated young woman was sent away without regard for her family, her future, her livelihood.

Admittedly I don’t know all the sides of the story but the basic principle is the same: someone in the neighborhood needed help and I wasn’t there.

Idealistically you think you’ll be there for someone if they needed you. This is what good people do. We step forward when we’re called. But what if our day to day is so hectic, frenetic, and manic, that we can’t hear those pleas?

I confronted a friend whom this young woman had asked for help and who had been turned away.

“I didn’t have room to keep her stuff,” my friend told me.

This is the case, the summary, of what’s wrong. We don’t have room because our lives, our minds, our days are so cluttered with things of no consequence that things that truly matter to us can’t get access to our hearts.

“When someone asks us for help, we have to help them,” I said to my friend. She didn’t feel she could have risked herself for this person.

And I don’t know what I could have done. Maybe I would have been even more ineffectual than the people who did try to get them to see reason. Maybe not. Perhaps my getting involved would have made a tense situation irreparably awkward for future exchanges. Perhaps not.  The truth is we’ll never know. Because while I smiled at this person, waved, and even stopped to ask how she was once or twice, I wasn’t there when she really needed someone.

The pontificating around Gaddafi, certifiably a corrupt, embezzling, bloodthirsty dictator, whose latest international broadcasts have proven his hold on reality is tenuous at best, seems to have moved towards action. The UK has agreed to freeze his assets. Germany and others-including the unlikely Peru-have called for Gaddafi to step down and the regime to stop killing its citizens.

But will it be too little too late? Are we in fact sliding towards civil war as the world keeps going to work, eating lunch, and putting our children to sleep, safe in their middle class beds, in the stable countries of the world?

I don’t know. But I do know that much in the way that my mini-revolution started, it hasn’t stopped, only grown strength as people around the Middle East stand up and speak for themselves.

The irony is that this is the democracy that the west could not have engineered. And now that is has happened organically, spontaneously, unpredictably, world leaders don’t know what to do with it.

The people have spoken, are speaking, will speak.

And I will try to do the same for those around me who need someone to be their advocate. In the hopes that when my time comes, someone in the neighborhood will be there to speak for me.

If you've lost your way…

Traveling in London I’ve found a sure fire technique for never getting lost. Ask a street cleaner for directions. They are everywhere, have fantastic maps, and also know the city better than most.

My coworker last night shared that this piece of advice is true not only for the complicated rabbit warren alleys of England but also Cairo.

"My mother told me to always ask a cleaner," she said smiling as we waited for our other friend who was asking a cleaning gentleman for directions to the nearest outlet of our desired restaurant.

I began wondering if this was the sign of what is really at the heart of a society: the willingness to acknowledge and attribute knowledge across all segments of society. Was it because we were all non-UK nationals, able to see outside the class conscious society of the UK? Or was it because of our generation – we were a mix between Xers and Mellenials – so even any UK twenty or thirtysomething would feel comfortable doing the same? Dare I raise the specter of gender: was it because we were three women that we stopped for directions?

Whatever the case, we did stop for directions, each of us comfortably perched near the edge of upper middle classhood and thanked the gentleman for his help.

Perhaps this is the sign of an eglaitarian mindset on which a society could be built.

Perhaps having a voice, even to give directions, is tied to having a large social presences, like having your voice count?

Hopefully the Iranian people who have been patient are rewarded for their efforts.

Some Random Thoughts on Class and Gender in Doha

I’m working in my office and a student, wearing nikab, a face veil that drapes in front of the face and covers everything except a woman’s eyes, which a friend who lives here affectionately calls a ‘ninja mask.’ (in case you need a photograph: 
A side note: many nikab clad women drive wearing these veils, despite the fact that the limit peripheral vision enormously. This is not just my un-hijabed opinion. When I was talking about this with another student, one who wears a shyla, a headscarf that covers hair, neck, and ears, she agreed and said this is an opinion that her father shares: women driving wearing nikab are not necessarily the safest (a whole new angle to women driving stereotypes).


But back to this particular day, she is wearing nikab and comes in to ask me to use my cell phone. She has to use my phone, she tells me, because her parents won’t let her have a phone. They think it’s “bad.” Yet, they think it’s okay for their daughter to walk into a stranger’s office (I have never seen this student before, expect on the first occasion that she came to use my phone) to ask to use the phone. This seems a discrepancy to the issue of modesty, which is what they seem concerned with, if her dress and lack of phone are any indication.


“You remember me?” She asked, as though surprised.


“No one else has asked to use my phone,” I respond. And it’s true. An area of the world where workers can SMS in to bosses that they aren’t coming to work, and people break up via mobile phones, not to mention use Bluetooth technology to make assignations with strangers in public, her not having a phone stand out.


Other issues?


At a mini-conference this week, I asked a few co-workers to help assist in taking microphones to audience members who had questions for panelists, I was confronted with the divide between acceptable forms of work and unacceptable forms of work. This is determined by status and image of course.


“Aren’t there any servants to do it?” One asked me.

Servants? Was work an extension of her home?


Let’s flash to the sight that greeted me as I got out of my car earlier this week: two women who work in the kitchen of our building, bringing tea and making copies, scurrying into the parking lot to get two grocery bags from staff in my building. The bas had the contents of the other women’s breakfast.  They were items that could have been stuffed into my tote bag that was slung over my arm. I watched as the procession, the staff in front, and the tea ladies in back, proceeded into the building.


Back to the microphone handler search: Of course I had to start with the women because the men were too dignified to do this task.


Of the few I asked, most pointed to their long abayas, the hems of which were dragging on the floor, and said they couldn’t run because they would fall. This is how dress marks us in our everyday lives here; the thobes and abayas don’t allow for running, pushing, lifting, or any other semi-manual labor. They make for great gliding however, as women’s feet are hidden, and girls from a young age learn to walk in small, mincing steps, designer handbags dangling from the crook of their arms. There isn’t any sense of the egalitarian idea of shifting identities – I may be a plumber during the day but at night I can be whatever I want, all I have to do is change my clothes – you are what you wear, essentially.


There were two volunteers, eventually however, and this was even more interesting. One was sharp: the microphone was right there when someone needed it. She moved swiftly (even in her abaya) and stood to the side as the speaker said whatever was on his/her mind. The other was much more timid. And although she stood against the wall and made to approach several speakers near her, she never did actually hand the microphone to anyone. She was shy and the distances too far for her to travel.


“I might meet my husband,” one person said, as I asked her why she didn’t want to help us out (it was a long day and these handlers were on their feet for an hour at a time).


In the end she turned me down; I guess he’ll just have to wait until another day.