Last Monday was a sobering moment for everyone living in or with connections to the nation of Qatar. Families lost children, spouses lost their partners, and a nation mourned the loss of 19 lives in a mall fire.
From the minute the news went out that “Villaggio was on fire” (the phrase everyone from students to coworkers was repeating) the questions began.
“Who knew about the fire and at what time?”
“Why had someone put a nursery upstairs?”
“Did the fire fighters have the equipment they needed?”
Several investigations are open and in the nature of tragedies, they will take months, if not longer to resolve. What is clear is that nearly every person connected to the emergency response of Villaggio suffered from a lack of necessary information. The first responders were not notified that children were inside; no floor plans for the mall were available; and while humans were outside working within the limited range of words, the fire inside was eating everything it in it’s path.
While this large scale, devastation was happening across town, I was having my own miscommunication at work. While the effects of my conflict were nowhere near the tragedy of the fire — no one died — the principles on which my afternoon (and most of the week) went awry were the same as what plagued the teams at Villaggio: I was hearing what people were saying but I wasn’t listening. Feeling unheard, the other group was returning the favor.
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The root of any miscommunication is the act of hearing without listening. Once I sat down at the mediation table, I got the other side’s perspective. At first it was hard not to get defensive: how could he have thought that’s what I meant? Did she not realize how aggressive her behavior was? I asked the people I was in conflict with to consider the situation from my point of view, later that evening or some other day, when they could.
When I got home, if I wanted to be fair, I had to do the same. I replayed the offensive scenarios over in my mind, this time with myself as the aggressor, and a tiny square of understanding opened. This led to another, to another, and to a new set of ground rules that has since helped us right tilting ship.
None of this would have happened if everyone in the situation had not performed a very mundane action: accepted responsibility.
I accepted the possibility that what were defensive actions on my part, after being repeatedly interrupted, were seen as offensive maneuvers. As hard as it was to hear that I had some part in the communication meltdown, in hearing out the other side, I saw that’s all it was. Humans miscommunicating. No one was a villain; everyone wanted the same thing — respect.
In our litigation saturated global culture, when politicians are caught cheating on wives or elections and apologize with platitudes, I got an old fashioned lesson in listening. When’s the last time you listened to someone? Not the words they were saying but the message they were trying to convey? Do you assign and accept blame equally?
I’ve been blogging for a few years: I’ve been Indian my whole life. Most of the early part of this life, (as you’ll learn from reading parts of FROM DUNES TO DIOR, my latest release), was spent in America.
On most days, I dress and sound like an American. “I’d think you were white if I couldn’t see you,” a friend joked last week over dinner.
I forget that the Internet doesn’t know all this. The Internet, the oft touted vehicle of democracy, has another side. Only this one makes it easy for people to jump to divisive conclusions.
My avatar is of a smiling brown faced woman. Put that together with the name, either Mohana Phongsavan (married) or Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar (maiden) and this is what you get from someone who only knows me through my online presence: oh i just realized from her name that English may not be her native language.
This was in an email, about, but clearly not intended, for me. The email gremlins (jinns in the Middle East) made sure it didn’t reach the person for whom it was intended.
Needless to say, I was less than thrilled. Especially since the piece of writing she was judging me for was better than most of the other people who had posted on a certain topic.
I slept on the email because I didn’t want fatigue to taint my fury. The next morning, I was no longer angry. But I didn’t want to be pushed around. For the last year I’ve been standing up for myself in various ways and I added my reply to her onto my list of assertive moments.
Here’s my reply:
Sorry, what exactly was reflective of a non native speaker of English in that preview?
By the way, I am a US citizen, lived there since I was 5, and have a Phd from the University of Florida. None of which apparently didn’t train me enough for your high giveaway standards.
Are you always so charming or is it just people with foreign names who experience your best?
She wrote back, swiftly, and apologetically, in the style of most politicians:
I owe you a huge apology….. This email was meant for someone else and I had just harangued her for her bad grammar and spelling so when i saw the errors in that paragraph I couldnt resist pointing them out to her, so it was meant in more of a joking way, nevertheless, I do not know who wrote the intro to that post and I apologize making the assumption that it was you. Trust me we do not have high standards for our giveaways, (as is apparent in the intro post) and we are continually making errors. I take full responsibility for this email and hope it will not reflect poorly on XXXX.
Was she really apologizing or was she more concerned about reflecting badly on her business partner?
I’ve no idea. But in either case, I shouldn’t complain. What else can you expect in a country where people still disparage a sitting president for everything from his nation of origin to his father’s religion? For a nation started by those fleeing religious persecution, and then built by immigrants from all walks of life, from all over the world, life in the famed ‘melting pot’ proves less than cordial.
“Jen” (no, I’m not making that up, that’s her name, as bland as vanilla) reminded me we still have a lot to work on.
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?