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.

Bringing in the Unholy

I’ve lived in the Middle East for five years now and like to think I know what is needed in terms of cultural appropriateness.  Having regular visitors for work who are entirely unprepared for life in the Arabian Gulf helps further confirm that I am an ‘expert’ of a certain kind in dress, speech, behavior.

Every once in a while though, I get a prick, like that of the needle at the doctor’s office that withdraws blood, which seeps at my confidence and reminds me I’m not a Muslim nor an Arab and I still have some things to learn. This happened most recently yesterday when I discovered I had been responsible for the very religious people in my office consuming alcohol. Now this is slightly hilarious because when people who feel strongly about not being around alcohol come around to our house, I put away the bar and my husband’s generally plentiful stock.

This isn’t because we have anything to hide but in my mind a sign of respect. Because while people may watch any kind of movie, listen to all musicians, and tolerate any kind of speech, when it comes to alcohol there is a big, black line which should not be crossed.The opinions on this area as varied as that of Christians and the interpretation of the Apostle Paul ‘not to be drunk with wine’ but when I know where someone stands, I respect it – as a large non drinker myself, I love the fact that in the Middle East no one has to explain why he/she doesn’t drink. (I’ve written about this before elsewhere on the blog).

Imagine my surprise when my innocent  act of generously sharing my abundance of chocolate – a tradition that many Arab offices have chocolates or nibbles on hand  for visitors – with the office exposed my ignorance of the chocolate industry.  Being pregnant, people keep bringing me truffles, boxes of sweets, cookies, etc. which my husband and I were trying not to eat ourselves.

“More!” I said waving a box of truffles from Switerzland in the doorway to one of the larger rooms where at least four people have their work stations.

“Did we tell you about the last box?”

One of my co-workers, who wears hijab – the woman’s head scarf – and doesn’t shake hands with non-relative men asked me.

“No,” I said, thinking back to the last layer in the box of treats given to me by a Swedish friend. I had brought the box in on a Saturday while we were working on a personal project, thinking to lighten the fact of having a mid-day meeting on the weekend.

The challenge with getting chocolates around in a country like Qatar is that the heat of the day instantly renders them into mush. It’s not just any day I can take them in but a day in which I go straight in to the office without prior meetings or errands which can be rare depending on the week.  The foresight I put into taking in my special deliveries never once included thinking about the ingredients.

The Arab staff in my office are very holy people and they are a good influence on me and unborn baby in my increasing stages of discontent, irritation, and overall inability to shake things off that are otherwise than they should be. Their “don’t worry about it” or ready laughter really helps me rein in unbridled emotions. They pray regularly and two fast twice a week. Around this climate of spiritual discipline and reverence we manage to laugh and have a good time. It’s a great balance. And this is where I was taking boxes of Swedish and Swiss chocolates – that had tiny, inestimably small amounts of champagne and other alcoholic drinks.

“Well, maybe not this one,” I said, recovering from my shock and preparing to read the ingredients out loud.

“Sugar, flour, fructose, sucrose, Dom Perignon Champagne…”

Yup, even the truffles from the W hotel, had a trace.

Thankfully we laughed at my unholy influence on the rest of them and thought this would be a good idea for an episode on the sitcom we’d like to write: “The Office: Middle East edition.”

You can speak Indian with him?

A common question: can I speak Indian?
 Variations on this theme are: Can I speak Hindu? 

The most recent time this happened was this morning, as the rental car place was bringing a Mercedes to our house. Pause – this is a rental for my husband for our year anniversary – we are not keeping it (yet, after my darling drives it for ten days, I think we’ll be in the market for one).

In any case, they were delivering this beautiful machine, to an address I had already written out for them. Granted, there are no references to street signs in Qatar, so this might be difficult IF we weren’t only one turn away from the rental site. About five minutes, tops. 

The guys were lost. 

Apparently there were four of them: one driving the Mercedes, one driving the follow car, and the manager, and an extra.

The manager is the one who said to me on the phone when I called to see where they were, “Can you speak Indian with the driver?”

The Mercedes was a “surprise” for my husband who was an unheard of fifteen minutes past his normal departure time for work, pacing the entry way, wanting to know what was so important he couldn’t leave. Between his restlessness and the manager’s cultural obtuseness needless to say, I had no mercy on the poor lost manager.

“First of all, there is no language called “Indian” so, no, I can’t speak it. Second of all…” and then my tirade on how they were late despite the fact we are only one turn away from the rental facility.

India is a now a democracy but for centuries it was a land mass populated by individual rules. Kings – maharajas – were lords of their own countries. The British came and changed all of that: pitted weaker kings against each other, bribed powerful ones to allow them to trade within the country. So a very disparate people came together under the Empire.

India is like the United States – the North and the South are completely different – regional influences are particularly strong. Dress, clothing, food, all of this depends on what state you’re in. Many of the stereotypes are the same. The South is the center of religious identity with more temples than any other part of the country. The North is the seat of fashion and that harbinger of modern culture, Bollywood.

But the incident this morning reminds me of another conversation I had in graduate school (remember: this person was educated and becoming more so).
“I’m from the south of India,” I explained, “a state called Tamil Nadu.”

My friend digested this. Then, very honestly she said, “I didn’t know that India had states.”

I blinked at her. Was this just a monopoly of the U.S. in her mind? Or was this just another version of all-brown-people-are-the-same, why would they need smaller governing bodies?

“I mean, why didn’t they ever tell us this in school?” My friend continued.

I contemplated her question then and now see another round of it in the manager’s this morning. If it’s India, and everyone’s Indian, what’s the big deal? Well, the deal is that those two assumptions override the complexity and richness of life not only in India, but also another entity which is ever more haphazardly lumped together: Africa. We talk about “Africa” like it is one country, not an entire continent, one that is massive if you look at maps printed to proportion. North America suddenly seems tiny in comparison. People talk about Africa as though it were India: a federation of states. The fact is, Africa is even more diverse than India because it is not a country-continent, but rather a land mass that houses many people who look alike to the casual eye.

Lets stay with India: There are sixteen official languages in Indian and many more unofficial dialects. There are twenty-eight states and some non-states called union territories, but let’s keep it simple. State pride is taken very seriously. This is why although I speak Tamil (the language of Tamil Nadu), I don’t speak Hindi, as it’s rarely used in the south.

It’s not uncommon for people to speak a variety of similar languages – although they might share a few features, each of the 16 are in fact separate syntactical structures – people from Tamil Nadu, for example, often speak Malayalam which is spoken in the neighboring state of Kerala and vice versa. Same with Telugu and Karnataka which are also southwestern languages and bordering states.

These are communities of people who have their own language films, and movie stars they follow, martial rituals and communities within which they prefer to choose partners for their children, and in essence strong local identities.

The irony is that the manager was from the Middle East – Lebanon I would guess – a region just as collapsed in terms of differentiated understanding of individual identity. The ME is like Africa in this sense: a place, not a country, that is homogenized based on religion.

But, after visiting Oman, Dubai, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, I can tell you, no two of these are that similar. 

It is the human experience to be different and unique. With a little more effort, we could understand and appreciate these nuances. And perhaps become more aware of our own?