No Abusing Arabs in Sight

Two days before our second son was born, April 12th, the New York Times published a piece about “Indentured Servitude in the Persian Gulf.” The piece was categorized as news analysis. For those of us living in the Arabian Gulf (since Persia, or Iran, is a known competitor with the GCC), Richard Morin’s piece might as well have been published thirty years ago. After all there was little in the way of news or analysis.

Qataris, he stated, are known to under pay and often abuse their domestic help. Qatar is very wealthy. People are brought to work here under false promises and then have difficulty returning home.

All of this you’d know in the first four weeks of living here.

What I wish Morin had taken time to discuss is all the areas of grey. These areas of mistreatment, racism, and classism have danced around my mind as a South Asian American who has made her home in Doha since 2005. As a wife in a racially mixed marriage and the mother of two boys of multicultural background, I can’t escape the nuances of the layers of race, gender, and class in everyday life in Qatar.

Nuances that are missing from Morin’s piece but which are the chief subject of my third novel, The Dohmestics, about housemaids in an unnamed Arab emirate. Not only the housemaids, however, the

book examines their employers. This is where the NYT could have asked for more in-depth reporting. Because as both the novel and lived experience show, Qataris, are not the only ones guilty of superior attitudes or abuse when it comes to the help.

The startling truth is anyone can beat a housemaid.

You can be a Western expat who works for an oil company, upset that your windows are not washed correctly at 2 a.m. and hit your much smaller in stature and status worker.

You can be an Indian national, outraged that the cleaner you have been paying 25 QR an hour for part time work, has actually found a family who wants to give her a contract with benefits, and shout at her for being selfish.

LCL #2'sYou can be a naturalized American who stands aside as your wife berates the maid and instructs the compound guards not to let her off the property when you are traveling with your family.

You can be a researcher in migrant affairs who doesn’t pay your house help when you decide to leave for the summer.

The list goes on and on and on – and painfully – on.

Our nanny requested to take two months vacation on the eve of the arrival of our second child. We were dismayed at her request because no family was able to attend the birth. We mulled it over. After all, we ourselves, as white collar professionals, had never had a two month vacation. But how could we deny someone else her right to be with her family?

We couldn’t.

She traveled and I scrambled to find someone to help with our two year old as I lumbered around, 38 weeks pregnant and still working.

In the search for another short term employee, I spoke to no less than 15 women, all of them with different situations, considerations, and stories. No two were the same. Yet they had all received some kind of mistreatment – whether being asked to share a room and a bed with the ailing grandfather they were taking care of – from low wages, to yelling, to hitting, to that ultimate violation, sexual assault.

We managed to find someone who was shy, full of smiles, and whose antics made us laugh. She cooked steak for dinner, leaving it in the oven for 40 minutes. Needless to say it was more like beef jerky when it came out. Is this what you would shout at someone for?

I went out with her and my two boys one morning, only to discover we had left the diaper bag at home. I thought she had it. She thought I had it. Is that what you would hit someone over?

This same woman was paying half her salary to rent a room from someone for whom she woke up at 4:30 everyday so she could make her landlord’s breakfast, iron her clothing, and anything else she needed. She sent home 100 QR a month to her teenage daughter (the equivalent of $30 USD). No abusing Arabs in sight in this scenario.

The one commonality of the ‘maid’ stories I have heard during my interview project (The Nanny Diaries: Doha Edition) is that the nationality of the perpetrator changed. Sometimes they were Arab. Other times (to my horror) Indian. Occasionally British. Not unusual for a non-real American, or the way someone who has a Western passport but isn’t white is often referred to (my husband and myself included).

The fact is the power structure within the GCC puts everyone on your honor; you only have to be as reasonable as you want. After all who will hold you accountable? Not the law. Not the government. And certainly not the community, who are your co-workers and friends.

What someone is paid, whether she has a day off, how much she gets to eat, all varies from house and house.

Each of us knows only in the quiet of our own hearts whether we really would want to work for someone like us. And that’s regardless of where we come from.  That’s an angle the NYT could have used if they really wanted to show the extent of abuse possible for these women who put their lives in our hands and homes.


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Everything Comes Back to Nationality

Lives saved by seat belts and airbags
Lives saved by seat belts and airbags (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently my husband became a certified diver. This meant Friday morning trips with his friends to the waters off the north coast of Qatar. This past weekend he wanted me and our two year old to come along and enjoy the beach while the gang was under the water. I managed to convince a friend to join us – even though we left at 6:30 a.m. – and we did have a great time.

What struck both of us as we were setting up, however, were the spots of white tissue and blue bottle caps scattered over the sand. “Why can’t people take their trash with them?” I asked.

She was as dismayed as I was in taking in the 100 meters or more of beautiful sand, pocked with the remnants of breakfast, lunch, and dinner barbeques.

“We’ll enjoy the morning and then do some pick up,” I suggested.

“That’s karmic yoga,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

The two year old played, with a bevy of aunties, the title Asians use for older women, whether they are related or not, at the ready to make him the sand sculptures of his dreams. Airplanes, crocodiles, and birthday cakes were his structures of choice.

3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes
3 bags of trash collected in 15 minutes

We had lunch and then got two trash bags each. One to collect trash and one to use as a glove. Everything from stale flat bread, to leftover shrimp pizza, went into one of our three bags. Within fifteen minutes we had collected plastic bottles, tissues, bags, discarded children’s shoes, and scraps of paper. Being social media hounds, we posted our findings on Facebook and Twitter. The comments we received on the photos were telling.

“What a great idea,” someone commented. “We do cleanups here in my home state. Wonder if that would work there. Of course it would be Expats to the rescue.”

“I explained to my son about Muslim absolution,” someone else wrote. “And he asked why they litter so much if they’re supposed to be clean.”

I’m not denying that many a time in traffic I’ve been behind someone who has tossed trash out their window. Or that I got into a face off during the recent Sports Day, with a girl and two teenagers (who were likely her cousins or brothers) for tossing a finished soda can onto the green space in the park. These people were all Arabs of some kind. But I could see that they were in my interactions with them. I didn’t assume they were.

The innocuousness of picking up of trash revealed that our friends thought that most of the people who litter in Qatar are Arabs. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. I do know of the twenty or so diving groups I saw that morning, only one of them seemed to be of Arab origin. In the four hours we were there, the majority of the people on the beach there were expats.

Switch to another big cause for me these days: children without seat belts, riding in the front seat or standing up in the backseats of cars. I started taking photos of these darlings last week at red lights. Again some of the comments revealed that everyone thinks this practice is done by Arabs. Even though the first photo was of an Asian looking child in the arms of his mother, showing me his toys through the open passenger side window, the association people had was that Arabs are the primary violator.

What struck me about both these instances is that assumptions about behavior based on nationality seems to come to the forefront immediately. Nationality and “why doesn’t the government do something” are knee jerk reactions to what we would otherwise consider civic responsibilities. Maybe it’s a system that pays people based on their passports – not their merit – that is to blame for the root of this ethnic divide. For the same job, it’s completely legal for companies to pay different wages to Egyptians versus Sri Lankans versus Americans. Is this where the root of mistrust begins?

I’ve been inspired by these instances to not wait for the civil authorities to decide to address the issue. After all their attempts to encourage recycling and better driving have not proved entirely successful. Rather than continuously looking to others, I’m interested in the power of individuals. Why can’t every person who sees trash on the beach pick some up? Not every piece, but whatever they have time for?

And every parent who sees someone riding without a seat belt, encourage them to use one?

In a place like Qatar, where mistrust abounds between groups, expat and national, Arabs and non-Arabs, it would be nice if we as expats could do something positive to give back to these communities which are our temporary homes.

Instead of always complaining about not being invited into Qatari homes, or never experiencing Qatari hospitality, could we pick up trash, regardless of who left it? Could we talk about the importance of child car seats? After all, we assume a certain cultural superiority when we say that littering is wrong, knowing we come from countries where this behavior is fined.  Ditto for children in car seats or seat belts.

Maybe we wouldn’t be ‘better’ people or more civilized if we didn’t have our home governments governing our civic actions.

What would we do if we didn’t have to? Who are we when laws aren’t enforced? These are the questions echoing in my head.

Next week, I’m taking this question on to another, more controversial question: the treatment of housemaids which also seems to vary according to nationality. Stay tuned.



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Keeping Alive the Memory of the Dead

Villaggio Mall by Andy Ardiansyah
Villaggio Mall by Andy Ardiansyah (Photo credit: ccqatar)

Nearly five months have passed since the fire at a local mall killed children, daycare workers, and fire fighters. There was a five month period when the mall was closed, with rumors swirling about when it or whether it would open, and employees on unpaid leave, worried about the fate of their own families.

Last week saw Villaggio open its doors to the public with the section damaged from the fire still walled off from the rest of the store fronts.

“Sales!” Some were saying. “70% on brands.”

That’s luxury brands, a top commodity in Qatar, among the locals as well as expats. But not everyone is flocking back to the site of such unmitigated tragedy.

“I don’t feel like going there,” a Qatari friend said.

“Even the way my family talks about it bothers me,” another shared.

Many are concerned that the safety issues that led to the cause of this incident haven’t been addressed; others that the official reports surrounding the incident itself haven’t shared much information. Regardless of where people stand on shopping, or not shopping at the recently opened facility, there are swirls of other emotions at play for many in Doha. Attempts to leave floral tributes at the walled section, close to where the incident occurred, have been thwarted.  The flowers and cards, left in memory by others in the community – mostly mothers – to commemorate the day that ended in shock and horror for the entire nation, disappear shortly after they have been left.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 08: Parents Martin and Jane Weekes speak at the memorial for triplets Lillie, Willsher and Jackson Weekes at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul on June 8, 2012 in Wellington, New Zealand. The two-year-old triplets were killed in a fire at the Villaggio mall in Doha on May 28 that took the lives of 19 people including 13 children. The memorial service was open to the public and people were been asked to wear the triplets favourite colours of pink, blue and purple. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

“If only the management and security of Villaggio had prioritised the evacuation of the people in the mall as quickly as they are evacuating the flowers no one would have died.” — Jane said, mother of triplets, Jackson, Willsher and Lillie Weekes, who all perished in the fire.

While at first the grief and responses of shock, support, and sadness were sharp and quick, resulting in a gathering of the public at the nearby Aspire park and nation wide prayers, time, as they say, can dim memory.

I can’t fathom losing a child, much less more than one, and then feel that I couldn’t recognize their passing in some tangible way in the city in which their death happened. Grief, if you’ve ever faced it’s tentacled grip, comes and goes; there are yearly triggers, there are daily pauses in which you think “I can’t wait to tell —” and then the loss comes again, as if afresh. The public attempts to memorialize the space, where even now new arrivals to the city may be shopping without knowledge of events that have transpired, have been stopped without explanation.

A few concerned community members posted Jane’s quote on their Facebook pages last Thursday along with this declaration not to let these memories be forgotten: “Did you know that attempts to leave flowers and cards at Villaggio in memory of those who perished have been removed? These symbols may be gone, but those who have passed will never be forgotten.” I was among them, asked friends to consider posting the message, because as a mother, daughter, sister, and wife, the idea that my children, siblings, or husband would vanish from memory would be as sad as the original loss.

These children and the adults who will never have another birthday, celebrate their graduation, wedding, or birth of their own children, can live on, as long as we remember them. For many of us in Doha, who were not family members of those who died, we would still like to remember them. I see this is as a sign of community, the ability to support those, even strangers, with empathy that we ourselves might need one day. The idea of a place to commemorate the public intention to so towards the survivors among the families seems a good way of doing so.

A Qatari friend offered this cultural explanation as to why the flowers and memorabilia were being removed:

“Basically it is not to prevent people form grieving their loved ones. But because the act of leaving flowers, or mementos are not common in Qatari culture and religion and are considered by many heresy. The funeral in Islamic tradition is only 3 days. Then life must move on. Any signs of continuous grief is not acceptable. People can be remembered in their hearts or in their private homes but not in public. This is why you don’t see glorifies status of any leaders. You don’t even see their pictures in public places, only in people’s private homes. What you are doing is pure western tradition, This is why it has been prevented.  As you said those who passed away will never be forgotten and it will be a dark day in Qatar’s history indeed.”

I explained that this was a new perspective, and thanked her for sharing with us. With so many of the victims being non-Muslim, the question of a memorial at Villaggio may be yet another instance of the multiculturalism in Qatar going through major learning pains tied to growth.

What do you think? Is grief better expressed in private? Or, as in this instance of so many losses, so many people wanting to halve the sorrow by remembering, is it better to have a public place to share?


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