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.




Reverse Affirmative Action

This is what I call the Qatarization policy in effect in Doha. The root is the fact that the nationals, “qataris” those born to Qatari fathers (not mothers who have married non-Qataris) are eligible for citizenship, and they are vastly outnumbered in their own country. 

Of a population reaching 1.5 million, Qataris comprise about 250,000. The rest are people who have made their homes in Qatar for work such as Western or Asian workers, or for stabilty from conflict zones in the region, such as Palestinians, Iraqis, or the Sudanese. I’ve written about the tensions of Qataris feeling overwhelmed previously. See: “Ever Been Called Out in Print” which are reactions when this issue came to my own doorstep. http://mohanalakshmi.livejournal.com/1828.html

A few ruminations on this mult-ilayered and complex issue:

The ‘quota’ system is talked about in all the newspapers, radio, and on the minds of everyone in any industry in the country. How to get Qataris trained and into all aspects of the job force is a national issue and one of some debate. Since the oil boom, the average family income is roughly $60K, and most families far above this through private investments or enterprise.

Therefore a large segement of the population does not need to work for the sake of a salary. This means they have ruled out several roles that they do not want to play in organizations or as professionals, including: administrative assistants, or entry level jobs, as well as nearly all jobs that require high contact hours or have low status such as teaching or nursing.

How do you motivate a population that does not need to work?

Related question: how do you motivate students who are not reaching for the dangling carrot of a plumb job after graduation?

In this wealthy and insular society, it is about 5% of the population who are forward thinking, hard working, and setting the example for others of serving their country for the sake of honor and national pride.

It’s a delicate balance between all those who are here, or have been here for generations, but are never from here – a stark contrast to my own naturalization into American citizenship – and those to whom this country is given.

Working with students is particularly hard because the ‘international’ population, as I’ve come to call them (non-Qatari) are often the most engaged and ready to avail of any opportunity. Yet, making calls to my stand out Qatari students to motivate their peers is daily habit and likely the only way things will change.

Whether anyone likes to admit it or not, change of this kind is a long, steady process.

And as long as the Qataris are paying the bills, they will reserve their seats on the bus, whether any among them uses them or not.

Ever been called out in print?

What’s it like to be talked about publicly? Not sure how any of Hollywood feels about being on the cover of US Weekly, but I got a small taste of public circulation this week, when I found out that I was named as one of the ‘foreigners’ working at a national Arab university in a letter to the editor written by an irate former employee to an Arabic daily.

            The sum of her grievances?

Why are non-Qataris allowed to work at Qatar University?

            This question brings the issue of “qatarization” – the process of turning over jobs currently occupied by foreigners to qualified Qataris – straight to my doorstep. Qatarization is the new buzz word for the country, another facet of a community outnumbered by the people living within its borders. Why are there so many non-citizens doing the cooking, driving, selling, cleaning, teaching? Rampant wealth is one reason; the medium income in Qatar is $60,000 according to one report. Take a reasonably wealthy population, mix in a region of workers desperate for income (South Asians) and you have a state where labor is racially defined to extreme class and socio-economic definitions.  If you are Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi, you are likely a construction worker, maid, driver, cook, or errand person. If you are American, British, Australian, or Canadian, you are likely an engineer, teacher, or involved in the oil industry.

            Here I am, a Western educated South Asian, in the middle of this vortex; I am at the same time both Western (accent, dress, degrees) and Asian (skin color, place of birth, family). I violate two registers – I’m a South Asian woman performing outside the roles assigned to me – and I’m a Western working outside the American universities in Education City. I am a category unto myself. How did I get here?

            Because of a third segment of society, the segment which ignores the obvious limits of the question posed in the Al Ray letter, the segment which recognizes merit will be essential to the process of readying this society for a time when the oil funds will dry up and people will have to roll up their sleeves.

            If you are an educated Qatari, someone with a Ph.D. from abroad, you are likely a president or vice-president of a major national organization, someone who has seen the benefit of experience and expertise, regardless of nationality, and cultivates relationships regardless of class or ethnic issues.

            But these broad minded leaders are the exception while a pervasive polarized view of labor is why the letter writer feels justified in questioning the number of non-Qataris working at a Qatar institution. She has no frame of reference for an open industry, where people are hired based on their merit, instead of their nationality or ethnicity. The letter details complaints against specific employees by name, who besides me include Syrians and Egyptians who dare fulfill job functions which include representing the university abroad even though they are not natives of Qatar.

            How can a non-Qatari represent Qatar or an institution named Qatar University?

The writer asks, unaware that her hostile attitude puts unnecessary barriers between those who choose to live in Qatar and those who identify with the reform project begun in 2000 at the university.

            Her questions echo the impasse between Qataris and ‘guest workers’: most ex-pats will tell you Qataris don’t enjoy working and haven’t earned the titles many of them hold. Qataris will tell you foreigners get the best salaries and live in accommodations much nicer than what they ever had at home.

            There is distrust, befuddlement, and anger, on both sides; compounded by the fact most ex-pats don’t know any Qataris, much less work with any, and vice versa. The polarization of this society mimics the segregated society of the United States – except this is socially and economically reinforced – in addition to racially defined.

            Most people in my office find the newspaper letter amusing. They say not to pay it any mind and that most people know that I am here to help, to work in cooperation towards a better university.

            The letter deflates some of my elation at having finally crossed the imaginary line at work into friendliness and cordiality with everyone on my floor. The first year I spent largely in silence; like the monkey at the computer trying to come up with Shakespeare as women in abayas titter past my doorway. Now people come to my office to greet me, linger in the doorway, look at photos of my recent vacation, and ask me questions about my husband, my wedding, my family. They share secrets with me abou
t breaking fast while on their periods (anyone menstruating is exempt from religious observances) and where to get the best deals on fabric. I’m glad for their friendship and for the projects underway, which I oversee, which will, ultimately make this a better place to be a student.

            However, the Al Sharq letter reminds me that there are mixed opinions about my presence here; and a clear example that there is still a lot of work to do on reducing the gap between the various populations living in this very small country.