After three years of writing, revising and editing, this week, I’m launching my essay collection about life in the Middle East, From Dunes to Dior.
I started it after moving here, and listening to person after person in the U.S. ask me where, what, why, about my decision to move here. Mostly I think it had to do with the fact that the images they saw of this region were either the Uzi toting civilian or the woman draped in black, not allowed to drive. I could — and depending on my mood over the years in conversation — have pointed out many things about the framing of the western media of “the other” or even how a violent group of media savvy men has hijacked (to use a metaphor) a religious identity. Wordless Wednesday means I don’t have to. This is Qatar’s corniche.
You don’t have to be into American football to know that this season a 24 year old named Tim Tebow is taking the field — and airwaves and blogsphere and Twitter — drawing unprecedented coverage (if you’ll forgive the pun) from sources as far flung as the BBC World Service. And not just for his unusual, but largely successful quarterback style– the discussion of which has a polarizing effect on sports fans.
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?