Thursday, June 10, 2010

Skyping with Sarah…

Unexpected benefits come from moving abroad. For me one of the benefits has come through the use of Skype to connect with family. I was surprised by the impact this technology has had in my relationships with family.

With two sisters it is inevitable that you will have different relationships with each sister. Tess and I have always been close, and even though she is younger, I admire her and am proud of who she is. We are closer in age than I am to Sarah, and Tess always went along with what was happening and had a way of showing that she valued me (I hope I was able to do the same for her). Sarah and I had a different relationship. With a larger age gap it was difficult to find similarities to connect through. Sarah and I also seemed to have unexplained tension in our relationship that led to some version of sibling rivalry or sisterly “girl fighting”. I always loved my older sister, but I really struggled to like my older sister a lot of the time growing up. Living abroad has actually helped me build a much different relationship with her. In the last year I have felt a drastic change in my relationship with Sarah.

When I was making the choice to move to Qatar I was very concerned about missing out on all the big life experiences going on at home, most notably my new nephew! Before moving Sarah assured me that she and Mike would have Skype on their computer and they would Skype with me so I could see Augie (I did not know his name when they made this promise) and get to be an Aunt from afar. When Augie was born they followed through on their promise and I got to Skype with Augie regularly. Initially if I called when Augie was asleep Sarah would give me a quick update and I would tell her I would call back to see him later. The focus of those early Skype calls was always Augie. Slowly that started to change. I still Skype to see Augie, but I am surprised that when I don’t get to see Augie, I am just as excited to talk to Sarah. I look forward to the conversations I get to have with her every few days. I finally feel like we are having the “sister” conversations that we didn’t have when I was younger. Over the last few months I feel like Sarah and I have become friends (as I write this I am hoping she would agree… if not, I hope she never tells me that). When I want to talk about something going on in my life I used to either call Katie or Kelly. Now I usually talk to Sarah during my Skype calls.

At 26 I am excited that my relationship with my sister is better than I thought it could be, all because we are separated by half a world and have started communicating in a different way (with Skype). Now I feel close to both of my sisters :)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The World Cup is here...

Let the excitement for the World Cup begin! Sometimes I have to look around and laugh. Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Coast Countries do not have a team in the World Cup, so apparently the region has decided to support Spain. I have seen Spanish flags hanging from houses, being sold on the side of the road, and even in restaurant windows. There is not a large Spanish population in Qatar, it is actually really small, but for some reason Spain has been embraced by Qatar. You can even see a McDonald’s commercial with a guy in a thobe cheering for Spain as he orders his dinner.

With the 2010 World Cup starting in just a few days I have been thinking a lot more about Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. While I admit to not knowing much about professional football or the business side of the World Cup, I can say with confidence that bringing the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 would be a bad idea. Admittedly, the bid is impressive – but not at all realistic. Lets look at some simple downfalls of the Qatar bid.

The infrastructure does not exist to host the number of fans that will attend the event. Yes there is a flood of five star hotels, but there is a drought when it comes to cheap or even reasonably priced hotels. Most fans would not be able to afford the trip and the stay. Additionally the highway system and the mass transit train system are in the planning stages with completion not set until after the 2022 World Cup. Many argue that these projects will be far enough along by the time of the World Cup to meet the needs of the event. Ok, lets think about construction in Qatar… not going to happen. I will use two examples for you: the residence halls that were scheduled to be complete in 2007 will not be done until 2012; the hospital set to be done in 2011 is now closer to 2013 (wait another year and it will be 2015).

Culturally Qatar is not ready for the World Cup. It is still considered inappropriate for men to wear shorts in the summer, the last set of pictures I looked at showed most World Cup fans in shorts (and several in much less). Alcohol is an unavoidable accessory to the World Cup. Right now you can only purchase alcohol in hotel bars and you cannot be intoxicated in public; I am not sure the culture of the World Cup can change that much.

Ok, this is a really serious point. Has anyone ever heard of the Qatar national football team? They have never even qualified for a World Cup. The citizen population in somewhere just above 200 thousand, to get a decent national team Qatar has to give citizenship to talented players. When you look at the roster of the national team, most of the players are from other countries (their bios say something like, Qatari National Football Player of Senegalese decent, Egyptian-Qatari National Football Player, or Qatari National Football Player - Brazilian. I know as an American I do not have much room to talk, my countries national myth is the dream of naturalized citizenship, but Qatar does not let individuals who were born in Qatar and have lived in Qatar for more than 40 years petition for citizenship. They only give citizenship if they need you (in this case to create a football team that occasionally wins).

Lastly, and what I think is the most important issue, bringing the World Cup to Qatar would perpetuate social injustices and send a negative message to the world. To build the magical stadiums Qatar promises to inspire the world with, thousands of laborers will be exploited. I am not going to go over my thoughts on labor laws again, but I do want to point out that by awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup, FIFA will be at best turning a blind eye to labor issues and at worst promoting a system that underpays and mistreats workers.

If the World Cup does come to Qatar, we can all be happy we will not have to see these Dutch Fans. (well at least, we will not see these outfits)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I am telling it how it is…

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I am officially leaving Qatar on July 22nd. After a year of working in Doha I have made the decision that this is not the right place for me at this time. My ticket is bringing me back to Columbus, Ohio; however, I do not have a job. I am hoping to find a job in or near Columbus, but I am also open to working abroad.

Over the past few months I have held back on blogging about some of my experiences here for a few reasons. A major reason is that you can loose your job and ability to live in Qatar for saying the wrong thing… even if the “wrong” thing is a personal opinion or a proven fact. Recently there was an article in Time Magazine. The day after it was published one of the men quoted in the article was called into his employers office (I am employed by the same overarching foundation) and fired and told his Resident Permit would be canceled because they did not like what he said. The really sad thing is that he has lived in Qatar the majority of his life and will now have to create a home somewhere else. I also have not wanted to be overly negative about my experience when only aspects of my experience have been negative. Now that my decision is final – I am not holding back (ok, I am holding back a little). I am going to tell you what I really think.

Today I will start by telling you about my thoughts on labor laws that I feel are unjust. As an educated American I am unbelievably privileged in Qatar. It is relatively easy for me to leave the country. I do have to get permission from my employer to get an exit permit, but they say yes. Other nationalities, and less educated laborers are not as lucky. An individual in my office has been denied exit permits by my employer for fear that this individual might not return. Similarly, even though this employee has worked for QF for years and is in the same pay grade that I am, I am provided extra benefits because I was hired internationally. While this employee struggles to support their family, I have been benefiting from “extra” perks that I do not even need (i.e. free tuition for children at private schools). Even I have restrictions. I initially thought I would like to continue working in Qatar, but not for my company… No. When you leave a job you have to leave the country for two years before you are allowed to return. To return before that date you need permission from your employer… my employer did not say no, they officially did not say anything (meaning, they are saying No, but it is too much of a burden on the head of my department to take the time to give me an official answer – don’t worry a former professor gave me a No, and had no qualms about supporting unjust labor policies that limit professional growth).

Worse than restrictions on freedom of movement is the way laborers are paid and treated. Most labors in Qatar work outside, in the unbelievable heat, all day. Many are building the beautiful buildings that create Education City's campus (pictured above). They are rarely given breaks and eat their lunch on the ground. On my campus in the summer, labors are given a two hour break during the heat of the day (not a reduction in hours… they still work a full day, they just get a break in the middle), the problem is that during this break they are not allowed to go anywhere. You see laborers resting under date trees trying to utilize whatever shade there is in the grueling sun and 120 degree heat. These same labors are paid next to nothing. I cannot give you exact figures for these laborers; however, similarly paid jobs (albeit indoor jobs) would be paid in the range of 900 to 1500 riyals a month. On the high end these individuals are making $400 a month. Most of these jobs do come with housing, which saves money. “Housing” can mean a lot of things. The security guards that work in my compound and on my campus live in large rooms with 16 individuals. The room is the size of my living room with bunk beds around the walls. The center is empty and this is where they all eat together – the kitchen is shared by 4-6 of these rooms. As jobs move away from manual labor and begin to have interaction with Qataris and families, you do see some higher pay and somewhat better treatment.

This better treatment extends to being able to eat at a table and having access to air-conditioning during the very hot days. Service workers in Qatari homes often face abuse for not meeting their employers “expectations” or for attempting to flee. A friend of a man I work with is a driver for a Qatari family. He has a friend who had a intimate relationship with a neighboring family’s maid. This driver was beaten and seriously injured just for knowing about the relationship. His embassy had no ability to intervene on his behalf, and since he would have no ability to work in Qatar otherwise, he stayed working for the man who beat him. Physical abuse is a significant issue in many Gulf and Arab countries. Egypt and Jordan have passed laws to protect nannies and housemaids because of the rise in deaths and suicides connected to abuse. This mistreatment and unfair wages is not limited to those working for Qataris. Recently an American woman was looking for a nanny to work on Friday’s only (Friday is like a Sunday in the US; many have religions and family commitments on this day – but typically not work commitments). This woman had a fulltime nanny for the other 6 days of the week, but was just looking for “light” help with cleaning and child care for her child on Fridays. She was offering to pay 100 riyals. By Qatari standards this might be a fair wage for working on a Friday, but this was an American woman offering to pay $27 for a full day’s work.

Some of you might be thinking, “well the cost of living is lower, so the pay it ok.” That might be a fair argument if pay for all positions was adjusted accordingly; however, there is a significant pay jump from laborer positions to educated professional positions. This is true in the US, but not to the same extent. I am a “lower” paid professional in Qatar (I work in education… not oil or gas), and I make a base salary of around 13,500 a month; 10 time the amount of an average laborer and 5 times the amount of a highly paid laborer. In the US a skilled construction worker could make a similar salary to an entry-level educator – here not even 1/8 of the salary. Consider the additional restrictions placed on male labors. Male laborers are often only given Fridays off. This is the day they can do grocery shopping, relax and have fun. This is also the day that malls decide to be “family only”, meaning men cannot enter by themselves; they must be accompanied by their family or at a minimum a female. This is rarely enforced for western males, but almost always enforced for Asian Sub-continence males. Even parks are sometimes limited to families only, with the threat of getting arrested if a man enters by himself. So where do you find all of these man on their one day off? You find them at the souqs and one of the malls. Friday is “Man Day” at the souqs. Most of these men are on three-year contracts with “annual leaves” each year to see family. Sometimes they are allowed to go home to see their family, and sometimes they are not. So for potentially three years these men work for 6 days a week, with restrictions on where they can go on their day off, and the inability to leave the country. Yeah, the pay does not seem fair to me.

Labor laws in Qatar need to change!

(Hint… the next time I tell you what I really think the topic will be the World Cup!)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I didn’t see that in the news…

After moving to Qatar I view news in a much different way than I did while I lived in the US. I used to think that there was “conservative” and “liberal” news. I prided myself on making sure I went back and forth between CNN and FOX News so that I would have a well-rounded view of topics. As I write this I am laughing at the Annie of a year ago. I had such good intentions, but was so far from the mark I was hoping to hit. A year later I realize it does not matter if you watch CNN or FOX News, they both leave out so much and their views are much closer than either would like to admit (the spectrum of political positioning expands when you leave the US… in fact it is no longer a spectrum, maybe it is more of a cube). Now living in Qatar I am exposed to much more “meat” in news reporting that has helped me see how much I was missing before. That brings up a bigger question. How much more am I missing? Also, will I look back and myself a few years from now and laugh at myself for writing this post?

Doha is home to Al Jazeera one of the largest news sources in the world. Al Jazeera is depicted as a radical news sources that is in allegiance with terrorists. The truth is that Al Jazeera makes an effort to explore all sides of an issue. To do that, journalist have to be able to explore topics from different angels, they can’t be afraid to look critically at the claims of groups or individuals who are integral to an issue but who may be labeled as the “bad guys”. To many in the US this means they are supporting terrorists. I do watch Al Jazeera occasionally, but I realize I have been conditioned to expect news to come in 60-second packages. Al Jazeera goes in-depth into issues and news updates or stories may last for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. When I find myself loosing focus, I switch to CNN International, where I am comforted to find 60 second to 5 minutes of news on a topic and then they move on. If you watch for over an hour, you hear the same stories several times. It is exactly this type of news reporting – the news reporting I find myself being pulled towards because of my impatience – that prevents the in-depth exploration of issues. Yes, American news stations (CNN and FOX) as well as CNN International have special shows that go more in-depth, but on the whole successful news reporting is done by grazing the surface, highlighting two controversial or polarizing views and quickly moving on. When watching international news sources (Al Jazeera and BBC News) I have noticed that all sides of an issue are addressed, but no effort is made to represent sides equally. If one side needs more time to be explained and fully understood, than the time is taken to give the background information. (I do need to note here, that while CNN International reports news in short clips, it still goes much more in-depth than most US news stories, and it spends less time on fluff stories and more time on “real” news).

Today while speaking with my sister I experienced first hand how the reporting of major world events is treated differently. As we all know over the weekend there was an Israeli military attach on a Humanitarian Aid ship headed toward the Gaza Blockade. I have watched news stories of this on both Al Jazeera and CNN international. I have seen videos of the actual event and heard interviews with individuals from government, the general public, from all over the world. My sister mentioned that is was a “lead” story given a few minutes and followed quickly by Al and Tipper Gore splitting up. Well – I have missed out on the breaking news of Al and Tipper Gore’s relationships status, but I am more fully informed of the many issues facing Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the surrounding countries. This is one example of many that have shown me how blessed I am to be exposed to more in-depth international news.

As I start the process of transitioning back to a life in the US one of things I have to consider is remaining well informed of international topics. To remain (or become in some instances) well informed I know I will need to become more active and engaged in the news process. I cannot sit on a couch and watch CNN and FOX News for an hour or so, and think that I am informed of major news stories. I know I will have to search the Internet for alternative new sources. I may need to spring for the expensive cable package that includes international news sources (and possible petition my cable provider to provide access to Al Jazeera). I hope I have the energy and sustained passion to do this, because it would be really easy to slip back into my old news habits.

Monday, May 31, 2010

So, how did you meet?... Oh, we are cousins.

In the last few weeks I have heard about several Gulf Coast Nationals marrying cousins. Today when speaking to a colleague when I asked how he met his wife, he simply stated her father is my uncle. It was the most natural thing in the world for him to just state this. Another woman stated that her husband was her cousin and felt this was an advantageous connection for her future as his wife. I know I am coming from a very, very, very, American perspective when I say the following: gross.

Consanguineous marriages are common in Qatar (and the Gulf region) and this is an issue that supposedly is being addressed by the Qatari government. Marriages within close-knit communities often lead to people being too closely related, and to intra-family marriage. Up until relatively recently the geographical and tribal make-up of Qatar has necessitated marrying those you might be related to; however, in the past 100 years or so the culture plays more of a role in family marriages than the desert. This issue is a hot topic right now with the government and in the academic context.

The government is considering policy changes, and has already approved some measures, that are meant to decrease and stop marriages of those to whom you are genetically similar. The problem is that the culture works in direct opposition these changes. If you want your son to only marry a woman who is “pure” and has an intact reputation, what better way to assure this than to have him marry a cousin who you have seen grow up and know how she was “controlled”? If you want family connections to remain strong what better way than to have your daughter marry the son of a powerful uncle? Another major reason for the marriage of family members is the restriction of women’s social lives. Most women primarily socialize with other female family members. If you are looking for a wife for your son, because your son can’t date, what women have you interacted with? I am sure there are much deeper reasons for these marriages, in my short time in Qatar these are the only reasons I have seen first hand.

Over the past year I have learned more about the genetic consequences of marrying someone with genetics that are too similar to your own than I ever thought I would. This topic comes up surprisingly often in the Gulf. I have seen posters related to this topic. Medical experts have come to lecture on this topic. Newspapers have run articles several times this year on this topic. Even with all of this attention on the subject and recent government regulations, there will be a wedding this weekend between cousins.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Here comes the Qatari bride…

Yesterday I was able to attend my first (and most likely only) Qatari wedding. One of the women I work with was getting married and she invited all of the women in our office to attend. Two days before the wedding she passed out very fancy invitations with our admission tickets. You might be thinking this is late notice… this is normal notice in Qatar. You might also be asking, “a ticket for a wedding?” These are big events; tickets are checked at the door by security.

When planning for the wedding I asked around about what I should expect and what I should wear. I was told by more than one person that there was no possible way for me to go overdressed, so I should wear my most fancy outfit, and if at all possible it should be shinny. Another individual told me that no one will be looking at me, and they all want me to look at them – so in the end it does not matter what I wear. I ended up wearing the dress I had made in Doha (thankfully it was a little shiny) and great jewelry.

The night of the wedding we arrived at 9pm for an 8pm wedding (we were told it does not start on time and getting there at 9 is fine). We found the building and began looking for the ballroom. As we walked down a hallway toward the conference center, we saw a female security guard and asked her. She said “this way” and we walked past boards and screens shielding the door from view. Once around the boards the wedding was obvious. We when to the registration table where they checked our invitations and took our tickets. My purse was searched and the camera was taken for the night. At this point we were granted entry to the wedding. This might also be where the excitement ends.

Once inside you find a place to sit – and then you sit. We sat for about an hour and a half before the bride arrived. The room was a large ballroom filled with tables set for 12. About halfway into the room, dividing the room in half, was a cat walk that lead to a large stage. The cat walk was white and skirted in white. The backdrop to the state was really bright hot pink velvet wall draped in white tool. Sitting center on the stage was a large “Roman” style white couch with hot pink draping. While we waited for the bride the sisters of the groom and some family members danced on the “cat walk” area. Occasionally they were joined by a few other guests, but it was mostly family dancing. The women were dressed mostly in very fancy ball gowns that ranged form bad prom dresses, to dresses that could rival those on the red carpet for the Oscars. A few women at tables were covered in the typical black, but most were dressed up for the event. At one point an announcement was made in Arabic and the women rushed to their seats and pulled black abayas out of bags and covered quickly, wrapping scarves over their hair. This announcement was a false alarm, and not man entered the room. The women began taking of the garments and dancing again.

Around 10:30 the announcement was made again, and this time it was the real deal. Almost all the women in the room covered with the exception of myself and the two other western women present and the groom’s sisters. I realized when the bride entered with the groom and their fathers that the groom’s sisters did not need to cover because they were related to the men. The bride was dressed in a beautiful, but very ornate dress. The dress had a large skirt with hoops, and the dress reached the stairs before the bride, so she had an attendant who would lift her skirt so he could get up the stairs. Several pictures where taken with the bride, groom, the groom’s family and then the bride’s family. The sister of the bride was fully covered, including her face. It was obvious she did not want her face shown in the picture, but it was also obvious the bride wanted her sister in the picture. At one point the father of the bride whispered to the sister, and very quickly her face veil was lifted and she smiled (though clearly unhappy) for the pictures. The father’s then left and another announcement was made in Arabic. The sister’s of the groom rushed to their tables to cover and the bride’s brothers began entering the room. One of the groom’s sisters could not get her abaya unbuttoned and she bolted for the emergency exit to assure she would not be seen. More pictures where taken, and eventually the men left the room.

This is when the party began – kind of. For many of the women in the room this is when the abayas came off and the dancing began. For most of the room… it was still just sitting and watching. The bride was carefully perched on her sofa watching the festivities, and would remain seated until the groom returned to take her away for their wedding night. I was amazed by the dancing. Some of the dancing was traditional Arabic dancing that you might see in a cultural video… but some of the dancing could of come out of any club/bar in the US frequented by college students. When these women are alone and free to act as they choose, they let loose, and absolutely enjoy themselves. I watched for a while until it was safe for me to give my regards to the bride and quietly exit. This celebration would go on well into the night, even after the bride had been taken away. It was definitely an experience.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A little bit of Hope...

This week came with a pleasant surprise. A Hope College admissions representative was coming to Doha to recruit students. Adam Hopkins worked in admissions when I was a student worker there; so I was excited to meet up with him and hear how things were going at Hope. He would only be in Doha for a few hours, so I met him during one of the college fairs.

While listening to the college fair speaker I was able to overhear some comments and hear some questions. Here are my three favorite:

  1. 1) What is Liberal Arts? – this is actually a really good question, as that is not a concept that is common in the region, it was just a shock to hear it asked.
  2. 2) If my child changes majors, will you get our signature first? (This family stood up and left after the speaker explained that it was ok, and common for students to change majors, and in fact he had changed his major three times.)
  3. 3) If the colleges ranking drops can we get a refund? (Mind you, this question to an individual college representative came shortly after another representative explained to the whole group that college rankings are very arbitrary and rarely hold much significance.)

On top of the surprise of getting to see a representative of Hope, I learned through Adam that there was another 2006 alum in Doha, Ann Durham. I was able email Ann and we met up for lunch. It is amazing how small the world really is. I would never imagine that a college as small as Hope would have two young graduates in Doha, let alone two graduates from the same year.