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If Popular Science can, so can I.

If you have something interesting to tell me, do email me at umm.of.on@gmail.com. Because I really do love a good discussion and chat. I don’t always enjoy trolls, even if some are cute.

Also, comments on blog posts are not really needed, because it’s just my personal opinion and also… this is why.

16 thoughts on life in Qatar (or beating the 15 year milestone to death)

Hitting the dunes, and falling in love with it... a snapshot from 1999, with friends who soon after moved to boring Dubai.

Hitting the dunes, and falling in love with it… a snapshot from 1999, with friends who soon after moved to boring Dubai.

“Where are you from” and “How long have you been here” are probably the two most asked questions in Qatar.

I am from India, and this October marks the beginning of 16 years. This is when, depending on whether you are a lover or hater, you exclaim:

“16 years! You are half a Qatari.” Or, “16 years! How did you survive this long?”

No I am not, and I survived really well, thank you for asking.

Here are my 16 thoughts and memories on life in Qatar.

1. A lot has changed in 15 years, a lot hasn’t. When I landed here for the first time, the bleak beige I could see from the plane made me tear up. That beige is now decked out in bling. No tears either.

2. There was never a ‘culture shock’ for me. I come from a country with similar values and mores. Be it intrusive dress codes, or that social don’ts outnumbered the dos. What I had to get used to was calling this the Middle East. This is West Asia, folks. Get over the colonial hangover.

3. And isn’t it time we stopped calling stationery shops libraries. I can still taste the disappointment from all those years ago, running from one ‘library’ to another, only to stare at racks of notebooks, pens and charts. While at it, can we have some real public libraries.

4. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t need to learn Arabic to live and work here. You still don’t. A big part of me wishes this would change. A small part of me that failed to learn conversational Arabic after several attempts, is glad. Qatar desperately needs a good conversational Arabic programme.

5. Where is home? Long ago, I thought Chennai was. It isn’t quite now. Neither is Qatar. And this has nothing to do with the place, but everything to do with what I think of as home. It’s a place that’s populated by people I love and care for. So, I am tempted to say What’s App or Facebook.

6. But for my children, this is home. These are two fairly well-travelled children, and to hear them speak of Qatar is funny, and sometimes a little embarrassing. They compete with narrations from cousins and friends from Dubai, Toronto, Singapore, Bangalore, Colombo… Their fabulous Qatar is a match to all those places. The dunes, beaches, MIA park, Katara, Karak & Chapathi, Mathaf workshops, Mangroves, camping and Inland Sea.

7. Which is why I challenge anyone who tells me there’s not much to do in Qatar. My children have taught me well. There’s plenty to do, and our guests who visit us go back pleasantly surprised. Just put a lid on the comparisons, and move your derriere off the bar stool or your snout off the shisha pipe.

8. However, a pet peeve is that not everyone we love can visit us, even if my husband and I have 32 residency stamps between us, our parents are too Asian and too old to be allowed easy entry. 

9. That probably is the only personal ‘bad’ that I attribute to the country. There’s not anything else I perceive as a Qatar-specific problem. Most are problems that many other countries suffer from too.

10. Still, because it’s not Qatar-specific doesn’t mean it deserves any less censure. Bad things happen in Qatar, just as it happens elsewhere. What we need is more people taking a stand. To quote Rev Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

And we are not talking about the oppressed outside of Qatar.

11. Which brings me to stereotypes. A popular blogger recently wrote this: “After a belief passes the front door, it usually doesn’t get much scrutiny. It becomes part of your “body of knowledge,” which is just another name for your impression of the way the world is…”

So no, not all Qataris are lazy and stupid. Some are. Some Indians, Brits, Egyptians, *insert the nationality of your choice* are lazy and stupid too. It’s a human trait, not a nationality-specific one.

12. And no, not all expatriates are here only for the tax-free salaries, though for many of us, including yours truly, it’s an attraction. Then over a period of time, one starts investing in the country and community, and it becomes more than just about the tax-free moolah. You find a job you enjoy, a person you fall in love with, or a karak addiction you can’t shake off.

13. Qatar at its best? The 2006 Asian Games when residents regardless of nationality volunteered in the thousands to make it a success.

14. Qatar at its worst? Child jockeys. Brutalised, scarred… the stuff nightmares are made of.

15. By the way, when I complain about Qatar, you have no business asking me to leave if I don’t like it. It’s not your call to make (unless you have wasta at the MoI). After 15 years, my complaints are not about ‘you people’, but about ‘we people’.

16. How much longer do I plan on staying? We came here just for a year, and refused to invest in proper furniture (heil Souq Haraj!) the first 18 months, and didn’t buy a car till 2004; because you know, we didn’t plan on staying long. Now our furniture is of better pedigree, and there are two cars in the garage. But the plan stays the same.

PS: I was asked to do a retrospective by an online news site on the ’15 going on 16 years’ in Qatar. But the too-bloggy post was not quite a fit. So Ummon hosts it instead.

Satya Nadella is right. That’s how we think. We are wrong, we ought not to.

Hey, let’s all bash up Satya Nadella… but first, how many of you women demand equal pay or a well-deserved pay rise? How many of us speak about money and scales with our employers?

I work in a country where I pay a double penalty… first as an Asian passport holder, then as female professional. And truth be told I’ve never negotiated.

If it felt too low, I would just not take it; but didn’t try to argue or sell myself.

I would ask if there was disparity based on nationality. To this I’ve received all kinds of odd answers; from how a cup of coffee costs more in London than it does in Mumbai, hence salary would differ (hey, guess what, but we are paying bills in Doha!) to how Western education was more expensive that what I paid for.

This to an extent I would protest and speak against.

But I was and am too conscious about pulling out the gender-card. Should I draw attention to my sex and be seen as being overly sensitive? Should I remind them that I am a woman…? Should I just quietly take the deal before a man outspeaks me at the negotiation table and walks away with a few bucks more?

Ironically, I continue to feel that a good employer will be fair (karma?) and recognise what I bring to the table… And every time I signed on the dotted line, I did believe that it was so. This rationalisation ringing in my head: When they see my work they will give me more.

And it has happened. It also hasn’t.

My male colleagues were different. They asked, and they got. During appraisals, between appraisals, with a second offer in hand, without a second offer in hand… They continued asking even when they didn’t get it.

I rarely saw this amongst women. Not my peers, not the ones who reported to me.

So when Satya Nadella put his geeky feet in his mouth, was he merely describing the best of us? Maybe the best of his female staff didn’t ask, and were slavishly grateful for the ‘recognition’ that came their way, all the same. So he thinks, that’s the way it should be.

Twenty years in the making, my trampoline is ready… let the adventure begin

Twenty years of pursuing what I love, and being paid for it.

Twenty years of stretching my wings enough to take flights of fancy, and always returning to a comfortable nest.

Twenty years of people holding out a safety net, to cushion my fall. Sometimes it’s a trampoline and I bounce back higher and higher.

Twenty years of working for someone else… But, wait. That’s not what I said or believed in. I always worked for myself, even while employed by someone else, right? Right-ish? Kind of, sort of?

Twenty years into your career, you are too old, too expensive, too opinionated, too high up in that damned ladder everyone is clambering up.

Slowly you realise that the nest gets prickly, the safety net wears off, the trampoline is missing a few springs. You realise that you are working for someone else, whatever delusions you might allow yourself.

What you truly love doing will always have to be done within the confines of someone else’s agenda and dream. That ‘someone else’ who pays your bills and fattens you up into a pro lull.

Whereto from there?

First things first, setting up my home office. Where the magic happens.

First things first, setting up my home office. Where the magic happens.

It took me twenty years to dare to take a risk. But for all the risks I consciously shied away from, I unconsciously paid for.

Entrepreneur I am not (and probably will never be). And the only way of living I’ve known and been comfortable with is one that involved a monthly salary and paid vacation.

What do you do then, when your safety net begins to choke you?

So I paused and took deep breaths. I trekked. I meditated. I negotiated terms that in hindsight were half measures, and unfair to all concerned, especially the wonderful people I worked for. So I stalled, procrastinated… and then learned to breathe again, mainly on the rowing machine.

I meditated on the saddle, knees drawn up, pull and release… again and again, enjoying the drench of sweat and clarity; working hard on my core strength, in more ways than one.

What’s the very worst thing that can happen to me, I asked myself repeatedly over the last six months. Not holding a full-time job didn’t even figure in the top 10 worst things that could happen.

Today, on my last day at a full-time job (for the foreseeable future), that doesn’t figure in the top 20 worst things either.

When was the last time I felt as light and relieved as I have in the past month? The freedom to choose and focus on what I love and am good at; the relief of not becoming immersed in what drains my energy; and the overwhelming gratitude for being surrounded by those both appreciative of what I do and supportive of what I wish to…

Gratitude above all. For even when I shied away from risks, I was always in a place and environment that allowed me ownership of my dreams (be it here, here or here). Even when I was full of self-doubt, there would be more than a few souls who would mock me out of my self-pity, and give a kindly kick to my derriere.

It’s time to respect the generous opportunities and trust I’ve enjoyed, time to pay myself… time to tighten the belt, yes, but also to become more mindful of who I want to be. Mindful that no matter how much I fret and try, I can only do one thing at a time, and that one thing should be what I truly enjoy.

More importantly, there’s only one me, and she deserves her very own trampoline.

 

Presenting...

Presenting…

How do working-mums work? Co-opt. Don’t take my word for it though…

Some days, I give the Teddy magical powers to play me, and I escape into my make-believe world of social media.

Even the dolls are co-opted… Some days, I give the Teddy magical powers to play me, and I escape into my make-believe world of social media.

Every morning the hugs and kisses are hurried as breakfast is made and lunch boxes are packed. And in those rushed minutes are a hundred dos and don’ts for O and N to keep in mind through the day. A few demands are made too, and I respond automatically. “Yes, I will try to come home early. Yes, I will try to pick up a snack. Yes, I will talk to you when you call me. Yes, I will watch an episode of Masterchef with you. Yes, I will read to you. Yes, I will…” I know even as I make those promises that I won’t keep them all. But, “yes, yes, yes… unless I can’t, and then you can’t throw a tantrum, ok?”

I don’t travel as much as I used to, but my work hours keep increasing. My daughters are 12 and 5 years old. I have a full-time job that requires after-hours networking quite frequently. R’s work is from late afternoons to late nights.

So there is no way we can do all that parents should, but between us we try hard to be the best parents we can be. However, we need help, and I seek it from various people. Some of them do so as friends, some as hired help. Which is why I was chuckling to myself as I listened to Indra Nooyi, in the video below.

I so identify with her anecdote. That bit especially of kids calling at work. My daughters call me every day at about 3 pm, wherever I might be. Nilah would ask if she can watch 1 episode of My Little Pony (or the animation du jour), and Oviya if she can use the internet, and the same exchange ensues: have you had your lunch? have you done your homework. I have no secretary, so I would excuse myself if in a meeting to answer that important call.

Because, when you spend no more than 2-3 waking hours with your child every weekday, these calls are what keeps you relevant in their life.

But for other things, I co-opt people. Friends, nanny, sometimes even the older one to help with the younger one. The nights when I am so in need of alone-time, I would request O to read to N. Or I would order in food so that my maid can skip cooking and spend time playing with N. When I am travelling, I co-opt my sisters or niece to skype and entertain the children.

As working parents, we are never going to be there for our kids all the time, and there’s no getting around that guilt. I don’t sit through the swimming training, because the time between drop-offs and pick-ups are when the grocery shopping or pedicure gets done; I miss a performance because it makes more sense to seek a few hours out from work when they are ill and need TLC, than when they are belting out a song on stage. It’s a tough choice, and as the years go by, one less fraught with guilt.

Last week I was chatting with a friend, a young unmarried man. We were discussing the right age to marry and have children. My wise view was that women marry and have children early, so that when they are at the peak of their career, they are not held back by the needs of very young children. We had a few laughs, and it was more an idea than a serious conviction. But see what Nooyi says here:

My observation, David, is that the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. Total, complete conflict. When you have to have kids you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years.

So that annoying question: Can women have it all? No. No one really does… men nor women. But what you do have can become your all.

Reflecting respect or teaching children to be judgmental?

A young mother in tracks and tees is playing with her little girl. Another abhaya-clad mother enters the frame with her son. The boy lays eyes on the other mother. “Oh, she isn’t reflecting her respect is she? Come on mum, let’s go give her the flyer and ask her to respect our culture.” Or something on those lines are mimed, rather badly. (See video below.)

There. That’s what’s wrong with the campaign. That a little boy can go question an adult’s choice.

I have my reservations about dress codes, and have written about it before, here.

But using children in a campaign such as this is not well thought out. Why would you want to sow seeds of prejudice and culture-specific rights and wrongs in their mind? Is this what they are going to grow up with? To question the ‘other'; To probably confuse cultural differences as disrespect?

Do you want your children to focus on clothes and decide if the person is respectable or not? Aren’t there more serious lessons to be taught here? How uncomfortable and unnecessary to have a whole bunch of children in a mall chanting slogans and asking for people to dress appropriately.

And that video. Yes, it was all done with a smile and appropriate nods, and the ‘immodestly’ dressed mum trying to pull her sleeves over her shoulder… but what about the little girl there, who just saw her mother being reprimanded (even if politely); or the little boy who is so smug about having set someone right… how is this acceptable?

If you were in a playground in Europe, wearing a hijab, and a little girl points at you and asks her mother to intervene, and have you remove your… you get the idea, don’t you?

At this point, I’d rather volunteer to distribute those flyers, than have them recruit children to do it.

(Featured image via Fatma Al Dosari)