An odd coupling: Another tale from Ethiopia

He is white, balding, with a beer belly, and prone to patting his neck. She is tiny, in impossibly tall heels and proportionately short skirt. Pints of beer and football on the big screen.

The waitress circles them, refilling and clearing. The bartender watches over her. The other white men – some balding, some not, some with a wedding band and others merely with an untanned strip where a previous reminder of loyalty lay – pass sideward glances.

Everyone is gathered for football. Everyone is thinking of that night’s lay.

The girl’s laugh is surprisingly loud as if that tiny body could no longer hold all the mirth within.

As the night grows old and the beer grows warm, his interest in football wavers. Briefly. Goal! He is immersed right back into the 70-inch screen.

She senses a waning interest and smartly throws her bare, shapely legs over the arm of the chair, and he instinctively reaches for one, and strokes it. Absentmindedly.

She tugs at his shirtsleeves, her laugh now a tinkle. He leans over and bumps forehead with her, going straight back to the game.

She rises. Pats the skirt over her ample rump, and sways to the washroom.

In the white man’s country, would she even be considered old enough to be allowed into the sports bar?

She has his attention now. The sweating men on screen forgotten briefly.

The game ends. Everyone seems gregarious and disappointed at the same time.

The other white men watch the coupling of this pair, that should have been unusual, but is all too common. In impoverished nations around the world, young girls wait for an escape. A smitten old man is a start.

Lonely white men, I can’t speak for.

Note: An after-hours story from my recent work trip to Ethiopia


The long kiss goodbye Qatar… Part I

Last night, in an ill-timed attempt at domesticity, I burnt a hole in O’s choir uniform. It’s 9pm Thursday night. She is flying to Germany with her group on Monday, and I had a flight to catch early this morning.

Disaster. But not quite.

Thank goodness this is Doha. I hailed a taxi and ran out of the house. It was 9.15pm. The Uber guy sensed my frenzy and offered to wait at my many stops. So I hopped from one fabric store to another – Mansoura, Muntazah and finally the souq. And found the fabric I need, and a tailor who was open past 10pm.

This would be practically impossible in most places around the world. I know that these conveniences come at a cost. Overworked salesmen at the souq and tailor shop; but a happy customer means a few riyals more in their savings. This is Qatar. It’s not a flat, homogenous society. It is an intricate weave. Yet, people live in silos with little or no recognition of what lies beyond their immediate living and work space.

I have friends who live and work in West Bay area. But for the Airport, they don’t have any idea of life on the other side of the bay. Over the last couple of months I’ve been tracing memories of my 17 years in Doha (and instagramming it), taking advantage of the great weather, and walking around the city. You see, that’s how I discovered its many nooks and crannies when I first came here in 1999, taking long midnight walks with my new husband.

My very first home has now been swallowed up by Msheireb Downtown.

My second home, once a sparkling new 2-storeyed apartment is rundown. It is still precious, both because it was the first home I ‘set-up’ (and almost burnt down learning to cook), and because of the landlord. A kindly old Qatari man who was so inordinately fond of my husband and me, the second year of contract he reduced our rent from QR1500 to QR1300. Yes, once upon a time rents were that low.

I would spend muggy evenings on the terrace looking into my neighbour’s courtyard. About a dozen ‘single‘ men sharing an open-air communal kitchen and the rooms circling it. There was a rhythm. The pathans would cook later, after prayers; the others from the Indian sub-continent would cook earlier and make something more elaborate. The smell of frying onions and seasonings would hold me in good stead as I ate my own awful culinary experiments. Did they know they had an audience? A kindred homesick spirit, only with a little more privilege? That I noticed their meal got simpler towards the end of the month?

Walking around the city is how I discovered the many lives that it helps build and vice-versa; the lives that remain invisible and in the shadows of the city’s glitzy facade. The neighbourhood grocers and cobblers, the ‘orange taxi’ drivers (some of whom spoke a little too much) and the friendly old Qatari proprietors who sat outside their shops with a sheesha, down Abdulla bin Thani road.

Which makes me wonder, how many of us who live here really see it? Do we mindlessly take for granted or whinge about life here? So I ask you, Qataris and expats…

When you drive past the Corniche or walk through the Pearl boulevards do you pause to think who makes this happen?

And those who grew up here, nationals and rest, how much do you really know of this country? Its history and its topography? How often do you get down from your cars and enjoy a pedestrian view of your home? Do you ever take a dhow ride just to admire the bay?

When you have to give your Qatar id card at every stop, from office towers to residential compounds, do you feel like you are in an Orwellian play? What are they really keeping track of?

When you say Qatar is boring, do you ever wonder it could be just you, not the place?

Have you ever been to the Inland sea and been unmoved by its beauty and by how we trash it?

Do you shed any tears when the few trees around are brought down to be replaced by some concrete monstrosity?

Those of you who chose to move to Qatar, with privilege, is it really such a bad thing that it isn’t  ‘just like back home’?

And how many of you nationals really bother to understand the sub-cultures that the foreigners bring to your land?

Can we learn to criticise without malice? Can we receive criticism as interest and not an attack?

And Qatar, maybe it’s time to press pause on your rebuilding? It’s way too much too soon. Take a deep breath…

Pssst! I will continue the photo tour on instagram

PS: I wrote this post on my phone at the airport, to which I attribute the embarrassing number of misplaced punctuations and typos. I finally read the post, on a phone again, and have attempted to fix it.

The One in Which I Am Moving, But Not Moving Back.

You are moving back? Are you going back home?

I am not. But that isn’t completely true.

I don’t know how to give an honest answer to these questions.

The place I am moving to is not one I am familiar with any more. It is not home either.

Every time I go ‘back’, it’s a little bit more unfamiliar, a little bit more indecipherable. I seem to fit in a little bit less less with every landing. A little bit more acclimatised with every take-off.

Yet, there’s no conflict in my mind or heart about moving to India after 17 years of living in Qatar. It seems the right thing to do, to expose my daughters, especially the teen, to another way of living. Pleasures and challenges that would be very different from what Qatar offered us.

Doesn’t that make India home? Then why doesn’t it seem so?

I am frequently asked if Qatar is home after 17 years.

Not in the least (this is one reason why). It’s a place I am comfortable in and find myself defending fiercely against ill-informed assumptions. It is not home either. And I don’t think Qatar wants to be the home for it hundreds of thousands of foreign residents. At best it wants to be a  comfortable transit house. At worst…

So then, home?

It is where my children are. And where I have access to MY people. Sometimes it is a messaging app. Home is in that rip-roaring laugh of a friend. A hug so tight it squeezes out all the melancholic thoughts. It’s watching my 7-year-old caress my 76-year-old mum’s wrinkled neck. Home is often in three simple words over an international call: “Are you alright?” Home is in all those moments, in all those memories. It is not a physical space.

Just because I don’t feel at home in any one place, doesn’t mean I feel estranged.

I started writing this post at an airport terminal… The closest to feeling a sense of belonging, I’ve now realised, is in spaces such as this. Departure terminals. Be it at airports or rail stations or bus stops.

When you know you’ve left, but have not arrived yet. In that suspended physical space of myriad possibilities I feel truly at home.

PS: Check out my instagram account @vanishforever for some #LongKissGoodBye posts on Qatar. This is not my good bye post, that will come in due time.


1. Where are you moving to?


2. When are you moving?

End April, early May

3. Why are you moving now?

Because O is going into high school, and if not now, then when?

4. That means you are going away for good?

(This question always throws me off a bit) I will still be in and out of Qatar for a few months longer, as the man continues here for a bit and I still have ongoing projects/work here.

5. Will I miss Qatar?

As much as Qatar would miss me.

Why do THEY hate us? Us, the Indians…

Why do they hate us? Why do YOU hate us?

Why, despite our much touted-diversity, are we treated as ONE? The whole bunch of a billion plus of us. Do our numbers threaten you? Then how come the Chinese get away with it?

Why are you so surprised by those of us who are successful? You don’t think a civilisation that dates back a few thousand years, and centuries of foreign influence should give us an edge?

Why is the way we speak English so much funnier than say, the way the French or Spanish or Japanese speak it? Or even some Americans. When most of you ‘native’ English speakers can’t get your plurals, apostrophes, Me and I right, why are our quirks so irritating to you?

English is the language of our business and education, of our laws and policies, so yes, we have earned the right to design our own idioms, and unique usages.

That’s Indian English, so live with it.

Ok, ‘the’ Indian accent is difficult to understand.  But, when you say things like “I can do the Indian accent”, you merely sound pompous and ignorant. Because–sorry to burst your bubble–there is no ‘the’ Indian accent. At best you might be able to do ‘an’ Indian accent.

Even in our accents we have diversity. Every state has a unique Indian-English accent, based on what the native language of that group is.

The only reason I can see why you find us and our English so funny and ridiculous is because you can’t accept that we have achieved success despite the bigoted opinions you might have of us.

Yes, there is poverty, corruption, sectarianism, murder of the girl child… any number of issues that make me cringe when I talk about being Indian. None of which gives YOU a frigging right to treat us poorly.

Despite all this, what you will find in EVERY household in India, from the poorest to the richest, is the altar we have built for education. Yes, we’ll live in slums and crap on the streets, but we will still have a revered place for books in our homes. We know that’s our ticket out of the rut we might find ourselves in, or that that was the ticket that got us out of it. That’s the ticket that will help us build personal toilets within the four walls of our homes.

Next time you say ‘those Indians’ with disdain, or treat me or my countrymen/women poorly–we who clean your homes, teach your kids, drive your fancy cars, do your accounts, write your books, fix your computer glitches or sell your produce–keep in mind we are laughing at you too.

Every day, every year, we are  all making ourselves indispensable to the way YOU lead your life. And every racist, bigoted action and word against us will come back to bite you. Because one thing you won’t accuse us of is taking the easy way out, taking our education lightly or doing ‘nothing’ to earn our living. We will work our asses off and we will make our kids study as if they were in a boot camp everyday (even if it’s Indian English along with Indian mathematics and science that they learn). Along the way we’ll learn from you too. We’ll have them focus more on arts and entertainment… we are already there remember?

We’ll be there in your faces everyday for the rest of your lives.

We will buy your supermarkets from London to Sydney; We will make the viruses, we will get the antidotes; We will clean your streets and lavatories; We will also own your banks and steel mills; We will take your sport, and make it our own megabucks venture; We will teach your kids, in your own countries, subjects that you brought to life.

And yes, we will make use of every immigration opening available around the world and move.

So get used to it.

I am sick and tired of the supposedly polite–and deeply racist and rude–questions that are thrown my way.

Am I to take it as a compliment that you are surprised I speak English well or read ‘your’ classics, or that my kids know more about Dr Seuss or Roald Dahl than yours do?

Am I to take it as a compliment that you can hardly hide your shock that I occupy the seat I do, just because you speak a European language? Even if your country is in debt so deep it will not be cleared in your life time, and it rarely ever moves away from the brink of another civil war? Am I to cower because of my Dravidian frizzy hair and brown skin, as I stand before your Aryan greatness?

I know there are some valid reasons for hating us. But that’s true for the rest of you as well. Am sure not a single one of you or your group is beyond reproach or annoyances yourself.

My next question should be Why do we hate OURSELVES so much. That’s for another day, another very long post… our actions unfortunately mirror our grievances.
Sorry Mona Eltahawy for borrowing your now famous line.

it takes all kinds to make this world

and it takes a lot of weirdos to make the expat world.the expat world is a surreal one. everything is transitory… more so than in the real world. and the state of temporariness can unnerve you a great deal.
it’s just not about thinking a million times about buying ‘good’ furniture (and then settling for made in malaysia rubber wood rip offs);
it’s not about going back home every year, year after year, because the company pays annual passage (this is changing, and quite a few opt to travel and see the world);
it’s not about the job insecurity — do we really buy this SUV? what if i lose my job and am stuck with the monster?;
it’s not about buying as much property in as many different cities/towns in india, to keep up with the joneses;
it’s not about your passbook being your favourite read;
it’s not even about choosing to share your apartment here, so that you build a home enviably big enough, to spend you retired and tired life.

the temporaryness is worst when you are trying to build your social circle, when you are trying to make friends.

people are so wary — what’s the point really? you take all that effort and build relationships, and come end of contract, voila! the person moves on.

this is something i can’t get used to.
that a lot of friendships here are for convenience, and like much of life otherwise, disposable. use and throw.

in the decade (nearly) i’ve been here, it never ceases to surprise me, how selfish and ruthless people can be in getting the best out of every encounter.

when you are still naive and new to the expatworld, it’s easy to be taken in, and respond rather foolishly to friendly overtures. and then you get taken down hard, when you realise that it’s about how useful you are to the person. people are so caught up in the temporariness that surrounds them, they think it’s fine to apply the same in relationships.

it may well sound like i’m whining. and maybe i am.

but when you are used to a cushioning of good/great friends, and land in a place that’s as dry as a desert (pun unintended) in this context, then you’ve earned the liberty to crib.

the other thing about this world is the extent of disgruntlement.

everybody seems to be disgruntled — not merely by their lot in life, but by those who are or seem to be doing better than them.
this again is rather incomprehensible — how do you ever get peace of mind, if your happiness is dependent on other people’s woes?

the expatworld not only turns regular folks into weirdos, it also seems to attract a whole bunch of congenital weirdos.
i find myself displaying certain weirdo symptoms, like being suspicious of a lot of people. fortunately, what i talk about below is not one of the weirdness i have adopted.

there is this one trait i’ve come across so often here in people, i almost believe it’s a gulf syndrome.

people carry tales. so if x (whom you barely know) has unpleasant things to say about you to your ‘friend’ y, then y will not only give ear and participate, but will report the useless bit of information back to you.
now, how bored or jobless should you be to do something SO pointless?
i am not exaggerating… but this happens so often, and to so many people around me, i am quite convinced the affliction is caused by something in the water.

i’ve made a couple of great friends here (more about them another day), and it would be a grave injustice to them if i don’t mention that there are exceptions to this weirdness.