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.

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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.

FAQs

1. Where are you moving to?

Bangalore

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.

Grateful

It is time for another GRATEFUL post.

I don’t know why I don’t do this more often. It puts everything into perspective, and keeps my Drama Queen moments in check.

All that I’ve been grateful for, and listed earlier, are still around… I am really thankful for the wonderful people and experiences that make my life what it is.

Here is what I truly, truly, truly am grateful for.

I can’t remember an instance in the last 15-18 years, where I’ve said “why couldn’t that be me?”

(even when I see really skinny folks gorging on potato wafers and brownies. promise.)

…and maybe just twice in recent memory have I asked, ‘why me?’ and even then only for a fleeting moment.

But ever so frequently, I tell myself: “I am glad and thankful and grateful that it isn’t me or mine,” and even more often I go: “Yeah! How good is my life?”

Knock on wood.

lest i forget in the mad rush my life is now…

i am grateful for all the good things that happen to me

and thankful to all the people who make it happen

i feel lucky that i enjoy the opportunities i do, that i have the friends i do, that i have the family i do

and even when i feel i’ve hit rock bottom, i know that it won’t get worse

i believe in paying it forward… and i consciously do so

ok, so why do i feel the need to put down my gratitude?

because, the last few days i’ve been feeling particularly happy — one of my oldest friends has brought her little baby girl home

in her guarded rejoicing i could hear the bubbling excitement — so infectious

this may not seem like a particularly nice thing to say — but i do believe it’s important to keep away from chronically unhappy people; even if it means cutting out people who were ‘friends’

& if a ‘friend’ ends up making you feel low more often than high, time to go snip-snap with that relationship too

after some trial & error, i’ve realised that the only way to keep my fragile sanity in place is to surround myself with positive people

people who face hardship and testing situations with hope, not those who look at hopeful situations with suspicion and foreboding

Surprises

Life is full of them. Mostly little ones, and I’ve been lucky to have more of the pleasant variety than otherwise.
Like this:
I was travelling alone with a 9-week-old infant who seeks little else than regular feeds and a comfortable bed, and a 7-year-old being torn away from her grandparents, aunts and a great time.
Yet, everyone — from the paediatrician and gynaecologist to my family and friends – was worried how I would cope.
Guess what? I had the most uneventful, peaceful flight back to Doha. My girls were absolutely angelic. They made sure the very first time their mum was alone with both of them would be a good time. O read, nibbled, asked me ever so often if she could help. N slept, fed, slept, fed…
Thank you, babies.
Well, I guess I did deserve a break after some nasty surprises that came my way earlier in the year.
Chikun gunya in the third tri, mismanaged diabetes (by my doc in the first 2 tris), a day in labour but ending up with a c-section, a spinal anaesthesia that wore of in the middle of a cut, slow recovery from a double anaesthesia dose, lack of proper domestic help, mum down with chikun gunya too for the better part of my stay in Madras… probably sounds more nightmarish than it actually was.
But it’s a totally different (and much longer) post recounting all that I am thankful for, and the luck that seems to surround and hover over me.
It is terribly indulgent to feel sorry for yourself – and boy did I indulge! Then it was back to business, getting on with life.
So here I am in Doha after 4 months. Not much has changed except that I have one more little person to cheer me up, forgive me my slip ups, make me laugh (and cry) and make me feel inexplicably high ever so often. O’s load has eased a bit I must say, with N taking on a bit of all this work of managing a borderline depressive/hyper/psycho mum.