The blind deal on open-mindedness

Once upon a time, it used to be a description many people aspired to. Once upon a place, it was a phrase that was quite straightforward.
Open-minded.
Here in Qatar, it takes on a whole new meaning.
On last count, there were some 150 odd nationalities living here. Which means people of different faiths, tongues, race and ethnicities living bumper to bumper in a country that quite clearly says it’s an Islamic state.
If you are at this point thinking, ‘poor expats’ or ‘ but no, Qatar is not like Saudi’, or ‘but they are quite open-minded here’ or ‘they are becoming more open-minded’… bingo! I am talking about YOU.
I’ve grown to despise this phrase ‘open-minded’.
Because, in the context of Qatar (and maybe the region), it’s a close- and narrow-mined expectation.
When someone says I wish they were ‘open-minded’ here, it invariably is from a position of extreme privilege.
The urgent plea for open-mindedness is always from those blind to their own privileges.
And the plea is always on these lines…

  • I wish they were open-minded enough to see my point of view.
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to be influenced by my worldview (from my country).
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to let me lead my life the way I’ve always done (in my country).
  • I wish they were open-minded enough to not expect me to understand their culture and contexts.

This plea for ‘open-mindedness’ fits in quite nicely with the stereotype we are exposed to everyday about how Islam and open-mindedness are mutually exclusive. What we forget is that all religions are fundamentally opposed to open-mindedness. Their survival is dependent on you believing that that particular faith and none other is your path to salvation; on you believing that you are blessed enough to belong to this and not another faith.

So, this plea for open-mindedness reeks of the purest form of ‘I am right, you are not’ reasoning.

There are two parts to the conversation here.
One from Qataris, Arabs and some Asians, who diffidently say “You should respect our culture.”
I use ‘diffidently’ and ‘should’ in the same sentence, because for some strange reason, they seem to seek your respect of, and not your open-mindedness to their culture.

The other part of this conversation is the demand not request. “You should be open-minded.”
Asking you to disavow your close-minded belief system, to allow them to live their life exactly how they’ve always done.

Though this post has been a long time coming, discussions over the past several weeks have finally gotten under my skin enough to write this.

  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow more Christmas celebrations.
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow more Halloween publicity.
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to allow alcohol everywhere (why don’t we set up public taps?).
  • Wish they were open-minded enough to be just like us, from **insert ‘open-minded’** country.

If this plea is heeded to, then we will have one homogenous, dead boring, world. Let’s toast to that.

Edited to remove repetitions and typos.

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What does it take to depress me? An hour in the departure terminal.

I

It’s the brown cartons that grab my attention. Cling wrapped and tied many times over with a nylon rope.  How many meals of only kuboose and pickle, how many hours of boredom, how many weeks of hard work, how many days of self-deprivation… what did it take to buy that flat screen TV to win your kids’ favour? What did it take to buy the dozens of scented soaps and powder that your family is so used to now? In response to your wife’s whispered long-distance request, how many pairs of coarse, cheap lacy underwear have you hidden right at the bottom? At what cost could you afford the many tins of Tang and Nido milk powder?

Your collar is frayed, your slippers are worn out, and yet there is that gold rope around your neck and a gemstone-set ring on your pinkie. What will that buy you back home? A plot of land? Maybe a car that you can rent out?

How many weeks will your welcome last? Until the gifts fade into new needs, maybe? Or after the wife has been impregnated? Then into one small briefcase you will pack a bottle of pickle and a packet of chips, a new shirt, and a fresh list of wants that you will tick off over the next two years, as you countdown for another flight home.

II

Then there you are, still in the trademark jellebiya that distinguishes your kind from the rest of us. Did you not have the time to change into travel clothes? What do you have hidden in that one tiny shoulder bag? Who will welcome you home? Are there children, aging parents or maybe even a lover who will make-up for your months and years of abstinence? Or did you manage to hoodwink the system to find a few clandestine joys.

Do tell, what’s in that small bag that seems to weigh you down so much? Have you shipped a few cartons home already? Tricycles, microwave, a set of non-stick kitchenware, boxes of Nivea and cartons of Yardley soap. Yes? Oh, that’s good then. No? Oh…

III

And you over there, with that tiny baby in your arms. Why do you weep so? Yes, your parents are leaving. But do you have any idea how lucky you are to have managed a visa for them to visit you? Even if it were just for 4 weeks… Do you know that my children go home 2-3 times a year, because their grandparents don’t get a visa to visit them? It’s an impossible situation, because they are old and Asian. So stop crying, and hold up that baby. This is not such a bad place to bring up your kid, even if their grandparents might not be able to visit them again.

IV

You are going on a holiday right? Business class, it seems. Why do you look so sad, then. Because the minute you enter the airport, the countdown to the end of your vacation begins, is that why? Or the thought of going to your ‘home country’ which with every passing year becomes more foreign and strange to you? The concerns of the privileged bore me. Yawn!

V

Hey you, the one with two big Rawnaq bags and the bottle of ZamZam water. That’s all? Aren’t you my old taxi driver bhai, when the rattly orange ones still plied the Doha roads?  Didn’t you have a beaten up Datsun, the one with beaded trinkets covering every inch of the dashboard? See, I remember, because you had a story for every trinket. Daughters No.1 to No.5 made a few, but the majority was made by your wife and mother.

Is there now a picture in the very first page of your photo album, a space you saved for your heir? Did you finally have the son you so wanted? The singular purpose for the flight you took home every two years, a flight you could ill afford. You look old bhai. More wrinkled and tired than I remember. Your once-white shalwar khameez has browned with wear, but I know you will return with a couple of fresh white sets and one black for the winter.

Do you run an illegal taxi service now? Or have you joined your brothers in Souq Haraj as a coolie? Two years you drove me around Doha, and I don’t know your name still.

What’s in that Rawnaq bag bhai? Could anything be prettier than what the women in your family weave for you? Will you remember me if I came up to you to say salaam?

VI

I am distracted. There is a child crying. A very cute curly-topped pre-schooler dressed in a spotless white thobe. He is clinging to his nanny. The nanny hugs him tight. Her mudhir, the sponsor, watches over them. The little fellow says something in Arabic, that could only mean “don’t leave me Annie.” The father tries to console his son, but looks quite worried himself. Annie, kisses the little boy, and hands him over to the father. She looks a little sad, but she looks happy too. She pats her fake-LV bag, yes the passport is in there, so is the exit permit and flight ticket. She is wearing a Bebe tee. Maybe a hand-me-down from curly-topped’s mother. She gives one last wave and walks away to join the immigration queue.

The father waits, distraught child in his arm. His phone beeps. He checks his SMS–the Metrash service confirms that his ward has cleared immigration. He heads out, hugging his wailing son.

VII

I hear another child cry. Ha! She’s mine.

“I go Indiyah awso.”

I stop gaping at the people around me, to give you attention, to respond to your plaintive cry.

Yes, akka is off for three weeks of exclusive attention, before we join her. No, you can’t go ‘awso’. You are too little.

Akka leaves, only a little sad to bid adieu.

I carry you though the milling crowd, as you cry and scream. I trip on an open suitcase.

VIII

I glimpse your worried face, before you go back to sorting your luggage. It’s your suitcase, is it? What do you leave behind and what’s worth paying excess baggage for? Thirty kilos is a piddly allowance when you go home only once a year, or worse two.

How can you fit in the proof of your affluence and your love into so little a provision? Do you disappoint your son (the remote controlled chopper) or your daughter (the fake Barbie set) or your sisters (bottles and bottles of Enchanteur powder). You should probably leave behind the packets of cashews and spice. Are you aware it comes not far from your native village?

IX

You are the last passenger (or a hopeful one) I see before exiting the terminal. Don’t you know that the polite gentlemen has no power over your expired passport. That how much ever you plead, he can’t let you board the flight. You have to go to your embassy and get a paper, I hear the official explain to you. Do you register that? Or are you too stricken to understand what’s happening. How did you get your exit permit with an expired passport? How come your sponsor failed to notice the expiry date? Could I have been of any help to you? I guess not.

I am more of a talker than a doer…

…Just like the rest of you, right?