Dear Sir/Madam, May I trade my dignity for some food?

A split second’s flash of anger, followed by breaking of eye contact, a visible swallow – of pride – and a hesitant nod.

There’s a pattern to how able-bodied, hard-working adults accept help.

And in that moment when he or she says ‘yes’ to food handout, there’s a shared self-loathing. You, the voyeur, for being privy to what they see as humiliation. They, for finding themselves in this situation.

It wasn’t for mere livelihood that these men and women travelled thousands of miles. It was for prosperity… a desire to provide their children with a life dramatically different from their own. Just like me. Just like you.

The bunch of straws they are clutching at get pulled one by one, leaving them with useless shreds in their clenched fists. You watch them struggle. Do we pack up and leave? Do we stay on and fight?

In the seconds before they renew eye contact with you they tell themselves this is temporary. This once, and never again. A bag of rice, a few vegetables, a couple of eggs. This once. Never again.

On a wing and a prayer they continue to struggle out of the the gridlock of failed promises, discriminatory laws, and above all, their invisibility.

Forced celibacy (or something like that), leaving loved ones behind, mounting debts… all of that has to count for something, it’s not easy to give up.

Then, the rice runs out, the last of the riyals go into telephone cards, promises are broken, they are lost in a system they don’t comprehend. This time around the eye contact is not broken. Yes, please, a little more food stuff.

It’s then that you go from being voyeur to deceiver. The sympathy (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not empathy), providing bandaids for a festering wound, and moving on having spent three lattes worth of money on their worries.

You see, when the media (we) writes about exploitation and abuse, about the dead and dying, about the laws or lack of, it swathes it in a blanket of statistics. We forget about their dignity. Their desperate desire to be productive. We forget that accepting charity is emasculating (I use that word for want of a gender-neutral equivalent).

And that’s the last thing that these men and women signed up for. Charity is aplenty in the countries they come from, be it due to the guilt of feudal societies or that of Western powers (aka developmental aid).

Charity shouldn’t be what their lives depend on here. Definitely not while building the capital of the richest country in the world.

Photo courtesy: Flickr

Being a migrant or an expat; Being you or me; The things I didn’t Tweet, Instagram or FB about…

All work and some play
He had turned on the sprinklers  to water the patch of lawn by the Markhiya roundabout, and then realized he was on the wrong side of the controls.
So with a hop and a skip and a hop he tried dodging the water spray, to stay dry and cross over to the road. Sprinkler 1: Dodged. Sprinkler 2: Dodged. Sprinkler 3: Dodged… just 3 more to go… Sprinkler 4: Dodged. Sprinkler 5: Gotchya!
He throws his head back, tucks his hat into his pocket, and decides to just do a jig around all six sprinklers and get wet.
I am sure his laugh was loud, it sure seemed that way.

The danger in degrees
Over the last few weeks have been talking and writing a lot about low-income expatriates, who are more vulnerable than the rest of us, though all of us are governed by the same unfair legal framework.
One of the things I was involved in was media training for activists from the Arab and Asian regions, on how to remove negative perceptions of low-income expatriates, in their communications. It was organised by DTP. Preparing for this drained me emotionally.
The stereotyping of these particular group of expatriates, has marginalized them to such a degree, they are invisible. They are not people. Not Ram Bahadur or Dusayanth or Rahim. They are faceless, without identity (literally in many cases*), and clubbed as one to be pitied and kept at a distance.
The most widespread perception is of course poor=crime-prone=immoral, so let’s keep them out.
What upset me most in these interactions is not just the abject abuse of human rights, it’s the denial. Denial by other expatriates. Denial by the officials. Denial by some media.
It’s the escape into degrees… “not as bad as”, “only some”, “not everyone”, “it’s changing a little”, “better than before”.
When you speak in degrees about abuse, you are automatically condoning it.
A friend, unrelated to this issue said “when you generalise, you exonerate”. In this case, by focussing on exceptions and degrees, you exonerate.

If you had seen that look…
A group of us friends collected food relief for some expatriates in bad situation. During the course of this exercise, one person who did not believe in the cause said she has seen ‘labour camps’ (euphemism for the slum-like dwellings of low-income workers), and they were well-run.
I wish she had been with us when we went to this camp. To see that sudden glimmer of hope that we could do more than just give food, that we could get them their backpay, get them another job, somehow magically make their situation better.
If only she had seen that glimmer of hope meeting a watery end, when we said we could do no more than temporarily help out with food.
If she had seen that, maybe she would stop talking about degrees of abuse. Maybe all of us would.


The Rajni effectImage
Some of you might recognise this picture, many may not. But he is a Tamil film ‘superstar’. One of the biggest stars in India and the Tamil speaking world. And the poster was pasted on the cupboard, right next to a temporary altar for Hindu gods and goddesses, in one of the rooms.
It tickled me no end to find another fan in this corner of Qatar.


Your story is worthy of my time
For about six weeks of Oct-Nov I was using taxis to get me around town (my car, a victim of an errant lamppost was in the garage). And it reminded me of the first few years in Qatar, when I was completely dependent on the orange taxis to take me to places that my feet couldn’t.
I was not always in a chatty mood these six weeks, which I know is my loss. I would bury myself in a book, or catch up on phone calls and office mails.
The days that I wore my chatty avatar, I was blessed with many tales — lovely in the trust that they placed in my ears and hearts, and not so in their content.
Noushad* has lived here for 12 years. He was working with a sub-agent of Vodafone, and then moved to a more lucrative position, only to be laid off. Neatly dressed, well-spoken, and driving a ‘limousine’, he persisted in getting my attention off the book. He wanted me to know that his taxi driving days were only temporary, he had seen better days and hoped to again. He gave me pause. Yes, his story could be mine. He just wanted that acknowledgement, and not made to feel that his story was not worth my time.

I am not ‘that’ Indian woman
Then I met John, who refused to believe I was Indian, because Indian women were never friendly or interested in his story. Reality check. I tried explaining to him that maybe those other were just shy because they didn’t know anything about where he came from (Nairobi) and it wasn’t out of any malice.
He indulged me with a nod, and spoke of the business he ran, and how the promise of Qatar was too good to say no to.
So he flew east, and came here two years ago. He has done the calculation. He barely survives here. He has to go back. He has to sort out issues with his employer here, but also has to manage expectations back home. After all, he was supposed to come back a rich man.

To see what he has seen
L gets my green tea in the morning and cafe latte in the evening. We chat. And looking out of the cafeteria, I asked him what he thought of all these glass buildings. “Nice,” he smiled.
How’s your home town, I asked him. He did the Indian nod (though he is not one), smiled, and dreamily spoke of (in Hindi) the great Himalayas his little house looked out to, of the bitter cold, the lovely summers, the greenery. All that he wanted to say, his stilted English couldn’t express.
“But, I am happy here. My family are happy I am here.”

Migrant or Expatriate?
Have been having this discussion with some friends. Why do we make this distinction, except to distinguish ourselves from ‘the other’. To my mind it’s one and the same, just the income levels differ. I am a migrant. I am an expatriate.
A dear friend disagreed. Because I respect her thoughts and her ideas, I dug deeper into it. Not because I wanted to have the last word, but to question myself, and now to put down in black and white why I don’t make this distinction, here’s my explanation.
No one wanders into Qatar without the promise or contract of a job. It’s not like people come in boats and land illegally. We migrate here for work. And all of us are citizens of another country, holding passports from another nation. Hence, we are expatriates. Whatever our income might be.
What are your thoughts on this?