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?

It’s not just migrant rights. It’s people’s lives, Qatar.

Fourteen years ago, after reporting on a very interesting general election in India, I headed to Doha.

I had reported on child labour and abuse, NGOs swindling foreign funds in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness, blood bank scams, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I worked as journalists are supposed to.

Then I came here and read insipid press releases, and rehashed agency stories for the local newspaper. Every now and then I would manage to write pieces I was proud of, for publications in India. But most of the time I didn’t. Though more recently, I have the freedom to explore issues that don’t make me see myself as a stooge.

In the last week Guardian has published some very strong pieces on Qatar, on its slave labour, its abuse of migrant workers, its stark inequality. You can read that here and here. There were other articles, but those were written without any understanding of Qatar, by armchair journalists, so I won’t share them.

That migrant workers here are abused and ill-treated is no secret. It’s there for all of us to see… and turn away and focus on our fancy cars, our latest smart phones, and the next holiday destination.

Which is fine. C’est la vie. What really draws my ire is when people start denying the situation. When they talk about the environments the workers were escaping in the first place, as if that justified their treatment here in Qatar.

I have seen horrible things here. Child jockeys bitten by camels, grown men pleading for kindness, and oppressed women being physically bullied by their wards. And yes, I’ve seen worse things were I come from; the country which is the main supplier of cheap labour. But there is a vital difference… people don’t stop complaining and speaking up against these issues in India. They have a voice.

Obviously, Qatar doesn’t ‘get’ journalism or free speech. They are used to press releases and people fawning over its wealth. It doesn’t understand that it’s not a journalist’s place or concern to sugarcoat the bitter realities.

You see, they want to be criticised in a manner that doesn’t demonise them, or force them to look within (and squirm). They want to be seen as the super rich benefactor who reaches out to the needy in Indonesia and Pakistan, in Sudan and Palestine. What about the needy on your own soil?

I am here now, finding myself disagreeing with both the critics and those in denial.

I do believe there is hope, and that not everything is black and dreary. Neither do I believe we need to sit back and allow Qatar to work at its own pace to bring about change. This is not a Montessori system, for goodness sake!

Criticism, brutal criticism, brought about a fabulous change some years ago. In 2000 Qatar won the right to host the Asian Games in 2006, and the WTO was scheduled for November 2001. It was under immense pressure to prove it was a worthy host for both, and at that point it wasn’t the plight of labourers, but that of children being starved and used as camel jockeys. It had no choice but to ban the employing of children as jockeys. Not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it made political and business sense to do so.

Likewise, migrant rights will be taken seriously only when Qatar feels the pinch at a political and international level. Not when it ‘realises’ the errors of its ways, as some naive souls (offended and saddened by the criticism) seem to believe.

The Unfinished Stories

She is the one I usually approach for my holiday bookings.

One visit she was in the early stages of pregnancy and tired.

The next she was ready to deliver and tiring of the weight and wait.

Months later she was sleep-deprived, but kept talking about the little one.

Then the baby was almost two, and it was stories of how naughty she had become, her search for a nursery.

Everytime I met her, she was chatty, full of stories.

We were two mothers, exchanging stories.

Then, last October when I met her, she was falling apart. She still did my bookings, but there were no stories…

I knew that would be the case, but didn’t realise how bad it would be.

I couldn’t bring myself to condole her, to speak about the little one she lost at Gympanzee.

What does she do with the little dresses, the smell of baby lotion, the bobby pins under the cushions, the single missing sock that resurfaces, neglected dolls…

How does she cope? All those chapters of stories to handle, and no new ones to add.


The refugee hitchhiker who haunts me

She stood by the Katara exit kiosk with two boys by her side.

I slowed down to a stop, expecting her to cross the road. But she walked up to the car and in Arabic interspersed with a few English words asked me to drop her in Dafna.

How dangerous could it be? A well-dressed hitchhiker of about 40, with 2 young boys in tow. Yes, it was close to midnight, but this is Doha, after all.

When I offered to help find a taxi, she insisted politely (almost a plea) that I drop her home. It was not too far away from Katara… The boys were hanging behind, obviously uncomfortable.

So there they were in the car, one second discussing the amazing Cinema Paradiso we had all seen at the last screening of Doha Tribeca that night, and the next second we were discussing the war in Syria.

The mother with her two sons and two daughters fled to Doha from Damascus. The daughters stayed with their aunt (her sister), while she lived in a single rented room with her sons. No job in sight, and unable to afford to send the kids to school. Four months in Qatar, having lost all that was familiar and comfortable.

She had left behind a 20-year-old career as a French teacher, her husband, friends, her home. Now in Qatar, she is not quite sure whether she was at the threshold of greater tumult or little hope.

In that moment she was as lost as a person could possibly be. She doesn’t quite remember the route back home to her room. Mohammed, the younger one who could not have been over 10 seems to have an inkling. He guides me through the lefts and rights of Dafna. He is chatty.

Ahmed, the older boy — around 12-13 — is stoic. I can’t make out if he is unhappy about his mother talking to a stranger about her worries and fears; or if he was just unhappy. It’s him that I worry about most.

To take a healthy, bright teen out of school and to a strange country… How do you keep him happy and positive? What kind of courage and desperation did it take for that mother to make this move?

We finally find our way to their home. We are by now on first name basis. K writes her name, number, email id and Facebook user name on a piece of paper. She takes down my details. She believes I could be one of the people who’d help her find a job here.

Her sons are listening. Maybe they are buying some of that belief too.

I feel crushed by the truth of the matter — I can’t do much but I can’t tell her that.

Three days after the encounter, I am still haunted by the eagerness in her smile, the determination in her voice, the sadness in her eyes and by Ahmed’s unsmiling face.

This is what war does. It splits families. It crushes dreams. It makes warriors of mothers and children.


PS: If you know of a job she can apply for please contact me.

This is Suleiman, the child jockey

Suleiman, at the Hamad Hospital Paediatric Ward, in March 2001. He fell off a camel.

On a given day, at least half-a-dozen children take a tumble. The lucky ones escape with a fracture or injury, bad enough to require hospitalisation, and thus get a short-break from the terror of the track. The not-so-lucky ones suffer minor bruises, and are put right back on the camels. The real unlucky ones are those who suffer serious injuries, some of whom die. At least 90 per cent of the children suffer anal-bleeding and crushed testes.

According to the nurse, Suleiman is lucky. Only a couple of weeks ago, another little one was discharged after four months. He was admitted with a severe skull fracture — he was thrown off his camel and was hit by the hooves of another camel. The c hild had no visitors and on discharge was handed over to the Sudanese embassy.

These are children with just a name — without identity, official papers, and a future.

We don’t know where Suleiman is today. He must be 18 or 20 now.

He will be glad to know that the camel owners and trainers will not even want children like him back on the saddle. Because you see, the robots are so much more effective, and the camels are the fastest they’ve ever been.

A recent short documentary (no more than 3 minutes) on the robot jockeys is very informative, and fascinating.  I understand that as a scientific achievement and the social changes it brought about, the robots must be publicised, their inventors as well. I also understand that there is only so much that can be said or covered in 3 minutes.

I only wish they had not focussed it on the one interviewee, Rashid Ali Ibrahim the man who made the prototype. I was sick to my stomach listening to him talk. Here are just a couple of his quotes:

Human rights organisations always criticised Gulf countries for using child jockeys in camel races. (Didn’t those using them feel any guilt at all?)

In the beginning, the majority of camel trainers opposed the idea… And now, if we said we wanted to reintroduce child jockeys, the trainers would say no way. (Because the camels are breaking speed records with robot jockeys, that weigh only 3 kilos. The children would weigh up to  10-11 kgs. 4 to 5 year olds.)

Seriously? Could you belittle those babies of 3 and 4 any more?

The whole tone of his talk was about how robots have improved a traditional (ahem..! grandfather’s) sport. There wasn’t even a shred of humanity in his tone.

I also wish the documentary had interview Dr Sheikha Ghaliya Al Thani who was the then head of NHRC, who went up against a very powerful lobby to ban child jockeys and pushed for alternatives.

Over the racing seasons of 2000 and 2001, I visited Shahaniya track half a dozen times, to report for an Indian newspaper. Those were easily the very worst memories I have of Qatar.

After the ban of child jockeys, I tried following up with officials to find out how these children were re-homed and rehabilitated (some as old as 5 and 6 had no linguistic skills). There was no response, and the trainers at the tracks seemed to have no clue either.

What has happened to those hundreds of children whose entire identity was wiped out when they were bought?

PS: I am incredibly happy that robot jockeys were developed, and do not mean to belittle that achievement. Or this documentary in any manner.