qatarperegrine: (travel)
I started a list a couple weeks ago of things I imagined I'd really miss about Doha -- and things I was looking forward to about the US. I never finished cleaning it up, but I figure I should post it now so I can see in a few weeks how accurate it was.

Things I'll miss about Doha:
  1. Getting to know awesome new CMU-Q employees every semester; this is the best place on the planet to make friends.
  2. Our students. I will probably never work in an environment so diverse again, or have so many chances to learn from the students I'm theoretically teaching. :-)
  3. The travel opportunities -- I'm so grateful for the amazing places we've visited while here.
  4. Unimaginably spectacular fruit juices.
  5. Bharath's navrattan korma, and Petra's 82-cent falafels.
  6. Breezing into a hospital without an appointment and seeing a specialist 5 minutes later.
  7. Souq Waqif -- hanging out with friends, drinking lemon mint, smoking shisha, and people-watching.
  8. The fact that grocery stores sell my favorite American foods, my favorite British foods, and yummy local stuff.
  9. A4 paper! It's just so much cuter than 8.5x11.
  10. Being part of Education City -- feeling like I'm part of something new and awesome happening in the world.

Things I'm looking forward to (this was written before I knew I'd be going to Pittsburgh):
  1. Not being told by the government what websites i can & can't visit, what movies I can & can't watch, what books I can & can't read.
  2. No "Family Day" (explicit government policies that ban less-desirable people from public spaces at certain times).
  3. News media that is free to talk about societal and governmental failings. Relatedly, having outlets for disagreeing with government policies (protests, letters to editor, voting) other than bitching about them on my blog.
  4. Getting mail in days instead of weeks; in the last few months Qatar has started censoring mail more, so the process has slowed unbearably.
  5. Being treated by waitstaff, cleaners, etc., like a fellow person, not like a superior being from another planet.
  6. Being able to get things repaired in my house without weeks of unanswered email followed by an inability to accomplish anything due to difficulty communicating with repair people.
  7. Walking and taking the bus!
  8. Being more environmentally friendly (not driving everywhere, not running the AC all the time, buying organic food, buying stuff from Goodwill/Craigslist, etc.)
  9. Laid-back drivers.
  10. Mexican food!!!!!

I already know I overlooked a lot of important things. (Things I miss: being treated like a queen because I'm pregnant. Things I'm excited about: TREES! CLOUDS!!!) I figure I should document my reentry shock like I documented my initial reactions to Doha, so I'll keep you posted!
qatarperegrine: (niqab)
Imagine, for a moment, an immensely unlikely scenario: a Sentinelese couple decides to emigrate to the US. They pack up their best harpoons and adzes, hop on a plane to JFK, and settle into their new life in New York City.

And, of course, being Sentinelese, they do this all while stark naked.

How tolerant would Americans be of their public nudity?

Bonus question: how tolerant would Americans be of the fact that the Sentinelese have sex in public?


My friends and me at the beach in Qatar
As I write this, the top story on CNN is about a British couple who face jail time in Dubai over "kissing and touching each other intimately in public ... and consuming alcohol." Many of the comments being posted voice viewpoints similar to these:
"Muslims go to Western countries and insist on following their own customs, so they ought not kick when Westerners go to theirs and follow Western customs" -Dorothea7

"When a muslim comes to the United States they want and expect us to allow them to keep their religious and cultural identities whether it conforms to our standards or not. There are many lawsuits against our gov. and businesses to allow them to wear clothing that does not reveal their faces or have special work place considerations of their religion and culture. If an American or infidel goes to a moslem country they are immediately put under control of their moslem standards or worse the all incriminating sharia law. Where is the fairness? There isn't. Moslems travel the world expecting their culture to overrule others while citizens of other countries are prosecuted in their's." -isntitgreat

OK, time for a reality check of Dubai's concessions to Western customs. In a culture that views all body parts other than the hands and face as private, Dubai allows Westerners to gallavant around in bikinis. In a culture that views pork as unclean and ungodly, Dubai sells pork to Westerners in grocery stores. In a culture that views alcohol as inherently immoral, Dubai imports alcohol and opens bars for non-Muslim expats.

What would the US have to do to show similar levels of tolerance? We'd definitely have to let those Sentinelese people run around naked, and possibly have public sex. We'd also have to open dog-meat sections in our grocery stores and and open opium dens in our hotels for immigrants and tourists. That's the level of tolerance Dubai (and Doha) shows to Western culture. So, while the behaviors they tolerate may not seem huge to us, if you consider how far Western behaviors fall outside the range of behavior permissible in their own culture, I think they have a far larger tolerance ratio than the US does. While I'm certainly not arguing that the US is an intolerant country, it certainly seems very parochial of us to act as though we have a lot to teach the Gulf countries about tolerating cultural diversity.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
"If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise."

-Noam Chomsky

Although Wikipedia defines "freedom of speech" as "the freedom to speak without censorship and/or limitation," in reality every country puts some limitations on freedom of speech. But what limits are appropriate? How many restrictions can free expression have and still be considered free? If you're drawing a line between countries that let you say pretty much anything and countries that let you only say what the leaders like to hear, where should that line be drawn?

In the United States, which I understand has some of the strongest protections of free speech in the world, it's illegal:
  • to threaten someone's physical safety1 or blackmail them.2
  • to intentionally incite "imminent lawless action" such as a riot.3
  • to publish instructions on how to build a WMD with the intention that it actually be used.4
  • to commit perjury, i.e., lie under oath in court or the equivalent.5
  • to produce, sell or possess child pornography.6
  • to broadcast pornography or obscenities on free-to-air TV or radio (punishable by fine only).7
  • (in some states) to maliciously defame someone's character with information you know to be false.8
Some other forms of speech, like copyright violation and libel & slander sit on the line between criminal offenses and actions that put you at risk of civil lawsuit, but are usually prosecuted in the latter category. Besides those things, you can pretty much say anything you want, including (contrary to popular opinion) shouting fire in a crowded theater,3 burning the US flag,9 calling for racial violence,3 and even advocating the violent overthrow of the US government10 as long as it's not in the form of "hey guys, let's go blow up the Capitol on Thursday."11

Here in Qatar, while the Constitution guarantees "freedom of expression ... according to the conditions and circumstances to be stipulated by the law," the limits to free speech are much more numerous. I don't know what they are, since I have no way to read the Qatari criminal code, except for the Press & Publication Law of 1979, which is bizarrely still in effect though largely unpoliced. For starters, though, it appears to be illegal:
  • to insult people, in public or private.12
  • to swear or make obscene gestures.13
  • to spread rumors, even if you believe they're true.14
  • to access websites deemed offensive to local religion, culture, or political interests (is this a criminal offense, or do they just try to prevent you from doing it?)15
  • to use the Internet to "disturb, irritate or offend."16
  • to blaspheme or insult a prophet of Islam.17
  • to deliver a khutbah (Muslim sermon) that hasn't been vetted by the government."18
  • (if you are not Muslim) to worship publicly, to proselytize, to import or distribute religious literature, or to possess materials that support or promote missionary activity.18
  • to hold a political protest or to form a political party.19
  • "to criticize the person of the Emir of the State of Qatar."20
  • to publish anything that might:
    • "provok[e] the overthrowing of the regime,"
    • harm government interests or the interests of its "friend countries,"
    • harm the currency or economy,
    • incite the committing of crimes,
    • "diffus[e] rancor,"
    • damage anyone's reputation or wealth,
    • or "challenge ... the work of a public official" unless for "protection of the public interest."20
  • to publish "any matter in contradiction to ethics."20
  • to publish, without prior approval, any information about the military, international agreements, criminal investigations, or banking news (!), quotes from the emir, or anything the Minister of Information [an office which no longer exists] tells you not to.20

For me, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between the US and Qatar. For many of our students, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between Qatar and, say, Burma. I think they would probably say (but would like to hear from them in comments!) that it's best to have a country where you can voice your opinion and be critical, but not be insulting to others. I think, on the other hand, that it's dangerous to let the government decide what it thinks is insulting.

So how do you decide how many restrictions are too many? Which of the above restrictions seem like justifiable protections of public well-being, and which seem like they stifle basic human freedoms?

This is not a rhetorical question. :-)

Footnotes here )
qatarperegrine: (niqab)
While I was away from Qatar over the holidays, what one journalist has called a "national cultural war" broke out over an online post by a friend of mine.

On the evening of Qatar National Day, VCU professor Lisa Clayton posted a note on her Facebook page about the irresponsible things she'd seen drivers doing during the festivities. The note, which was sarcastic in tone, called attention to issues that many people have been complaining about, for example:
It took an ambulance 20 minutes to get through a single round-about with their lights flashing and sirens blasting, because these Qatari boys were so intent on showing off they blocked all traffic and couldn't hear the sirens with their music blasting. No problem if anyone died because the ambulance couldn't get to them; after all, it's more important to have a HUGE display for Qatar National Day!

Lisa also posted the note pseudonymously on Qatar Living, Qatar's most notable English-language online forum. It has since been deleted but for reference I reposted a cached version here.

Within a day, Lisa's post was the talk of the town. Her real identity was "outed" on Qatar Living by VCU students and alumnae who joined in order to post responses and attacks (including some with language I've never heard Qatari girls use). Two Facebook groups were started to respond: the first an explicitly anti-Lisa Clayton group (its name has since been changed) with over a thousand members; the second calling for Qatar Living to be shut down. A popular Qatari CMU professor posted a blog entry calling for tolerance of social critiques, but lambasting the expats' "condescending rhetoric," and in the comments she congratulated the students on their success in coming together to defend their culture.

By 21 Dec, the story was on the front page of the Peninsula. Qatar Living issued a semi-apology, deleted the thread and removed Lisa's account. Lisa issued apologies on the CMU professor's blog (saying, "I am destroyed by my own poor choice of words and my life here is over"), on the Facebook group against her, and on her own Facebook account, describing herself as "a destroyed woman who is afraid to leave her home and humiliated by being at the root of this terrible firestorm in my adopted home."


I was shocked that Lisa's words had the effect they did. Truly racist things are said on Qatar Living all the time, so why would this be the post to create an uproar? Part of the answer is that it was her own students who saw the post and took offense. I think part of it, too, may be that Lisa's words reinforced Qatari fears about what Westerners really think of them. I think that to a large extent Qataris and Westerners here, despite collaborating on a superficial level, still spend much of our time peering at each other over the wall of our cultural divide with some level of distrust and resentment. Stereotypes abound on both sides: Westerners are prone to characterize Qataris as indolent and spoiled, a nation of Paris Hiltons. Qataris are prone to characterize Westerners as second-rate mercenaries with no respect for Arab culture who come to Qatar merely to get overinflated salaries and job titles we're not talented enough to merit.

Of course, that stereotype doesn't fit Lisa, and it's not true of most of us in Education City. So it's disheartening to see that this stereotype is the most consistent theme of the Facebook group posts. More disheartening is that many of the Qataris writing these comments are Education City students. It's profoundly saddening to think that, even after years at one of the Ed City campuses, many students apparently think that their professors and uni staff only put up with them for the money. A CMU student wrote: "This shows how many unappreciative expats are walking amongst us in the streets, looking into our eyes, faking big smiles and pretending to be sooo fascinated with this amazing culture of ours." Is that how she sees us?

From my side of the cultural divide, it's shocking to realize how little our students share the values that, on the surface, we all seem to embrace. John Esposito sought to reassure Westerners that there is no clash of civilizations when he wrote after substantial polling that most Muslims value freedom of speech and other "Western" values as much as Westerners do. But what an American means by freedom of speech and what a Qatari means by freedom of speech are not necessarily the same thing. As the anti-Lisa Facebook group founder said, "guests in this country ... certainly have no right to offend us in any way." Over and over, I've been told: You have freedom of speech, but not the freedom to insult. You have freedom of speech in moderation. You have freedom of speech, but don't transgress the limits. From my perspective, "freedom of speech" is a meaningless phrase if it only encompasses the right to say inoffensive things.

The ruckus about Lisa's statement seems to have died down, but the exchanges I had on those Facebook groups have in some ways changed how I see Qatar. It was nice to think that by being here, by bringing an American institution to Qatar, we are building bridges between cultures and helping both sides to see each other as real people instead of stereotypes. So what does it mean when people who have spent years at these universities still look at each other with distrust and resentment?
qatarperegrine: (travel)
The friend with whom I'm traveling to Spain asked my advice on what to pack, so as a follow-up to my travel planning tips, I am now sharing my default packing list when going to a new country for 7-10 days. I like to think I travel pretty light, but I know some of you are way more hard-core than me -- your feedback is welcome. :-)

Marjorie's Default Pack List )

So what's on your packing list? What can't you leave home without?
qatarperegrine: (travel)
I love planning trips to new countries, and I am ridiculously lucky that I get to do it so often. As I'm starting to plan another one (to Spain in two weeks) I thought I'd share my vacation-planning process, since I've found a bunch of useful web resources that other might find handy.

Lots of you guys do a ton of independent travel, too. I'd love for you to comment with other resources you find handy!

Planning an Itinerary

I never pick a country to visit without Googling its name and the phrase "when to go," since there's no point in planning a dream vacation and then showing up to realize it's monsoon season. In some cases I also check State Department travel warnings and Google news, too, to make sure it's safeish. :-)

For putting together a rough itinerary, I think nothing beats looking at the "Getting Started" chapters in Lonely Planet guides. These are all available for FREE on the Lonely Planet website, under the "Buy by Chapter" section for each guide (here's Spain's). That chapter gives an overview of the coolest parts of the country and suggests a handful of itineraries. I've never actually copied one of their itineraries wholesale, but it's usually where I start to get a sense of where I'd most like to visit (and which of the chapter I want to buy).

I use lots of online resources to refine my itinerary: the applicable Lonely Planet chapter(s), (hit-and-miss: its Japan pages were as good as the Lonely Planet; its Spain pages are paltry), and local tourist websites (e.g.,, which while cheesy are frequently very helpful. In the case of adventuresome destinations I check out the itineraries of tour companies that do the sorts of trips that I like (e.g., Exodus, GAP). I also Google stuff like "one week in Spain" to find other people's suggested itineraries. And if I'm trying to decide between scenic locales, I often search Google or Flickr for pictures of the places, to see if they appeal.

Don't forget to find out about local festivals and events. My Japan itinerary was entirely built around the discovery that Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo were having major festivals in the same week. And of course, detailed itineraries always have to be worked out in parallel with domestic travel plans, since the order in which you visit the cities on your list depends on when the trains/buses are convenient.


For international travel I'm a Travelocity girl -- I always shop around, but usually that ends up being the way to go. For domestic air travel, I've found the cheapest tickets are often found by getting a list of the airlines that fly into the relevant airport (either from the airport website or from Wikipedia) and going through their websites. is indispensable if you're taking trains (and you should!). Figuring out the train system in a new country can be daunting, but seat61 tells you everything you need to know: what companies operate which lines, where to find timetables, how to buy tickets, how far in advance to book, whether you need seat reservations, what to expect at the station, everything. My favorite is that it has pictures of the different classes of train travel so you can decide which class to buy, which is fabulous in countries like India where you have eight choices!


As far as I'm concerned, Hostelworld is the definitive source for information on where to stay as well as the easiest way to make reservations. The hostels are rated by a huge number of people who have actually stayed there (unlike on tripadvisor, where hotel owners can post fake rave reviews), so you get very reliable info on what the hostel's like. I don't even use the Lonely Planet's suggestions anymore; why rely on one travel writer's experience in 2007 when you can see how 20 people who stayed there last week felt about it?

Some of my friends don't book in advance, though, because some of the cheapest hostels don't have a web presence; instead, they just show up and look around for a place to stay. That works really well some places (e.g. Thailand, parts of India) but for others (e.g., western Europe) I like the peace of mind of knowing I have somewhere to stay.

I'll add more sites to this list as I think of them. Fellow travelers, what websites do you find most useful?
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Visiting the States always provides an interesting opportunity to think about the many ways that living in Qatar has changed me. For example, I'm a lot more gregarious than I was when I lived in Pittsburgh, and generally a lot less fearful -- or at least a lot better at ignoring my fear.

A more obvious example is that I didn't drink before I moved to Doha, and indeed viewed drinking as immoral, whereas now I don't mind drinking. This is actually indicative of a larger shift in my thinking about ethics. Islam is willing to condemn a lot of behaviors which may or may not be inherently harmful, simply because it is believed that God disapproves of them. Of course, plenty of Christians do the same, but my increased familiarity with another religion's list of disapproved behaviors has thrown into sharp relief the problems with divine command theory. It no longer seems reasonable to argue that an action may be unethical simply because one culture's version of God has taken a disliking to it. If an action is unethical, it seems to me, it must be so because it causes harm (is likely to cause harm, has a tendency to cause harm; let's not get too utilitarian here). On a more personal level, seeing Muslims avoiding actions that seem morally neutral to me (like falling asleep on one's stomach) for fear of offending God has made me realize the extent to which my own "moral" stances were motivated by the same desire to be "good enough." I wasn't avoiding alcohol because it has deleterious effects on society; I was avoiding it because doing so allowed me to think of myself as A Good Person. That no longer seems like a good motivation, and thus, I no longer avoid alcohol.

Rethinking the role of religion in ethics made me rethink religion generally, and about six months ago I came to the conclusion that I am no longer Christian. My allegiance is fundamentally not to a Christian worldview but to a secular one. (Thought experiment: if I could choose between a universe in which the Muslim world universally accepted Jesus' messiahship, or one in which it universally accepted the principles of tolerance, free inquiry and rationalism, which would I pick?)

I'm not sure what else to say on this subject, so I'll end here.

I will, however, note that I wrote a long post on secularism a year ago, but never polished it enough to post it publicly. Since I'm unlikely to make any further changes to it now, it is now publicly viewable here.
qatarperegrine: (niqab)
Last Monday, a group of my friends wore our (or borrowed) thobes and abayas to work, and at lunchtime to the food court of the closest mall.

This was my first time wearing an abaya outside, and it was interesting to see people's reactions. I was a little worried that students would feel we were mocking their dress or treating it like a Halloween costume, but all the reactions I got were positive. One student even hugged me.

At the mall, my friends and I got stared at a lot: we could see people wondering what four obviously non-Arab women were doing in abaya. The stares were definitely not hostile, though, and I personally feel we got checked out a lot more than we do in Western dress.

Another interesting reaction occurred when Nikki and I were standing in line at Pizza Hut. A male, Muslim colleague passed by us, did a double take, said "Holy s***," and stopped to see what we were up to. He chatted for about ten seconds and then said he should move along before other people started wondering what he was doing talking to us. He's never said that when I've run into him while in Western dress....

I think wearing abaya was a different experience for each of us. Caryl wrote about her experience on her blog. Another friend reflected that she had always disliked abayas and thought of them as unglamorous, but after spending a day in a rather gorgeous one she now wants to buy one.

I found the experience fun but oddly unremarkable. Other people reacted to me very differently, but the abaya itself is unobtrusive enough that I didn't feel any different wearing it. (I did feel more aware of my clumsiness; I am not graceful enough to be an abaya girl.) The shayla, on the other hand, cannot be called unobtrusive. I think I spent about half my workday wrapping and rewrapping it.

pictures! )
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
Two Saturdays ago, my friend Silvia and I visited a labor camp and a safe house here in Doha to learn more about stranded workers in Qatar.

Stranded workers are workers whose sponsors (i.e., employers) have abandoned them in one way or another. For those of us who are expatriate workers in Qatar, our employers have a much larger role in our lives than they would in the States. Your employer isn't just the person who hires you and pays you; they also provide your housing and possibly your food and, most importantly, they are your gateway to government services. When you first arrive in Qatar, it is your sponsor who gets you a valid visa and residency permit; when you leave, it is your sponsor who gets you an exit visa and a plane ticket home. So workers who have been abandoned by their employers are not just unemployed; they also become illegal immigrants. They can't legally get new jobs, and technically shouldn't still be in the country. Yet, even if they want to leave, they can't get an exit visa, let alone afford to fly home!

We met a Nepalese businessman who has devoted himself to helping workers in this situation in Qatar. A few months ago he opened Mitery Kunja, a safe house for stranded workers. Mitery Kunja currently houses about 70 men, mostly Nepalese. Some are there for only a week or two while their embassy sorts out how to get them home; others have been there since it opened in the fall.

Pictures of Mitery Kunja )

Mitery Kunja can help individual workers who get stranded, but unfortunately the problem is larger scale than that. In addition to visiting the safe house, we dropped by a labor camp in the Industrial Area, where hundreds of workers were still living after their sponsor abandoned them. They were brought over on two-year contracts to do Asian-Games-related construction, but two months ago their sponsor stopped paying them, then moved offices, and now is nowhere to be found. Hundreds of workers are still in the labor camp, but with no work, no way of getting food, and now no electricity either.

A soft-spoken 26-year-old man from Burma explained in surprisingly fluent English that the situation was even worse than this. Like many low-skilled workers in Qatar, they never got the deal they had been promised by the agents who recruited them in their home countries. They had been promised a starting salary of 550 riyals ($150) a month, which is typical for construction workers, but with pay raises every few months, first to QR750 and eventually to QR950 ($260). "I did the calculations," he said, "and decided to come." These calculations are carefully considered, because low-skilled laborers typically have to pay agents between $1000 and $2000 to come to Qatar. Their whole extended families go into serious debt to send them over here, on the assumption that two years of salary remittances will pay off the debt and then allow the family to better itself.

When we visited, some of the workers had had an opportunity to transfer to another sponsor. This sponsor would only pay them QR400 ($110) a month, though, and that wasn't enough for them to pay off the debt and provide for their families. When Silvia and I asked the men what they wanted to happen, many were desperate to find work at the promised salary, in order to pay of their debt of coming to Qatar. Others were so entirely fed up with the Gulf they just wanted to go home, even though it meant returning to worse poverty than they were trying to escape by coming here in the first place.

A few days after we visited, the Gulf Times reported that 70 of the workers had gotten a sponsorship change. I hope that means they got a better offer than QR400.

Pictures of the work camp )

I sat in on Silvia's class (an elective on immigration issues) when she showed the class these pictures and discussed the issue of low-skilled laborers in Qatar. Students had very mixed opinions, but I was a little disappointed by the widespread assumption that these issues are best taken care of by individual embassies. The Nepalese embassy appears to be doing right by its people, but it's hardly fair that they have to spring for plane tickets home for Nepalese workers who are mistreated by Qatari sponsors. The more I learn about the exit visa/plane ticket home situation, the more appalled I am that expatriate workers can be effectively held hostage by their employers. I don't understand how this isn't in violation of international human rights.

In the week since I visited the labor camps, a barrage of other labor-related articles have hit the local papers. Here's a selection.

qatarperegrine: (buddha)
* Meryn Cadell lyric

Maybe it's hackneyed, but the end of the year seems like a good occasion to reflect on 2006 and look forward to 2007.

What can I say for myself in 2006? It was a very strange year, and eventful in private, interior ways I have not much discussed here.

I was not exceedingly happy for the first half of the year, and then around about June or July something shifted in my life, although I don't yet fully understand what or how or why. Perhaps it was the inevitable culmination of reading a lot of Buddhist and existentialist writings. Or perhaps the proto-stirrings of this thing are the reason I was drawn to those writings to begin with.

I began to see, I think, that much of who I was had become ossified, fossilized. My identity was the sum of decisions long past, decisions I remained with more out of habit and routine than because I still believed in them. Or, to switch analogies, I felt that my identity was a series of accretions and encrustrations that had built up on me over time, like barnacles so crowding the surface of a rock that you can no longer tell what kind of rock it is.

I thought of an exercise in one of my cross-cultural training classes in college, in which we'd been asked to write down five things that described us. Good student, I wrote. A Christian. Justin's fiance. An ethical person. I forget what was fifth; shy, maybe, or timid. There's nothing wrong with any of those things (aren't barnacles pretty?) but I began to feel that I was experiencing myself, experiencing MARJORIE, as simply a container that held all these labels. Who would I be without those labels? Would I recognize myself if those things weren't true anymore?

So I started meditating more. And reading Sartre.

I always feel like a bad Buddhist for saying this, because of the strange and paradoxical Buddhist teachings on no-self, but the first time I ever did Buddhist meditation, the immediate result was a very powerful experience of my self-ness, of my astonishing existence. I guess that's a realization I needed to nurture this summer. In some powerful sense, those labels and identities are unreal, unsubstantive. The only reality that exists for me is my self, in this moment, interacting with the world around me. Perhaps this is not so un-Buddhist then. Perhaps I experienced suchness.

I feel I have begun to submit to some indescribable cleansing process by which these encrustrations can be eroded. The barnacles are being scrubbed, sanded off of me -- all those identities that had remained with me only because they were familiar and I hadn't thought to change them. Nondrinker. Churchgoer. Christian, even. They are labels that meant something to me years ago, things I felt passionately about. Now they are... barnacles. And I'd like, once in my life, to see what this rock of a self looks like with no barnacles at all.

I am terrified. Who am I if the pieces that assembled my sense of self are gone? Who am I underneath those labels? Tell me what your face looked like before your parents were born.

I don't know where to end this post, because I don't know where it all ends. That sander buffeting me is coming close to the quick, and I don't know how I'll know when the tired old labels, the unuseful, hindering labels are gone and everything left is what I want to keep. What if I go too far, let go of too much? What if I let this sandstorm keep buffeting me until everything erodes away and there is nothing left?

What if barnacles are all there is?

2006. A year ago I knew who I was. I wasn't always happy, and I was struggling mightily with a big lump of dissatisfaction in my life, but I at least felt like I had a basic grasp on who I was. Today, not so much. Whether this is progress or regress remains to be seen.

Ros: I remember when there were no questions.
Guil: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.
Ros: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.
Guil: You've forgotten.
Ros (flaring): I haven't forgotten -- how I used to remember my own name! And yours, Oh, yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it -- people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked and I told them.
Guil: You did, the trouble is, each of them is... plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque.
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
This was a bad week to be a laborer in Qatar.
  • 125 striking restaurant laborers were sacked and deported. It's tough to know what really happened here; the workers say they weren't being paid for overtime, but the restaurant convinced the government they were. Earlier articles on this situation are here and here.

  • More work visa foolishness. A couple expats arrived in Doha and were told the jobs they'd been offered did not exist. Their sponsors then charged them for their residence permits, but never got them! One of the sponsors is allegedly continuing to charge the worker QR500 a month for having (not) provided him with a residence permit, and is preventing him from returning to his home country. Yay indentured servitude. A third worker sued his employer for unpaid salary, and was promptly fired.

  • Three more workers asphyxiated in a drainage ditch. This has been happening every six months or so.

The labor situation in Qatar is truly unbearable. There is no balance of power between employers and employees. Employers control their employees' legal standing in the country, since only they can acquire visas and residence permits for their workers. They suffer no consequences if they renege on their contracts or even don't pay their employees. (Note the last paragraph in this article.) They effectively hold their employees hostage, since workers cannot leave the country without an exit visa, for which the employer must apply. This situation is inhumane and indecent.

Here are the top three things I think need to happen for the labor situation in Qatar to approach being morally defensible.
  1. The labor law needs to be enforced. There need to be significant, swift, certain consequences when companies violate their own contracts or otherwise ignore the labor laws. Laborers need to have clear recourse when employees violate the law, and protection from retribution when they do so. The Qatari government has a responsibility to protect the rights of its residents, and it cannot continue to abdicate this responsibility in favor of the National Human Rights Commitee (which is awesome, but only quasigovernmental) or in favor of the workers' embassies (which offer varying levels of support; the Indian embassy helps its workers who strike, while the Chinese embassy, predictably, does not). Simply enforcing the current law would go a long way towards improving the lives of workers in Qatar.

  2. Domestic workers need to be covered by the labor law. Currently the labor law does not apply to maids, nannies, drivers, and other domestics, which means there are no limits on the hours they can be asked to work, and they really have no protections or recourse against their employers. As the UN special rapporteur on human trafficking recently said, "it is largely left up to the benevolence and human compassion of the employers, whether the human rights of the [domestic] workers are upheld or not." This is completely unacceptable. You cannot create a just society by relying on people to feel charitable towards others.

  3. In the long term I think there need to be more limits placed on the power of sponsors. I do not believe it is possible for human rights to be guaranteed in a system in which companies have almost complete power over their workers. For example, the fact that workers can be trapped in Qatar, denied exit permits by their employer, is not only completely unconscionable, it is also in violation of Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Employees need more rights relative to their employers; they need legal recourse when their employers violate the labor law; they need the right to organize.

Those are the top three things I think need to change before Qatar's labor situation could be considered in any way ethical. Perhaps it's notable that I haven't even touched on the issue of low wages, which many Westerners in Qatar decry. A minimum wage would be nice, but I don't think it should be the highest priority. The fact of the matter is that Asian and African workers are willing to come to Qatar for low wages, because they still beat the wages they could earn in Asia or Africa. Paying them decently is a good idea, but I think it's much more important to make sure that they actually get paid what they were promised and that their human rights are safeguarded while they're here.
qatarperegrine: (buddha)
Yesterday I went to my very first Buddhist retreat, at the Zen Group of Pittsburgh.

I was somewhat terrified by the prospect of meditating for seven hours, when I had previously only meditated for half an hour at a time. Much to my surprise, it really wasn't that hard. I find I usually have an easier time meditating in groups, and after listening to a dharma talk or meditation instruction. When left to my own devices, I tend to get distracted trying to control my mind, which never ends well.

The general format of the day was 30 minutes seated meditation, 15 minutes of walking meditation, rinse, repeat. We broke at lunch for a formal meal, which was really nice. The teacher guided us through the rather intricate and graceful process of unwrapping our bowls, setting them out in the formal pattern, and receiving the meal (water, rice, soup, salad) in the proper manner. At the end we learned how to wash out our bowls with steaming green tea and then drink the tea, like mendicant monks with no access to soap would do.

Another highlight of the day (I feel slightly awkward talking about highlights of Zen practice) was meeting the Zen teacher for my individual interview. I told him about practicing vipassana, then stopping practicing for a while and being uncertain why I'm supposed to practice if part of the lesson of meditation is to relinquish my attachment to striving towards a goal. He rather quickly turned the conversation to some central questions that I had, and when I attempted to get him to answer the questions for me, he smiled and told me I should investigate them in meditation. Then he asked me some questions, and I think I realized what I needed to realize about koans, at least for now. Except that that makes it sound like I understand something, when really the point was that I don't.

It seems strange to be writing about this. Like reporting how Confession went.

At the end we chanted the Heart Sutra and something in Korean (apparently The Great Dharani), and then had Circle Time when we had the opportunity to say thank yous or talk about our experience. (I got so excessively shy, I not only said nothing but also had to be reminded to bow in order to pass my turn.)

Overall, it was an easier experience than I expected. I keep wondering whether that signifies progress (that it's now easier for me to meditate than when I stopped trying in August) or regress (that I was really just spacing out instead of doing real meditation), and then remembering that I'm not supposed to be thinking in terms of progress and regress. Then I remember I'm not supposed to be thinking in terms of "supposed," either, and it's all downhill from there.

It also makes me realize how attached I was to the idea that I'd get some kind of Major Life Experience or Personal Insight out of this enterprise. I didn't, particularly, although I did have an interesting insight about my practice when I woke up this morning, so that may be related.

(Also, last night I dreamed I was talking to someone about the unsexiness of moustaches and then realized I had a moustache. So I resolved to shave it off and grow a little soul patch goatee like the Zen teacher. What on earth was that about?)

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed -- that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

Then what is the one pure and clear thing?
qatarperegrine: (rumi)
Last Thursday, my friend Doug and I attended a talk on "The Spirituality of Jihad" over at Georgetown. The speaker was Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi, from the Institute of Ismaili Studies. He's written several books on Shi'a and on mysticism in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. He has a bachelor's in International Relations and a doctorate in Comparative Religion, so basically I want to be him when I grow up.

The talk was rather loosely organized, but I thought Dr. Shah-Kazemi said some interesting things. It's always fun to hear a Shi'a/Sufi perspective, since mostly around here we hear Sunni/Wahhabist perspectives.

(All quotes from the Qur'an below are reconstructed from my notes of his on-the-fly translations. If you want to read official translations of the verse, I recommend the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts.)

Dr. Shah-Kazemi's Talk )
In conclusion (or in abstract, if you didn't read the above): armed struggle is permissible in Islam in very limited circumstances, and only to protect religious freedoms. More vital, though, is the "greater jihad" or the struggle to conquer our own caprices and egoism.
qatarperegrine: (qatar)
This morning's Peninsula reports that 764 expatriates lost their jobs last year due to Qatarization.

Qatarization is the process of replacing expatriates with Qataris in essential economic roles; it's a reaction to the fact that the Qatari economy has thus far been entirely dependent on foreign expertise. The official Qatarization plan includes only government jobs and the energy and industry sectors, but there are other laws that give Qataris preferential treatment in other sectors.

The Qatarization plan is, of course, very controversial. On the one hand, it is certainly understandable that Qatar is reluctant to place their economy entirely in the hands of foreigners. On the other hand, a lot of expatriates hate the plan intensely, and not only because they fear for their own jobs. Although the official rhetoric touts "Quality Qatarization" as a plan that ensures that only qualified Qataris get jobs, I've heard many rumblings from expatriates that Qatari nationals hired under Qatarization tend to be less qualified and less productive than the expats they replaced.

And, let's face it. Have you ever heard of a society that had to have an affirmative action program for its elite classes?

So it is interesting to see some actual statistics on how Qatarization is working. 1597 Qataris got jobs last year, 78% in the government sector. That's not too surprising since, overall, 68% of employed Qataris work for the government. (source) I'm still scratching my head over the statistic that only 1516 job applications from Qataris were received, though. How did more Qataris get jobs than applied for them? And how does this jive with earlier Peninsula reports that hundreds of Qataris were applying per government job?

I can't wrap my head around the planning council stats I just linked to, either. They indicate that Qataris are 43% of the workforce, which simply can't be true when 80% of residents are non-Qatari, and non-Qataris virtually can't be here unless they work. Who is missing from these statistics? Nannies and maids and drivers, I assume. Who else?
qatarperegrine: (ahimsa)
Half an hour ago I was cozily ensconced in my bed, just reaching the denouement of a juicy mystery story. Suddenly I heard a distinctive scuttling noise from the foot of the bed and realized, with a sinking feeling, that the mice have finally reclaimed our apartment.

I got up out of bed to investigate, and it's a good thing, too. Seconds after I stood up, my "mouse" -- actually an enormous cockroach -- FLEW from the curtains into my bed and started exploring good hiding places in my bedspread.

A heroic pursuit ensured, rivaling Moby Dick in its epic scale -- although my catch-and-release approach to pest control is not very Melvillean, and in particular my nude sprints around the apartment while threateningly waving an empty Tampax box at the cockroach may not quite hold the romantic cachet of Ahab's monomania. The frantic cockroach flew from the bed back to the curtains, from the curtains to the laundry, from the laundry to the hallway, around all the bathrooms, and finally back to the bedroom. This took several minutes. A few times the roach almost ran into the cardboard box, but at the last minute it would scamper around the outside of the box instead, causing me to shriek and drop the box in a most un-Ahablike manner.

The roach seemed to be tiring and I thought I might be gaining the upper hand, when suddenly the light dimmed and I realized -- brace yourself -- that a second cockroach had just flown over my head, briefly eclipsing the chandelier. (I swear to God I am not making any of this up.) While I followed the first roach ("Moby," as I like to think of him), Roach #2 ("Dick") began beating at the window like an escapee parakeet, occasionally retiring to my bed to recover when it had exhausted itself.

Several times, one roach or the other dive-bombed me. They're actually remarkably pretty when they fly; they look like large moths. For a moment you stop and watch, transfixed, until you realize holy crap a cockroach is about to land on my head.

After a few minutes of this I realized that our downstairs neighbors probably weren't appreciating the range of vocabulary I was employing at great volume, and I decided I needed to cool down. I recused myself to the kitchen, where I tried to cultivate metta for the cockroaches, while simultaneously scrubbing down the counters. (The cockroaches have never shown interest in the kitchen; they live here for the water and shelter, not the food. But still. I am not going to treat those roaches to the last crumbs of Justin's fabulous rum-raisin-apple pie.)

When the kitchen was spotless I returned to the bedroom. It's quiet now. There is no sign that two fiends-in-insect-form have been scampering around my bed and could at this very moment be lurking somewhere in the sheets.

But it's past midnight, and I really need to get to bed.

If you need me, I'll be in the spare bedroom.
qatarperegrine: (qatar)
I'm in Indiana!!

Last year, on my first trip to the States in 9 months, I spent my first hour in the States jotting down a list of things that surprised me. This afternoon I did the same thing on the bus from Indianapolis to Purdue.

Things Whose Prevalence I'd Forgotten (because we pretty much don't have them in Qatar)
  • tattoos, body piercings, fun hair colors
  • pedestrians! and sidewalks!
  • self-storage
  • Christian bikers
  • highway billboards
  • self-service laundromats
  • DOGS!!! Mary, a Vizsla just walked past my hotel.
  • grown men wandering around in shorts
  • cars that are neither white nor beige (OK, we do have *some* of those in Qatar)
  • "Support our Troops" ribbons on cars -- although, is it just me, or are there fewer than last year?
  • houses made of wood
  • graveyards
  • WEEDS!!! I know I said this last year, but really, this is amazing! If you leave an empty plot of land alone, GREEN LEAFY THINGS APPEAR BY MAGIC!!! I can't believe I ever took this for granted.

I'm sure I'll think of more later....

In unrelated news, in the past two days I have seen two different movies (Keeping Mum and Tristan + Isolde) in which a character reads passages from Song of Solomon just before getting it on. What's with that?


May. 28th, 2006 05:00 pm
qatarperegrine: (Default)
This is a topic I've thought about a lot, and wondered how to write about, but I'm not sure I can do it justice. I think it's the most important realization about culture that I've had as a result of moving to Qatar, but the thoughts are still rather inchoate. Maybe by writing this I can clarify them a little.

When I moved to Qatar, I worried about whether my religious views would be offensive to our students. So I did what any good American would do: I acted as though I didn't have any. I didn't bring any apparel that would betray my religious affiliations (cross necklaces, church T-shirts, Goddess keychain) and I didn't talk about my own beliefs, even when students tried to engage me in conversation about religion. Because, you see, by setting aside my religious beliefs, I am less likely to offend those of a different religion. Right?


I think I'd lived here a year before I really realized how backward I got things. I was acting out of my deeply embedded understanding of secularism: the way to accommodate religious diversity is to purge the public sphere of religiosity, so that people of different faiths can work together on the basis of a shared, ideologically neutral, worldview. We can avoid offending people of different faiths by all acting, most of the time, as though we have no religious views at all. (Which, of course, presupposes the odd notion that it is possible not to have any religious views at all.)

In the U.S., this what I expect in public discourse. Thus, although my own religious beliefs definitely shape my approach to, say, politics, I do not see it as acceptable to justify a proposed policy on religious grounds. If I am discussing politics, I bracket the religious basis of my opinions and argue those opinions on the basis of reason, augmented by some generic, secular values of the type enshrined in the Declaration of Independence or the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. I wouldn't (outside of church) give a religious justification for, say, ending the death penalty, even though my own reasons for opposing it are more religious than not. And, while there are certainly people even in mainstream political debate in the U.S. who do make policy arguments from religion, let's face it, I look down on those people. Even when I agree with their positions (e.g. the right-to-life position on the death penalty) and I agree for explicitly religious reasons, I still think we ought to be able to support our views rationally, without resorting to the weak "because God said so" defense.)

So there is definitely a paradox here, but one I have happily lived with. I am religious and I love religion, but fundamentally I have seen religion as an added dimension of life; it can be set aside, leaving some common bedrock of secular logic and values that public life can be built upon. In short, I am a secularist. Secularism so permeates my thinking that I have been able to think of it not as my worldview at all, but as an ideologically neutral default that remains when religion is stripped away.

To leave my cross necklace behind when I moved to a Muslim country is, I think, a good symbol of this. I thought that leaving it behind made me religiously unmarked, neutral, and not in opposition to Islam. This is, of course, patently ridiculous, because it is not Christianity that Islam perceives as a threat, it is secularism itself -- an ideology that reduces religion to an optional add-on to life, a structure built onto the bedrock of our thinking instead of the bedrock of life itself. An insidious ideology that pretends not to be an ideology but objectiveness itself; a worldview that thinks it is the absence of religious bias instead of simply another viewpoint on religion.

Everything I have said so far is the point I had reached in my thinking on secularism in September, when Georgetown's presentation at the Education City symposium made me think about Christian public discourse and secular public discourse in Qatar. (And this is why I've been less circumspect about discussing my religions views with students this year: I realized in September that my Christianity is less likely to offend them than the suggestion that religious beliefs can and should be bracketed in public discourse. I still don't wear my baptism cross, but I no longer have illusions that this abstention can result in my being seen as unmarked or unbiased.) I came to realize that that secularism is not really a default and that I am wrong to see myself as being objective when I act from within my secular worldview.

But since then, my thinking has been changed again, this time by the Mohammed cartoon controversy. Again and again I have heard the same question asked in Middle Eastern newspapers and by Qataris I know: how would you feel if it were your prophet being defamed? They ask this as though it is unheard of for Jesus or Christianity to be ridiculed in the West, and I find myself explaining again and again that, actually, Jesus gets mocked a lot in the West as well. And the truth is, I'm perfectly fine with that. I think I really CAN compartmentalize in the artificial way of secularism -- to be personally affronted by insults to my religion, but still cherish living in a society where people can mock prophets with impunity. This is not a popular attitude here in Qatar. So, having become temporarily disillusioned with my secularist worldview after realizing that it is a worldview and not a basic fact of life, I am now realizing that I still very much value that worldview.
qatarperegrine: (UNCHR)
This week, Qatar's National Human Rights Committee released their first major report, which is shockingly candid about human rights abuses in Qatar -- abuses which the report warns "impair the reputation of the State at the international level." I haven't found the report itself online, but I've read an extensive news article about it (linked to below); here are the highlights.

Qatar's main human rights abuses )

Here's what's particularly remarkable: the National Human Rights Committee is a government-appointed body, and more than half its members are government employees. (At least, they were last week!) And yet it has absolutely not pulled its punches when reporting human rights abuses. I'm particularly impressed by the level of detail in its recommendations for fixing the problems -- and anxious to see what happens next!

Everything here has been condensed from an extensive synopsis of the report which appeared in yesterday's Al Sharq, here automatically translated into English by my hero Google. (If you'd like to read Al Sharq's article, here are two warnings. First, Google only automatically translates the first few paragraphs, but you can copy and paste the rest of the article into the text box here to translate it too. Second, be skeptical of the translation. The word it translates "bail" really means "work visa," for example.) The Peninsula has less comprehensive but more grammatical articles on the report here and here.
qatarperegrine: (Default)
I'm taking a brief break from packing. I don't have much time to post anything thoughtful, so I'm cheating and posting an excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend last night, spurred I suppose by his description of a European town and a reference to an upcoming train ride.

In which I wax lyrical )


Oct. 27th, 2005 10:38 am
qatarperegrine: (mandala)
A student was telling me about his financial troubles the other day, and explained them by saying, "It pleased God for my father to lose 20 million riyals in the Doha Securities Market."

Acerbic comments about the DSM aside, this statement represents one of the aspects of Islam that I find the most difficult, even though I know that kind of fatalism exists in my own religious tradition as well. Does it really please God for people to lose $5 million in the stock market? Does everything that happen please God? Does God's sovereignty necessarily imply that nothing happens in the world that is not a reflection of God's will?

The will of God... )


qatarperegrine: (Default)

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