Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Kuwait or Qatar or Pensacola?

Showering after my water-aerobics class, I could hear voices discussing a local political-social situation. A benefits agency has groups of families working in it, and they know all the tricks. They know how to insure more of their own family members hired, and they know how to help all their family members (and friends) take advantage of all the entitlements.

Expats abroad call it nepotism, and scorn it as a third-world corruption. In truth, it happens everywhere.

There is an ongoing schism taking place in Qatar and Kuwait, countries that have been gracious and welcoming to me. The nationals of Kuwait and Qatar control citizenship carefully. The citizen base is about 20% of the population, on a good day. The rest of the population are people who are in Kuwait and Qatar to work. Most there to work can never hope for citizenship. For many, the poverty in their home country is so brutal that no matter how hard the working conditions, at least it is a salary, and they can send something home so that, literally, their families can eat. They dream – like we do – of educating their children so that they will have a better, more secure life.

Here is the problem. When 80% of the population is NON-Kuwaiti, or NON-Qatari, your country starts to change. One way in which things have changes is that in a very short time, the highways have gone from very quiet to gridlock, due to a dramatic increase in drivers and cars. In Qatar, the situation is made worse by nationalization of the taxi service, resulting in so few taxis that hotels now use private limo services, because finding a taxi at peak times is near to impossible.

That’s one issue. The second issue is language. Imagine your elderly parents going into shops to buy something – in their own country – and the clerks don’t speak their language. As they are stumbling and bewildered, some noisy “workers” walk in, state their needs, are understood, conduct their business and exit before you even get served. This is happening in Kuwait and in Qatar; everyone is speaking English. In a country where the workers are Indian, Nepalese, Philipino, Saudi, Yemani, Omani, Lebanese, Syrian, French, Dutch, English, Australian, South African, American (and about thirty or forty others) the common language has evolved to be English, not Arabic.

How do you think you would feel if it were happening here? If the great majority of cars on the road were not “us” but “guests” in our country? If the clerks in stores couldn’t understand what you want, because although they are in your country, they don’t speak your language?

Another problem is what to do with the huge, disproportionate number of geographically single males brought in to work as builders, cleaners, heavy equipment operators, dishwashers, drivers, security guards and other fairly low-paid positions? In Kuwait and in Qatar, non-married sex is strictly forbidden, even holding hands in public is considered an affront to morality. These men are banned from malls where families might gather, and from other public places. Their existence is grim, and they often find themselves unpaid, or paid far less than they were promised for their labor.

Last, but not least, this very modest Gulf culture has people – foreign guest workers – parading themselves on their streets in various states of undress. Think about it – that’s how we look to them. We have no shame. We bare our faces. We flaunt the glory of our uncovered hair. Sometimes a shawl might drop and a glimpse of bare arm or even a hint of cleavage might shock the modest eyes of a believer.

In Pensacola, there are also fundamentalists who wear long skirts, long sleeves, and determinedly modest clothing. I wonder what these believers think about the skimpy clothing on the beaches, or in the malls?

Coming home has been a real eye opener. It was easy for me to be critical of things I saw in Qatar and in Kuwait. Coming home, we joke all the time about “Kuwaiti drivers” here in the US, but the real joke is – they sure look a lot like us.

Last week, we saw a man here make a U-turn right in the middle of the road, and rock as he tried to regain control of his truck, and almost blast right through a red light he didn’t see. The back of his truck was down, and items loose in the truck bed were heading toward the highway – fortunately he figured that out, and last we saw, he had stopped to fix his rear door. Maybe he wasn’t sober. Maybe he had had an argument with his wife or boss or someone and was not paying close attention to his driving. All I know is that we have seen a goodly number of inattentive drivers here, too.

When a bureaucracy gets corrupted, when the rules are not applied equally to all, when select groups get favored treatment – here in Pensacola, at the immigration department in Kuwait or in the traffic department in Qatar – everyone suffers. It’s a political problem, a social problem, and a systemic problem. God willing, if we are truly evolving as a species, we will find a way to create truly fair and transparent systems which will work as they are ideally intended to work.

It’s on us. We have to make it happen. We have to want it badly enough to make it happen, even making sacrifices for the greater good.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to make us better people that we are, how to make ourselves make the right choices. I do know this – whether it is a tiny village in Germany, or an eagle’s aerie in Kuwait, or the lush life of Doha – we are all more alike, and share more similarities and problems, than we are different. If we could only learn to see through one another’s eyes, maybe we could find ways to resolve our differences and learn to cooperate.

May 26, 2010 - Posted by | Adventure, Building, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cross Cultural, Doha, ExPat Life, Financial Issues, Germany, Interconnected, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Pensacola, Political Issues, Qatar, Social Issues

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