PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK ME WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LIVE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
I am standing in line waiting my turn at the currency exchange kiosk at the City Centre mall. It is a typical Thursday afternoon in expat life: there are 40 or more expats from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and assorted other countries in line with me, waiting to wire their paychecks home. As usual, some locals cut the line, and no protests are uttered from the queue. I have been waiting twenty minutes to exchange my riyals to Euros, when a man steps in front of me, as I am about to approach the teller window. A woman, covered head to toe in black, shadows him. I gently tap the man on the shoulder to indicate that it is my turn, to please step into line like everyone else.
His wrath cuts into me at once. Screaming at the top of his lungs, I am confused and embarrassed as he continues to shout insults and wave his hands at me. I am certain he will attack me, when another Arabic speaking man dressed in western clothing intervenes to calm him down. I realize, too late, I have violated the man’s Muslim creed: a woman may not touch a man unless he is her husband.
A greater appreciation for life at home
Western etiquette is secondary here to faith and local custom. As an expat living in Qatar, I never quite understood the allure of the Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”. Expat life opened my eyes to the countless nuances of the American way of life, all wonderful in retrospect, yet taken for granted by most of us.
In a Muslim country, the simplest tasks become unbearably difficult to execute. As many trailing spouses do, we enter this world with a degree of trepidation, eager to learn about a new culture, yet reluctant to succumb to its primitive ways and views. The bureaucracy of Sharia law, which essentially diminishes our status and strips us of our rights to do what we have always done—organize and manage our family lives, soon frustrates us.
Our residency status is the first hurdle we must take in expat life. If we are lucky, our spouse’s employer arranges for our partners to “sponsor” us, and after a very long and complicated process of background checks, health screenings and fingerprinting, we are issued a one-year residency card. We are advised to take this identification card wherever we go, or risk arrest for failing to do so.
Next step is finding a home. The choices can be complicated, depending on family needs. As empty nesters, we didn’t have to worry about the proximity of schools or daycare. Nor were we relegated to a company owned compound surrounded by fellow employees and their families. Sure, expat life in these compounds offers instant camaraderie and an array of amenities tucked behind secure, forbidding walls, but communal living is not for us.
The allure of a luxury high-rise apartment with round-the-clock concierge services, swimming pool, gym and private laundry are the deciding factor. Parks to walk our dog, proximity to work and relatively easy access to stores and restaurants are the icing on the cake.
Yet finding the perfect apartment seems daunting at first. While there are many empty units, hunting the perfect place requires working with a local realtor, one who will happily retain a full month’s rent in exchange for the introduction. Unlike in the US, this commission is paid by the tenant, not the landlord. The lease will be in my husband’s name, and subject to review of his residency status and employer’s sponsorship. Luckily, we find our unit while being shown another in the same building, and are able to work directly with the building’s management company, eliminating the middleman and commission.
The fun begins when trying to contract electric, cable TV, Internet and cell phone services. I can arrange none of these local services myself. All agreements and subsequent customer service interactions require my husband’s involvement. Instead of shielding him from day-to-day details so he may focus on his job, Marshall is required to personally apply for each service and speak directly to representatives if a problem or issue requires attention or follow up. And, in this not-so-perfect third world country administered primarily by Philippine expats, much will go wrong in this expat life that will need correction.
I get used to being called “ma’am sir” (when I’m not addressed as “Sir”), a respectful title used by most service personnel who are eager to please, yet never empowered to help. Even now, back in the USA, I cringe whenever I hear that familiar Philippine accent on the receiving end of a customer service call. It reminds me of the frustration I felt every time I tried to get anything done in Doha, whether a refund at the grocery store, information on home services, or a precise recitation of our food order by our servers at every restaurant. Some days, I wanted to strangle staff that was simply doing their jobs, because they seemed too mechanical, too forced. More often, my problems were not resolved, although profuse apologies were always offered.
10 THINGS I DON’T MISS ABOUT LIFE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
There is a plethora of similar daily setbacks in this Middle Eastern society. In the interest of brevity, here are ten annoying contradictions to the American way of life.
- Media is censored, giving practical meaning to the term “fake news”, as it unfolds throughout the region.
- Facebook and other social accounts are monitored. This inhibits real commentary when interacting with loved ones back home. Since we’ve moved, Skype and Facetime applications have been banned, making it more difficult to speak to friends and family.
- Driving is nerve-wracking and dangerous. SUVs rule the roads, driven by aggressive locals who aren’t required to pass any driving tests or pay local fines, and by defensive expats who have lost any hope for law and order.
- As the primary account holder, my husband receives a mandatory text notification every time I make an ATM withdrawal or purchase using my card. While I am not secretly spending his money, it is irritating to have my spouse alerted to every transaction I make.
- It is a stifling 40 degrees C outdoors, yet I must drape my bare shoulders and cover my knees whenever I leave the confines of my luxury apartment. Mall visits require careful dressing so as not to muster the scrutiny of pious locals and authorities that will happily make an example of my sacrilegious ways and arrest or detain me.
- Greeting my husband at the airport, after a long trip away, is an exercise in restraint. While a quick peck on the lips may be overlooked, any public display of affection, even holding hands, is ill advised.
- Despite the proliferation of new restaurants throughout this sprawling oasis, it is still a desert in terms of alcoholic drinking holes. A glass of wine with dinner may only be ordered at five-star hotels, limiting options while draining your wallet. Drinking at home is a better choice, as long as you’ve obtained the obligatory liquor license, and have traveled to the outskirts of the city to haul your monthly allowance from the Qatar Distribution Centre (which is paradoxically located next to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs). Oh, and while you’re there, don’t forget to pick up your rations of bacon and pork products.
- Allergies and sensitivity to smoke, perfume, dust and sand abound. You may be able to get a table in a restaurant’s non-smoking section, but the proximity to smokers and shisha lovers is less than optimal. All around, and in particular theaters and public spaces, the smell of “oud”, a strong fragrance worn by both men and women, is overwhelming. And dust and sand become expected cohorts in strife for daily life and pursuit of health.
- Public restrooms, while much cleaner and more luxurious than most in the US, provide surprising challenges. Equipped with Western commodes with requisite water nozzles (akin to bidets for cleaning), a lack of toilet paper and pools of water in the stalls can lead to a reliance on the “drip-dry” method, not only for the obvious areas, but for your long dresses, pants and sandaled feet.
- There is no such thing as one-stop-shopping. Don’t expect to find all your groceries, toiletries, paper goods, and miscellaneous needs in one store. Even Carrefour, the prominent French mega chain, will not stock everything.
I have no regrets living overseas, and am grateful for the many experiences and wonderful people we’ve met along the way. However, rants of “make America great again” hold no candle to the reality of living in the greatest country on earth. Take it from a former expat with a real appreciation for the subtleties and gifts of life-as-we-know-it in the U.S.A. Here, we have so many freedoms that are overlooked.
I am happy to have returned to the home of the free, a land where I can go where I want, on my own as a woman. I can open accounts in my name, and easily transact family and personal business. I can drink with my friends in a local pub, shop at the mall in a tank top, and walk my dog along crowded boulevards without fear of persecution (Muslims dislike dogs). Anything I want or need, I can order on Amazon, if not available or accessible at the local stores.
In short, I am at home.