It has now been over six months since I left Qatar. I thought that I might blog more often to reflect my thoughts as the months unfolded but I’ve reentered relatively easily and have waited for something of significance to blog about. I received a message this morning with a link to a very interesting article by Dane Wisher, an expatriate from the U.S.A. who worked in Qatar for three years and recently repatriated.
Dane’s reflections took me back to many of the thoughts and feelings I had about being in Qatar. Since returning to the U.S.A., I've not really talked to that many people about what I'd done for the last 7 years. Most people don't ask and I don't volunteer. I don't volunteer at least partially because I'm ambivalent about the experience. All the time I was in Qatar I held hopes and dreams that I would be able to contribute something that would be lasting and that would fundamentally change many of the conditions with which I was so uncomfortable.
The author of this article, Dane, was in Qatar in her early career while I was there in late career. The timing of expatriate work makes a lot of difference in what you experience. The most provocative section of the article for me was the following:
Expat employees generally get used to the dissonance between the rhetorical fanfare of the higher-ups and the actual administrative fickleness that plagues local management structures and cripples the abilities of employees to do their jobs. But more than than, as a human being you get used to passing emaciated workers on construction sites on the walk to the Kempinsky or the Four Seasons. You get used to seeing Qatari men browbeat—and sometimes actually beat—South Asian drivers on the side of the road. You grow accustomed to watching workers on break line up in the shade of a single palm tree as the dirt sizzles around them in August. You stop registering the busses with no air-conditioning carrying the laborers to and from their cramped quarters. You stop noting the way the men press their dusty faces out the open windows for air.
The reality of this segment is that the first sentence so clearly and sadly captures my experience. Unfortunately, I fear some might say I was part of "rhetorical fanfare of the higher ups." I actually believed that we were making a difference and I believed that drawing others into seeing the possibilities was better than cursing the darkness. However, I depart from the author on the rest of the paragraph. I never got used to the chasm between the privileged Qatari/expats and the Southeast Asian workers. Reading the words even now brings back deep emotional connections - I see the faces and the yearning of those trying to build a better life. What the article does not address is that at least some proportion of these workers (I suggest significant) have a better life because they went to Qatar; the fact is that the U.S.A. and other Western countries are certainly not opening their doors to help those who are desperate for economic opportunity. The problem of inequality is vast and the worst in the world today is the U.S.A. If you look at the U.S.A. in comparison to the rest of the world, it gets even worse. Because I saw the difference and experienced the tolerance of inequality so profoundly in Qatar, I now see it much more clearly in the U.S.A. Something has to be done and I pray that the shifting political environment in the U.S.A. will result in our being a better country and in the U.S.A. and its citizens understanding our role in the world in different ways. The faces of others will never leave my memory and it is for them that my work is now about trying to bring substantive internationalization to U.S. higher education.
I have written, and continue to write, about the Qatar days. I don't go into the details of the things that made me ambivalent, primarily because I still hold hope that change will eventually come. Becoming cynical about the experience doesn't work for me nor does voicing it help Qatari leaders in their quest to change. The good Qatari who I knew deeply and still admire greatly are attempting to serve their country and bring modernity to its people. The thing that Westerners generally don't get is that being a Qatari leader is extremely volatile, challenging, and potentially dangerous. The pace of change has to be at a rate that the mainstream Qatari citizen will endorse, not as Qatari leaders or Western expats would hope. It is a long, slow and difficult path.