Friday, December 27, 2013

In My Small House, a Holiday eCard

West Bay, Doha, Qatar, 2012
She is young, beautiful (ma sha allah), Qatari; an administrator.  She wears black abaya, sheyla and bright red lipstick around a white toothed, face lighting smile.  She sits in the corner of a windowless office tucked deep inside the women's area.
She stands, wraps me in a tight, two arm, belly hug, kisses my cheeks.  "I want to know what your house is like in America."
I am told that Qataris prefer large, tile floored, compound style homes over apartment living.  Construction is sand and wind resistant steel and concrete.  High walls shield flowering outdoor gardens where there might be chicken coops and children's play areas.  Inside there are marble countertops, crystal chandeliers, winding staircases, flat screen tvs.  Upstairs windows are covered to assure privacy.  There are independent quarters for maids, nannies and drivers; separate meeting spaces for men and women.  At mealtime some families sit in chairs around a table, while others prefer to gather cross-legged around a common platter placed on the floor.
random street, random home, Doha, 2013
"My house is small," I say.  "Wood frame, floors, siding, eaves.  A low wooden fence outlines the back garden.  Windows overlook the street and the front door opens to the living room and kitchen.  There are flowers and trees and in the Spring, beds full of purple phlox, daisies and daylilies.  We didn't have television when the children were small because we wanted them to read and play outside.  Now there's a single tv in a cozy basement family space."
She nods, smiles - and I know the description is not enough.
In My Small House
a Holiday eCard
In my small house, elbows bump.  The tv and radio are too loud.  There is clutter and a line for the bathroom.  There is straightening hair in the hallway, a crowd at the mirror and chairs wrapped like ribbon around the dinner table.  There is teasing over passed gas, stinky bathrooms, everyone-sick-at-the-same-time.
Like a small town – there are no secrets in my small house.  No sneaking out when you're grounded or cheating-on-your-diet-no-one-will-know.  No hiding Reese's Cups, saving the last bit of cheesecake for a solitary midnight snack.
There is noise and chatter and laughter in my small house.  There is talking after lights out in shared bedrooms.  There is arguing and there is making up.
November, 2013
Tinkling piano keys stream music into every corner of my small house.  Flour footprints trail into the hallway and the sweet aroma of warm sugar cookies tickles my nose.
In the spacious back garden my tow-headed 4-year old learned to swing.  Her legs caught the wind as she sailed into the sky.  For two exhilarating hours.  Without stopping.
On the street in front of my small house, my competitive 7-year old met his 6-year old sister's challenge to ride his bike "no hands!"  He did her one better, propping his feet on the handlebars: "No feet either!"  He hits a curb, tumbles, snaps his collar bone.  Three cozy days at home later, he returns to school with half his math book completed.
my kidz
Early attempts to teach homeschool PE involve giggling circles around a fat, white bark tree.  (Later, we play actual sports.)  We watch a mother butterfly lay eggs on a milkweed plant at the kitchen table.  We chart the progress of her babies from pupa to wet-winged Monarch.
In the living room of my small house I braid wire into my 10 year old's long hair for her lead role in the homeschool musical.  Her endearing, high cee voice sings light into the shadows.
We "do school" all over my small house until one by one my babies leave for high school, college and life.
my babies, 2008
Now, this very minute, wheels rattle across the hardwood floor in my small house.  A pony tailed cherub pushes Big Bird into my kitchen office in a little red stroller.  Her soft pillow cheeks puff into a smile.  "Nonnie!" she sings.
I lift my grandbaby into the air and kiss her perfect little face.
I love this snuggy little boy, 2013
Concrete or wood, tile or carpet; barrier walls or open gardens; a house is just a shell for living.  It's what's inside that matters.

We've enjoyed our cozy time together in America this holiday season. 
From my small house to wherever you are in the world today:
Our Family, 2013
In My Small House, copyright 2013, edited and reprinted from my blog, Tales from a Life.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ya Filus! Rich American

shopping at The Pearl
She sits at a desk deep inside the secured ladies' area.  She wears abaya and sheyla and when she leaves the protected space she covers her face and hands too.  Her job is to answer the phone, maintain lists, help visitors.  She's from France.
She greets me this way:  "Ya, filus!"
Hello, Money.
"She's crazy," say the other ladies.  "Ignore her."
But I'm puzzled.  The greeting is negative, assumptive and mean; a slur:  fatty, ugly, rich.
"Why do you say this?" I ask.  "It's very rude."
"But it is true, yes?"  eet eez troo.  "You are American.  You are rich."
I shake my head.  Not that it's not a bad thing like stealing bread from babies but No I'm Not Rich.  I tell her about layoffs, old cars, raising three children in a small house.  Joint bank accounts, family budgets.  Hard earned achievement realized through years of education, planning, sacrifice.
I don't own excessive "stuff."  I shop at Walmart, not Hermes.  I cook, clean and do laundry.  I work.  I'm in Doha because my husband is good at what he does - and win or lose, we operate as a team.
She purses her lips, waves the back of one hand in my direction.
She's not impressed by my college degree, professional experience, stories sold to Highlights for Children.  She's not interested in my job in Doha and efforts to volunteer in local schools.  She's more curious about why I don't have a maid to wash my husband's socks than understanding how everyday American women balance work and family obligations without the aid of a full time, live in nanny.
…it is the man's duty to take full responsibility for the care and maintenance of his wife and family. He must provide a safe home, food, clothing and all material needs. Indeed, Muslim men are responsible for all financial matters.  A Muslim woman may contribute financially if she wishes, but she is under no obligation to do so…
In America, "rich" makes more money than she spends.  She drives a truck, Toyota, BMW, lives in a tract house or mansion.  She's every nationality, color, shape, size, orientation, gender, religion.  She has savings to care for herself and her family and maintain her lifestyle without working, if necessary.  And according to sociologist Leonard Beeghley, she has a net worth of at least $1 million.
Hermes at The Pearl
Qataris enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world.
In Qatar, the country's oil and gas revenues are shared with minority population Qatari citizens.  Here, "rich" drives a Lamborghini, Rolls or SUV, lives in a sprawling family compound/beautifully appointed villa/The Pearl.  "Rich" summers in a cool climate, sends his children to university abroad, spends holidays in Las Vegas.  Most households engage a nanny and maid but "rich" boasts one helper per child and two, three or more maids.  "Rich" is employed, but doesn't necessarily work; is conservative and religious - and generally unavailable to outsiders.
"Rich" is relative, political, desirable, shameful - and achievable in some places more than others.
She raises her chin, lifts an eyebrow.  "I want to go to America."

Friday, December 13, 2013

How to Get a Speeding Ticket in Doha

cameras placed strategically throughout Doha
photograph errant expat (and other) drivers in action
In America.  How to obtain a moving violation:  drive too fast.  Watch rearview mirror for black and white sedan with strobing red and white lights.  Pull to side of road, unroll window, wait.
Snap of door opening, closing.  Keys jangling, heels on pavement, rush of passing traffic, bitter exhaust.  Blue uniform with hat, belt and holstered weapon.  Hand on hip, officer bent at waist, stern face in window, smooth Old Spice cologne.
"License and registration, please."
Tattle tale lights flash.  Cars slow to pass.  Children point from back seats, laugh:  Speeder!
Pounding heart, tears.  The shame.
surreal, sardines-packed-in-a-can, Doha traffic
too many cars for personal attention between officers and rule breakers
In Qatar.  How to obtain a moving violation:  you have to look it up.
enter your Qatari id, license plate number, establishment ID
download the phone app to view others' violations while stuck in traffic
In Doha, yellow and white cameras situated at intersections and along highways weed through the crush of sedans, SUVs, trucks, semis, motorcycles to photograph plate numbers and assign violations, such as:
  • exceeding posted speed limit - 500 QR
  • not giving adequate signals as required - 200QR
  • driving a vehicle at abnormal low speed that may obstruct traffic movement without a good reason - 300QR
  • motorist does not abide by the automatic traffic signals (running a red light) - 6000QR
  • driving a vehicle in the wrong direction - 6000QR
Link: traffic offenses that can be settled by paying a fine.
Caught on Camera
Somewhere in Doha
Bob or Cindi (but probably Cindi):
November 9, 2013, 7:06 AM, Al Bidda (per website) or the Corniche (per agency):
"The motor vehicle's operator exceeds the maximum speed limit on the road"
There is no summons, notification, letter in the mail.  No flashing lights, jangling keys or holstered guns.  Nobody knocks on your door.  Errant behavior is recorded on the website and stays there until the fee is paid.  Whether you're a bad driver, in the wrong place at the wrong time or somewhere else altogether, it's possible to rack up violations and fees while living in blissful ignorance - working, shopping, taking the kids to school.
As long as you don't try to leave the country.
registered vehicle owners with unpaid violations
are stopped at the gate
Since the infraction is assigned to the car, it's the registered owner's responsibility to review the website for violations and pay fines.  This is a benefit to expats who lease a vehicle as the rental agency's name is attached to the car, not the driver's.  A service agent regularly checks the traffic website and emails request for payment.
"Kindly settle the attached traffic ticket..."
-email to Bob from Doha based car rental company, three weeks later
Suppose, like one of Bob's coworkers, you receive notification about a violation that ostensibly occurred on a day, place, time in which you and your car weren't present.  Nobody else drives your car.  You never speed.  There's too much traffic on that road at the stated time for anyone (except the young men in dish-dasha driving white Suburbans) to "exceed the posted limit."
It's Christmas and you have plans to travel.
You could request more information:
This is you, right?
Traffic Department's proof of Bob's car's violation (edited)
Hire a lawyer:
expensive and time consuming; still can't leave the country
Or just pay the toll - and go home (for the holidays).
Bob in Paris, 2013
good sport, good friend, good lookin'

Friday, December 6, 2013

Arabic in America

Kimber studies culture and language
Doha, 2012
"…The meaning of al-Salam Alaikum is informing the person who is greeted that he is in peace and safety from all kinds of mischief from the side of the greeting person…"
In My America, the cashier at Target wears a head scarf.  "Salaam Alaykum," I say.
She peeks at me out of the corner of one eye, whispers, "Wo alaykum..."
"…Imam Ibn Majah…'If they greet you saying al-Salam Alaikum (peace be upon you) reply them with Wa Alaikum (and upon you too)'…"
"Do you know Arabic?"  I ask, in English.
She's from Togo where French is the national language and English is widely spoken.

She smiles.  "I'm learning."
"That's great!" I reply, in Arabic.  "I'm learning too.  Please, will you speak with me?"
She laughs and says in English, "No, stop.  I don't know this."
"But don't you read the Koran?  I'm learning the Arabic of the Koran."
"My husband does.  He's studying Engineering here.  He tries to get me to read the Koran."  She shakes her head.  "I want to learn before we return to Saudi Arabia."
"If you speak Arabic with me we can both practice."
Doha, 2012
The next time I see her, she's wearing a dark blue snow cap over a black headband.  "My husband was asleep when I left this morning."  She shrugs, adjusts the cap.  "It's fine as long as my hair is covered."
She speaks to me only in English.
The next - and last  - time I see her, she's wearing a beautiful black and white sheyla.  She goes to break as I approach her line; she does not return my smile.
"…the Prophet said: "Do not greet the Jews and the Christians before they greet you and when you meet any one of them on the roads force him to go to the narrowest part of it…"
In Doha, I'm often asked why I want to learn Arabic.  "Because I live here!" I reply.  Perhaps it's also true that since I studied Arabic in my youth I'm drawn to the inflections, intonations, highs, lows - the language's uniquely musical qualities.  I like the way one word or phrase can mean many different things.  That God is part of everyday speech, whether greeting a person, introducing an idea or baking a cake.  How there are so many responses to "I hope you're well" it can take 20 minutes to get past "hello."
Sometimes I wonder if Arabic is a language or a religion.
"…'al-Salam' (peace, safety) is a Name, Attribute, and Act of Allah, so pronouncing this word is a supplication of Allah. Therefore, this great word should be protected from those who do not believe in it but they are enemies of Al-salam (a name of Allah). Thus when the Prophet wrote letters to the kings of Kuffars he wrote in the beginning 'Peace be upon those who follow the Guidance'; he did not write Kuffars the expression 'Salaam alaikum.'"
In America, as in Doha, I study alone at my kitchen table or with other non-native speakers.  I read children's books, watch children's videos, listen to Middle Eastern music and write emails, stories and poems.
It's not enough.
"…The ideal way to learn a foreign language is by conversing with native speakers…"
Yesterday I mail a package at the post office.  A man passes me carrying a baby.  Behind him steps a woman in abaya and sheyla.  She glances at me.
"Salaam alaykum," I say.
She smiles, surprise lighting her face.  "Wo alaykum salaam."
"A smile is a gift and counts as a form of charity."
- Qatari teacher at Fanar, the Islamic Cultural Center, Doha, Qatar
How to Speak Arabic
Lesson 1?