Let Me Take You to the Dark Side of the Moon
By: CMT“My 2-year mission: to explore a strange new land, to seek out new experiences, and to boldly go where no woman had gone before.”
These were the words that reverberated in my head when I first set eyes on my new workplace.
I envisioned myself a pioneer in this arid industrial city, one of a handful of women (and definitely the only blue-eyed blonde) willing and able to permeate this sandy metropolis for the sole purpose of saying the desert dust would not prevail.
I was wearing steel-toe boots (actually pumps and a smart business suit, but I WAS given the requisite safety apparel and H2S training) and I was here to conquer.
I had been a successful career woman for about fourteen years in Canada before setting my aspirations on becoming a wasteland trailblazer in the Middle East.
I’d received my MA and given birth to Kiddo the year before moving to Qatar. As a year of paid maternity leave was drawing to a close, Smilin’ Vic came home one day and asked: “How would you feel about spending the next three years in Qatar?”
I shamefully admit that I had to Google ‘Qatar’ that day. I had never even heard of this tiny oil and gas rich country that was making a huge name for itself in the petroleum industry.
Web surfing taught me to pronounce the country’s name more like ‘cutter’ than ‘guitar’. I learned that it was a small Islamic Arab state (about the size of Canada’s Prince Edward Island), bordered by Saudi Arabia to the South and surrounded to the East, West and North by the Persian Gulf. It seemed fairly progressive. Women could drive, work, and manage their own affairs to a degree.
I said ‘ok’. I resigned from my position in Canada. I relinquished my upwardly mobile career for an opportunity to experience something new. We said goodbye to family and friends. We sold all our worldly possessions and we embarked on this crazy, incredible journey.
And then I sat here for exactly twelve months while Smilin’ Vic went to work. Day in and day out. Sat here watching the dust creep in under the doors, seep through the window frames, flutter in through the A/C ventilation. And I waited. Waited for Kiddo to wake up in the morning, to arise from her afternoon nap. I waited for Smilin’ Vic to walk through the front door after a day’s work. Waited for the compound ladies to announce it was time to hold the monthly tea, or a book sale, or a block party. And I ran. Every day I ran. Ran around and around the 500 m compound, 10 times total, with a push cart and toddler in front of me, and 90-odd fellow expat moms shaking their heads as they gazed out their kitchen windows as the insane Canadian woman ran by again and again and again ...
And I finally realized I needed to get a job … or lose my mind.
Fast Forward …
It’s been almost seven years since we moved to Qatar. That’s four more years than we expected to be here.
It’s been almost six since I became a part of the workforce and stepped into the unknown barren industrial wasteland that was to become my reprieve from the mundane life of a bored expat wife. That’s four more years than I expected to work here.
Looking back now, I realize how uncharted the territory I was stepping into actually was. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad for the experience, and I expected challenges.
I expected to find it hard to work in a country where the ratio of men to women is 3:1. I expected to find it hard to drive an hour back and forth into the desert each day. I expected to find it hard to place Kiddo into the care of a nanny and daycare workers while I went out to exercise my brain every day. On these fronts I was not disappointed.
But some challenges were not quite what I’d envisioned:
- I HAD TO GET PERMISSION TO WORK: Yes, permission. From my husband. As my sponsor in this country, he ultimately holds the key to my ability to work outside the home. Armed with a letter stating that he had no objection to me entering the workforce, I set out to earn my bit of dosh.
- I BECAME AN OBJECT OF LUST AND DESIRE: NOT because I was hot. Because I was a WOMAN (1 of about 500) stepping into an industrial city where over 150,000 MEN toiled every single day. Most of the males were laborers on 2-year contracts, living and working within a gated industrial city, who hadn’t seen their spouses in months or years … quite frankly, I could have been Nanny McPhee on her worst day and still been eye candy to them.
- I HAD TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE: NOT Arabic. Because in fact English is the working language here. But English here is a melting pot of foreign concepts left for me to figure out. My British boss kept on telling me everything I did was ‘brilliant’. As a North American, I thought that meant I was a stellar employee. Turns out he just meant ‘cool’. Indian expats kept asking me “to do the needful”. Took me months to figure out this didn’t actually mean anything. It was just a way to fling work back into my court. My Arabic and Philippine colleagues kept on referring to their “suffering” in the workplace. I eventually caught on; they were not being secretly tortured by their boss … “suffering” is a term used commonly here to express mild to moderate discomfort or displeasure, e.g. “I am suffering from the heat” or “The traffic is making me suffer” or “My coffee was late this morning; I really suffered.”
- I WAS INTRODUCED TO “TEABOYS”: Yes, this was a challenge. For a Canadian unaccustomed to a class-based society and preferential treatment, there was something extremely discomfiting about having an 18-year-old Nepali teen defer to me as he served up my coffee each morning just the way I liked it. I still grapple with the fact that offices here all come resourced with young men and women hired to cater to office staff as they serve up free tea, coffee and juices, heat up our lunches, clean our dishes, etc.
- I LEARNED ABOUT THE ABJECT REFUSAL OF REFUSAL: For months I tried using a softly stated ‘I don’t think so’ or a simple ‘no’ as an answer to something I did not agree to. I finally figured out that for an absolute negative to be understood in this part of the world you must phrase it more like this: “For the hundredth time, the answer is ‘no’. ‘NO’. As in ‘N’ – ‘O’. Never. Absolutely not. Not in a million years. It’s not going to happen. Do you understand? We can’t do this. ‘NO’.” It appears I am sometimes still not clear enough in turning down a request.
- I HAD TO GET PEOPLE TO WRITE DOWN THEIR NAMES FOR ME: In Canada, I would have a hard time remembering your basic ‘Bob’ and ‘Jim’ and ‘Dave’. Imagine my confabulation when I tried to recall ‘Hernawaty’, ‘Anantha’, ‘Salahaldin’ and ‘Nurhadi’. Then compound that challenge when I was faced with several people of alliterate names, e.g. ‘Abdulrahman’, ‘Abduraman’, ‘Abdul Rahman’, ‘Abdaramam’ …
- I LEARNED THAT DRINKING TEA IS THE ONLY WAY TO GET THINGS DONE: The first time I had a problem, I sent out an e-mail outlining my issues to the individual able to sort those issues out. I followed it up immediately with a phone call to explain my dilemma. His curt answer: “Why are you calling me about this?” My response: “To follow up on the e-mail I sent you.” His reply: “You put this in an E-MAIL? WHY?” My response: “Well, I thought it would save time if I laid it out clearly, then we could discuss it over the phone.” His counter: “How could this help? I don’t have time to read e-mail. Why didn’t you just come discuss in my office?” My response: “Well, it would have taken 25 minutes to drive there, and I know you’re a very busy man.” His conclusion: “I am never too busy to talk. We could have had tea. ” I took a drive. We had tea. It didn’t solve the problem, but I’ve made a lifelong friend. Every once in a while we still get together to have tea and discuss world hunger.
- I MASTERED THE ART OF TURNING DOWN ‘GIFTS’ WITHOUT OFFENDING: I once admired a National employee’s ring. I was naïve to the ways of this land; I didn’t know better. One thing about the people in this country is they are generous and giving to a fault. The very next day, she showed up with a BVLGARI ring for me. It was beautifully wrapped. It was exquisite. But it was wrong. So I had to refer back to policy on this one. State that as much as I appreciated the gesture, I could not possibly accept it as it would place us both in a very precarious position that would have to be reported. Even though she didn’t seem to quite grasp the need for such politics, she accepted my refusal gracefully. When she left with the BVLGARI ring in tow, I heaved a sigh of relief, then put my head down on my desk and sobbed over the gold-encrusted finger that might have been.
- I HAD TO CONSTANTLY REMIND MYSELF THAT MY NAVEL IS NOT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE: It’s easy for a Westerner to come in here with Western views. But the fact of the matter is, this is the Middle East. Things ARE different here. In the eyes of some, we are not all made equal, and it’s important to bear that in mind. Western standards and principles may not always apply. Throughout my dealings, I never, ever forget that I am a (i) Christian, (ii) Western, (iii) Woman working in a man’s world if ever there was one. I am not the “be-all and end-all”. I am one woman who has managed to survive working in the Middle East through sheer determination and a willingness to occasionally be the bough that bends but does not break.
Working in the Middle East has been HARD. As a working mom, I’ve had to wrestle with daycare and schooling systems whose hours are completely misaligned with common working hours. As a woman, I’ve had to deal with many male colleagues who are bolstered by a society that does not fully appreciate gender equality. As a professional, I’ve been challenged by individuals who hold rank, but not necessarily knowledge or experience. As an expat spouse, I’ve had to wrestle with the desire to work outside the home vs. the allure of staying home and providing a Stepford-like existence for my husband and daughter. As a Canadian, I’ve had to try to find a way to get my point across consistently to employees of over 80 different nationalities.
As a career woman, I didn’t progress nearly as far as I’d hoped; I most certainly didn’t conquer. While I started out with a desire to get a job so I could grow and develop as a professional, I eventually saw myself settle for disenchantment in a quest to ‘make bucks faster so we could get the hell out of Dodge’.
I gradually realized that driving to work in the desert had shown me the side of the moon where the sun doesn't shine. The ‘new frontier’ was in fact a side of the moon where I had no real say or influence. I came to the realization that I couldn’t breathe on the dark side of the moon. I’d resorted to simply “ticking away the moments that make up the dull day”.
Ultimately, I realized that I was not blazing a trail. I was digging a grave. Last month I resigned. I decided that for a while at least, I would rather sit here and bask in the sunshine, gainfully unemployed, than explore brave new worlds. And I am oddly fulfilled in the simple knowledge that I went, I saw and I survived the dark side of the moon.
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Contest Comments » There are 6 comments
This has been my favorite thus far. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff!
Loved the writing style! Must appreciate how the post is so informative + stylish + got me hooked! Will chk out your blog.. great work!
I am absolutely honored, humbled and stunned. I am literally 'over the moon'. Thanks to all of you who took the time to read my submission and to those who left kind comments. The best thing about all of this is that I have now discovered 18 wonderful and captivating new blogs and bloggers via the contest submissions. Looking forward to reading so much more.
Christine's attention to detail and great insight is matched by outstanding prose. She can make the mundane seem extraordinary.
Brilliantly written. Informative and fun writing that had me hooked from the beginning to the end! Thanks for the discovery of a whole new world. Now I'm off to check out your blog :-)
Happy dance for you- thoroughly well deserved! Looking forward to reading more of your wonderful writing.