This morning I met a man in the elevator on his way out to work. “Been to the gym, eh?” he said, noting my workout clothes and water bottle, which were a sharp contract to his suit, tie, and rolling briefcase. “It’s nice to have a little relaxation before the absolute — unimaginable — frustrating — chaos of the day.” He punched at the buttons of his Blackberry almost gleefully for emphasis.

At first, I thought clearly this man has never been fat if he thinks going to the gym at 6 in the morning is relaxing.

But on further reflection, his statement made me think about how work – more specifically, labor – is a complicated issue for everyone here.

On the one hand, his job is probably pretty demanding. Lots of money to handle, lots of important decisions to make, lots of pressure on him to succeed. On the other, one of the most striking things that a visitor would notice in Qatar is the number of people who do jobs that in the US are completed by machines (or that you are expected to handle by yourself) . On an average day, I greet the following people:

  1. The reception staff in the lobby of my apartment building who are busy finding taxis for some residents, requesting maintenance for others, and watching Bollywood movies when there’s a little downtime.
  2. At least one or two policemen who are directing traffic at roundabouts because the signals cannot handle the amount of traffic in an efficient manner.
  3. The security staff in Education City who wave me through the gate.
  4. The security staff in TAMUQ who see that I’m wearing my ID and tell me good morning.
  5. During the day, at least 5-10 hospitality workers (male and female) who make coffee, stock the office fridges with water and cokes, and clean the break rooms periodically.
  6. The man at the petrol station who pumps my gas for me and cleans my windshield.
  7. The man waiting outside my building (sometimes inside, where he is watching the Bollywood movie) who runs over to the gate and lets me in to my building’s basement garage.

This list does not include the nameless millions who work tirelessly behind the scenes repairing roads, building the chaos guy’s workplace, maintaining luxury apartments, and in general making Doha work.

Building Doha

Compared to Qatar, class in the US is more subtle. There isn’t a “family day” that excludes workers (mostly bachelors or living here without their families) from public places like the mall. There aren’t housemaid outfits that you can buy at the grocery store to make sure others can tell the difference between a maid and the family she serves. There isn’t an immigration building for domestic workers and another for professionals. We don’t often look at the White House and say, “That was built by enslaved people” because we don’t see those laborers anymore. It’s easier to say, as I’ve heard some of my students say, that the US is a classless society.

Is it easier to understand the depth of your privilege when you are forced to look it in the eye every day? Do we see the cost and effort of equality more clearly when the “chaos” of our workday is juxtaposed against a different kind of chaos – economic, cultural, social, and moral – which implicates us in a system that devalues others’ work?

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I’m glad that I’m learning to ask them.

You may be wondering why I’m not posting everyday about the culture shock of living in the Middle East after being raised in the US, about the cognitive dissonance of occupying a place of privilege while hundreds of thousands of laborers exist in a poverty I can’t even begin to comprehend, about the ways in which my ideas about feminism are evolving as I, a white woman, receive different treatment from men from different cultures and as I come to hear from others about what it means to cover your body and sometimes your face (but not always your voice and your mind) in public spaces. 

In Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, the authors emphasize the importance of listening to women’s development, understanding, and knowledge. Women in many different stages of development, they observe, come to orient themselves to the world around them through listening to others. Western culture doesn’t always value listening; for example, we often ask our students to adopt a position on an issue that they may not be fully informed about – we push others towards argumentative engagement with source material and towards a critical, almost adversarial, self that is presented in writing. 

At this stage of my life, I find that I have less to say about my experiences in Qatar and more to listen to about others’ experiences here and elsewhere. 

I listen to my taxi driver tell me about living near the India-Pakistan border. “You don’t want to go there, ma’am,” he tells me. “It’s a terrible thing. Very scary and unsafe.”

I listen to my coworkers’ love for and frustration with the student population. “I can’t tell if they don’t care of if they can’t understand,” one says. Another refers to the American universities here as the “colonialization of the natives,” and everyone at the table nods. 

I listen to the laborers from Cameroon who walk with me to the grocery store. “We want to go to America,” they tell me once they find out I’m from the US. “We hear there are more opportunities for black people there.”

I listen and read more than I write these days, but I’m pretty ok with that.