One of the many things that has struck me about my recent experiences in Qatar is the irony of it all. Actually, there are a number of ironies, but here are six of the most ironic. Which one is the irony of all these ironies?…
I had had enough of Qatar and Qatar academy. After over a year and a half, professionally and personally I had reached bottom. Furthermore, feeling that I had already been at the center of enough trouble and difficulties involving mostly Arab students, their parents, colleagues and administrators over the course of my time there, I neither had the inclination nor the energy to start another round of trouble. I had decided I would leave quietly. I shared the details of the school’s decision with just one friend, and spent the week of April 21-25 quietly packing and preparing for departure, while it was business as usual at the school.
Some time in the beginning of the following week, the week starting April 28, I discovered the school had shared the circumstances of my departure with three other colleagues, individually. In time, a few others also found out through other means — most likely from those three. As and when colleagues did find out, they would contact me to tell me how sorry they were. Two of them came over to see me. The understanding between all of them and me was that if the school does not publicise it, then none of us would either.
A friend was adamant, however, that I should host a going-away social the afternoon of Wednesday, May 1, two days before my flight. Initially I resisted, but gave in as that seemed to make some sense! Having recently visited Qatar Distribution Center, the one and only liquor store in the city, I had supplies of alcohol to last me the rest of the academic year! They included some cases of beer, some bottles of wine, tequila and margarita mix, and a whole bottle of Kahlua! How else to get ride of them?! Again, not wanting to draw too much attention to myself and my plight, I left its organisation to the same friend.
So, I had two things to tend to before my Friday, May 3, morning flight: a quiet, small gathering of friends and arranging shipment of personal belongings.
Even until the morning of Wednesday, May 1, Qatar Academy administrators had not made a single statement about what had happened or was happening with me, which was perfect!
But — and here’s the first irony — my departure from Qatar Academy and Qatar would be anything but quiet! When I did leave on May 13, it would be with thousands around the world knowing about everything that had happened, with them following closely every move I made since being released from jail the previous day and with a public relations nightmare for QA and Qatar.
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At QA I get mocked, insulted, verbally abused by Qatari and other Arab students, both inside and outside of the classroom. (See figure 1 below for a testimonial from another QA student confirming that.)
On occasions, they would even make it clear to me, verbally or by their body language or by hand gestures, how just being in my presence, or near me, was beneath them. Take instructions from me and follow them? Accept my appraisals and grades I would award their work? Forget that! Some of them, when they did feel like it, would use some choice words to show me their disdain for that.
When I would report them and they would be confronted by another colleague or administrator, they would completely deny having said or done anything rude or crude or wrong, even with me standing right next to them. (The ease with which students that deliberately created problems for me, would completely deny everything, and at times, would turn things completely around, amazed me then and still amazes me now when I think about them.) It was almost as if I didn’t matter, as if I was inconsequential and, therefore, what I thought and felt were unimportant and so to be completely ignored. (Is it any wonder then that the Asian migrant laborers are exploited, abused and humiliated as much as they are in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf?)
That brings me to the second irony. Nothing really happens to any of those students. But I lose my job, lose tens of thousands of dollars and get jailed for eleven nights and twelve days following a formal complaint, about a SINGLE incident, filed by the father of a 12-year old Qatari student, based entirely on (three?) 12-year olds’ version of the incident.
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I have suffered from stereotype-based discrimination and have been a victim of prejudice pretty much all my life, everywhere I have lived and travelled.
If within the community of people from the district of Mustang in Nepal, I was discriminated for being from the little village of Tangbe, in the wider Nepalese society, it was for being of Tibetan heritage i.e. a “Bhote.” (In addition to denoting “someone from Tibet,” the term is also an ethnic slur and as such has a number of negative connotations, just like any other ethnic or racial slur.) Outside of Nepal, if it wasn’t for being (mistaken for) “Mexican” or “Native American” as in the US, it was for being (mistaken for) a “Paki driver” in the UK. And while in Azerbaijan it was for being (mistaken for) Chinese (and harassed regularly on the streets of Baku, among other places), in Hong Kong it was for being something other than (Cantonese) Chinese. There, it was for being an Asian from a poor country. Down in Malawi it was for being a “Muzungu” but not white while in Vietnam for being a non-white “American.”
Having thus been a victim of discrimination and prejudice all my life, I have been acutely aware of how it makes me feel, in addition to a myriad of other things. And therefore, let alone victimise others and make them suffer, unfairly, I have never even wished that on anyone. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I have travelled so extensively and lived abroad for as long as I have, since I first had a taste — at the United World College of the Adriatic — for the diversity in humanity, was to strip those stereotype-based labels off of people so that I could learn, for my own self, about the real people masked by them.
That brings me to the third irony: I lose my job, lose thousands of dollars and get jailed for allegedly stereotyping and thus insulting a people and their religion!!
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From when I was in my mid teens, the time in my life when I learned about the plight of the Palestinians and the Afghans, I had always had sympathy for Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular. I refused to believe in their characterisation by the western media. I felt they were being unfairly portrayed (just as my people from Mustang, and I, were in my country). I was aware that the characterisations were based, to some extent, on the particular way Palestinians and Afghans responded to their oppressors.
What’s more, refusing to buy into the characterisation and adamant NOT to write off a whole people that followed Islam, I had always told myself that I would one day live and work in the Middle East. I wanted to first confirm, for myself, and second be able to say to others that the characterisation is mistaken. (By the time I arrived in Qatar in August 2011, having spent six years in the US at two different times, a total of five and a half years in Europe at four different times, a year in Australia, and travelled extensively around the world, I had been exposed to this characterisation for years. At the same time, I had also met, and befriended, Muslims from all over the world.)
However, I had also heard that the Arabs could be very very racist. As a matter of fact, job hunting, January of 2010, I had written to a friend teaching in Kuwait inquiring about working there. I had received an email from an international school there asking if I would be interested in a Chemistry teaching position. The most telling of the sentences in my friend’s response read,”I would fear for you and your dark-toned skin!” referring to her observations of how Asians (and Africans) were discriminated and humiliated in Kuwait by the Arabs on a daily basis. (Little did she know how prescient those words of hers would be!)
That brings me to the fourth and fifth ironies.
First, the fourth irony: I go to Qatar specifically NOT wanting to characterise and stereotype Muslims and Arabs (and instead to learn about who they are). But I lose my job, lose thousands of dollars and get jailed for allegedly doing just that ONCE!
And next, the fifth irony: I go to Qatar having refused to believe the prevalent characterisation of Arabs and having refused to discriminate against them. But, end up being discriminated against and victimised by Arabs (Qatari and others) more systematically, more deliberately and more often than by any other people, anywhere else in the world at any time in my life!
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During my time in Qatar, I read again and again in the media, I heard it being said again and again by all sorts of different people, and I saw it myself with my own eyes again and again how Nepalese were at the bottom of the social ladder and treated the worst and, therefore, suffered the most. (Sadly, one of the reasons for that is the total lack of will in our government to protect and advocate for our uneducated and unskilled labourers.)
Following the complaint from the parent of a 12-year old student, QA administrators and the authorities took swift punitive actions most likely because I was Nepalese. The twelve individuals involved probably thought,”He’s just another Nepalese. What’s going to happen if he is dismissed and jailed? Who will care and come to his aid?”
Given how hundreds of thousands of other Nepalese — a vast majority of them migrant laborers — are treated in Qatar by Qatari employers and the legal system, they probably didn’t see any reason to treat me any differently or think of me in any different terms.
Except, this Nepalese, unlike most others in Qatar (and quite possibly even unlike the majority of other teachers at QA), happened to have been educated in five countries in four different continents, happened to have worked in nine other countries also spanning four continents, and happened to have travelled in about fourty countries!
And this bring me to the sixth and the final irony: the dozen people directly or indirectly involved in my ordeal most likely believed that their lives would continue as normal following my dismissal from work and subsequent incarceration. But, their actions would end up not only with their normal lives disrupted in ways none of them had anticipated or imagined but also with the reputation of the whole institution of Qatar Academy and the country of Qatar badly tarnished!
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As a result of all that, I have been left to ponder how sometimes in life, there is a huge discrepancy between expectations and how things and events actually turn out!
Thank God for that…as the saying goes…otherwise I wouldn’t be here, in Kathmandu, writing about the ordeal!