Citizenship: A Specter of Reality

Citizenship is a word that has haunted me the latter half of my life. My status as a permanent resident in the United States has granted me many opportunities that are denied daily to thousands of people, but at the same time has limited and restricted other opportunities. This however was a recent development. Before 2006, I was living in the United States undocumented. My family and I moved to the United States in 2002 in search of a better future. My step-dad was born a US citizen, and was able to request my mother’s documents. I, on the other hand, had acquired Spanish citizenship (additionally to my Colombian citizenship) due to my father’s lineage. I traveled to the US with my newly acquired Spanish passport under a tourist visa, and I overstayed my visa.
Due to my many experiences, as an undocumented migrant, I found interest in the study abroad course “Religious Citizenship.” It would allow me to explore further an area of the world (the Middle East), which has been the focus of my studies, and connect personally due to my complicated history with the concept of citizenship. The class presented two different models of citizenship: Qatar which is solely based on jus sanguinis or blood lineage, and Egypt, which is a mixture of jus sanguinis and jus solis or place of birth. Through these past five weeks, one main theme that struck me as prevalent is the labor-market access that the social construction of citizenship creates. Just like how in the US, undocumented migrants are limited in their access to the labor market, these two different models of citizenship exclude certain populations, by alienating them from their citizenship and employ mechanisms that control access to the labor market.
Throughout our first days of class, we explored various definitions of citizenship and how they have altered throughout time. We deconstructed citizenship into becoming an imaginary construction that defines who belongs and is a member of a specific group, state, country, etc. Although citizenship is a constructed concept, the way that it manifests into people lives makes it more real than ever.
In Qatar, we encountered a country undergoing really fast development. Only twenty percent of the population in Qatar holds Qatari citizenship. The rest are expatriates mainly from South Asia. Due to the small Qatari Citizen population and the large wealth of the country, the Qatari government is able to provide a vast number of benefits to its citizens, such as interest free loans, land, job opportunities, etc. In this sense Qatari citizenship becomes a prized and valuable possession. However, Qatari citizenship is only passed down by the father; therefore Qatari women are encouraged to marry a Qatari man. The only other accessible way of acquiring Qatari citizenship is by marrying a Qatari man. There are exceptions. The Qatari constitution states that an expatriate working for 25 years in Qatar is elegible for citizenship, but such a case has not occurred. Also the Qatari Royal Family, Al-Thani, can grant citizenship to exceptionary cases such as Yusuf ‘Abdullah al-Qaradawi.

Through our three weeks in Qatar, we were fortunate to meet all types of people including the sometimes invisible Qatari Citizens. On a day to day basis, we encountered expatriates who are the main labor force of the country. They are not official citizens of Qatar, but instead hold residency permits that allow them to work, and live in Qatar for a designated amount of time. The expatriates are therefore alienated from their citizenship—their source of formal rights and access to the labor market. Instead, a Master-Servant Habitus is established between Qatar and the expatriates. For example, we met a Nepali security guard who said that he was in Qatar for two years just for the money, and that in his job if he did anything wrong they would send him back to Nepal. In this way, due to their lack of citizenship, they are able to be exploited based on threats that endanger their provisional residence. Their lack of Qatari citizenship also shapes their social interactions, for their labor-market access dictates their social standing.

The most interesting aspect of the role of the expatriate labor is how they are used by the Qatari government to portray Qatar as a multicultural society. As one of the pre-departure videos stated: “In Qatar you will find people from all backgrounds and cultures. It is definitely a multicultural society.” What is interesting is what is not being said. Are all these cultures and ethnicities equal within Qatar? The term multiculturalism constructs a fantastical myth of a utopian society. However, this myth is fabricated upon the exploitation of the expatriates. In Qatar, social stratification is not far removed from a racial hierarchy. Certain races and cultures can only certain jobs. Yes, exceptions do exist. For example, our program coordinator Mohanna is a South Asian American writer living in Doha. However, in her daily interactions in Qatar people assume her to be of the migrant labor class and treat her as such. As Queer theorist Jasbir Puar argued in Terrorist Assemblages with the aid of Ray Chow’s theories Multiculturalism is the accomplice of the “ascendancy of whiteness,” or maintenance of the status quo or social stratification. In Qatar, the myth of multiculturalism is used to create a fantastical portrayal of the country, while at the same time racialized policies such as the Qatarization of jobs and businesses are employed.

Egypt presented us with a different model of citizenship. In contrast to Qatar, Egypt’s population is around eighty million people, and the wealth of the country is nowhere near Qatar’s. In Cairo, we encountered a society filled with historical significance. It is an overcrowded city, whose buildings once were the envy of Europe. Now, Cairo is chaos. Tons of people living in the streets, with nowhere to go. The unemployment rate is around 20-30 percent and even those who have jobs can barely survive with their low wages. The Egyptian government is not able to sustain its population the way Qatar does, and therefore welfare and civil services fall upon the many generous Non-Governmental Organizations and civil societies. With regards to the labor-market access, the situation is the opposite of Qatar. In Egypt, Egyptians themselves are alienated from their labor-market access. Foreigners tend to be better paid than most Egyptians. And the problem is not education; a vast majority of Cairo’s population are university graduates, who are struggling to survive. For example, a group of guys that I met at a café are all university graduates, but are all working outside of their areas of interest in low paying jobs. They work around eleven hours a day and still find time to go out at night to relax and enjoy their lives. As a result of this large inaccessibility of the labor market, a large portion of Egyptians resort to immigrating to other countries in search for jobs—countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

As explored in Mustapha Kamel’s book Final Exit and in my experiences in Qatar, the living situation in these countries for expatriates is less than optimal. They are exploited, and confined to certain social spheres. They work extremely hard in order to pay for their necessities in the foreign country and be able to at least send some money back to their families. This is where both and Qatar intersect. Countries like Qatar import the labor force that Egypt cannot provide for. And while these works opportunities provide lots of financial benefits to the families of expatriates, at what cost? Just like in the US, many people lose their lives in search of this dream of economic stability—the American Dream or Qatari Dream. Do the economic benefits really outweigh the effects of their exploitation? Do they even have a choice? And who is really benefiting from expatriate migrant labor? These are all important questions to consider when exploring the effects of a global economy, but in order to find a solution it is necessary to find out what leads to this exploitation of populations. Stephen Cook argues in his book The Struggle for Egypt that in Egypt’s case is the privatization of business that led to the low wages. Whether it is neoliberalist policies or the flaws of a capitalist system, a reform of the whole global economic system is required, for embedded deep within these economic relations are ties to everyone around the world.

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Ahmad in the Arab World: Dual Citizenship and Heritage Languages

“So where are you from?”

The Egyptian customs officer stared me down. There’s no way “Ahmad” was actually American.

“Jordan,” I told him thinking it would be a safer answer than Palestine.

I wasn’t that surprised when I was the last person from our group to get through customs in Cairo. The picture of myself donning a full Salafi-style beard on my passport doesn’t really help my case either.

There were many reasons I was excited for Duke in the Arab World, not least of which was the subject of our study: “Religious Citizenship: Religion and Civil Society in the Arab World.” This was a topic that I had already given much thought and that hits very close to home, however, I never gave it proper academic attention, much less with the added experiential learning of a study-abroad program in the hands of Duke University.

With official announcements of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy’s presidential victory still fresh in the ears of every Egyptian along with every concerned global citizen (or conscious cosmopolitan), I still have more questions than answers when it comes to “religious citizenship.” These questions surpass the specifics of the fate of Egyptian constitution or its parliament or the role of SCAF, but larger questions surrounding formation of cultural and political identities and what that means on the local, regional, and international scales. During my time here I kept up with Greece’s parliamentary elections as much as Egypt’s presidential one (and that has nothing to do with my being a Classics major).  Observing Greece negotiate regional and international pressure towards austerity measures while leftists in Cairo’s Arab African Research Center expressed similar anxieties reminded me of the global nature around questions of citizenship.

I was also reminded, however, of the importance of difference. In class we made a distinction between the terms “global” and “cosmopolitan”. Global tends to wipe out difference in the name of universality. Cosmopolitan respects difference. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that citizens can share the world entering into ethical relationships of mutual respect enriched by their differences. Egypt is no Greece for sure, even if they both have to handle the question of what national sovereignty actually means in the face of international lending agencies. And Egypt is no Qatar, despite any linguistic, cultural, or religious similarities. Each country has its own institutions, history, and societal formation that warrants its own detailed look.

Some people look towards difference and come to similar conclusions as Samuel Huntington: there’s a “Clash of Civilizations” awaiting us based on uncompromisable cultural differences across the globe. My lived experience as an Arab-Muslim-American made it impossible to buy into such a reductive narrative. In that sense being a “walking political problem” (how one individual I encountered on the trip described me with regards to my Palestinian heritage) provides a first-hand insight into questions of citizenship, longing, and belonging that may not be as apparent to others who find themselves more comfortably settled. As I grew up in the States and found world events and local contexts making it harder to find any real sense of belonging, various routes presented themselves to me. (1) Assimilation, this is where I ignore the fact that Ahmad contains a letter unpronounceable to most English speakers and erase any differences (linguistic, religious, cultural, racial) for the sake of fitting in (2) Alienation, where I hold onto whatever I perceive to be my “true identity” in the face of an undesired outside culture and find myself alone as a result or (3) the option where I accept the complexity of identity and the world that doesn’t operate on simple oppositions.

In order to make sense of the complexities of the world, however, requires serious study. My own feelings and experiences with citizenship and belonging can make for a good blog post, but an academic class has more in mind. How do we empirically and analytically answer the questions at hand? What does the history of Egypt’s institutions have to tell us about prospects for its post Jan 25 future? How does Qatar, a monarchy with a mere 20% native population, position itself as a global player despite lack of democratic reforms and without an over-reliance on fossil fuels? During our time here, we explored questions like these through reading, debate, discussion, and interviews and to come up with simple answers would be to betray the whole process. We did end up, however, with a more astute eye for the key questions and an awareness of the significance of world events on our own lives.

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Wowzah!

I have to admit that as I reflect on my time with Duke in the Arab World, I am multitasking. I am not only reflecting on my past experiences in the middle east right now, but also watching the Al Jazeera Live Stream to Tahrir Square to look on as the historic outcome of Egypt’s first presidential election since the January 25th Revolution is announced. This announcement is the culmination of years “A Struggle for Egypt” (as author Steven Cook would say), and I cannot believe my luck that I was able to be in Egypt to witness the nation weeks prior to this announcement. As I watched the announcement from the comfort of my living room, the roar from the crowd in Tahrir and the beauty of the euphoria seemed to stop time in the country thousands of miles away. Throughout my experience in Doha and Cairo, I truly felt privileged to see two nations during extraordinary points in their histories. While flying out of Cairo about 36 hours before the announcement that Mohamed Morsi had won 51 percent of the runoff vote and he would be the next president of Egypt, I looked at the syllabus for Duke in the Arab World and found a thought provoking line, “the study of cultural citizenship must not only look at the privileged, full class of citizens, but also look at the less privileged, marginalized class.”

This line truly resonated with me while reflecting on my own privilege of being able to engage in these two cultures and while looking at the juxtaposition of Qatar and Egypt. While in Qatar, we mostly engaged with individuals who were of the privileged class; where as in Egypt, I interacted with individuals who were not Egyptian elite, but on a relatively lower-socio-economic status. When my group began preparing for our final presentation, we were all struck by the major differences in economic privilege in both countries. We decided to look at citizenship and social stratification and where it stems from in each country. Social stratification clearly exists in both Qatar and Egypt. In Qatar, social stratification stems from formal citizenship. In Egypt, social stratification stems from the institutions and is almost an externality of the system. A good way to define social stratification is using Chris Baker’s Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice: social stratification is the “classification of persons into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions … a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions.”

Before reaching Doha, Qatar, all that I really knew about the esoteric nation was that, it will be the host of the 2022 World Cup. Being an avid soccer fan, I was immediately drawn to this place that will host one of the world’s largest sporting events. Qatar is using the World Cup as an opportunity to market itself to the entire world as the future of success, excellence and prosperity. It seemed that everywhere we went, we were being sold the Qatar Dream and the Qatar 2030 vision. From our trips to Qatar Gas to Qatar Foundation to Qatar University, all the locations were different, but the spiels were the same. They all were trying to sell Doha and Qatar as a place of the future. But what was left out of this discussion was information about the population of Qatar and the socio-economic divide, which exists in the population. Qatar’s population consists of 1.7 million people, but only 225,000 are Qatari people (which is about 20% of the population). During our visits to various places, the 80% expatriate population (especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum) was not always addressed. If it were not for reading the Allen Fromherz book, Qatar: A Modern History, and interacting with people living in Qatar, one could have no idea about the social stratification in the country.

Formal citizenship is a privilege granted only to those whose fathers are Qatari citizens; if you are a female, whose father is Qatari and you decide to marry a non-Qatari, you lose your citizenship. If you are born in Qatar and live in the country your entire life, but your father is not Qatari, you may never gain citizenship. One individual we met at Qatar University identified as Omani and carried an Omani passport, but was born in Qatar and had never been to Oman. Other expatriates we met only came to Qatar to make money to send back to their families; they suffered through working long and arduous jobs hundreds of miles away from their families because their salaries were higher than anything they could have made in their home country. While looking at privilege in Qatar, it is clear that wealth and opportunity come from possessing formal citizenship. In Qatar, social stratification stems from formal citizenship. For my group’s presentation, one way I contributed was by finding many historical examples of formal citizenship relating to social stratification in Qatar. These examples, mentioned in both the Parolin (page 116) and Fromherz books,  included the Al Ghafran clan of the Al Murrah tribe being stripped of their citizenship  and many of their rights for allegedly betraying the Emir. Another example of this social stratification stemming from formal citizenship is looking at Qatarization and who has the right to hold what positions in finance. More recently, parts of Qatari culture, which used to be informal rules or laws have become more formalized; this formalization is another way that social stratification has taken form in Qatar. More recently, it has been mandated that taxi drivers are non-Qatari; the government wants to keep Qataris at the higher end of the social pyramid. In Qatar, all taxi drivers are expatriates. By looking at the roads in Qatar, there are also ample examples of how informally citizenship can affect social stratification.

Being from Boston, Massachusetts, I am used to wacky driving, but in Qatar, people took it to a whole new level. While driving back from dinner, I saw a particularly audacious driver on the road disregarding the laws of the highway. I asked my Algerian friend who had lived in Qatar for his entire life why on earth people were driving like that and what the repercussions were. He said that this person had to be a Qatari because if they got caught or if they were in an accident, it would be unlikely that there would be any. “They are Qatari so they can do whatever they want,” my friend replied with a smile. This friend was a part of a community of Algerian individuals living in Qatar who did not have formal citizenship in Qatar, but embraced parts of the informal Qatari citizenship; in his house he had a typical “Majelis” or sitting room, and maintained parts of his Algerian culture, like the food, while also adapting pieces of the Qatari culture. Being in Qatar was a truly fantastic experience, and I feel so fortunate to have gained insight into such an esoteric culture. My favorite experience in Qatar was going to a Qatari women’s “Majelis” and spending the evening chatting about everything from American television shows to politics. I feel so privileged to have been able to see a place so full of innovation and promise, before heading to Egypt, which was a completely different experience.

The minute we landed in Egypt, the group was immediately thrown into something totally different. Goodbye desolate streets; hello chaos and crowded subway stations. In Egypt, our first site visit to the Egyptian Museum. The museum was filled to the brim with historical tombs, artifacts, jewelry and unimaginable amounts of history, but the facility itself lacked the same beauty as the art itself. The building was hot, dusty, and curator-less. The hundreds of thousands of years of history were incredible, but the preservation and (lack of) curation were not. The juxtaposition of this museum and all of the sites we visited in Qatar perfectly represent the difference between the two places; Cairo, full of myriad epochs of historical artifacts and significance, but little money to preserve them, and Doha, a place with no dearth of money, but fledgling in comparison to Egypt’s rich history.

The Museum we visited on our first full day sits in Tahrir Square, next to a place that has incredible historical significance for Egypt in the modern period. Tahrir Square represents historical and recent struggle for Egypt. Unlike in Qatar, social stratification in Egypt stems from the institutions and is an externality of these institutions. In Cook’s book, he mentions many institutions in Egypt, including the Army, Foreign Interests, Businesses, Mosques and Churches, and many other systems that have caused a struggle and unhappiness in Egypt. The connection between the people of the Egypt, the Nile and social stratification was one of the most interesting connections that to citizenship in Egypt. Egypt is considered the gift of the Nile and in the book Final Exit, the Nile is referred to as “the only outlet for the Egyptian people” (87). More recently, government and other institutions in Egypt have taken the Nile from the Egyptian people; “Nile has been privatized… [and] it is no longer accessible to the poor lovers and simple people… [it is] reserved for the privileged few” (87). The essence of what is meant to be Egyptian has been degraded just as the Nile has been polluted and privatized. Ahmed Tawab, a character in Final Exit, says “I am denied the chance to drink from [the Nile] because it is contaminated” (29).  The contamination of the Nile is analogous to the contamination of Egypt as a whole. Ahmed Tawab struggles to find a job and he feels he has been robbed of the same opportunities that privileged Egyptians receive. One study that I found published in 2011 proved that in Egypt there is a low association between your level of education and income and a low association between level of education and occupation. This fascinating study confirms many of the suspicions among Egyptians and shows that there is social stratification and inequality engrained in the system. The Nile has become a more recent symbol of social stratification in Egypt just as Tahrir has become a symbol of change. These places that I was so privileged to see first hand and my experiences in Egypt during  such a significant time in its history is something that I will never forget.

While reflecting back on this trip, one of the major roles I played in the group was photographer, enthusiast, jokester and friend. I am so lucky to have been able to meet all of the people, including my now good friends in the group, and been so fortunate to see history in the making. While seeing Tahrir Square from the live coverage on the Al Jazeera website, I am also recounting our trip to the incredible Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha. SO COOL! This blog post could not sum up the fantastic and life changing experiences I had while partaking in Duke in the Arab World, but hopefully it will do the journey some justice. Thank you so much to everyone I met and I cannot wait to see you all again soon! Ma’salama!

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Behind the Veil: The Rights of Women in the Arab World

Before I began this program, I already knew that I would want to focus on women’s rights in Arab and Muslim countries and how their citizenship was affected by their gender. As soon as we arrived to the Gulf, I began researching the experiences of women through numerous interviews.

 

Qatar

Our first two weeks in Doha, were filled with adventure and irreplaceable learning experiences as we visited numerous majlises and got a first hand look at a day in the life of Qatari males.

However, I was yearning to know what the other side experienced. Women are so coveted and hidden within the public sphere of Qatar. It is almost as if they are the most beautiful pearl encased in an impenetrable shell made of diamonds. Walking through the luxuriously built malls in Doha, I would always see women walking around in all black abayyas and niqabs. It is such a mysterious guise and always left me wondering about the woman beneath it all.

Luckily, my last night in Doha gave me so much insight into the lives of young Qatari women.  We met with a group of beautiful young women for a girls’ night at one of their homes.  I was finally able to gain the perspective of educated young women in Qatar.  However, I received two contradicting lifestyles when talking to these women.

One of the girls, Leila, was telling me about how she planned on studying abroad in the United States to study film and media communications.  She was very determined and knew what she wanted to do with her life.

Not many women get to travel abroad for their studies,” she told me.  This was a privilege for men.  However, her family was willing to allow her to gain an educational experience way from home.

In contrast to Leila, I met another young girl that night, Amira, who was only 23 years old. She was married with a two-year-old son. The sharp differences between the two struck me. I could not fathom being settled down with a family at the ripe age of 23.  Yet, Amira was content with her life. She had a husband who treated her like a queen and a family that she would die for. In her opinion, her life was complete.

It became clear to me during my stay in Doha that young Qatari women were treated with such care and love by their family members and friends. Their lives seemed perfect.

Behind this illusion of luxury, the status of women as Qatari citizens was flawed in my opinion. Women in Qatar are lacking both formal and informal rights as citizens. Sarah, a wonderful half Qatari and English woman, told me a lot about this inequality of rights. She told me that Qatari men are granted a piece of land in Qatar to build a home on for their prospective families. Women are not afforded this same right. It is assumed that they must depend on their husbands and fathers financially. Also, men receive 90,000 Qatari riyals for unemployment. Women are not expected to work outside the home. Therefore, they receive no sort of compensation for their unemployment. Also, despite the fact that women make up approximately 75% of the student population in Qatari universities, they are unable to find sustainable jobs with high pay.  Women were typically limited in the workplace to jobs as secretaries, assistants, or some sort of job in academics.  I was plagued by the limited mobility of women in the professional world of Qatar.

Sarah also told me about how pertinent it is for Qatari women to marry Qatari men. Women risk losing their Qatari citizenship when marrying non-Qataris. Also, their children would not be recognized as Qatari citizens. I never realized until then just how much influence patriarchy and culture had on the future and lives of women in Qatar.

These interviews and interactions with Qatari women allowed me to gather a lot of useful information about the true experiences of Qatari women and their personal sentiments concerning their rights for my final presentation.

 

Egypt

 

“If Morsi wins as president of Egypt, women will have no rights! They will not be able to work or drive cars! The government will force them all to wear hijabs,” exclaimed Ahmed, a taxi driver taking me home for the evening.        

Egypt’s atmosphere was thick and suffocating with anxiety over the elections.  The two presidential candidates caused unease and fear amongst every Egyptian that I have met. Many feared Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt as an Islamist state was far from what many Egyptians wanted, and some believed that Mohamed Morsi would enforce strict Islamist laws on all Egyptians, inhibiting their rights as citizens.

Women’s formal rights as citizens seemed unaffected by this turmoil. They were granted the same rights as men and had an equal voice in the future of their nation.

I will vote for Mohamed Morsi. I cannot let someone from Mubarak’s regime become the president of Egypt. Shafik will just be another Mubarak if he becomes president,” said our Arabic teacher, Amina.

Amina made it very clear that women played an equal role in the revolution of 2011, and they have a prominent political voice.

Unlike Qatar, women were very prominent in both the public and private sphere of Egypt.  According to Amina, they also had a higher chance of finding employment in comparison to men. Women in Egypt are more likely to work for lesser salaries than men, and women are less likely to ask for a raise or for more money from their employers. Although women are more likely to get jobs, these jobs are have low pay and no benefits. Men receive more benefits and pay when they work because they must make enough money to provide for their families. However, women are expected to work inside their homes as the caretaker of their family. Clearly, patriarchy is very present in Egypt even though Egyptian women have more rights than Qatari women.

 

Duke in the Arab World was a very enriching experience that opened my eyes to the complexities of citizenship. The patriarchy of both Egypt and Qatar is rooted in Islam. Being a Muslim woman, I never truly understood how many used Islam to inhibit the rights and status of women as citizens in both the public and private sphere.  Although I do not agree with the cultural implications of Islam on the rights of women, I was able to gain great insight on the matter from speaking with women about why they feel that their main role is to be the caretaker of the family.  This experience was so enlightening in both Doha and Cairo. I gained an inside look at what it means to be El Sha’ab in the Arab world. I will never fully understand the experience of citizens in both Qatar and Egypt. However, the one thing that has resonated with me is that citizenship is about more than just holding a passport. It is ingrained in the political and social rights of the individual. 

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Qatar and Egypt: Population Extremes and the Price of Baba


On an eventful trip to the Khana El-Khalili bazaar of Cairo, I entered a Jalabiya shop (form of Arab dress) prepared to bargain, and a little too overconfident in my haggling abilities. In Egypt as soon as shop owners spot a foreigner, they quadruple their prices. It is needless to say that by the time I left the shop I knew perfectly well that I had overpaid a great deal for the four Jalabiyas I had just purchased.

The back and forth of the bargaining was a fair battle, but there is no denial that he was able to throw me off my game after the memorable one liner he delivered with his cheesy smile, “lady, lot of fabric here; what is the price of Baba?”

He said this while we were arguing over the price of a rather large-sized Jalabiya I had picked out for my father. After that my bargaining skills only got worse and worse as I could hardly keep myself from laughing and gave in.

“The price of Baba” soon became an inside joke of the trip, but it has also been an interesting question to think about in reflecting on my experiences in Qatar and Egypt.

After studying Citizenship in Qatar and Egypt, my group’s final project examined the difference in citizenship in two countries by looking at how formal and informal forms of Citizenship impact social stratification in both Qatar and Egypt. Our conclusion was that in Qatar formal citizenship allows the ruling family to control the stratification of Qatari society, where as in Egypt social stratification is primarily a function of informal forms of citizenship.

The stratification of Qatar is so prevalent that it difficult to miss. The divisions in Qatar are overwhelming with the country’s 1.7 million population consisting of 20% Qatari exclusive elite and 80% expatriates. Our groups was fortunate to meet many native Qatari’s but we were also constantly reminded that it was a privilege most expatriates would never get to enjoy. The stratification is also present with a clear divide in between westerners that usually tend to have higher-income skill-based jobs while for example South Asians tend to fill lower-skilled jobs and have very poor living-conditions.

It was only after hearing a story by an American expatriate friend in Qatar, that I fully comprehended how this stratification is actively being shaped in Qatar. My friend explained to me that when a new company is formed in Qatar, the owners issue visa applications for expatriates based on the positions that are needed. However what essentially happens is that through a formalized visa process, certain jobs sectors are set aside for certain expatriate nationalities. The informal implications these formalized processes have on social stratification are the status often associated with different ethnicities. For example a South Asian University professor we met said that people are often surprised when they find out she is not a maid or babysitter when they meet her.

Apart from the stratification that is dictated on the expatriate community because of their Citizenship, there are also formalized measures that create the divide between the Qataris themselves and the expatriate community. This is because Qataris gain many rights through their citizenship. For example all business entities have to be at least 51% Qatari owned, they are said to receive allowances up to $7000 a month, and there are quotas for each company to hire a certain number of Qatari employees (a policy called Qatarization).

In our presentation I made the argument that Qatar uses its’ “small-population” and the myth that “they will be wiped-out if they don’t protect themselves” as a way to maintain their dominance over the newfound wealth of Qatar. In his book about Qatar, Allen Fromherz makes the point that there is an informal understanding between Qataris and the Emir that the Emir will maintain his ruling power as long as they are taken care of, and to me it seemed that this informal understanding, that Qataris are the main beneficiaries of this wealth, has been formalized through the process of citizenship and rights it gives them.

Professor Lo corrected my argument in explaining that the disadvantages of a small population are not a myth. Even though their small population is likely disadvantage as Professor Lo suggested, it is difficult to deny that it has allowed each Qatari a claim to a larger portion of the country’s wealth. Professor Lo also raised the important point that in studying Qatar, the emphasis of the argument should not be on how the Qataris protect their wealth but rather it should focus on the existence of poor living conditions that are experienced by the lower-class expatriates, despite the wealth of the country.

When the Jalabiya shop owner asked me, “what is the price of Baba?” he was calling me cheap for arguing over something I was getting for my father, a person I should consider priceless. Keeping in mind professor Lo’s comment, the shop owners’ statement has made me think of the reality that is present in both Qatar and Egypt. The price of commercial interests has given way to any consideration for the value of human dignity and life. Furthermore, it is the commercial interest of a few that has essentially given way to the poverty of the larger majority.

The only difference is that in Qatar, the 20% Qatari citizens are the elite; where as the 80 million Egyptian population experiences a social stratification where belonging to the elite is itself an informal form of citizenship. In Egypt this informal citizenship has been the consequence of many years of history where social mobility has been limited because of the established interests of a few. In the book The Struggle For Egypt, which we read during this program, Steven Cook makes a convincing argument that the dynamic in Egypt is dictated by institutions that have shaped its’ history. Agreeing with Cook’s argument that the social stratification of Egypt has shaped in by institutions, it can be claimed that these institutions have been shaping pockets of informal citizenship and have defined who the elite in Egypt are; and this has happened at the expense of poverty for the majority of Egypt’s citizens. What I gathered from the few Egyptians I talked to during my stay and from the book Final Exit, despite the fact that Egypt is not a rich country with a high population, poverty is mostly a function of the unequal distribution of wealth and the past government’s lack of commitment to create jobs.

Taking the metaphor of “the price of Baba” as human dignity one-step further (and hopefully not annoyingly too far), individual freedom in both countries have also suffered at the expense of the interests of a few.

Where Egypt undoubtedly has an advantage in terms of its high population is in their ability to revolt against the regime like they did on January 25th; and hopefully Morsi’s win today was a step in the right direction of toppling oppressive institutions one by one. On the other hand while Qataris will enjoy tremendous wealth at the very least for the near future, they will have to remain content with the limited personal freedoms that they have under the rule of Emir. Egypt’s long history can be thought of as a disadvantage in the case of rectifying the unfortunate social stratification that has been engrained in the social texture of the country over time. However, it seems that Egypt’s progress is more geared towards social equality than Qatar, in this period where they are both presented a chance to actively shape the direction their social stratification will head in the future.

It is obvious who is paying the higher price for Baba’s Jalabiya.

Categories: Cairo, Egypt, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Struggle of the Individual against Institutions

The Individual vs. Institutions

 

In Qatar, there is basically one tier of citizenship—being Qatari. Institutions have largely been created by this citizenry in the past 50 years in order to bolster their own power, welfare, and status beyond the constraints of the realities of history and the nation’s past. In Cairo, citizenship is stratified into the high elite and the common people. Institutions were created by the elite in order to consolidate their status, but acted as a trapping mechanism for both groups. This is seen in the thesis of Stephen Cook’s book Struggle for Egypt, as well as in the struggle for Egyptians to navigate their individual lives amidst an unfair and overbearing corrupt bureaucratic regime, as seen in the novel Final Exit.

 

Citizenship

            Citizenship in Qatar has basically one tier: that of being a full Qatari citizen, privilege to all the benefits that come with it: guaranteed wages of up to $7,000 a month as well as free land and almost guaranteed job opportunities. These citizens are the elite of the country, enjoying a status superior to that of people born in Qatar without Qatari blood and the 80% of the population who are expatriate laborers and enjoy very limited rights. Qataris alone have political rights such as voting, and are guaranteed the benefits of Qatar’s pearl and later oil-based rentier economy. Egyptian citizenship has much different dynamics. There are two tiers: the elite minority and the poor majority. The majority of citizens are in this lower class, and rights are severely constricted by a corrupt government bureaucracy dominated by the elite and restrictive of freedoms.

Formal Institutions

            Formal institutions in Qatar are used to bolster the power of the citizen-elite, as shown by the treatment of this group by the government, the main formal institution of Qatar. This is seen in the many benefits citizens garner, as described above.

            Cook defines formal institutions in Cairo as those created following the 1952 Free Officers’ Coup, led by the future “Big 3” leaders: Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Nasser established the institutions that would shape Egyptian history until the present day, including “state security” courts, student and trade unions infested with government spies, ineffective security agencies and a national propaganda apparatus. These institutions are the antagonistic force in Final Exit, in which the author illustrates the plight of hard-working parents and their educated children. Their struggle is almost tragic as they find themselves hopeless to overcome the obstacles of a corrupt, bureaucratic, tyrannical regime that robs them of any possibility for a stable and happy life beyond that of a few pounds a day. These formal institutions did more than hinder the lower class of citizenry, however. They also trapped the nation and its political elite into a lack of self-realization and made them victim to imperialist forces, locking Egypt into a perpetual struggle to develop a national and cultural identity, and preventing it from moving forward in the way Qatar has. But the negative impact of formal institutions on Qatari citizens should not be ignored. Though they are freed by it, they are also limited by it, in the sense that citizenship is so prized it is vulnerable. Marriage to a non-Qatari man for example, makes a woman lose her Qatari citizenship rights. In addition, the formality of Qatar’s rentier economy, which creates the danger of becoming too dependent on oil and allowing the decline of other industries, a phenomenon called “Dutch Disease.” Qatar is trying to avoid this by transitioning to its massive natural gas bed for income and by making investments abroad. In addition, Qatar struggles to make Qataris marketable to the rest of the world because they depend on these formal institutions instead of paving their own paths for lives. It tries to make up for this through investment in education (seen in Education City and the under-construction Qatar University). It is understandable that Qataris would struggle to find job opportunities in the rest of the world, because their lives are made comfortable by the government without any work of their own.

However, unlike Egypt, Qatar was largely immune to imperialist forces and their negative impact on citizenry. Unlike countries, where Britain had a strong presence (militarily, politically, etc.), Qatar retained much of its sense of independence and cultural identity. Rather than a culture or lack thereof being the result of imperial forces, it is constructed by the Al-Thani ruling family to bolster the power of the citizen elite.

Informal Institutions

            The main informal institution in Qatar is its culture. The irony is that it is an artificial construct, created by the formal government institutions of Qatar. Thus, Qatar formalizes its informal institutions to move past the realities of Qatari history and shepherd the country into a new age that is seen as advantageous and prosperous for its citizen elite. Informal institutions allow both Qataris and Egyptians to chafe through the constraints of their reality as well as the realities of formal institutions. In Qatar, informal institutions are defined by the culture constructed by the Qatari citizen elite to bolster their own power much beyond what it was 50 or 100 years ago. Qatar arguably had a more genuine form of culture in the past when its economy was based on pearl-diving. However, this was made obsolete by the discovery massive oil beds at the end of the 20th century. Qatar aims to garner the advantages from this wealth without losing the loyalty and power of its citizen elite. It does so by creating a cultural myth, constructed by the Al-Thani ruling family. Aspects of this cultural myth include national holidays such as Qatari cultural day, robot-powered camel races, and replicas of pearl-fishing boats, bringing people closer to Qatari culture and the Al-Thani family.

            The main drawback of this cultural myth is the phenomenon of anomie. The impact and reality of this force is contestable, because it is largely rooted in a biased Western tradition. However, it is the focal point of Fromherz’s analysis, which describes the phenomenon as changes in social; environments and post-modernism in response to rapid economic growth. This phenomenon applies to most industrializing countries, including many in the Arab world. The reason it does not seem to be occurring in Qatar is puzzling. The current Sheikha states that the main problem facing Qatar is a lack of post-modernism and introspection about the rapid economic growth and its impact on culture. But because anomie is a Western intellectual notion, its absence in Qatar can be explained through an analysis of unique features of Qatar’s government and society, especially through the lens of genuine (non-artificial or constructed) institutions. Indeed, Qatar has other informal institutions that largely affect the fate of its citizenry. These include religious tradition and family lineages, both of which have organic roots in the individual and the realities of Qatari history. They are not artificially constructed, and have broad-reaching impacts on Qatar’s regional and international influence, as well as on the high standard of livelihood of its citizens. Examples of these organic cultural aspects include the role of mediation in Qatar’s regional and international influence, largely rooted in Islamic tradition. In addition, tribes and family lineage play a huge role in Qatari culture. This form of informal institution serves as a stratifying agent, dividing the main tier of Qatari citizens into smaller tiers depending on how close one’s family is to the Al Thani ruling family.

            In Egypt, informal  institutions are almost completely organic (deriving from the people), and are used as the only counterweight to the overbearing oppression of its formal institutions. These informal networks are largely religious in nature, as seen in groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, a growing base of civil society, especially after the Arab Spring, allows Egyptians to transcend the rigid constraints on their livelihood. The strength of the Arab spring itself should be noted, in terms of its actual impact in breaking down the institutions and bureaucracy created by Nasser. Its reach is contestable, given the number of officials from the old regime still in power, as well as the tension-producing power of the army over the populace in the current vulnerable political transition period.

 

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Female Roles in Qatar and Egypt

This study abroad program we had the unique opportunity to see two very different countries in the Arab world. The first was that of Qatar—a newly booming nation state driven by financial success and its vast recourses in natural gas. Qatar, before the recent discovery and capitalization of oil and natural gas reserves, was as insignificant on a global spectrum as is its geographical size. The second country visited was Egypt—a multi-thousand year old nation rich in history and cultural but lacking  in financial recourses, especially in a per-capita comparison to Qatar.

For my group’s final project we decided to look at the role of women in both Qatar and Egypt. We attempted to see if there were any comparisons or differences between these roles, and how women lived in these societies as wholes

In order to understand these specific roles, we must first look at citizenship within the two countries on a holistic level. Thus, in this article, through looking at citizenship in the informal and formal lenses, I will outline how Qatari citizenship is exclusive and the Egyptian citizenship is inclusive. From there, I will attempt to uncover women’s roles in these two nations.

It is true that both nations strive to become more successful from an economical and cultural perspective, but such citizenship in Qatar is limited to a few whereas in Egypt it is shared by all. The role of women in these two nations parallels the individual citizenries. In Qatar, the role of the female Qatari citizen is esoteric— barely approachable to the outsider, especially the male one. For the mere Qatari female resident (i.e. not citizen), women are bound to the working world, unable to become culturally ingrained due to the bars of formal and informal citizenship. In Egypt, as citizenship is more universal, the role of women tends to be an active one, involved in the many different aspects of Egyptian life but still bounded by a patriarchal society. Both in Egypt and in Qatar—though to different extents—women are dominated by the wills of a patriarchal society

Qatar

Upon driving away from the arrivals terminal at Doha International Airport—the new technology advanced hub of Qatar Airways—one takes a glimpse at the vast skyline of ever heightening office, residential, and shopping buildings. Visible on each building are the signs of the company or family name that financed the building i.e. Dolphin Energy, Al Fardan Towers etc.  Seemingly mysterious men wearing white thowbes and khaffeyas drive in their luxury sports cars, sedans, and SUVs. At the same time, men dressed in western clothing presumably from India, Pakistan, and South East Asia tend to the streets cleaning up the messes left behind. When one walks into a store in Qatar, one will never find a Qatari behind the counter, even if it is a high-end department store, of which there are plenty. There is an ingrained separation between the elite and everyone else marked only by Qatari citizenship.

Citizenship in Qatar was granted to those families who were literally on the right side of the dessert when it became an independent nation state in early 20th century. Attaining Qatari citizenship is only possible if either a women marries a Qatari man or if one is born to Qatari parents. Women, unlike men, cannot extend citizenship through marriage. With Qatari citizenship comes many benefits including but not limited to: better access to jobs, schools, and financial capital. But the more important issue is: What rights do non-citizens not have? Non-Qatari citizens living in Qatar can be deported at any time for almost any reason. In addition, these non-Qatari citizens will never have the right to vote. Qatar, citizens and non-citizens alike, is home to 1.5 million people with only 20% having full citizenship.

 

`            Many people are born into Qatar, living their entire lives there, and never have the ability to attain Qatari citizenship. Upon meeting students at Qatar University, especially the Arab ones, this idea of long-term residency became more commonplace. Yet, the majority of people I met never seemed to be particularly worried about being deported. By keeping a low profile and staying out of the sights of the authorities, they assuage their worries about being deported.

The Southeast Asian and greater Indian population seemed to be more temporary. Usually, these emigrants were on short-term contracts expiring within a few years. The majority of them worked on construction jobs, or in various shopping outlets across Doha. Even more so then the well-established families, like the Arab students at the university, these workers must remain completely out of government’s watch.

The role of women in Qatari society seems to be more separated than that of the role of citizenry as a whole. Female Qatari citizens, for the most part, live a much different life than those of non-Qatari citizens. Being a male, exploring the intricacies of female Qatari citizens is near impossible. This is due to strong societal implementations of Islamic Law. The majority of my information gained was from perceptions of females by males, and an unusual encounter with a British- Qatari mother who gained citizenship through marriage to a Qatari

Due to the luck and kindness of some of my colleagues I found myself at dinner with Mrs. Ali Al-Humadi, the British wife of a Qatari who had fully emigrated to the United States some years ago. She told me her life story of having to give up work in London as an executive at a cigarette company. When she got married to her husband, Ali Alhumadi, she told me how she had to give every facet of her British life up, most importantly (at the time) her carrier. Coming to Qatar, she found herself managing the household, abiding by the cultural norms of female domesticity. This is not to say adopting Qatari citizenship was a negative experience for her, but it did in fact change her role in society.

The conversations and experiences I had with Qatari men cemented the esotericism of female Qatari citizenry.  A group of Qatari students from Qatar Foundation, a conglomerate of American university branch campuses in Doha, invited us over to a Qatari majlis (a Arab-style living room). The room was full of only men save the seven girls who were in our group. I asked one of the Qatari students if women ever come over to the majlis as bi-gender socializing is common practice in the United States. He told me that women never come to the majlis, rather they associate with only fellow females in their own designated spaces. Through dinner the conversation progressed into the discussing the roles of Qatari women in society. Hamid, one of the Qatari students, proclaimed that women are not as responsible as men, citing his beliefs that men alone have the mental capacity of managing a business. His perceptions of women were not those of degradation, rather he solely thought women were different and their role was best kept managing the household or taking part in decorating jobs—stereotypical gender roles attributed to women.

Between the conversation with the British-Qatari women and the Qatari students, female gender roles seemed to represent the esotericism of Qatari society. Women by means of societal pressures are expected to separate themselves completely from society, in the social, academic, and working lenses. Their lifestyle is reserved not only to the Qatari population as whole, but more specifically their fellow females and respective families. Rarely would one see a Qatari women socializing in mixed gender groups or entertaining a carrier.

One exception to this parallel is the role of women in education. Though for the most part, save for Qatar foundation, education is single-sexual, Qatari women are graduating from top Qatari universities with degrees in a wide variety of subjects. This could be an indicator that women are going to break gender norms in the future. Yet, such events are yet to be manifested and one can only merely surmise that the role of females in Qatar is changing.

 

Egypt

 

            Egypt, a country of over 80 million citizens, is rich in history yet very poor financially. Citizenship is much more universal in Egypt than it is in Qatar. A wide variety of religious and geographical identities make up the Egyptian citizenry. For example, 10% of the population is Coptic Christian (the other 90% being Muslim). In addition, there is a great population that associates with the Nubian identity as opposed to the Arab one. Thus, Egypt is the melting pot where the Middle East mixes with Central and Southern Africa.

Though there are some specifics requirements to obtaining citizenship in Egypt, the process is neither as exclusive nor as difficult as it is in Qatar. Thus, inequalities are not present in the formal citizenship lens. There is no disparity between citizens and non-citizens because, for the majority of people (save Somali and Palestinian refugees) citizenship can be easily attained.

In Egypt our group surmised that though the social expectation of female subordination and a patriarchal society exist, such factors do not inhibit the lives of women nearly to the extent as they do in Qatar. Though the intentions are not necessarily intentionally degrading nor subjugating, cultural and religious pressures limit female citizenry in Egypt.

In a conversation we had with Aamil, our Arabic teacher, she outlined the role of the female in Egyptian society. She told us of her experience growing up as a female in a Muslim household. Though she is Muslim, she claimed that her experience was similar to those of women growing up in Coptic households. Her life at home tended to be a very protective one. The males in her family (her brothers and father) had the role of safeguarding her. This role meant that they escorted her on social outings and were certainly present during any interactions with potential boyfriends. In addition to this, they insured that she be back by 9 pm every evening. Aamil told me she enjoyed such protection and care. Even though her liberty of doing whatever she wanted was limited, her freedom from danger never waivered.

In a separate conversation I had with her alone, she told me that women, via societal pressures, are not allowed to smoke or drink. I asked her if she felt that this was imposing and she, to my surprise, asked me if women should be embarking in such endeavors. In Arabic she asked me “are these things good for you?” I countered her response by asking should women have the choice to do these things, in which she responded that such activities are not healthy, thus there is no reason for one to take part in them.

One extreme contradiction to the Qatari world was the amount of women in the working world in Egypt. From my conversations with Aamil and observations of society during my stay at Egypt, I concluded that though there are more men in the working world then women, the latter group still has a wide variety of employment opportunities. Just alone in the American University Dormitory, women accounted for at least 25% of the security force. In addition, many women found positions as baristas, waiters, and other blue-collar jobs of the sorts—jobs that would never be taken up by the female Qatari citizenry.

 

Conclusion

During my stays in both Qatar and Egypt, I along with my entire group concluded that the female citizenry of both countries is dominated by a patriarchal society just to different extents, Qatar’s being the more extreme of the two. Being responsible observers, we must uncover the reason behind such a discrepancy.  I believe the reasons for a stricter patriarchal society in Qatar when compared to to that of Egypt is due to the lack of, until recently, globalization and influx of external cultures. In addition to this, Qatar is substantially wealthier than Egypt, warranting gender roles (as the male the breadwinner and the female the family caretaker) to be unchanged, as the financial incentive is not present.

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Institutions and Individuals: A Reflection on Qatar and Cairo

After traveling to Qatar and Egypt to study religious citizenship, I have come to realize I somehow know less about nationality and social responsibility than before. I am less sure about citizenship’s importance and meaning in this day and age, especially in places where the next meal is more important than lofty ideals or talk of freedom. In all honesty, I practically always thought of residency and countries in terms of passports, most likely due to my rather hefty international privilege not only as an American Citizen but also as a white male of European descent. As I explored both Doha and Cairo, it became apparent that many (if not most) do not possess the privileges or other bells and whistles of a United States citizenship. In fact, almost eighty percent of Qatar’s population consists of expatriate workers who cannot become Qatari citizens no matter their position or time spent living in the country. As I talked to vendors, taxi drivers, doormen, rich upper-class, poor workers, students, teachers, and friends, I began to see a common theme or trend in both Qatar and Egypt in regards to citizenship: both countries exemplify the institutional power of a few ‘first class’ citizens over the rest of the masses. However, these institutions play slightly different roles in Cairo and Doha.

As I met and interviewed incredibly wealthy businessmen and students in Qatar, all members of Qatari ruling families who control and influence the whole country, I could only feel both lucky and guilty at the same time. There I was enjoying fine cuisine and the luxuries of life (such as ten thousand dollar sandalwood incense) when thousands, no millions of expats, worked day in and day out to amass a mere sliver of the decadence I was gifted because of my citizenship (thank you America). And, the ruling class of citizen elites in Qatar had complete control of the institutions, strengthening their hold of dominance over a one-tier system of citizenship. What I realized after numerous discussions about the future and current situation of Qatar was the power consolidation function of institutions, the protection of rights and entitlements due true Qatari citizens.  Education City and the Qatar schooling system, history museums and nationalism initiatives (mainly by Sheikh Mozah), wealth and technology of Qatar Gas and research on the natural gas reserves, etc. Practically all institutions in Doha, from the political to the economic, exist to ensure the present and future stability of Al-Thani/Qatari control of a country overrun by expatriate workers. As Fromherz’s book Qatar: A Modern History points out, even culture is being practically ‘created’ to prove the historical basis for the ruling class’ rights to rule, as well as foster pride in a country that has only modernized (or even become something resembling a city) in the last fifty years. Institutions in Qatar only serve to protect the relatively few members of the ruling class.

The institutional situation in Cairo is quite different, and not only due to the unrest and instability caused by the Arab Spring. Although we were only able to stay in Egypt for a couple of weeks, it was an incredibly exciting and enlightening time to be there as we witnessed the Egyptian people attempting to take over a system completely controlled by the military. Although some were hopeful at first, that is a couple weeks before the elections, many people I talked to seemed to be disenchanted with the whole situation after 2 weeks as they realized the army would not give up power to the Egyptians. The elections were lengthened and/or delayed time and time again, and rights and privileges of the presidency were taken or manipulated by the military to consolidate their power in the future government. A common theme has been seen time and time again, the sad truth that institutions in Egypt are still hindering the rights of their citizens. In fact, these institutions of a faltering government, pitiful education system, and corrupt power-hungry army are only serving to constrain the individual Egyptians themselves. In Qatar, institutions focus on protecting the few, but in Egypt they oppress the many. Even after overthrowing a dictator and utterly corrupt rulers, the system of institutional domination has yet to be completely abolished (and in some cases – i.e. the army – the control appears all the more complete and strengthened). In Cairo, there are two tiers of citizenship: the upper class wealthier Egyptians, and all the rest of the ‘second class’ citizens. This is showcased in the novel Final Exit, a story that follows a typical Egyptian family’s struggle with making ends meet. The main character is even forced to leave for Saudi Arabia (having to forge legal documents to do so due to the corrupt system) to find sustainable work to support his family, a phenomena all too common. These ‘second class’ citizens make up most of the population of Egypt, and though they are not quite treated like expatriates, Egyptians often become expats to get a reasonable sum to sustain the livelihood of a growing family.

Another aspect of institutions that is surprising different in Qatar when compared to Egypt is the formal vs. informal. Formal institutions are the governmental, official constructions similar to those previously mentioned such as the office of education or the military. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are from the ground up – religious movements and institutes, demonstrations and loose political organizations often unrecognized (such as the Tahrir square gatherings or websites/meeting places for expat workers). In Cairo, such informal organizations are often a source of strength to bolster the rights of individuals. Religion is not a means of institutionalized control or oppression, and often Christians and Muslims work together in relatively genial coexistence and mutual respect. One Muslim interviewee I talked with even said that engaging in differences between himself and his Coptic friends has actually helped them create an organization of Muslims and Christians that supports Morsi (the Muslim Brotherhood candidate). These informal institutions of civil society in Egypt support the masses of ‘second class’ citizens to reclaim their rights rather than apathetically accept a corrupt system of liars and manipulators.

In Qatar, informal institutions for the most part still support an elitist government of ruling class Qatari citizens. Grass roots movements, historical rebirths/re-emerging interests, unofficial organizations, etc. often promote a façade of culture and national pride to disguise the country’s utter lack of historical depth. Places like Souq Al Waquif look old, but were built recently with rich tourists in mind. Museums showcase ‘Qatari’ culture and cultural centers hold events to foster Qatari pride, but many traditions and customs are ‘borrowed’ from other cultures and regions of the world due to a lack of truly Qatari food, music, clothing, etc. The generation gap in Doha also plays a role, the older generation’s fear of anomie causing them to constantly reemphasize the importance of camel races, pearl diving, or hawk hunting.

After analyzing the institutions of Qatar and Cairo, and conducting 5 interviews in each country, I know there are many in both countries who have very little sense of longing or belonging to their nations. Citizenship may be taken for granted in America, but it is a constant reminder power relations to both Qatari’s and Egyptians. In Qatar, simply possessing citizenship gives authority, wealth, and prestige to the owner. In Egypt, the two-tier system of citizenship creates separation of classes between the rich ‘true’ citizens and the ‘lesser’ worker citizens. The question I find myself asking is what hope is there for lesser or non citizens in either country? My friend Abdullah wants to travel to Qatar to find a job because Egypt has forsaken him, but he cannot leave do to his ‘lesser’ rights as a second tier citizen. Expats I talked to in Qatar would give anything to become citizens, but they know they pray for the impossible. In the end, I can only think that both systems need to change not only on an institutional level, but also from the ground up. Expats should have more rights and Egyptians should be given an organized system and government that is for the citizens, not controlled by the army. How this change will occur, I can only guess. But, it may already be happening as Qatari citizens of the elite families hope for more expatriate rights and people protests against the institutional regime in Cairo. Change is gradual, and however depressing the situations may seem in Qatar and Cairo, there is always the hope that these slow slight adjustments will finally come to fruition. As people in both cultures would say it: In Sha Allah.

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Kids

Kids

This is a poem inspired by Cairo, engaging themes such as inevitable loss of innocence in difficult circumstances.

The children sat
together
cigarettes in palms
like Christmas trees on fire.
Tassles of smoke
twirl like thoughts.

When had they
lost the last ashes
until all that remained
was sinew and paper
and a hole in the shape of Mickey Mouse.

You can smoke anything
he offered, always accepted.

Come closer mother,
so I can brush your hair.
Sing to my cigarette
until it flakes and siphons off
into a naked ember
slit-eyed and angry.

Chew on my filter
until it turns to cud
and I can’t breathe anymore.
Make sleep easy
easiest when the sun is out
rusting my white flesh
folding it up like an ironed
t-shirt.

I will not hold your hand
because it is softer than mine.
Your arms are salty brittle
they cannot protect me from
my blazing shield of blood.

The lights flicker, pensive
and I lay, face-down
in the jungle of ashes,
dust and water.

I throw my last cigarette
into the ocean.
It spits and growls
at all I have left.

Help me
scrape the sand
from the fingernails
of the old man selling kebab
sprinkle it in my gin.

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Summaya and Ahmed

Summaya and Ahmed

This is a short story inspired by Cairo, aiming to be a metaphor for the difficulties of navigating individual lives against an oppressive and rigid government. 

Summaya appreciated Ahmed most for his honesty. If there was no food to be eaten that day, he would tell her straightforward. He was strong enough to completely accept their reality, and this was what made life bearable for Summaya. That, and having a companion to roam unfriendly streets among neighbors who hissed at them.

She was considering her good fortune in finding this good man as she watched him sleep. Whenever he slept he seemed awake, grinning at the high sun overhead and rolling around under their tree with a satisfaction too complete for his unconscious state. But it was time to go now, so Summaya prepared herself to wake up her love. She hated this part of day most. Ahmed was a grouch when he woke up, and most times he pushed Summaya out of the way before rising with a free stretch. As he surrendered the last dregs of his dream he groomed his messy hair and looked up at the sky. Nothing wakes you up like looking at the sun.

Slowly they made their way down the neighborhood, holding their breath as the groggy scents of lit cigarettes wafted through the air before them. More and more people were smoking these days, it seemed. Times were not good. A year ago they could rest the fate of their bellies on scraps of food offered by the kinder neighbors. Now they really had to fend for themselves. It was time to meet Joseph at the park; he was organizing a hunting party. Sumayya and Ahmed’s stomachs turned with delight at the thought of the succulent meat promised to them from rabbits and pigeons in the forest on the outskirts of town.

Joseph was waiting for them under a bench in the park. He wasn’t asleep, he rarely slept, but enjoyed resting in the shade. He liked to sit next to people listening to music; the beats and harmonies were a balm to his tedious, tepid life. One eye slid open as Sumayya and Ahmed came near, and within a second Joseph was up to greet them in his polite traditional manner.

“Hello my friends. I have just had the strangest dream.”

They could never remember their dreams, but only the feeling within them; usually one of discomfort or alienation, feelings they had become comfortable with after years on the street.

Back when they were younger and restless their dreams inspired them; perhaps because they did not need them so much. Tales of comfort and surrender intertwined with passions to leave them elated when they woke, feeling like the heroes of their own lives. Now life had become a force steadily pressing down on them, pushing and pushing until they felt like mere animals, prodded along by instinct alone. Even when they succeeded in catching a choicey piece of food to hold up their hunger for a few hours or days, it did not bring real joy. Perhaps because they needed it so much.

This was why Summaya took such bounty, necessary delight in her love for Ahmed. They did not need each other; many others in their situation were perfectly and totally alone, meandering through their narrow slices of fate with meager satisfaction, if not content. But the two of them had chosen to stay with each other, interested as they were in their own desires to feel truly alive. During those few moments of the day when they exchanged a word, or a look, or sometimes an embrace, some small lonely thing inside them felt right and in place.

Joseph was their only friend. Now he walked a few steps in front of them, strutting in a peculiar way that implied he wasn’t quite aware of himself. Groups of people like them made others suspicious; they always had to be careful. Such constant vigilancy wore and tore at them, sanding down their nerves to wires. They were incessantly anxious at their surroundings that could never quite be their own.

Summaya often thought of her afterlife. Would she be sent to wherever it is the dead go alone or with Ahmed? To a strange new world or one just as incessant in its reality as her current one?

A humble shove from Ahmed nudged her back into the weight of the current moment. It was time to split up. The weaker two—Summaya and Joseph—would forage ahead into the brush, tan with the passing of fall. The inevitability of a cold winter indifferent to their needs frightened the girl, as it did every year. Ahmed would remain a few paces behind, and catch the hunt at Summaya and Joseph’s signal.

The day wore on, and there was no animal to be found. Summaya and Joseph would go hungry and possibly starve this winter. Ahmed was attacked by a wild wolf that was wandering about where he shouldn’t be. He died amidst the searing gaze of his two companions, frivolous with horror as they watched him bleed out. Their short lives continued until their bodies could no longer sustain them, and they died without feeling much differently than they had when Ahmed was alive. No one noticed when they were gone, or wept for them. After all, they were only cats.

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