This week’s blog post was influenced by three things: me lying in bed musing about the different ways of pronouncing Qatar (see NPR newscast); me learning about the Nabati Poetry tradition and the subject matters for the form; and my love for Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
Before the start of class, a student tells me about his grandfathers. They were desert people, like their grandfathers, and their grandfathers’ grandfathers—all men who tended herds of camel.
There were coastal people too, men who sailed the seas on their dhows. But the desert people did not like this life and would only journey to the coast for work during desperate times.
Daily life for the desert people was grueling.
The men of a family needed to work as a team to draw water for the camels. A man would climb into the well in order to lift the skins of water up to the surface for the thirsty herd.
Meanwhile, men with sticks needed to prevent the camels from rushing the well. The smell of water was too much for the parched animals. A camel mad with thirst might blindly rush the well and fall in.
My student then tells me how his camels have been trapped in Saudi Arabia since the blockade. His family was planning on transporting the camels to Kuwait and then booking a ship to transport them back to Qatar.
Incredulous, I ask him why he would do all of this for camels?
He tells me these camels come from his grandfathers’ camels. He knows them all by name. What is he supposed to do?
Once, there was a fight between three brothers living in the same house. The oldest was big and powerful. The middle was flashy and trendy. The youngest was small but clever.
The three brothers were all rich, but the youngest brother had come into his family’s wealth recently and had not spent much of it. The two older brothers wanted their little brother to spend his wealth in a way that benefited them.
However, the little brother would not, so one night the two oldest and some of friends of the family locked the youngest in his room. They sealed his door and would not let him in the rest of the house.
“Let him starve and go mad from isolation. Then surely he will relent and obey us.”
Yet, the oldest brothers did not seal off the windows to the youngest brother’s room. Being clever, the youngest brother called out to his neighbors and used his wealth to buy food from them, so he did not starve. Then he invited his friends to come and go by the windows of his room, so he did not experience any loneliness. The youngest brother lived this way and did not complain.
Later, the oldest brothers grew angry after months of youngest brother’s defiance. The oldest even threatened to destroy the floor and walls that connected the youngest’s room to the rest of the house. The youngest brother still did not care. Let his brother waste his money on such a spiteful undertaking.
The three brothers are still living this way to this day.
When you come over,
I make us a simple meal
of tomatoes and egg—I learned this from a Chinese student.
The secret is a little bit of soy sauce and a pinch of sugar.
As we lie in bed,
you teach me the pronunciation
of the country’s name in the Khaleeji dialect.
The way is to blend the T and the R sound.
At night, when we sleep,
I dream many dreams—
they take form and burst like bubbles in a stream.
The stories ebb once my eyes open.
The next morning, when we wake,
I make us coffee in my French press.
I bring our cups to bed.
The trick is to not let the grounds steep for too long—
like moments, you must allow them an appropriate end.
Once a week, from half a world away, I stay up late so that I might speak with my sons during their morning—a delicate line that I must tend.
I ask them about their week and try to coax more information from them. I want them to tell me stories about what I don’t see.
Still, I sense what they don’t tell me, but I don’t press for more information. The weave of our elongated line cannot withstand too much disturbance.
Instead, I try to dispense advice…
“In life, people don’t pay you what you want to do; they pay you to do what they want you to do.”
“Don’t get a face tattoo. Your grandma will disown you!”
“It’s good that you are working out so often, but don’t forget to build in some rest days.”
“Girls play games, but guys do too. You just aren’t on the receiving end of the latter.”
“If there’s a musician that you want to see in concert, better to see them sooner instead of later. You never know how long they’ll be around, or how long they’ll stay good.”
“If I had a time machine, I would go back in time and tell a younger me to break up with my high school girlfriend before going off to college.”
“Don’t get a face tattoo. Your grandma will disown me!”
As my emergency position came to an end, my life became a swirl of questions.
How many job should I apply for? Three? Seven? Ten? Would I be willing to work in a different state? In a different country?
What would life be like in Qatar? How would I spend my free time? Is it ever nice enough to go outside? Or would I spend all my time loitering in air-conditioned malls?
Would I be willing to take a pay cut to stay in the US? Would I be willing to work without retirement benefits? What if I can only find part-time work without any insurance benefits?
How am I supposed to afford this destination Christmas that my family wants to go on? Can I just pay for the boys and not have to go? How will this save me money instead of buying presents for everyone?
How long do I wait before I accept the job offer? Should I try to negotiate for more money? Who can I go to for advice?
What does this apostille process mean? What do I need to get notarized? Where do I need to go to get my next stamp? What if I forgot something? Do I need to start from the beginning again?
How much do I need to bring with me? What do I do with all my extra stuff? Do I sell it? Give it away? Donate it? Why do I have so much stuff?
How did time go by so quickly? How do I spend more time with my sons? When will I see them again? How come I agreed to do this?
Is this really Doha? Did my glasses really fog up from the humidity and the heat? How come the sun is so big? Will the sunsets always look this beautiful?
Paw prints decorate the dusty cars of old Doha. At night, the scrawny cats that live in these parts climb up and sleep on top of the cars. In the winter, they will even climb into the cars and sleep near the warm engine. Life is hard for these cats. There is not much to catch and eat in the city. A bug. A rodent. Maybe a dying pigeon. Sometimes starving cats will even prey upon newborn kittens. I have a friend who twice a week goes out and feeds the cats. Part of her paycheck goes to purchasing cat food. Every month she buys bags of food and water, loads up her car, and feeds her colonies of cats. Part of me cannot understand why she spends her money this way. She has student loan debts that she does not pay. There are laborers here in Qatar who toil six days a week and would send this money amount of money home to support families that haven’t seen in years. Wouldn’t your money be better spent improving the lives of you or other human beings? However, she tells me the Quran says that “a good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as cruelty to a human being.” For her, compassion for the cats is compassion for life.
When I returned to the US for first time after moving to Qatar, my boys and I took a road trip to Canada.
On the first day of our trip, we departed from La Crosse, Wisconsin (WI) and headed southwest to Dyer Indiana (IN). There was a severe thunderstorm the night before, and it continued to rain the morning of our trip. My mom and I loaded up the SUV, and she followed me as a I returned a rental vehicle that I used in order to visit a friend in Stevens Point, WI and another friend in Madison, WI the previous two days. Then we picked up the boys from their mom’s house.
We got off to an ok start. The boys were ready by 9am, but Zylan needed to cash a work check for the trip, so we didn’t get on the road until about 9:20am. In addition, the rain flared up again, so about the first hour, I was driving under the speed limit in order to contend with the road conditions. However, the rain eventually let up, and then we made good time on the road.
We stopped in Madison, WI for lunch at Chick-fil-a. Zylan wanted a breakfast sandwich but was informed that it was too late to order items from the breakfast menu. He ordered the chicken nugget meal instead. Ronan ordered a spicy chicken sandwich, as did I. Grandma ordered a cobb salad. She said that this was her first time at Chick-fil-a and was excited to find out what all the fuss was about. The boys and I finished our meals quickly, so Grandma wanted to finish her salad in the car. Zylan and I ordered coffee, and our drive continued. We stopped in Elgin, Illinois for gas and a bathroom break. Ronan sat in the passenger seat and helped me with the change for all the toll stops throughout Illinois. Zylan sat in the back and told Grandma about all the shoes and clothes that he wanted to buy.
We arrived in Dyer, IN around 3:30pm. However, since we crossed a time zone, it was 4:30pm, which explained all the rush hour traffic as we drove in. The reason why we were spending the first day of our trip in dreamy Dyer, IN was to stay with my Vietnamese cousin Tido.
Tido is the son of my mom’s sister Kim Nga. He has a wife and four kids. His uncle also lives with him and helps with the kids. Tido’s sister Tima was also staying with him for the summer; she has three daughters. My cousin Phoung was also staying with Tido at the moment. She has a husband and three kids.
I don’t remember the name of Phoung’s husband, but he taught me the Vietnamese way of saying Qatar. It is “Kwa tar” because the Vietnamese think that the Q must be said with the U sound, like you would say “quiet.”
I lost track of the exact number of people who were spending the night at Tido’s house; however, with my Vietnamese relatives, beds per guest is a negligible computation: everyone always stays under one roof when visiting, even if that means young kids sleeping with parents, siblings doubling up, and liberties taken with what constitutes a bed. Still, despite the mathematical mystery of the number of people staying that night at Tido’s house: my mom, my boys, and I all had our own bed that night.
When we arrived in Dyer, IN, we stopped by Tido’s nail shop to say hi. The shop was bustling with customers, so we didn’t stay long. We then drove to Tido’s house in order to relax and rest. The house was full of my cousins’ children, and I found a bed in a “quiet” room so that I could take a nap. When I woke up, Zylan wanted to go shopping at a Nordstrom Rack. I bought dress pant for work, and Zylan found a shirt for $.01 that he had to buy as a testament to his thrifting ability. Surprisingly, Ronan found a pair of jeans and Converse shoes that he liked but didn’t want to spend his money on. I told him that I would buy the items for him since I was planning on taking him school shopping before I left. After we got done shopping, we headed back. My family was getting done with work by the time we arrived at home.
For 10pm dinner that night, we all went to Buffalo Wild Wings. There were about 20 people at our table with ¾ of the table being children, but despite the ratio of adults to children, the children were all really well behaved. The teenagers chatted, and the young children colored. Meals were ordered and eaten, and there were no tantrums or meltdowns that disrupted the meals. I was shocked. I have had dinners before where one unruly child is enough to make a meal at a restaurant an uncomfortable public occasion.
During dinner, Tido and I had a nice conversation. We talked about family, work, and responsibilities. He came to America when he was 17 and worked a variety of jobs before entering the nail shop business. Now he is a part owner of a shop with his sister and employs friends and family members at his business. He works 10-12 hours per day but has been able to buy his own house, send his kids to school, and take the occasional vacation with his family.
That night at Tido’s house, there were three generations of Vietnamese relatives sleeping throughout the house.
When my mom learned that I was moving to Qatar, she was worried, so she called my brother Francis.
“Conan is taking the job in the Middle East. Should I be worried for him?”
“Don’t worry, Mom. Conan will be living in Doha. It’s basically like Las Vegas.”
“Oh, do they have casinos?”
“No, they don’t. They’re Muslims. They don’t drink alcohol, they don’t eat pork, and they’re not supposed to gamble.”
“No pork? How come?”
“I don’t know, Mom. It’s their religion. Pigs aren’t clean.”
“Hmm. The Vietnamese wouldn’t be happy if they couldn’t eat pork.”
“That’s probably true.”
“Steve won’t want to go with me to visit Conan if there’s no alcohol. How come they don’t drink alcohol?”
“Again, Mom, it’s their religion?”
“When I first came to the US, your father and I lived in Madison. We lived above the Nitty Gritty. Your dad and your uncle used to get so drunk!”
“I know, Mom. I remember you telling me the stories.”
“When I came to this country to be with your father, we were so poor. One summer when Conan was little, we lived off of $200 the entire summer! Your dad would catch fish, and I would clean and cook them. One time he got so mad because I used the cloth for cleaning glasses to wash the cutting board. It ruined the cloth. Now, if we go out to eat with all my children and grandchildren, Steve has to spend over $200 for the meal.”
“Anything else, Mom? I need to get back to work.”
“Just one more thing, how do I say the name of the country? Is it Key-tar?”