Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A new, slightly spooky, theory on life.

I have been busy thinking about life recently. You see, as you get older, you slowly realize that life is not simply unfair, or a bitch and then you marry one as you used to flippantly drop in a conversation, but actually pretty scary and depressing. The longer you live, the more people around you die, lose their families, have some horrendous things happen to them. And when you are young, those people are only some random strangers you see on TV. As you get older, those people are your people. Your family, your friends. And then it becomes more difficult to stay flippant.

A friend of mine lost a child to cancer. Another friend found out her husband was dying (and another one that her husband was a complete asshole, you decide which one you would rather have). A few Phillipino workers on our compound lost members of families and homes in Typhoon.  A bunch of people get killed on Doha roads every day- through no fault of their own, like the young woman with a child in her car, falling victim to two idiots racing each other. And the Villagio victims…still hurts, even now, to think about. Real people, real pain.

And of course, you get affected, whether you want to or not. You feel that pain, you measure it up against yourself; you imagine what it must be like. But. And here is my new theory on life, which seems to be completely true and works every single time. It has some good and some hmm…not so good bits in it, but hey, such is life, right?

The good part is that, I can assure you that whatever you are worried about will most probably not happen. Because, and here is the bad part- something else will happen to you. Something you have no idea is coming.

You will say I am being pessimistic or negative- I have heard that before, trust me. But, I say this is a realistic and quite a positive outlook on life.

I am not crazy, but I am a mother. And, talking to other mothers, we all occasionally have flashes of scary images in our hectic brains.  Like when I was carrying my baby on a very tall escalator in a shopping mall in Watford, I suddenly realized that, should I trip, she might just slip off my shoulder. Or when I am driving in Doha, there are plenty of thoughts that I am trying to block out.  But now that I have my new theory, I can reassure myself that the horror I am afraid of at that particular moment will most probably not actually happen. Comforting, right? Yes, but.

Whatever you believe in, whatever you call it...God, spirits or some cosmic power, or nothing at all…You just need to realize that this life has its ways of, just like Alanis Morissette correctly pointed out, sneaking up on you. If you spend all your life checking every single mole and obsessively worrying about dying of cancer, you probably will die of a stroke. If you think you are safe because you are rich and  healthy, then some nasty surprise will get you just around the corner. Something stupid, like an idiot in a fast car. If you think you know what might happen, trust me, you most probably don’t. There are some diseases I am hearing about these days that I never even had the slightest clue existed, for goodness sake. 

A university friend of mine had her own theory, which was totally opposite of this one of mine. She said to me that she felt that every person was going to die of a thing they most worried about. For her it was cancer. For me at the time, it appeared to be sharks.  I was only 18 at the time, and felt pretty safe, living in Baku and knowing for a fact there were no sharks around at least for a while. However, when the university dancing troop I was in started getting ready to visit California, I got somewhat concerned.

Whether my friend’s theory was right, or mine, I am telling you: Relax and enjoy what you have left, because... life, or God, or whatever you want to call it, has something stored up for you that you can’t possibly imagine. You might as well stop trying to predict. Like an impatient child asking for hints before her birthday, you keep trying to second-guess what (nasty?) surprises life has for you, but you are just going to have to learn to be patient. Wait and you will see, as I tell my daughter. And just hope that most of your usual nightmares are not going to come true.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Two red apples, or about perception vs reality.

People, I am no longer a camping virgin.

For many years, Husband tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me that camping is fun. But I explained, patiently every time, that I have perhaps an irrational, yet very real fear of rapists, serial killers, child kidnappers as well as (now in Qatar) scorpions and Horned Viper snakes lurking in the dark just waiting for us to arrive and stay overnight.

But this camping trip was different. Friends of ours organized a small group of people to join them on a so-called glamping, or glamorous camping, with showers and toilets and everything organized and taken care of for us- from the moment we got picked up in 4 very properly Qatari Land Cruisers, to the dinner and breakfast the morning after.

I have to admit, I am still, even having had a fantastic time, not the camping type. And perhaps, I will never change. I can't get the flying cockroach and slithering snake probabilities out of my head to fully relax and enjoy sleeping in a tent, I am cold and uncomfortable, and at some point, however nice the facilities are, just want to go back home at night.

But, what an experience!

To start with, the drivers were all dressed in Qatari thobes. I guess that was part of the show we paid for- a truly authentic experience. I have to admit, in their attire, along with the white Land Cruisers, they really looked the part. And, I could tell from the way Husband spoke to our driver, that he got fooled into thinking the guy was a Qatari and not a Pakistani. Of course having thought about that for a minute, we quickly realized how silly we were -why on Earth would any respectable Qatari have a job of driving curious expats around the desert?

Our driver was cool though. He took his (acting) job very seriously, and, without even checking with me or my mother at the very back of the car, took us on some serious dune-bashing on the way to the camp. I guess, the time to worry was when one of the cars in our convoy turned around and disappeared.

'Where are those guys going then?' I asked, and got told they did not want to ride up and down the dunes and headed straight to the camp.

We then proceeded to climb some pretty vertical dunes and sliding down them in a sickening slow motion. And you know, I enjoyed it, to be honest. Maybe all of it, except for the sideways sliding down, which was-for me- a bit too scary.

But what amused me the most on this glamping trip, was not the unique feeling of hanging upside down at the edge of a dune, and not the beautiful sun rise in the desert…but the realization of just how different the reality can be from perception.

At some point in the middle of the desert, (which by the way, is busier than a local market on a Friday afternoon, with dine buggies and land cruisers flying back and forth all around you), a dark old Patrol was approaching our car at a great speed, coming dangerously close, almost hitting us, blocking our way. My first thoughts were that our driver pissed the other guy off somehow. Maybe he was driving too fast in front of him, or went down his personal dune- who knows? The guy was shouting something to our driver and our driver slowed down and pulled the window down.

'Oh no!', I thought, 'don't do that! Don't get in the fight, with me and my two small kids in the back of your car! '

Suddenly, having shouted a few very fierce-sounding sentences at our driver, the man in the other car leaned out and passed over two red apples and what looked like a box of Paracetamol.

What was that??- I dared to finally ask, as our driver smiled and drove off, storing the apples safely away in the cold box of the car.

'Oh', he replied, 'his brother stays in our camp, too. He just asked me to pass this on to him'.

Two red apples and some painkillers for his brother. And I thought we were about to be dismembered and buried in the desert, amongst all the litter of random car parts.

That experience got me in a somewhat thoughtful and philosophical mood for the evening. As I sat in our Bedouin camp, sipping sweet tea and trying not to notice something suspiciously large flying around my head, (which if you ask me, could easily have been a roach but let's just not go there), I was thinking of how wrong we can be assuming things about other people, simply because they belong to a different culture and speak the language we don't understand. We think we know, we think we can tell by their facial expressions or the intonation. But nope. Not that easy, you see? Sometimes when you think someone is very angry, he just wants to send his brother a couple of apples.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

It is where she is coming from.

So, my dear friends back home, in Azerbaijan…I have some sad news for you. You know how you have been struggling for decades to simply be allowed in and out of your country? Starting from the Soviet times when you could not get out; and ending recent days, when theoretically, you can but then you have nowhere to go, as any decent European country refuses to let you in? You know how you struggle to get a visa constantly, and have to then take revenge by spreading gossip about certain embassy staff asking for huge bribes to give you a visa? (Like the Schengen one...)  Well, now it seems like Qatar does not really want you here, either.

I remember the feeling I had when I finally got my British passport. It was such a relief! No more humiliating begging to let me visit a country! I could fly practically anywhere in the world and be welcome! It is like officially being accepted in the white guys' club. (Only never entirely, of course. Once, in the JK airport, I got held for a bit, as they quickly noticed that, despite having a trustworthy British passport, I was still BORN in the dodgy place. That was obviously suspicious, and had to be checked. I could see the dilemma the immigration dude was facing there. He really did not want to let an Azeri in the country. He was given a list and in that list, Azerbaijan was BAD. But, I was a British passport holder. And Great Britain was GOOD. Hmm...A difficult one, really. In the end, he had to let me go though.)

What I did not realize back then, was how hard it was going to be for my mother to visit me. Surely, I thought, a mother is the closest family, someone who will always be allowed, no questions asked, to visit someone who is a proper citizen now! But some of you might remember my problems with the British Embassy back in Baku. I don't think we will ever forget this one particular 40-minute interrogation, during which the official was asking my mother how come my husband, who was a management consultant, could not afford to pay for tickets to fly us all to Baku every time we wanted to see her, rather than flying her to London. 

Just a wee example of how unprofessional and abusive of their power some guys can get! But hey, no hard feelings. I realize where you are coming from. I appreciate you are there to guard your lovely country from the third world citizens like my poor mother. I realize it is your job to protect the NHS, and whatever other resources you suspect she might be abusing while visiting her daughter and grandchildren.

But, forget the UK. I thought, naively, that having moved to Qatar, I would at least, improve this aspect of my life. Don't quite know why I thought that.  And, just in time for our relocating here, QA started direct flights! I saw that as a good omen.

So, imagine how I felt when my mother's visa, after a few weeks or requests for one paper or another, got rejected. Oh, no. I thought. Not again!

There are certain similarities between the cultures of Azeris and Qataris. And that often helps in my understanding of how things work here. But, there also is one major difference which makes things hard to comprehend. When the officials cause problems with your paperwork back in Azerbaijan, it usually means one thing- they want money. Very simple!

Here, that is clearly not the case. So, when I went to the immigration to try and ask for help, nobody was expecting me to bribe them. Neither were they enjoying and abusing their power like the British Embassy dude back in Baku.

So if not money, what would help my case, I wondered.

I remember my friend warning me when I tried to get my mother to visit us in the UK, just after the new baby was born. 'Do NOT mention the baby!' she exclaimed. 'Never mention the baby, or they will not let your mother in the country!'

Such an alien concept to an Azeri person. Surely, that would help our case? But not for the UK officials. To them, you having a new baby and asking for your mother to visit means you are not going to hire an expensive nanny and pay more taxes. See how it works? No emotions. Just bureaucracy and rules. But here, it is different.

'If you have the baby, bring her with you to the immigration!' I was told by almost everybody.

Because, and this is where another cultural similarity becomes apparent, for Qataris, just like for Azeris, family is of a crucial importance. And, as soon as I mentioned it was my mother I was trying to get to visit us, I could see it in their eyes. Understanding.

So, in the end, I managed to get my mother a visa. But, who knows what caused the problem with it in the first place, and how long this situation will now last?

'Is it her age?' I asked (as someone on Twitter suggested that the age might have caused the problem with the visa). No, the official said. It is where she is coming from. 

So, yes….It is where she is coming from, guys. Sucks, doesn't it?

Not sure if the Azeri authorities are planning to do anything to make travel easier for Azerbaijanis in future. So far their strategy seems to be 'Oh, so you are making it difficult for our people to visit your country? OK then, I will make it almost impossible for yours to visit ours! There! Get that!'

Interestingly, that sophisticated strategy has not worked very well so far. And Azeris are still as unwelcome everywhere in the world as they have always been. Sadly.