Moving to the Middle East – Or Finally Growing Up

I was asked a couple of days ago by one of my most faithful readers, KG (who also has an excellent and informative blog) about what I think has been the most profound impact on me since my move. And I think the following, written while I was in Saudi is the most profound change I have made. And Anna, whose blog I love more than my own, do not fear, I have not forgotten your wonderful award you gave me and will finally respond to your kindness.

What worth would you put on your life? Now, I don’t mean this in a life and death way; this is more to do with is your life, your time, your existence worth more than the life of any one else’s? An interesting thought isn’t it? And I’m sorry to bring this up today but it’s just kind of floating around in my head at the moment so I’ve got to let it all out or I’ll smother all my normal thoughts – food, vacations, boobs,  – you know, normal boy thoughts. So, here I am, sitting at my keyboard, pounding out some thoughts about how my life here in Saudi Arabia (now Dubai – as I mentioned, this was written a few years ago but is still very true) is worth than someone else’s.

I won’t even go into salary scales that are used here based on the strength of your homeland’s currency against the Saudi Riyal. This isn’t about money; this is about people. It’s a funny world out here, a world that I have agreed to spend two more years in (sometimes you can’t say no to a little or a lot more money), and I still struggle at times with what goes on around me. The obvious hierarchal structure of national importance here was at first shocking, and now just has me sickened that the race of someone else makes him or her less important than I am. Well, maybe not less important, but his or her value is less. Wait, scratch that – I’ll always be more valuable here than a woman because I am a man. And that frustrates the Hell out of me too but there is nothing I can do about it. In fact, I still hold doors open for women here and some of them will not walk through it. Actually, if I hold the door open for an Asian male (Indian, Filipino, Sri Lankan) they refuse to walk through first and wait for me to go through because I am the Westerner! And some of these people are physicians!

I work as a technical writer and I often have to liaise with people. And I liaise with people of all nationalities, all status levels within the hierarchy of the hospital, and all levels of hierarchy within their own self-importance. Now, I have absolutely no authority whatsoever. None. Zip. Nada. The people in my department (when we had them) came to me with questions and problems because I am trained to do this and am pretty good at my job, but I am not a manager, not an assistant manager, or even a manager-in-training. But I have had people nearly bow before me when I have gone to pay them a visit because they haven’t responded to any of my questions in weeks. All it takes is for me to put on a suit and march down to see them and suddenly I’m important. The sight of a Westerner in a suit must signal, “holy shit, a manager” in their minds because they soon become very accommodating and helpful. And some of the people I deal with are very high up in the organization. It’s all a little weird.

I’m the one extreme, but unfortunately I have seen the other. Too many people are treated like non-humans in this place (the country, not the work environment singly). I see it everyday when I go downstairs to the cafeteria to eat. All of the waiters and cashiers are South East Asian of origin and the lowest classification of employee you’ll find in the Middle East. But from my first day I would talk to them, get to know them a little bit, make them feel like people. One of them is a really great guy. I was standing in line waiting to pay for my food and he caught me singing to myself, and asked me if it was Pink Floyd I was singing. When I nodded he joined in. I swear the guy must be the biggest Pink Floyd fan ever to come from Sri Lanka.

And one of my best mates here, Hakeem, is Indian. He’s simple and sweet is always looking out for me. He’s a straight up, quality guy and I love him to pieces. I know a lot of people here would rather talk to me than Hakeem because I am the Westerner and he’s apparently beneath some people here. It’s an attitude that makes me sick. And here’s where I get confused about the whole deal.

I often sit and think if I would be a friend with Hakeem if I were back in Canada? Sure, if I had taken the time to get to know him I would; but would I have done it? Would I have seen him as a simple and honest person and thought that he wouldn’t add value to my life? A part of me thinks this might be the case and that really upsets me because maybe, just maybe, I used to be a bit like the people I am complaining about here. And if I look back, although I didn’t go to the extremes as I see it here, perhaps I did.

Maybe I wouldn’t have given Hakeem a chance to develop into a good friend. There is no doubt in my mind that I would have been nice to him, treated him respect, and talked to him as an equal, but for the life of me, and this pains me to admit it, I’m not sure he and I would have ever gone for lunch on a regular basis.

And it has nothing to do with race. My parents never taught us to see colors when looking at people. My parents instilled a rule that I still use – treat others with respect until they prove they don’t deserve your respect. Sort of the innocent before proven guilty technique of the social world. And I would have respected Hakeem as he is worthy of respect, but it probably would have ended there. His views on life wouldn’t have matched mine, his religious beliefs would have been too strong for me to be around, or his lack of perfect English would have bothered me in my self-righteous glorification of who I was. And I can’t help but look back on things to see if I have done this before. I think back to see if there was anybody in school, in work, in social situations where I had the chance to be the better person and didn’t take it.

My mom commented on a photo I sent home about a year after I had got here and said that I looked older, perhaps a little wiser. My older sister said that I “very much left home still a boy and now look like a man.” Maybe this is finally true in the way I truly see people.

15 thoughts on “Moving to the Middle East – Or Finally Growing Up

  1. I think it is not just the parents who teach us; it is the people around us in the daily lives, the media, the TV, the news, the people we live with and talk about that teach us perspective…… and the empathy for other people results from that……

  2. First , Thank you for the shout out and the answer!!! Really appreciate that.
    Second, That was some serious thinking there. And I am touched by your honesty. It is true that people here always think that Westerners are one level above every one else. If I have to guess I would say it that must have been ingrained since their invasion in ancient times, just a guess.

    • You are probably right about the possibility of it stemming from the occupation. And in Saudi particularly, I know some of it comes because of the inequality in wages and whatnot. Sad but true I’m afraid.

  3. This is so interesting, I really had no idea that races and sexes are viewed this way in Dubai. I can respect the cultural differences but it is difficult not to be a little shocked. Here in the UK we certainly have our faults but I am grateful to live in a society where diversity is welcomed. It is fascinating to learn how things are done where you are, though.

    • Dubai isn’t quite as bad as Saudi was, but it is still relevant. Even where I work, some people will not walk through a door before me if I’m holding it for them. They’ll come and try and hold the door for me. I just tell them I’m willing to stand there all day.

      • Wow. Good manners are one thing but that would unnerve me somewhat. Still, it is interesting to see first hand how other cultures live.

      • I get strange looks when I give up my seat on the metro to let a woman or elderly person sit down. It just doesn’t happen out here. Not sure why. Well, I have some theories but they all make me sound bitter and anti-human beings! But what do I know?

        And yes, I am glad I came out here so I could make my own mind up about what happens and what to believe and not to believe on the news. And yeah, I probably have grown up more than I’d normally admit.

      • Wow. Good manners are one thing but I think this might unnerve me somewhat. Still, it is interesting to see first hand how other cultures live.

      • Part of my reason for being here. I like to observe. Plus it makes travel easier for me.

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