RECENTLY, I read the most heart-warming news story since the pandemic hit us, especially because it happened here in Qatar. It was about Etaam, a humanitarian initiative founded by a Qatari lady to express gratitude to workers involved in developing the country.
“Etaam is a personal initiative started in June this year in the midst of the pandemic to provide snack boxes to workers as a form of appreciation and gratitude to those who spend hours toiling in the sun and building the country,” its founder Sheikha Alnawar Al Thani said.
Amidst a constant barrage of news about the spread of the coronavirus and its economic fallout, and how people are reeling under the effects of this pandemic, the news provided a ray of hope. Any story involving Qatar catches my eye and when it is filled with such positive vibes, it makes my day.
It’s a much talked about, debated and acted-upon issue in the Middle East – the plight of labourers. The role of labourers in building the sprawling landscapes and the sky-hugging towers we see around is in no way small. The hours of work they put in, and that too in the scorching heat, through the dusty winds, night and day, have enabled many of us to sit comfortably in our air-conditioned offices today.
For the record, I am in no way maligning the authorities, in any manner, for any inaction. In fact, the steps taken by Qatar, especially the recent labour reforms, have been huge and are highly commendable. But, at the same time, the work the labourers have to do is hard and physically exhausting, and pivotal for nation building, and so we should be grateful to them for doing it.
I recently saw an Indian movie about the life of an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) who gave up everything back home to lead a labourer’s life in the Middle East, and this was set in the 70’s. As old age grips him, he takes a trip to the beach where he had landed in a boat that brought him all the way from Kerala.
He stands on the sand and utters these words: “Who might have been the first immigrant to step on this shore and proceeded to build a life in this desert… must have been someone desperate to make something of life or escape crippling poverty”. It’s a beautiful scene which makes you wonder how generations of people have come here, especially from south Asian countries, looking for a better life, saving every penny to make life better for those they left back home.
I am a second generation Qatar resident, and my recently born daughter is the third generation. Both of us were born in Qatar, a different Qatar from what my father saw when he stepped on this land way back in the 70’s.
I have heard numerous stories from him of how this country used to be then. People lived in mud houses where harmless snakes were a common sight, and so were rats. Al Bidda was the only place they knew; they lived there, and worked there and hung out there. Even the passport office was in Al Bidda. Cars were rare, air-conditioning was non-existent and roads were mostly not asphalted. This was in stark contrast to the Qatar I have in my memory, from the 90’s.
Life was cosy then, we have the luxury of using cars, and fast foods were becoming popular. There were lots of parks then to spend the weekends, traffic blocks were rare and there was a feeling of contentment and peace. The West Bay ended at the Sheraton, Gemco building with 20 plus floors was the tallest building, malls were unheard of and shopping was only done out of necessity. Traffic signals blinked yellow after 10 or 11pm as there would be hardly any cars on the roads and going on the Jaidah Flyover would give me goosebumps.
Fast forward to the Qatar my daughter will be witnessing when she grows up. Shopping is a hobby and mall hopping is a pastime. Lusail, the Pearl, West Bay, and Msheirib Downtown are all competing to create the maximum awe among visitors – both residents and tourists. We have our own Manhattan, Hong Kong and Tokyo-esque skyline depending on which part of the city you are in. You are overwhelmed with options of what to do over the weekend. From plays and shows to festivals and carnivals, we have them all in Qatar now.
I would like to imagine Qatar as a beautiful, bold lady. When my father came as an immigrant, she was a child, naïve and still learning, raw and curious. In my teenage, she grew into a confident, young lady, peeking at the possibilities, believing in her potential and constantly expanding her wisdom and horizons. Now my daughter will see her as a world leader, a preceptor for other countries, and in the forefront on the global stage, in every sphere … a force to reckon with.
What this country has achieved in this small timeline is no mean feat, and at the same time, it would not have been achievable but for the thousands of blue collar workers who put their sweat, tears and sometimes even blood into each and every ‘tabook’ of the landmarks we stare at with wonder. So, remembering them, especially in the midst of this crisis, is only befitting and an ode to them, especially when we look back at the long path we have traversed. I highly admire the Sheikha for the work she has started and commend her for the recognition she gives to these workers.
What I have written is my perspective as an expat in this beautiful country. I imagine that the emotions and experiences would be manifold for the citizens of this country. So, I, too, take pride, along with them, when I see such articles where I see Qatar shining bright and caring for her residents.