Letter from Doha

Ian Patrick Miller

     
   

The buildings do not look like buildings, and the presumption to posture otherwise (glacials of glass, wonky monoliths of steel approximating an excavation of polished terrestrial elements—or signifying firmaments, orbits, solar light, anywhere but the presence of here: caustics of wind, dust, heat) obscures a deep human misery. Legions of South Asians and Subsaharan Africans employed for years in the Gulf without their families, housed in putrid conditions, two dozen men bunked to a room, buckets for toilets and sinks, water just this side of potable, 12-16 hour shifts at worksites demarcated by long commutes in yellow school buses (windows kicked out, no A/C) in temperatures that strike outwards of 130° during the late spring, summer, and early fall.

            Academically I’ve surveyed the camps (a tourist, the worst sort). Most of the laborers (notably outfitted in blue or orange jumpsuits, heads scarfed against the weather) make less in a month than I do in a day, with many yet still to clear the visa fees that brought them to Qatar in the first place. And my complicity in the matter is not pardoned by the convexity of history that affixes these men below the salacious spaces of my apartment, spidered about the concrete rise of another Intercontinental, bent in the sultry dusk of Labor Day, 2014.

            That’s one story. Here’s another.

            Oregon, the rainy season, six years ago. I’m an adjunct instructor in the English Department at Portland State University. I have taught so many sections my employment is set to terminate, for if I were to teach another consecutive term, HR would be forced to pay benefits. I’ve been on the academic job market since summer. So far half the fifty-plus applications submitted have been returned as cancelled searches—budgets pulled, departments closed, classes cut. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in the Alphabet District with my girlfriend. She’s a bartender, back at school to become a nurse.

            Life had been different in Europe. I was alone in Europe, lean. Lived on what I earned. Lived well. Flat near the center of Prague. Worked three days a week. Wrote all the time. Read all the time. I was drinking less than I had in years. I smoked cigarettes on balconies at parties and listened to friends talk ontology and critical theory and none of it seemed forced or particularly pretentious but regular, like this is what people do and it’s fine. I thought, Living doesn’t have to be anymore than this. Until it does.

            I moved to Azerbaijan. Moved back to Prague. Moved home to Portland. I rented a studio downtown—walls of cinderblock, industrial white, the veranda where tenants stood outside their doors and stared one another down. The Uzbekistani and his prostitutes. The kid with the checkerboard tattooed about his skull and across his face. The design student, her skinny feral cats. Always the smell of mildew in the astroturf. Always speakers thudding through the windows and the walls.

            I felt good, salted in experience. I had savings in the bank, a minor fortune by the measure of my life thus far. The job at Portland State happened immediately.

            A year later, add one new apartment and a lover, subtract minor fortune, and again I was applying to jobs overseas. One to a post in Afghanistan, the other to an American university in Qatar. The gesture (let’s call it a gesture) seemed sentimental rather than financial—the fable of “abroad” in converse to whittling directions at home. Also, Afghanistan. Kabul. I wanted Kabul. J said she wasn’t going to Kabul. I told her she knew she’d go to Kabul.

            That spring I was teaching four sections of introductory composition scattered across three campuses in the fiscal depravation of the Willamette Valley. Places with names like Dallas and Salem and Woodburn. Classes were composed of single working mothers, laid-off millworkers, discharged Marines, unemployable high school dropouts, migrant day laborers, Latino gangsters, homeless young men, pregnant young women—140 students aged between 16 and 72, you get the point. The thing about teaching in milieus like these is that the project (the act of the thing itself, systematically established and grossly underfunded) is propagated to fail, and the only reason it doesn’t fail immediately is because you were cultivated to give a shit. The sheer cliff of illiteracy was staggering, and as I collected my eleven-hundred dollars a month, the delineations were beginning to blur. What good was giving a shit? What good was clarity, textual evidence, rhetorical coherence, narrative purpose? What good was ethical intention? What good was good when there were no jobs and nobody had any money?

            Qatar called. It was May, and I had just merged upon the interstate at the outset of my daily 120-mile commute. That evening there was a six-way Skype interview with the associate dean, two biologists, a chemist, an English professor, and me. A week later J and I were flown business class (eight thousand dollars per ticket—I checked on Orbitz) to Doha, fake wedding rings squeezed onto our fingers. It was over 110° when we landed the next night. Two days into my three days of interviews, I told J we couldn’t do this. I said, “Look at this goddamn place.” And she stood a long time at the window in the hotel, heat radiating against the glass, and she said, “Yes. Look at it.”

            The contract was offered the week after we returned to Portland. J said, “This is more money than God.” I proposed in June. We married in August. Ten days after the wedding we were back in Doha via another first-class transit of fully pitched seats, French champagne, and sushi. Home to our first home in a building not a building. Three bathrooms, marble-plated tile, three plasma televisions, angular Swedish furnishings, floor to ceiling glass, fifteen feet of glass, so much glass. Sky view of the Gulf. Sky view to buildings emptied, ghosted—a downtown rising out of reclaimed seabed. Also, it was Ramadan. No booze. No eating/drinking in public during daylight. No holding hands. No kissing. No uncovered shoulders. No shorts. Careful with eye contact, with saying hello, with opening a door, entering a room. What else? Oh, yeah. “More money than God.”

 

***

 

We lost a student last week, one of my former. He took a motorbike out of the underground car park a few hundred meters from my office, where inside I was writing. He fell. No helmet. 20-years old. Popular, kind, handsome, always inclusive, a cohesive being. He was a terrible student, but smart, intellectually sharp—a boy bundling a mind into shape.

            Like all the American universities here, we’re a tiny community. Fifty incoming students per class, no more. I hold twelve students in my writing seminars every semester. I know each one of them as people, as individuals, as lives orbiting about my own. The death of a young person, what is it? I don’t know. Tragedy unadulterated, distilled by its inability to signify? And in Arabia, the body goes immediately into the ground—washed and buried that evening. Prayer in the desert, minarets wailing, and the next day his girlfriend can’t tell her parents visiting from Dubai why she’s so upset that this local boy died.

            It’s easy to be critical. To be clear about what’s backwards and obdurately wrong, persisting under the myopic theology of desert culture. It’s easy to contrast this with that and stand offendedly apart. But we fall in love with places despite their most difficult qualities. We fall in love for changes in perception, distance, time, matter—these terrestrial elements.

            The night he died I went to Wittgenstein, scavenging bits of uselessness for the students that I knew would be lined outside my office the next morning. Denial of metaphysics in Tractatus: “7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” And I thought about that. I thought about art, about writing. I stood for a long time at my window, drinking vodka from a tiny glass and waiting for light to come out of the sea.

            After our daughter was born, J and I decided that Qatar was no place to raise a child (the dust, the chemical storms, the speed and size of the traffic that so quickly turns to carnage). Until alternatives were established, I would commute between semesters. And I was thinking of them (I’m always thinking of them) thousands of miles removed from the moment. I thought of our house in Portland, their faces on FaceTime, Skype, scythe, the untenability of my life—problems of personal finance, responsibilities of a parent, the death of a child, the life of a child. And again to Wittgenstein, only younger.

 

What do I know about God and the purposes of life? I know that this world exists. That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field. That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning. This meaning does not lie in it but outside of it. That life is the world. That my will penetrates the world. That my will is good or evil. Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world. That meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God. And connect with this the comparison of God to a father. To pray is to think about the meaning of life.

 

            I would add that prayer (like a father or a mother, like too a city) is also finally a language.

 

***

 

I don’t know anymore how to write if ever I did. It has something to do with what Christine Schutt told me this summer about language. About shame. How to write upright. Bolted by risk. I don’t know anymore how to risk if ever I did. I don’t know what makes me ashamed—the basic currency of any art—to own my place in the human experience, to claim mine. And it’s this very lack of ability that makes me wish I was still back in Chicago tending bar and renting apartments—never should’ve left construction or retail or the deli. These are naive and ungrateful things to say, and this is not at all what Christine means by shame.

 

***

 

Mothers. Mine. Sick. Our house in silence. My mother in the back of the house, breathing. Tell me how to get at these corners. Tell me how to wretch it from normalcy and manners. Because until I do, it’s pretty sentences. Or how I return again from another summer conference at once encouraged and focused, at once cognizant of all I’ve been doing wrong and all the ways to fix it. But the truth is that I don’t know how to do the thing I tell myself to do. Instead it’s affectation, prose in search of an essence. What does Gary Lutz say?

 

The aim of the literary artist, I believe, is to initiate the process by which the words in a sentence no longer remain strangers to each other but begin to acknowledge one another’s existence and do more than tolerate each other’s presence in the phrasing: the words have to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub off on each other, feel each other up.

 

            The rub. The rub is to tell a story. Story is made by language. Language is essence but not all language is essential. Most language is unessential. Most language is said. Saying is not story. But stories are spoken. Out of mouths. Mouths are shameful—holes like eyes where things are shoved and broken off. Somewhere after the breaking follows a story. The story must speak out of the breaking. Stories that do not speak out of the breaking are not story. Breaking is essential. Breaking is the rub.

 

***

 

What keeps me upright is my proximity to quitting. I could tell you what it’s like to live so far away from the family that I love. I could tell you what it’s like to waste a life doing a thing I never had much right to do in the first place. I could tell you and not tell you.

            Death is and is not the end. Death is a given. Breath is the rub. Proximity to quitting is not quitting. Proximity is a tight space. It’s vibratingly close, bolted and alive.

 

***

 

September 2013. My daughter is two months old. I’ve just had the honor of marrying my brother and his fiancée in an open field across from our childhood home. Currently air bound, Portland to Chicago, hustling back to Doha to make my buck. The man beside me is reading a book called Twentieth-Century Sprawl. The man and I are seated in First Class. We could weigh 400 pounds apiece and not satiate the girth of our leather seats. Whereas behind the divide they’re packed six to a row, forty-two aisles deep.

            The sprawl in my mind wears a dusty coat of building sites, banked upon a methane sea, where an industry of liquified natural gas thrives in rapacious, late-capital porn. Where the last of the mangroves are dredged from the coastlines for a harbor of reclaimed luxury islands that very few will ever desire to afford. Where aquatic life degenerates exponentially. Where trains of trucks loaded with sewage disappear daily into the desert. If the sewage is buried or burned or dumped to congeal into great cakes under the sun, nobody can say. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha. The Bedouin of the region once followed the hoop of rains that oscillated the Arabian Peninsula. Now the descendants subsist by the globalized artifice of imported agriculture, imported architecture, imported engineering, imported education, imported labor—a divinity of goods and services enabled by petroleum dollars, an economic clusterfuck in Europe, a fracturing war in the Levant, and the great Arab and South Asian diaspora.

            The convexity of complicity. There are prizes. There are no prizes.

 

***

 

The neo-Marxist thinker and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek says:

 

[The] fundamental divide is the one between those included into the sphere of (relative) economic prosperity and those excluded from it . . . [lying] beneath these protective measures is the simple awareness that the present model of late capitalist prosperity cannot be universalized.

 

            I suppose Žižek would know. He flies First Class, too. 

     
   
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Ian Patrick Miller is an Assistant Professor of English at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. His life is severed between Doha and the Pacific Northwest.