Writing Online In the Middle East

We whispered in Libya. Obviously not all the time, night time mostly. During the day we put children on school busses, walked through the Medina, and bartered on the streets with the vegetable man and the butcher. The whispering happened mostly in our backyard, at parties. A story would be told, a Ghadaffi sighting, someone had been with someone either through the embassy or business and heard a tale they were busting to share. We were all fascinated by the man who seemed to look down at us from every angle, a picture of him in every store, a billboard with his face at every intersection. We’d met our neighbours a few times but we weren’t entirely sure where they worked, their allegiance, how easily we could offend. It was just safer to whisper, just incase. A misinterpretation could signal the end of a visa, people had been deported in the past. I loved our time there, I still see it as a privilege, the things we saw, the people we met.

Our world in Libya feels light years away, in reality it’s eleven. We moved on to Canada, then Houston, and now Qatar. We returned to a world which felt instantly comfortable, the familiarity that came with watching families celebrate Ramadan, the orange glow of a desert sunset, dates and honey for sale on the side of the road.

The past eleven years has provided many expat-life changing online tools, in particular Google maps, Twitter and Facebook. No more haphazardly drawn up mud maps to show the way, we now use co-ordinates. “Do you have whatsapp? I’ll ping you my location”. Need to contact an organisation or find the answer from a local? Try twitter. Want to create a forum for people in the area – Facebook can lead you towards groups with thousands of members. In the past we’d relied on personal introductions and hours of cultural exchange, now it seems that an initial contact can be made in seconds online.

This is where it gets dangerous, when cultures collide without time or understanding.

If you’re living away from home it’s highly possible you’ve asked a culturally insensitive question without even knowing. You’ve maybe eaten with the wrong hand, forgotten to remove your boots at the door or kissed a cheek that wasn’t yet comfortable with handshake. In the Middle East there’s a number of things you know not to do. Certain hand gestures, inappropriate displays of bare skin, public shaming. This is what travel is about, it’s about learning how things operate elsewhere – that’s where we get the wonder, the wow, and hopefully the understanding.

I’ve been very quiet online this week and quite a few people have sent emails and messages asking if it’s because of a recent deportation of an Aussie in Abu Dhabi. The answer is definitely not. I have four children on school holidays, a broken laptop, new podcast recording software to learn before tomorrow, the return of university study, and a house full of guests. Writing is unfortunately at the end of a long list.

For those who have asked if I’m scared. No. We don’t whisper in Qatar. If you haven’t been to Qatar you should come and see us, I promise you’ll be fascinated. We do need to abide by the rules though and we need to remember that we can be easily misinterpreted, especially online.

I plan on staying here in my tiny pocket of the internet and I hope you do to.

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