Published 16/12/16, Cork Evening Echo.
At home it’s the week of nativity plays and last minute shopping. It’s Christmas parties and tacky tunes. Its sparkly tops, cinnamon candles and expensive cosmetics wrapped up in posh paper. Luscious food hampers with all the little things that make Christmas so special to us. Christmas is surely the most wonderful time of the year and the message this year resonated with me when I received an email from an office supplies company in Cork, wishing me a happy Christmas and a prosperous new year and reminding me that their office would be closed from 23rd December to the 3rd January. Now I know that the email probably went to others and not just me but there was something so unreserved about the greeting ‘Happy Christmas’ and the fact that they would be closed down for the whole of Christmas, made me remember, just how big a deal Christmas is at home and how at Christmas it is not a Silent night, it’s the time to care, share and extend charity and help those in need.
I looked around in Qatar, at the stand of tinsel in Carrefour, at our plastic Christmas tree in our front room being softly blown by the A/C. There is no nativity play, our kids in Qatar will never know what it’s like to stand in front of a crowded room of people that laugh and smirk while you wear a tea towel on your head and have to concentrate on not crying and not forgetting the words to Little Donkey, character building stuff. Warm sunny days add nothing to our attempts at atmosphere. We have the posh smellies and the luscious food, (if you fancy paying 14 euro for 6 mince pies in Marks and Spencer, that is). But all you can see is what’s missing, the annual visit to the church where you bring the kids and make a big of the baby Jesus in the manger. Christmas Crackers, Rudolph jumpers, led lit Snowmen and antlers on hairbands, some might say, useless, but they are what makes Christmas, Christmas.
So for every expat that’s not going back to their roots at Christmas, there’s a common feeling, along the lines of, ‘it’s not the same here’, ‘the turkey tastes different than it does at home’, ‘Filipino carol choirs always get the words wrong, Sanna Klos is ga-ming to tawn’. It’s very easy feel sorry for oneself having to spend Christmas abroad.
This morning, frustrated at the delivery time of my Amazon order, I said aloud, ‘aaarrrgghh Christmas is so hard to do in Qatar!’. The cleaner replied, ‘you are angry ma’am, there is a problem’, ‘yes’ I said, ‘trying to get all this Christmas stuff is so difficult’, I looked down at her bare feet as she continued mopping and backing her way out of the room. Knowing she is Catholic I asked, what she was doing for Christmas Day. She told me that she was working, of course, Christmas Day is not a holiday in Qatar, nor are ‘workers’ entitled to take the day off. She, Annarise, 23, mum of Arall, 4 will not be able to skype him, until Friday her day off. She is bound by contract to stay in Qatar for 2 years and earn 1,200 per month, riyal, equivalent 300 euro. She sends 200 home. Friday is her day off but as she doesn’t have money, there isn’t much to do. Recognising the opportunity, I asked would she babysit on Friday evening. Not beyond me to go for slap up dinner at short notice to help the poor. She could not babysit, as she informed me she had a curfew of 5.30 p.m. If I wanted her after this time, I would have to contact and pay the agency. She told me she would like a crucifix for Christmas. I’ll admit I felt that blind faith looked like her best option for survival.
So what do people like me do for people like Annarise. We do nothing, apart from give her a bag of old clothes and wrap a fifty around the crucifix. We are too afraid of messing up our own residency and not being here to receive the Amazon order. We are silent. Christmas is a silent night in Qatar.