Sometimes it seemed as if I were living in a dream of my own device – though sometimes, I wondered if I were also dreaming the dreams of others, hundreds of thousands of us, “forced bachelors” like me, raising the tiny country of Qatar out of the sand and into the Twenty First Century.
I was living twenty stories high in a building so new that one day, three years into my occupancy, it occurred to me that I had inhabited the space longer than any other human being in recorded history. By then, during my last term teaching in Qatar, the name of the tower had changed, its ownership mysteriously transferred to an influential sheikh, and most of my original friends – whether faculty colleagues, oil company execs, or the friendly Filipino attendants at the gym -- were gone. The resident of the penthouse, right above my head, a representative of Shell Oil, was out of country so often that I never knew if he’d absconded, like so many expats, contracts or patience expired. Often it felt as if the whole country or any part of it I cared about could be replaced overnight; funky charm having no leverage there against bigger, better, faster. By this time, 2009, my tower, for a few years the tallest building in the West Bay desert, was dwarfed by more colossal structures, and only one view of the Persian Gulf remained to me. Surely some other giant would soon blot that out – or perhaps as a friend said, bag in hand bidding me farewell: “They’ll probably knock this old thing down before too long and build something shiny in its place.”
We were all dreamers, there.
My own desert visions had to do with teaching future doctors at the start-up medical school Cornell University was operating in partnership with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The topics of my writing seminars for pre-med students were World Literature, and Literature and Psychology. The students were from everywhere, and I was inspired by their idealism, by their heartfelt gratitude for what I could give them. After decades of teaching required writing courses back in Ithaca, I felt I was being truly rewarded, and my wages were by far the highest of my career.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz famously wrote; and like him, I brought with me the ghosts of my parents and all of their immigrant aspirations to my life in a foreign country. It was never easy being seven thousand miles and twenty two hours of air travel from home, a world away from family as well as the freedoms and cultural touchstones of the West. Most difficult of all was the separation from my wife, who had decided after one semester to return to teaching in Ithaca. It was a joint decision that I would commit to four years, yet on a day-to-day basis it was primarily a matter of my own determination that kept me there. Was I a fool? Had I been seduced by some received idea, an outdated masculine ideal about self-worth and income? Was I guilty for having let my wife labor so long at a job she didn’t exactly love, because of the financial benefits it delivered? Or did I just want to get away from it all, assuaging my doubts with the reassurance that since she and I are both writers, this adventure would be good for both our independent souls?
to be continued.