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Doing Without in Doha

LISA L. KIRCHNER is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. This essay is excerpted from her upcoming memoir.
LISA L. KIRCHNER is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. This essay is excerpted from her upcoming memoir. (Courtesy Author)

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By Lisa L. Kirchner
Sunday, February 8, 2009

It was Thursday, the Friday of the Muslim workweek. I needed to leave behind the five long days I'd spent at my marketing job in Qatar and wrap my hands around my lifelong love, a Dairy Queen Buster Bar. That it was February made little difference; as I careened through Doha's life-threatening traffic, my car's thermometer hovered around body temperature.

"Finish!" the girl at the drive-through announced, smiling and blinking at me in the late-day sun.

After two years of living in this Persian Gulf country, I could interpret her meaning easily: They were out of Buster Bars. I was living in one of the world's fastest-growing economies, but this was not my first reminder that deprivation lurked. A month before, my husband of four years had boarded a plane and then informed me over the phone that he was never coming back. Now there'd be no cold comfort, either.

Summer was fast approaching. First would come the winds, gusts that made it feel as if you were standing in front of an open clothes dryer. This would keep the oppressive humidity at bay, but not for long. Soon, my glasses would fog the moment I stepped outside. Massive "yard sales" -- held indoors to protect shoppers and merchandise from the punishing sun -- would begin. As wealthy citizens and expats left the country in droves, headed for their vacations, shipments of all goods would slow. There was no telling when I'd see a Buster Bar again.

I headed across the street to Mega Mart and found Dove Bars. I bought two boxes. Though the job I'd taken left me with more money than I'd ever had before, I was hoarding food and household goods as if it was the Great Depression. Once, I'd spent two weeks hunting for coffee filters, going everywhere from gleaming Western-style groceries to market stalls with merchandise piled haphazardly on the floor. When a few packages did show up, I didn't care that the filters weren't the right size. I bought them all and cut one to fit each morning. The right-size filters arrived eventually, but I kept those old ones, too, just in case.

I was at the checkout with the ice cream bars when my cellphone rang. It was my friend Michelle. After three years of waiting, she'd finally received her big promotion. She'd be moving to the United States in 10 days. I pulled a bar from the box right there in the store and suckled it all the way home.

This is the stuff of the expatriate lifestyle. We exchange stability for a time-sensitive, tax-free employment contract, fully aware of impending expiration dates. After a childhood spent moving -- 10 times before I was 12 -- I'd thought I was prepared. My husband and I both had viewed this relocation as a chance to learn about Arab culture in a post-9/11 world. We had looked forward to getting to know locals. I had no idea Qataris were a minority in their own country, outnumbered 4-to-1 by the imported labor force. They kept their private lives hidden. Not that I did a lot of socializing -- my new job turned out to be much too draining for that. Life shrank to a small circle between the mall and the office. My husband and I had often remarked that we couldn't have survived without each other -- and now he was gone, while I still had a year on my contract. Much to my surprise, I'd come to rely on other expats for emotional support. Mostly, I'd come to rely on Michelle.

Michelle was a onetime heroin addict who'd reinvented herself as the consummate professional -- I never saw her in anything less than a French twist and business casual, and absolutely nothing fazed her. She was my go-to gal when I needed to be reminded to embrace my faults and meditate on acceptance. We'd bonded over the challenges of being heads of households in an Arab country, a challenge that wasn't all that different in Doha than in, say, Dallas, only there were far fewer female colleagues to talk about it with. Chocolate and coffee filters could be replenished. But Michelle, with whom I'd shared Buster Bars and venti lattes both, would soon be gone for good. At our last get-together before her departure, she listened to my laments before suggesting it might be my turn to be there for someone else. Someone yet to come.

Not long after, I was invited to a memorial service for one of those uber-healthy types felled by a heart attack at 48. I wrote a card for the girlfriend he had left behind. Thinking I'd comment on life being precious because it is short, I was shocked to see these words land among those on the page: "Life is good." I wrote that? I'd lost my husband. And my closest confidante. I was on the verge of being fired for my crummy attitude. But when the moment came, my hand printed what my heart already knew. Doha did not invent deprivation; it can be found anywhere. The life of plenty comes from within.

A year later, I was ready to get back to life in the States. At my "yard sale," a fresh-faced recruit came to me with a dusty box of coffee filters, half cut down, half not.

"How much?" she wanted to know.

"Take them," I told her. "Free."

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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