Getting Stuff Done in the Middle East

I’ve always struggled with time management. But I really like making schedules, both by hand and in my computer. I like to make little colored boxes where I promise myself that I’ll dedicate the block of time between 9 am to 1 pm Saturday to studying then 1 pm to 1:30 pm to a quick lunch, then 1:45 pm to 3 pm for organizing my room. But normally I wake up and read some annoying comment on a blog or think of something I need to blog about. That can last for a few hours, then I have my compulsive email checking, which can suck up another few hours. So then my little time slots are in disarray. By the 5th week, I stop following my pretty colorful schedules. But I still log in those study hours.

I normally made up for wasted time by taking it out of my sleep, multi-tasking (i.e. eating while reading or writing), or canceling social engagements (to my friends’ chagrin). Even now, I am writing, what I hope to be, a brief blog. But I have about 75 Arabic words to look up in Hans Wehr. Anybody that has used this dictionary can know how irritating guessing whether the word has a weak vowel or if you are getting the right definition out of the 30 possible definitions. It is especially bad if you don’t know half other words in the sentence so reading from context can’t help you. Plus, I need to review everything I learned in the past 4 academic years + 3 intensive summers of studying Arabic. Seems like everything is a haze, like I got Arabic amnesia or something. I’ll return to that thought as I transition this blog back to talking getting stuff done in the Middle East.

I find that the angriest travelers are those who come with their preconceived notions about how stuff should work in the Middle East. And the people are the most frustrated of them all are those who want to live their lives in the Middle East ordered in the same way as they do in the West.

During my first trip to Morocco, just about everything was taken care of. I was definitely spoiled, but I also learned to give up control. One of the graduate coordinators came to pick me up from the airport(a grad student from Arizona who I must say is one of the nicest human beings I’ve met) . We drove the four hours from Casablanca to Meknes, stopping on the way for a nice lunch. Everything was arranged, our housing, food, registration at the university. We had a driver who drove us from our lodgings in the countryside to the classrooms which were in a satellite of Universite Moulay Ismail. We had lunch at a nice restaurant everyday and dinner at a cafeteria. Our weekend trips were planned and we even had organized social gatherings. Once a week, our driver drove us to the new city where we could run errands, shop, go the ATM, get some sweets. While many of the other students (most of them had traveled abroad before) complained about this and that, I was pretty stoked to be abroad. One grad student began complaining from the very first day because the program was restrictive. Basically, she wanted to be able to wander around and possibly live elsewhere or make it to class on her own (i.e. stay out all night in good ole conservative Morocco). We had two graduate coordinators who did their best to see to all our needs and nurse us from the throws of gastro-intestinal illnesses brought about by microbes and possibly parasites. Over time, you learn to avoid food joints that will lead explosive diarehea (especially places where the cooks never wash their hands). I missed a couple of days from that intensive program. It sucked, but I managed to make up my work because so much of the footwork was done for me(from finding a late night pharmacy to shopping for yoghurt and water).

During this first trip, I fell into the stereotyped role of the ill-adjusted “Black!” girl Real World/Road Rules style with a group of 9 white women under the age of 26 and 1 white man. I got tired of the incessant complaining, and learned to just go with the flow. Everything was so well taken care of that I would have missed one of the most important lessons about living in the Middle East. Alhumdulillah, I decided to stay a week on. Plus during my final weeks, I took a trip to Fez with one of the graduate coordinators to interview students of sacred knowledge. It was during that trip that I learned my most important lesson in patience: if you got three things done in a day in the Middle East, you were lucky. Yes, this has helped me preserve my sanity during my three visits to the Middle East.

That important lesson became ingrained in me during my second trip. That was even with Maria’s help setting up our apartment and dealing with Alif Fez. We even had help from our good neighbors over at Julie’s Cafe (who helped make sure Maria got a reasonable price on the rent) and Lotfi and Haneen downstairs. But even then, there were things that had to be done. It took me three days to clean the kitchen to get it to a livable condition. I remember it was a struggle to get to the Bank, grocery store, and cook dinner in one day. Some days, it could take an hour to catch a taxi from the train station to our section of Medina Jadid. Even my research and writing came slower. I remember having a meltdown in 120 degree weather, trying to get out of Fez. I could barely type up an email. We were broke, so I washed all my clothes and the linens on the balcony. That took extra time, as well as learning to cook in a third world kitchen.

In the West, you can get a lot of things done. But time management is key. It is possible to set out with a day full of events and appointment. Here is a typical Friday:

  • 9 am Withdraw cash from Bank
  • 9:30-10:15 Oil Change and Car wash
  • 10:15 Pay electricity Bill
  • 11 am Appoint Dr. Benghazi (10 minutes early for paperwork)
  • 12-1:15 pm Lunch with Sofia @Chez Maroc
  • 1:30-2:30 pm Shopping LuLu Hypermarche (hypermarket, even though they have less stuff than our super markets)
  • 3:00- 5:30 pm prepare dinner
  • 5:30 Dinner with Rashida
  • 8:00-Book Tickets online
  • 8:15- 11:15 Work from Home, upload files

Seriously, in the Middle East this list isn’t going to happen. The Bank? You’ll likely be in long lines or somehow your wire transfer decides it isen’t going to show when you really need it. The mechanic could be having a bad day, or a better paying customer decides he needs his oil changed and car washed, so you time has been pushed back. Dr. Benghazi may be on ‘Umrah or vacation (without telling you), Lunch with Sofia is likely to take up 3-4 hours, getting to the shopping center is going to take you a good 1/2 hour to full hour (no matter how small the town is), Dinner’s not going to be done on time because you should have gotten the food the night before or early that morning. Rashida may come around 6, but she’s not going to leave until after a good 4 hours sitting. In fact, let that be your whole night. Now that your friend is gone, you may not be able to get online. The internet will likely decide to be down for some reason, depending on where you live there could be a regular power outage, the water stops running, or you cannot get DSL or even a phone line at home.

Even without the breakdowns in transportation, you have to be prepared for a slower pace of everything. Social and Business transactions can last for hours. Traffic jams are just the rule. Bureaucractic institutions means that you have to go from person to person just to get something basic done. You can’t just call to get information, a personal visit is often necessary. I’m still learning the rules. You may have to go to several stores. The items you may need may be spread over several locations throughout the city. Lines are long. You have to find delivery guys and spend a 1/2 hour negotiating with them. Just because things happen slower and at time, inconvenient, it does not mean that you can’t get jack done.

Normally for any appointment, I give myself an allowance of minimum three visits over a course of a couple weeks. Arabs also like you to come back to their store or office, and the more often the happier they are. They really want to know if you are serious about getting what you want. Plus the person who makes the big decision or has the most important rubber stamp is usually never there. The key is to find their higher-ups so they can put the heat on them. That way, you can get something done. Otherwise, you better hope that the person you gave the paperwork to happens to like you or happens to feel charitable that day. Otherwise, your paperwork will sit buried under piles and piles of papers.

Getting stuff done in the Middle East is really about balance. You have to be persistent, but never let them see you perspire. You have be firm, without being too harsh and developing a bad rapport with the paper-pusher or gatekeeper. In fact, they can be your vital advocates. If they don’t want to help you, you have to then find their superior who may possibly help you. Then, you have to seem important and well connected. Being the friend of some important people helps. Or they might help you and expect something in return (I believe that’s what’s called wasta). But then what happens if what they want,  you can’t give?Being American, depending on where you are in the Middle East and the proclivities of the person you’re dealing with, may help you or hurt your cause.

I definitely survived my first trip to the Middle East because a lot of people were looking out for me. I’m not rich or well connected.  And there are times when people bust out in some local dialect and I’m like WTF?? There are times when I get tongue tied and feel stuck and overwhelmed. I also feel shy with my broken and mistake laden Fushah. To get a lot of stuff done, I rely upon friends and family that are looking out for me and advocating for me. I am learning through our shared trials and tribulations that when you set out to do something here (and anywhere else), you better say insha’Allah. And you better mean it.

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