The Price of American Exceptionalism

Last night the New York Times had a live interactive thing on Facebook entitled “Me Time”.  It featured yoga, meditation, and Tibetan ringing bowls.  Don’t get me wrong- as a bipolar person I know how important it is to take good care of yourself, and I also believe that yoga and meditation and Tibetan bowls can also help some people.  Still, calling it “Me Time” seemed perilously close to the Trump administration’s anthem of late.

Maybe we need less “me” and more “other people”.

I highly recommend the new documentary “I am not your negro” about James Baldwin.  It calls in to question so much about American life and American ideals, and left me feeling like I was suspended in mid-air.  Like there was nothing to hold on to.  But really, there isn’t any ground, there isn’t any thing to hold on to.  And that’s as it should be.

Americans cling to the notion of American Exceptionalism–that we are somehow more special,  more deserving than any other nation.  That is simply a bunch of hooey.  I agree with a friend, too, that American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything.  Somehow we are unto ourselves, sufficient as we are, and not connected to people around the world.

In 2005, I left America for China because I was disappointed in my own country.  I thought I could have a better life elsewhere.  I thought people would be better somewhere else.  I know, I know, it was a foolish notion of mine.  After three years in China, I went to Saudi Arabia, and suffice it to say a lot of bad shit happened there (stay tuned for the book I’m writing), and suddenly I realized I was disappointed with the world in general.  I was manic and oh-so- angry.  I, again, foolishly believed it was about the place.  The place was bad.  So then I went back to China, and there, too, I was disappointed.  Again I thought it was the place.  I blamed Saudi Arabia; I blamed China.  But I was wrong.  I was wrong even to blame humanity, which you would think is so much more individual and therefore more blameable.  I was wrong.

After nearly seven years in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, I came home in 2012.  It’s taken me years of quality medication and therapy to come to my own perhaps more sensible  conclusions:  the world, humanity, the universe, whatever–they don’t owe me a thing.  It is I who owe the world.  I know these are not new ideas.  Plenty of people have said the same thing, including a farmer-philosopher in the literary magazine The Sun some years ago whose name I wish I could remember now.

Perhaps the only reason I would recommend travel is not to add to your Instagram account, but to see how other people live.  To see that other people work, and strive, and suffer just as we do.  To see how the rest of the world is indeed connected to us.

In the movie, James Baldwin says that America is very immature in its outlook on race, racism, and a host of other things.  This makes sense to me.  Friends from other countries have always mentioned the “innocence” of Americans, but I think what they mean is indeed immaturity.  More and more, I think that Americans may have problems with abstract thought, and in particular, the abstract thought, as a friend talked about recently, of empathy.  Why do so many white people have a problem accepting that racism exists?  Why can’t they accept that one person’s reality is not like another person’s?  I think in part it is this inability to make the leap into abstract thought, and therefore the leap into empathy.

We do not live in a society that promotes empathy.  We do not live in a society that punishes selfishness-in fact, it seems to reward it.  It’s all about the “me”, and increasingly so, with Muslim travel bans, a halt to diplomatic discourse, the dismaying cuts to the EPA and lifting of car emission rules that date back to the 1970s.  I don’t care, I’m not listening, it’s all about me, damn it.  And the world watches on in horror.

I remember a very good friend of mine, who is Chinese, screaming at me “You are so selfish, Americans are so selfish!” in Xinjiang Province when I left the confines of a travel group to find coffee.  Now, I admit to being selfish about coffee.  Mostly I think you don’t want to be around me if I haven’t had it.  But in this case Xinjiang Province was having some political turmoil between the dominant Han ethnic group and the minority Uighurs, and travel was a bit dicey in some parts.  I don’t think I was ever in danger, but my hosts felt very strongly that I should be protected as a foreigner.  This was the same place where I accidentally shut down an entire hotel because it wasn’t deemed “safe” enough. My travel company, at the behest of the local police, moved me to a “safe” (more expensive) hotel which was pretty much the same as the previous one, down to the curtains and carpet.

But I think about my Chinese friend screaming at me, and I think, yes, we are pretty much a selfish lot.  There are good points about individualistic societies, of course, but this is the downside.  We don’t think very much about the choices we make–from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear.  We think we have the right to the life we live, when in fact it is due mostly to dumb luck and an indifferent universe.

We are not better than anyone else.

We are allowed to make mistakes, and to be disappointed.  We are human, after all.  I think many people struggle with these issues, and that’s important.  Thinking about it, struggling with it, these are beginnings.  We are certainly right to start with ourselves in making the world a better place, and if that means yoga and meditation and Tibetan ringing bowls, so be it.

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Sex It Up

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This is the post where I talk about sex.  You’ve been waiting for it, right?  On my Home page I said I would, principally because sex and sexuality are themes in my book, My Heart is a Wilderness.  You might think that in a book about Saudi Arabia, sex may be something you could skip. Not so.  Because it is such a repressive place, everything becomes about sex.  Or, in many cases, sexual violence.  There’s plenty of that in Saudi Arabia.  But this post is mostly about sex, or rather, not having sex.  In such a fiendishly sexed-up society – a society where applying the adjective “sexy” may be more important than the adjective “smart” – it’s easy to forget that some of us are not having sex.  It’s easy to forget that some people are having sex, not having sex, having miserable sex, having good sex and everything in between.  It’s easy to forget that “great sex” is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and not some static, pre-defined activity.  It is easy to forget how diverse, how differently people live, and that there is nothing wrong with that.  I, for example, would much rather do without sex than be in a love-less relationship.

I knew I couldn’t be alone in this, so I read two books:  The Art of Sleeping Alone by the French writer Sophie Fontanel, and Chastened:  The Unexpected Story of My Year without Sex by the British writer Hephzibah Anderson.  Fontanel went 12 years without sex, from her late 20s to her early 40s.  Unlike Anderson, she didn’t set out to do it for that long, it just happened that way.  Anderson, on the other hand, purposefully decided to go without “penile penetrative” sex for a year.  My initial reaction to Anderson’s experiment was “big deal – a year without sex.  Who hasn’t been there?”  To write about this topic in the first place might be a little self-important.  Clearly she has led a pretty privileged life, as when she says, in her early 20s “When I was an art critic. . .”  No one should be an art critic in their 20s.  But through this memoir, you feel a little something for Anderson, who has good insights but has made poor choices.  She writes, “In a culture in which we’re all supposed to be wanting and wanted – in which fashion, in particular, is advertised by models whose poses mime constant desire – I feel like I’ve lost some crucial part of myself.”  Very early on, Anderson knows that it’s love she’s looking for, and her experiment is a welcome respite from the ups and downs of tepid, as well as noncommittal, relationships.  “I can see that sex was a distraction that allowed me to ignore pretty much everything else in my life that wasn’t quite what is should or could have been.  I became fixated on relationships to the exclusion of friendships, family or any sense of where I was headed.”

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Anderson may be misguided in her condemnation of feminism that has “made over female sexuality using all the worst tropes of masculine sexuality; it’s depicted as predatory, unscrupulous, heartless” (I think the key word here is “depicted” – yes, that is how female sexuality is often depicted, but that doesn’t mean that was the goal of feminism)  However, Fontanel’s book may be more disturbing.  She, too, decided early on that she would wait for love, that it was love she wanted, not love-less sex.  She writes that her first encounter with sex was at 13, with a man 20 years her senior.  “She started to get out of bed.  The guy grabbed her wrist.  She said she wanted to leave.  He laughed in a stupid, bad-boy way. . . ‘I’m really thirteen’ she protested.”  That’s statutory rape, but it is also rape.  And yet Fontanel doesn’t ever say that.  She goes on to brag about it to a friend.  It’s hard to know how she feels about it now.  Perhaps she feels like it was wrong, as she writes about herself in the third person:  “. . .she was ridiculously naïve.  Because – what was she thinking?  That a man at such a pitch of desire, a stranger . . .would pause for a discussion?”  But that suggests she blames herself (which commonly happens with victims) and has never looked at the incident’s criminality.  She describes a male friend’s theory:  “Carlos had a theory that heels were the decisive index of a woman’s accessibility, since no woman perched on them can take off at a run.”  That’s disturbing, too, and yet she presents it as if it were a little funny, or an interesting thing to say.  It made me wonder how people talk about rape in France.

I didn’t want to talk about rape in this post, because I view it as entirely separate from sex.  It is a violent crime.  But I found Fontanel’s blitheness about her own experiences and those of others too awful not to comment on it.

In spite of my problems with these books, I commend Anderson and Fontanel for going against the stream and looking for love.  Not an easy thing to find, as most people can attest to.  In the process, I think they came to value themselves a little more.  As we all should.  Anderson very pointedly did not have a happy ending – after a disastrous re-introduction to sex with a slick financier in the East Hamptons, she was still single at the end of her book.  Fontanel ends her book with the titillation of the beginning of a sex scene, and long explanations to her new-found paramour that she might have forgotten how.  He is undeterred, and so is she.

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As for me, I will never stop looking for romantic love.  Next time, if there is a next time (which is looking bleak.  A friend recently said to me, “You know, Molly, you might have to leave your house one of these days.  They’re not going to come knocking on your door.”  She has a point.  Alas.), I want to get it right.  I only get pickier in my old age, but it’s not a gratuitous pickiness – it’s just knowing what I’m willing to put up with and what I’m not.  I’m sure everyone has deal-breakers.  And if I’m alone the rest of my life, and I think about this a lot, I know I’ll be ok.  I have my family.  I have my friends.  I have my work.  Wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said we should live for other people, anyway?  I just need to keep that in mind. . .

“Freedom is an illusion.”

The writer and activist Nawar El Saadawi once said, “Freedom is an illusion.” Even in America, perhaps especially in America, that is true. If we are not bound by larger forces such as racism or classism, we have more personal lack of freedom – we’re stuck in unhappy marriages, we suffer from addiction or mental illness, we have issues with our children or parents or siblings. Life is hard.

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I, myself, went looking for freedom in 2005, when I moved to China. China might seem like a very strange place to look for freedom, but I think that’s what I was doing. I was hoping that there was somewhere else on earth that I didn’t feel judged and disapproved of. I was hoping that at age 34, I wouldn’t feel like I had failed – at a career, with men, with myself. So I stayed in China for three mostly happy years. Certainly I was judged there, and laughed at, but most of it seemed less personal than it does here in America. I was a foreigner after all. I was strange to the Chinese, I knew I was strange to them, and it was ok.

But then I moved to Saudi Arabia. To be sure, I wasn’t looking for freedom there. It was partly a desire for something new, partly a longing for adventure, and part ignorance. From the stress of the place, I also spun into my first manic episode. Saudi Arabia is a spectacularly rotten place to be manic. It could be argued that it is a spectacularly rotten place altogether. I was changed by the place – I woke up to the world, in a sense. I didn’t just know about evil in the world in an abstract way – I felt it personally. I saw it firsthand. And then I continued seeing it, perhaps unreasonably since I was manic, every place after that – back in China where I returned after Saudi, then to Japan the year after that. It wasn’t just evil – it was a desire for control that I experienced. It seemed as if every place I went was obsessed with controlling people, and I realized I didn’t feel this way in America.

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It is probably obvious how control functions in Saudi Arabia. Women must be covered in public or in front of men who are not from their family. Even I had to wear the abaya, the black covering that goes over women’s clothes there. I also usually covered my head as well, just to avoid trouble with the religious police that trolled the malls in Riyadh. Women in Saudi can’t mix with men who are not family members; they must be accompanied by a male family member when they are out in public. Although women are just now beginning to have jobs in the Kingdom (they still can’t drive a car), there are a million other restrictions on them. The place is not much easier for men, to tell the truth. There’s no dating, no movie theatres, not much to do and work is hard to find. And all of this (and more) is about controlling the populace. An obsession with control has seeped into the very fabric of the society there, so that I felt it keenly at the college I worked for. And because of all the control there, people did what they could to go around it – driving insanely on city streets, widespread abuse of domestic workers from third world countries, drinking and drugs (yes, they are problems there, too.). If you could get away with it, you could do it.

When I returned to China, I was angry at the world. China, too, didn’t seem the idyllic place it had been to me when I first moved there. Suddenly I was furious with all the little idiosyncrasies that are China – people driving their motorbikes and bicycles on crowded sidewalks, someone taking up three seats in a crowded train station, all the water and electric outages in the small town where I lived. And then there were the controlling things – like the strict lives my students suffered through in their school, locking the gates of apartment complexes at 10 o’clock at night, the pressure for women to be married by 25 or risk being “on the shelf” for the remainder of their lives. And so on. It dawned on me that the seemingly selfish actions of China’s citizenry were a reaction to all the control in their lives. The water shortages and power outages were examples of poor management, where it was about what you could get away with, not what you were responsible for.

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So then I moved to Japan – supposedly a free society, a major world power, a wealthy, privileged nation. In Japan, I worked for a company that dictated where I would live (in a shoebox, basically), how long I would commute each day (nearly two hours each way), who could visit me (NO OVERNIGHT VISITORS), and how long I would work (8-6 each day, and we were not allowed to leave the campus). I was off my nut manic at the time, so of course everything little thing was magnified, but yet again it seemed that my company was indicative of the wider society – a society that killed itself working (literally), a society that probably drank too much, and a place with many restrictions on what you could do, who you could be.

Granted, this is merely a brief discussion of larger things (you can read more about it in my book, if it ever gets published). And because I was so sick, I don’t completely trust the feelings I remember. As Josh Billings once said, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Still, I don’t think I’m completely wrong about the obsession with control in the world.

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And so I come back to America. I returned from nearly seven years overseas two years ago. I’m not manic anymore, nor am I an angry person. Lots of things are different. It’s interesting, though, I have a number of friends from other countries, and almost universally among them, they say they feel “freer” in America. My friend Monica from Spain says she feels less judged here – fewer people telling her what to do, or how to be. She says the Spanish are very direct and outspoken in how they judge you, and that here in America people may judge you, but they keep it to themselves. I’m not sure I agree with that. I still feel pretty judged. Maybe it’s a function of my friends being away from their close relatives and the familiar. Maybe it’s how I felt when I first moved to China – free because I was in a new place, being a new me. Maybe it’s something in the ether.

I used to want to believe that there was someplace better than America. Then I wanted America to be that better place. Neither really applies. Even in America people have controls in their lives that impede them in some way. I don’t even know that I can say it doesn’t have larger forces at work controlling people. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of those for less privileged people. Maybe in the end, this is merely an argument for traveling and coming to appreciate what you have just a little bit more.

The Hired Man and Moral Choice

the hired man

I forgot to tell you that I will also talk about books in this blog, because I love books and they make up a lot of who I am.  So I want to tell you about a book I just finished last night, Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, which came out late in 2013.  I read a lot of old books, as you can tell from my affinity for Anthony Trollope, but I’m happy to say that I also find new books that are just as important – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind, or anything by Hilary Mantel.  Yes, there is still good literary fiction being written!

The Hired Man is set in Croatia, the present day or close to it, and tells the story of Duro, a native of a small Croatian town called Gost.  He works for and befriends an English woman and her two children who have bought a summer house in Gost, and who, unbeknownst to them, stir up painful memories for both Duro and the town folk.  It’s about friendship, and the souring of friendship, and about outsiders and what happens to them.  It’s about war and its aftermath, and about the choices we make in our lives when faced with adversity.  It’s  beautiful, haunting, devastating.

Laura, the Englishwoman in the story, has a dream to buy up houses all over this area of Croatia; to restore them and beautify them just as Duro is doing for her summer house.  Then she’ll sell them to English people or other foreigners as summer houses for a profit.  She invites Duro to be a business partner, and Duro is partly pleased, but mostly nauseated by such a plan.  Laura is ignorant of the area’s dark history and seems to breeze through life like nothing can touch her.  It’s not that Duro wants Laura to be aware of what happened in this place (in fact he goes out of his way to hide it from her) and for that to stop her from carrying out her plan; I think it’s more that Duro doesn’t want the past covered up and forgotten.

Naturally I was entranced by this story because it plays into one of my on-going rants (the world is not our oyster) and raises hard moral questions for me.  Does Laura, or anyone like Laura (and I think there are a lot of people like this) have a right to march into Croatia and live as if nothing horrible happened there?  Does “moving on”  necessarily mean forgetting?

After talking about this with my dad, he asked me if I would like to visit Croatia.  I had to admit that it sounded marvelous.  The pictures on Google are beautiful, of course.  But do I have a right to go to a place with such a poisonous recent history?  Could I enjoy myself?

Did I have a right to work in Saudi Arabia, a place with plenty of its own atrocities?

This may seem silly, because wherever you go there have been plenty of atrocities throughout history, and even recent history.  But I really struggle with this question.

My mom once said she likes to travel, but that she doesn’t want to go anywhere with a lot of poverty.  I balked at this when she first said it, but there might be some sense in what she says.  On the other hand, there is plenty of poverty right here in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.  There is plenty of poverty in places that my parents do visit, like Chicago or New York.

But then I worry that I’m turning into a moral absolutist, and I don’t think I want to be that.  Places, and people, after all, are many things.

I’d really be interested in anything my readers have to say on this matter.  How should we live with the memory of tragedy?  Where should we go?

A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

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(Above, Heaven Lake in Xinjiang Province, China, taken by my friend Yang Fu Chun, also known as Benjamin)

This was just pasted on my Facebook (thanks Caitlin), entitled “Everyone Should Live in China at Least Once” by Andrea Xu.  Of course I had to read it, because I spent five years, on and off, living in China.  I was relieved that the author didn’t make it into one of those lists – you know, “Seven Reasons to live in China” or some such shit.  I hate all those reductionist articles – “The Five Best Whatever Ever” or “Seven ways to overcome whatever”.  As if people can’t or won’t read an article that’s not a list?  Pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Ugh.

But I digress.

I really wanted to write about travel, and how we talk about it.  Andrea Xu captures a lot of truisms in her piece –  like how both exhilarating and frustrating it can be to live in another country.  I also like how she ties what you can learn in China to what you can apply it to when you get back home.  I think too often Westerners travel with nothing more in mind than getting something out of it for themselves.  But I wish I could ask her why she would invite everyone there?

Here’s a question I struggle with:  Should stupid, ignorant, bigoted people travel to other countries?  Will they come back less stupid, ignorant, and bigoted?  Maybe.  I hope so.  Certainly I have encountered a number of this type while living overseas (and not only in China – in Saudi Arabia and Japan as well).  I think it’s possible to remain pretty myopic in a foreign place, especially if you’re with a group.

Maybe some people thought I was stupid, ignorant, or bigoted living overseas.  That’s entirely possible.  And I know I learned a lot.  But really, it’s not like I want to stop anyone from going anywhere.  I just hope they think about it long and hard before they go, and that they are as open as they can be while there.

I have a problem with the phrase “The World is your Oyster.”  It’s not your fucking oyster.  (I write about this in my book, actually.)  It’s a complex, sometimes terrifying, place.  It’s hard not to be changed in some way by a place, in either a good way or a bad way.  Moreover, YOU change a place by going there.  You affect the people you encounter, in either a good way or a bad way.  I know this isn’t rocket science, but I think some people forget this.

Jordan, a man I work with, says he often asks foreigners what they think of Americans overseas.  “Inevitably they say, ‘Entitled’,” Jordan tells me.

I asked my Spanish friend Monica what she thinks of Americans, and especially Americans overseas.  “Innocent,” she said.

Interesting.

I know that a college semester in Kenya changed my life, and I also know that at age 21 I most certainly was an idiot.  I was also traveling with a group.  But it changed me in so many ways, and to this day is vivid and important.  I wouldn’t want to deny any college student that experience.

(Although my alma mater Earlham College no longer sends students to Kenya.  Too dangerous.)

What can I really say here?  I want people to travel smart.  I want them to be careful.  I want them to be realistic, but joyful.  I want them to soak it all in, but at the same time to be as green as possible.  I want them to know, really know, people in the countries that they visit.  And I certainly don’t want them to come home as bruised and battered as I was when I came home from Saudi Arabia.  Tough place.

The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “Don’t tell me how much you know.  Tell me how far you’ve traveled.”

Maybe he had something there.

 

 

Wishing America were better. . .but it’s not

In 2005, I left the U.S. for what would be seven years of working overseas – in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.  I left partly to escape my own misery in a job I didn’t like in Washington, D.C., and partly to see if the rest of the world were somehow better than the U.S.  Let us just say that I was constantly disappointed.  My friend Osvaldo rightly laughs at me and my naiveté.  How could you possibly think somewhere is better, or that the U.S. itself is better? he once asked me.  I don’t know.  I guess it was hope. 

I wanted to write this post because I know I’ve come down hard on Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.  I wanted to say that in alarming ways, the U.S. is a lot like the Kingdom.  Clearly, we don’t treat our new immigrant workers much better.  I know I know you will argue that many of them are illegal, but to me that isn’t a justification for denying them basic human rights – the right to health care and education, for example. 

In a recent report from the New York Times, two reporters followed Interstate 35 from the border with Mexico to Duluth, Minnesota (where my parents grew up, incidentally).  In their last article, they asked people from all over what it means to be American.  One man, Antonio H. Hernandez, originally from Mexico but now living in Missouri, said, “People say this is a land of opportunity, but a lot of the time there are no opportunities, no jobs.  And if you are an immigrant, you don’t get paid as much, and if you go to the hospital, sometimes they won’t take care of you.  An American with papers has more opportunities than an American without.” 

Sounds like Saudi Arabia, doesn’t it??  It all comes down to those precious papers.  I was recently at a doctor’s appointment, and they asked me for my I.D. – a driver’s license.  For a doctor’s appointment, for Christ sake!!!  Just like the iqama in Saudi Arabia, you can’t do shit without I.D. here. 

In another recent article about homelessness in Honolulu, a homeless man named Ronnie Cruz, told of how a police officer took his I.D. away from him many years ago.  Now he can’t go back to where he came from, even if he had the money.  In fact, he can hardly do anything without it.  You need I.D. to get a job in this country, after all. 

So Saudi Arabia in many ways is an awful place, but for many people here in the U.S., it is equally awful.  And a lot of that has to do with “papers”, the almighty I.D. 

As much as I want it to be, America isn’t a better place.  It’s just home.

N.Y.U., Abu Dhabi, and the Rights of Workers

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I’ve been following this story in the New York Times for the last month.  The photo above is of Bangladeshi workers in their Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) apartment.  Thousands of these workers have been doing constructing the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, and, according to the New York Times, living in horrendous conditions and enduring patently unfair labor practices.  The men above, for example, were provided an apartment as part of their contract – 40 people living in 400 square feet of space, and sharing two bathrooms.  Moreover, the workers were promised a certain salary back in their home countries, but when they arrived in the UAE, were paid considerably less.  Workers who went on strike to protest these and other infractions were beaten, jailed, and deported.  Most workers had their passports taken from them, so they weren’t free to leave had they wanted to. 

I should be clear here – N.Y.U. wasn’t the direct employer of these construction workers.  But they hired the contractors who were.  Because of the Times report, N.Y.U. has hired yet another contractor to investigate the claims.  This will prove difficult, because the campus is finished, and many of the men working there have gone back to their countries of origin or have dispersed to other work sites. 

I am glad for the report from the Times and I’m glad N.Y.U. is taking it seriously.  It’s just too bad it took them so long.  It’s too bad that large universities can easily hire contractors, especially contractors in the Gulf States that typically have no scruples where workers rights are concerned (more on this soon), and totally divest themselves of responsibility.  These far away companies become like no-see-ums – pesky, but ultimately easily ignored. 

This subject has become near and dear to my heart, principally because I spent a year working in Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States (such as the UAE) have an employment system for foreign workers called kafala.  This system requires that all foreign workers have a native sponsor.  I was sponsored by the college I worked for.  Domestic workers (and there are millions of them) such as maids and drivers are sponsored by individual citizens.  I presume the South Asian workers at the Abu Dhabi campus were sponsored by one of the Emirates contract companies.  What is the problem with these sponsorship systems?  Well, there are several egregious problems.  For example, when I worked in Saudi Arabia I eventually received an iqama, a residence permit, through my sponsor.  Without an iqama in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you can’t do shit – can’t board a domestic flight, can’t conduct banking business, can’t stay in a hotel – the list goes on.  But here’s another thing – the sponsor takes away your passport in exchange for the iqama, and you can’t leave the country without an exit visa from that sponsor (and your passport, obviously).  Ideally, the sponsor returns your passport and gives you the exit visa when you badly need a vacation or are leaving the job all together.  Ideally.  In reality, this is not what happens.  In reality, many many employers take their workers passports and never give them their iqama.  Or, when they want to leave, will not provide the exit visa either, so they are stuck in the country.  The system is rife with abuse.  It is tantamount to slavery.  Imagine if you’re in a dispute with your employer (and I knew several cases like this).  The employer has total control of the situation – they can have you deported right away, or, worse still, they can force you to work indefinitely.  All with low pay, which is probably less than they promised in the first place. 

(I write about this a lot in my as yet unpublished memoir, My Heart is a Wilderness, about the year I spent in Saudi Arabia.)

After seeing this in Saudi Arabia, it sickens me that a prestigious American university has played a part in such a system.  Clearly it was not enough that N.Y.U. had a Statement of Labor Values.  Why the hell should an employment company out of the UAE care about that?  And this raises a big question – when doing business overseas where the U.S. has no jurisdiction, what can you do about unfair labor practices?  Probably you need some serious clout – and tactful diplomacy – to get to a monarch or other head of state so that they can put pressure on the employment company.  I think N.Y.U. is doing that now, but doing it too late. 

I don’t want to say that N.Y.U. has no business having a campus in Abu Dhabi.  I know that is the direction that education is going – globalizing it to financially support institutions at home.  Did I hear that N.Y.U. had promised the construction workers that their children could attend the university for free?  I don’t think I’m making that up.  A nice gesture, but good luck in finding the workers. 

In my next post, I will probably talk about unfair labor issues in the U.S.  You’re not off the hook on this, America.