The story of my summer begins on the last day of the Spring semester: after collecting the term papers from students in my Political Ecology course (CSOC 407), I went home, packed up my suitcase, and flew off to Qatar. Although my two year stint at Qatar University concluded in 2010, I returned to Puget Sound with a pair of funded research projects that require constant attention. Both of those projects are large two-year projects funded by the Qatar National Research Fund. I’ll tell you a bit about one of them here and save the second for another time.
The first of those projects is straightforwardly titled Transnational Migration in Qatar. As you may know, millions and millions of men and women migrate to the Gulf States every year in search of work. For the last decade or so, my ethnographic research has explored these migration flows, with a particular focus on the circuit of male labor migrants who arrive from South Asia. Much of my scholarly work has sought to describe and understand the extremely difficult challenges these men oftentimes face while abroad in Arabia.
Overall, most members of the small coterie of ethnographers who work with this population of migrants think we have a pretty good ethnographic understanding of the problems and challenges they typically face. We’re unable, however, to attach numbers — or frequencies — to those challenges and problems. In other words, I can tell you that almost every labor migrant I’ve spoken with has had his or her passport confiscated by an employer. But I can’t tell you — at least not yet — that 90% of labor migrants have had their passport confiscated by their employer. Numbers can be powerful and convincing. This project was configured to deliver those numbers to the ministries, policymakers, and scholars that play a significant role in shaping migrants’ experiences in the Gulf States.
It sounds straightforward, but it’s a Herculean task. We need to survey 1000 of these labor migrants. They’re spread all over the city of Doha, and often difficult to access. They may or may not be properly documented. They come from dozens of different places and speak dozens of different languages. And the only day most of them are free to be surveyed is Friday. Luckily, I was able to assemble a crack research team to tackle the task at hand, including Dr. Silvia Pessoa (Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar), Dr. Kaltham Al-Ghanim (Qatar University), Drs. Abdoulaye Diop and Kien Le Trung (SESRI/Qatar University), Laura Harkness (our project manager), and graduate student Simone Popperl (UC Irvine).
In addition to traveling to Doha, I graciously accepted an invitation to come deliver a pair of papers at the London School of Economics in late June. The first of those two papers, City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain, was delivered as part of the LSE’s Ethnography and HIstory of Southwest Asia and North Africa Seminar Series. The second, Transnational Migration In the Gulf States: An Overview, was delivered as part of a workshop entitled In the Shadows of the Oil Economy: Land, Agriculture, and Arab Employment. I had a fantastic time at the LSE — particularly in my conversations with the graduate students planning fieldwork in Arabia.
I also had a paper published in the first issue of the new Journal of Arabian Studies. That paper, Gulf Migration and the Family, builds on the various ethnographic research projects I’ve conducted over the past years in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. I use those ethnographic data to assess how these migration flows impact the families migrants leave behind, how migration alters families that migrate as an intact nuclear unit, and how the presence of labor migrants in the Gulf States effects Arab families in the host societies. All of us who work in the Gulf States are excited about this new journal, and I’m extremely grateful to have an article in the flagship issue!
Finally, the long summer days offered me the opportunity to catch up on some work around the house. I built a chicken coop for our backyard, and truth be told, I’m really quite proud of it. And with a lot of help and advice from my friend Tom, we built a preposterously adventurous (dangerous?) tree fort for my daughter and her friends. Kristin, Astrid and I took our VW camper all over the NW, spent a week on a friend’s mini-vineyard in Sonoma, had a few lovely days pulling salmon out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and spent a couple of fantastic weekends at our friend’s cabin on Lake Crescent.