Posted by The Reluctant Emigrant—Denise Hession in Features.

When you live abroad for a while, the newness wears off the new surroundings and regardless of how strange it seemed at first, it will feel familiar and ‘normal’ in time. When I first arrived in Qatar I was awed by just about everything, over time, the awe has waned and is replaced by acceptance. So these days, it takes a long hard look in the mirror to register that the normalcy has left my life and absurdity has entered, taken a seat and made itself comfortable, the irony being that I’m treating absurdity as normalcy!

Every morning at 8.55am Qatar time the telephone rings and it’s my old buddy Sara from Cork, its 6.55am her time and she’s on her way to work. This ritual has been so for nearly seven years, the only break being at 7.05am when she’s on Carr’s Hill, I don’t need to ask if there’s traffic in the tunnel, if there is then the call with cut off, if not, it will keep on. Somewhere over that seven years we ceased speaking about the fact that I was living abroad and we started chatting about life in general, as normal.

As my normal is now an accepted absurdity, it’s only when I hear myself speak it aloud that I realise, this is indeed absurd. So I’m on the usual morning call when Sara, my friend, says, where are you, it’s gone all echoey, ‘I’m on Carr’s hill’ I answer rather delighted at my witty retort, seriously, she says, ‘where are you?’ so, I told her.

I’m standing in the toilet cubicle, trying to dodge the hole in the floor, which apparently is a toilet. I’m here because I am thirsty, 50 degrees heat will always work up a thirst, and no, I’m not going to drink from the toilet, I have a bottle of water in my handbag which I am not allowed drink in public because it’s Ramadan. As everyone knows, during Ramadan, nobody, Catholic, Muslim or religiously disinterested is allowed eat or drink during the hours of 6am to 6pm, in public. So I’m here trying to get a sip of water before I go home. ‘Where is the baby?’ she asks, ‘outside, with the Filipino girl that hands out the soap and towels’ I answer. ‘Are the shops open?’ she asks, I reply ‘oh yes, everything open, just did the shopping, cooked chickens, chilled cokes and the waft of freshly baked bread in the supermarket, flirt with all the fasters, and the checkouts are full but whatever you do don’t pick up a sweet at the till and eat it, or the cops will be called’.

Just as I’m clarifying those points, there’s a knock at the cubicle door. For a minute, I’m think was I caught drinking? It’s been 25 years since I was caught swigging a bottle of vodka in the Disco toilets, am I now going to get in trouble for swigging Evian? This thought made be instantly sorry that I hadn’t snuck something a little more worthy in my handbag, I mean, I’d rather be banged up for a good Cab Sauv than a bottle of water.

‘Excuse me ma’am’, the lady said through her Niqab and she pushed a piece of paper in my hand. The note had guidelines for appropriate dress code during Ramadan and she nodded at bingo wings, a results of too many buffalo wings, and pointed to the door. ‘Listen I’m going to let you go here’ I said into the phone, ‘I’ve been caught with a bottle of water and the straps on my top are a good two inches too narrow, so, I’ve gotta run here before I’m arrested’.

My friend was shocked, she asked how I was going to manage food shopping now that I had to leave, when I told her that I had already done the shopping, given the key of car to the bag packer helper and gotten him to put the shopping in the car and turn on the AC, she said ‘it’s absurd, the whole thing’, and you know I had to agree but at least my getaway car was started and cool before I had to make a fast exit.