Marvis knew that one day he would be living abroad in an international city. Given his professional background and language skills, he figured he’d be somewhere in the Spanish speaking world. Instead, an opportunity led him to the Middle East, and he shares how life in Qatar lends itself to all types of teachable moments.
Tell me about your background. Was international travel part of your childhood?
Well, I am from the booming metropolis of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Population 8,000. Just to put in a context a bit – it is an extended suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. It is something you’d probably see out of Gone with the Wind. We have these big antebellum homes with these Greco-Roman style homes. They are former plantation houses.
Holly Springs is a very lovely town. It kind of reminds you of Mayberry. It is very safe. Very quaint. But at the same time, it is still Mississippi. In 2015, it’s still socially segregated. We have 3 separate school systems in a town of 8,000 people. We have a predominately white private school system that goes from kindergarten through grade twelve. We have a predominately black public school system that goes from kindergarten through twelfth grade and you have a predominately black private school that goes from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Being from a small rural town in Northern Mississippi, we knew that education was the only way out. My family travelled but not extensively. When I was five we went to Tijuana, Mexico because we had a family reunion in San Diego, California. In 2001 I took my first trip without my family to the Philippines because my best friend growing up was Filipino.
How did you get from your upbringing in Mississippi to Qatar?
My parents worked really hard to give us exposure. I am from a small town but I don’t think I grew up feeling limited. My mother would make us try different foods and take us to museums. My favorite show growing up was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? so I had the adventurous experience from an early age. My parents taught us that there was nothing we couldn’t do if put our minds to it.
Years later, I was living in Houston, Texas and I having a hard time making a living. I had been teaching children bilingual math and science, and Spanish. I just realized teaching children wasn’t a good fit for me and transitioned into teaching adults. I was working for the University of Houston system as an adjunct. I had three jobs just to pay my mortgage and I thought “something ain’t right.” I am a college educated man. I have an advanced degree. I don’t my mind working hard, but if I am going to do so, I need to be compensated as closely as possible to my worth. And I just believed being in the States on the current track that I was on wasn’t a good fit for me.
I prayed long and hard. I said, “Lord, I don’t know what it is that you want me to do. But I have tried to control every aspect of my life at this point and it just hasn’t worked for me, so I’m gonna pray and throw up the pieces to the puzzle and wherever they land they land, I’m going to be obedient to wherever you send me.”
I had a coworker who was leaving to go to Doha. While teaching English about sixty percent of my students were Saudi. I could relate to them quite well, which I didn’t necessarily expect. We’re from different parts of the world and have a different religion. But my coworker had completed a year in Qatar And I thought “if she can do it, I know I can.” I heard about Houston Community College’s campus in Qatar. I was already teaching Spanish and English as a Second Language for them. I sent my resume and the next week I got an email asking me to send more information. The week after that I was called in for an interview.
They offered me the position but then they went silent. The interviewer said “When you hear from us, things will go really fast.” And that’s exactly how they went. I needed degrees attested, a background check, amongst other things. When I realized I was coming to Qatar, I wanted to learn as much as I could. I made Saudi friends and they treated me like a family member. A former student drove from Saudi just to visit.
Did you experience culture shock moving from the southern part of the U.S. to the Middle East?
I arrived in Doha in 2012. I didn’t have any culture shock. I find the culture similar, particularly being from from the South. In Doha, Qatar… everything is black and white. Even down to the clothes they wear. In the southern part of the United States, things are black and white as well. No gray area. Gray causes confusion. Also similar, we [Southerners], are loud and love to eat. When Qataris break bread…it’s just like home — minus the extreme heat and the lack of rain.
A big part of the expat experience is finding community. How have you found community, particularly as a black male?
It took six months. And in that time I didn’t get a haircut because I refused to let someone mess up my head and have me out here looking stupid. I took a Turkish barber a picture of what I wanted him to do and I looked extremely foolish out in these streets. It was a bad experience.
Once again, I had to realize this experience wasn’t going to be home. I know if I wanted home I could’ve stay there.
I went to different festivals to meet people. If someone looked remotely American, I would say hello and then hope and pray that when they opened their mouths, it might be an American accent. There aren’t very many black Americans in Doha. My second year here, I met a black woman expat who created the Brothas and Sistas of Qatar group, and that connected me to others.
What ended happening is that I made more African friends. This is the first time in my life I have been around Africans. Most of the people here are from East and Southern Africa. I just felt a strong kinship. A good friend is from Zimbabwe and he took me to church where most people are Zimbabwean and Kenyan. I’m the only the African-American man. I don’t feel strange. I feel like I’m among family members. I’m learning more about myself as an African-American that I just didn’t know. I’ve never been so proud to be a black person or an American — and I got that coming here.
Do you feel there needs to be more representation of Black American males as expats?
The world is inundated with stereotypes about us. Often, we’re only shown as athletes. But we’re more than that. Here, they watch a lot of movies where we’re often portrayed as criminals, gangsters, hyper masculine, evil beings. When people meet me, and particularly at work, they realize after interactions with me, a lot of it is not true. And they realize a lot of what they know is one sided. We have these teachable moments where they will ask me questions about what they’ve seen on tv. They really want to know the answer to their questions. I realize the privilege that I have to be able to offer an alternative point of view. I’m inserting another storyline into something they’ve seen on tv their whole lives.
I think it’s important that more African-American men go abroad because then we can control the story. We don’t have to rely on the media. You don’t have to carry the weight of the community on your shoulder, but you have an opportunity to give a different perspective.
My students will say, “Wow, you’re different than what I thought you would be.” It’s easy to be offended but remember people really want to know. And if you have to process something — process it a way they can understand. I must say though, there are times I get extremely frustrated. If I’ve had a bad day, it is hard to process and be teachable.
Have you found community of other African American men in Doha?
In Qatar, no. But I go to UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi, to connect with a community and I’m chartering a Phi Beta Sigma fraternity chapter there. Community is really important to me. I feel like my experience would not be complete if I didn’t speak to someone who looked like me and understands my experiences. Sometimes I just need to talk to my brothers. For me, that means going to Abu Dhabi, every other month. I’m slowly connecting the dots with other black African American men.
What advice do you would have for someone moving to a region that they have little or no experience with?
Research at least two to three hours a night. You need to be prepared. Read as many articles as possible, but try to have a balanced approach. Don’t read about only the good things. Read the good. Read the bad. Read the ugly. If you can, seek out people from that country and try to establish a genuine friendship.
Also, come with tons of patience. Do not compare to your experience from home, because you are not at home. If you make those comparisons, you will be very unhappy. Be as adventurous and respectful as possible. Learn the local customs. Having knowledge about where you are going will set the tone. And be as nice as possible. A smile goes a long way.
What is a must have experience for a first time visit to Qatar?
You must have a true Bedouin experience. You must go camping overnight in the desert. You must go dune bashing and eat roasted lamb and Machboos (the local Qatari rice dish). You need to drink Karak, which is a sweet tea. You need to drink Arabic coffee. You need to sit around a fire and listen to Bedouin families tell stories. Go falcon hunting or fishing on a dhow (a boat). You need to have a desert experience.