7 June 2012
What’s in a name? From Dunes to Dior By Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
“I didn’t want to tell you this,” Rima, my very first Arabic tutor, said sighing, “but your name does not have a good meaning.”
“MoHUnA,” she said pulling at the edges of her headscarf and lining up the sides of laminated note cards, “means dejected or one who is disappointed.” She waited a moment before looking up at me, the curved rims of her eyeglass lenses framing soft brown eyes.
“My name is Mohanalakshmi,” I responded, “and it means beautiful goddess of wealth.”
As a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf, Mohana is ideally placed to open our minds to the subtle prejudices that help us simplify our complex world. Her new book From Dunes to Dior is an engaging view of how it feels to live in one of the fastest changing countries in the world. Mohana describes Qatar as ‘one the smallest and safest countries in the world, an oasis of calm smack dab in the global hotspot of the Middle East.’
Mohana travelled to Qatar (a country the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut) in 2005 to support one of the American universities setting up a branch campus in the capital Doha. Her story of establishing a life and career in the Arabian Desert is shared by thousands of immigrants who have relocated to the rapidly developing country, as many of the people living in Qatar are expatriate workers of multiple nationalities, including migrant workers from across South Asia to American and European professionals.
I was surprised at how little I knew about Qatar, although the tragic recent mall fire had brought the country back into the news. In our haste to get on with our lives it is all too easy to think Qatar must be a bit like Dubai – in the same way that Mohana found that people were constantly finding quick ways to ‘categorise’ her.
Refreshingly positive about this ignorance, Mohana recalls she was made to feel rare, strange, special, and unique at middle and high school in North Florida. At college in North Carolina she felt ‘like a fly in a glass of milk’ an anomaly. In Qatar has name advertises that she comes from India – but her Sri Lankan features cause confusion.
It didn't help when she moved to Qatar where if you are Indian, Pakistan, Sri Lankan, or Bangladeshi, you are likely a construction worker, maid, driver, cook, or errand person – or if you are American, British, Australian, or Canadian, you are probably an engineer, teacher, or involved in the oil industry. (Mohana also discovered that her name sounded very much like Muhanna, a very common and popular man’s name in the region.)
In turns funny, poignant and touching, From Dunes to Dior will definitely help you understand Qatar – and possibly make you think about your own prejudices.
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a writer who has lived in Qatar since 2005. She has a PhD from the University of Florida with a focus on gender and postcolonial theory and has written and co-edited five books in the Qatar Narratives series, as well as the Qatari Voices anthology which features essays by Qataris on modern life in Doha (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2010).
An Associate Editor of Vox, a fashion and lifestyle magazine based in Doha and winner of the She Writes We Love New Novelists competition, Mohana has been a regular contributor for Variety Arabia, AudioFile Magazine, Explore Qatar, Woman Today, The Woman, Writers and Artists Yearbook, QatarClick, Expat Arrivals, Speak Without Interruption and Qatar Explorer.
Mohana is working on a collection of essays related to her experiences in the Arabian Gulf and a novel based in Qatar.
Posted by Tony Riches