The dividing line (and another week, another camel picture)
Watching the social dynamics of European or North America expatriate communities in non-European or North American settings is really interesting. Whether NGO worker or entrepreneur, diplomat or soldier, exchange student or English teacher we organise and ghettoize ourselves in the same way that immigrant communities do back in our own countries. We self-affirm our own liberal, enlightened cosmopolitanism in the act of choosing to live in a different culture to the one we are accustomed to, and then simultaneously construct subtle walls around our expatriate identity when ‘in country’. We create communities inside communities – complete with discrete barriers to entry and expected codes of behaviour for those who have access. Much of this, is simply basic human nature – culturally conditioned preferences for companionship; the challenges and dislocations of living in an alien environment require us to find emphatic outlets for discontent, humour and recognition and, for this purpose at least, birds of a feather really do flock together.
I’ve experienced these phenomena in Asia, the Middle East and now East Africa and in every place I’m struck by similar questions of cultural identity, social detachment and globalised class consciousness. Perhaps I’m an unwitting neo-colonialist acting out the same patterns of social identification experienced by an earlier generation of young administrators under the flag of the British Empire, and maybe the difference between a Green Zone in Baghdad and an expat bar street in Beijing is not one of character but of scale and powers of enforcement. I’ve watched Chinese police bundle a deformed beggar into an unmarked van in front of a Starbucks in Shanghai (lest he disrupt the steady green-tea frappuchino trade), and I’ve seen the armed guards that patrol the perimeter of the Sheraton in Addis Ababa and recognized precisely what their job entails: drawing the familiar line between the affluent, cosmopolitan elite, and the rest.
Like most things this is a divide that boils down not to race but class and the aforementioned line is ever present, sometimes physical (metal detectors and sticks to hit people with) and sometimes more intangible (a guarded attitude and a knowledge that to go that place at that late hour will result in some unpleasantness and a minor but potentially violent redistribution of wealth). Regardless of form it’s always there and I know which side I’m on – whether I like it or not. Despite the fact I come from a modest background, have little but student debt in the way of finances, and currently work for peanuts (relatively speaking) for the University of Hargeisa, my education, my cultural background and the fact I have a European passport place me into a select community here. This community is populated by other expatriates, visiting diplomats and consultants, a local business class and a returning diaspora. I’ve heard members of the latter two groups refer to the rest of the local population – point blank – as ‘uncivilised’. Of course, most of the foreigners don’t use such language (not politically correct, you see) and yet the divisions remain, heightened by the perceived threat of just being here and a security situation which supposedly calls for gated compounds and a hell of a lot of razor wire. If I’d followed the advice of the State Department or Foreign and Commonweath Office (which I very rarely do) then I wouldn’t have left the safety of Nairobi (!) or democratic stability of Addis Ababa (!)
Unlike the majority of foreigners in Hargeisa we, the international teachers at UOH, don’t take armed security with us everywhere. We do not work for an international organisation and are not bound by the same kind of security restrictions that most foreigner NGO workers are here. We are perfectly comfortable moving around the city in the daytime doing the mundane things that structure life in a way that somehow integrates us with the wider community (if only partially). We buy mangos, get our hair cut and drink tea in the cafes on the street. So far we have been met with nothing but kindness and friendly curiosity by the people we meet. I wasn’t expecting anything different, but the reactions we sometimes get from other foreigners when we tell them of all this crazy shit we do (vegetable purchasing and such like) really makes one wonder. I always want to ask: why on earth are you here, if you feel that way? Aside from the hazard pay, of course…
Possibly we are being terribly naïve in our attitude to the security situation here, but on the other hand I wouldn’t feel comfortable about living and working in a community in which I did not feel safe popping to shops for a plastic carrier bag of camel milk. I feel safer being a recognisable part of a community (look, there’s that crazy white dude again! Warya!) than another anonymous and detached foreigner blasting around in a tinted-windowed land cruiser. There’s a fine line between engaging with a community in which you work and taking unnecessary risks. I sincerely hope we’re living on the right side of that boundary. I’d like to think we are.