The perks of being Maimoona Rahman
I wish I could rewind time to when that lady cut the queue right in front of me to talk to the receptionist.
I go to an orthodontist in a downscale clinic, run mostly by Indian doctors and a combination of Indian and Filipino nurses, overflowing with working-class trauma patients. Amongst these patients, you might also see the occasional Blackberry, flash of a diamond studded abaya, or the bubble-filled lock screen of an iPhone. These relatively well-to-do patients usually come here to see the opthalmologist or the orthodontist or the gynecologist, if they are not here with their maids and drivers. Working-class patients, almost all male, don’t crowd the waiting room to see these specialists, so there’s no queue you need to wait in if you need to see them. You don’t need to take prior appointments.
The doctors have earned quite a reputation for their astuteness. The fees are affordable, but not so cheap that you’d wonder if the metal wire or brackets of the braces you’d be fitted with are recycled imitation smuggled from a third-world country. All these benefits at the cost of being stuffed in the face with sweat; open, possibly infested, wounds; people dressed in rags like silverscreen paupers; moans; and wild stares of rough-skinned people who you think are wondering how much money you have in your wallet as you walk past them.
Standing in a queue, sandwiched between twenty-something blue-collar workers, following up about broken limbs, fractured skulls, or simply persistent colds, I might have worked up a rage at how slowly I progressed in the queue because the receptionist had to repeat every single thing. Exacerbated by their chatter and gazes–perhaps innocent and without any meaning at all–my rage almost got the better of me, and I wanted to literally scream, despite the fact that I had been there for barely two minutes. Just when I reached the counter and slid my card across it, an Urdu-speaking woman, presumably Pakistani, pushed me aside and sidled up to the counter. She said to the South-Indian receptionist in Urdu, “Sir. Listen, sir.”
“Woman!” I wanted to scream. “It’s not like I have all the time in the world.”
The receptionist looked annoyed, and I could see he wasn’t paying attention as he sorted through papers some staff had been waiting for.
“Sir, sir. Please listen.” The woman continued.
“Yes, yes,” the receptionist said. “I am listening,” he said in broken Hindi.
“See, one year ago, I made a health card here to see a gynecologist. But she was talking of some extra charges, so I didn’t see her. I didn’t use that card, no? Now see, my son–
“Son, son. Where are you? Where did you go?
“You see, sir, my son has serious eye problems. I need to take him to a doctor immediately. Can I use my health card which I never used? Please sir?”
“How old is your son?” The receptionist didn’t notice her son among all the men.
“Twenty-five. See his eye is in a terrible condition. Please, sir?”
The receptionist reached out for my card, typed into a computer, told me my doctor was away, and that if I wanted, I could see another orthodontist. He turned to the woman and said, “No, how can he use your card? Do things work like that?”
“No, they don’t.” I thought to myself with a smirk, which I had the audacity to carry because I thought the woman silly for begging for something impossible. I wondered at how stupid people can be for thinking health cards are transferable.
As I walked away, I heard the woman say, “But we just came back from our mother country and obviously we have no money now…so please have mercy.”
I silently scoffed at her. Again.
Later that day, I was preparing dinner at home and suddenly my thoughts shifted to that woman in the hospital. I tried to imagine how sad it must be to be in a situation in which you have to beg to a hospital receptionist. I wondered how ego-shattering it would be for me if I were in her shoes and had to do something like that, but wouldn’t I, too, if I had a son with a bad eye? Then I remembered looking at her with derision and I felt godawful for reacting with exactly what I hate: arrogance. “How could I be so contemptuous?” I wondered.
That was two days ago, and I am still wondering how I could have been so insensitive.
Even charitable people draw a line between how much they interact with the proletariat. They wouldn’t want to sit at the same table, ladle out food from the same bowl, or pour water from the same pitcher. They don’t take their wounds to a hospital that pretty much looks like a charity hospital, because of the imagined olfactory, visual, auditory, and palpable ugliness.
Perhaps my first step towards crushing my arrogance–which I at one point had become desperate to do because other people’s was getting on my nerves–is my choice to go to an orthodontist who sits in this low-end clinic, although his charges are quite on par with many other orthodontists in the country. I spend five days a week with mostly designer-wear touting university students who speak so much about human rights for labourers but complain of too many of them working on campus; I needed, and still need, to get away from the lordliness money breeds in us. I told myself that it is perfectly reasonable to consider myself safe in the hands of those who bandage the wounds of poor people, not considering it beneath their dignity. Wouldn’t you trust a doctor who worked with Doctors Without Borders? I probably would.
I still feel guilty that I did not discreetly slip a 100-riyal ($27) bill in the woman’s hands or give her one of my discount cards. When I see clusters of men in blue/orange overalls, I either feel too sorry or too annoyed. I think it’s despicable that I always need to think in retrospect to come up with an iota of respect for a person struggling to eke out an existence in a harsh foreign country.
I wish I wasn’t such a terrible person. I wish there was some way to redemption.
Update: Two commentors have shown disapproval of my use of the word “proletariat”, which I see no different from “working class,” “workers,” or “migrant workers.”
I probably should have put the word proletariat in quotation marks to emphasise that this is not a word I am in favour of either. Neither do I favour blue-collar workers, labourers, migrant workers, or the Indian workers. When I was very little, we had some construction work right at our doorstep and my mother would refer to the workers as the “people fixing the roads”, and that somehow sounds more human.
I used the word for two reasons. 1) When people drop bills in charity boxes in Qatar, many are giving charity to a class of people they know are poor. What these poor people do, where or how they live, and where they are from don’t matter, and many want to be charitable, but don’t want to be associated with them. I know proletariat doesn’t mean impoverished, but in this country, the working class is the most dehumanised. 2) I have mentioned that designer-wear obsessed young people whom I have met in uni would rally for human rights for labourers any day, but they would never do something as nice as just chat with them without the intention of writing a research paper. In a way, I feel university encourages us to see people as classes just as much as they want us to be charitable. We write about the effect of a particular “class” on a particular revolution, we talk about the contribution of the bourgeois and the working class to economy, we discuss the relationship between different classes of people, or we create statistics about the number of people in a particular class, so when we try to be charitable, we keep in mind a class of people, not a cause.
I would also like to mention that I have no qualms chatting with workers. I wrote this because I want to understand why I was so mad in the hospital that day. Normally, I eavesdrop to find out how one broke his toe or that he is expecting a baby back home. But that day, I was quite angry and exhausted and hated the fact that everything was taking so long. I do not blame the workers for how slowly everything was progressing. Maybe it’s the hospital administration that I should blame for not trying to overcome language and terminology barriers and shortage of staff.
I would also like to give Dr Pushpalatha a huge thumbs up. She’s an ophthalmologist I used to see a long time ago, and her waiting rooms were often filled with workers. She taught me to trust places with workers rather than be afraid or disgusted.