Whispers all week. Colleagues who had previously nodded to me, their eyes warm with welcome, now looked away. Scurried off, their abeyas flapping behind them, the dull beat of wings in flight.
What was this new trouble? My stomach gripped as I waited, watched.
Dr Mouna, a local woman and dear colleague who I respect and trust, approached Angie and I mid-week. By now, we could not pretend all was well, could not just laugh it off. In this place of a thousand babbling voices, it was all too silent. Beneath her breath she told us what all these whispers were about. Four expat women were to be terminated next – we had a couple of weeks left, at best. We should be ready to leave fast.
But why? What was our offence?
Laila shook her head. The Ministry was seething. How had we allowed Dr Meryl, our colleague in the Public Health team, to give ‘that’ presentation to the WHO last week? Angie and I were still none the wiser. We had had nothing to do with the conference and Dr Meryl’s presentation.
It turned out, Dr Meryl shared the results of the latest independent world health survey with the three hundred delegates at the international health summit last week. In doing so she revealed that the country’s obesity rate now topped 70% of the population, and that 5% of the local women smoke.
The Under Ministers were raging; no one speaks about these things and women most certainly do not smoke. A shocking Western lie that implied the local women were ‘loose’. Dr Meryl had insulted the nation.
Laila shook her head. Dr Meryl should have known better. Her predecessor, a well-renowned Professor from Germany, had been fired for publishing a paper about the extensive and hidden scale of domestic violence.
Western women were just too much trouble, so we were all to be terminated.
I crossed to the window and looked out at the endless sugar-cube buildings and the porridge sky. Sometimes, in this heat, this dust, it was all just too much. Laila put her arm across my shoulders.
‘Sister, it is time for my prayers. I will pray for you’.
Laila slipped off her veil, knelt on her prayer-mat and chanted softly, as she bowed to her God. With the lilt of the prayers, my breath slowed to the ancient rhythm. My tears dried.
That day we left the building in silence, wondering what the next would hold.
I slept fitfully in the afternoon, dreams twisted, scratching. The angry buzz of my mobile woke me. It was Angie.
‘It’s true. Dr Meryl was fired today’.
Laila rang to tell me the full story. Dr Meryl had been escorted from the building by the security guards just ten minutes before hometime. She barely had time to grab her handbag, no explanation given, no chance to discuss a civil exit. The corridor was teeming with staff, and all the way down the stairs and into the foyer. She was jostled and poked at, as women hissed from behind their veils and the men clapped and jeered.
‘Now the people are saying very bad things about Dr Meryl. They say she has been terminated because she has a bad woman’s disease’.
I laughed, ‘Laila, people cannot possibly believe that!’
‘The people, they will believe anything. What other reason could there be?’
‘Dr Meryl is a married woman, a grandmother. She is a good, kind, professional woman’.
‘But all the people know was that she was terminated, so she must be bad’.
‘And what will they say of me, when this happens to me?’
The rumours reached a fever. Every day we waited to see who would be next. We didn’t have to wait long. Two Egyptian project managers were fired. Hustled out of the building with the same fanfare of spite and venom. Accusations of theft and playing with ‘bad women’, drunkenness.
The girls in the office were tearful, seeing the anxiety of their friends amongst the expats. It was not just the tawdriness of the termination process that gnawed at us, it was the threat of arrest, deportation… or worse. The locals seemed to be sharing our vulnerability too, as day by day their posts shifted and changed, demoted without consultation, simply for being of the wrong family. People started to talk of ‘dark days’, a rare critique where usually no comment dared pass; and many were talking quietly about trying to leave. Although, that would not easy if they lived in government accommodation, as most did; and often the government refused to release local people from their posts. They were trapped, as much as us, held here without access to our exit visas.
Faria swept into the office. Her long slender fingers, heavy with gems, tapped my office phone. She put a finger to her lips.
‘Do not use. They listen.’
Faria explained she knew this because she had to process the payment to the police for this new turn of events.
‘Laila, what is happening here?’
Laila disappeared off down the corridor. I waited, stared at my computer screen, saw nothing. When she came back she told me that the police had been called in because someone in the organisation was passing on information to the press about the troubles in the organisation and criticising the Chair.
‘They will find who is doing this. Allah, protect us. These troubles, this is only the beginning.’
A head appeared round the corner of our office door.
‘Are you scared Miss?’ smirked Tarek, the viperous office manager from along the corridor.
‘Of course not.’
‘You should be.’