Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Right to Have "Society in the Bones": The Skill and Bodies of Male Workers in Qatar

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Right to Have "Society in the Bones": The Skill and Bodies of Male Workers in Qatar

Article excerpt

"How do I decide which men to recruit? It's easy. I tell them to pick up a sack of rice and run. The men who can make it half a kilometer without collapsing, those are the ones I take." This is how Anand Suparat described recruiting workers from his native Thailand to build skyscrapers in Doha, Qatar.1 Suparat was the director of a building contractor that specialized in masonry and concrete. Business in 2014, with the World Cup less than a decade away and Qatar flush with oil money, was booming. His company had won multimillion-dollar contracts for high-rise apartments, museums and cultural centers, and infrastructure upgrades. To complete the projects, his company recruited hundreds of workers from countries around the world.

"How heavy are these sacks?" I asked, as we sat in his air-conditioned office in a nondescript office building in one of the more run-down parts of central Doha. The walls of his office were covered in dark wood paneling, the same hue of the mahogany of the round table at which we sat, sipping green tea from crystal glasses and eating dates. The shades were pulled down low even on that February afternoon to keep out the harsh sun. "How heavy? You know, they are normal sacks. Maybe 80 kg? I sometimes like to see if they can carry two. Those are the quality workers."

Two of Suparat's chief engineers joined us for the interview. Later, one of them, Khan, an engineer from Pakistan who had worked in Qatar for close to a decade, took me back to his cubicle to tell me more about the technical capacities that his firm had developed. "We know how to work with concrete in the heat. We are specialists in the slow cure."

Qatar's extreme heat, with temperatures that routinely broke 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, made the process of laying down concrete technically challenging. All Portland concrete changes volume as it dries, Khan explained, but in Qatar, concrete that dried too fast in the furnace of Qatar's summers was vulnerable to drying shrinkage, a process in which the water in the cement mixture evaporated before the concrete was fully set. This produced an increase in tensile stress-cracks and warps to the layperson-that jeopardized the structural integrity of load-bearing walls. "A slow cure is even more critical with foundations," he specified. "The water table in Doha is very high, and if there are cracks in the foundation, the building may flood, and, in any case, the water will definitely erode the foundation. A slow cure can be challenging, but I tell you, impermeability is one of the most difficult technical problems we face." He went on about concrete slumping, admixtures, placing, and moisture management. The lesson expanded to include the design of the rebar cages that reinforced the concrete, the relentless race against both the heat that often warped steel rods and the deadlines demanded by clients, and the constant problem-solving required to translate the fantastical designs imagined by star architects into sound buildings.

To help me understand the techniques he was describing, he pulled out his battered laptop from under a stack of architectural plans. He showed me a series ofYouTube clips: a video of a concrete boom, a sort of hose that pumped out concrete from a mixer; a tutorial on the chemical mixtures for concrete; an animated illustration of how to apply liquid-membrane covers on hardening concrete. The last video he showed me was a short documentary on the construction process of Burj Khalifa, the dizzyingly high skyscraper in Dubai, a project his company had not been involved with. As we watched the time-lapse video of the high-pressure pump pouring concrete mixed with ice to hold together the precast concrete walls lifted by cranes, he pointed out each technical feat. In the final frames of the video, when the building was complete, the soundtrack switched from narration to soaring orchestral music. Khan remarked excitedly, "It's like a symphony. All the pieces come together, and it's like our imagination has come to life. …

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