Author’s Note: This is an account of my experience on a recent flight from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi. If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon of guest workers in the Middle East, and other parts of the world, I suggest you do a quick internet search to become familiar with the concept. I have elected not to include a description here, as it is a sometimes hotly contested subject.
The Mumbai airport had not impressed me on my outbound flight, but as I made my way through the almost unbearable security line, this time alone, I inwardly seethed. I’d had to force my way through the crowds of men, who outnumbered the women by more than ten to one, to reach the line marked for ladies only. I had a fleeting thought of pity, as those men, with their furtive eyes and faces composed of sharp angles, would be waiting for a very long time.
I’d no sooner turned the corner to head down the stairs to my gate than the smell of piss slapped my face like a dubiously moist blanket. All of those same furtive eyes, now owned by different people, that had avoided my gaze at security found their way to me as I looked for a seat. The gate that marked the threshold for the flight to Abu Dhabi was packed with bodies. I stood as inconspicuously as possible, which is impossible as I’m tall and blonde and in India, and sipped my soda while I surveyed the crowd. I was one of only three or four women in the gate area.
I tried to remove the ugly thoughts of gang rape from my mind. I’m not that person, I don’t assume things about people, and certainly not potentially immediate threats of brutal violence simply because I’m in India, and simply because it’s just happened. Recently. Very recently.
So, naturally, in an attempt to prove that I’m not that person, I move on to assuming other things about my fellow passengers. Why are they going to Abu Dhabi? The couples in Emirati national dress? They are young and carrying stylish hand luggage. They live there. The Western men in shorts carrying backpacks and camera cases? Tourists, or possibly a layover to somewhere else. The rest of the 200+ passengers? South Asian men. They’re going to work.
The room is filled with those same eyes and faces I dismissed at security. Now they’re right in front of me. Most of them wear the same white ball caps, emblazoned with the logo of some Nepalese agency, and the word “manpower” features prominently across the front. I know what those agencies do, or at least I’ve heard the stories. All of us who live in Abu Dhabi have heard the stories.
The men under those caps are young, very young. I’d hazard to guess that none of them are over 21, and I wonder how many of them are not even 18. Their eyes shine brightly with a mash-up of excitement, bewilderment and fear. They jostle with each other, that universal boyishness bubbling to the surface, then they stop, as if trying to assert that they are men now. Men don’t do those things. Especially not men who are embarking on a trip to a new life, a dream realized.
I wonder what they think is going to happen. I wonder what they’ve been told about their new lives in Abu Dhabi. I wonder how many of them have been on a plane before this fateful trip. I wonder if they’ll regret it.
As the gate agents finally call for the passengers to line up, so we can climb aboard the bus that will deposit us at the plane, I find myself in line behind one of those Westerners. He hitches up his shorts and clutches his camera to his chest as he turns to make small talk with me. He jerks his head toward the 200+ in identical, cheap ball caps.
“Are they some sort of Boy Scout group or something?” he says with a laugh.
“No, they’re workers,” I reply.
“What kind of workers?” he asks, a hard edge creeping into his voice.
“Laborers”, I admit, not enjoying that word and its connotations at all.
“Oh, right. I’ve heard stories about that. Laborers in Abu Dhabi, I mean,” he says, as we hand over our boarding passes.
As the plane heaves itself into the air, I surreptitiously eye my seat mate. This is the final leg of his journey and he orders the free scotch with his meal. He squeezes his eyes shut as he sips it. I’ll never know why he savored that small portion of scotch like he did. I like to think that he has a grand idea of what men who are off to the unknown do; visions of a prospective fortune in a sparkling foreign land call for a plastic cup of cheap scotch.
The airplane lumbers over the Abu Dhabi area on its final approach, and the passengers fly into animated chatter, with their faces earnestly pressed to the windows. I also throw a glance at the landscape below, and realize that we are flying directly over Yas Island, and the stunning Yas Viceroy Hotel comes into view, its huge and otherworldly LED display illuminating the night. The chatter escalates to very audible oohs and aahs, and I wonder what they’re thinking about this place that they’ll likely not have a chance to see again; a place that I can visit whenever I like.
The minute the seat belt sign chimes off, I bolt for the front of the plane. My Abu Dhabi International sprint and dodge skills are wonderfully honed, and I arrived at immigration very near the front of the line. I looked behind me as all of those men filed in, their white ball caps in place, papers clutched carefully in their hands, the excitement on their faces replaced with anxiety, and the chatter and tussling reduced to whispers and nudges. An immigration official came by, calling for resident visa holders, and I was swept away and whisked through the line. I received my stamp, collected my bag, met my husband, and went home.
I should have looked back, at least once. I should have tried to memorize at least one face. I should have asked for one name. I would like to know where he ends up. I wonder if he’s happy. I wonder if this is everything he dreamed it would be, when he was in the Mumbai airport and his smile spoke of excitement and his eyes were still alive.
But I didn’t look back. I didn’t ask. I just went home. And as we passed through the gate of our housing compound, I realized that I didn’t need to ask. I have the answer right in front of me. The man who opens the gate for us was one of those men, just a year or two ago. He jostled with his buddies before boarding his flight to Abu Dhabi. He ordered the scotch too, because that’s what worldly men are supposed to do. He stood at immigration, waiting for that stamp of acceptance in his stiffly new passport. He smiles and waves as we pass through, but the smile doesn’t meet his eyes. It’s only a mechanical twitch of muscles, nothing more.
I wonder if he still has his ball cap.
Bret @ GGT says
An INCREDIBLY well written story, Cate. And you know that’s not a compliment I give out very often.
Thanks Bret! I really appreciate that!
Ditto, an incredible article.I just get more and more proud and interested in what you have to say.
So they are being trafficked? Modern day indentured servitude?
I met someone like that once. His story went something like this:
The economy of his home country had been pillaged by the corrupt elite. The infrastructure had been failing for several years. Vast swaths of the population were losing their homes and unemployment had surpassed and then teetered just below historic highs. For many in his homeland, violence was a way of life. He came from a place that was in rapid decay.
With the hope of a brighter future, he boarded a plane for Abu Dhabi only to find out he had been lied to. He was forced into a job that he wasn’t being paid to do. He was housed in a place that was crumbling, unsafe and lacked any semblance of tranquility. He was technically free to leave whenever he wanted, but would be insurmountably financially burdened by doing so. While he was allowed to keep his passport, immigration officials at the airport were under orders to ask him for an exit letter if he wished to leave the country. An exit letter that could easily be denied him for no legitimate reason.