Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pic courtesy: Gulf News

There couldn’t be a better picture to capture the poignant contrast that is Dubai. Lofty skyscrapers, mammoth billboards touting beautiful properties for beautiful people, and below it all, a jarring intrusion of almost-humans into a lovely fantasy.

Two days ago, almost a thousand of these almost-humans marched onto Sheikh Zayed Road and with unbelievable audacity squatted on it.

The road-watch RJ sounded surprised as she alerted commuters about this phenomenon. She wasn’t the only one. Even after the police arrived and herded the labourers to the side of the road, traffic continued to crawl, as drivers unaccustomed to the sight of protesting labourers, stopped to take in the spectacle. Traffic in the opposite lane slowed down for a similar reason.

A strike in Dubai? It sounded as abnormal as, well, rains in the desert. It turned out that the workers had taken to the streets to protest non-payment of wages for months. They couldn’t have chosen a better time (7.30 a.m to 9.30 a.m.) or a better place (the arterial Sheikh Zayed Road) to draw attention to their plight. Ripples were felt all the way down to Makhtoum Bridge, which was choked with cars and irate drivers.

The Labour Ministry came down heavily on the employers, Abu Dhabi-based Al Hamed Company for Development. They were ordered to pay salaries within 24-hours, faced a fine for delaying salaries and also a recruitment ban for 6 months.

Suddenly, the invisible almost-humans became celebrities. Photographers rushed to their camps; sound bites were recorded, their sorry lives and living conditions were documented.

Even the company’s administration manager was spoken to, who said,

"The reason why the workers succeeded in their protest is because they were large in number. Otherwise they would never have dared to do anything like this."

So true.

I mean, who in their right mind, would dare to demand clean drinking water or water to have a shower after a hard day's work in the sun. Or ask for facilities to cut fruits and vegetables. Or even require proper sewage facilities and, goodness, modern toilets. Why would almost-humans require all this, eh? And, on top of it all, demand salaries?

Following the 24-hour ultimatum, Al Hamed started paying out salaries but also managed to wrangle out extra time complaining that they could not pay all workers in one day.

How do you expect us to pay 6,000 people’s salaries in ONE day, they pouted. “We have to pay more than Dh5 million in salaries. There's no way we could have done that in 24 hours.”
Another erudite comment was made by a professor of political science of the UAE University.

"The stature of the UAE is superior to any other factor. Unfortunately, there are national companies… who harm the image of the country by abusing rights of workers.

That’s right, you awful national companies. Pay up your workers’ wages to uphold the stature of the UAE. Not because the almost-humans have worked for it.

No workers were arrested during the protest, Gulf News informs us.

An article in the Khaleej Times today elaborates a bit on the psyche of UAE labourers.

Interestingly, all these men believe that fate has brought them here and they have never considered the fact that they can ever be allowed to bring their families here and lead a happy life…

…The fatalism also helps them psychologically, makes it easier on them. "This is how we are meant to spend the rest of our life," they say.

Quick, bring back the lovely fantasy, the lofty skyscrapers…

Update: Surprise, surprise. The Indian government has blacklisted the construction company, Al Hamed.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Rain, almost

“So this is how much people miss the rain,” murmured my bemused Filipino colleague.

We were looking at a mass of twenty-somethings waving their limbs wildly; their faces upturned to catch the teeny droplets of water that burst out of the sprinklers. We were at Dubai Rain 2005, the most eagerly awaited event of the year, if radio spots and full-page ads are to be believed.

The event was scheduled for 11 p.m. but we were warned that traffic and parking would be nightmare. So three of my colleagues and I headed off early, but even as we reached the 5th interchange on Sheikh Zayed road, we knew we were too late. There was a long line of cars headed for the Le Meridien, Mina Siyahi.

As we inched forward in traffic, I wondered just what I was doing headed for a concert which featured names I’d never heard of: Dr. Zeus, DJ Nasha, Aman Hayer, Jazzy B etc. This Bhangra/Garage/Rap couldn’t be further from my usual Western Classical/Jazz leanings. But when you’ve spent most mornings listening to ‘Do me a favour, let’s play Holi’ and ‘Bachke rehna re baba’ on the car radio, you become quite accommodating. Secondly, the concert beat wandering around malls or trying out restaurants – two of the perpetual pastimes in Dubai. Besides there was the promise of ‘rain’…

My colleague managed to nudge the car into a sliver of a parking slot just opposite the Le Meridien, and we all congratulated ourselves, not realizing at that time, that we’d painted ourselves into a corner.

Three stringent security checks later, we were inside the venue. It was a muggy night with just a hint of breeze. And a mighty lot of breezers! I was surprised to find stalls selling beer and breezers. I was so used to concerts where people sneaked in hip flasks or mineral water bottles with pale spirits, that this came as a surprise.

I looked out for the promised ‘rain’. In the middle of the venue, a square-shaped scaffolding had been erected, with sprinklers attached all across the perimeter. Below the scaffolding, a throng of drenched, gyrating bodies kept time with the pulsating beat. The remixes were trotted out one after the other, much to the delight of the crowd. We stood and watched from the sidelines, not sure if it was a good idea to join the hyper-kinetic dancers. My Filipino colleague was quite taken in by the vigorous Bhangra movements.

Although I had made noises initially about not wanting to wet my leather shoes, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. So we went into the ‘rain zone’. The first drops of ‘rain’ on skin felt uncommonly good. Memories of enjoyable rainy days flooded the mind. Hair got plastered, water dripped down one’s chin, clothes got heavy, home felt a little closer.

Expectedly, the crowd consisted mainly of Indians and Pakistanis. But there was a small group of Brits who seemed to be having a whale of a time. I was surprised to spot an Arab girl, headscarf and all. A few guys took the opportunity to do a ‘Salman’, whipping off their shirts to bare un-rippling musles and flab abs. The ratio of guys to girls might have been 15:1. So, few girls went under the sprinklers and fewer still looked comfortable coming away from them.

Each artiste was introduced with much fanfare, but it seemed to me that apart from one superhit song, there wasn’t much else in his repertoire. Realising it, a couple of them tried to work up the crowds with some Punjabi colloquialisms, and it usually worked. The artiste of the evening was, undoubtedly, Raghav. He leaped onto the stage with a bevy of bootylicious dancers and was an instant hit with the crowd. “I don’t need to tell you this,” he exclaimed breathlessly, “but your city is very hot!” He followed that observation with the very catchy ‘Angel Eyes’, so we forgave him for reminding us about the heat.

After a while the ‘nachana-vichana-kudiya’ got a bit repetitive, so we decided to call it a night. It was 1.30 a.m. The sprinklers were still in a profligate mood when we left.

We reached the car and found our exit blocked on all sides. We muttered unkind things about the thoughtless drivers, threw up inventive but impossible solutions, snarled at the inert cars, even. But there was no way out. We piled into the car, exhausted, turned on the radio and listened to the rest of the concert ‘live’.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Just call me Mo!

VHC (Very Helpful Colleague) and I walked into the Belhasa Driving Center today. It was a beehive of activity. People were rushing to and fro clutching papers, passport and paraphernalia.

We headed to the Reception. VHC took charge. Given my last experience, I was relieved.

VHC, a successful alumnus of the same driving institute, inquired about the fees, pick-up facility and instructors. He insisted that I opt for a male instructor. Reception said that wasn’t permitted. But female instructors talk too much, VHC said belligerently. Reception smothered a smile and told us to complain to the technical department. They’re constantly on the phone fighting with their husbands or discussing recipes, and you won’t learn anything, VHC persisted. But there was no relenting. Oh well, I thought, I could use a few recipes…

VHC filled the form while I supplied the details. We headed from counter to counter. File opening. Cashier. Eye test. Cashier. File opening. Reception. VHC grabbed hold of papers that escaped my grasp at each counter. Reception beckoned to me to collect my passport. We’ll call you within 10 days, he said. I nodded, thrust all papers in my bag and we made off.

The car was fiendishly hot. It felt like needles were piercing my skin. The air-conditioner offered no relief. I caught sight of myself in the vanity mirror and almost leaped out of my skin. What was that? It wasn’t a speck on the mirror as I hoped. I was beginning to sport a beard! Not a 5 o’clock shadow, but a distinct strokeable beard.

This cannot be happening to me, I prayed. Maybe this was like the bumblebee dream, which had woken me up the previous morning. I dreamed I was being chased by a bumblebee and woke up, arms flailing, tangled in the covers and with the drone of the bee still very ‘audible’. I checked again. The hirsute sight in the vanity mirror hadn’t changed. I was beginning to get worried.

My phone rang.

“Madam, can you please come back to the institute,” said Reception. “I think I’ve given you the wrong passport.”

“Wha…” I said, relieved to hear my voice hadn’t broken yet.

I flipped open the passport I was carrying. For a split second, I thought I saw a familiar face. Then, a wave of relief washed over me. I’d just escaped being Mohammad Jamil, resident of Saudi Arabia.

I made haste in returning the passport. And then it struck me, that I’d saved face, but perhaps also lost the opportunity to be part of the record books, forever.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The strain of being a Resident

Misplaced forms, expired visas, a little red tape and some curious experiences later, I’m finally a resident of the United Arab Emirates. I have an identity card, which oddly enough classifies me as a Press Editor. I see their point. Copy Head sounds more like a directive than a designation.

As a Resident, I can now officially:

Get a cell phone connection
Open a bank account
Rent an apartment
Take a loan
Get a driving license
Wear a long-suffering expression while complaining about the traffic, heat and soaring price of real estate.

Coming back to the curious experience mentioned above. One of the pre-requisites for acquiring a Resident visa is the medical test. I was dropped off at the clinic nearest to our office, by the affable driver who told me, “First x-ray, then blood, then finish.”

Simple enough, I thought. I headed to the X-ray section and was handed an innocuous looking form at the Reception. My eyes flew open. I blinked a few times and shook my head just in case I had misread the questions.

Q2: I am not pregnant because:

a) I am single or widowed
b) I am on contraceptives
c) I am staying away from my husband
d) Others (specify)

Now, I understand it’s not advisable to undergo an X-ray when pregnant. (In fact, there were a few posters around which cautioned pregnant women about X-rays.) But did I have to give explicit reasons as to why I didn’t fall in that category?

I was still recovering from that bout of bizarreness, when I handed the form to the man at Reception. He glanced at the form and leveled me with a look that said, ‘Are-you-sure?’

Are pregnant women thronging the X-ray clinics around here? Is this some weird sort of protest which authorities feel compelled to curb? Was I exuding the soft glow of motherhood??

I stepped into the changing room in the X-ray section and another protruding belly poster sounded a warning.

I was beginning to get nervous.


The blood test went off much better. The guard escorted me ahead of the long line of sun-browned labourers, into an open room where a couple of male technicians were at work, labeling blood samples. For some reason, I assumed there would be female staff in attendance as well. I was beginning to feel a tad uncomfortable with the overwhelming male presence, all of them conversing in Arabic.

I was directed to a seat, and one of them asked me to hold out my hand, as he readied the syringe. I quickly averted my eyes from the needle. The technician noted my sudden head movement and assumed I was trying to get a better look at his nametag.

<“Syria,” he said, even before I thought of asking.

I nodded politely.

“Have you ever been to Syria?”

I said.

“Anyone from your family has been to Syria?”

I shook my head.

“So I am the first Syrian you’ve met?” he asked delightedly.

No, I said, my colleague is Syrian.

“Aww… I wanted to be the first,” he said, pulling a face.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Why am I not the first?” he persisted.

Huh. Was this Tricky Questions Day?? Or was this part of the Residence Visa eligibility test?

“First or second doesn’t make a difference. Syrians are nice people,” I muttered, in a cheesy attempt at diplomacy.

I’d passed the ‘test’ with flying colours judging from his expression.


I wonder what’s in store for me next week. I’m signing up for the driving license...