Thursday, June 21, 2012

How the Other Half Lives

 “Bachelor.” What do you think of when you see or hear this word? Here, it’s a euphemism for the male semi-skilled labor worker. Of course, many of them are not unmarried men; they are here without their families, who are living back in their home countries. I have also met and read about women who have come here to work as household servants, leaving children and husbands behind.

This (I think) Pakistani gentleman was driving his delivery truck on a Friday morning when Mark and I were bicycling, and asked me to take his photo so he could see it.
 I think about them and wonder what their lives are like, besides the parts that I see. What kinds of friendships and bonds do they form with other workers? Are they in groups with relatives or others from their own country or village? How well are they able to communicate with each other? What card games do they play? What do they consider to be the best jobs? What are their interests? Other than cricket.

Friday laundry hangs out at new workers' housing in Sharjah.

This editorial from The National references their housing issues. It’s one of many stories on this issue that have been appearing lately.


Typical worker bus. This one is pretty spartan, no curtains.
I look up at the buses driving alongside me on the road. Many of them have special curtains and other homey decorations. How many hours they must spend on those buses! Many of them sleep. But they must do other things. What do they talk about? Do they read? How literate are they? What makes them laugh?

One evening I was driving on the freeway at sunset, and saw a large bus stopped on the shoulder. The entire busload was kneeling and bowing in prayer, right on the road. They were lined up in three or four rows, with ten or twelve in each row. I drove by so fast that I didn’t get a long look, yet that image will stay with me forever. With the magnificent Zayed Grand Mosque in the background, the men were facing across the freeway toward Mecca with the setting sun reflecting off of their bowed heads.
During the day the people inhabiting the parks are mostly maintenance workers.
Every time I ride my bicycle, I pass dozens upon dozens of workers. They are digging trenches, adjusting sprinklers, trimming bushes, installing paving, sweeping streets . . . the list goes on and on. They often look up. Then I wave. I love to see their faces break out in a smile as they give me a friendly wave back.

Once, Waldo and I were at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change and I pulled out my cell phone. A stopped car honked, which is not uncommon. The honking continued, and finally I looked over to see the man in the passenger seat gesturing to me. Looking down I saw that he was trying to tell me that my Emirates ID card had fallen out of my cell phone case onto the ground. Thumbs up, thank you!
My two friendly light bulb changers on the Al Salaam corniche, watch me float by on my paddleboard.

I think the men changing the light bulbs along the Al Salaam corniche recognize me now. I’m the woman in the funny looking yellow shirt on the red and white bicycle. One man gives me a broad smile, a nod and a wave. But do they know that I’m also the person on the paddle board? Same-same. Maybe next time I’ll wear my yellow shirt.

A couple of days ago Waldo and I rode the Zayed Grand Loop, stopping for a drink of water in the shade of a palm tree. A worker was sweeping the sand in the street a few steps from where I sat. A small, older car pulled up, and the driver honked and waited. I wondered: is he going to give the worker an instruction? But no, when the worker approached, the man handed him a few dirham coins and drove off. I wonder how often that happens?

I’ve thought about doing a project to discover more about the workers, but I know that I don’t have the resources or connections. Interviewing “bachelors” is not something I can just go around doing! Fortunately, this morning I discovered that someone is doing this project, and there is a book out. This news story about the project touches upon all of the questions that have been on my mind concerning the different populations that live here. If you are interested in this subject, it’s a must-read.

“Seeing how the other half lives.” Growing up, my mother would sometimes use this expression. I understood it to mean getting a glimpse into how the much more or the much less privileged lived. We had a comfortable but modest “middle class” lifestyle. Here, I feel much the same. We’re not Emirati. We’re not laborers. We’re educated expats, and in many ways we have the most freedom, the most choice. This is, to me, the greatest form of wealth that a human being can possess.

I see this workers' housing when I ride the Zayed Grand Loop. I wasn't sure if it was still used until we went past on Friday morning.

I have a lot of respect for these fellow human beings who come here and work in the searing heat, building a country that they will most likely leave behind when their work is done. They have the least education and economic power, and thus the least freedom and choice. I hope that their lives, when they return home, are improved by the time they have spent here.

I have added captions to all the photos in the album below.

Thanks for reading, and remember to appreciate all you have, and be kind to those who have less than you.

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