doing Dubai Nepali-style

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Middle East » United Arab Emirates » Dubai
February 25th 2011
Published: February 28th 2011
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I arrived in Dubai last night and was greeted at the airport by H., my long-time friend from Nepal who I call “bai”, my younger brother. He used to bring me my morning tea and cook for me when I stayed at his uncle’s house in Kathmandu, and he has always been a good friend.

H. has been working in Dubai for about 4 months. He went there to take a job as a security guard because he could not find a job in Kathmandu, and his uncle’s trekking business is not doing so well these days with the economic crisis. Over dinner at an Indian restaurant in the heart of the neighborhood called Bur Dubai, he told me how he had to pay a broker to find the job for him, pay extra fees to the broker to take care of all of the paperwork, and get a security certificate, which must be some sort of official document that allows you to be a security guard. He also had to pay to fly to Dubai.

H. lives in what he calls a “labor camp”. He shares a room that he said is the size of my hotel room with 5 other men. He works 12-hour night shifts 7 days per week. He had one day off since starting so he could go to a clinic for an ear infection. The first 2 days I was there were his only other days off so far.

I don’t think H. could be considered a labor trafficking case, but he is certainly being exploited. He is part of a class of people imported to Dubai (Nepalis, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans) that serve the wealthy by being employed in low-level jobs. They are really the support of this city, and they are being paid the absolute minimum and living in very difficult conditions. But because they cannot find jobs in their own countries, this is the alternative.

Everywhere we go, H. scopes out other Nepalis (and they are everywhere!). He asks them how long they have been in Dubai, where they live, and how much they pay for rent. He tells me he does not have any life here in Dubai, but in Kathmandu there was no job and no money. So take your pick…

This morning B. arrived with her cousin-brother, P. B. is a woman my age that used to own a beauty salon outside of the Radisson in Kathmandu. She is one of the first people I interviewed during my research for my Fulbright, and we became fast friends.

B. got married shortly after I left Nepal in 2008. She was nearing 30 years old, and was becoming “too old” to be a single woman in Nepal anymore. So she allowed her parents to arrange a marriage for her with a man that was supposed to come from a good family.

Shortly after the arrangement took place, B. would call me in the middle of the night from Kathmandu, crying because she hated living in her husband’s family’s home. She would tell me how they treated her like a servant—she did hard domestic labor from the time she awoke until she went to bed, and was not treated with any respect. She had to ask permission to leave the house, to visit her own family, or to do anything outside of her authorized routine. She was verbally and emotionally abused by her alcoholic mother-in-law, and her husband did not stand up for her. To make it even more difficult, B. was an independent, very modern woman for a Nepali before she got married. She ran her own business, dated men, hung out with foreigners like me, and was well educated.

After about a year of the abuse, B. fled to Abu Dhabi to live with her brother and his family. She got a job at a beauty salon and started to be her own person again. She told her husband she was not coming back, but that he could come to be with her. So he did, and now he works as a security guard as well.

B. and I lay in our respective beds facing each other tonight while she talked for a long time about her experiences. “I was servant in my own home, Michelle!” she said to me. She told me how her husband seemed to change and become more loving as she spent time with him away from her mother-in-law, and how she felt it was okay to become pregnant (she is due next month). She told me how she’s terrified of when the baby comes, however, because you have to apply for UAE citizenship for the baby and it is very hard to get. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to bear going back to live in her husband’s family’s home again if the baby has to go back to Kathmandu. But she doesn’t want to abandon her child, either.

She asked me, “Do I seem different now that we have so many changes in our life? Now that I am married woman and pregnant woman and stay in Abu Dhabi?”

I told her she seemed much more serious—not as free-spirited and happy as she was when I met her. To be honest, she looks a lot older than the last time I saw her. But I told her she is just as beautiful.

I spoke to her husband on the phone for a few minutes. He is curious to know this American woman that has had such an effect on his wife. And he was shocked that I brought a few baby outfits because they have not purchased any clothes for the baby yet.

B. works about 9 hours per day. She works a 12-hour shift, but has a three-hour break in between to rest and eat. She is on her feet all day, even at 8 months pregnant. She makes 2000 Dirhams per month (about $570), all of which goes to the one-bedroom she and her husband rent. Their place is a bit bigger than H.’s, but they share the kitchen and bathroom with the landlady, who lives in the same flat. They are thinking of also moving to a labor camp to save money once the baby arrives.

We spent today wandering around the city, a bit at the Gold Souq (most of which was closed because it is Friday), and the rest of the afternoon at Madinat Jumeirah, which has a more up-scale souq in an historic building on the Dubai Creek. Both H. and B. seemed thrilled to have a day off to explore a city that they otherwise would never get to enjoy. I am thrilled to spend time with my Nepali family again and to help make a couple of their days a little happier.


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