The UAE permit that allows labourers into the country for a time. Photo:  Himal Southasian / December 2010
The UAE permit that allows labourers into the country for a time. Photo: Himal Southasian / December 2010

Gulf return

Far from riches and social acclaim, most migrant workers in West Asia eventually find dislocation and lack of gratitude from the host country.

My parents have lived in Abu Dhabi for over 32 years, during which India recognised them as acronyms: NRIs or Non-Resident Indians. Since my father's retirement in August this year, the two of them have been planning to leave the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and return to the country they left in the 1970s – a country that no longer exists in the form they remember it. The myth of the NRI, however, will not be put to rest upon their return. In Kerala, a term exists for people like my parents, bandied by neighbours and relatives – Gulf return. Always used in the singular, it is a term associated with privilege, a term for the once-insider who will die an outsider. It accentuates the success story, pretending to know and define those who, out of desperation, adventure or marriage, left their homes to seek work, and now return to expected social glory and envy.

My father was 23 when he boarded an Air India flight from Bombay to Abu Dhabi, on 23 November 1972. The plane, packed with Indians, landed in the morning, touching down in the capital of an infant country barely eleven months old. My father had never heard of Abu Dhabi when he answered the Times of India advertisement, and the UAE was still the Trucial States, a British protectorate. He recalls the November weather as being nippy – ironic for a place I associate with monstrous heat, the kind that crawls into your veins and boils your blood. 'The winters were difficult, cold, started earlier too, not like today,' my father told me.Yet the term Gulf return is uninformative, barely grazing the psyche of those migrants who know the Persian Gulf, who worked or raised families there. It talks up the possibilities while glossing over the horror stories. It is a term that not only underestimates failure but refuses to accept it, assuming that all those who return do so with sacks of tax-free loot. This myth continues to be ruthlessly exploited by the Southasian recruiters and foreign contractors who bag the gullible and the desperate, packing them off to destinations where construction cranes and labour camps grow like weeds. Gulf return conveniently ignores a significant detail: that Southasian men and women living in the Gulf do not return; rather, they leave because they have to, because those are the rules.

Then came his first brush with proper desert heat, the following June. 'I never expected that, never!' he said, adding after a pause, 'It was worse in '68; no electricity, no water, no roads … they were all living like slums.' By 'they' he meant the predominantly Southasian labour force who lived in low-cost housing. When my father arrived the conditions were better, even though power cuts were still frequent. 'Three or four times a day,' he said. 'Sometimes we slept on the roof.' My mother joined him in May 1978, and they moved to a little rundown villa in an area of Abu Dhabi called Khalidya. My grandfather, who had opened a stationery store in Khalidya, lived with them until his death in 1984. 'I used to set a lot of mouse traps,' my mother remembers, smiling. It was a different Abu Dhabi.

Other families arrived to similar circumstances, raising kids who would grow side by side with the seven modernising emirates. Many, including my father's cousins, chose to go solo, supporting extended families back home for years, then leaving the way they came, alone, a little older and, if fortunate, richer.

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The history of the UAE is rightly dominated by the Arabs. It is a story of tribes, rivalries, wars, treachery, reconciliation, British regents, sheikhs, plucky explorers, oilmen and the desert. But since 1971, Emirati history would be incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of the country's imported labour. Without them, the Emirates would not exist the way it does, nor possess the opulence or infrastructure it flouts. If the million-odd expatriates who dominate the labour class were to leave, the Emirates would stop breathing – buildings would remain incomplete, garbage on the streets, gardens untended, paperwork unfiled. It is not just that the economy would collapse; it would stagnate and wither. Expatriates engulf the Emirates, making up around 80 percent of the population. Southasians represent 50 to 60 percent of the expatriate demographic, becoming the largest majority. This puts Emiratis in a peculiar predicament: so reliant on foreign labour, they have become minorities on their own soil. Anger is inevitable, even resentment, especially among the younger generation of UAE citizens, who perceive an invasion. 'If you don't move your car, I will get you deported,' a friend's uncle was told by an Emirati. The uncle might have scoffed privately – 'Ridiculous!' – but he did move his car.

Indeed, my parents belong to a generation that conscientiously avoided trouble. They came to better their lives, not invite conflict. They not only knew the laws, but were paranoid about their kids accidentally breaking them. Rumours – of prisons in the desert and sketchy officials – were constantly in circulation. It was not long before fear embellished the warnings and turned breaking any rule, even jaywalking, into a sin that could get you deported. 'Make sure your documents are with you at all times,' parents would tell their kids.

Today, the Abu Dhabi that my friends and I romanticise is a simple one. We discuss old hangouts, reminisce about Automatic Restaurant's shawarma sandwiches, wolfed down after a game of football. But there are other images we carry, too, of unwritten rules, of our parents avoiding confrontations with Emiratis or Arabs, even if they were being discriminated against, even if they were in the right. Quietly, everyone obeyed. Silently, everyone lived, understanding that Arabs and 'white folks' were above you in the social food chain. Still, it was home, warts and all. The stories I now read about the Emirates seem strangely bereft of the brown man and woman, who are relegated instead to appear as footnotes – 'foreign labour' – as an aside to the master plan of putting the Emirates on the world map. The government uses its country's ambition as bait and the press is biting, transfixed by steel behemoths such as Burj Khalifa, the Formula 1 circuit at Yas Marina, or Abu Dhabi's plan to bring the Guggenheim and Louvre museums to Emirati soil. Culture is not the only import, even academia has its price: New York University has a working campus in the capital now, and other universities will soon follow. No doubt, the country has arrived with a bang and the money is starting to talk. And in the melee, somehow, the vision has succeeded in overshadowing the help. An impressive accomplishment, given that foreign labour in the Emirates is ubiquitous, like cacti in the desert.

To be fair, some journalists have filed hard-hitting stories about the country, reporting about the plight of stranded labourers or the burgeoning cultural frustrations between citizens and expatriates. Yet what will always fascinate even the most tenacious journalist is trying to process the merits and demerits of an economic system designed to take advantage of those interested in tax-free salaries. It is hard for many people to fathom the existence of an Arab country populated primarily by Southasian expatriates. How does that work? I get asked. And aren't Emiratis alone responsible for the country's progress, its vision? It is as though the stew is an old Emirati recipe and the cooks have just been brought in to stir the pot. This rankles me – the Emirates I know of the 1980s and 1990s, the Emirates of my parents, was not just Emirati or Arab. It was also Southasian, very much so. My friends were transplanted Indian lads like myself. The shopkeepers in the pint-sized grocery stores were often Malayalees mouthing Kozhikode slang. The white-n-gold taxis picking up radio broadcasts in Dari were driven by proud Afghans, while many produce trucks were manned by Punjabis. Even at night, as Sri Lankan nannies put little ones to bed, construction workers in dusty blue overalls sat by the roadside waiting for their buses back to the labour camp.

I would watch those men, picking out the ones whose features resembled older uncles, cousins, brothers or fathers. So many of them looked like me. And when you are a child, you make associations. When you work in that heat, you turn brown, like a roasted peanut. Brown! I associated the colour with the working class, status, family or even a certain lack of privilege. It became not just a colour, but an existence, one I understood. Later I came to realise that the word was more of a personal metaphor, one I used to encapsulate the multiple nationalities responsible for giving the Emirates the tick-tock precision it boasts – Filipinos, Egyptians, Somalis and others. The word brown somehow seemed to give more meaning to the word expatriate, and a word that I felt captured my identity best. Yet somewhere down the line, even the word expatriate, a word I had grown up with and which defined my family, was replaced by a euphemism – guest worker, clearly outlining the shelf life of the foreign worker.

Home and away

In my parents' circle, all expatriates are thought to pine for home. Most do, counting their days. After all, the rules are clear-cut: permanent residency is denied to the foreigner; leaving is not an option, but a certainty. Such regulations ought to foster a feeling of impermanence, and they do. But even when you know a place is temporary, you still try to seek comfort in it, try to make it your own. Without family or a companion, the Gulf can turn minds toxic, make one lonely, breed depressives. If you are lucky to have a loved one around, you begin to live. Some people even dare to call the place home. My family did. And after a while, without realising it, they fell into a cultural crack, and the term home suddenly evolved. We became Abu Dhabians.

But today, as my parents pack items into boxes, they are not doing anything others before them have not done. The cycle is old. Sure, many look forward to returning home. Others linger, hoping to buy more time. Leaving can be hard. My parents have seen friends, relatives and old colleagues bid adieu after decades in the Gulf. Many made good money, and have the houses to prove it. Many did not. Yet rarely is anyone asked whether they are all right, whether the process has been painful. For years I presumed, as did friends, that my parents would be glad to leave a place where, as a friend once opined, we were 'second-class citizens'. Last year, I asked them. If they could, they would stay, my parents confirmed, 'But we can't.'

I find it hard to think about their predicament without feeling both anger and sadness. It is difficult to picture them leaving to start anew when, in an ideal world, they would today be tucking into quieter times. Instead, they compare the prices of shipping containers, bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. The resourceful and the prescient planned ahead, investing, building houses; but not everyone is that prudent or unsentimental, or even that lucky. Financial misfits exist. Sometimes, the ability to save is a luxury. It is a misconception, even among my friends, that all of us grew up sheltered and financially sound. So many families scraped by.

But some did thrive. They accepted the conditions long ago and did not dwell on the issue. They made good money, were frugal, invested wisely, watched their coffers swell, and then plunged their families and life savings into American, Canadian or English shores. People understood early on that you could not live forever in the Gulf States, so the green-card applications and other documentation were requested, filled out, mailed. It also said something to carry a British, American or Canadian passport; many wore them like medals or totems. But there were growing pains. The parents of one friend, Agul, emigrated to Kansas City in their 60s, after almost two decades in Abu Dhabi. 'It was tough in the beginning, especially for my mum,' he said. It was also a huge blow to his father's ego. 'In Abu Dhabi, he was somebody, well respected. The anonymity of Kansas City jolted him a little but he is good now, better, and they are now doing well.' What about him? Did he miss the Emirates? (He left after high school.) 'No,' he rarely thought about it. 'We didn't belong there.'

Feeling unaccepted might possibly be a harder blow. I want my folks to scream, but there is no rage; instead, they are grateful. I often wonder whether what affects me most is the notion that my folks resemble machine parts in the Gulf, replaceable after wear and tear, or that Emirati history will choose to pass them by – transient migrants of the Persian Gulf – transcribing instead the glories of the toys they helped to make. I understand the willingness of my parents to walk away quietly, but I do not want them to do so. My sister and I watched our parents struggle in a country where struggle is supposed to be an illusion. I remember my parents whispering about unpaid loans, credit debt, thinking we did not know. I remember them being afraid of not succeeding like others, and literally putting every penny begged – loan sharks do good business in the Gulf – into their kids. Not everyone makes it in the Emirates, even after three decades. My sister and I are the way we are because of the choices our parents made. My father had little money to share but his life gave us perspective; my mother mothered. The city gave us exposure. Contrary to belief, Abu Dhabi did not mollycoddle us when we were kids; it toughened us. Abu Dhabi is where we were raised, where we discovered life.

I do not know whether this happens with everyone. But as my parents age, I am noticing they are becoming more childlike, and I end up feeling more protective. The child has, then, become the parent. In that world, what I see is a man who helped to sustain and build a country; my mother kept him sane. Thirty-some years is a long time, long enough for an old man and his spouse to be owed certain rights – not necessarily Emirati citizenship, but perhaps the right to visit at will or the right to stay?

My aunt, Seemandhini, loves pointing out the mango tree outside my father's ancestral home in Kerala. He planted it in 1968, and the tree, a popular haunt for fauna, bugs and kids, will outlive my father. Already, it has spent more time in my father's village than my father ever will. There is a story behind the boy who planted that tree, now returning an old man – of where he worked, and why he left. He has earned the right to his tale, an Abu Dhabian one, to be told and remembered. As have others.

~ Deepak Unnikrishnan is a short-story writer based in New York.

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