Falling for glittery dreams
His mother was his fulcrum. The centre point upon which his whole life balanced, precariously. His mother had never had an easy day in her life. Ravaged by poverty from a young age, she was bestowed in marriage to a man who was 20 years her senior.
Her main purpose in life was to be an avenue for procreation and to remain devoutly obedient to her husband; that was the way life was lived in these regions. If she had no choice in who she married, she could mould her children in any manner she pleased. Instead of being harsh on them, she chose to love them endlessly and tirelessly. Love was something which all her children – be it girl or boy – thrived in.
He grew up watching her carry water from the streams, coming home to light a fire with her bare hands, grind grain to make wheat to make perfectly round chapattis, cook what little food was available and make sure all her children were fed even if she went hungry. On top of all this, she raised her children making sure they never looked dirty or dishevelled. He loved the way she could never stay still and yet she was omnipresent. The way she stroked his hair as he drifted off to sleep and sung a soothing lullaby to allay his fears.
It wasn’t until his father died that her true strength was realised. She had to become the breadwinner and maintain the role of a mother. Yet she did it without wallowing in grief or complaining to God about her fate. She did it with quiet, complicit acceptance, tilling the land, selling what grew on the land and raising her children with a smile on her face as her calloused hands burned under her papery skin. When he became old enough to work, he left school and helped lighten the burden even though she insisted he study.
But he wanted more.
He wanted to remove her pain and it was this thirst for monetary gain that brought him to this day.
He stood at the edge of the building his own hands had built and prepared himself for the jump. The dusty, arid wind howled around him with such ferocity, as if prompting him to take a step back.
There was no going back. It was now or never.
He paced side to side, looked down at the hustle bustle of Dubai’s commercial life and screamed out loud,
“Do it now!” with spittle and tears falling down his face.
All he wanted to do was go home. Home – where his mother would be waiting with a cup of garam chai (hot tea) and ghee-laden, greasy parathas ready to be devoured. He wanted his mother’s hands in his own and if he wasn’t allowed to fly to see her, death would take him there in spirit.
As his toes pinched the edge of the majestic building, he bent his knees, closed his eyes tightly, squatted down to his feet and took the biggest leap in his soon-to-end life. At first, the sheer current of the wind prevented him from doing anything but soon enough, as his body adjusted to this maddening descent, he spread out his legs and arms and formed a star shape.
He smiled at the realisation that he was free!
Free from obligations, punishment and restrictions. He was going home to his family and he had the ultimate say in how he was going to get there. Even though his owners had seized his passport and papers, they could never control the manner in which he came to his demise.
He recalled looking out excitedly from the aircraft’s window at the wide expanse of land, full of glittering buildings built so high that they were close enough to touch the plane’s underbelly. He wanted his family to have an easy life, a comfortable bed, running water, electricity and other perks of a comfortable living instead of being draped in poorness. He would make it big in Arabia. There was no doubt about it.
As soon as he landed into Dubai, he had done nothing else but craned his neck upwards at the sheer magnitude of the airport. He was dumbfounded by this insanely busy place. People were running around everywhere in such a rush as if they had somewhere very important to be. He walked around with slow, measured steps gawping at all the opulence and bare flesh of women which his eyes weren’t accustomed to.
When his sponsor located him, he didn’t have a smile or any kind words for him. A grand welcome indeed! Instead, he was bundled into a filthy bus whose door had come apart from its hinges and driven to a faraway location in the middle of the desert. He was thrown into a room full of men with downcast faces and twitchy eyes and told that this was to be his new home until the job was done or until the sponsor decided it was time to go. The men looked at him with inquisitive eyes and whispered “new fodder” to each other as he looked around trying hard not to look scared or upset.
A sea of bodies awaited him when it was bedtime and he somehow had to etch out some space on the floor for him to sleep. Cockroaches roamed the floors freely and many a times he would feel the spindly antennae of such insects touching his face to ascertain whether he was fodder or dispensable. Most of the time, it was the latter.
When he started work at the building site, his back ached from carrying heavy loads and his hands became rough and calloused from handling bricks and mortar. If only his mother could hold his chapped hands and rub ointment on them. Piece by piece, he had helped transform Dubai in to the dizzying rush that it was to please white foreigners. But at what cost? When he asked if he could return home to see his family, he was laughed at and taunted.
“What home? Why do you want to go back to that country when you have everything here?” laughed his master.
When he asked for his contractual pay, he was always told that it was on its way even though it never would materialise. A man’s dignity could only take a certain amount of bashing and his was depleted. Beatings and lashings kept him in quiet servitude. He became a muted robot in order to appease his masters.
The years passed by in this cyclical routine but the time had now come to ask for a week’s holiday and he tentatively approached his master for one. It was granted! His servitude had paid off! His elation didn’t go unnoticed and his employer granted him one extra day. He cried tears of joy and even kissed his employer’s hand, causing him to pull his hand back in a reflexive action.
“Ammi, I’m coming back to you,” he thought to himself as he spun round and round, falling downwards swiftly. “Ammi, Ammi, Ammi,” he said chanting.
His mother never wanted him to go but his temptations sealed his ears to all voices of reason and now she too was gone. He had just spoken to her a week ago and laughed about his quirky siblings, his brothers, his sisters and his elderly grandfather. He said he was going to return soon and bring lots of presents and after five long years things were starting to look up. He couldn’t wait to hold his mother’s hands and seek her blessings.
The night before he was meant to fly out, he saw his mother in a dream all cloaked in white, smiling at him and telling him not to worry, that she was happy and that her hands, legs or back no longer hurt her anymore. She kept saying that she would see him soon and to rest in peace. It was the most comfortable night’s sleep he had had in years.
“Wake up! Wake up! There’s bad news!” shouted his comrade as he was awoken from his slumber.
The rest was a blur. He heard words like “a low-flying drone”, “killed a whole family” “no survivors” “somewhere in your village”.
After frantic calls to his mother with no reply, the catastrophic news was confirmed by his paternal uncle, who screamed in grated anguish,
“They are all dead! All dead! Ya Allah! They are all dead. It was early morning and the devil in the sky came and killed them all. Some informant wrongly told them that there were terrorists in that house.”
He had heard enough. His uncle had long viewed their ancestral land with greedy eyes and wanted it all to himself following his brother’s death. He could have been the “informant” behind the attack. Who knew? No one could be trusted whether they were related by blood or otherwise. His uncle must have known of his return and would have tried to ensure they were all killed.
Well what choice did he now have? Who was left for him in this cold, callous, greed-obsessed world?
If he tried to go back, his uncle would mock him and evict him from his land. If he stayed in Dubai, his masters would work him to his death. In his fugue state, he absconded his employer’s jail and went to the first building that his hands had helped construct and jumped.
By falling down, he was being lifted up.
He would be taken to his mother and upon seeing her he would put his head in her lap and sleep soundly as she silently stroked his hair.
As he spun downwards he noticed the glittering buildings all clamouring around him as if watching him fall to his demise. This glittering land was dazzling to look at but it carried no substance. Like a moth to the flame, he had come too close to the heat and his wings burned like Icarus’s. The time of his death was becoming ever more imminent and then, BANG!
He was gone in an instant.
His shattered body lay on the ground and crimson red splattered all over the floor with screaming passers-by devastated at having the peace in their life splintered for good. He was gone but he was not lost. He had stepped into the light and could see familiar faces, all smiling back at him. In the centre of them all was her beautiful, smiling face and outstretched arms.
This story is an attempt to highlight the atrocious working conditions that people from South East Asian countries are exposed to while working within the UAE. They are denied their basic rights so that other people can profit. Many tolerate it as they are left with little choice but others resort to drastic measures like suicide as a way of relieving themselves from a difficult situation.
This story also attempts to highlight the unfairness of drone strikes and poverty which can tip anyone over the edge. The character felt like he didn’t have a choice in living and telling his story, unlike Yonas Fikre, who was tortured in a UAE prison upon the alleged request of the CIA as punishment for refusing to become an informant – an ordeal which has cost him his dignity and has placed him on a no-fly list. He has spoken out bravely although thousands don’t get the same chance.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.