Tales from the Gulf’s ‘Back End’

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Mar 25 2010

Readers of Migrant Rights might be interested in this review of Drumbeat, a novel by Egyptian writer Mohammed Al-Bisatie. The novel, now available in English translation through AUC Publications deals with the lives of migrant workers in the UAE. The entire native population of a tiny, unnamed Emirate travels en masse to Paris when their football team miraculously qualifies for the World Cup. The population of migrant workers are left behind, and find themselves in control of the Kingdon while their masters and mistresses are away:

"They have large communal lunches on their masters’ lawns; they go for dips in their swimming pools. Husbands and wives who work for different households--and fear to contact each other because they claimed on their job applications that they were single--are reunited; and prisoners in jails are let out for the duration of the championship, promising to return to their cells afterward.

All this is observed--with strange detachment--by the unnamed narrator, an Egyptian driver and bodyguard. Then again, the narrator’s passive, unengaged stance is meant to suggest the deadening effect that his five years in the Emirate (enough time to save “for a two-story house in the village”) has had on him.

"This work isn’t just about the Emirates,” El-Bisatie told Al-Masry Al-Youm. The book is based on time he spent there, but also in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait.........

In the book, much of the alienation and oppression the foreign workers suffer is of a sexual nature. At one point, the narrator says of some new arrivals: “Their blood was still warm--they had not made the adjustments the rest of us had.” For his part, he’s “heard too many stories to drop my guard: fifty lashes in a public flogging and expulsion […] How many of such cases had there been during my five years here?”

Fear of losing one’s job--or worse--has emasculated the narrator and his colleagues. They speak between themselves of “the curse.” The narrator postpones visiting Egypt because he’s anxious about disappointing his wife (he’s deeply relieved when, upon finally traveling home and seeing her, he feels “an overwhelming surge of lust”)."

It is interesting to see migrant workers gradually starting to make appearances in novels about the Gulf region. A while back we posted an article about 'Dubai Dreams', a novel by Indian writer Shamlal Puri. These novels may not exactly be high literature but it's an important shift that migrant workers are being written about in fiction as this is one more step towards ending their 'invisibility' in their host countries, where they are shunted to the margins of society and banished from public view. According to a recent position paper by Lebanese group The Feminist Collective, 'a Migrant worker is also seen as alien and inferior to “us”, so that her employers give themselves the right to “teach” (i.e. abuse) her…The lives of workers and their presence in our lives are also often erased from our literature, TV shows, and all other media.’

Now what would really be a shift is if we saw migrant workers appearing as real characters in t.v serials or in movies in the Gulf region. But that moment is still a long, long way off.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East