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Short story about migrant workers in the Gulf

On August 11, 2010

Below is a beautiful short story first published by EGO Magazine and re-posted here with permission from the author.


By Deepak Unnikrishnan

At night, when street lights stood exhausted and alone, out ventured men and women bicycling by Hamdan's street corridors, watchful as they hunted. Their job was to find construction lads who had mistakenly fallen off incomplete buildings and set them right, finding lost limbs, make them better, glue on lost limbs, unless the damaged had to be taken away so they could be picked up and worked on by trained personnel, who would shape and roll everything back into place, like perfect cake makers re-piping damaged frosting.

Anna Mole had her route, chalked out after years of such labor. Seniority counted on such runs.

Anna Mole’s hair was long, brittle – tied into a rough bun – dry, her body aged flab and dipping breasts; her skin had begun to break itself loose, in places sag like an old bag. She was now old. Just like that.

Thirty years ago, in the seventies, she would, could, and did fix scores of men a day, correcting limbs, reattaching them, sewing up torn skin, and sometimes if asked , praying. Problems were a little easier to handle then, so it felt. Since oil had just begun to dictate terms, construction was young, a little infant working out possibilities, not flashily imperious, just downright clumsy, pretty much afraid in the desert burn. And she was young, the men fell from smaller-storied buildings, and often if she didn’t know what to do, she would talk to these blokes until they fell asleep or realized little else could be done but wait for searching and helpful colleagues with better expertise. The men were grateful to Anna. Away from home, with other men for company, women were scarce. Sex did not become as important as the need for conversation while body parts were being reattached. And sex could be found, innovations made: A man could keep a man company. There are ways. Massages were frequent and requested.

For four hours once she sat with a man who held in place with his right arm his head which had almost torn itself loose from the impact he made as he fell an embarrassing six flights. Now what, he had asked. Don’t know, she said, lets think this out, reaching into her bag for plasticine; meanwhile, tell me about home.

Home was shitty, a wreck, he said, thinking, an emaciating village turning bitter by the minute. But that is not why he left. Everyone was going abroad. He followed. They hired anyone, he heard. As long as you can stand heat, you are good. Papers would be a cinch after some cash. A cinch! Tax-free, no less, money was there, money to be made, lots of money I heard! I think my legs are broken; can’t move 'em.

Heat! Shit, he knew heat. Look at him, dark meat.

Iqbal; his name. Iqbal. There was no family. Here, who brought him here – no one. He left on his own, sold his share of the family plot. Parents? Yes. Siblings? Yup, a brother. But no wife – a wife would come later, he explained, and kids (he would like two, a boy and a girl: Zuheir and Asma) who would all live in a home properly stocked and dressed like a furniture store advert. His head jumped, stepped back a thought – That’s what I tell the girls. When I tell em I will name my girls Zuheir and Asma, I have them by the crotch. I am fooling no one. Them and me, we both need excuses.

He had come for money, easy money that normally wouldn’t go to a high school dropout. Former teachers who tormented him in his youth envied him now. What good is a farm boy going to do with the shit they teach, eh? And then, after living the dream grabbed from the muck, he slipped like a bungling monkey. And fell. He remembered falling. There hadn’t been time to think. There had been only time to say damn by-God. He thinks he screamed. Maybe he rushed a little too quickly from pylon to pylon. But he thought he had perfected his pace, figured it all out. There was a dance: Dab. Shovel. Hammer. Layer. But a misstep is a misstep.

The heat hadn’t bothered him. He knew how to handle it, avoiding thinking about the steam which accentuates its potency as it boils a man's mind, barely suffocating when he smelled his own sweat, instinctively gulping water – which, although not as delicious as salted buttermilk, was always on hand – slowly, regularly, without gasping for air, without a crazy rush or hurry, without water biting his lungs. Heat troubles people, he said, bothering them. When some people pass me by in the street I notice they quicken their pace or sidestep. I am being ignored. I know why. The heat, you know? In summer, your clothes burn, you burn. You smell bad, like an overused stove. Simple.

In the open, the heat was easier to handle – that is if one had to choose, mentioned Iqbal, even though it was possible for a man to shrivel like a raisin, losing height, color becoming splotchy, decaying in the sun like a plant. However, the open still let the body breathe. There was wind some days. In closed quarters, packed in bunk beds, without air conditioning, sometimes with air conditioning, sometimes faulty, sometimes not, the body would bake, freeze and smoke, often humidity burning eyes, salt escaping, fever and dehydration building. Bodies would reel from the sudden loss of liquid, crumpling completely during lunch break when getting to shade under tractor beds and crane rumps became more important than food. Shirts for pillows, newspapers blankets, the men rested. At night, the heat stung differently, especially when Iqbal was whisked away to his quarters, barreled with his mates in trailers that reeked of fluids collected over the day’s toil, multiple smells that penetrated skin and wouldn’t leave even when the body was scrubbed hard with coconut husk and cheap soap. But the men would be tired, the stench ignored, practically few demanding they sit near the grilled windows, although they were fights once in a while for this particular privilege in the mornings. Once the novelty of sitting near the window wore off, the men near them would look out worn and aimless, hit by breeze when the truck moved. It was still not too bad, as much as people in cars below who never made eye contact thought it to be – disturbed no doubt by workers in open trailers resembling goats driven to the abattoir. It was still not too bad. They, expat-peasants, the kids of construction, were alive, could breathe without effort, had jobs – so it was all good. Well, better than worse. And so they would sit, knees locked, palms on thighs, bodies slumped, evaporating, malcontent but non-complaining. This was routine, commute. And commute could be handled, as long as one was paid. And Iqbal's lot were paid, unlike others not as fortunate, frustrated guest workers who would take to the streets in desperation demanding their wages, creating hell, blocking traffic, throwing rocks at the police, burning vehicles and equipment, unfamiliar public chaos in a land where public protests were illegal. But in desperate times, desperate pleas. The ringleaders were identified from within, arrested and deported. The rest were asked if they wanted to stay; their employers would behave, the Ministry assured them. Or leave. There would be embassy sponsored planes waiting.

There was little to go back to. And there is always the embarrassment of return. Most chose to stay.

Iqbal wondered if Anna Mole would hold his head so he could use both hands to scratch his hair which was beginning to itch. She steadied her palm under his head. It’s the water in the camps, he said, I am sure of it. When I can, I use bottled water. Did you know Pepsi rusts metal? A laugh. When he laughed, she remembered, his head bobbed like a yo-yo. His stubble had gone white, mustache fuzzy, a crazy black. He smelled of paint thinner, heat, sweat and hot sand.

Hamdan, her haunt, her hood, was growing, from a tiny city center to a mutating worm that refused to tire. The streets grew streets, parked next to slabs of steel towering over trees planted to grow exactly the same, shade mathematically proper. Glitz and order jumped up and claimed its rightful spot in shops marked to be cool in a city of structured cool. Roads were widened and brushed regularly in the sun to be spotless and black, scrubbed to ride machines OD’ing on dino juice. Tall stringy lamps erected, measured the right distance apart, provided daytime at night. Stare above and one could make out mercenary architects barking instructions to construct the perfect city – “Move. This. There. That. There.” They never slept, barking orders into the night, into the wee hours of the morning, cycling past morning and afternoon till nighttime came, never resting. Into this template, this Monopoly board, were dropped international foot soldiers, ready to work to make buildings bigger, streets longer, the economy richer, working an idea into shape. And vamoose after.

Hamdan, Anna Mole recalled fondly, used to be little, a runt of a city center bare feet and dirty nailed with desert sand in its arse, but it would be potty trained to be respectful, coached and beaten to have ambition, to exact maximum mileage from burning workers as they hung from buildings, remaining indifferent as elsewhere toddlers rode imbecile camels to finish lines. No more. The latter. No more. Mechanical jockeys ride the beasts now. Someone complained. The kids were sent home. A show on HBO. Yadda yadda. It’s all good now. No hard feelings, just business.

Just don’t get in the way of anything, the streets hissed. Get in the way of what? Doesn’t matter. Anything! The rules had been clear-cut: Come—Work—Go. The workers attached a third, Obey. But no one forced to come, the excuse – No one forced to come. No time to reflect on politics, Iqbal mentioned. We know why we are here. We come for that. We leave because of that. And there is little here for me to stay; I don’t know the people, I don’t trust the people, even our people, no trust 'em, I trust 'em least, I stay away, I am tolerated – I am fine with that. I came to make money, fuck! True, couldn’t be denied, people came willingly, whatever the cost, crawling into canons ready to be shot out, like Iqbal, sick of rotting into old age despondent and dreamless, like uncles they knew. So into cannons huddled thousands, waiting to get out, hoping to figuratively panhandle for a couple of years, gourd, then off again to rebuild and embellish communities left behind. There were no lies at the gates as ships docked, people pinned like barnacles, as planes landed coughing new arrivals, as smugglers chucked live cargo miles away from port or land. Plenty passengers and stowaways understood: Here, stood their futures. 1970. No, '72, she had come in '72.

The city flirted with everyone, making all give and give up, like plugged-in dairy cows: Skin, desire, life, money, all available, for there was lots of it, all of it, displayed and released into the air, getting everyone stoned in a place where such highs were forbidden. But everyone snorted. Couldn’t be helped. The air was spiked. Distraction became the method of control as the city rewarded many. Many, bringing families, Many, begetting kids willing to obey and help the cause of stay, work but leave. Children came, out of regulated sex and marriage, confused children not exactly belonging, living as packaged products, not worrying, rarely bothering, having a higher and headier capacity to snort than their parents. Children with better accents, fabrics and gene, kids built out of cable and shopping, kids raised on a psyche of impermanence and British chocolate, coddled by Japanese electronics and American telly. And around the kids and parents of fortunate dark meats lived those who built and constructed, little grimy cogs working a shiny machine, careful not to be in anyone’s way, dark meat paper boys hawking newspapers in crisp heat without talking, dark meat gardeners fixing sprinklers making sand into plant, dark meat short nannies making bread, rearing kids, bedded in someone else’s home, dark meat Shylocks lending and plundering fellow dark meat social plankton, as mute dark meat builders continued to nut and bolt, even falling quietly when they slipped, falling quickly.

Anna Mole would retire. She was approaching sixty, and when sixty it was time to go. Another country to creep back into once the farewell party ended with a little cash maybe, hugs and goodwill. A house had been built with the riches. Inside lived furniture, electronics, more furniture, the father and the daughter, more furniture. The daughter -- married now, third grandchild on way. The father, sick and forgetful, waiting to get picked up and resurrected by the Holy Ghost. Maybe now when she goes back they could try and be husband and wife. Other incompletes existed. As a woman, she felt strange, rearranged into something else. She had given birth to a child, a child she barely knew, a child she once sent money to, a child looked after by a husband she barely knew anymore. No more was he Abraham, just Husband, a thing with a name, but a good man he is, was. He must have had someone over the years. He should have had someone. When she first cheated on him, right after sex, once the fuckmate was told to leave, she hoped: He too must have someone. Initially, when she went back home to visit, they would screw for hours. Not love or caress, just screw maniacally like machines. Before, he would ejaculate inside her. Then they would talk. Afterwards, without either saying a word, she went on the pill, he would pull out and spray. Foreplay would come after, not before. But gradually, the fucks ceased, habits – I stopped red meat, no more beef fry, doctor’s orders, told you, remember? – lost to memory. The talking ended. Eventually, it stopped bothering her she cheated. They spoke over the phone to compare accounts, robotically asking each other a check-list of questions. Even to reflect, one must care. She cheated, but so did he. She was sure. He wouldn’t have been human if otherwise.

The child grew well. Anna, the mother, had been responsible in making it grow into an adult by wiring money in on time. Otherwise, she had no idea who this person was. Her daughter’s name was Diana, named after Princess Di in a moment of TV madness. That much the mother was certain. Diana’s husband: Paul. Diana’s children: Bobby and Paul. Bobby loved shrimp. Paul hated eating ungulates. The family lived abroad. In the Gulf, like the grandmother. Sending her gifts and photographs on holidays and birthdays.

When time permitted, Ana would take the skeletal open elevator construction sites carried, way to the top, the roof, settle down close to the edge and look out, looking over Hamdan. And smoke. The buildings being built were getting taller. From that height, the landscape's plastic surgery couldn't be hidden. Ana almost always looked in the direction of the water. In a country where the land is more desert, that is what one does. The corniche stood grey, black and green tonight, colors realized by the disembowelment of what was once a simple park looking over a large salty man-made moat (lake?), water forced in from the sea. Then dammed. Not pretty, but sufficient.

On her walks, Anna Mole would perch on the steel fence by the moat (lake?), underneath the giant cherry lights resembling dragonfly eyes, and look out into the water. There was no surf, but a little tide was allowed in, bringing in spittle, chewing gum wrappers, fizz cans, little fishes that pretended to lick ice cream and matches that hit and played tag at the feet of the stone walls, where algae clung. It had been a place to just be and do nothing except have cheap soft ice cream and roasted peanuts.

Early one morning, joggers noticed fat Caterpillar scoopers and tractors sleeping near the date palms as two solidly built dredgers started work in the water. More land was needed to accommodate a pulsing population. The sea would have to be kicked back a bit, farther out. As a compromise, more fountains were being built. A lurid plastic horticultural operation, Anne Mole felt. Nothing was being spared, even before she would leave, more make-up and new mixes would be added, transforming everything, recoloring, robbing her of places to turn to and say goodbye before she left. Memories were being taken away without permission. The old souk, a warm moniker – she turned towards where it used to be – even that, gone. In its place, a more orderly market place. Nothing had changed. The shopkeepers were the same. The stores were the same. Still, everything had changed. The drama irritated her, her reaction especially, that need to be a little upset, a silly reaction, a silly thing to do. The city was built to move and change, modeled to be fabulous, glitzy and drag-queenish. The old souk was, well, old. The merchants who hung out in these shops looked like their goods, no-nonsense and cheap. On Fridays, she recalled, she would walk by, past bargain calls jamming her ears by merchants who believed in old-school market bedlam. The toy sellers worked the crowds best, busting out their fellas and sending their battery operated circus into the crowd. Through miniature green tanks, trumpeteering scarecrows, marching soldiers, cymbal banging clowns, rotating princesses, woofing dogs, somersaulting police cars, she would be, bumping into people, figuring out what to buy, inhaling smells, dirty and fine. The malls were better, she knew, even air conditioned, freezeboxed like a butcher’s den, but if only they had kept the coarseness of the souk, instead of tearing it down, just letting it be, eased into retirement like a faithful horse. Instead. Now. Even markets. Were well behaved. And clean. The marks of progress that isn't questioned but respectfully acknowledged . Coveted as markers of first-world paraphernalia.

Sometimes, there would be company on building tops. Others who did her kind of work had the same idea, but rooftop trysts ended for most years ago. It’s for the young. The rest, people like her, went up to the roof to remember what was being left behind, and even at this age, not squander chances to dream or think wild (once more; maybe one more time). But most went up there to say goodbye. Before, the roofs’ meant something else. Now, roof tops she pretended were stopovers for angels* in transit, taking a break from the din of death and prayer. A place to fold wings and reflect. Maria, her friend, mentioned the idea over tea. In Europe, Maria said, her boss told her, giant old buildings have statues of gremlins and angels glued to the side. At night, when the world slept, these fellows would go out into the night, keeping watch, creating mischief. No such luck here, Anna Mole was convinced. But it would be nice, having an angel to chat with over a couple of fags, or a gremlin to excite and spook her. But angels need papers here. Even gremlins couldn't sneak by. None would come or get in without them. Perhaps the location wasn’t flamboyant enough and the paperwork difficult. Flying over Hamdan on work visas or monthly visit permits could get bloody tedious, unless of course, the angels were from those countries exempt from crazy mandates, enabling them to fly over Hamdan’s air space without bothering to check in their pockets half the time for identification, enabling them to stock up and refuel without letting Big Brothers and Bigger Brothers know. Just land and leave. No angels here, only a reflective horny broad on the threshold of menopause. Between puffs, fingers worked. A little spit, slow play. Who said this was pleasure. This was need. The angels weren’t coming. The gremlins wouldn't dare. That was fine, she was busy. And even if they did turn up, they would have to wait. Or participate.

Before long everyone understood. This was what is – Hamdan! -- where people Come, Work, Go.

* The angels did come. Once. Surveying the building tops, as men and women sporting wax wings readied themselves to jump. Each sun-burnt angel picked a man or a woman and stood behind each person, giving each one tight hugs. Then one by one every wax-winged man and woman was pushed over the roof.

About the author
Deepak writes. Short stories. He is Abu Dhabi-an, manufactured and product tested there by a quiet yet befuddled South Indian family. Icarus is taken from his forthcoming short story collection, Bane: The Brined Brain of I. His first set of shorts, Coffee Stains in a Camel's Teacup (2004) was published by Vijitha Yapa Publications (Colombo, Sri Lanka).

Published March 01, 2009