Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande had lived in the UAE for 10 years before being forced to leave. Kakande published an autobiography about his experiences working in the racially and economically stratified country in 2013, but the book never reached audiences in the UAE. Kakande later learned authorities had intercepted copies of the book sent to him by his publisher and those purchased in the Emirates; according to a local bookstore owner, the book is officially banned.
The UAE is known to ban books considered "politically charged," and recurrently suppresses access to information about migration issues that subject the country to scrutiny; most recently, the local distributor of the International New York Times censored an article chronicling the labor abuses at the NYU Abh Dhabi outpost.
Kakande's experiences reflect the ever-precarious nature of non-citizens in the UAE, who risk losing their residency - their homes - if they upset sponsors or speak out about systematic discrimination and exploitation. He narrates his full story below:
So, who fired me?
Unfortunately, April 1 was not a day for merry pranks or foolish teasing for me, as I was the receiving end of an angry reaction to my new autobiography (The Ambitious Struggle: An African journalist’s journey of hope and Identity in a Land of migrants).
I was abruptly terminated from my six-year contract with The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. It came during my first meeting with Mohammed Al Otaiba, the new Emirati editor-in-chief. He said that he had some bad news to pass along and I asked immediately if he was firing me. He apologised and said that my local editor had good things to say about my work, adding that I was known as one of the hardest working reporters. He mentioned how much he liked my work covering the Northern Emirates and he was looking forward to having a chat over coffee as he settled into his new duties. Then, he mentioned the word he had received from HR (human resources) about my book and the two infractions I had committed. First was that I never obtained clearance about getting it published and the second was that the content did not portray the employer in the most positive light.
The meeting lasted barely three minutes and I asked if he had read the book. He had not. It was clear to me that the decision to terminate my employment came from some other authority. All I could say to him was, “I think I understand, it’s fine.” I thought about who had possibly read the book and had given the orders to the new editor to fire me, even without the benefit of him reading what I had written. And, there was the unanswered question: Who fired me?
Afterward, Al Otaiba led me into a larger conference room where Laura Koot, the executive editor, and an Emirati senior HR staff member that I only knew by the single name Alya were present. The meeting had been carefully planned. First, Al Otaiba privately told me of my termination and then brought me into the larger conference room announcing that the situation had been sorted out for me. I was notified that I had one month to leave the country and that if I wanted extra time I should make a written request. I was informed that I could not turn up at the office and that HR would go through the process of canceling my visa before issuing my one-way return ticket and clearing my dues. All of the papers for my termination were ready and I signed one copy and received a duplicate set. I asked the other two individuals present if they had read the book. They had not.
Laura added that now she would read the book. Those tasked to be the firing squad had not read one word of my book. Again, who fired me?
Al Otaiba indicated to Laura that I should be allowed to meet my local editor who wanted to say good-bye. I could not move about the offices on my own and Laura had to accompany me at all times. My local editor was distraught and said how sorry he was that this was happening to me. He added that if there was anything that he could do to stop this, he would. During much of my tenure at The National, my local editor had been what one would typically expect of a supervisor. He was always businesslike and our chats via email or by phone were never informal or friendly. Actually, I thought that he didn’t like me but on this fateful day, I learned that he respected me warmly and considered me a friend.
Laura also accompanied me as I said good-bye to the local desk deputy. The deputy also mentioned how shocked and sorry he was to hear the news. Laura then accompanied me to see the assistant HR staff member who was tasked with the various actions to be completed for the cancellation process. Throughout this scene, Laura smiled broadly and it struck me how that seemed to dampen the seriousness of the situation. It was as if was intended to get me to smile in return, despite the process I was being led through the office. Later, Laura again accompanied me to HR so I could return my office property and all required documents. Between the heat and the stress of receiving such news without any preparation, I needed to go to the loos. So bizarre were the circumstances that I didn’t know whether Laura would even allow me to use the office facilities unaccompanied. I wondered to what extent they would humiliate me. I decided not to make the request and I decided to leave and find the nearby mosque toilets.
Laura left me at the exit and I discovered that my thumbprint which always had allowed me access onto the newspaper’s premises was no longer active. I had entered onto these premises as an employee and now someone had to place her thumb or card to allow me to exit. Outside I called my wife and gave her the news and while she was shocked she also had become accustomed to hearing disappointing news. Such was our life. I called a friend with whom I stayed with the night before in Abu Dhabi. The night before the meeting, I had received an email summoning me to see the new editor-in-chief and my instincts suggested that the news was not going to be good. I left the car at home and traveled to Abu Dhabi by bus. Just two months before my termination, one of my colleagues in Al Ittihad newspaper, the sister paper of The National had been fired because the Ajman Police complained of him writing stories without their approval. When I opened the email, I knew what would happen.
I returned by bus to Sharjah, in the Al Ittihad office where I was working from. Everyone was calm and some had heard the news but they did not say anything until I mentioned it. I decided to wait until the women reporters left so I could break the news to my male colleagues. Many expressed their shock, offering to intervene in whatever way possible. One colleague, an Emirati, mentioned that he had a friend who would talk to Al Otaiba and that they could also as a team with the office director plead on my behalf. Other colleagues also promised to speak on my behalf to the rival English-language paper editors they knew could hire me.
While I appreciated their offers to help, I also knew they had not read the book. I knew I would not have their support once they learned about the book’s discussion on racism and sex trafficking. They could not afford to drag themselves into trouble. That is exactly what happened a week later when a colleague heard from a major editor of a rival English-language paper. The editor told him that I was a good journalist and he easily would have a vacancy for me to fill in but I also had written a negative book on racism. He did not believe any one would ever hire me and process a visa for me to remain in the United Arab Emirates.
Many of my colleagues in the industry offered their condolences. I realized that losing a job was like losing a loved one but the expressions could only be fleeting at best and were more out of politeness then of full-hearted support. Those who had not read the book were now promising to read it. One colleague said, “No one had taken your book so seriously in the office but now everyone is going to read it.” Another colleague who read it on Kindle told me to think about the termination as an honour to be fired for speaking my mind about the societal problems everyone knew were present but were afraid to talk about for fear of experiencing the fate that I experienced. He said, “Yasin, you have not been fired because of incompetence or corruption or anything bad. You are fired for raising a voice against racism and that is a good thing.”
In the end, I was overwhelmed with the voices of support from many colleagues and reporters at other papers, as their support eased my anxieties of what suddenly had become an uncertain future. However, not all callers were kind. A reporter from a rival paper said I had done the worst possible thing in my life to write the book. She said no one would dare take me on even in the neighbouring Arab countries because no one likes critics or lectures about racism and, as a result, my experiences and knowledge of the region were going to be wasted. She ended by saying, “Don’t shit where you eat.”
My firing was not abrupt. It had been a work in process. In November all of my colleagues at The National, Al Ittihad and Abu Dhabi Televisions had signed new contracts with Emiratis getting pay raise increments and expatriates maintaining their salaries. I was the only one not given a contract. And whenever I asked for one, the HR staff member offered excuses for stalling. It was Laura who gave me a clear but also not so sincere answer. She said that they forgot to make a contract for me, but I should be patient, suggesting that one was in the works.
Six months later, there still was no contract. If the paper’s administration had known my contract was being denied because of my book, why had they not read the book during this time? Perhaps they could not find a copy, as there were no copies in the UAE. Two bookstores had started taking orders from Dubai colleagues and promising to deliver copies within a month’s time. I decided to place an order and see if a copy would be delivered. However, I also knew that prior to my termination, both bookstores were no longer delivering the book and were telling those who ordered it that the book was out of stock. I talked to the saleswoman who had processed my order and she said my book was no longer being allowed in the UAE. It had joined the list of banned books. Even the author’s copies my publisher had sent to me twice had not reached me and friends who ordered it through Amazon tracked their copies, only to see that they arrived in the country but were never delivered. Naturally, they asked for a refund. All of these copies, I presume, had been intercepted by those representing the direct authority who had decided to fire me, using a mask to cover his identity. Obviously, he had so many copies but he could not even share a single one with my editors whom he would ask to convey the message of my termination. The book was censored as if it had been obscene and pornographic.
Being fired for writing an autobiography was simply threatening to any other writer or journalist who would wish to write about human trafficking, racism, exploitation and abuses of immigrants in the UAE. It was to communicate that only the rich and fabulous are allowed to write their experiences of living in glitzy Dubai, as any other stories of immigrants like me threatened the rulers. Furthermore, the greater risks a writer takes, the more the author risks being silenced by the authorities with impunity. I was aware of these risks as I embarked on this project but I knew that telling these stories were worth all of the consequences that might be involved. Whenever a voice like mine is silenced the perpetrators of abuse get a false sense of power over all voices and feel even less of a rush to address the issues of poor immigrants. They think our jobs sufficed as bribes to ensure that we would not report societal problems. We could see but not speak. And, if we cowardly submit to the pressures of prior restraint, we then have ceded the right to define our professional, ethical roles as journalists. We now are willing to unite with exploiters against poor citizens and immigrants who struggle to even joy the modest comforts of living in the UAE.
As journalists, we should not leave the poor immigrant workers on their own to fight the struggle for their rights. Many workers, unfortunately, are illiterate and this undertaking would overwhelm them immediately. How many stories that would have communicated the plight of workers have we decided instead to report in small story briefs or even to trash completely because we feared enraging those in authority and getting fired. Workers fall to their untimely death regularly in huge construction projects or housemaids are murdered in their sponsors’ homes. Workers overwhelmed by the abuses sometimes take their own lives in despair and their stories are dismissed by the papers who believe covering suicides is a taboo.
It is not only the poor workers in a sea of issues that need a voice. Expatriates such as me in the UAE suffer as much from the problems associated with discrimination, exclusion and exploitation. There is no better time to voice these grievances than now when the citizens of many Arab states are demanding their rights and good governance in a period of ever-expanding enlightenment. That despite all of our differences in nationalities, colour and religion or of our financial vulnerabilities starved of economic opportunities in our poor homeland countries we are still making enormous contributions to the UAE’s welfare and we are entitled to be treated with the same dignity, equality and justice that should be standard and universal in any 21st century society.
The HR staff was pushing me to leave the UAE as soon as possible, as if she would score more points if she could make this uncomfortable situation disappear more quickly. Even before my visa was canceled, she prompted me repeatedly to give her office my travel details so they could book my flight as soon as possible and that all my dues would be sent to my bank account in Uganda.
They were treating me as if I was an extremely dangerous animal whom they did not want to hang around their offices or to remain in the country. I told her that I had been in the UAE for more than ten years, which had represented the entire space of my professional career and that more than half of these years I had spent at this newspaper.
“Why do you then want to send me home empty handed on my last trip out of the country, when I am still owed my dues by the company.” At that point, Laura intervened and instructed the office that I should be able to get my dues while still in the UAE.