Illusion of a Silver Porsche

Men of the Global South

Adam Jones ed., Zed Books, 2006

I have a ritual when I arrive in the hotel in a new city. After a quick shower, I immediately go looking for a spot to get Internet access. In Beirut to present my work at an arts festival, I discovered that the best location to receive wireless internet signals was the hallway outside my hotel room. Sitting on the stairs to check email every morning, I soon became a familiar sight to the maids cleaning the hotel. On the third day, an Asian maid finally worked up the courage to ask me in English: “Are you Indian?”

Forsaking my usual sarcastic response, I simply replied, “No, I’m Bangladeshi.” Her face immediately lit up. “I’m from Bangladesh too!” Switching from halting English to rapid-fire Bengali, she started asking me which district I was from, where my home village was, when I had arrived, what I was doing there, and more. Farzana was from Comilla. She was one of two Bangladeshi employees in the hotel. The other was Anis, a downstairs guard I had noticed earlier.

Farzana said something which made me realize why she was so excited: “Allah, you know, I have been in Beirut for seven years, been at this hotel for five years. You are the first Bangladeshi guest I have seen. We see Indians all the time, but Bangladeshis, never!” Here was a very uncomfortable contradiction. While I presented at the conference, Farzana would be cleaning my room. Even within the flattening conditions of diaspora life, class privilege had reasserted itself.

During the two weeks that followed, Farzana and I fell into a routine of morning conversations. From these alaaps I learnt that Bangladeshis were relatively new arrivals here, but had already become one of the big groups of migrant workers, after Ethiopians and Filipinos. Sri Lankan maids were of course the Lebanese archetype (their horrific conditions are documented in Carole Mansour’s recent film Maid In Lebanon); but Bangladeshis were starting to replace them in some jobs.

Although the community was recent, almost everyone had been here for at least seven years. Seven years is roughly the amount of time that new visas had been blocked under the previous Syrian regime, so that was the marker for migration. Although the Bangladeshis had established a strong community, they mixed freely with other migrant groups. A day after I visited the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, I learnt from Farzana that it was also the site for the very popular Sunday “Bangla market.” That was when roving Bengali sellers would set up temporary shops next to the camps and sell Bengali food, trinkets, music and films. “Not just Bangladeshi,” she said proudly, “but others also buy our items!”

After the festival ended, Farzana invited me to have lunch at her home. There, I met several other members of her community, mostly working as maids and building guards. The man who interested me most was Hamid, a garrulous nightguard who became my guide through Beirut. To start things off, I asked Hamid why he had two massive posters of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This seemed an odd juxtaposition with progressive Lebanese who mourned Hariri’s death but maintained a healthy skepticism about his ties with big business. But Hamid very enthusiastically told me that Hariri was the man who could claim credit for rebuilding war-torn Beirut. “If only Bangladesh could have a Hariri,” he added wistfully. Though some Lebanese artists had warned me that there was a lot of racism in Lebannon, Hamid and his friends seemed to have absolutely no complaints. Rather, he kept insisting that the Lebanese treated them “fairly,” and certainly better than other Arab countries.

The only time Hamid became tentative was when he started talking about his family. Like many other migrants, he had managed to return home only once during his twelve years. During that trip, he married, and brought his wife back to Beirut. Soon afterwards, his wife gave birth to their first son, Rubayat. But the pressures of providing for both wife and son were too much, and he was forced to send them back to Bangladesh. When I asked how he was coping without his new family, Hamid gave a slightly embarrassed smile. Then he stood up straight and said: “This is what’s written in our fate. Allah gives some a lot, so he has to give others little. This is the path written for us, so we just have to manage.”

As if to change the topic, he started showing me pictures of his son. In one photo, Rubayat was standing in front of a silver Porsche. “I asked them to do that on the computer,” he explained, pointing to the car. Looking again at the sports car, I wondered if it was meant to give the family back home an illusion of wealth, or whether it was simply there as a nice backdrop. Hamid started handing the photo over to me, and I protested that I couldn’t take his copy. “No, no, take it, I have many more copies”; then, with a quiet insistence: “Please. I want you to take it.”

As I walked back to the hotel after lunch, holding the envelope with the photo in my hand, I thought about this paradox: global migrants have very little in terms of stature, rights or earnings, but somehow they still manage to find dignity and happiness in their transient lives. I had glimpsed a fragment of this in Hamid’s stories.

I was reminded of the Beirut episode by television footage of a recent hostage crisis in Iraq. Unlike previous kidnappings of westerners, morally problematic in themselves, the hostages this time were migrant truck-drivers. Looking at the scared faces of Tilak Raj, Sukhdev Singh, and Antaryami, I wanted to ask the kidnappers: are these really the “agents of Empire”? Desperately poor men, who went to Iraq for their Kuwaiti employer, were now hostages and pawns in the power struggle between the occupation forces and the insurgents.

Speaking to the Indian press, one hostage’s father, Sher Singh, said: “With great hopes we had sent our son abroad in April this year by selling a piece of land. Little did we know that we [would] have to face this.” His wife Jaspal Kaur added: “What can we do? We are very poor people.” It is poverty like this that forces millions of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to work in sub-human conditions in the Middle East and Gulf region. That same cycle had trapped these men in a terrifying ordeal. The fate of seven hostages – three Indians, three Kenyans, and an Egyptian truck driver – also demonstrated that the Iraqi insurgency was no heroic rebel army or genuine alternative to empire. Rather, it was a nihilistic group with a program to drive out the occupation “at any cost”. That “any cost” included the complete erasure of any class-based politics within an anti-imperialist critique.

Thinking of the Indian hostages, Himangshu Datta, my old barber in Dhaka, also came to mind. One day, while cutting my hair, he calmly announced that he was changing his religion to Islam. Apparently, for would-be Bangladeshi migrant workers to Dubai, being Muslim could provide an advantage. In the hope of getting a job as a driver for a Dubai government office, Himangshu was going to get a certificate with a Muslim name. I asked him what he would do about his nether regions, and he sadly answered: “Listen brother, I need to make money to send back to my family in the village. I will do anything. What is one little khothna?”

For a man to abandon his religion for migrant work in the Middle East, with its nightmarish work standards, speaks to the poverty people seek to escape. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently issued a report on the condition of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. The revelation that “Guest Workers” are systematically abused should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the kingdom’s history and its relatively recent abolition of slavery. Sarah Whitson from HRW reported that the organization “found men and women in conditions resembling slavery.” The report described “the abysmal and exploitative labor conditions many workers face, and the utter failure of the justice system to provide redress.” Based on interviews taken in Bangladesh, India and the Philippines, HRW found evidence of exploitative labor practices, rape of women workers, and the beheading of guest workers accused of crimes without proper legal process. Visitors to Saudi Arabia have witnessed the racism that brown- and black-skinned pilgrims face in Mecca. Like hundreds of Bangladeshis every year, my parents endured these indignities during their pilgrimage. When he returned from Mecca, my father told me: “To them, we will always be miskeen (beggars). It doesn’t matter what we do, or where we come from.”

Reports of terrible conditions for migrant workers do eventually filter back. Dead bodies are also flown home. But the flow of migrants continues and grows. Pundits talk about fanatical hordes in the “Third World,” willing to die for religion. But the experience of migrant workers shows that poverty trumps ideology and religion as a driving force for the vast, working-class populations of these nations. In this respect, they share something even with the American soldiers in Iraq, many of whom are from the economic and racial underclass and joined the army for economic opportunities.

By kidnapping these laborers, and using them to punish the occupation, the Iraqi insurgents display a willful ignorance of the position of migrant labor in global power equations. During Vietnam, anti-war activists saw the Vietcong as a people’s liberation army because they stood up to the crushing power of the United States. The conflict was framed in some quarters as capitalism versus communism. But in the present crisis, viewers would be hard-pressed to find any heroes among the insurgents. In the end, it will be poor people everywhere – in dusty Iraqi towns, desperate Indian villages, and army recruiting centers in Michigan – who will pay the price.