Tag Archives | ” labor


It’s hot here in the desert.  Even now, in November, when people say “ah…the heat has broken,” we’re still talking 90F at midday.

The road I have to take to my house winds through a whole huge construction project designed to make room for even more cars and maybe a high-rise or two (Abu Dhabi loves itself some skyscrapers, the glassier the better).

The men who dig these roads (and build the skyscrapers) come from Kerala, Goa, Sri Lanka; Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi — places that, until I moved out here, existed only on maps or in newscasts about “more violence.”

Sometimes, when I see a man lost in thought or resting in the shade, I imagine that he’s remembering his family “back home” (we all think about that place, backhome), or daydreaming about his wife/lover/child.  And then I think maybe it’s much more prosaic than that: what’s for dinner, my feet hurt, I’m hot.

Mostly, I think these guys are invisible — invisible in the sense that Marx writes about, that all laborers are essentially invisible — and in terms of what they wear: heads swathed in scarves (absorbs sweat, keeps the sand out of eyes, ears nose), bodies wrapped in company-issued coveralls.  Without these almost faceless bodies, however, the city would collapse back into sand and dust.





Continue Reading · on November 14, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, environment, expat, NaBloPoMo, Politics, UAE

leave your shoes at the door


What it looks like when repairmen come to your house in Abu Dhabi:


Everybody’s shoes get left at the door–whether it’s friends stopping by for a visit or workers coming to see why the dishwasher spews water all over the kitchen floor.

And even if I say to the repairmen, “no, it’s okay, please keep your shoes on,” the guys nod and smile and leave their shoes at the door.  It’s not just repair crews, either–furniture delivery people pause at the doorstep to kick off their shoes, no matter what they’re carrying and no matter what I say; my cleaning lady does the chores barefoot.

Bare feet seem less intimate, somehow, than stocking feet.  Sometimes one of the maintenance guys will have a hole in his sock, sometimes the socks don’t match; it’s like a tiny glimpse into their lives.  It’s an oddly vulnerable thing, isn’t it, that toe poking out of a worn sock?

Seeing the shoes lined up outside a door–or just inside the door, next to the rack that holds the “inside shoes” (flip-flops, slippers, slides) is one of those small moments when I realize I’m very far from “home.”






Continue Reading · on November 5, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, exercise, Politics, UAE, What’s It Like?

Saturday’s Snapshot (surat al-sabat): لقطة السبت

It’s hard to avoid “service” in Abu Dhabi. Labor is (disturbingly) cheap and it seems sometimes that there is always someone offering to wash your car, clean your apartment, carry your bags.

But the other day in Lulu (a big grocery store chain here), I saw “service” taken to a new level: a worker unloading a shopper’s grocery cart at the check-out line. She was on the phone, he was plopping things onto the conveyer belt; they both seemed oblivious to one another.

Continue Reading · on November 24, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Politics, surat al-sabt saturday snapshot, UAE, What’s It Like?

Wordless Wednesday: Scaffolding

The boys play soccer at Zayed Sports City, a huge sports complex about 20 minutes drive from our apartment (or 8 minutes if you’re the Emirati dude we saw last week, zigzagging through traffic in his Maserati like he was trying out for Formula 1.)

We get there about 6, just in time for the endless sunset that happens in this part of the world, and last week, well after quitting time, workers were still pounding away at this structure.

Continue Reading · on October 5, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, wordless wednesday

Maid Anxiety

I’m anxious today.

Well, actually, I’m anxious a lot of the time, in a kind of anticipatory free-floating sort of way–I like to have a sort of stockpile of anxiety on hand, ready to whip out at the slightest provocation, but this morning, my anxiety is pegged to a specific event.

The housekeeper is coming. And actually, even that word makes me anxious. Should I call her the housekeeper? Or the maid? Or the cleaner? Or should I go seriously third-world and call her “the girl,” despite the fact that she’s probably about 30.

I’ve never had a cleaning person before (there, that’s decided: she’s the “cleaning person”). Never in my adult life. My mom never had “help,” although she grew up with live-in help. My grandmother’s idea of “housekeeping” was calling the butcher in the morning to set aside veal cutlets for her, which may explain why when my mom first started living on her own, things like cooking an egg or boiling noodles were slightly unclear.  When we were growing up, we lived in a house with a laundry chute, and mom developed her own strategy for teaching us to pick up after ourselves.  Anything of ours that hadn’t been put away where it belonged she simply tossed into the chute. That meant that to find your algebra book, or tennis racquet, or wallet, or whatever it was, you had to go into the basement and pick through the dirty clothes pile to find your stuff.  Genius, right?

Out here in Arabia, though, labor is cheap. Really cheap. So cheap you practically can’t afford not to have help. Labor has been devalued to the point that sometimes the position of laborers borders on indentured servitude.  Many day laborers, mostly men, live in an enclave (we won’t call it a labor camp) outside the city–rows of dusty apartments inhabited by the South Asian and Pakistani immigrants who come here to work.  The women who come here to work–Filipinas, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis–often get positions as live-in housekeepers or nannies, and the apartments in our buildings are all designed, in fact, with maid’s rooms.

Here’s the room:

These spacious accommodations come with an “en suite” bathroom, which is so small that you could probably rinse your feet in the shower, brush your teeth, and take a pee all at the same time. We have friends in this building with live-in help, and while they wish they could offer more spacious accommodations, they all report that their “help” claims to be happy to have a private air-conditioned room with a private bathroom. Like I said. Labor is cheap here and accommodations in other places aren’t even as “nice” as these.

My person, however, is only coming once a week, on Sunday afternoons.  She’s from Sri Lanka and lives here with some number of relatives; the money she earns from housekeeping gets sent back home to support her 12 year old son. I know that she needs the work and yet I still have…I think it’s basic “white guilt.” I mean, who am I to hire someone to clean my bathrooms for me? Why the hell can’t I do it myself?

Well…well…because–okay, here it is, my assertion of first-world privilege: I just want someone else to do it, dammit, and for the first time in my life, I can afford that luxury. Plus I hate mopping the floor and our entire apartment is tiled in some kind of dreadful faux-marble surface that requires a great deal of mopping. And vacuuming.  There’s just a lot of general swabbing that needs to happen and I’m tired of it. Okay? Okay?

Yes. I’m a little anxious about it all. I’m worried that my cleaning products aren’t up to snuff. I’m worried about what I can ask her to do or not to do. Is it okay to ask her to wash the dishes in the sink from breakfast (we don’t have a dishwasher yet, or rather, I have been the dishwashwer and today, I guess she will be the dishwasher). What about laundry? Can I ask her to change the sheets on our bed? What if I ask her to do our bed but not the boys’ bunkbeds, does that seem fair? After all, changing the sheets on a bunkbed qualifies as an aerobic activity and I don’t want to inflict such an aggravation on this woman. Will that make up for the fact that our apartment is a mess? Now I understand that whole “cleaning up for the maid” syndrome because I’ve just suffered through it–although our apartment will have some clearly defined “no fly” zones:  Husband’s desk,  the mound of cords and cables in the TV room (yes, an apartment with a TV room that has a door that shuts when the wii gets too loud. Be still my beating heart), the lego projects/piles.

On second thought, I’m going to do the breakfast dishes.  Which means I don’t have any more time to write. She’s going to be here in an hour.

What’s the right outfit to wear for the first time you meet the help?


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Continue Reading · on October 2, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, expat, Politics, UAE

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