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My eyes opened to the lives of migrant workers in historical Dubai

The ancient Al-Fahidi district in the Emirate is home now mainly to labourers from Pakistan and India.
Updated May 24, 2017 04:31pm

Before moving to Dubai, I was overwhelmed with excitement at the thought of experiencing the glitz and glamour of this world-renowned city. On arrival, I was instantly distracted by the materialistic desires that the city advertised so well on blown-up images.

A part of my subconscious was telling me to look beyond Burj Khalifa, the luxurious shopping malls and hotels. I was determined to find out the story of the city that underwent major transformations within two decades. Every city has a rich past and Dubai is no exception.

As a frequent traveller of the metro, I decided to spend the day as a tourist in the historic Al-Fahidi district. Slinging my camera and another bag packed with essentials on my shoulder, I set off on my personal adventure with mixed feelings of excitement and anticipation.

Walking out of the Fahidi station, I noticed how different the overall environment and architecture was. The old buildings from the days before Dubai’s transformation into a globalised city were clearly preserved.


I noticed that the people were mainly Indians and Pakistanis, as compared to the Arabs and Europeans I would see at the malls. These migrant workers are often employed in construction work since they never had a chance to receive a formal education.


They make the difficult decision of leaving home and are often forced to take loans to be granted a visa. In this locality, I saw them working at stores and sitting at restaurants sipping on their morning chai and eating parathas. The area is congested with offices of travel agencies, Indian clothing stores, grocery stores and hotels.

Explore: For sale in Dubai

The Al-Fahidi district is also known as Souk Al-Kabeer or Old Town since it is close to the textile and spice market. I noticed that most people were travelling on foot and I decided to walk to Bastakiya.

A view of the old district Bastakiya, which I found to be a peaceful haven from the busy city, which has quaint cafes, museums and art stores.
A view of the old district Bastakiya, which I found to be a peaceful haven from the busy city, which has quaint cafes, museums and art stores.

The mud-brick structures had wind towers that were old artefacts from the 18th century when the Bani Yas tribe was the only inhabitants of this trade and fishing village. Wind towers were used for ventilation before air conditioners were introduced. They are remnants of those introduced by the Arab merchants who had moved to Dubai in the mid-1800s as the Iranian government was persecuting the Sunni Muslims.

Some of them managed to escape on foot, and while migrating, they would take breaks and say “basta” meaning “Stop here.” Eventually, the Arabs said “basta” for the last time when they reached Dubai in the 1920s after seeking refuge from the founding father Sheikh Maktoum who provided the merchants with a plot of land they named Bastakiya.

As I walked through the narrow pathways, I felt a sense of peace in the calm, quiet neighbourhood.

One of the many narrow alleys leading to the mosque in Bastakiya.
One of the many narrow alleys leading to the mosque in Bastakiya.

I noticed a brown, palm frond structure with a traditional, brass handled wooden door that was ajar. Above it was inscribed ‘Coin Museum’. Built at the end of the 19th century, the museum has several rooms where ancient coins dating back to the early days of the UAE in the 1800s are housed in glass cupboards.

As I was leaving, the guard asked me to sign the guest book along with my comments. He told me that he was a Pakistani and had moved to Dubai several years ago. I commented on how the modern side of Dubai was so radically different compared to the older areas of the city.


His response amazed me: “I have never been to the new side because I don’t need to. My duty is here, and this area reminds me of home.”


What he said made me realise how predictable it was to see desis doing such jobs even while living outside the country. The South Asian labour force, which makes up 53 percent of the population, not only receives low wages but also live in difficult conditions.

Their camps are usually far from the city and sharing a room with many others is not an ideal situation. But they make the sacrifice because they have no choice. They are the only source of support for their families back home.

Also read: The imperfect lives of Dubai’s ‘blue men’

As I walked ahead, I reached the Dubai Creek where I saw many traditional boats — known as abra — passing by, packed with tourists and workers. While walking towards the dock, I noticed a few stores lined in front of the port.

I walked into an Indian clothing store that was filled with material for saris and shalwar kameez. The shopkeeper, who looked as ancient as his surroundings, was sipping his evening tea. He told me he was Indian, then immediately guessed I was Pakistani. He had witnessed the major transformation the city had undergone while living here for more than 30 years, working in the clothing trade business since he moved.

Pakistani and Indian workers socialise and have tea in one of the courtyards of Souk Al Kabeer in the Fahidi district.
Pakistani and Indian workers socialise and have tea in one of the courtyards of Souk Al Kabeer in the Fahidi district.

From Dubai Creek station, I took a ride in the rickety, wooden abra; the journey surprisingly cost only one dirham. The abra was introduced in the early days when the creek was the main hub of commercial activity in the city.

It is still a common mode of transportation carrying 15,000 passengers every day, as it is the easiest way to travel to various points of the long, outstretched creek. I could feel the wind surrounding me during the ride, and for a moment I closed my eyes and imagined the workers who knew nothing else but travelling by boat. I felt a tinge not of sympathy, but jealousy.

There is always a mix of people on the *abra* rides, which has stopovers across the entire Dubai Creek.
There is always a mix of people on the abra rides, which has stopovers across the entire Dubai Creek.

After the boat ride, I walked ahead to the spice souk, also known as Souk Al Kabeer. There are countless stores selling spices, souvenirs, foodstuff, Indian and Pakistani traditional clothing and shoe stores. Stopping for a break at a juice centre, I noticed that the sellers in all the stores were Pakistanis and Indians.

This suddenly made me realise that I had not seen a single Emirati during my entire trip. As shop sellers and tourists walked past me, I continued to scan the area for the sight of a local, but failed to spot any. Perhaps they prefer to live outside of Dubai, which is heavily populated with foreigners that make up a staggering 90 percent of the population.

As I walked through the narrow alleys of the *souk*, I noticed the diverse range of visitors and didn't spot many locals, similar to most areas in Dubai.
As I walked through the narrow alleys of the souk, I noticed the diverse range of visitors and didn't spot many locals, similar to most areas in Dubai.

As I walked out of the souk, I approached a long stretch that was a continuation of the creek, where I saw an unloading and loading dock. The creek passes through the heart of the city towards the trading port that leads up to the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.

In depth: Asian workers face harsh realities in Dubai

The port dates back to the late 1930s when the pearl industry was the main source of income, which was eventually affected by the higher quality pearls found in Japan. The general traders and local tribes, Bani Yas and Al Bu Muhair, had an economic slump as a result of this and eventually began seeking an alternative source of income.

There are several stations at the creek where you can buy tickets for a ride in an *abra*, which are parked at the dock.
There are several stations at the creek where you can buy tickets for a ride in an abra, which are parked at the dock.

As I looked towards the port, I saw Indian and Pakistani workers unloading cargo from multi-coloured vintage boats that lined the dock. As I stopped to take photographs, I approached them and they immediately asked me, “Do you like Dubai or Pakistan better?” I told them I preferred my home country, to which they agreed and said they missed being back home but circumstances made them come here to provide for their families.

The old boats lined along the creek are always bustling with activity as workers unload products that are exported from around the world.
The old boats lined along the creek are always bustling with activity as workers unload products that are exported from around the world.

I was amazed by such camaraderie between Pakistanis and Indians and how they were living in peaceful coexistence. I thought how unfortunate it is that people back home aren’t accepting of our neighbouring country.

As I gazed beyond the glistening waters of the creek, the sun started to set. The horizon dipping over the Burj Khalifa in the distance was the only hint that I was still in the modern city of Dubai.


Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2017


All photos by the author.


Have you been to lesser-known historical sites across the world? Share your experience with us at blog@dawn.com


Ayesha Islam is currently working at the blogs desk at Dawn.com and she is passionate about traveling, writing, and photography.

Follow her at @ayeshaziaislam