By Shazia Sunderji
Published on November 13, 2013
From the minute I boarded Emirates flight 242 to Dubai, I knew this trip was going to be a memorable one. Dubai is well known for its tall buildings, beautiful mosques, and spectacular blend of modern and traditional cultures. This was my first time travelling to another continent, and at 13 hours, it was going to be the longest flight I had ever taken. My family and I were used to traveling to the Caribbean on cruise ships where we were told what touristic places to visit and where to shop so that our purchases would be safe from scams. Dubai was going to be different. We had booked a hotel room, but no prearranged tours, because we wanted to try to experience the local culture through our own eyes. With no one telling us what to do, we had to make our own decisions.
On the way to our hotel, the taxi driver told us that a large number of Indian migrants have been coming to find work in Dubai, and that areas like Meena Bazaar were crowded with people of Indian origin. I learned that nearly forty percent of Dubai’s population was of Indian origin and that there are 1.75 million Indian migrant workers in Dubai. The Indians who decide to work in Dubai see it as an opportunity to pay back agents back home. But after starting to work, migrant workers learn about the lack of employment laws, and many face abuse. I began to wonder if I would feel at home in an area where other Indians lived. I was Indian too, but I could probably be identified easily as a tourist with my t-shirt and shorts, whereas others tended to cover themselves more respectfully. Some of the migrants from India might even think that I had forgotten my roots because I was born and raised in Canada.
Meena Bazaar turned out to be nothing like what I expected. It was filthy, lacking clean washrooms. Cats and dogs roamed the streets scavenging for leftover food from the trash left outside. There was an awful smell mixed with heavy smog. Every breath I took seemed to have a mixture of particles of animal litter, onions frying in restaurants, the sweat of people passing by, and the smell of new textiles. I had expected more of an outdoor strip mall, but Meena Bazaar in fact consisted of streets and alleys filled with run-down buildings that housed clothing stores and restaurants. I was excited that I might have lots of Indian restaurants to choose from, but from the first meal on the flight to the last meal I had in Dubai, I felt a culture shock. It was Indian food. But I was not used to Indian food, Dubai-style. I was brought up in an Indian household and ate similar types of food at home, but I have to say, I did not like the taste or smell of lamb at all. In Canada, Indian restaurants serve a lot more chicken and beef, but in Dubai, lamb seemed to be more commonplace. I wondered if lamb was popular because it was cheaper. I wondered if the large presence of Indian migrant workers in Dubai affected the way Indian food was prepared. Even among Indians, what was considered to be “authentic” Indian food seemed to depend on our diverse positions in society.
Meena Bazaar was also the place to buy beautiful fabric and Indian clothing known as salwar kameez. Friends and family back in Toronto had told us that prices were very low compared to Toronto, and this was certainly true. Meena Bazaar was filled with stores selling colourful silks, pre-designed with elegant embroidery and ready to be stitched together upon purchase. Store owners pulled out various colours and fabric, and stressed the uniqueness of each style. Unable to pick from all the wonderful designs, my family and I ended up purchasing far more than we had planned.
We bought a total of twenty pieces of silk, and still had five pieces to have sewn before our flight back to Toronto. Unfortunately, it was the day before New Year’s Eve, and it happened that we were among thousands of others who wanted to get their salwar kameez made. We were to depart in twenty-four hours, so we were quite frantic about whether our clothes would get stitched on time. When we went to the tailor to check on our clothes, he was nowhere close to being finished. The tailor shop was small and crowded with customers. Our tailor was a thin elderly man, with a white beard and a dark complexion with a measuring tape draped around his neck. He stood at a small table which fit one silk fabric, a sewing machine, and a pair of scissors. There was no air conditioning or a chair and he had an enormous pile of work ahead of him.
My dad felt badly for the tailor, and I did, too. When he finally finished the work, we offered him a twenty dollar tip out of appreciation. Tipping is apparently not customary in Dubai, and I had noticed that nobody seemed to tip tailors. He accepted the tip with tears in his eyes. I don’t know if this was because he was tired of sewing or because he felt emotional. The tip could have reminded him of how hard he was already working, and maybe we reminded him of his family back home. Being a relatively affluent tourist in Dubai meant that I had a difficult time understanding how tailors or migrant workers experienced life in Dubai. Although they were Indian as well, I hardly felt I had anything in common with them.
My vacation to Dubai had initially started out as any other trip—visits to renowned attractions, late nights, and new foods. But walking around Meena Bazaar and meeting the Indian tailor really left an impression in my mind. Most of Dubai’s attractions hid the true realities of everyday life and showcased glamour and wealth. Therefore, speaking to the tailor was really memorable. It opened my eyes to what Dubai really consisted of—isolation, alienation and high suicide rates for migrant workers. I actually got to speak to the tailor, who would never be advertised to tourists planning to visit Dubai. I learned about his life, and from that about the general hardships that migrant workers face. In tourism advertisements, all these hardships are silenced and never mentioned. In fact, if it wasn’t for this particular conversation, than I would still be in the dark and would have never been able to learn firsthand what life was for a migrant Indian worker in Dubai. I wish I could have done a lot more but as a tourist on vacation for one week in Dubai I was only able to make a small impact in the tailor’s life by tipping him.
I was born in Canada, and given opportunities and privileges that many people do not have. Before travelling internationally it had never occurred to me that being Indian could mean different things for other Indians. People could share a common Indian heritage, but come from different parts of the world, and have very different life trajectories, challenges, and border crossings. I had never seen such harsh working conditions before going to Dubai. I didn’t know much about this tailor, and I couldn’t even begin to relate to his life, but strangely, I did something I would do for a new friend. I gave him my address and phone number, and told him to get in touch if he ever visited Canada.
As I packed my bags and got ready to take my flight back to Toronto, I realized that although I was never able to understand what the tailor was actually feeling, I did actually have a connection with him—through all the salwar kameez he had stitched, which I now was taking back with me. The colourful silks would become a reminder of his diligent work habits and difficult life. It’s been four years since I went to Dubai, but I remain hopeful, that by chance I might hear from the tailor, even though I am aware that this may be mere fantasy. In reality this may never happen, but one thing is for sure—my conversation with him definitely gave me a different perspective on Dubai.
[Final version. An excerpt from an earlier version was previously published here on April 3, 2013.]
Shazia Sunderji is a student at UTSC, majoring in Geography and Anthropology. Next year, Shazia plans to pursue a Teaching Degree towards a career as a primary school teacher. Travelling is one of her greatest passions and she is hoping to visit both Turkey and Singapore in the near future. In her spare time she enjoys baking, especially desserts. During the summer months, Shazia likes to host BBQs and spend quality time with friends and family.
Further reading suggestions
- Buckley, Michelle. 2013. “Locating Neoliberalism in Dubai: Migrant Workers and Class Struggle in the Autocratic City.” Antipode 45 (2): 256-274.
- Buckley, Michelle, 2012. “From Kerala to Dubai and Back Again: Migrant Construction Workers and the Global Economic Crisis.” Geoforum 43 (2): 250-259.
- Fung, Richard. 1995. “The Trouble with ‘Asians’.” In Negotiating Lesbian and Gay Subjects, ed. Monica Dorenkamp and Richard Henke, 123-130. London: Routledge.
- Spivak, Gayatri C. 1996. “Diasporas Old and New: Women in the Transnational World.” Textual Practice 10 (2): 245-269.
- Vora, Neha. 2008. “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in Dubai.” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (2): 377-406.