Saturday, 21 February 2015
Pain of Sand
I need to get back inside the Shed. Writing this from the sand-blown Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where eyes sting, mouths taste of salt and the tapping of keyboards is accompanied by ominous crunching sounds, it might be sensible for my laptop and I to take shelter from the sandstorm. Or at the very least, I could close my mouth instead of gaping inanely at the glorious copy-editing job that has been performed on ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’ (thanks Tamsin Shelton). Rest assured, readers; a vigorous sieve has been applied to over-dotted ellipses, overexcited exclamations and under-spell-checked lexis, leaving the reader with a truly refined experience (later this year). I’m really not sure if these are tears of joy in my eyes, or a grain of Saudi sand has just attacked my left retina.
I’m here in Saudi Arabia for a few months to teach English, so I am a migrant worker in the Middle East, much as my wife - Fasika - was in Lebanon a decade ago. All similarities end here. A friendly young Indian fellow enters my apartment every morning to wash my dishes, scrub my toilet and make my bed. I am a British migrant worker and, like Saudi nationals, I am not expected to do that sort of thing myself. My wife, on the other hand, was paid low wages to carry out these exact duties (and a lot more) in Beirut. She was an Ethiopian migrant worker and was expected to do that sort of thing.
Yes, I should be embarrassed about my ‘houseboy’ – especially as I’ve written a book about a downtrodden domestic worker in the Middle East – but I can report that he’s paid for by my employer, works in favourable conditions and is much further up the migrant hierarchy than the Ethiopians. Importantly, take note, I don’t beat him, starve him or prevent him from contacting his family, unlike my wife’s former Lebanese employer.
In fact, I don’t make any apologies for this daily cleaning service: it is a cultural norm in this deeply traditional region of the world and I am not about to make a one-man stand; at least, not while I’m actually here. Local Saudi views on the division of labour, along racial lines, are as fixed as their religious beliefs, their royal family and their barren desert landscape. The UK is equally ‘fixed’ in many respects, not least in our class system, our royal family and our “green and pleasant land” (subject to fracking and planning laws). In Saudi, the sands blow and shift but the fundamental shape and character of the country does not alter (ditto Blighty) and nobody can expect it to alter in the near future. I would suggest checking the situation when the oil runs dry in 2030. In the meantime, Ethiopians migrate to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at your peril.
Lebanon, however, is beginning to look a little different. As in most of the Arab world, maids are still oppressed under the ‘kefala’ sponsorship system that bonds migrants to their employers and permits widespread abuse, but there is a fully fledged movement to rid the country of this archaic arrangement. The 10,000 Facebook ‘likes’ on the Lebanon Anti-Racism Movement page is testament to this. In fact, the Labour Ministry was recently persuaded to consider the formation of a labour union for migrant domestic workers: unfortunately, they rejected the proposal, but they did actively consider it, something that would be impossible in Saudi Arabia (see http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/ 2015/1/2/lebanese-domesticworkersorganizetoreformlaborcode.html).
And it is not only Lebanon where the government is being forced to review the issue. With an average of one migrant worker dropping dead on Qatar’s World Cup construction sites every single day, this is dragging global focus onto the same kefala system and the horrendous exploitation that it signifies (see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/23/qatar-nepal-workers-world-cup-2022-death-toll-doha). With another seven years of construction work ahead, it is unlikely that the Qatari Government can completely sidestep an overhaul of working conditions in this otherwise forward-looking Gulf state. The movements for change in Lebanon and Qatar are both travelling in the right direction, albeit sluggishly, and it is now simply a question of time before one of the governments blink and allow a slither of drastic reform quietly slip into their legal system. A well-publicised book like ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’ will surely help them blink.
In Saudi Arabia, however, the prevailing conditions do not allow for blinking: everyone must keep their heads down and eyes firmly closed. These sandstorms whip in and bite hard, as one wayward Saudi blogger is painfully aware.
Ouch to that.
It’s time to restrain myself: writers are not Unbound out here.