Fireworks rained on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the beads of light fluttering in the sky and illuminating graffiti in Arabic scrawl. “Irhal,” the Arabic word for “leave,” danced on asphalt across from a dilapidated KFC, as thousands of teenagers cordoned off the street from vehicles, including taxicabs. It was July 4, 2013, and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, had been toppled by a military coup. Cairo oscillated between mourning and celebration.
On the way to dinner, the father of an Egyptian friend silently cried while driving me past the neighborhood mosque he had prayed in alongside Morsi. “He was a simple man; he prayed with ordinary Egyptians — but this is how he is treated,” he said to me, referencing Morsi’s imprisonment.
I had landed in Cairo at this noteworthy moment thanks to Rice’s Zeff Fellowship, which awards one senior a $25,000 grant to carry out an independent research project in an international setting. My project centered on migrant cab drivers working in Egypt, Qatar, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. However, it also included migrant-exporting countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya to contextualize the forces that impel a migrant to move. I chose the taxi as the metaphorical vehicle to understand untold migrant stories, including my own family’s.
IMMIGRANT TAXI DRIVERS
I was born in Brooklyn to a taxi driver and housewife from Pakistan. The cab mapped out my own family’s transition from migrants to makers. Most migrant cabbies are seen through a blue-collar frame: faceless bodies moving from A to B, transporting others to successful lives or careers without accounting for their own. However, this tale obscures another truth: In some cases, the job’s structure affords optimal independence to the men behind the wheel. Drivers control their schedules, do not have bosses and don’t have to wear uniforms. While these points may strike an average worker as inessential, for a migrant still clinging to an ancestral homeland, the taxi presented the best opportunity to preserve, in practice, what they feared it would erode: a cultural address.
Among my own relatives in New York City, I saw that driving a cab enabled them to retain their sartorial choice of the Pakistani “salwar kameez” (a long tunic and baggy trousers), patronize Pakistani restaurants on work breaks and attend all five prayers in South Asian mosques dotting the city. This effectively enabled certain migrant communities to thrive by creating a shadow infrastructure for the workmen. The South Asian cabbie in New York City also was inextricably tied to a network of blue-collar shops, restaurants and religious centers that embraced the migrant in off-duty hours.
“The job gave me the greatest flexibility with my time,” my dad had once explained to me. “I was my own boss: I managed my own schedule, and I set the rules.” My aim was to highlight the independence stemming from this career path and how it was a particular boon for migrants. How? By hanging out in taxi ranks, taking cabs to move around and sitting patiently with cab drivers until they gave me a conversational green light into their lives.
WELCOME TO EGYPT
On my first day in Tahrir Square, Cairo’s ubiquitous cabs — white ones were illegal, black legal — were in scarce supply. The unofficial white taxicabs, four-cylinder Chinese cars with Mitsubishi engines, usually roved around for easy money, with the meter-skipping taximen hungry for customers. Business had slowed because of the more obstreperous crowds that formed at intersections, hurling political slogans. Many people stayed at home, afraid of the sun as much as the police. Only the Sadat metro station — the closest one to Tahrir Square — was open and swelling with sweating bodies, almost all attired in a polychromatic patriotism.
My own forehead was wrapped in a headband fashioned from the three colors on the Egyptian flag: red, white and black. I swept a large Egyptian flag through the air, mimicking the other 20-somethings thronged in the square — more than 7,000 miles away from my own country’s Independence Day.
Protests in Egypt often resembled rock concerts, and that night in the square I saw kernels of popcorn exploding on the street while young men twirled with intense vigor, beating themselves in a political frenzy. Cairo unfurled like a mess on the screen in July, but in person, it looked like a circus.
I soon learned that the chaotic din of politics banged on every street corner. Even buying “ayesh,” or bread, — synonymous with life in the local dialect of Arabic — was a de facto political gesture. Strolling down the street, policemen would halt my steps, asking if my route to taxi garages had a detour in Rabaa Square, the main venue of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests.
Because of Ramadan and the ongoing political instability, most of my interviews with cab drivers occurred under glowing mosques at nightfall. On Friday, the holiest day of the week, political sermons exhorted men to take to the streets, creating an undercurrent (at least) of violence.
When we did meet, most drivers told me that instability had spurred an uptick in car hijackings. Some cabbies explained that they would receive a customer who would rattle off a nearby destination, then place a gun to the driver’s head, demanding he drive a long distance. On the outskirts of the city, pockets would be emptied and the cab would be taken, ripped apart, and sold by its constituent pieces to the highest buyer.
My project’s thematic anchor was movement and transition, but in Egypt, this instability reconfigured this idea of control that I thought the drivers had. It was clear some of them had no power at all.
A NEW CLASSROOM
A lack of power was a theme I encountered again in the thumb-shaped Gulf state of Qatar. At Rice, I had studied Qatar’s migration policies as a participant in the Public Diplomacy and Global Policymaking student colloquium, which is sponsored by Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The course brought Qatari and Rice students together to debate various foreign policy issues. By studying migration, we learned that in Qatar, foreigners outnumbered locals five to one, and Qatar had the highest population growth rate in the world in 2012: 4.93 percent. Citizenship was only granted to blood relatives of Qataris, meaning migrants lived with precarious legal status, and their right to enter the country was tied to the employer who sponsored a visa.
However, a year after studying these policies, it was clear that the low-wage South Asian drivers I met in Qatar lived far away from the educational centers where academics analyzed their circumstances. These drivers emerged as my experiential teachers, instructing me better than any textbook.
For example, outside of Doha, Qatar, I roved around the swath of desert repurposed as the Industrial Areas — a no-go area for most tourists, especially female tourists. These were cities of men where I became the only woman, flanked on both sides by Kenyan drivers who agreed to take me there. Here, Doha’s glittering skyscape was subsumed by the drab reality of migrant toil. Sheltering the masses of laborers, the Industrial Areas illustrated a cruel living differential: whereas Qataris lived in affluent bubbles, the migrants often lived in buildings with peeling paint, missing toilets and victuals wrapped in newspaper outside their walls. This face of Qatar, drivers explained, was not one they exposed to their own families. Drivers would spend several months’ salaries purchasing an expensive suit to wear on the plane ride home.
In Qatar, I lived with the Egyptian host of a show on Al Jazeera Egypt, the channel that had been kicked out of Cairo under the pretext of “supporting terrorism.” Living in exile, many of my host’s colleagues had languished in Cairo’s jails or been blacklisted by Arab states. In this setting, I learned journalism was not a career, but a calling.
One day, I visited Al Ghanim bus station, the country’s largest, and found drivers standing in front of their parked cars. When pedestrians approached, the men waved the customers away like mosquitoes. Each driver needed to produce 235 Qatari riyals a day (around $65) in order to pay his employer for the right to use the company vehicle, so abstaining from work — going on strike — was not merely a symbolic outcry, but a financial gamble. Drivers told me how they would ration their food, eating one meal a day.
I met men like Dulal Ismail, a Bangladeshi laborer who left his entire family behind in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to amass modest funds in the Gulf. His daily income hinged on steering a wheel through Doha’s newly emerging neighborhoods. Yet all of his break time was spent sipping chai and nostalgically dreaming of home. Tedium was the main feature of life as a South Asian laborer in Qatar. Despite the central bus station’s close proximity to Qatar’s free museums, none of the men I knew ever visited one. Instead, Ismail, like other Bangladeshis, saved up scraps of money to send home, living meagerly in Doha in order not to squander the fruits of their labor.
When I’d tell these stories at the end of the day, my host would look at me in disbelief, saying “What you’re doing is journalism. Not everyone can go to these places or make contacts this easily. But you can do it.”
HOW TO BE A JOURNALIST? JUST DO IT.
I was wearing a journalist’s hat, whether or not I saw it that way. Seeing me gripping a pen and pad, most drivers at Al Ghanim assumed I was a reporter. “Which newspaper do you write for?” they’d ask. I would explain I was an independent researcher, but many clamored for me to expose their story, one the outside world needed to hear.
The most vocal advocates for publicity were often East African drivers who came from Nairobi’s worst neighborhoods on short-term contracts. One Kenyan driver, Kevin, appeared to be a teenager, but was actually in his mid-20s. Sporting a baseball camp and gold teeth, he offered me free bus rides during shifts and demanded his passengers respond to my questions.
I was the only woman on the bus, sitting in Qatar’s designated female seats. Kevin showed me the culture of Qatar’s migrant worker, inviting me to worker canteens, company housing and private gathering points for drivers. He told me how some workers paid a small sum to acquire vehicles to gain some measure of independence and wrestle free from the company strictures.
I also found the shops that Kenyan workers relied on, the churches they prayed in and the foods they somehow reclaimed more than 2,000 miles away. These features were virtually invisible to outsiders, including Qataris. In short, I had found the migrant infrastructure that mirrored my dad’s South Asian taxi milieu in New York City.
Upon leaving, Kevin furnished his family’s contact details in Nairobi and told me I would find help there. Although it was not on my original Zeff itinerary, I decided to head straight to East Africa after Qatar. I took a series of minibus taxis from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, meeting various family members in an attempt to trace the standard migrant’s journey.
a deaf-mute, unable to comprehend basic navigation. Somehow, after an 18-plus-hour bus ride from the border, I found Kevin’s house. His mother greeted me warmly, asking me about her son’s health while plying me with “ugali” (cornmeal), vegetables and soda. Between soda refills, her Wi-Fi-enabled phone rang — she had received a call from Kevin in Doha. Her voice had cracked as she handed me the phone.
This was not easy. I moved from town to town like
“Sabrina, I can’t believe you’re in Kenya. I thought you were joking,” Kevin said. I laughed, chiding him for not having more faith in my words. I looked up at his mother, who was crying, overcome with nostalgia.
“I miss Kenya,” Kevin garbled. “Eat ugali for me!” he shouted. I told him I had a massive plate right in front of my face. He laughed, and I handed the phone back to his mother.
When I left Kevin’s home, which was adorned with all of his childhood photos — playing basketball, hugging his sister, sporting a matatu driver’s swagger — I realized I had discovered the missing piece of stories I could only partially understand. Specifically, this story was about more than the migrant himself. There was a larger structure and interconnectivity that it would be impossible to ignore. A job that I had thought could fuel such independence could also destroy the dependence sons had on their parents and steer a migrant toward larger distances, pulling the parents far away from a migrant son’s voluntary exile.
When Kevin’s mom had asked me about his conditions in Qatar, I did not say anything about the underpayment of wages or the cruel hierarchy of class and race in the Gulf’s migrant melting pot — Africans were always seen as guest workers, never expatriates — but all of these facts weighed on me. At the end, I accumulated a pressing sense of guilt that morphed into a sense of responsibility. Whether it’s taxi drivers in Qatar or protesters in Egypt, there are always stories that are too often muffled or unheard.
ON THE MOVE
After a short stint in Nepal, where I held my first paid job as a working journalist writing stories about education and migrant issues, I moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh. On one assignment, I went to the coastal city of Barisal and conducted an interview on a boat with one of the only female ferry drivers in the country. I also wrote about Bangladesh’s first transgender pride parades and its underground LGBT community. When my visa ran out, I still wasn’t ready to come home to the U.S.
In January, I landed at TIME Asia, where I write online briefs, research and fact-check stories. I’m also researching and reporting a story on Rohingya Burmese refugees. Hong Kong is a city that mirrors New York City in its multilayered vibrancy. In Victoria Park, a few minutes’ walk from my apartment, Indonesian and Filipino live-in maids gather on Sunday (their only day off). Talking to them, I heard the same stories of wage theft, employment abuse and a thirst to go home. The world’s migrant labor is commodified and shuttled across borders, operating in a global system that seemingly never changes.
Now I have a better understanding of social media practices
(how to write a headline for Twitter vs. Facebook) and photo production (what works best for Web production is not the same as print). I also have learned to tackle bigger topics, less local and more global.
Rice’s Zeff Fellowship gave me a crash course in how to live and work overseas in countries where I had no contacts or experiences. Indirectly, it encouraged me to embrace the intrepid spirit of immersive journalism that so many foreign correspondents valorize. Moving forward, I am undaunted by the prospect of overseas reportage. All I have to do is recall the fireworks that rained in Tahrir Square and illuminated other stories in the distance. “Yalla,” the taxi drivers had said. Let’s go.
Behind the wheel in Doha
Taking a tea break with the Bangladeshi men driving Qatar’s buses and taxicabs
“Dhaka is a huge city,” he tells me. “Doha is small.” Dulal Miah Ismail is a 39-year-old Bangladeshi bus driver. Wearing a starched white shirt, Ismail’s maroon tie is emblazoned with a logo for Mowasalat, Qatar’s state-owned transportation company. Ismail is standing against the sand-coloured walls of Qatar’s Al Ghanim central bus station. He enters this bus station several times a day, as his route jags through the arteries of Sanaya, the beating heart of the industrial areas, to anywhere from the Sealine Beach Resort or Souq Al Attiyah, back to the central bus station. Here in Al Ghanim, Qatar’s car-less population – consisting largely of South Asian men wearing cotton panjabis – wait to board air-conditioned buses underneath a white tent-like structure intended to shield them from the sun. “In Qatar, there are too many Bangladeshis,” Ismail says, sipping his cha. “Every day, they come.” He points out two men nearby, both attired in the same Mowasalat uniform.
Recently, Ismail has seen the station swell with men from South Asia, imported as the economic bedrock behind the comprehensive national strategy enshrined in Qatar’s National Vision 2030.
A South Asian family
Although the migrant community is diverse, there is a sense of unity and kinship among the labourers. The nation-state boundaries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India seem to collapse in Doha’s heat.
“All of us came here for money,” a 27-year-old Riyadh says, “because we have to support our family.” A Dhaka native, Riyadh remits anywhere from Tk5,000-10,000 monthly back home to Bangladesh, where his family depends on him as the sole breadwinner.
“I’m the eldest in my family. I have two brothers and one sister. I made the decision to drop out of university -- even though my sick dad told me not to – to come here. I pay for my younger brother’s tuition for a BBA,” he says.
Qatar hosts approximately 150,000 Bangladeshi labourers. Ismail is one of the 7.7 million Bangladeshis – 5.3% of the population – seeking employment outside Bangladesh.
Riyadh spends his days driving taxis, and his nights studying English, which he associates with improved job prospects. “While I’m on the job, I am always writing. What is this word? Or how can I use this word? Learning English is my hobby in Qatar.”
But the limited interaction with non-labourers makes mastering the new language a challenge. In fact, he insisted we conduct our interview in English. “In Qatar,” he tells me, “day by day, my speaking skills are going down because there is no one to practice with.”
Foreigners outnumber nationals in Qatar, where the government created a Qatarisation programme guaranteeing public sector jobs for Qatari citizens. At least half the energy and industry sectors must be filled with Qataris. Human Rights Watch reported that 99% of Qatar’s private sector is expatriate labour.
Riyadh, a taxi driver living in Qatar for the past 15 months, tells me: “I don’t like taxi driving. I don’t think it’s a professional job. In Qatar, there is good money, but no honour.”
Around the gold souk, Al Ghanim grows alive. Here, stalls serve labourers tea, biscuits, and shwarma anything cheap and quick. Ismail, adhering to his Bangladeshi hospitality, refuses to let me pay for the tea, which is served Sulemani style-without milk.
As Ismail and I walk around the station, eyes stick to us because I am the only woman. Sometimes, days will pass before he speaks to a girl, Ismail tells me. Athough it is a public bus station – the largest in the country – Al Ghanim’s only women are the occasional Filipino or Ethiopian caretakers on their journey homeward. Finding a Bangladeshi woman here is rare.
For Ismail, the only women he sees are his customers, or those women walking on Doha’s sun-baked streets – many of which are not yet pedestrianised for walking.
A 2013 International Organisation for Migration report stated women account for a mere 6% of Bangladeshi migrants worldwide.
Ismail and his colleagues live in all-male dormitory-style accommodation 30 minutes from the city centre, in the 500,000 sqm Karwa City Housing complex. Lauded by Qatar’s Emir as an exemplar for company housing projects, the $96 million accommodation includes medical facilities and a gym – ensuring workers never need to leave.
It’s not clear where they would go, however. Though there are entertainment options in Doha -- last year, Qatar hosted Bangladesh’s 2013 Channel i Music Awards -- Ismail’s work hours prevent him from participating.
He leaves the Karwa City complex at 6am and returns so late in the evening that the Karwa’ canteens have usually stopped serving dinner. And although there are free things to do nearby – the Museum of Islamic Art is a 20-minute walk from the station – Ismail and his colleagues have never been inside.
Making the best of it
For Ismail and Riyadh, the biggest challenge is usually breaking up the tedium of the day. Hour after hour, the men circumambulate the same blue taxis and buses, watching customers pile in and out.
“Qatar is a small country” Ismail tells me. “Each day is the same.” He looks at Riyadh sipping his tea, and they erupt into laughter after a Bangla joke. At least for now though, the tedium of a daily driving schedule is broken by familiar jokes and warm cups of cha.
See more: ricemagazine.info/277