In 1994, when I was a kid growing up in Abu Dhabi, my parents bought a new refrigerator. I do not remember much else about it – 10-year-olds are seldom impressed by household appliances. What I do recall clearly though, was the large cardboard carton it came in – that is something by which 10-year-olds are very impressed. Cartons offered endless possibilities if you had some imagination and free time.
My parents however, had none of it. They took it away and stocked it above the wardrobe in their bedroom, where it rested next to the washing machine and the dishwasher cartons. As my mother told us later, we always saved the cartons because “we may need to go back home anytime”. The cartons remained there for years, accumulating small gifts and knick-knacks purchased or given to us over the years – all unopened and all saved for when we went back home.
On August 3, the day the Emirates flight 521 from Thriruvananthapuram crash-landed in Dubai and caught fire soon after, a video shot inside the plane that showed the frenzied moments after passengers were given evacuation instructions went viral. Some passengers – most of them appearing to be Indian expats on their way back to their adopted homes – were seen attempting to get their belongings from overhead lockers instead of hurriedly exiting the burning plane.
Naturally, anger, outrage and astonishment followed on Twitter. How idiotic could these people have been to put their lives at risk for a couple of bags, people wondered. Media reports also said it was fortunate that all of them were safely evacuated despite that.
It’s hard to disagree with this view – and harder to justify the behaviour of passengers. So instead, I am going offer a perspective about the Gulf immigrant experience why they view their possessions the way they do.
A wide gulf
Life in the Gulf is surreal. You grow up, make friends, go to school, go the movies and build a life – and all this while we are told not to get too comfortable, that all of this is temporary. Every expat child is taught very early on that this is just a place where we spend our lives; this is not home.
There’s a good reason why we are made to grow up with this knowledge. All expats in the Gulf have come there through a process known as the Kafala system. Under this, every foreign worker must be sponsored by a local citizen or a company. If you lose your job and do not find another one in a couple of months, your visa is terminated and you have to leave.
All Gulf countries impose this, with varying degrees of severity. In Qatar, for instance, you cannot leave the country, not even for a holiday, without a letter of permission from your employer. Some countries require the approval of your sponsor to buy a car, look for a new job or take a bank loan. Some sponsors are nice – but others are not.
For instance, an uncle of mine used to work in Saudi Arabia, and his sponsor learnt that he was looking for a more lucrative opportunity. The sponsor refused to give him permission to do so, and for good measure, cancelled his sponsorship, rendering my uncle an illegal immigrant overnight.
This precariousness extends to other aspects of life too. Traffic police often levy fines on you for minor infractions or tend not to take your side during minor accidents with local Emiratis. When I was growing up, expats could not buy property, so they had to rent them from capricious landlords – who could evict you at will, or raise the rent arbitrarily.
What makes it all harder is that there’s little recourse available when your rights are violated – which happens routinely. The laws are opaque and selectively enforced and there are no independent institutions to protect you or help you get the word out. Newspapers are usually directed to report positive or upbeat stories and websites that dare to go too far find themselves suddenly and mysteriously blocked by all internet service providers.
My school friend’s father had not been paid a salary for four months. To cut down on their expenses, the family ate curd rice for dinner – everyday. What else could they have done? Write to a newspaper? Go to the police or the courts? Why take the trouble, or the risk?
Long wait to go home
We were still among the lucky ones. Several immigrants in the Gulf did not bring their family over because their sponsor did not want them to, or if they could not afford to.
A taxi driver in Dubai once told me that he would visit his home in Kerala once every three years. He said this was a heartbreaking experience, because his children did not remember him whenever he went home, and by the time they got comfortable enough to start talking to him, it was time for him to come back.
The stories are endless. The Kafala is not a sponsorship system – it is an ownership system.
And that is why expats look at ownership a little differently. If your life and liberty do not belong to you, then what else does?
In such situations people often ascribe greater importance to their possessions, including passports. As most Gulf children will tell you, the pouch in the cupboard containing the passports is the most valuable thing in the house. My father would often remind us, sometimes only half-jokingly, that if there was a fire at home, we would have to fend for ourselves, since his responsibility was to get the passports.
This is the immigrant experience. You keep your belongings close to you, and because you do not know how long you are going to be around, you save the receipts and the cartons they come in. Just in case.
This is on full display at airports as well. Look at the boxes and bags that snake down the conveyor belts from Gulf sector flights. These are not trolley bags, or suitcases. Most of them are cartons and boxes, tightly secured with nylon rope, with names of the owners scrawled across the bag on masking tape – to ensure they are not lost or misplaced.
I have been on flights from Dubai to Kerala regularly since I was a toddler. And a lot of the things that people say about those flights are true. The passengers are boorish, they do not listen to flight attendants and it is overall an unpleasant experience.
But it is important to remember that most of them are people who have saved up for years to afford the ticket home and begged for a few weeks of leave from grudging employers. Their check-in luggage is usually filled with cheap electronics and toys for their family back home – possibly to rapidly win back the trust of children who do not recognise them because of the intervening years.
My parents finally moved back to India five years back. They did not bring back the refrigerator with them, but the carton made it back, filled with possessions from my childhood. Among them, I found several film cameras. Carefully packed and unused. Saved for taking back home.
I thought about how useless they were now, having given way to digital cameras and now mobile phones – which can be used to capture photos and videos anywhere and at anytime, even of people grabbing on to things most precious to them while a plane is on fire.
Technology marches on. But mindsets? Mindsets take time.