With the rising sun the stillness and peace of the night gives way to hammer-drills, screeching machines and a sea of fluorescently coloured construction workers precariously clinging to the most recent addition to Dubai’s skyline. A marriage of glass and steel, polished until the reflection of distant sea waves can no longer be distinguished from the true horizon.
Indians, Pakistanis, Nepali and Sri Lankans — destitute people trapped in a cycle of debt and indentured servitude — workers without whom the city would grind to a screeching halt. They came seeking fortunes, a better life and prosperity for those they left back home — people of hope, of dreams and optimistic smiles.
The hot air makes the smallest of tasks an exhausting inconvenience. Even the birds, perched high up on the unfinished balconies, sit still and in silence while hugging any available slither of shade. Their beaks slightly ajar in an attempt to stay cool, panting as though they were dogs. Flying down for a mouthful of water is somewhat deceptive. There are fountains and swimming pools with plenty of water, but the unforgiving sun and lack of shade makes any such expedition counterproductive. Anything that lives here is stuck in a mode of perpetual survival, trapped between the sun’s mighty sting and the moisture-sucking desert air.
Day after day the sun wages a never-ending assault on the waters of the Persian Gulf, until they too surrender the life-giving fluid that eventually covers the city as a thick white fog. Only the tallest of buildings are able to penetrate the blanket of fog and jut out into the sky like ribs of unfortunate animals that perished under the desert sand.
Construction is everywhere, on every corner, on everyone’s backyard. It’s wise to keep an eye on the direction of the desert wind. Miscalculate and there’s a strong chance you’ll be breathing in a plume of cement so great that it proves too difficult to dislodge from the back of the throat.
Conservation of fluids and energy is of utmost importance. Everything moves slowly, even the passage of time seems to take its cue from the sound of safety boots sluggishly shuffling across the sand-covered pavements. With Ramadan upon us, so ends the consumption of food and water during the day, and with temperatures frequently hitting fifty degrees Celsius, one can only imagine the conditions under which the workers continue with their donkeywork.
Bodies that were brisk and nimble now move about like water-starved zombies, ready to collapse at any time. Their shoulders slump forward and the once high spirits lie destroyed by a system of oppression and corrupt middlemen who extorted large sums of money for the promise of a well-paying job. Out of pocket and until the costs of passage are repaid, there is no hope of returning home. Many have had their passports confiscated by the job-brokers in fear that once the true nature of Dubai’s working conditions is revealed, there would be a mass exodus.
Overseeing these withered men as they continue to lift a metropolis of biblical proportions from a desert as unforgiving as the masters they serve, is a Mao-sized mural of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the constitutional monarch of Dubai. His well-manicured face is splashed across the neighbouring skyscraper in an attempt at giving the entire construction zone a boost of regal morale.
What little wages they make, whatever is left over from the cost of life, they send to feed families that probably no longer remember their long departed faces. Home is as distant a memory as the promise of ever going back.
Decades pass, the skyscrapers grow and the tourists just keep on coming — oblivious to it all.