Pesach: The Gulf Exodus

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The offices of the recruitment agency were gleaming. They were clean, modern and full of empty space. It was like no place I’d ever been in before. I felt safe, but now I know I shouldn’t have.

I grew up on the edge of Mumbai Airport. We slept, ate, drank and worked in our little neighborhood. The airport runway, with its rumbling planes, was only 350 meters from my parent’s shack. I could feel the planes landing, all day, every day, like they were next to my head. The rumble of their engines and squeal of their tires was the most regular part of my life. It was more regular than food itself.

The whole neighborhood was only a kilometer long.

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The runway itself was three times as long as our neighborhood while the airport was 16 times the size of the 0.3 sq. km. we occupied. But over 30,000 people lived in our tiny space. From the eyes of the passengers in the planes, I imagined we looked like a collection of trash along the side of a road to the sky. But we knew better. We were 30,000 people, with lives and stories and love and hope and sorrow. We were our own little world. We were never more than a few feet from each other. And the smells – skillets, sweat and sewage, all tinged with the spices of our land – were a constant in our lives. We were a bubbling mass of human reality.

I saw the airport every day. I felt the airport every day. But I could not go there. My clothing and the obvious poverty marked by it, kept me out. I never tried to go there. I belonged in what other people called a slum and I rarely left it. I belonged in my community. I stuck out from my people in only one way: I spoke English. My parents insisted that I learn it as they had. It was my only ‘qualification’ in the outside world.

I was fifteen when I fell in love with a boy. He was a handsome dreamer of a man. We had two children. And then he fell from the third story of a construction site and, after three hard days, died. Suddenly, I had two children and no way to feed them on my own.

I did what I could. I borrowed money. I did sewing and cooking and anything else I could find. But, slowly and surely, I was being dragged down. I could not recover. My only purpose was to be wrung dry by those who had loaned me money. When I had no more to give, it would all be over. The undertow of circumstance was going to destroy me. I had seen it happen to so many others.

I was desperate when I heard about the man. He’d been travelling through the slum. He was looking for people like me. People who were willing to leave. And, most importantly, people who spoke English.

I went to the address he had shared. It was the address for the recruitment agency.

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The agency had a gleaming, modern, spacious office. The guard at the door saw me and he opened the door for me. I was welcome in this place, not some reject from the lowest classes of society.  I greeted him in English and he greeted me.

There was an interview process. They tested my English, they asked me about my domestic skills. I knew that not just anybody could apply. I knew I was special. It was reassuring. Once I passed those steps, they brought me to a computer. I had never used a computer before. I was suddenly worried. But then they called somebody on the computer. I was shocked when I saw a family in the computer. I talked to them, and they to me. They were different, but I could see the joy and open happiness on their faces and the faces of their children. They were a good family. And, they had a beautiful home. It was even nicer than the office. It was the final stage of my interview.

When the recruiter asked if I wanted the job, I considered his offer for only a moment. If this family needed somebody to wash their dishes and clean their house and cook their meals, I could be that person. I needed what they could offer, so my children could survive.

I didn’t have the $1,200 referral fee the employment agency required. I only had $126. So, I borrowed the remainder from employment agency itself. I knew they would take my repayments from my salary. But that was actually reassuring. The agency wanted to be paid back, so they must believe my employers would honor their salary commitments.

The agency walked me through the process of applying for a passport. And then, before I left, they gave me a signing bonus. It was $100 USD. Half went to pay off my debt to them. And half, $50, went to me. I had enough to feed my children for over a month. I gave my mother the money.

The passport application was processed quickly. The next day, for the first time in my life, I entered the airport. The airport felt strange to me. It was so wide open, so dead. There was not only a lack of people; there was a lack of my people. It smelled faintly of cardamom, like some sterilized version of the India I knew.  I felt not a little scared. Nonetheless, I boarded one of those planes – the planes I had always felt roaring past our little shacks. I was shocked by the luxury within. I knew every rivet of every aircraft, from the outside. But I had never imagined what the insides were like.

As we took off, I looked down at my home. It looked like a pile of garbage, but I knew it was where I belonged.

I landed in Doha a little less than an hour later. The airport here was truly empty. My work visa was stamped by an officer in a booth. I noticed it named my employer, but I didn’t recognize the name. As I walked out of the immigration hall, a man greeted me. He was the man I’d seen in the video. He introduced himself as Abdul. Abdul was smiling and warm. He smelled of a spice, but not something I was familiar with. It was something new. He had an Indian driver. Abdul and I sat in the back and he talked to me, greeting me and welcoming me to Qatar. I smiled back. I saw the Indian’s eyes in the rearview mirror; but they had an emotion I couldn’t understand.

A few minutes later, we arrived at a house. It was a creamy, two-story tall, concrete structure. There were windows, but they were covered with some sort of shade. When Abdul guided me out of the car, I realized, with sudden force, that there was no life in this place; I could smell only the barren dust of the desert.

Abdul didn’t seem to notice. We walked up the stairs and the door opened. Behind it I saw a large and luxurious home. It was like the home I’d seen in the video, but not quite the same. I was confused. There was another man there. He was older than Abdul. And he did not seem friendly. He looked me over, lasciviously. The two men spoke and then Abdul, who I thought was my employer, simply passed me over to the other man.

When I crossed the threshold of that home, everything changed.

First, the man brought me to a crawlspace under the stairs. He mimed to me, gesturing at the space. I asked him, in English, what he wanted.

But he didn’t speak English. That was when I knew I should be scared. I was not chosen for my only ‘qualification.’

He mimed again, and I realized the space – a space without a door – was to be my room. It was smaller than the space I’d slept in in Mumbai; I would need to curl up to fit in it. And there was no bed or dresser, only a concrete floor. It was a stunning contrast to the rest of the house.

But I left my few belongings there and then came back out, ready to work. I would make do.

The beatings started immediately. I was told to wash dishes. As I did, the mistress of the house struck me with a wooden spoon. She seemed to hate me, for a reason I could not understand. I was told to clean the living room. There, the man slapped me hard with his hand. Even the children, a boy and a girl no older than 12, hit me repeatedly. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, I wasn’t sure I was doing anything wrong. But I resolved to get through it. I needed the money.

And then, that night, the master of the house – as I’d begun to think of him – attacked me in my closet of a room. That night, I decided I didn’t really need the money. There was nothing I needed that badly.

I tried to leave in the morning, but the door was locked. I found a key and tried, once again, to leave; but I was beaten, badly, for my efforts. The mistress seemed to take new pleasure in the beatings. I realized that she knew what had happened. It had not been my choice,  but that did not matter. It wasn’t me she was angry with.

When I saw the man, I said I’d go to the police. He understood that. But he laughed and then, in one English sentence that sounded like it had been rehearsed he said, “And they will cut off your head for adultery.”

By the end of that second day, I was covered in welts. That night I broke a window. I escaped through it and ran until I found the police.

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I was grateful to discover that they spoke English. But the gratitude didn’t last long. I didn’t tell them about the nighttime attacks, but I told them I wanted to leave. I told them about the beatings. But they just smiled at me, like I was some kind of childish idiot.

I showed them my passport. They took it and patiently explained to me what my visa really meant. I was part of the kalafa system. I was required to stay with my employer, for five years. I could not leave his home, much less the country, without his permission.

In the morning, the master entered the station. He complained about the broken window. They took notes, and then they returned me to him. I was taken back to his house and then I was beaten, far more severely than I’d ever been beaten before. Afterwards, I was barely able to walk but I was made to work for that entire day. Whenever I slowed, much less stopped, I was beaten. And, I was not fed.

I was not fed on the next day either. I had no food and no drink. And gradually, I began to understand that I had no hope and no power. There was no escape.

It took a few more weeks for my hopes to disappear completely. But I slowly came to withdraw from any choices or decisions. I could no longer help my children. I had no way of knowing if my salary was even being paid.

It took me a few weeks to stop crying. But I did. And then I saw myself in the mirror and discovered I had the same eyes as Abdul’s Indian driver had had. I was no longer thinking. I was human in body alone. In every other way, I was simply an extension of my master. I did as I was commanded. I did not think and I did not question my treatment, even to myself.

It just was as it was. There was no past and no future. There was only now and next, a next that was chosen for me. I was a slave. A slave confined to this home.

Only one hope remained. My contract ended after five years.

I longed for the outside world. I wanted to know how my children were, and how my parents were. But I could get no news of that type. My only connection to the world outside the home’s walls was the TV in the living room. There was news there. But it was world news and seemed to have no bearing on my life.

Three years into my slavery I heard news of India. Tremendous oil reserves had been discovered off the western coast. They called it “Underwater Shale.” I didn’t understand the importance, not right away. But, over the coming years, I heard about my country’s growing wealth. The newfound resources, combined with a tremendous simplification of the regulatory state, led to massive growth. I heard about slums being replaced by proper homes and of the lower-caste masses being lifted from their poverty. I heard of an unprecedented economic miracle. But none of it mattered. I could have hoped that my children had survived to see the times of prosperity. But I would not allow myself to do so. The pain was too great. Only when my five years were complete would I allow myself to be human again.

As I entered my fifth year, I began to count down the remaining days of my slavery. There would be an end to this. There would be freedom. My body was covered in scars. I felt hollowed out. But there would be freedom. When the five years were up, I walked to the front door, expecting to be released. It was all that I had. But my master, in the Arabic language I had learned, just laughed.

He showed me a statement. He explained that it was my balance. My debt to the employment agency had grown to over $4000. I had been paid only a fraction of what I had been promised and the interest on my debt had approached 50% per year. In addition, I still owed him for the window. He showed me a new visa. And a new contract. He had signed it on my behalf. I was, he explained, never going to leave.

His son, five years older than the day I had arrived, came to me that night.

And so, for the first time in years, I cried. I did not cry for rescue, I knew that would not come. I cried because any remaining hope had been quashed. There was to be nothing left of me. I had almost forgotten my name.

The next day, the news was unusual. The Indian Navy had parked a fleet off the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. They demanded that their citizens, throughout the Arab Gulf states, be allowed to visit their families. They insisted that they, the great Indian nation, would set the rules from this point forward. Two weeks of leave must be permitted, they said, and then we could return to work.

I was stunned by this news. But it offered no hope. I knew what would happen. I was not surprised when my master beat me more vigorously than he had before. Then they added to my work. They had bought flour before, but now they bought only wheat berries. They required me to grind the flour for the family.

My muscles ached. The pain was so bad I could not, even in my limited way, think. All I knew is that I wanted my countrymen to leave; they were causing me pain that I did not need.

The attacks started the next day. I could feel the shockwave from the oilfield that the Indian air force destroyed. It represented the heart of this nation, I knew. But the Gulf Arabs did not back down. Next were government buildings and roads and power stations. I felt the world around me closing in. My master and his family listened to a hand -ranked radio now. The station was Jordanian. But the Gulf Arabs were not giving in. They were masters of the universe. I knew I was not worth this suffering. My labor was not worth this cost. But the pride of the Gulf Arabs, the pride of these masters who saw me as nothing, was too great to accept defeat.

But, gradually, even I began to realize redemption was at hand.

One day, with the lights out, the pantry empty and the house stinking because of plumbing failures, I heard a booming voice. It didn’t come from the radio. It came from the air and from the sea. And it commanded us, the domestics and the laborers, to drive to the sea and to sail to our freedom.

I felt pride, pride in my people. Pride in India.

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I broke my second window that night. And then, together with over ten thousand others, we streamed to the sea. Our masters were too frightened to stop us.

Of course, many did not leave. Many were not slaves.

We boarded the dhows and pushed off illuminated by the moon. Only then did we discover there was no oil in the little ship’s tanks. They had been drained in the course of the emergency. None of us were used to thinking ahead. We still had the minds of slaves. But we pressed on, using our hands then, to paddle out to the waiting navy.

The Gulf Arabs were done yet though. They sailed out after us, armed with their navies and their pride. We feared them. We could not outrun them.

But then, a wall of fire appeared before us. It took us a long moment to realize it was the guns on the decks of the Indian ships.

In a moment of fury, it was all over.

In a moment, we were free.

 

My children had survived. When I return to India, they are living with my parents in a block of apartments our community had built near our original neighborhood. It smells like home. Like many others from my neighborhood, I found a real job, with a real salary. Today, I am working at the newly expanded airport.

We are free. But we were slaves. And so, every year my fellow Kalafa workers and I celebrate our redemption.

For five days, one for each year of our slavery, we abstain from petroleum. We abstain from that which had made our former masters great.

And on the sixth day we use that same petroleum to light a wall of flame, celebrating the power it has given our people.

 

The Global Slavery Index ranks Israel the 48th worst nation for slavery with 11,600 estimated slaves. There are an estimated 3 million slaves in the Middle East and North Africa. Their conditions are often worse than those described in the story. I wrote this story to try to capture some of the feeling of surrender to slavery. The story of redemption parallels that described in the Book of Shemot/Exodus.

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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