Through my eyes: Being Pakistani in the UAE

In the middle of the night, I walk with a dress similar to that of the labor workers of Abu Dhabi. Their eyes meet mine as I mouth “Assalamoalaikum” to ...

Mar 15, 2014

In the middle of the night, I walk with a dress similar to that of the labor workers of Abu Dhabi. Their eyes meet mine as I mouth “Assalamoalaikum” to show that I have acknowledged their presence, worth and contribution to the city. I acknowledge their presence as a fellow South Asian. I wonder if they acknowledge mine.
What is it like being a Pakistani in a city inhabited by thousands of laborers, taxi drivers and shop owners from Pakistan and South Asia? Weird. Never have I been able to encounter so many of my own countrymen who are performing mostly low-paying jobs on such a scale. Obviously, there are labor workers in Lahore. But they are shrouded by the middle class trotting across the city’s streets with fake Gucci bags and kids eager to speak English and, of course, Lahore itself. The city has always been a mix of the new and old, the rich and not so rich and the downright poor. In Lahore the labor workers fit in with the Badshahi mosque and the gates of the city.
Next to the shiny skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi, however, the labor workers look out of place. It is a jarring juxtaposition. These building are modern and daring. The workers are drained and tattered. While their arms keep pumping blood so ugly cement skeletons can transform into shining marvels, their faces look uninterested and lost. It’s nothing specific to Abu Dhabi though. Laborers throughout the world share a similar expression.   
I often see these laborers sitting on the grass chatting with fellow South Asians. I can’t join them, I think to myself. Theirs is a different world: a world that doesn’t include travelling to other continents, having free meals, being cosmopolitan. There is an invisible boundary between us that I should not cross. I could but I do not have the courage, and they are not too eager to listen to the story of an overprivileged Pakistani Punjabi middle class boy whose skin color is lighter because his family owns ACs.
But I do find the courage sometimes, and my perceptions are always proved wrong. I have had some great discussion with taxi drivers. I always initiate. But then the flow of the conversation is whisked away from me as the taxi driver tells me a story of how he got into a fight with another driver or what he misses most about home or how his boss treats him. Some of them like Abu Dhabi. Others are indifferent. None of them have any negativity to show towards the city or its people. Even if they did, they are sure as hell not telling me.
It hurts sometimes when I look outside of the window and “check my privilege.” One might dismiss these feelings as nothing but a sad attempt at sympathizing with those less fortunate. I would agree with them. It doesn’t make these feelings less prevalent, but it’s an uneasiness that I can do very little about, apart from smiling and laughing with cab drivers or greeting a Sikh worker with a magnificent beard. I do hope it reminds them of home because it certainly reminds me.
Muhammad Usman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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