Faces Of The Bangladeshi Economy

01/07/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Seagulls fly over the city skyline in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday Jan. 14, 2015. Seagulls are the migrating wild birds that come to the UAE shores every winter from Siberia and Mediterranean regions. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

I live in New York for educational purposes; however unlike many who have been bestowed such privilege, I try to return to my hometown - Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, every chance I get. That is exactly how I am witness of a phenomenon that a few people are familiar with - the phenomenon of putting human faces to the hailed 'foreign remittance' earning migrant workers. No, this is not a story of the stranded workers floating on the Persian Gulf but that of every flight coming to Dhaka from the U.A.E. It's a non-fiction of love, love for mothers, love for the country and the plight of the unprivileged diaspora.

Whenever I return home, I board a flight from New York or Chicago and have a transit at Abu Dhabi, the capital of U.A.E. and finally reach Dhaka almost a full day later. This story is of the second part of the journey. For many of the Bangladeshi immigrants in the USA who visit home, this second part is one that is full of disdain since they encounter a lot of chaos and behaviour that is seemingly not orderly. This segment of my journey is not a one-off one; rather it is a representative of every flight from the Middle East coming to Dhaka.

It was 4pm local time on May 22, 2015, when after a twelve-hour-Etihad-airways-flight, I reached Abu Dhabi from John F. Kennedy Airport, popularly known as JFK. Having been there numerous times, I knew every nook and cranny. Even though my boarding pass said Terminal 8, I knew that I need to go to the gate that will have the most hubbubs, the longest trail of people and a battalion of guards trying to maintain order in the most impolite way.

"They were the most rowdy, loud and carefree people but not in front of the woman who was traveling from the states or the fair-skinned flight attendants. That is one line they were privy not to cross."

Most of these people are migrant workers. They are chauffeurs, cooks, gardeners and construction workers working in Abu Dhabi or Dubai and many of them are abhorrently overqualified. I met one L.L.B. graduate gardener. This is not new. The likes of such tragedy is bountiful in New York. At any rate, the large crowd cut the line, shouted at the top of their voices and made the people traveling from the States somewhat scared especially for those who generally do not take this route.

Why? The whole idea is that of the BRTC number 6 bus that goes from Banani to Gulistan (that are the Times Square and Bandra, of Dhaka for you) on a first-come-first-served basis. The analogous idea sparks the notion that the faster you board, the more desirable seat you will get.

I boarded the plane in a bit after hustling through the crowd. If one is given an experience of a local bus even before returning, one would grab it; scratch that, very few would.

The demographic was exactly the same as always. More than 90% of the passengers were migrant workers who were talking in pure Bengali; well, that is inaccurate. We do not speak 'pure' Bengali in Bangladesh. The correct form would be that of the TV drama dialect spearheaded by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, who uses the colloquial tongue instead of the purist tone. The rest 10% were immigrants from USA - a lot that mostly consists of people in their 60s who travel to the states to visit their children and maintain a mirage of accomplishment known as the 'green card.' The pompous array of English phrased disappointment of how they are better than the people on the flight was as obvious as they come. None of this is new. The flight attendants, wearing their khaki pantsuits were as impressive as the brochures; however they had gotten accustomed to 'crowd control' measures on this particular route entailing a form of controlled rudeness not to be found elsewhere.

With a shower of Bengali pleasing my ears, I plugged on my earphones and watched on. The man sitting next to me, whom I later learned to be a gardener, Mr. Afzal had never been on an aircraft before. I wondered how he had gotten to the U.A.E. but I knew the answer. I had to assist him into putting on his earphones and turning on his on-flight TV. He was delighted as a toddler to find a Hrithik Roshan movie among the offerings.

As I always grab a seat on the aisle on column H, on my left there were three friends - Zaman, Faruq and Sohrab. They were a younger crowd wearing formal shirts and jeans. The effort to look nice for the family failed to hide the sunburnt faces and scars on their hardworking hands.

Every time beverages were being served (which is not too often compared to the New York to Abu Dhabi flight), the only English word out of their mouths was, "Beer!" And so it was. A modest serving of Foster's blue and golden cans made them cheerful. "I have had enough. So bitter," announced Zaman after gulping down a can. Faruq and Sohrab, with a victorious smile, continued making every penny count. Glug! Glug!

The noisy flight had some senior men with white Punjabi on and bearing the symbolic white beard. These sentinels of piety rolled their eyes on the insobriety of the youngsters.

"Nuisance! ... Third Class!" mumbled a lady whom I knew from journey from the states who boarded the flight. The lady was clearly out of place and was dismayed by the fact that the Zaman-s and the Faruq-s had left no place for her to keep her overhead cabin-bag. The majority indulged the admonition with silence.

With Bollywood movies in front of them, the merry migrant workers, defenders of our economy, chatted away. The topic was a single one with many names of the likes of - 'mother,' 'ma,' 'amma.'

The flight attendants handed out immigration declaration forms with one hour to go. Most of the smiles instantly turned to frowns. Zaman reached out to me and hesitantly requested me to fill out the form for all three of them. This request was not a new one. They did not know how to fill up an English form. When I had experienced this the first time, it was surprising. However, humans desensitise fast. Thus, they happily gave me their passports and I filled them up the forms.

"Our 'major' workforce does not wear suits and ties. They are timid by nature but tigers in productivity."

These people are the core of our economy, a self-doubting, insecure group who do not talk loudly unless among themselves, who are polite yet brave, brave enough to cross the ocean to make a living albeit not knowing how to read a foreign language. That too with a heart full of pain, the pain of leaving the loved ones for a 20% growth in the salary. They were the most rowdy, loud and carefree people but not in front of the woman who was traveling from the states or the fair-skinned flight attendants. That is one line they were privy not to cross. We know these people. We see them every day on local buses. Our 'major' workforce does not wear suits and ties. They are timid by nature but tigers in productivity.

Time to land. Faruq and Sohrab are jubilant. Seatbelt signs are on and both of them receive a scolding from the flight attendant for not wearing them. Five minutes to land, the two drunk brethren turn silent. The bearded men put on a forgiving smile. A vibe of euphoria fills the flight.

Thud! The plane touches the runway. "Alhamdulillah! [Translation: "Praise be to God!]" yell the 50-something migrant workers in unison. Tears of joy roll down Zaman and Faruq's cheeks. Hypocritical? Maybe. Pure? 100%.

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