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One Day Off Sir

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It is a busy Wednesday evening near the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s most recognized architectural symbol, and there is a line of taxis waiting for passengers. I position myself just out of view of the drivers and watch as people stream out of the shopping mall and into each taxi.  Some drivers argue as they wait, something about a sloppy parking job. One guy gets out of the taxi and is waving his arms around in anger.  He is speaking Urdu I think, with occasional English expressions mixed in. At one point I distinctly hear the gentleman shout towards another driver “go back to Pakistan!”  Ironically I’m almost certain they are both Pakistani. No matter, anger is anger. An Indian gentleman in an official looking uniform comes over with an angry look on his face, he puts himself between the car and the angry man and orders the driver back into his car. He seems to scold them both. Suddenly the argument is over. Back in his vehicle, the frustrated driver revs the engine and dramatically pulls forward into the first position for the next possible pickup.  I stay out of site, determined not to get into a cab with an angry driver.

12091416216_0fa1abd283When I do finally see a cab that seems to eminate positive energy, I hop in and find myself seated next to Dev from Bangladesh.  He and I are immediately interrupted by my phone, as a local photographer is calling to say he has been delayed by a helicopter crash. From my side of the phone I repeat his words in astonishment – “A Helicopter crashed?” – Dev turns his head towards me in a panic, “Sir, where?” The call gets disconnected and I tell him the little information that I know; there was a crash nearby. He politely asks me to call my friend back and ask for more info, there is an air of “concerned driver” and “curious citizen” in his voice. I tell Dev I haven’t got any credit left on my phone to call anyone,  like a reflex he pulls out his phone and hands it to me, “please sir, feel free, you are my guest.” I’m stunned by his kindness and his passion to know about a helicopter crash somewhere on one of the exclusive closed-to-the-pubic islands. I make the call and even as I try to get more facts from my friend, Dev is whispering more questions to me, “casualties sir, any cusualties?” Based on the suffering tone in his voice, you would think he had family on the helicopter. A minute later I hung up the phone and explained that there isn’t much more information at this time.  Dev looked forward at the bumper to bumper traffic with a defeated look on his face, “not much chance to survive that type of crash.”

After a brief few minutes of silence, he asks me about my work. I explain my interest in people working in Dubai, especially taxi drivers. He seems surprised and pleased to hear this, he quickly lays out his main point that he would like the world to know:

“As you have surely seen, Dubai is a city that is very developed and there is so much to do, so much entertainment. It can be a very interesting place and a place where you can forget or enjoy some distraction in a cinema or some musical performance. But we taxi drivers, we work everyday of the week, 12 hours per day. We are tired, often in a bad mood, or else we are confronted with a customer who is in a bad mood and takes it out on us. What we really need is one day off per week. Everyone should have a right to that. One day of per week. That is my one wish I would tell the government and the company, one day off would benefit everyone involved.”

12038890123_94a1ffff61_nHis statement was clear and simple, words that sounded like he had been crafting them over the past few years behind the wheel of this taxi.  I suggested other possible ways to improve the spirit of taxi drivers but he insisted nothing else was important. “We have our salaries, or commission, and for us it is fine and it is enough to send home to our people. But it shouldn’t be so miserable all the time. We could enjoy one day to relax, recharge, and come back in good spirits. We would also be helping the economy by spending some money on entertainment. But the most important thing would be to improve morale. Because as you might have noticed, it is getting worse among drivers.”

His point about morale rang especially true based on my almost 50 taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks. Though many drivers were modest and refused to complain, once you get them talking you hear about the pressure they are dealing with. It is not hard to notice a city wide depression slowly taking hold of these hard working individuals who take thousands of people from point A to point B everyday.  Some passengers might feel like they are the victims of bad drivers who make mistakes or are dishonest in some way, but further research can easily reveal that this is a side effect of a high stress work arrangement.  Yet right here in this 4 door sedan, a man named Dev from Bangladesh is laying out a clear plan for how to address this issue. It was the most constructive conversation about the job I had ever experienced.

As we make our way towards Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dev moves on to talking about marriage and the pains of being away from the person you love most in this world. He explained how he had married for love with a woman he met at university (bachelors degree in economics) and not by family arrangement, going against the tradition of his culture. He was proud of his decisions, including not having had a traditional wedding with hundreds of guests. “My wife and I agreed that we would not be wasting money on some huge traditional wedding, we wanted instead to use this to invest in a house and our future. This is seen as going against tradition but we didn’t care. Some traditions need changing,” he laughed at his own words.

Within 2 blocks of my destination traffic comes to a halt. Dev squints into the sea of tail lights and offers me advice, “You would have better luck walking from here, you’ll get there faster and you’re young, two blocks walking is good for your health.” We both laugh at the suggestion and I count out the money I owe him plus a little extra. Before I’m even done figuring out the money he surprises me by extending a hand to shake mine, “Can I tell you sir, it is a real pleasure to have had this time with you. Something really unexpected and enjoyable. Thank you so much and I’m going to pray for you sir.” I shake his hand and tell him he has taught me many things on this trip. Caught up in the moment, despite not being religious, I tell him I will pray for him and his family as well; that they have good health and a wonderful future together.  As I open the door, another customer is ready to get in. I pause and tell her, “Take care of him, he’s a great person!”

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Ali Al Saloom: Connecting the World with Emirati Culture

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Ali Al Saloom, better known on the internet as Ask Ali, came on the scene in the same way many of us podcasters, bloggers, and other independent content creators did over the past 10 years; with an idea and a dream.  His goal, to teach the world about his people and his culture, to dispel myths and contribute factual information about the UAE.  The result: thousands of published answers to all kinds of questions about the UAE, a successful cultural consultancy service, and an internationally recognized representative of a country and a culture that until recently were little known or poorly understood

A pioneer in both new media and internet outreach, Ali can run down the list of reasons people around the world are coming to this region and he is proud of what his nation has accomplished. At the same time he sees the risks and responsibilities that come with success and wealth, as he talks about the things that concern him in the near future.

While much of my journey has been about taxi drivers and the wisdom they can share about this place and life as a whole, a conversation with Ali Al Saloom provides a rare chance to hear from a citizen of this nation and to learn from his unique experience.

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My Home Will One Day Be A Country

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He’s young and soft spoken , and asks where I am from. When I mention Portugal, he smiles “We are neighbors. I am from Morocco.” We speak a bit about that country and its more famous cities and he soon corrects himself, “actually I am not Moroccan, I am Saharan. But it is a bad situation there, so I left many years ago.”

We’re heading south on Dubai’s busiest 14 lane artery known as Sheik Zayed Road. My driver is Jam, who has been driving taxi’s in Dubai for less than 6 months. He tells me this right from the start, so I tell him everything I know about getting to my destination. Together we agree on which is the best route to take.  As we drive we pass many of Dubai’s most famous sky scrapers and countless shops with big brand names on them.

12091042113_6d035fcfce“This is a very good place to live and the job is decent. I’ve worked all over North Africa and the Middle East, this is the best place for me.”  As he talks on, Jam stares forward at the road ahead, “I will bring my wife here as soon as possible. She is finishing her university studies in the field of tourism, there should be a job here for her.”

This is a rare plan from a Dubai taxi driver. Most are eager to tell my how soon they will stop the job or how they are waiting patiently for when its finally time to go home.  With visas that make it hard to stay once the job is over, and a citizenship policy that leaves little hope for ever becoming a local, hardly anyone in their situation talks about making a life in Dubai for the long term.  Even fewer talk about bringing their wives over from their home country. But then again, few other drivers come from a place that isn’t officially a country.

“I never went to University. The nearest one was 10 hours away by car. You would have to live there and my family didn’t have money for that.” — You’ve learned plenty from the school of life!- I say to him with a smile. He smiles back but doesn’t not seem to have understood or agreed with my words. When I suggest that it might be difficult to get permission to have his wife with him he shrugs off any doubts.  In his eyes it is the right place to be and with her qualifications his wife will easily get a visa.

Jam is only the second Western Saharan I have ever met in my life, so I jump at the chance to ask him more about his homeland. Specifically about the POLISARIO people, a movement that has been working to end the Moroccan occupation since the 1970’s. “They are our brothers,” he assures me, and repeats this statement several times. “I hope one day my home will be a country, perhaps like this one. With its own Universities and Institutions, a place where we can live and work and have our families. That is my hope.”  Again he repeats those last few words, but his tone changes to indicate some doubt, “that is my hope.”

We drive on for a few minutes in silence before the conversation comes back to how complicated the roads in new areas of Dubai can be. As we negotiate our route towards my destination near Jebel Ali, I’m still thinking about Jam’s situation compared to any other drivers. No country to go home to. A past marred by violence and struggle. To him Dubai is more than just a stop along the route of life, it is more than a source of money, to him this city could be the stable home and the fresh start he has long been searching for.

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Loving a Job That Few Respect

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12091135414_fc5bbe80e7Mr. A is a young man in his early twenties, but he refers to himself as an old driver. So it goes in a country where the average taxi driver has a contract of 3 or 5 years. Like many drivers he is a modest man and when I ask him about life, at first he says he leads an uninteresting life. But after a few minutes of talking about Dubai, we find just the opposite to be true. Unlike many people of the modern metropolis, Mr. A believes his life is just fine, especially after seeing the kinds of problems his passengers are carrying with them. Though respect is an issue and the stress is considerable, here is a man who’s number one matra is “I can’t complain, I have a good life.”

As we drive along the famed Jumeira Beach Road, passing alongside the world famous Burj al Arab, we talk about how he got started as a taxi driver. What his life was like in his home country. And what its like to love a job that so many people, including his own family, label as no good or unacceptable.