He arrived in Dubai just as the UAE came into existence. He started working at the Dubai airport in a time where there were no computers and this town was nothing more than a stopover for flights on their way somewhere. In his 37 years as a Dubai resident, KJ Bhatia raised a family, developed a career, and enjoyed a front row seat to see a world of change in both the city and the region.
As luck would have it, one day as I was shopping for postcards, we struck up a conversation in his shop which would eventually lead to this podcast. This is one man’s story, a rare voice of experience, that runs parallel to the story of a nation. One of my favorite voices from Dubai, Mr. KJ Bhatia.
“You are this guy in the newspaper, who is writing about taxi drivers?” Al catches me off guard as he runs a comb through my hair calculating where his first scissor incursions will be. I’ve said three sentences to him about where I’m from and what I do and he immediately deduced that I’m the guy featured in a small article in the local 7 Days Dubai newspaper.
Al is a middle aged bachelor from Manila, who has been cutting hair in Dubai for the past 7 years. With his calm demeanor, he seems to never be impressed by anything, yet at the same time he’s proud to show that he pays attention to what goes on in this city. He’s a seasoned veteran when it comes to reading people, thanks to years of cutting hair, even before arriving in Dubai.
After almost three weeks of talking with taxi drivers I forget that not everyone bounces from job to job in an effort to stay in the country and send enough money home. When I ask Al what other jobs he has done over the years, he stops cutting to make his response perfectly clear, “I cut hair, this is my passion. It has always been my thing. In this life a person should follow their passion otherwise the job will never be well done or enjoyable.” I look up at the well groomed wise man and blink my eyes slowly to acknowledge his very important point. After a brief moment of mutual understanding, he gets back to cutting. “Before this I worked on cruise ships. I saw the world. But always cutting hair.” Al is a rare bird in a city where many people seem to do whatever they can or whatever earns them the most. He cuts hair with great energy, pausing periodically to step back and see what is taking shape. The salon is not his, but you can feel the respect emanating from his colleagues and even the boss who is sitting a few steps away from us near the cash register.
“Have you gotten many taxi drivers from the Philippines?” he asks with the kind of smile that says, I know the answer. This is a trick question of course, as Al confirms, Philippino people rarely drive taxis in Dubai. “Buses yes! Housekeeping. Hospitality. Everything else. Just not taxi.”
Al proceeds to quiz me about what I am learning from the people I talk with. He even adds some of his own experience he has gotten from behind the salon chair. His observations of Dubai reveal a great appreciation for its diversity and beyond that, as a place where he can do what he loves. I had expected the sharp criticism of labor practices and social separation between classes that so often gets talked about, especially by my taxi drivers, but Al moves right past that, speaking instead about the country as a multinational land of opportunity.
As the haircut comes to an end, I ask for a shave. Al happily obliges me and it gives us more time to talk. Family, travel, work, the two of us weave in and out of numerous life topics. With the completion of the shave he offers me some other small touches for my hair, which I happily accept. He finishes up, shakes my hand, and tells me it was a pleasure to meet me and all the best with my project. I seize the oppertunity, I ask Al if I can come back and ask him more questions. “It would be my pleasure, anytime in the evening when I finish work.”
Unfortunately for me I didn’t realize that only 24 hours remained of my journey. Errands, goodbyes, and a few more taxi rides would keep me busy and far from the salon. In my last few hours before heading to the airport, I run over to the salon hoping to catch Al on his way home and ask him more specific questions about his life. As I walk in, a few unfamiliar employees are cleaning up. I’m warmly greeted by the owner who delivers the bad news that Al had already left for the day. He shakes my hand and promises to deliver my goodbye message. “Come back and see us sir, we’d be happy to hear from you and good luck with that project of yours!”
So it goes sometimes, my Dubai adventure goes from a surprising encounter to a missed opportunity.
Somewhere along the neverending Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai, within view of world famous sky scrapers and people enjoying themselves on the beach, you’ll find a little oasis of healthy food and unique style. The place is Comptoir 102, a concept cafe created and run by my guests on today’s podcast: Alexandra de Montaudouin and Emma Sawko. While their place may not be far from downtown, this little cafe is in a very different world from the brand name corporate culture that took root in Dubai more than a decade ago.
When you set out on a mission of the type I chose with the Dubai Taxi Project, you never know exactly what is going to happen and what result you will come back with. Based on previous journeys and a decade of experience in the field of personal media I knew that these individuals had stories to tell that anyone with a heart and a brain could appreciate. Stories that are not often heard because they come from people who are rarely, if ever, given the spotlight in this world of 24 hour news media and trending twitter topics.
Photo Credit: Satish Kumar / The National.
Though I expected to get great personal stories, what I had not foreseen, was the positive role I would fulfill for taxi drivers. In asking questions, sharing experiences, and listening without judgement, I inadvertently became an informal psychiatrist in the passenger seat. Whether we were sitting in traffic or speeding down the highway, these men were telling their life stories and talking about what was most on their mind. We would often discuss things that bring them both joy and sadness in their lives and by the end of the ride, something interesting – I would even say positive- had happened.
One particular driver was an avid football fan, playing in some mid-level league of the UAE when he wasn’t on duty. In the 30 minutes we spent together, he laid out his playing career, how it started in Iran, the dream to play first division, and the pressure to earn money and support a long list of family members back in Pakistan. He told his story with a mix of pride, hope, and frustration, as he hadn’t managed to reach a level in football where he could earn enough money to send home. He wondered if he hadn’t missed his window of opportunity. As we drove he seemed to be taking stock of his own life so far and what his chances are to still achieve the dream. Upon arrival at our destination, he stopped the car and said “Sir, you’ve really changed my day today. I was kind of miserable and feeling sorry for myself, and now I’m feeling good, I have a good dream which I want to achieve.”
Other drivers thanked me repeatedly for my good attitude, which was really the result of asking them how their day is going, where they are from, details about their family, and what other work they had done or wish to do in the future. This was basically the blueprint for getting a taxi driver to open up and often – feel good. They would talk about how most people don’t talk to them or ask them anything. Frequent mentions of being yelled at for not knowing a destination or making some other mistake. Of course there were also the long hours, 12 hour shifts to be exact, which by the end would leave them tired and frustrated, looking forward to the end of their shifts though not really looking forward to going back to their cramped or messy apartments.
It seems to me, based on all the personal stories and the details of their day to day lives, when it comes to mental health, taxi drivers are being pushed to the edge in the year 2014. You could blame the city. You could also blame their employers. But beyond either of those, I think the people who sit in these taxis everyday are a major part of the equation. They are the ones who ignore or treat drivers with disrespect. Even though they may not do so purposely or even consciously, it is happening. And such a toxic combination is bad for all parties involved; bad for the drivers, bad for that next passenger, bad for other people on the road, and bad for the communities in which all these depressed workers live.
Obviously I and my brief project, am nobody in the grand scheme of Dubai life. A better, more well based analysis could surely be conducted by a professional sociologist or researcher. But if you ask me what I was surprised to learn from my 50+ taxi rides over the course of 3 weeks in this country, it would be that my story gathering project ended up being a kind of therapy for my interviewees. I thought I was working for you the audience or my own curiosity, but I also ended up doing something for each individual driver that opened up to me. Based on that, if a city official or concerned citizen ever asked me for a recommendation, I’d say be kind to your taxi driver, treat them with respect like you would your neighbors, for the good of your city. Otherwise, Dubai will go the way of every other shiny metropolis of miserable people on this planet.