37 Years; The Dubai Life of KJ Bhatia

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37 Years; The Dubai Life of KJ Bhatia

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.

Wasted My Life Chasing Money

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Life wisdom comes from unexpected places at unexpected times. On one particular evening I was making my way from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and I found myself seated next to Mr. AJ from Nepal, a taxi driver-philosopher-extraordinaire.  As I got into the car I asked how is life? and his immediate response was, “I am a bad man, I have wasted my life chasing money.”  I knew right there, this was going to be an interesting ride.

Making a life in Nepal has become more and more difficult over the past 20 years and as a result, hundreds of thousands of Nepalese are now working outside the country and sending money home to family members. They can be found in countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, and until recently Saudi Arabia. Mr. AJ has tried working in many of these countries but a combination ofhostile politics and racism would eventually land him in Abu Dhabi, a place he doesn’t love, but has come to understand.  At the age of 36 he has arrived at a life altering realization, all these years spent “chasing money”, away from his family and the people he loves, have been wasted. The pursuit of material things has led him to the conclusion that he and many people like him have been focusing on the wrong things in life. What is needed to find true satisfaction and happiness, Mr. AJ explains, “is to either help someone or grow something.”

During this long car ride we talked at length about what humans are doing with this planet and with their lives, and what could be done to improve things, and what we as individuals will do in the coming years in an effort to reach that happy place so many of us wish for.  It’s an example of taxicab wisdom at its best and a great example of why I wanted to do this series in the first place.

Loving a Job That Few Respect

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Mr. 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.

The Taxi Driving Best-Selling Author of Dubai

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The Taxi Driving Best-Selling Author of Dubai

11915133423_5c6bcf76da_z“What do you do sir?” – I’m a journalist. “I’m a journalist!” -Yes, I am a journalist. “No, I’m telling you I am also a journalist sir and I have written three books in Urdu.”

My driver is Mohammed, originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, making his home in Dubai for the past 5 years. When he hears that I am a journalist, his eyes light up and he hands me a book as we drive out of Media City on a quiet Saturday night.

“Currently I am reading this one sir, it is by a very popular writer in my country.” – He hands me a book with some English text on the cover “The Secrets of Persuasive Speech.” I’m surprised to have been handed a self-help book, but he gives me no time to think about it, as he goes back to explaining how he has travelled extensively in Afghanistan for research. When I tell him I have worked in Afghanistan he gets even more excited. “You won’t believe it sir, my research has been the Talibanization of Afghanistan. I have been to almost all provinces and my book sold 20,000 copies.”

Mohammed sits low in in the drivers seat, he has very few hairs left on his head, and I get the impression as he speaks with such enthusiasm that he hasn’t had the opportunity to explain these things in a very long time.  “My other two books were on Islamophobia, as perhaps you know, after 9/11 there was much hatred towards muslims coming from the west. Even in Europe with the mosque referendums (Switzerland reference) and head cover bans (France and others), there has been a lot of prejudice.I have written on this topic but these books have also been contreversial in my country. My region is very dangerous unfortunately, I came here and now I drive a taxi.” This transition from best selling (Urdu language) author to taxi driver is what doesn’t add up in my ignorant brain.  As he goes on about how many copies each book sold, I find myself confused and unable to get him to explain how his books offended people to the point that he left the country.  I try to ask again but to no avail, Mohammed is speaking with  authority now on topics like corruption and religion. Both of which he believes the Emirates have gotten right and his home country has gotten wrong.

“In Pakistan our leaders, even the ones people love so much like Sharif and Bhutto, they are corrupt. They use fear and religion to get votes, scaring people into supporting them. And you know what happens when you have such corruption…” We drive passed a cavalcade of sky scrapers, each with its own futuristic design and blinking light array.  In the eyes of this veteran of the media and transportation world, the rulers of the UAE have done things right. “They have vision! Not corruption. Vision and planning,” he points at a whole series of overpasses that seem to twirl around in beautiful patterns in between luxurious office buildings and 5 star hotels with names like Shangri-la and Ritz Carleton.  – And oil? – I throw in just to see what reactions this causes. But he is not phased, “Yes, they have the oil, but they invest in their country. Not like other oil nations.”

As we approach our destination Mohammed’s volume lowers a bit, from school teacher tone to friendly neighbor, “But many people when you talk religion or money, they forget we are all just humans. We should be equal. When I sit here talking to you, I talk to you like an equal. We could be best friends the way we are talking. Doesn’t matter your religion or your job.  But there is a force in this world trying to keep us from realizing this. Unfortunately.”

Like a cliffhanger at the end of an episode of your favorite television drama, we arrive at our destination, and the conversation stops abruptly. I pay the bill and he we exchange names. Despite all the other things we could have talked on about, it was the end of the ride. He extends his hand, “Pleasure to meet another journalist. I wish you good luck in life!” – I wished him the same as I shook his hand and said goodbye.