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The State shall remain nameless. For the purpose of this narrative, let us call it not-Dubai.

I went to not-Dubai at the age of six. My father had been in not-Dubai since I was three. He had sent me a battery-powered aeroplane the first year he was there. This aeroplane, which took two Double D Eveready Batteries, beeped, had blinking lights, and made a zoosh! whine when it powered across our carpeted floor. I remember the black cat which was the mascot of Eveready Batteries more vividly than the aeroplane, but I know that this aeroplane was the most important object I possessed, and that it was from my father who had left Pakistan in an aeroplane.

Later, I asked my father for his first passport—a document that the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto began issuing under a new programme geared towards employment in the Gulf States in 1972-3.

The earlier Pakistani passport was tri-scriptural, and opened right to left: English, Urdu, and Bangla. The one he received in 1973 opened left to right, and Bangla was replaced by Arabic. This was a passport with a particular intent—it was meant to take him to the desert. He came from a small village in Sahiwal. He was the first person of his family to go to school.

  • The first to move to Lahore. The first to go to university. And the first to go to not-Dubai.
  • My father was an engineer. In scorching desert afternoons in not-Dubai, me and my brother would wait eagerly for him to drive home from work.
  • We had a beaten old Toyota Cressida with a boxy dent in the rear. My mother had instilled in us a routine for my father’s afternoon returns—“pin-drop silence” and dark shadows.

He worked in the “Workshop,” and would often lash out in anger at any little thing that was out of order at home. We melded into the shadows and waited for our normal, loving daddy to return to us around five or six in the evening. Those intermediate hours, the ones where he would nap, we would sneak out and explore the unbuilt urban landscape of the city.

In the mid 70s, there were only unfinished building projects slowly being reclaimed by the desert. Our favourite pastime was to go to the corner shop, (owned by a smelly man who found any excuse to squeeze his young patrons, and often pressed his erection against our shoulders), and buy a chocolate. Next, we would rush to the half-built worker’s housing which was our everything—our park, our backyard, our everything.

(There were no parks, squares, or playgrounds.) We, in this case, were children of white-collar passport holders of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and Egypt, along with two Palestinian twins whose passport status remains undetermined. Our favourite pastimes in those blinding-white afternoons were sneaking into construction sites and warehouses, and then playing hide-and-seek. All of not-Dubai slept between 14:00 and 16:20.

We were alone.

Eight children of immigrant labourers whose names were registered on their father’s passports, and who had no legal rights. In those afternoons, we chased each other (divided into ‘American’ and ‘German’ groups based on the then popular—only?—American tv serial Combat!), spoke a creole of Tamil, Arabic, Hindi and Punjabi, and pretended that we were all alone.

Our fathers worked in state departments, building infrastructure, laying roads, channeling water and gas into residential areas. My father made a middle class wage, but was the highest paid Pakistani in his department. He was the Chief Engineer for Planning, and responsible for laying the traffic grid across not-Dubai.

He later made me a chart of people he reported to, and the vertical list of names ran off the page before he could list his own. We lived in a small street with other company workers, and we went to an under-construction school where wives of other immigrants taught us Arabic so that we could enter a state school.

We were not allowed to play football on the only field in the neighbourhood because it was reserved for locals.

In recent years—markedly since the 2008 crisis—a plethora of academic and journalistic work has focused on the lives of immigrant workers in the Gulf States. The economic studies of the 1980s and 1990s, (where the emphasis was on remittances), have now been replaced by theoretically rich discussions of urban migrations, global cities, and diaspora studies.

We are now in possession of better numbers to know who, from where and how, built the cities in the desert. We do not have better stories, however. The worker-body is loathe to write its tales down. It has no energy, or desire, to explain and to retell.

I have heard some of those stories—three of my uncles were construction workers in the Gulf in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; eight members of my cricket team in Lahore are currently working on cranes and hotels and offices in the Gulf; two of my brothers are employed by the State at this moment. Their stories are stories of disenfranchisement, of betrayals, of small pleasures and deferred dreams. None are written down.

In 1980, we went to Lahore for our annual visit and I heard, for the first time, Dubai Chalo! It was a catch-phrase. It was everywhere. Off to Dubai! The title belonged to a Punjabi movie released in November 1979, which had become a blockbuster hit. Every roadside dhaba had the Madame Nur Jahan solo Munda Meinon Tang Karda blasting from tape recorders.

Every kid incessantly went around offering each other pinjeri, (a running joke in the movie), which every other kid would then refuse after making gagging motions. I loved pinjeri—my grandmother made it. I was perplexed by all this talk, and of course we were not allowed to go to the theatre to watch a Punjabi movie, so I did not understand any of it.

Slowly, from fad, Dubai Chalo! entered political lexicon and became the shorthand for labour migration from Pakistan to the Gulf. “Yeh Dubai Chalo! log hain” my aunts would say, snottily, pointing out some nouveau riche family moving in across the street.

It was the moniker for the rural migrant to the city whose migration was enabled via a relative in the Gulf: uncouth, crude, attracted to bling and gild, prone to building large houses with extravagant facades and big, big walls. The Dubai Chalo! changed Lahore’s urban fabric, and its social fabric, and its political fabric. And all of it was presaged by writer Riaz Batalvi, and director Haider Chaudhry in Dubai Chalo!

Dubai Chalo! is the story of two innocents, Bao (Ali Ejaz) and Cheema (Nanha), who want to go to Dubai. This was the second pairing of Ali Ejaz and Nanha, and they emerged as the premier action-comedy duo for 1980s Lollywood cinema. The movie opens with two set-pieces, both establishing the outsider status of the protagonists. Bao, who is dressed inchoately in a shirt and tie, is shown as a dim-witted subject of village attention (and unkindness).

He earns no money and lives at home with an unmarried sister, a younger brother, and elderly parents who dream of better financial times.

Cheema, a corpulent man, is similarly the butt of jokes as the husband of a ‘modern’ woman who does not accept him. They both decide to go to Dubai to earn money and fulfill their personal and communal dreams. For Bao, the dream is to marry off his sister, and to make his younger brother into a civil servant. He is also engaged to his first cousin, whose father is in Dubai. For Cheema, it is more simply a matter of claiming his manhood by being employed.



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