Construction in a Caravan Culture
Tahir Shah, Caliph’s House
“Don’t bother yourself with concrete floors, you can’t take them with you.”
Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin
Journal Entry, November 2008, Dubai, Palm Jumeirah: Activity everywhere. Dredging machines. Bulldozers. Dump trucks. Backhoes. Construction vehicles lurch about like gigantic prehistoric creatures.
Caterpillar Serpents writhe through the water sucking up and spitting out sand. Praying Mantises pick up tiny bits of rock. Monster Mosquitoes circle, buzz, and pierce with their sharp stingers.
From our apartment on this man-made island, a phrase that still confounds me, I am observing the engineering of a sand pier extension. A workman pulls a prayer rug out of his truck, bends down on his knees, placing his forehead on the ground, facing west toward Mecca, as the muezzin’s call to prayer reverberates throughout the city.
Journal entry, November 2010, Doha, Qatar: From our apartment on the 23rd floor, the city is rising right before our eyes, with the sparkling turquoise Arabian Gulf as a backdrop. Two cranes swing their arms in slow motion, one reaching up 27 floors high, the other hovering at 10 stories. Wearing blue jumpsuits and yellow or orange construction helmets, laborers are perched on floors without walls. One, with a scarf wrapped around his face to keep out the sand and the sun, is crouching on his heels near the cement foundation, staring into the distance. Nearby several others are erecting a scaffold. Three climb up the poles while one man holds the flimsy structure together. Across a parched patch of sand dotted with a few stiff shrubs, there is a 35-story commercial building nearing completion. A cluster of workmen are sitting on the top floor, dangling their legs over the sides, eating their lunches out of paper bags.
These men, primarily South Asian, are a virtually invisible part of the everyday landscape in Dubai and Doha. Worker bees on machine bees. Human machinery. They are the individuals actually building these cities. I wonder about them. What are their names? What have they left behind? Whom do they love? Who loves them? How do they understand their roles in this massive enterprise, this empire unfolding? How will they tell their stories?
The construction frenzy gets at the heart of certain tensions that I feel here. First, I ask myself why, after being mobile and unencumbered, these Gulf Arabs are now building massive villa compounds and commercial centers that will tie them down to one place? And at what cost to them? Are they losing their toughness, flexibility and spirit? Their aversion to things fixed and permanent? Their freedom? On the other hand, it makes sense that the speed with which these buildings are appearing does not disturb them whatsoever. Wilfred Thesiger spoke of Bedouins as having the ability to wait patiently years and years for certain events to occur, and then to move decisively and quickly. They survive by their cunning and adaptability. I see what he means.
Second, the disparity between the rich and the poor is evident in all big cities, but here it just smacks you in the face all day long. We expats and the nationals go about our easy, comfortable days in air-conditioned spaces, while all around us these “imported” laborers toil in dangerous situations to create the roads, sidewalks, offices, hotels, stores, houses and infrastructure to make this lifestyle possible.
This bothers me. I hope it always will…
“The joke around here is that the crane should be designated as Dubai’s national bird.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum
Wall Street Journal January 12, 2008