Sharjah Shake: A Report from Kerala

Originally published in Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued (2010)

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Juice stand selling the Sharjah Shake, Calicut, India.

As news sources started to chronicle Dubai’s descent into the global crisis, some stories questioned what would happen to the thousands of laborers whose minimal salaries depend upon the boom. Many of these laborers – the preferred word when discussing the people occupying the various unskilled labor positions in the Gulf from construction workers to street cleaners to domestic help – call from South Asia. That single immensely populated region, according to some statistics, provides 60% of Dubai’s population. Of that population, 60%, according to other statistics, hail from the Indian province of Kerala. That would mean one in three people you meet in Dubai comes from Kerala. Such a calculation would not be far off in any other Gulf city as well.

In the news coverage about these people’s troubles, Kerala is sometimes identified as a heavily affected province. Malayalis, as people from Kerala are called, are too easily conflated with a labor demographic. Commercial flights were said to be fully booked to escort unneeded laborers away from Dubai. An unspoken assumption: the flights were headed to Kerala filled on the way there and empty on the way back. In the Kerala press local politicians even responded to the announcement, calling for national and provincial monies to support the returnees. The huge exodus never actually materialized, but that’s not to say it might never come.

Those workers possibly heading back to the subcontinent are not just unskilled laborers. A quick calculation shows there are more Indian paper pushers facing layoffs in the Gulf than those hailing from Europe.

It is often unclear where workers and desk clerks go. Home? To another building site? Another city? News footage abounds depicting South Asians with their belongings piled high in the back of Toyota trucks heading for Dubai’s airport. Were they going home for good or were these the men taking their well-earned months-long holiday? Were we seeing their minimal life’s existence fitting in a corner of a pickup or the bounteous gifts that a home-visit requires, irrespective of the man’s salary?

In February I went to the airport to look for men presumably boarding these flights. The Toyota trucks pulling up at the departures curb composed an action-packed scene similar to any other night during the boom years. Cohorts helped those departing by building tenuous stacks of belongings onto luggage carts designed more for tourist suitcases than for these serious load transfers. The farewells were emotional with hugs, kisses and final grabs at shoulders and arms.

So as not to intrude, I waited to approach departing travelers until after they had finished their goodbyes. The departing men I approached (those who could gather up some English for me), though, were not leaving for good. They were taking their one or two month leave – or so they told me. I encountered one man who was not returning. He was unclear about why. Then it dawned on me: no one, skilled or unskilled, likes to admit being laid off. Another hazard for statistic collecting. As the men escaped into the passengers-only area of the terminal, numbers – people, packages, stories and plans – all seemed incalculable.

The current condition of the global crisis only heightened my curiosity to see Kerala. I wanted to find out more about this land, specifically why its people – the ones who had at least some education – could speak beautiful English and who never missed a chance to talk with me in groceries and taxi cabs. One Malayali had once told me there are things about the Gulf that are like Kerala and there are things about Kerala that are like the Gulf. I asked him for examples. He smiled, tilted his head, and said I had to look for them myself.

But to consider Kerala – in conjunction with the crisis, with jobs disappearing or not – forces a departure from the stories newspapers tell. The issues are torn inside-out.

Monitoring Kerala’s press reveals an inverse debate of that which filled Western newspapers I usually read. While human rights activists claim international jurisprudence and the journalists who interview them plead for the exploited and underpaid laborers, the discussion in Kerala centers on unflagging materialism and wasteful spending – fear of the loss of Islamic/Christian/Hindu values as a result of easy money. Was the Kerala-Gulf story about the exploited poor or rampant capitalism? It was as if the Western and Kerala press were shouting at the same region, but with conflicting demands, neither hearing the other. Which side really had its finger on the pulse? I went to Kerala to make my own decision.

If you want to know how the Indian province is handling the crisis in the Gulf, these are families putting their children through universities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia; they are building expansive homes in Kerala while they live in humble flats in Dubai. They are families working hard to make a better life than that which they were dealt. Just a slight investigation beyond labor camps and taxi stands reveals a variety of Malayalis making the Gulf cities hum, ranging from some of Dubai’s wealthiest entrepreneurs to witty school teachers to hard-working doctors to committed store owners. Back home in Kerala they are considered a separate breed: Gulf Malayalis.

Departure and arrival are very much part of Kerala’s culture. Mine was an overnight flight which meant loose-fitting clothing that could handle a bit of wrinkling. I was one of few who saw it that way. When we boarded the flight in Dubai most of the departing passengers were smartly dressed, recently showered and primped. A few were shaping their fingernails as we waited on the runway. Those who could made sure their outfits did not conceal the gold they were wearing; pressed, rolled-up sleeves and open-vested shirts seemed a uniform that allowed heavy gold watches and chains to breathe the cabin’s air. The amount of the element I saw adorning men and the few women boarding the flight was more than I had ever seen outside a display case. It was gold in movement. It seemed more orange, more color than light.

A month before the voyage I had met Sahil Latheef, an architect trained in Mumbai and Rotterdam. He said he was from Calicut, Kerala’s third city. More questions revealed that his mother left Dubai to give birth to Sahil in Calicut. Shortly afterwards the two flew together back to Dubai, where he lived until he attended university. I asked him about the Malayali experience in Dubai; he found it curious to think about a topic he had always taken for granted. During the following weeks he consulted his family and friends and gathered a list of names of people who might provide some perspective on the situation simply by relating their life stories.

Before we tried to get a few hours of sleep on the flight, Sahil and I went over our plan for the coming days. He had drawn our route over a map of Kerala. Our trip was starting in the south, in Trivandrum, and then we would make our way north. Dots scattered the coastal highway, each representing a place we planned to stop to talk with sociologists, psychiatrists, doctors, entrepreneurs, school teachers, writers – all of whom Sahil had collected for our study. Sahil’s map centered on the coastal highway of Kerala – the only road traversing the linear province; our plan populated its curves.

It would soon become apparent that this coastal highway was one of the biggest export products of the Gulf. Hiding behind its innocuous name, NH17, the national highway is what stitches the towns and cities together in Kerala. If you want to know how the Gulf – its money, its ambitions, its message – has affected Kerala, you hardly need to venture off this road.

This highway is rarely talked about because it is so apparent, so integrated in the lives of Malayalis. Integrated in their lives, but always hinting at death. Sahil had insisted we hire a driver for our stay. The intrepid Majeed was not only our driver; he was also the keeper of our lives. Rarely no wider than two lanes, the road almost always had a median line from which each side of the road started as unbroken asphalt then devolved into puzzle pieces of asphalt and then to earth. A driver negotiating this median line uses an endless code of horn-honking and bright-lights to pass cars and trucks ahead and miss those coming in his (our) direction. The distance between an oncoming automobile and yours can be as little as a couple meters. As a passenger it is better to fall asleep than to watch. Sahil translated Majeed’s response to my questioning whether the drive tires him out: ‘It’s not worth stressing about’.

NH17 is the only road connecting Kerala’s towns and cities, but its lack of upkeep makes it feel more like a back way. There is no money going into the province’s most essential piece of infrastructure and yet from our car windows we could watch, like a moving image, a rushing inventory of billboards promising luxury lifestyles, boundless gold, fine silks. And then there are the buildings sprouting up along the road – some finished, some occupied but half-finished, others started and seemingly forgotten. These are the products of Gulf money.

If you ask any Malayali about what the wealth from Gulf salaries has given the province, the question starts a trail of wastage and loss. When I asked the question that made me plan my trip this year: is the crisis having an effect here? Are loved ones streaming back? The questions produced shoulder shrugs at best. Worst things had happened it seemed. Even the demographer we interviewed dismissed his own numbers. Malayalis have a way of making things work, despite any hardship. And if the money dried up from one source, it would likely appear from somewhere else in the not too distant future. Crisis did not deter dreading the changes Gulf money brought.

Everyone seemed to agree. Gulf money comes with an itch to build. And that effect had not yet slowed down. First you build your own house – a Gulf House. And then, if there’s money left over, a commercial tower. Even those Malayalis not keeping busy with jobs in the fields of urbanism or development will point out a regional tendency: when it comes time to build commercial buildings the returning entrepreneur will not think of locating in the city; rather, the enterprise must be located in his home village. There the effect is greater, the message louder. And even better is to build along NH17, for then the structure can be seen not only by everyone in the village, but also by every other Malayali traveling up and down Kerala’s only highway. A Gulf returnee must return a success story incarnate in order to impress all those who knew him as a going-nowhere teenager. To do that they have consequently developed the roadsides of the NH17 from one end to the other with their gathered ambitions. Yet instead of building a linear metropolis, they have built what can read more like a graveyard of unfulfilled dreams.

Kerala’s urban densities do not come even close to figures for India’s larger cities, but as a province it has one of the highest densities in India. Kerala is human sprawl, inhabiting NH17 from top to bottom. The first thing I did upon returning to Dubai was to find Kerala on Google Earth. I wanted to experience NH17 from above. That proved impossible. Sprawl it might be, but the province’s omnipresent palm trees still rule. An aggressive layer of green masks the Gulf’s greatest effects to greedy, outside, aerial viewers.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and photographs from the trip, conversations with experts and some Gulf returnees. This relationship – between Kerala and the Gulf – is one of hundreds facing those living in the Gulf, but for those in Kerala it is a daily, inescapable topic – defining just about every aspect of life in Kerala, whether you like it or not. The store where you bought your fruit is run by a Gulf returnee; the hospital where an aunt lay sick is a Gulf returnee’s investment strategy; even the most favored summer drink – the Sharjah shake – carries memories and thoughts of luxury from a faraway land that anyone could reach, if he’s ready to give something up in exchange.

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