I’m frightened. Why are the people I’m to work for late? When will they come for me? My heart is pounding. Will they send me back to my country? I see that it’s dark outside the hall. What will I do in this large airport all by myself?
I don’t want to remember that evening. It was hot and humid. We sat, my cross-eyed neighbor and I, amid the racket made by the children, thinking despondently about our many problems. Without any preamble, she suddenly asked, “Why don’t you go work in the Gulf?”
She was silent for a few seconds before she added, “Go to Kuwait.”
Her suggestion caught me off guard. I looked at her. Her eyes seemed even more crossed when she said conclusively, “You are pretty and speak English.”
After planting that surprising idea in my head, she departed. Later that night, when everyone else in the room was asleep, my thoughts and concerns were wide awake, and sleep eluded me. The thought of traveling, of making a new start somewhere else, seemed a real possibility, and I could not sleep. I gazed at the scrawny bodies of my children as if seeing them for the first time. My husband’s tiresome snoring got on my nerves, as did the wheezing of my consumptive aunt.
During subsequent days the temptation of travel wormed its way into me and kept me company morning and evening. My eyes were opened to the bitterness and misery of our poverty. I ignored my aunt’s digestive tract complaints and my husband’s absence as I brooded about my children’s open mouths. Traveling to the Gulf seemed like the only life preserver to me. I dreamt of having a little house of my own and of being able to provide an education for my children. I pictured myself working in Kuwait, earning money that would change my circumstances.
I hesitated for a time and feared broaching the matter with my husband. I assumed he would oppose my traveling and leaving my children and home, but he replied indifferently, “Go.”
And he added, “Many Indian women work in Kuwait.”
How long will I sit here, cooling my heels? Most of the girls and women domestics who arrived from Kerala with me have been summoned by the Kuwaiti policeman, who handed them over to the families they will work for.
For six months I wore myself out searching for a local employment agency that would agree to register me on the lists of women wanting work in the Gulf. The same response kept hammering me: “Five hundred dollars in advance.”
I did not believe my ears the first time I heard that sum. Five hundred dollars! That was more than my husband made in an entire year. Where could I obtain that much money? I realized that it would be impossible for me to leave.
I remember the day I stood in front of the Rapid Employment Office. I squeezed into the queue of waiting girls and women, whose cheeks were hollow and glances dejected. When I entered the director’s office, he ignored me for a time and left me standing. He was busy talking on the telephone while he filled the office with the smell of smoke from his pipe. He finished his conversation and turned toward me, examining me with a look that frightened me. I lowered my head. Then he launched into a series of questions about my educational qualifications, my work experience, my social status, my age, and my religion. I started to inform him that I had begun my university education but had not been able to complete it due to a lack of funds. He looked me over before he said, “Four hundred dollars.”
I remained silent. He continued to sweep my body with his glances. Then he asked me, “Do you speak English?”
I quickly replied, “Yes, Sir.”
He demanded that I converse with him. He asked me more than one question, and I answered him in English. He picked up his pipe and drew on it several times. We were silent while he puffed out the smoke. Then he said, “I’ll help you by lowering the amount.”
My heart palpitated. Fixing his eyes on mine, he concluded, “Three hundred fifty.”
I could not think of anything to say; so he added, “You can pay the sum in installments over three months.”
“Where will I get the money?”
“From your salary in Kuwait.”
That idea had never occurred to me. I implored him, “I beg you: help me.”
My tears flowed, and I complained to him about my difficulties: “I’ve spent half a year looking for work.”
Heavy silence blanketed the room again, and—exhaling smoke—he said, “Three hundred and. . . .”
The sentence remained unfinished. Our eyes met, and I felt a line of sweat flowing from my armpit to my waist. He tossed out the final word: “And you.”
I felt my knees knocking together and stepped back, swallowing my saliva and my humiliation. The room with its pipe smoke swirled around me. Feeling dizzy, I departed anxiously with dragging, disoriented steps.
Now the short Kuwaiti policeman with his bushy mustache has entered the hall again, carrying more than one visa in his hand. He walks beside the girls, examining their faces to compare them with the pictures on the visas. He slaps the women who are so tired they have fallen asleep and rouses them by calling: “Hayya!”
He stands still while they form a circle around him. He scolds them with obvious scorn and makes them step back. Has anyone from the family I am to work for come for me? The policeman calls out names in his, Arab, accent, which I find hard to understand. He picks out four girls and leaves the hall, frowning.
The dream of traveling continued to beckon to me like nothing else. I began to avoid everything. I hated the miserable way we lived—packed like rats into a cramped room: my husband with his repulsive, sweaty smell, my children with their dirty clothes, my consumptive aunt, and our lack of food. I watched the dear little morsels that my children snatched from each other.
My obtaining a work visa became our sole hope of salvation. The director’s demand began to ring in my head, growing gradually louder until it drowned out every other sound. Eventually I convinced myself that it would only last a few moments and then be over! For the sake of my children’s future nothing seemed too dear.
I believed I would leap with joy when I received my work visa and ticket, but the moment wasn’t like that. A deep grief settled over me. I escaped from the filthy hand of the director and left the office swiftly. The darkness and hubbub of the street swallowed me. I hastened back to my room and family.
When the plane landed at the airport in Kuwait at dawn today, I felt afraid, and my tears trickled down to my breast. I had heard many stories about the harsh treatment of domestic workers. I settled into pacing around the arrivals hall. I have not stopped waiting for someone to escort me to his house.
Recently I have been brooding about my secret. The director of the agency was alone with me. He locked the door of his office, took me by the hand, and brought me up to a small room one floor up. He took liberties with my body more than once. The last time was a week ago, the evening he delivered my visa and ticket. He said in a disgusting tone, “There’s a lot of money in Kuwait. Be clever, and you’ll earn a lot.”
Last night, only my aunt hovered around me. I said farewell to my sleeping children. I sniffed them and planted tearful kisses on their beloved cheeks. I gazed at their submissive faces—afraid that I would never see them again. I didn’t know what was in store for me here! I made my aged aunt swear she would supervise their upbringing. I advised her to keep my trip to Kuwait a secret from them. She was to tell them I was going to the capital and would come back bearing gifts and colorful toys.
The policeman enters and says, “Ranjini.”
Hearing my name, I start to tremble.
Every time I hitch my trousers above my waist, they slip down again. Almost an hour has passed while I’ve stood here. I know they will be late as usual. All I can do is wait—what alternative do I have? I hate walking for exercise, but it has been imposed on me. Every evening I accompany my mistress and her plump young daughter. I come with them to the walking track. I choose a nearby spot among all the many waiting automobiles, and then the lady cautions me: “Wait for us here! Don’t budge!”
I bow my head in agreement and say, “Yes.”
They turn their backs on me and enter the track. They belong to the caravan of athletic Kuwaitis who struggle with their weight. This afternoon I was in my room, brooding about the endless costs of my trip when I heard the voice of the maid, Ranjini, calling me: “Bushrawi.”
I answered in a loud voice, “Yes?”
I rose, stepping out to meet her and found her standing at the entrance. She told me, “Get the car ready. My mistress will depart at seven.”
She turned around to run swiftly back inside.
I mulled over an idea in my head, saying: I’ll apologize to my mistress; she knows that I am traveling. I don’t think she will begrudge me two hours. Perhaps they could go in her car or her daughter’s. With my request in mind, I looked for her inside. I stood waiting for her, and when she appeared, I said, “Please excuse me from going with you tonight.”
She didn’t respond; so I added, “I want to go to the market to buy some things for my children.”
Her daughter appeared at that moment, and I realized that my plan was doomed. Her mother asked her, “Shall we go in your car?”
The daughter asked this while looking impatiently at her mother, who replied, “Bushrawi wants to go to the souk.”
The daughter did not like this reply. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said, “Later, later.”
She disappeared as quickly as she had come, and the lady said, “Get the car ready.”
Uff! How long can I keep hitching up my trousers? They catch me off guard from one moment to the next and plunge down. I’ve grown tired of watching Kuwaitis walk while I stay rooted in my place: their plumpness, short steps, and gossip. Praise God! I have nothing against His benefactions and His giving countless riches to anyone He wants. May He grant them lots of oil and multiple blessings! They have no worries. They have plenty of everything. Their only chore is exercising to shrink their plumpness and their bellies!
I usually ignore them and retreat to the automobile. I recline a little and close my eyes as I feel the fatigue of the day sink to my legs before it spreads through my body like a slow-acting drug. My eyelids soon grow heavy, and a pleasant slumber enfolds me. Occasionally I encounter my friend Uthman, who arrives at the wheel of his obese master’s auto. The man climbs out with difficulty and heads for the track. He plods along, his vast dishdasha swelling. I raise my hand toward Uthman and call to him. So he comes to me and we exchange our news. We roast our concerns over the fire of waiting.
I don’t want to see him tonight. I feel depressed and can’t stomach his chatter. If only the lady and her daughter would return early. I must go to the market. The long list of things requested never ends! When will I finish buying the rest of them?
I become sick every time before I return home. I don’t know how to satisfy everyone! Where will I get the money? Even if I swear the mightiest oaths to them they won’t believe me. My relatives in Egypt think I’m lying to them—concealing the truth from them. Since I work in Kuwait, in their opinion, I must be rich, rolling in money.
Woe is me!
Last week Ranjini came to my room and addressed me from outside the door: “My master wants you.”
When I presented myself to him, he asked, “Do you know the shop where I buy my shoes?”
Nodding my head, I said, “Yes.”
He thrust his hand toward me and said, “Take this.”
Then he added, “It’s three hundred dollars.”
My eyes widened, and I stared at his face. He said, “Ask for the shop manager.”
I was feeling the bills with my fingers. Then he explained, “Give him the money, and he’ll give you my new shoes.”
In my room I counted out the money to make sure. All the way there I felt sad; the man I work for pays three hundred dollars for a pair of shoes. That’s more than I make in two entire months!
I can’t see any sign of them among the people working out. I know the young lady: if she happens to meet her girlfriends, their gossiping will never end. When she refuses to walk with her mother, her maid, Ranjini, accompanies my lady. I keep my eyes on them. Ranjini with her slender body walks beside the lady, who is plump and walks slowly.
It’s a problem.
I only have three days. Everyone there in Egypt has his mouth wide-open waiting for my arrival. What will I bring them? My wife, my five children, my mother, my father, my brothers and their wives and children, not to mention my aged aunt. . . .
Every time I remember their critical looks, I hate the thought of returning home. But I can’t take any more. Mus‘ad, my youngest son, is more than two years old, and I haven’t seen him. I came to Kuwait when his mother was pregnant with him. When I sat listening to the most recent tape that they sent me, I heard his mother dictate and him recite after her: “Papa, come. I want to see you.”
That night I didn’t sleep. My exile, isolation, and longing for my family and country hurt me. I wept till I had no more tears. In the morning I resolved to travel.
When I finished my training in the agricultural institute, I submitted my papers to the Government Employment Service. I waited anxiously for an appointment, but it never came. I spent more than two years working for my father, plowing and planting. He liked having me beside him and commended my work ethic, but I still felt unfulfilled until I hit upon the idea of leaving Egypt. I decided to travel to Kuwait. I told him, “Just for a year or two, and I’ll come back.”
He objected, “Nonsense.”
I asked what he meant, and he replied with his old man’s sensibility: “All those who left before you said the same thing, but none of them has returned.”
I swore to him, “I won’t stay more than two years.”
He remained convinced he was right, and mournful. When I kissed his hand and said farewell, he commented bitterly, “God has decreed exile and pain for you.”
My father was prophetic! Nine years and ten months have passed, and I’m planted here, unable to disengage! Meanwhile poverty and need engulf my family there. Everyone expects assistance from me while I am cracking under their heavy load.
It’s no use; no matter how tight I cinch my trousers, they fall again! How much longer will I wait here? The stores in the market close at nine. Where is the list of things requested? I need to buy the radio my father requested, the school shoes for my son Salih, the bookbag for my daughter Hamida, the watch for my brother Radi, and the cosmetics for my wife Zanuba. I need to buy a thawb for my mother.
They finally appear. Here’s the lady and her daughter at the corner. I’ll start the car for them.
Kuwait August 12, 1994
From Ughmudu Ruhi ‘Alayka (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 1995). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.
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