Workers sleeping on the roof of an overcrowded labor camp. Doha, Qatar. (Imran Garda)
"Today is my girlfriend's birthday sir..."
I wince, eyes reflexively open and shut again at the "sir," but try instead to focus on the content of the statement.
"Really? Great. Which one?"
He blends a Cheshire cat smile meets the Keralite it's-unclear-whether-my-head-bobble-means-yes-or-no into a cheeky boyish smirk. A Casanova symphony. Let's call him the "Keralite Cat," for future reference.
"Sir, the Filipina. The hot one, old one, but hot one. The maid."
"The prettiest, sexiest one?" I asked, already possessing the knowledge that she was one of three in a collection of girlfriends, that included an Indonesian and Nepali too.
Southeast Asian unity that would make the UN proud, if it weren't for the fact they were each oblivious to the existence of the others. Smooth.
"No sir, hot, hot, hawwwt. You understand? She like to do hawwwt things sir... crazy things sir... maybe I'm not enough for her!", the giggle and resurfacing of the bobble-head and smile symphony.
And then he made a gesture to me, one that this innocent writer, mind hitherto undefiled, just can't quite blog about. I could sketch a picture maybe. Or maybe not. But let's concede that I would never again look at his car's hand-break, or any car's hand-break in the same way. Then he showed me a picture of her on his mobile, she looked 15 years his senior. Hello Mrs Filipina Robinson...
"Where do you guys do this, erm, stuff?" I blushingly asked.
"In my accommodation. In the car sometimes, but we must be very very careful. If police catch us... ," his hand assumed a karate chop shape at his neck, and he swiped across. Then laughter.
Welcome to Doha.
My driver friend officially works on call 24/7, for a Far Eastern businessman, running the Middle Eastern operation of some Far Eastern company, whose penchant for herculean spells of imbibing the stuff you can only get at 5-star hotels in Doha, Qatar (so I've heard) after work, tends to give the Keralite Cat some free time to do some "illegal" driving on the side. He earns QR900 (roughly $250) a month, so I'm happy to contribute to some of the illegality.
Hence, when providence doth bless this humble writer to embark on another spell of work in the Doha desert, devoid of my 4X4 in days of old when I actually lived here, he's the first person I call. We talk a lot. We talk about work, sometimes politics, sometimes cricket, sometimes football. We talk a lot about inequality too.
Would you believe it?
But this is not the platform for another "the horrors of the Gulf" splash.
Nor is it a call to recognize the deep-rooted racism in the Arab world that Robert Fisk so powerfully wrote about recently, as racial prejudice spits in the face of the Arab Spring and embarrasses its lofty ideals.
I could tell you about the labor camps I visited where 10 men slept in a cramped room that they cooked in too; of the many I spoke to over the years whose employers chose (on a whim, not for want of money) not to pay them their salaries, or ever return their passports to them; of the hundreds of thousands of these migrants from overpopulated nations further east -- those who build this modern day materialist paradise, where once only the folk-songs of Bedouins and malnourished pearl-divers echoed through the whirling grains of sand -- and little else existed, until oil and gas reared their controversial, sticky, bubbly heads from the sleepy infertile surface.
I could tell you of "Family Day" signs at the entrances to the malls across the country on the weekends, designed to keep the wretched of the earth out so Arabs and Westerners can savor their Krispy Kreme Donuts and carry their oversized shopping bags from Armani Exchange -- without the experience being soiled by those smelly Indians or Nepalese who are hurriedly ordered out by security guards with matching complexions who are only following orders.
Dehumanizing and rehumanizing
While Qatar considers reforming labor laws and scrapping its "sponsorship" system that even the prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani once called "unacceptable and close to slavery"; while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch play catchup and get some amnesty themselves from reporting about Darfur or Libya or Syria or China or North Korea and one day hope to raise the issue of workers' rights in the Gulf; while those of us who earned our tax-free salaries cried crocodile tears for the workers that by default allowed us to assume our roles as lords and "madams" and "sirs", and while we drove our 4X4s past the little men in one size-fits-all blue jumpsuits bought in bulk from Carrefour, drilling a foundation for a new phallic tower in the blazing 110 degree Fahrenheit midday heat, we forgot something. We forgot something important.
The Keralite Cat's tales, in all its frivolity, made a profound point about the drivers, construction workers, the maids and cleaners:
Can you believe that these people make love?
Can you believe they even cheat on each other?
Can you believe that they buy each other birthday presents too?
And one day, just one day, these subhumans, like the Keralite Cat and Mrs Filipina Robinson, might even take the "hawwwt" stuff to a new level, might even have the audacity to pull up the hand-break on their own destiny, despite the macro constraints of an unequal "globalized economy" that makes them travel to dusty places far away, where the rule is simple -- they must work so we can eat.
A version of this article first appeared on aljazeera.com