When Will The Migrant’s Story Soak The Pages Of History?

THE WRITE LINE By Manishankar Prasad

THE WRITE LINE By Manishankar Prasad

A migrant boy (Photo: Kant Smith/ Pixabay)

June 5, 2020, Pune: Migrants are never able to script their own histories. They neither have the time nor the means to document their own life and times. The precious little time they have is taken up chasing deadlines of desperation and survival.

Think of the story-lines of India’s countless migrants in times of the coronavirus pandemic. Uprooted from their adopted urban oases by the lockdown, they had to reluctantly set off on foot on impossible journeys across the harsh heartland, doggedly bent on returning home – the very homes that they’ve had to desert long back in pursuit of work in the Big City. Who will script these story-lines of desperation?

The point is, documenting one’s own lived experiences is purely a function of privilege. Of course, one good thing is that this phenomenal mass reverse migration has made the mainstream media recognise the category of the ‘migrant’ and excavate it from the register of the invisible or the ‘other’.

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The horrifying picture of a hauling man trying to reach his hometown in Bihar has become a symbol of our times. But does he speak his story? Does his compelling tale get archived for future generations to marvel at? As photojournalists fell on each other in trying to get up close with this home-bound migrant, the dangers of sensationalism and the symbolic violence of the image, as a truth inverted, became apparent.

Migrants had been deemed as ‘essential services’ long before the politics of naming conjured up a convenient technocratic jargon – to make them need-worthy.

Migration is perpetually and frustratingly linked to mobility across borders. Boundaries that can and that cannot be accessed define which way a migrant family’s survival story will turn. Yet, it is the quintessential migrant that runs the informal economy of urban India. That little-known, rustic man from ‘Bharat’ gives ‘India’ its jazzy urban gloss. Yet, he has to perpetually stumble upon unwelcoming boundaries.


South Asian migrants have been working in the Persian Gulf since the 1930s. Bahrain’s oil fields were among the first destinations of the new arrivals back then. Today, migrants in West Asia can be found in the most far-flung corners of the oil-rich region – from craggy mountains to remote desert villages to cosmopolitan cities.

In the words of urban theorist Yasser Elseshtawy, cities such as Dubai, Doha and Kuwait City are perennially temporary. Almost entirely and yet very quietly serviced by migrants, they are West Asia’s ‘Temporary Cities’.

But the migrants do not live in the luxury of Dubai Marina, if you take the UAE for example. Instead, many of them are crammed in labour camps along the Dubai-Sharjah border while some others survive in claustrophobic apartment blocks of Dubai’s Deira district, the melting pot of south-south globalisation.

The migrants, mostly bachelors, are simply seen as numbers, living in ‘bed spaces’ in rooms shared by 10 to 12 people on average. It’s a similar story that is echoed from all over the Gulf. There are thresholds for migrants in terms of income; there are hurdles to get their families to live with them in the Gulf. The threshold is so steep that a life (and in many cases a lifetime) in separation seems a decent down payment.

Unfortunately, these stories do not make it to the narrative weaved by the shallow mainstream media beyond hackneyed tropes of remittances, the ‘kafala’ system and the suffering. The suffering, by the way, is soaked into every word that NYU Abu Dhabi academic Deepak Unnikrishnan wrote in his book Temporary People.

A study of history is an engagement with the counter-factual. The histories of the Gulf are mostly bedouin-centric tales, where the migrant is simply written off and written out. The migrant of the Gulf is visible, yet not considered vital enough to be a part of the official history of the region.

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The same fate is met by Baluchis and East Africans, who are disdainfully whitewashed out of Gulf histories even though they are citizens and are as naturalised as they can be. They have been a part of the pre-oil tapestries of the region, and a part of the hands-on running as well.

There are very few books written on the Baluchi experience of the Gulf, where they are actually an integral part of the security infrastructure, from Oman to Kuwait, with a substantial presence in Bahrain.

The littoral port cities of the Gulf are cosmopolitan geographies of churning as a result of centuries of the Indian Ocean trade in the pre-oil era where pearl and date trade integrated the Gulf with the global capitalist system.

Muscat is as much an Indian Ocean entrepot as Beirut is for the Mediterranean with its eclectic flair as the ‘Paris of the Arab World’. The strictly Arab bedouin lens is constricting as museums in the Khaleej, or the Gulf, have turned into contested sites of national identity reproduction.


The Gulf has had a history of slavery, which is a very sensitive topic, although many former slave families are present-day citizens spread across the region. Qatar has been exemplary in starting a conversation with its past, which has slavery as a key feature, by building museums out of the homes of slave owners from the past.

Slavery was outlawed as recently as in the 1960s and many old-timers recall slaves being an integral part of Gulf society. Afro-Arabs, especially the community in Oman, play a major role in the sultanate’s private sector, with many migrating from Zanzibar (now a Tanzanian archipelago) after a revolution in the 1970s. There is priceless information about the horrific black-nationalist revolution in 1964, which deposed the Arab Sultan, in Canadian author M G Vassanji’s Memoir of East Africa. Such insightful history cannot be found in any other text related to Oman.

Booker Prize-winning Omani novelist Jokha al-Harthi makes a mention of slavery in her work Celestial Bodies. Understandably, while the book has been celebrated in lit-fests in Dubai, Penang and many other places around the world, the response in Oman’s mainstream media has been largely muted.


The life of a low-income migrant, the coffee shop boy, the cleaner, the ‘dhobi’, the barber, the driver is configured very differently from the spatial perspective of an ‘expat’. Migrants in the Gulf would look at the airport, for example, in a way more amplified manner than their richer cousins, who take it as a way of life.

For a low-income migrant who comes to Muscat from a small village in Bangladesh’s Chittagong – unable to converse in proper Bangla (read: urban dialect) as he’s hardly been to high school or the cities – the airport is a place where dreams take flight.

But then it doesn’t take them long to realise that those dreams are made up of jarring, earthy realities of working in a coffee shop in 50 degrees Celsius, making Lahori parathas every day of the year, working inhuman, 17-hour shifts.

There’s an ocean of difference in the cost of living for the ‘migrant’ and the ‘expat’. I am a consulting professional in my day job and I always chose to live in migrant neighbourhoods such as the historic Meena Bazaar in Bur Dubai next to a Sindhi community centre about half a kilometre from the Dubai Museum and a rare Shia Masjid in Wahhabi UAE.

I am a second-generation migrant who grew up on Kerala ‘thaalis’ and biryani from ‘kadas’ (eateries in Malayalam) in Al Khuwair district or Honda Road in Ruwi district, in Muscat, where my teacher-father would count every baiza being spent, in case he lost his job. He lasted in the Gulf for a quarter of a century with that mindset, earning a modest sum before retiring and relocating across the Arabian Sea to Mumbai.

The ‘poori bhaji’ and ‘chai’ at Bharat restaurant, which had cost me seven dirhams last year in Meena Bazaar, was worth double in branded Sagar Ratna in Jumeirah Lake Towers, a posh expat neighbourhood. The Meena Bazaar meal tasted much better.

A low-skilled migrant’s life revolves around the ‘kada’ where he eats his ‘porota’ and beef fry for nine dirhams, filling him well enough for the day. At the other end of the divide, families of the migrants back home eagerly wait for days (and now months) for the means to arrive so that mouths can be fed and bills can be paid. That wait generally comes at the cost of the migrant slogging away in the Gulf for a meagre wage.

Eid is the only time on the calendar when my hard-working barber friends in Muscat used to get a day off, to catch a Salman Khan starrer with other friends. In the Gulf, the annual festival is the most active time of the year for business. But this year, it was a hugely muted Eid as the economic impact of the coronavirus lockdown hit the migrants hard.

Countless migrants lost their jobs. Most of them are not in a position to even pay for their repatriation flight. For the migrant, the Gulf is an unequal and unforgiving place.


Migrant Gulf is a seamless potboiler of contrasting themes – of precarity and prayer; of helplessness and hope. Yet, when we read about the Gulf in elegant western university press editions, the low-income migrant space is stripped of agency and reduced to a caricature.

The ‘kada’, the saloon, the dhobi, the ‘karak chai’ shop – these are places where people unwind, where banter is exchanged. These little delights turn the cities of the Gulf into lively entities, into social oases.

The emotions and aspirations of migrants – just like the sweat from their hard labour – need to soak the pages of history. The fact that they built the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai, Dammam, Doha and now Duqm needs to be documented. And those stories need to be told and retold.

Be it the bustling townships of India or the upscale skyscraper cities of the Gulf kingdoms, it is always the migrants who do the hard work of making the engine run. And that is precisely why they deserve to be at the core of the narrative, not on the periphery.

(Manishankar Prasad is an independent researcher, writer, consultant, and an expert in migration studies. He lives in Pune, India)



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