Where The Streets Aren't Paved With Gold

Just before he goes to sleep, 37-year-old Othman Mohammad looks at the pictures of the son and daughter he hasn't seen in two years. Beside his thin mattress, he keeps a cassette recorder to listen to the scratchy tapes his wife and children in northern Pakistan send him regularly. They are kept in a small trunk, to make room for the meager belongings of the other 10 laborers who share his tiny room in Abu Dhabi, the glittering capital of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

The long separation from family hurts. "I don't get to see them grow up before my eyes," Mohammad says. "I see it only through pictures."

Mohammad, who is the lifting man on a furniture truck, is one of 350,000 Pakistani workers in the prosperous Emirates who send most of what they earn--$200 to $400 a month--back to their impoverished families. Most are unskilled laborers who help build roads, schools, and hospitals, or drive cabs, taking menial jobs shunned by the locals. They have turned a string of backwater fishing villages and stark desert into a country of shiny skyscrapers and eight-lane highways in just a few decades.

LEGAL PROBLEMS. Other workers come from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Egypt--countries where poverty and turmoil gave birth to unrealistic expectations. "In Pakistan, we think you find money in the streets here," says Saeed Abdul-Saeed, 30, who drives the truck Mohammad works on. "But some of my friends have been here for years and can't even afford the ticket to take them back home."

Claiming liquidity problems, companies sometimes take months to pay their laborers. Embassy officials spend weeks shuttling between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Labor Ministry trying to mediate disputes between their nationals and local companies.

"Labor laws in the Gulf are designed to protect locals rather than expatriate workers," says one diplomat. "There's very little recourse for a laborer, and the poorly funded embassies are not equipped to handle these legal problems." Pakistani labor attache Qayyum Qamar Khawaja concedes that one reason labor disputes are common is that his countrymen in the Gulf are usually illiterate and don't speak Arabic. "They can't read their contracts and are sometimes taken advantage of," he says.

CULTURE SHOCK. What little schooling the Pakistanis have is religious training, in mosques. They are very devout--as anyone trying to hail a cab in Abu Dhabi at one of the five daily prayer times will discover. The cabbie, invariably a Pakistani, will gesture with his hand that, sorry, he's headed for a mosque. Nearly all of the laborers are married and in their 30s, and most married young, judging by the snapshots of teenage children. (There are no pictures of wives, since that isn't proper under their very conservative Islamic traditions.) On Fridays, their one day off, the men congregate in the parks before heading to the mosque.

It is a life of simplicity and denial. Meals are eaten the traditional way: sitting on the floor, no implements, as hands dip leavened bread into sauces. Since many of these men were farmers from remote villages in northern Pakistan, Abu Dhabi is their first encounter with the 20th century.

Back home, they live in huts with no running water or electricity. To get to Peshawar, the city where they catch a plane to the Gulf, they must walk for hours on winding paths before reaching a bus. They carry only a few personal belongings and the presents sent by other villagers for relatives in the Emirates.

The small suitcase Othman brought with him held two brand-new changes of traditional long tunics and pants, colorful leather sandals called jutis, and--a vital lifeline in an illiterate environment--cassettes for fellow laborers from loved ones back home. Mohammad spends many Fridays traveling from Abu Dhabi to surrounding towns to pick up replies to these oral letters. Besides greetings, the cassettes contain the long list of necessities and luxuries requested at home. "My daughter wants a red dress," he says, "and my son is asking for a tape recorder. I won't go back until I've made enough money to buy everything they need."

The Pakistanis are dazzled by Abu Dhabi's skyscrapers, mobile phones, and ubiquitous Mercedes-Benzes. For them, elevators and escalators are a novelty, and shopping malls are sources of wonder. But living in a city bent on modernization has its drawbacks: Cranes are ripping down old, affordable housing at an alarming pace and replacing it with gleaming high-rises--a process that forces some laborers to move three er four times a year. Others resign themselves to living in desert labor camps.

ROUGH ROAD. To counteract such transience, the Pakistanis form informal support groups with tribal or village roots. Fellow villagers pay rent and food bills for their unemployed friends until they find work. Anyone who can cook can take up kitchen duty in exchange for bed and board. Those returning from major and minor pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia are greeted with banners of congratulation and a dinner of freshly slaughtered lamb.

Pakistan's Waziri tribe is known for helping its members get visas and then chipping in to pay for driving-school tuition so the newcomer can rent a cab. These less-than-confident drivers must fend for themselves on roads with some of the most lethal accident rates in the world--thanks in no small part to young locals with more money and horsepower than driving skills.

The Pakistanis have also brought with them their tribal council, the jhirka. Instead of dealing with land disputes and bad blood between tribes, however, the councils find themselves handling complaints about roommates who come in late and turn on the lights or who spend too much time in the bathroom.

Despite the cramped living quarters, the 12-hour, 6-day workweeks, and the homesickness, many laborers stay on illegally after their contracts and visas have expired. Illegal workers are rounded up daily for detention and eventual deportation.

The Pakistanis say they really have nowhere to go. Home is no option. One can see the desperation any given workday downtown, on Electra Street, one of several shifting locations where unemployed laborers search for day work. Dozens of Pakistani men squat on the sidewalks and lean on signposts in the blistering sun. A truck approaches, and the crowd thrusts forward before slowly dispersing back into small groups--the driver wasn't a contractor but merely stopped to buy something at a pharmacy.

Rahim Gul's visa expired a year ago, but he still dodges the authorities and comes daily to Electra Street seeking work. The risk of wrathful police is worth taking: Even with the irregular income, he makes enough to support his wife and six children. "I don't like it here. I'd rather be back in Pakistan," he says. "But there's no work for me there, and no money."