Monday, 18 May 2009

I often wonder what happened to Muhammad Ali.

Lets go - to Bahrain, 1992. Me, newly qualified dolly of trolley. Resplendent in my peach 'hatlet'. I'd hoped to have a photo but can't find.

One afternoon my doorbell rang. On opening - a slight figure, smiley face, eyes twinkly and kind.

"Madam, my good name, Muhammad Ali. No, not heavy weight champion of world. Houseboy. Are you in need of houseboy madam... cleaning... ironing?"

Indeed, I was. So it came about that Muhammad Ali would attend Flat 13, Bu Hamood Building, Exhibition Rd for 2 hours twice weekly to do whatever it took to bring semblance of order and hygiene to my life.

Logistically, this wasn't difficult. I was in the country for 8 days out of 28 and the kitchen was only ever used for the making of cups of tea and the chilling of duty free's cheapest. Muhammad, enterprisingly, found other tasks to fill his time. Arranging my bras by unknown criteria - age perhaps. Leaving Dhal in the fridge, hurrah! Gradually, just as he brought physical order, he began to assume responsibility for my emotional life. Thus, it was Muhammad Ali who sat at the end of my bed on return from 10 day Singapore/Melbourne and broke the news that (then object of misguided affections)..

"Captain Ibrahim, Miss Clare, he is a bad man. I have seen him visiting the apartment of Miss M......"

Aaarghh. M. French. Famous for eyes of Bambi (8 coats mascara, apparently). Infamous for wearing stockings and suspenders while the rest of us battled our way through life in BHS American Tan tights. As tears welled, for the removal of doubt, he took my hand and imparted in a low voice...

"Miss Clare, I am very sure he make f#cky-f#ck with that lady". Er, thanks Muhammad, I kinda got it the first time.

As he immersed himself in mine, I, too, politely enquired of his life. He was Keralan, married, a father of two. One of his children he had never seen - she had been conceived on his last annual trip back to India. Even my 24 year old bimbo-head full of nonsense realised he was not a simply a young man working his way around the world to 'widen his horizons' or on a 'gap year'.

Muhammad was far from home because he wanted his children, both born and unborn, to have better food and shoes and books and a house. He explained that, being from a farming background, there wasn't enough work for all of his brothers and their familes. Therefore he had chosen to come to the Persian Gulf to work, in order to send money back for everyone. His sponsored main job was nightwatchman and, rather than sleeping during the day, he worked as a houseboy for whoever would employ him.

One day, I came home to chaos. Muhammad hadn't been. The flat was as I'd left it. Tea bags, pizza boxes, towels on floor, remnants of bottle of perfume smashed against wall by me in a recent hissy fit of 'woman scorned'. I never saw Muhammad Ali again. I could vaguely recall him telling me about a 'walkman' he'd been given that he feared would lead to accusations of theft. Sadly, I assumed he'd fled or been deported. I wondered for a long time but had no way of finding out - any queries to 'the authorities' would have been futile and perhaps led to more trouble for him.

Regrettably, I never told Muhammad Ali of Kerala what a good man I thought he was.

I still visit Dubai at least once a year to spend time with my best friend and my two beautiful god children who, as a family, always conduct themselves with respect to everyone around them. However, now, as then, there are still hundreds of thousands of workers (labourers, domestic servants, hotel staff) from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Phillippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka who work and live in conditions ranging from acceptable to appalling.

Now that I am a parent, I am amazed by the women who leave behind their husbands, children and safety to take jobs as 'housemaids'. Imagine the utter agony of feeding, bathing, tucking in someone else's children into bed with a story whilst desperately wanting to smell your own little one's hair, to bury your face into their necks. No kissing away tears, no tickles; just a constant dull pain of longing. Is there any greater sacrifice? Probably, but I can't thing of many others so unsung. Selfless acts of heroism in a ridiculously unfair world.


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  2. Makes you realise just how darned lucky we are. And also to think about whose back-breaking labour has built such places.

    Those Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Philippinos, etc. who leave their homes & families to go and work in the Middle East - often at the mercy of the Immigration authorities and whims of employers, good and bad - make a sacrifice most of us would never contemplate. And if you treat them half-decently, they often come to think of you as family, perhaps filling the emotional need to care for someone in the absence of their own kith & kin. At least until they are whisked away by powere unknown and unseen.

    Maybe something to consider next time we complain about the fact that we only have TWO TVs in the house?

  3. Both my own cleaning lady and the neighbour's nanny are Philippine women who've left children at home to come and work here. They go home two weeks every year... I think about their working conditions often, it's very depressing but certainly also healthy for us spoilt Westerners to contemplate!
    Your story about Muhammed is so, so touching!

  4. really loved reading this, someone finally writes something respectful about household staff. i am so sick of peoples' facebook status updates "looking for a malaysian"; "need maid, have cook- quid pro quo";"have bingo cook, anyone need?" (derrogatory term for bangladeshi, you know she was deleted from my list of 'friends') such commoditisation of people. dont want to be a hypocrite and say that i dont adore having household help, but i do wish that these blue collar workers were treated with more respect. i often wonder about our household staff in nairobi- those were the days when there was no such thing as texting. i wonder, the same way you wonder about mohammed ali. thanks for sharing.
    ps nene, dont think those of us living in west are spoilt- friends/fam in indian sub-continent cant lift a finger or get a glass of water without household help. fret when the maid and cook dont come one day, their world falls apart. i say, welcome to my world.

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  6. I loved this post, and am a little sad that this one got only 5 comments when the camping one got twice that (not that I don't love that post, too). I find it more than heartbreaking that it is so easy for human beings to treat each other with such appalling contempt and lack of humanity, especially while allowing them to CARE FOR THEIR OWN INFANTS. My parents grew up in apartheid South Africa and were raised by black nannies (as were all the white children they knew) and then the majority of these white children grew up to support a government that would continue to repress, discriminate and crush these same people. And now, even after apartheid, the same tradition continues, only it's economic apartheid that separates the haves from the have-nots. A thing such as a conscience appears not to have been passed down with the revolution. Sigh.
    Again, love this post. Want more like it.

  7. Having spent time in Singapore and Dubai visiting, I have often thought the same thing. A very well written post, I was becoming immersed in the story of MA and it stopped too soon :(

  8. I'm so glad that you write about this, as it's something I think about a lot. New York is full of Hispanic & Chinese men (amongst others) who have left behind their families in order to seek a better life in America. I find it heartbreaking. And have become a severe over-tipper. And smiler. Because it's extraordinary to watch a returning grin split the face of someone who, quite obviously, is used to being ignored by everyone. LLGxx