City Centre, the most popular Mall in Dubai, was teeming with people of all shades and hues. The egalitarian black and white garb of Arab women and men mingled with colourful shalwar kameezes and saris of the subcontinent with teasing tube tops and microscopic miniskirts thrown in for good measure.
Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Europeans and Americans all relaxed under one roof, all minding their own business with no one standing out due to the colour of their skin or their the state of their dress or undress.
We were on a one-day stopover in Dubai en route to Karachi from Warsaw. After having spent almost four years in Poland trying to be as inconspicuous as possible in an almost all white society, this was like a breath of fresh air. In Poland, the first time I entered a posh Mall wearing a shalwar kameez, the salesgirls snickered openly and made me extremely uncomfortable. Once, in a Sheraton parking lot, a woman literally jumped behind her husband, using him as a human shield from the “alien” in a white Bareeze shalwar kameez.
So it was a thoroughly liberating feeling to be in a place where everybody belonged. I decided there and then that Dubai was the city where I wanted to spend as much of my life as possible. We moved there four months later.
When I told my 10-year-old son that he could eat hot dogs here, because the meat was halal, he was so impressed that he told me earnestly, “Ami, I tell you, this place is Muslim America!” And that puts it in a nutshell. Dubai is probably the only place in the world where East and West actually do meet.
It is the place where Prada meets purdah and soaring skyscrapers provide a backdrop to beautiful minarets. It is a place where Oreo cookies lie cheek by jowl with jalebi mixes and baklawas in well-stocked supermarkets…a place where the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies play in neighbouring theatres.
Westerners are free to go to their churches, their beaches and their local hangouts. They are free to wear anything, drink alcohol and even have a separate pork products section in all the major supermarkets. No wonder, when I announced to all and sundry in Warsaw that I was moving to Dubai, my English friend said longingly, “Oh, can I come too?”
After moving to Dubai and settling down in my new environment, I decided that it was time I dusted off my Masters degree in International Teaching (from the US, no less) and put it to good use. Brimming with confidence, I eyed the plethora of good international schools in Dubai and sent out my resumes with gay abandon. I sat back and waited for the phone to ring off the hook, deluging me with interview requests. Deathly silence…
A few polite rejection letters trickled into my PO box with “your-resume-is-in-our-file-and-we-will-call-you-i f-we-need-you…” platitudes. Thoroughly puzzled by this non-response, I asked the Indian accountant who was busy collecting fees at the British school where my children studied, “Your school has advertised for several elementary school teachers’ posts for the next academic year. I sent in my resume but have not received any interview calls. Have the interviews been postponed?”
Why was I asking an accountant all these questions? Well, in my defence, he was the only desi, defrosted face there so I felt brave enough to ask. As it turned out, he knew more than I expected.
He looked up at me, delivered himself of an embarrassed cough, and then with an even more embarrassed smile said, “Madam, why did you even apply here?” “That’s an odd question. I am highly qualified, have been a teacher in Pakistan and I have worked in both British and American schools in Warsaw. Why shouldn’t I have applied?” I said bit huffily.
“Madam, yeh aap ko kabhi bhi nahin lain gay …they will never hire you. Just be glad that they took your children because this is a relatively new school. Other British schools look at your passport before enrolling a student.”
Looking gravely at my incredulous expression, he continued conspiratorially, “Some of the teachers working here are women with just A-level qualifications but they have, ahem, the right nationality.” Then in a pityig tone he continued, “Why don’t I give you a list of good Indian schools and you can apply to? The salary is much less but…”
“No, I think that this is grossly unfair. They can’t get away with this kind of racism,” I declared loftily and swept off to see the school secretary, frost or no frost. “Excuse me, I sent in my resume in response to your advertisement in the newspapers and I have not received an interview call yet.”
The secretary would not look me in the eye. “Errm, didn’t you receive our letter? No… Well, ah, Mrs Hasan, you are…over-qualified, yes, over-qualified for the job!”
The next school I went to, I couldn’t get past the secretary. “Ma’am, we don’t take…” she looked down at her hands. By now I was well and truly worked up.
“I have NEVER encountered so much racism in my life!” I bellowed right in front of the principal’s office where I could espy a carefully coiffed blonde drinking tea from a porcelain cup. Feeling better, I stalked off in to the blazing sun.
I related this incident to a Pakistani acquaintance who is an ex-Karachi Grammar School teacher and is a published poet to boot. She told me that a gora principal at one of these myriad international schools had once told her to her face, “I’m sorry, Madam, but you are the wrong colour!” “And what did you say?” I asked. “I thanked him for being honest!” she replied.
As I recounted my tale of woe to everybody, and discovered a Pandora’s box of similar woes. An Indian friend who works in a school with a predominantly desi student population told me that while Indian and Pakistani teachers get a monthly salary of Dhs 2,000, the couple of British teachers that have been recruited get as much as Dhs 6,000. The principal says that they are good for the image of the school as desi parents are suitably impressed and admissions have multiplied.
Typical job advertisements in the major newspapers proclaim, “A reputed international school requires teachers of US, UK, NZ, Canadian, South African, Australian origin.”
“Why don’t they just save ink and write, ‘Dogs, Indians and Pakistanis need not apply!” I ranted at one of the coffee sessions which seem to be the locus of my existence these days.
I looked around the room. I saw articulate, well-educated, seemingly confident, relatively young Pakistani women who go back to sleep after sending their children off to school, and resurface at eleven and while away the rest of their day at shopping malls or at each other’s houses. “Why do we accept this? Why are we so resigned? Why do we take this lying down?” I ranted at the indifferent gathering.
“Look,” my hostess looked me straight in the eye, “our husbands face the same kind of prejudice at their workplaces. Just be thankful that they have jobs and we have the option to stay at home. We can’t afford to rock the boat so please let go and have some more coffee!”
Published in Pakistan weekly thefridaytimes.