Landing the Kenyan immigrant in Dubai

They flew my sleeping body into Dubai and I only woke up to the sound of a man in a thin intercom voice announcing that we were approaching Dubai International Airport. I looked through the little pod-like windows and where I was used to seeing huge spaces of greenery and scattered houses in Nairobi, I saw the shine and shimmer of glass.

Sky scrapers surged into the sky with beautiful streetlights and building lights studding the scene. It was like they had transported me while I was sleeping through the clouds into a literal heaven, everything good under the sky had been beautifully assembled in that country. And as I descended from this close proximity to my creator I said a silent prayer as the plane touched the tarmac.

The first culture shock that hits Kenyans used to organized chaos is the contrast of order here. It made me suppress my initial instinct to rush in standing up immediately after the seatbelt sign went off to make a run for the door. I marveled at the orderliness of things and the smoothness of the process as we waited for the aircraft to let us out.

We were like the different animals from Noah’s ark from all imaginable nationalities, I was amazed at the Indian women with saris showing their bellies making an entry into a country where I imagined all women wore hijabs and burkas. But there was a mix of everyone, some like me were probably out here to look for jobs; some going for househelp jobs and were being waited at the arrival by their bosses. 

There wasn’t a thing out of place. The immigration officers, in white kanduras, took their mug shot, fingerprints and scanned visas and passports, swiftly stamping passports without wasting time. We rode down the elevator to where bags turned on long carousel and I grabbed my luggage and stepped out of the airport; the gateway to my imagined future. 

Immediately reality struck me, it came by a blast of hot humid air that slapped my face with the force of an airbag that I wondered if I would survive it for a day. I called Baraka, my contact person that was to pick me up and found a place to sit and wait. Baraka was a dark-skinned guy with broad shoulders who was so excited to see me as though we’d known each other for long. 

“Habari ya mtaani?” Baraka greeted, and I was quick to understand mtaani was how Kenyans in Dubai referred to home in cosy sheng. Not far from where we were standing, beige taxis waited for passengers, but instead we took one of the red RTA buses. Unlike back home, there was no one to collect the bus fare. Baraka had two cards which he tapped on some machine attached near the entrance of the bus. “This is your bus card. You can use it in the metro too.”

We alighted from the bus at Al Rashidiya Metro Station, I was taking in the names to heart like they were verses of the Quran, we then took an elevator to the platform where Baraka tapped his card and I followed suit grinning as the machine recognized me, giving me a feel that I now really belonged here. 

It did not take long for the train to arrive and we hopped in. This was not the empty seat-less cabins of Nairobi commuter train where you suffocate in the crowds or hang out of gaping windows. Nor is it the lean seats of the SGR, this train had a classy foreignness to it, and it was automated.

There were classes of cards which determined where one sat and a section of the train that was exclusively for women. I can’t lie, I was intimidated by everything by this time, and Baraka noticed my extreme politeness as I gave way to everyone, almost afraid of invading someone’s space. 

“Usiwaogope hawa, na mtu asikutishe. Songa huku,” Baraka said in Swahili. Just like that I realized I had this invisible cloak of safety in language that could hide me in plain site of the locals: Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis and Philipinos. 

And my confidence was bolstered by the sight of a rusty man who looked rather boyish who I assumed was probably a worker at a construction site. The youth of Bangladeshi origin, with a bald chin hoked over a pointy Adams apple wore a rugged reflector jacket covered in a layer of dust that clung onto him everywhere and left an imprint on the blue seats sitting defiantly next to standing men in classy business who looked like managers of big companies or wealthy businessmen that had chosen not to use their luxury cars on that day.

I was blown away by the absence of hierarchy in the metro and how nobody was better than the other but wondered secretly why such rich people would take the train rather than waltz around in SUVs like in Kenya. I had seen videos of Dubai Police driving Ferrari, Audi and other luxury cars but here were their tuxedos riding a train. 

From the internet, I knew Dubai for its ostentatious wealth that was always on full display and it did not disappoint. Through the metro’s window, I marveled at the architectural wonders that set that country in its own world, the mammoth Sheikh Zayed road glistering with luxury cars maneuvering the six lanes on either sides. The streets had rows of concrete and glass building, and identical villas that seemed so quiet as though a life never existed therein.

People got in and out of building with either revolving doors or automatic doors with no lock or metal grills or policemen with metal detector batons like in Kenya. Most residential buildings I saw in a far distance were painted cream with satellite dishes and air-conditioner tanks patched on their rooftops. They stood imposing like nothing was happening within them even though they carried millions of lives and I could picture myself inside them. 

At Financial Centre Metro Station, we alighted and boarded RTA bus number F11 to Al Satwa. Just like the bus we’d taken from the airport, there were no seatbelts. The bus was driven so very safely and no eating, chewing or drinking was allowed on board. It was clean and smelt of a sweet lemon-like fragrance. At Al Satwa where gold was sold openly behind vulnerable glass counters I exchanged my Kenyan Shillings to UAE Dirhams, bought a sim card and Baraka showed me how to recharge my nol bus card. 

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“This is Satwa Park, where you’ll meet other Kenyans looking for jobs,” he said, pointing out a few whose familiar physiques were huddled together over a phone held out by one of them. It was probably news from home or a job advertisement baraka said, and this gave me some hope to know I wouldn’t be alone, I had found a Nairobi Ndogo. 

We bought tea and samosas at one Dirham each, from an Indian guy called Moha who spoke in a funny Swahili he’d picked up at Satwa Park talking to so many Kenyans.

“Here, tarmackers meet very early in the morning to start the day, and in the evening to plan for the next day,” Baraka explained. “Kenyans also meet here, just to catch up and talk about anything, play some cards or plan to go to the beach for a refreshing evening dip.

Now, let’s go. I’m supposed to report for my shift at noon,” he said, pulling one of my bag and hailing a taxi that had a strange orange light signaling its availability. I had arrived at Dubai on a Sunday and unlike in Kenya, Sunday in the Middle East was first working day of a week. The bald Pakistani taxi driver who didn’t speak English well resorted to sign language to beckon to us to make it fast. We hauled the bags into the boot, climbed into the back and he said before the driver could ask, “Al Wasl Park, habibi,” and it was where I would be given a bedspace.

I learned rather disappointingly what bedspace meant. Unlike the classy houses I had been picturing on social media and the trip from the airport, accommodation, which they called bedspace, was a room with an attached kitchen and bathroom, but stuffed with beds like the ones I had last seen in high school dormitories.  

It was a very small cell for a room, with all the available space taken up by beds and bags stuffed under them, a florescent bulb, and two chairs. There was a guy in black pair of shorts and white vest with a blood-stained spot busy on a Hewlett-Packard (hp) laptop. There was a plastic cup with what looked black tea in it, which he sipped as he typed. The room was also a little stuffy, as though all the ventilations had been sealed, and I wondered if that was just a psychological test Baraka was taking me through to see my reaction.

“Hi, I’m Sadiki,” the man briefly introduced himself in a whisper before returning to his HP laptop. I would later also learn to use whispers, after noticing there was always a modicum of silence in the room because someone was always sleeping after a long shift at work. It was always so silent I could hear my thoughts.

“When I introduced myself, a few heads popped from behind the curtains hiding the beds, and they waved a high with curious eyes to see who the new person was. Then they crawled back to mind their own businesses. Whoever was on the laptop resumed his work, those sleeping behind the curtains snored on and those on their phones continued with their businesses like they had seen such new arrivals so many times they had lost interest in the spectacle.

“Hi, mambo?” a lady got out from behind the curtains and said hi. “My name is Leah.”

She was the only person who, at least at that time, seemed cheerful. She had this huge smile that distracted me from her arms which she held over her chest, with a white towel covering her body just above her breasts and barely below her ass. I was surprised that ladies and gentlemen shared the same rooms and basic sanitation, walking around half-naked in suppressed emotions and lust amidst the frustrations of job-hunting or tiring work shifts. 

But the awkwardness was there even if they let it pass as normal, the lady’s hushed hello and her rigid stature as she walked straight and her hands firmly on her side, she didn’t move as much when she walked, as though she was struggling to be at attention while walking. 

The bed space cost eight hundred and fifty dirhams, which was an equivalent of twenty-four thousand shilling back in Kenya. At the time, I was still making calculations in Kenyan shillings before converting them to Dirhams. But Kes24,000? I felt that was such a high charge just to pay for a small bed with the hardest mattress I had even encountered in my life, and in a room shared with other eleven heavily breathing migrant souls. 

I threw my backpack on the bed and pushed my suitcases under the bed where there were already so many other bags and suitcases. Baraka didn’t stay for long, but promised to come back after he was done with his shift, but Sadiki assured him that he would take good care of me and show me around. 

The cream walls were stained with dark streaks of what seemed like blood, and small dark spots here and there. I was to learn about these splurges of blood stains on the wall when a bedbug crawled up the wall that gave me a horrific shudder. I wanted to flatten it against the wall to create my own patch of blood.

But on checking my Kes24,000 small-sized steel-framed bed with a hard mattress as thick as a paperback book, that I was clambering on to get to the animal I saw a whole zoo of them. I have never been so traumatized to see so many bedbugs that were confident enough to scrawl around during the day. 

I sat there frozen and anxious, ignored by my busy host, too afraid to venture outsized and stigmatized by the interest of the bedbugs on my new blood. I could hear a few whispers behind the curtains; one person talking on phone with his girlfriend, and someone on top of his double-decker bed breathing heavily and turning in his sleep. I could tell it was a dark guy like me when I saw his arms dangling from the side of the bed.

“Hi,” a face on the next bed split through the curtain and waved at me. It seemed he’d all along been weirdly listening to everything that had been taking place. “Hi, my name is Hussein,” he said, flicking off a bedbug that had crawled to his lap. Instead, the bug stuck on his finger and it took some efforts for him to finally flick it to the floor and crush it with the sole of his shoes.

As Sadiki brewed communal tea, Hussein made my acquaintance and asked me if I had already secured a job. When he asked me if I had a resume prepared, I fished out the CVs I had carried from home neatly packaged in a folio. Sadiki smiled and said politely, “Those are useless here, my brother. Just discard them and come sit here. I’ll help you make CVs that can help you find work. Hussein quickly filled me in that I was better off with CV templates for security and steward or for sales and waiters. “I think it’s good you start with a CV for security. I’m planning to applying for security guard at Transguard myself,” Hussein said.

“No. I am a medic by profession, and that’s what I want to apply for,” I said, pulling out copies of his university certificate and transcripts. 

“Bro…,” Sadiki paused to think, then added, “Unfortunately, you’ll have to pack your degree for now until the day you go back to Kenya. It won’t help much here, unless you’ve got the time and money to undergo further training here in the medical field.”

“Yes, bro. Here beggars are not choosers. Get whatever you can possibly do to pay your bills and cater for your family. It doesn’t have to be your area of interest or what you studied for,” Hussein stepped in.

“Waaa!” I exclaimed. “I don’t even know how to hold a rungu!”

“You’ll learn,” Sadiki gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Now, let’s do it…”

“But he’ll have to go to Satwa to take a passport photo first,” Hussein interjected.

“Ooooh, yeah. So, you first have to take a passport photo that we’ll attach in your CV. A soft copy.”

Luckily, I had a soft copy in my pen drive and Sadiki used it in my CVs. He made me customised CVs for Security Guard, Customer Service Representative, Waiter, Steward and Sales Representative. Though I had no experience in any of those fields, I nursed sheer hope that my blind will to make it work will see me through. 

Once we were done, we headed to Satwa. At the Big Signal, on their way, I was shown where to buy groceries, and then was warned not to cross the road when the lights are not green for pedestrians. 

“Make sure you cross the roads at the Zebra Crossings. Here laws are followed to the latter and cameras are everywhere. You remember your photo was taken at the airport when you were coming in? So, police may not be here, but you can be identified through those cameras. Be careful; I’m sure you don’t want to pay fines that you’d have otherwise avoided,” Sadiki warned.

I learned quickly that in Dubai, people respect the rule of law and everything happens on time and in orderly and smooth way. You see; even the Sheikh himself will wait for the green traffic light before he crosses the road. Motorists wait too even if there’re no people crossing or there’s no other cars on the road, whether night or day. And you’ll not see them honking anyhow. You see; a bus, or metro will arrive at the exact second it’s supposed to, and it will leave the station at the exact second it’s supposed to. And here you can’t bribe anyone like back at home.

It was time for Muslim’s Isha’a prayer when we were almost approaching Satwa. An adhan, a call for prayer, was being made at the Kadri Mosque, from where faithful were already making wudhu ready for the salaatul isha’a. I could see some of them washing their hands, rinsing their mouths, noses, faces and so on. Just after the adhan, I saw Pakistanis in huge numbers getting out of their rooms, as though spilling out of a torn sack, rushing for prayers. It later moved me how people were religious there; praying five times a day without missing.  

A distant away I could make out Burj Khalifa, H&B and J.W. Marriots skyscrapers gleaming and twinkling high in the sky. I tried to stifle the obvious wide-eyed wonder that showed on my face as automated gates of the villas we passed by slid open at approaching cars.

But sight of two Phillipino guys holding hands in a way that clearly showed they were gay was too much even for me. Not one, but a couple of gay people roamed liberally on the streets of Al Satwa. I was even more shocked to see butcheries and supermarkets selling pork, having imagined UAE as a strict Islamic country. 

To my surprise I would come to learn that, while Islam was the official religion of Dubai, the emirate was well known for its tolerance and respect for all religions. Besides mosques, there were other places of worships like churches and temples.

Religion played a significant role in the culture of Dubai, and mosques were found almost everywhere and calls for prayers could be heard from all corners whenever it was time. I would come to know that during Ramadan, fridges packed with food and drinks would be found outside villas for passers-by to grab whatever they needed for free.

Even in mosques, food and drinks would be in plenty supply for free, with an addition of money sometimes as the faithful sought to reap more spiritual rewards during the holy month. 

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At ABC Copy Point, fifteen copies of each position came whispering out of the computer. I was advised to start with fifteen copies, but would print more on demand in the coming days. I paid in Dirhams as I struggled to calculate how much it had cost me in Kenyan shillings so that they did not swindle me. Today, I have since dropped this habit since, thankfully, unlike back in Kenya where people would take any slightest chance to rip another of his hard-earned money, Dubai people were so honest they couldn’t steal a cent from you.

This story is an excerpt of a book by an author who has requested to remain anonymous until the book is published. We are grateful that he shared the story with us and wish him the best of luck in bringing us his experiences in Dubai. 

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