Athiraman Kannan took off his shoes and laid them on the carpet. It was cool, pleasant and fragrant as perpetual sun lashed the tinted windows of the Burj Al Khalifa. Next he smashed the air vent and started crawling through the twists and turns. He was 148 floors above the city.
Hot wind howled through the vent and savage heat made mince of air conditioning. Through the metal slats of the vent, Dubai spread out before him. From this height he would have seen an absurd desert, its vast spires of Mammonic endeavour and tucked away somewhere in the distance his own tin-shed shanty.
He broke through the vent and jumped.
His passport, his salary, his food, his eating, his shitting, his schedule, his very life was his employers. He was a cleaner for the tallest building in the world for some of the lowest wages in the developed world. Arabtec, his employer had denied him leave to attend the funeral of his dead brother.
Leave was verboten for menial workers and at best limited to once every two years.
Since Athiraman others have jumped too. Base jumpers and bungee jumpers have jumped from the $1.5 billion pantheon to all that represents the soaring heights of modern day Arab civilisation. In 2011 Alain Roberts scaled the whole building. Mission Impossible made possible the sight of a Tom Cruise scaling the Burj with adhesive gloves. Every New Year the skies above erupt in a fury of fireworks.
The piercing shard in the sky extols the world to scale, jump and exult collectively.
Meanwhile, in the cramped corrugated-roof slums Dubai Police are routinely called to pluck the swaying low-hanging Asians that fruit every now and then. Away from the reddest Ferraris, away from the neonest of nightclubs, away from the well-watered golf courses, away from the expats on the pub crawl tittering in drunken delight; there are Athiramans of Dubai that garotte themselves to death in debt and servitude. These are slaves. My slaves, Dubai's slaves, your slaves.
The Athiramans of Dubai daren't approach a pub, a hotel and the promenades; their Asian awkwardness marks them out. Their poverty brings with it blemishes on the veneer of a cosmopolitan city of gold souks and million-dollar cars. Dubai Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world. Some of you might have flown the route, many others would have heard of the place. It is tubular, futuristic, grand and a sweeping array of shops and all things glittery. Those observant would have noted the hangdog skeletal South Asians with mops and buckets in their cheap seersucker shirts and open-toed sandals. You will find the Athiramans of Dubai lost in statistics; 90% of UAE's population is made up of foreigners.
Cleaved in groups, races, cults and sub-cultures; we can very often be defined by what we hate. Amish hate technology. Americans hate Mexicans. Romanians hate Gypsies. Arabs hate their Asian workers. It is in that sheer intensity of hate, in the compulsive shopping at Harrods, in the maniacal revving of engines in Knightsbridge that we can find that most rabid fear; the fear of being taken as just another shill by the West. This mistreatment of immigrants, many of them pious Muslims hoping for a better life on the Holy Peninsula is surely a way to distance themselves from the hordes of third-worlders in their country. For in the vacant and suffering eyes of a Bangladeshi and Indian, in the rags of a Pakistani and a Nepali surely the Arab magnate sees the horror of a shared kinship and seeks to drown it.
The West has come to accept and apologise for its role in slavery and has sought to compensate for the crimes repast. Meanwhile slavery in the Middle East is an unbroken tradition leading on from the days of the Barbary slave trade.
Surely, in the age of reason shouldn't the Arab world change its status quo of no debates, no reparations and no apologies?
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