In a camp at the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, Suleman Din ﬁnds that the rituals of cooking and baking bring meaning to the lives of immigrant labourers.
“Tonight, everyone will have meat and rice,” Muntazir Khan says, washing his hands, then pressing them against his beige kurta. “We will eat well.”
Thursday night was a busy night for Khan. His friends were looking forward to dinner, so when he got home from work he went straight into the kitchen.
Inside are all the essentials for a typical Pakistani meal: one shelf has a box of garam masala and a bag of basmati rice, jars of black pepper and lentils, Maggi chicken cubes, and a bag of onions. Another shelf is lined with plastic bowls, spoons, and a pot.
But Khan’s tidy kitchen sits in the middle of a small Mussafah junkyard that doubles as a labour camp for him and another 100 men. For Khan’s friends, his Thursday night dinner is one of their few pleasures – a good meal before their only day off.
Khan lit a match to start a gas burner. The curt smell of spices and onions frying in oil and the puffy aroma of cooking rice perfume the air, cutting through the camp’s residue of toil. Living in austere environments more fit for machines than men, the smells of cooking are slivers of welcome, and home. It is with food that labourers claim their humanity.
Even with the subsistence their meagre salaries afford, the labourers manage to savour some respite from their difficult lives, cooking dishes whose recipes they learned from wives and mothers left behind, or sifting through the scraps that surround them to build a shanty kitchen.
The average diet of a labourer, though, is neither rich nor plentiful. Meals are usually just rice, vegetable curries, flatbread and water. Workdays exceeding 12 hours don’t leave much time for eating. And with most earning salaries less than Dh600 ($163) a month, it is about pooling money, rationing portions, wasting nothing, and making do with what can be bought. “Even if we only have one piece of bread, we will be able to feed two,” said Abdul Qayoom, a labourer from the Pakistani province of Waziristan.
But survival has fathered some innovation. In many camps men have turned discarded oil drums into skillets, which are used to cook flatbread.
Scrap is plentiful in Mussafah, where steel oil drums are stacked in piles and scattered across vacant lots like metal shrubs. The drum is turned on its side and filled with some of the scrap wood that also proliferates in the camps. Four or five planks are used to get the flame going, and then particle boards are fed into the drum every hour to keep it burning. The drum’s exposed side is brushed, to remove dirt. Then dough is stretched across it, forming an oval, that is turned over repeatedly.
On a recent evening, Abdul Hameed stooped down to poke at the orange flame in a cracked, rusted drum in the middle of a scrapyard. Hameed, a general labourer from Pakistan, watched as a colleague prepared the dough on an wrought-iron patio table pulled from the heap.
The preparation was simple: flour, water and salt. Once kneaded, the dough was stretched out, covering the side of the barrel. After an hour, the thin flatbread was gathered into a basket big enough for several men. Not as thick or fluffy as naan, but the bread folded over itself like cloth.
Hameed and his colleagues gathered around for a taste test. “Some is cooked, some is not,” he said, offering a bite of the salty, crispy bread. Others motioned to the young cook to lay the bread on the barrel for more time. “The cook is new,” Hameed said, with a shrug.
Hameed has been in the camp for a few months, another Pathan recruit from Pakistan’s Waziristan region. Just 22, he carried a smile easily and was still pudgy, unlike his older colleagues, who had been thinned and hardened by tough work and long hours.
The pleasant smell of cooking flatbread directly contrasted with the surroundings. Night had shrouded the sharp edges of rusting waste strewn everywhere, but the aroma stirred an unseen rustling in the trash heaps.
“Rats,” Hameed explained. “Also, wild dogs. The dogs lick the barrel. Of course, we worry about getting sick. But we can’t afford bakery roti.”
Oil drum-baked flatbread is a necessity for labourers working in remote locations or those too poor to buy bread.
The men who live in these camps do a number of different jobs, and some are better off than others. Working as a general labourer, Hameed makes about Dh500 a month; a colleague who is a driver earns roughly Dh1,000 a month, while electricians can demand over Dh2,000.
Those lucky enough to afford flatbread at 75 fils per piece line up every night outside Shaheen Bakery in Mussafah.
Always perched on a raised platform, sitting at the mouth of a tandoor oven, is the bakery’s Afghan owner, Mohammed Kassim Salihi, a short man who looks more like a bantamweight wrestler than a baker – a thick, well-trimmed black beard, bulky forearms, and a gruff face.
Four fans couldn’t cool the white tile-lined room even at night. Salihi and an assistant formed a production line. The assistant tore off dough rolls, flattening them with two taps, dusting them with flour, and tossing them to Salihi, who moistened them with a pat on a wet cushion, before slapping them onto the walls of the tandoor. In a minute, his arms dove into the mouth of the oven, and with two iron skewers he fished out naans, flinging them onto a carpeted counter where his customers gather. Surplus flatbreads remain warm under another carpet.
The bakery makes 3,000 flatbreads every night, Salihi said. Yet he repeats his baking with a natural rhythm, moves practiced since he was 10 years old. His father was a baker too, he said, and he learned while living in Pakistan. He came to Mussafah to take over the family business.
“It is a good business, good money,” Salihi said. “Better than labouring.”
Labourers form a queue by the bakery’s front window, which opens to the counter where he drops the fresh flatbread. Next to the window is a map-sized chart, with notations in Urdu of labourers’ names and notches to indicate how much bread they have taken.
The chart is there because many of the men lining up have no money. Instead, they pay one bill at the end of the month, after having pooled funds with fellow colleagues for bread. “It is done by trust,” Salihi says, perched by the window where he can see every customer. But Shaheen bakery is among the few places in the area selling flatbread, so few risk stealing from him.
Salihi’s shop is the most popular among the dozens of camps in the northwestern district of Mussafah, on a small central strip that has a mosque and a handful of shops, including a barber, a grocer and a mobile phone store. The strip is the only one in the district selling goods, otherwise it is another two kilometres to another bakery.
Still, Salihi has lost customers because of the rise in global food prices. The price of his flatbread went up 25 fils in recent months.
Those who can only buy one or two flatbreads come into the shop, and drop their coins in a bowl.
“Some have been affected, but salarymen can afford it,” he said.
In a back room of the bakery, Abdul Sattar Afghani does the critical work of preparing the dough. He’s been making the dough balls for flatbread for so long that he knows exactly how 220 grams – the precise weight of each piece – should feel.
His arms dusty-white, Afghani explains the bakery’s nightly flatbread recipe: gallons of water, baking powder, eight flour packs each weighing 50kg, six kilos of salt, and three kilos of sugar. “Just a little dash of sugar,” he said.
Back at his camp, Muntazir Khan is in the kitchen when his own flatbread arrives, delivered by a man driving an unlicensed scooter. Khan said he ordered it for his special meal of fried minced beef and peas and spicy rice with chicken, along with a bottle of Mountain Dew soda.
“This is what we eat to remind ourselves of home,” Khan said.
The dusty camp and junkyard are far from the mountainous and airy region where Khan and his fellow Pathans grew up. Now they live in ramshackle structures housing up to seven men, and share two waterlogged latrines. The camp’s only greenery is a few thick bushes and a small tree shadowing the side of a mosque.
The camp is surrounded by junk – including old jet skis, collecting dust, brought by Emiratis to a repair shop that employs some of the labourers, and never retrieved. A large boat sits atop one of the camp’s few concrete buildings. Rusting metal crisscrosses a damp area behind the latrine.
When Khan arrived at the camp, the kitchen did not exist. The company hadn’t built a kitchen for them, Khan said, so they decided to build it themselves.
They started working, bit by bit, every Friday, using pieces from the surrounding scrap heaps.
The finished building looks frail. Two old wooden doors, reinforced with boards, form a wall. Sheetmetal covers the roof, and a patchwork of wood panels fills out the kitchen’s frame, big enough for four people. A burner sits atop one brick, which has been cut into four pieces.
A spatula and spoon hang from rusted nails. An office desk serves as a cutting board and holds spices, vegetable oil, chicken cubes and a few cracked dishes. A salvaged metal sink from a boat is connected to the camp’s water supply – but sometimes it works, Khan said, sometimes it doesn’t.
“This is garbage, all of it is garbage,” he said, beaming.
The only thing missing is a fridge, but there is no place to plug one in.
Khan poured rice out of a satchel into an old tin cup. Next to him were four plastic bowls, each filled with separate ingredients of tomatoes and mint, ginger and onions, green peas and raw beef. Another labourer assisted with preparing the chicken. Because the cleaver was too dull, he slammed the meat with the blade repeatedly until it split.
The knife is not used often, as meat is a rare treat. Rice is also becoming harder to come by, the labourers explained; prices for a kilo have gone from Dh6 to Dh20 in the last few months. Sweets are also too expensive, now just a memory, Khan said.
Khan, who looks older than his 26 years, endured some good-natured ribbing from his fellow camp-mates about cooking, which he took up voluntarily. But he says he hopes his cooking will make him a better husband. “I am poor,” he said. “But one day. I think she will be very happy that I cook.”
The muezzin’s call announced the sunset, and after evening prayers the men gathered in a room to have their meal on newspapers spread out across the floor. Four men shared one plate of rice and beef, with two to a glass of water.
With no work the next day, they could eat their fill and be relaxed. The rice was perfectly cooked, fluffy but not sticky, and flavoured with tomatoes and spices; the chicken was white and tore easily. The ground beef was salty and juicy.
The tough men talked about Pakistani politics. They laughed and reminisced about their loved ones, and the lives they left behind. No one wanted to talk about work and the struggles it entailed. The low hum of rumbling trucks and steaming factories outside would wait.