x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Labour of love

Suleman Din learns a lesson in humility through the simple act of shovelling sand.

Suleman Din has learnt to respect the men who have left all that they know to provide for sons and daughters they never see, out of survival, duty, ambition and love.
Suleman Din has learnt to respect the men who have left all that they know to provide for sons and daughters they never see, out of survival, duty, ambition and love.

One recent morning, I woke up and decided to fight the desert. With every breath of westerly wind, bands of sand slipped across macadam roads like djinns, and accumulated outside my villa gates in spectacular golden mounds, terraced and scalloped. Unable to drive out, I threw on a T-shirt and shorts, wrapped my head with a red and white kaffiyeh, tied on a pair of work boots, filled up a canteen, and grabbed a shovel. It was around seven in the morning. The sun was high enough to make the task unpleasant, but not impossible.

I shunted the blade into the sand pile. It was tightly packed, the sand dirty mustard and stained gold, nasty sand, unlike the playful bleached soft sand at the beach that slips between your toes. Pulling away from the dune, my shovel was now heavy, maybe 3kg of sand on the blade, single grains blowing away into a blur. I turned, tossed it into an empty plot, then dug into the mound again. A simple task, but it took only 10 minutes of work before I was melting and my arms and back were tingling in protest. Then the wind picked up, and suddenly I was standing inside an hourglass that had been turned on top of me. Alone, I had nothing else to do but continue.

While I dug, cars and pickups passed by on the desert road, and I could sense the stares of drivers, but I didn't stop until I needed a drink of water. At that moment, a lorry rumbled by, and its Pakistani driver turned to look in my direction. He was dark, with a thin beard, in a ratty shalwar kameez, like any of those men who exist opaquely in this country, at the edges of our perception. But he suddenly came into focus with a toothy smile. He waved and honked. With my head covered and with my shovel, toiling in the sun, I figured he saw one of his own, a labourer like himself. He was right.

I am the son of a labourer. My father was a taxi driver for many years in Canada. He worked hard to provide a better life for myself and my brothers. It was a tough job, meagre pay, but honest. Admittedly there was a period while growing up when I became embarrassed by his work. University brought me into a wider circle of friends, many well-off, and girlfriends whose parents were professionals. Why had he not invested, or bought property, or even driven a limousine, I sometimes foolishly said to him during arguments. So many Pakistanis did so well, why couldn't he have done something better?

The bond between us frayed for years. At 16, I surmised there was nothing he could tell me that I didn't know. Before I finished university, I had already surpassed the extent of his education. He didn't know how to use a computer. He had never read Tom Wolfe. At once I questioned his authority, and it became easy to ignore his opinions. I felt no need to talk to him about my life, and kept him out of mine as much as I could.

My anger swelled with the thought that he had condemned us to needless thrift by extending to us the life he lived. Born and raised in the West, I did not view meekness and content as virtues, but rather weaknesses. Labour? I only saw a lack of ambition. Worse, he had borne out the stereotype of the Pakistani taxi driver. I did all I could to blot out my roots. Even when I travelled to Pakistan, I stayed with my mother's family in their comfortable villas, but only once visited his family in the humble tenement where he grew up.

Frustration became motivation, and I became trapped inside the same prism that I used to judge and dismiss my father. I was going to be the man who provided. And I would have the things he did not have: an office, a good car, a nice home. I wanted the degrees hanging on my wall where his was bare. It would be my mother who would come to his defence. Scolding me, she would repeat the story how my father was orphaned at a young age, with the Partition claiming his father and plunging the family into poverty in newly formed Pakistan. Hard labour was the way to survive, as those who lived through those terrible days did. My palms were not calloused, like my father's, she would say, grabbing at my wrists. I never went to sleep hungry, or had to choose between work and school. What did I know about labour, my mother demanded. What did I know about struggle?

It was a shovel that taught me to think differently. The unfortunate aspect of living in a poor Toronto neighbourhood was that slowly but surely, boys I knew growing up died before they were finished growing up. The moments of Muslim funerals in North America became familiar: the claustrophobia of janaaza prayer in makeshift prayer halls, the grasping for a hand hold under a thin pinewood coffin, the bitter fumes of embalming fluid, to the end, after the prayers were said and the body was lowered into the ground, when shovels were passed out.

Though freshly dug, the earth would harden after a few minutes in the winter wind. Always, someone would try to break the soil and fail, and immediately one of the older men would take the shovel away. He always knew what to do - the proper stance, the right amount of force to break into the ground, then back-hoeing, digging and furrowing, loosening the soil so it could be placed back into the grave.

The digging had a vigour, and it was transformative. Despite living in Canada, every plunge with the shovel returned them to their figurative roots. It was the labour they did, the labour they had worked to shield their children from. I looked in their faces, and there was duty. Holding the shovel in my hand, and feeling the earth lurch with every spade, I understood the value of my father's humble labour.

I see it everyday here in Abu Dhabi. We erect cities in the desert by them, the men in the corner of your eye, many dressed in orange jumpsuits like prisoners. Men who are unheralded, abused, ignored. But men who have left all they have known, to provide for sons and daughters they never see, out of survival, duty, ambition and love. That morning, I was one of them again. Fighting the desert, digging, digging, sweating, the shovel in my hands. The shovel a part of me, the son of a labourer.