x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Gift economy

Saloon From assembling donations to delivering them to labourers, a charity event's long day's journey into night.

Volunteers in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai load lorries with care packages for labourers (front) before bringing the packages, along with mattresses and bed linens, to be distributed in a labour camp in Jebel Ali (above).
Volunteers in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai load lorries with care packages for labourers (front) before bringing the packages, along with mattresses and bed linens, to be distributed in a labour camp in Jebel Ali (above).

From assembling donations to delivering them to labourers, a charity event's long day's journey into night. Last weekend in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai, a little more than 200 people converged on a converted warehouse to assemble relief packages. As volunteer efforts go, it wasn't that different from recent campaigns to send supplies to victims of war in Gaza, the 2005 tsunami or the hurricane in Louisiana. The event was unusual, however, for the ways it reflected the peculiar socio-economic order of the UAE. For starters: the beneficiaries of the relief packages were not the victims of some natural or military disaster; they were Dubai's own construction workers.

The plan was simple: volunteers would assemble care packages in the morning, then load them - along with several hundred donated mattresses - onto a few lorries, and then a smaller team would distribute everything at a labour camp at the end of the day. By mid-morning on Friday, vehicles crammed the dirt car park at the Shelter - a "community workspace" in Al Quoz that provided the setting for the day's work. The assortment of cars indicated a fairly affluent crowd of volunteers; but more than that, it simply suggested a crowd - a large one. "In the morning, there was a point when I said they shouldn't let anyone else inside," said one volunteer, a Colombian logistician for DHL named Julian. "You couldn't walk."

The turnout was remarkable. Dubai is an endless factory of events - conferences, photo-ops, release parties, balls and receptions - that are packaged and produced by an army of professional planners, public relations experts, freelance emcees and the like. By contrast, Friday's gathering at the Shelter lacked a clever title ("Volunteer Day - Care Packages for Labourers" was the decidedly un-catchy moniker thrown up on Facebook), and was not organised by a charitable institution with a staff. It was instead the brainchild of a 32-year-old former investment banker named Saher Shaikh - "just a stay-at-home mom", in her words. She publicised the event over the course of about 10 days, mainly through blogs, e-mails, Facebook, Dubizzle and a few other web sites.

In a city that manufactures events like the Swiss manufacture watches, the drably named Volunteer Day was something approximating a spontaneous gathering, motivated by what actually appeared to be - given the absence of all branding or marketing - freestanding goodwill. For the volunteers as much as for the labourers, this seemed to address an unmet need. "I'm so surprised by how many people are here - not eating, drinking or spending money frivolously," joked a young British woman named Joe Catlin, standing on the sidelines and looking for an opening to help. "It's such a lovely thing to do." However, she granted, "there's probably too many people here".

Inside the Shelter, the Eames chairs and orange Ligne Roset sofas that usually adorn the converted warehouse were pushed aside. Ten folding tables - a makeshift assembly line - went up in their place. Each cardboard package was loaded up with what was hoped to be a three-month supply of toiletries (disinfectant, soap, toothbrushes, shaving cream, lice shampoo) and a one-month supply of food (dates, biscuits, Tang). There were also specially designated Muslim packages, which added prayer mats, prayer beads and skullcaps to the regular kit of items. At the end of the assembly line, another batch of volunteers performed "quality control" - which caught a few omissions, but perhaps more importantly, gave the surplus bodies something to do.

The whole day was suffused with the heady euphoria that white-collar workers often exude when given the chance to do physical work. This probably stems from some pervasive schizophrenia and alienation underlying modern attitudes toward labour. But if there was an irony lurking in the fact that so many affluent volunteers were sweating happily for the benefit of immiserated labourers, no one was dwelling on it.

In an outdoor loading bay at the height of the afternoon, about 50 people were ferrying finished care packages, hand to hand, from a rapidly diminishing set of piles on the ground into a large white container truck. "Keep the boxes coming!" shouted a woman dressed in capri pants and aviator sunglasses to the bucket brigade of volunteers. "Omar! How many left?" The crowd worked at a kind of fast-forward pace, making it necessary for the volunteers stacking cartons inside the lorry to call "stop" from time to time. At one point, a precarious column of packages toppled out of its place in the truck and tumbled a metre down to the ground below. "Guys!" yelled one of the day's de facto leaders, a goateed Afghan-Briton named Kabul, in mock reproach. "Health and safety! What's the matter with you?" Everyone giggled, sweating through their abayas and H&M shirts.

Work dwindled as the afternoon wore on, and the volunteers began subjecting their day to glowing post-mortems. "I could have seen him at a mall and had all these preconceptions," said Shabnum Ismail, a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines, gesturing at Khaled al Romaithi, an Emirati who works with the Dubai government. She turned to him: "I probably never would have spoken to you." Al Romaithi nodded. "At the beginning I walked in here and didn't know what to do," he said, his white kandura smudged with dirt from the loading bay. "But once I started doing something, it felt like community." Now he and Ismail were chatting like old friends.

At around 5.00pm, Kabul got the group's attention and notified them that they were free to leave. He only needed a handful of people to load the final lorry, which wouldn't arrive for another half hour. So most of the several dozen or so volunteers who were lingering - flush-faced and happy, slumped in designer chairs and chatting away - would not be needed. The announcement had no noticeable effect on the crowd. "I don't really want to leave," said a woman quietly before resuming her conversation.

The crowd did finally thin. At around dusk the lorries set out for the labour camp, followed by a few cars full of volunteers to help with the unloading. By the time the little caravan reached its destination - down a heavily rutted labyrinth of sand tracks in the Jebel Ali industrial area - it was well past dark. "I really wanted to see this," said Julian, the Colombian logistician, who was crammed into a jeep with a few others and peering out the window. "I mean, I wanted to come for the morning, but I really wanted to go to the camp."

The camp spread out in a low maze of narrow cinderblock buildings with corrugated rooftops. It was lit by naked fluorescent bulbs and filled with the din of an industrial air conditioning system. Streams of liquid ran down the dirt lanes, prompting a few of the volunteers to voice their regret at having worn flip-flops. A smell of sewage hung in the air. The labourers were given small squares of paper - pink to receive a mattress, orange to receive a package - and told to line up behind the trucks.

Volunteers who could speak Urdu took charge, since virtually none of the construction workers spoke English. At one of the big lorries - the sort whose rear bed is enclosed by a kind of metal basket - a Pakistani volunteer named Syed oversaw the distribution of mattresses and pillowcases. He stood on a plastic-wrapped bale of linens and shouted instructions, but before long the line started to break down. Men without pink slips of paper started pressing forward, and Syed's shouting became more and more angry. Soon he was yanking some labourers into place and pushing others away, yelling fiercely. The men he yanked forward held crinkled pink slips to their chests, staring at the ground as they hurried to accept their mattress and pillow cover. As an ending to the euphoric day of volunteer work, it seemed all wrong.

Syed had volunteered at the Shelter that day out of a personal belief in "human rights". But in his day job, as it happens, he is a supervisor for Arabtec, the largest construction company in Dubai; he gives orders to labourers for a living. "There is no discipline," he said, looking out harshly at the men gathered around the truck. "It's not good. Look, this guy has two pillows, this guy has four pillows." Some of the men - those with a certain glassy look in their eyes - made him lose all patience. "Today is Friday," he said. "They are drinking."

Soon order broke down even more. The volunteers retreated into the basket of the lorry and simply threw mattresses out over the crowd. Men climbed the sides of the truck, trying to get high enough to raise an arm and intercept one. And then there were no more mattresses, and it was over. Not wanting to wait around any longer, a handful of volunteers crammed into a 4x4 that was departing. At the wheel was a British-Pakistani accountant named Sonny, who nosed the car out of the camp and onto the dark network of dirt roads.

Sonny took it on himself to reassure his addled passengers. On most Fridays, he said, he personally brings about 200 meals to a labour camp, distributes them and eats with the workers. "It's a shame you had to see this," he said into the rearview mirror. "They're good guys, quite lovely people." He paused at the wheel, now hurtling down a paved road. "They're human beings, after all." * John Gravois