x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

One dirham at a time, a quiet workforce toils by our side

In a mall parking lot, one man works ceaselessly, cheerfully, helpfully in order to provide for his family.

On the occasion of last month's anniversary of his accession as Ruler of Dubai, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid urged people not to extend their congratulations to him. Instead, he asked us to turn our minds to the unsung heroes who, working in low-wage jobs, rarely receive any thanks for what they do. Yet their efforts, like those of others, are an essential part of how the country works.

I was reminded of Sheikh Mohammed's remarks one recent day while doing the usual weekend shopping at Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall. Some time ago, the supermarket there introduced the practice of making customers insert a one-dirham coin to unlock a shopping trolley from the long chain of others to which it's connected.

Immediately, a few canny men began to hang around the car park, trailing shoppers as they make their way to their vehicles, in the hope that they could collect an empty trolley, with the dirham in it, and collect the coin. After all, once you've walked some distance to your car and unloaded the shopping bags, you really can't be bothered to go back to the mall to collect the dirham.

It's very rare that these trolley-hunters actually offer to do anything to help the shopper, like pushing the trolley or helping to unload the bags. No - they hang back, loitering with intent, and wait until you've finished unloading and are getting in the car before they swoop to grab their prize.

It irritates me, to be honest, and I tend to glare at them. I can understand why they do it - on a good day, they can probably collect Dh20 or so for a few hours effort. If they're otherwise employed in low-paying jobs, that can make quite a difference. Some, I suspect, don't have any job at all - and I wonder about the legality of their residency status. I do wish, though, that they would display some desire to be of assistance.

But there is one of these men who stands out, not just because he's clearly much older than the rest, a stooped man with a grizzled white beard, but also because he makes a real effort to help. We first met months ago, when he came up one evening and offered to push the trolley, and then helped us load the bags into the car.

I was so surprised and pleased that I gave him a Dh10 tip, on top of the coin he would collect from the trolley. Now he looks out for us - but we look out for him too, shooing away any other trolley-pusher who comes near us, in the hope that he will appear, which he does most weeks. He smiles and rushes over to help. We feel disappointed when he's not there.

The tip has gone up to Dh15 or Dh20, and more during Eid weekends. Indeed, when we visit the mall but not the grocery store we give him something if we see him anyway, just for the pleasure of seeing him.

We're beginning to get to know each other. Struggling in a mixture of Arabic and Urdu, he told us this weekend that he had gone home a year ago for his daughter's wedding and that he has just become a proud grandfather. I hope his children have some comprehension of the hardships he suffers on their behalf.

He's poor to a degree beyond my imagination, in need of money to support his family, but happy to work long hours, although he is clearly showing the physical effects of age. He is doing the most menial of jobs to earn a crust, with a smile on his face and a desire to be of service. My wife and I have developed enormous respect for him. He has great dignity, despite his obvious poverty. He deserves, in my view, every dirham he receives.

His name, we have discovered, is Mohammed. So, in this week's column, I recognise Mohammed, and the many thousands like him who live among us, working hard without recognition to make our lives easier, yet who are so often overlooked. They, too, are helping to build the Emirates.

 

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture