x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Notes from underground

Suleman Din finds - and then loses - the hidden music of Abu Dhabi's labour camps.

Rasha Khan performs at a labour camp in Musaffah. The rubab is considered
Rasha Khan performs at a labour camp in Musaffah. The rubab is considered "the Lion of Instruments".

Rasha Khan's bed is not big enough. He can barely fit on it lying down, and only then with his legs bent. But in the trailer that he shares with five other Pakistani construction workers in a Mussafah labour camp, the bed is Khan's only real personal space. He has added pillows and a floral print blanket; but despite his efforts to make the bed homely, its mattress remains hard and floppy, its frame rickety and the entire thing lousy with bedbugs. Still, Khan closely guards his bed - because it conceals his most prized possession.

On a recent Thursday evening, after the repeated insistence of his colleagues, Khan agrees to retrieve his hidden beloved. Sitting on his bed, he leans back, reaches down behind the mattress and pulls up an object tucked away there, covered in a duffel of the same floral cloth as his blanket - a cover he has hand-sewn from scraps of his own bedding. He undoes a knot and the cover rolls off, revealing a lute.

The instrument's soft curves and hand-worked wood seem poignantly out of place under the industrial fluorescent lights. Its shape vaguely recalls that of a cello, but more compact. The dull hue of its mulberry wood body is set against a few jaunty splashes of colour: green and pink beads embossed with small mirrored discs dangling from the neck; a floral pattern printed on the instrument's goatskin face and silver foil covering part of its bottom edge.

Khan inspects the instrument up and down, supporting it with both hands. Then he shifts his body, laying the lute over his right leg. His left hand travels up its neck, adjusting the knobs in a line of tuners as it goes. Finally, Khan's calloused fingers touch the strings. He strums. The instrument has very little treble, just flat, subdued tones. He closes his eyes and sways his head slightly, while some of his listeners do the same. As he plays, he squints as if being pinched. He looks and sounds utterly heartbroken - and utterly transported.

In his native Waziristan, a mountainous territory studded with farmlands, Khan has a wife, a son and a daughter he has never seen. His instrument, known as a rubab, is one of his few tokens of the country he has left behind. Among Afghans and Pathans, the rubab is considered "the Lion of Instruments." For musicologists, it symbolises a culture that has endured through generations of conflict and religious repression. For Khan and his fellow labourers, the instrument - and the music he plays on it - is a brief passage home.

Khan is part of a small, ephemeral subculture of labourer-musicians in the Emirates - one that recalls the Okies of the American Great Depression, as well as countless other folk traditions of labour in exile. But much like Khan's instrument, stowed under his bed, it is a quietly hidden music. When Khan finishes his brief evening performance for his colleagues in the trailer, there is no applause. There is just a quiet stillness - like the men have all just woken up.

Despite his talents, Khan looks much like any other member of this county's Pakistani labour class. His clothes are plain cotton shalwar kameez. He has a moustache and thin dark stubble. At 5'6, he is shorter than many of his colleagues. Like many construction labourers here, he has been thinned by long hours of work, performing tasks that are simple, repetitive and exhausting. It is not the life the 30-year-old thought he would be living when he arrived in Abu Dhabi 12 years ago. In Pakistan he had trained as a mechanic, thinking he could land a job overseas in a garage fixing machines - a good-paying job, he says, earning Dh3,000 a month. But the agent who arranged his passage to the UAE fixed him with a general labour contractor. Already thousands of dirhams in debt to the agent, Khan had to accept the menial job and low pay, a common dilemma for labourers brought here from South Asia.

The frustration of so many indignities has aged Khan. His back hurts from the constant lifting of steel. Worry lines cross his forehead when he furrows his brow. He has welts on his skin because his employer refuses to get his bed fumigated, he says, even though the service is offered for free by the municipality. He envies the Indians he works with, which is hard for a Pakistani to admit. At least their government cares enough about them to make getting visas easy, he says, and demands concessions for basic pay and rights. He has been waiting for years just to receive a Pakistani national identity card. "We are labourers," he says. "For us, there is no respect or courtesy."

Five years ago, Khan found his unlikely refuge in music. During a visit back home, he came across the rubab and its musical companion, the dutar, a longer stringed instrument. Following a strange impulse, he decided to buy them and bring them back, he says. He did not know how to play. He had never even held an instrument before. But he remembered hearing the music growing up. There was some comfort just in having the instruments, he says, as links to a better time.

When he came back, he began to experiment. "Every night after work, a little bit of playing with the strings," he says, smiling. Just as he would tinker with an engine, Khan learned each part of the rubab: first the tuning of the three melody strings, then of the drone and sympathetic strings. He practiced strumming them together, and then practiced fingering notes along the instrument's neck. In the same fashion, he also learned to play the dutar.

As Khan improved, progressing from fragmentary tunes to full melodies, his colleages began to take an interest in his playing, says Shahid Shah, a friend. The sounds from his trailer attracted crowds. Labourers visiting from other camps would return home with word of the musician in Musaffah, and then more would come back to hear him on a subsequent Thursday night, most labourers' sole evening off. Enough came that Khan decided to host a mehfil, or music gathering, in one of the larger caravan trailers. Inspired by his performances, others asked to play with him, and soon Khan was head of a musical troupe, with a harmonium player, dhol drummer, and a singer.

What most impressed everyone, Shah says, was that Khan honed his ability without the aid of an instructor. Shah repeats this fact, as if to underline the accomplishment. "Beghair ustaad," he says, motioning to Khan as other labourers nod along. "Without a master." Khan's approach is a common method of learning to play Afghan traditional instruments, says John Baily, a professor of Music at the University of London and an expert in Afghan instruments. (Khan's ethnic group, the Pathans, are spread between southeastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. Pathans on both sides of the famously porous border share much the same musical tradition - a mix of Indian and Persian influences.)

According to Baily, the jihad against Russian invaders and the subsequent Taliban regime wiped out a generation of musical understanding among Afghans and Pathans, but amateur enthusiasm has rushed in to fill the gap. "There is a pride in being self-taught," he says, "to be in music for the love of music alone." There are two tiers of Pathan and Afghan musicians, Baily says. One consists of classically trained players, who learn under the tutelage of an ustaad. Then there are the shauki, amateurs who learn through imitation. "They watch other people, trying to reconstruct it on instruments," he says. "The most difficult thing for them is getting the instruments tuned correctly." (A rubab can have as many as 18 strings.)

Despite the region's turmoil, its music has survived on cassettes, radios, CDs and DVDs, Baily says, and those are the inspiration for amateur musicians. "They've got the actual tunes imprinted in their minds," he says, adding that most Afghan melodies are all centered around one theme. "Unrequited love," he says. "They are not songs that deal with everyday experiences [but] rather the desire for unattainable love, both the divine and profane."

For his fellow labourer musicians and himself, Khan says the theme is not so much unrequited love as love left behind for work in the Middle East. "Playing music is how we get closer," he says. Coming together for a mehfil is never easy, though. The perfomers are scattered among different camps, in different cities, working on various schedules. Plans are frequently scuttled by the one force that has ultimate control over their lives - duty, or as they pronounce it, 'dyutee.' With the boom in building, Shah says, musical perfomances have become an increasingly rare occasion. It has taken Khan two months to coordinate his troupe's next performance: an occasion to honour a relative, Shahbab Khan, 23, who is heading back to Pakistan for his engagement. The date is set for a Thursday in June.

That night, the first guests to arrive in Khan's trailer receive Sprite in metal cups. The room is almost full by the time Khan enters with his rubab and another labourer musician from Dubai, Shair Ali, who carries a dhol drum. Someone brings an empty water cooler bottle into the room to serve as a supplementary percussion instrument. There is supposed to be a harmonium player, but he has not come. Khan and Ali begin to warm up with little tweaks of string and thumps of palm against stretched goat skin. Finally, Mohammed Ismail, a singer from Sharjah, joins the gathering. Men silence their mobiles. The performance begins.

Khan and Ali begin playing. Throughout the night's performance, every melody starts this way: the rubab player begins, strumming a tempo that is then matched by the dhol drum. The singer then joins in with his verses. The three sounds are distinct - the rubab's haunting melodic lines, the dhol's urgent bass, and Ismail's anguished wailing. "I want to cry, but I cannot cry," he sings in Pashto. "I don't want my little brother to know misery." He quivers with the verse.

The audience is growing as men squeeze into whatever space they can find in the trailer. One man fiddles with a mobile phone. "How do you get camera zoom?" he quietly asks the man next to him. A chirping noise from the pocket of another audience member who has forgotten to silence his mobile garners angry stares. Khan strums faster. In the background is the constant white noise of the air conditioner's low hum. Ali joins with Ismail in singing the song's chorus.

"I'm looking for my close friend in the dark," they sing. "I'm looking, I'm going to go into the dark, looking. "I was trying to hide my love, but everyone found out." Each song flows like so many meandering thoughts - snatches of old remembered lyrics and experiences that every man in the room shares, Ismail explains. "The person who plays music, he's in pain, so others can enjoy," he says. Another man wants to play with the group, and uses a stick to bang against a large third drum that has appeared, but Ali quickly rebukes him. "Too much bass," he says. "Only use your hands."

There is a break in play. Ali rubs his wrists. Khan sees there are more people outside, straining against the trailer's door. So he decides they should take the performance outside, into the camp's open lot. The night is cool enough. A green mat is laid on the gravel lot. The men sit in a circle, while the audience gathers around, finding seats against the niches of trailer platforms. Some bring chairs. Almost 40 men are gathered. The scene is lit by the white glare of the camp's floodlights. There is a mix of smells in the air: dust, perfume of rose oud, lit cigarettes, and moist rubber from the mat.

Khan and his troupe take a moment to rest. Ali is a 30 year old construction worker; Ismail is a 31-year-old excavator operator. Like Khan, they have children back home they have not carried, and wives they have not held in years. Also like him, they started playing music on their own. "I saw it and learned it," Ali says of his dhol, a double-faced drum about the size of a large watermelon. "This is a passion."

Ismail explains he draws the verses to his songs from his experiences and from the music cassettes he has heard. "What comes to the mind," he says. The men start again. Ali and Khan switch instruments, to keep the play fresh. Ismail keeps his head down, eyes shut tight, singing in a trance. The song is a warning to a beautiful girl. Don't wear black clothes, avoid the evil eye, Ismail wails to the vision. I see you beneath the roof, he sings. Protect yourself from desirous eyes.

The final act comes as Ali takes the water cooler drum and secures it under his left leg, adding it to the dhol under his right: two drums, one leather, one plastic. The beats are mixed, combining glances with the fingers and fuller hits with the palm. Tk-tk-tk-tk-thump, tk-tk-tk-tk-thump. Ali's hands are red. The crowd, which has been listening concertedly but quietly all this time, finally breaks into clapping. Ali's drumming is louder, faster, and the clapping matches his beats. There is whistling. The drums are now the only sound. Suddenly, men in the audience get up from their seats.

They dance in a circle, turning left to right as they revolve, clapping and urging those still sitting to join in. They cast short, quick shadows against the gravel, their swirling kurtas blowing up dust. They are doing a wedding dance, retracing their footsteps from long-ago celebrations. Khan Gul, a large man in a blue shalwar kurta, picks up Ali's drum, and with a stick begins to beat a rhythm.

"We do this because we are passionate people," Gul says loudly. "We dance even without music." Khan looks on and laughs. The men throw their shawls on the ground, kick their sandals off - freedom for one night, when the world isn't looking. When dyutee is over. "Just for happiness we are doing this," Khan says, with a satisfied look. "We have come here from all over." Regarding his fellow musicians, he says, "They don't come to play for money. They come for enjoyment."

At the end of the night, Khan and his troupe excitedly talk about meeting again in the same camp, for another performance. This one will be even bigger, he says, with bagpipes, the harmonium and a proper stage. But the performance never happens. Not long after the June mehfil, Khan and his colleagues were assigned to a new construction project elsewhere in the country. Their camp was shifted - their caravan trailers hitched onto trucks and moved out.

Khan's friends have tried to reach him since then, but they have been unable to do so. In Musaffah, there is no trace left of the men or their camp, save for a watchman posted outside the gates to the deserted grounds. "Nobody is living here anymore," he says; he does not know know where Khan and the other men were sent. "There's not even any electricity," the watchman grumbles. "I'm just sitting here in the dark."

The music of Musaffah has slipped away. Gone back into the folds of men's hearts, hidden again - like Khan's rubab - inside the fabric of a culture that travels, works, remembers and secretly loves. @Email:sdin@thenational.ae