x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tonic for the expatriate blues

Indian artist and activist Mallika Sarabhai has planned a series of shows to help labourers living in camps confront and discuss their problems.

Mallika Sarabhai and Venu Rajamony, India's consul general in Dubai, arrive at a news conference to announce the shows yesterday.
Mallika Sarabhai and Venu Rajamony, India's consul general in Dubai, arrive at a news conference to announce the shows yesterday.

Labourers living in camps far from loved ones may be sending money home, but often at a severe emotional and psychological cost. Now the Indian artist and activist Mallika Sarabhai plans a series of shows to help them confront and discuss their problems. Praveen Menon reports DUBAI // The army of workers giving the city its spectacular new skyline have little time or energy for amusement or serious conversation after a hard day's work.

Most of the time, they slump in front of a television when they return to their camps. On Fridays they might go into town with their friends. One thing they are unlikely to do is discuss their feelings. Far from homes and families, many could well have emotional problems with loneliness or a failing sense of self-worth, but will not talk about it for fear of appearing unmanly. Recognising this problem, an Indian artist and social activist plans a series of performances in Dubai labour accommodation aimed at starting conversations about long-unspoken social and emotional concerns.

Dr Mallika Sarabhai, 55, is a popular figure in India, known for using art to highlight her concerns about human rights violations, the abortion of female foetuses, domestic violence, illiteracy and other problems. In association with the Indian Consulate in Dubai and participating companies, she has arranged a series of performances at various labour camps. The performances will include stage shows, traditional dances and other art forms designed to address likely concerns among the workers.

"The greatest problem is the self-imposed silence of these men, who are worried that if they break down they would be unmanly. It's problem men around the world face," Dr Sarabhai told media representatives and fans. "The idea is to empower the workers. The impression I get is that the problems are more of a psychological nature. There is a sense of a loss of self-worth among these men." Dr Sarabhai visited some camps after arriving in Dubai on Sunday.

"I explored the physical structure, which I found to be far better that what we get to understand," she said. She said she had made unannounced visits to camps where she had seen toilets, dormitories and gymnasiums, which she said she had found far better than the equivalents back home. But the fact that the labourers are cut off from their families remains a big problem. "The expectation with which they are sent here is often different and it changes once they come here. There is a lack of self-esteem and terrible loneliness they have to deal with. This could lead to depression and often suicide," she said.

Figures released by the consulate show that there were 69 suicides among Indian expatriates in the UAE last year, and 118 in 2007. Dr Sarabhai plans to hold a total of six performances in various camps on November 19 and 20, during which she expects to reach 10,000 to 12,000 people. Companies such as ETA Ascon, Al Fara'a, Al Ahmediah, Arabtec and Dulsco have already agreed to let their workers attend.

Asked if she would be able to express all the concerns of the workers through these performances, Dr Sarabhai said: "I have always relied on innovative use of art to talk about issues that people do not want to discuss. "We are not asking them to go and ask their companies for more money," she added, maintaining that the performances would focus on their personal issues of depression and low self-esteem.

"The idea is really to tell the workers that they are not letting their family down, they are not alone." At the same time, it would also urge them to be on the right side of the law and that there as no short cut to the legal system. "This is a pilot project and we are trying to reinforce what the Government here is already doing," said Venu Rajamony, India's consul general in Dubai. Mr Rajamony said that he and Dr Sarabhai met Brig Mohammed Ahmed al Marri, director of the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department and chairman of permanent committee of labour affairs, who they said expressed his full support, adding that the PCLA would partner the consulate in the project.

Thousands of Asian construction workers live in labour accommodations across Dubai in areas such as Sonapur, Jebel Ali Industrial area and Al Quoz. Workers said yesterday that any kind of initiative to help them get through a tough day would help. "We don't get time for entertainment and also we cannot afford it. Only on Friday I go to the city with my friends. If our company organises events I always attend as it makes me happy," said Akbar Lala, an Indian worker.

However, he said he had not heard about Mallika Sarabhai. Construction companies in Dubai that agreed to take part in the event hoped it would open up more doors for more interaction in the future. "If you show them a movie, it lasts for a few hours and that is it. Shows addressing their issues will be able to reach them more effectively. We look forward to feedback we get from this," said Manjit Niranjan, head of administration with the Al Fara'a group.

pmenon@thenational.ae