x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A new generation of nomad

Ali Khawata lives largely on the move, carrying cargo from country to country. On the road, the cab of his lorry is both his home and office.

Waiting to cross into Saudi Arabia at Al Ghuwaifat, Ali Khawata says border delays are expected and give long-haul lorry drivers a chance to socialise.
Waiting to cross into Saudi Arabia at Al Ghuwaifat, Ali Khawata says border delays are expected and give long-haul lorry drivers a chance to socialise.

Ali Khawata lives largely on the move, carrying cargo from country to country. On the road, the cab of his lorry is both his home and office. Ali Khawata's working day begins when he puts the key in the ignition, buckles up, switches on the radio and hits the road. His office is the cab of his lorry; his workplace is the web of seemingly endless highways that criss-cross the Middle East. His job is ferrying cargo, navigating through deserts, towns and mountains throughout the Arabian peninsula and the Levant.

For Mr Khawata, 37, of Damascus, his 12-metre, long-haul lorry is also his home most of the time. "I sleep in the truck, I eat in the truck and my bathroom is under the truck," he says. "It's my office and my house. I have spent what feels like my whole life on the road." For four years he has been working for a transport company based in Dubai, but Mr Khawata rarely sees the city; he has spent much of the past 15 years on the road.

"It is a hard life, but I like it," he says. "I don't know anything else. It is like we are mechanics, traders, drivers and everything." Mr Khawata's aim is to deliver his cargo quickly and safely. Sometimes he drives on as little as four hours' sleep, stopping at rest areas along the motorway and curling up in his cabin. His day is broken up by stops to fix his lorry, rest, eat or pray. When he can, he prays at one of the small mosques dotting the highways next to petrol stations. If not, he makes do with the ground by the side of the road.

Unlike some of his fellow drivers, he has not decorated his vehicle with bright knick-knacks or photographs collected during his travels. All he carries is his cargo, supplies, personal items he needs for the trip and a mobile telephone. Music is a constant companion. Driving along endless stretches of roads, Mr Khawata whiles away the hours listening to his favourites: the greats of Arabic music, including Abdel Halim Hafez and Fairooz.

For his many hours and thousands of kilometres on the road, Mr Khawata makes between Dh1,500 (US$408) and Dh3,000 per trip, depending on the destination. Although some drivers travel to Egypt and beyond, he tends to drive only as far as Jordan and Syria, where he returns every few months to see his wife, Mayada, and sons Abdou, nine, Yousef, five, and Amin, two. Although he likes his work, he would rather his children did not follow in his footsteps: "Inshallah, my children will go to university. I want them to stay in school and I try to encourage them."

Mr Khawata was among the thousands of drivers caught in a massive traffic jam on the UAE-Saudi border at Al Ghuwaifat recently. New, more stringent Saudi border protocols left thousands of drivers stranded in isolated desert areas with dwindling supplies of water, fuel and food. At one point the tailbacks stretched for more than 30km. One of Mr Khawata's colleagues had to be taken away from the area, suffering from heatstroke. He was found flailing around in the sand, convinced it was water.

Mr Khawata was dispatched from Dubai to retrieve the abandoned vehicle, still laden with its cargo - thousands of bottles of shampoo. Crossing the UAE-Saudi border, a regular part of his working life, has become increasingly difficult, he says sitting in the shade between two trailers. The other drivers who have crowded around nod in agreement. "When I reach the Syrian border, of course I feel very happy because it is my country, and when I reach there I feel relaxed," he says. "When I reach back to Dubai I feel relaxed, but when I reach Saudi Arabia I feel very tired."

Mr Khawata and his fellow drivers are used to long waits at crossing points around the region. When not on the road, they are waiting at a border or pulled over at a truck stop. But these spots are where they bump into friends, where men whose lives are otherwise spent in solitude have an opportunity to socialise with their peers. During the recent delays at Al Ghuwaifat the camaraderie was apparent, with people sharing water, ice, cigarettes and food, or simply sitting out the ordeal together in the shade cast by the massive vehicles.

Underneath many of the lorries are compartments where the drivers store anything from food to fold-out chairs. The doors open to create small platforms where the men sit, preparing food or playing cards. "We are friends, all the Syrians," Mr Khawata says, "but we are also all friends with everyone, the Palestinian drivers, the Lebanese, Pakistanis and Afghans." When not on the road, Mr Khawata and hundreds of other drivers station their lorries in large, sandy lots in Al Awir in Dubai. It was from here that he recently embarked on his latest trip - the 2,500km journey back home to Syria for a month-long stay with his family.

zconstantine@thenational.ae