Dubai really is like no other city in the world. Check out this post-covid promotional video if you don’t believe me.
See, I told you! Looks amazing, right? Well, it actually is an amazing city, made even more remarkable by virtue of the fact that it has grown and developed out of nothing, in one of the least hospitable places on earth. That the country even exists at all is testament to the vision of Sheikh Zayed, beloved father of the UAE. And the city of Dubai, the shining star of all seven emirates, is evidence of the determination of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to transform the emirate that he rules over into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
In fact, Sheikh Mohammed has many ambitions. His most recent philanthropic campaign is a drive to provide one billion meals to needy people in 50 countries around the world. The Ramadan initiative, called “One Billion Meals”, aims to develop “long-term solutions to improve lives across the world, without any discrimination” by collecting donations from the public until enough money has been raised to provide the aforementioned billion meals to “women, children, refugees, displaced people and victims of disasters and crises”. A noble cause indeed. Unfortunately, the initiative does not include people living in the UAE, with the website explaining, “Charitable institutions and humanitarian associations within the country already engage in community campaigns and continuous projects that meet the needs of impoverished individuals and families in the UAE”. Wonderful.
Remember that video I showed you earlier? Every single building you see in that clip, every swimming pool, every harbour, fountain, iconic building, highway, resort, metro, island, amusement park, aquarium, hotel and mall was built by the hands of immigrant labourers, predominantly from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. It is through their blood, sweat and tears that this sparkly, shiny city was created and yet, for some reason, their faces are never represented in any marketing videos. They get no kudos, they receive no recognition and they are shunted out of the way to live in hot, dusty, squalid labour camps, several men cramped together in a single room, the overpowering smell of garbage inescapable. And that just really sucks because, despite being out of sight and out of mind, they are still here. They are real people. And they deserve a little bit of time and attention and kindness and respect, just like everybody else.
So I want to show you their faces here.
These are the men that the Sheikh doesn’t want to feed as part of his fancy One Billion Meals crusade because their needs are apparently already being met. Charity, it would appear, doesn’t necessarily begin at home. Or maybe feeding your own workers and providing them with better living conditions isn’t as strong a virtue signal to the world as a catchy slogan is (though in my humble opinion, it really would be). So this Ramadan, as we have done for the last nine years, David and I and some of our wonderful, generous friends set out to provide these unseen men with a delicious, filling Iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast.
I always get a kick out of being at these food handouts, witnessing the gratitude on the faces of the men, feeling the love that comes from giving to someone in need. And this year did not disappoint. This time though, there was a feeling in the air that was different. Normally we hand out the meals from the back of a van on the street, but this time the meals, packed up in boxes, had been placed inside one of the dormitories. That made it feel more intimate, and more personal. We were in their world now. It was also more chaotic than usual because guys from neighbouring labour camps had caught wind of the handout and swarmed the joint. It always feels really bad that we can’t feed every single person who needs a meal, but that’s life I guess. We were there to give food to the guys living in that particular dorm, and that was made a little tricky by the interlopers. Eventually we figured out a system in which a representative from each room would approach and tell us how many men he was cohabiting with (usually between six and nine) and he would then be given the correct number of bags, each containing some dates, a piece of fruit, a bottle of water, some laban and a hot, tasty biryani. That system seemed to work out OK.
David and I stuck around after the food was gone because I wanted to take some more photos. With the other volunteers no longer with us, we felt a little out of place, like we didn’t belong. But I was never afraid. On our way out, a few of the guys approached us and asked David and me if they could take selfies with us. Of course we agreed, and before long we were surrounded by a throng of young men, taking photos, as if we were movie stars. This was the first time we’ve ever personally interacted with the men we’ve given the Iftar meals to, and it was wonderful. I hope to do it again next time, as it really made my day.
Our campaign to feed 2000 men was a drop in the ocean compared to the billion meals that the Sheikh wants to donate in his name, but for me what made this year so special were the fleeting human connections I made with those men. I had the opportunity to chat to a few of the guys, and I made an effort to look as many of them as I could in the eye. I got the chance to see them. As people. I smiled at a lot of them, and received many smiles in return. And it was these beautiful smiles that truly uplifted me on that day. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been quoted as saying “Even a smile is charity.” And if that is the case, then it was I who was enriched by the experience. Because I walked out of that camp absolutely elated and exhilarated, walking on air. I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed knows the feeling.