Mohammed is 23 and been here since he was 18. He comes from the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh and has a Grade 8 education. Leaving school early because of family problems, he brought his fresh baby face and huge dimples to Dubai to earn some money. And yip you guessed it – money to send home. He is one of five siblings and the only one out of his home country. Only his sister has completed her schooling.
Mohammed has been washing my car, in the open car park of the local small mall for 4 years and today – shamefully – was the first day I actually asked him his name and his story although we’ve often joked together about him being too young to wash cars. Shouldn’t he rather be playing with them?
He’s always smiling (except when you want to take a picture – what’s with these guys, as soon as the lens comes out they go all serious and macho on me?)
Seems this macho man has built up quite a rapport with the local ladies. He waves generously at everyone driving by and twice during our chat, said “excuse me madam” and rushed off to help one lady and her laden trolley get over the verge and to her car. He then unpacked her groceries, took the trolley back to the bay and we continued where we left off with our chat. The same thing happened a few minutes later as he went to wrestle with anothers grocery cart – one of those with mind-of–its-own-wheels. And then repeat and repeat again of the same ritual.
Nothing is too much trouble for Mohammed and to think that he does this from 10am to midnight, seven days a week, 28 days a month, 12 months of the year. With only two days off a month. Repeat and repeat again – through the searing heat of summer and the chilly nights of a desert winter.
I don’t ask how much people earn and only report on it if they tell me voluntarily (ok admittedly, with gentle prompting) I did ask Mohammed however, how much of the AED 15 (US$4) per car, payment he gets to keep.
Only TWO measly dirhams. (Around 50 American cents!) Come on… for all that effort! As he washes about 400 cars a month the math tells me all he gets is 800 dirhams. (About US210 a month.) He confirmed this but quickly added that company housing is provided. The usual, seven men to one room and transport to and from work. He sends home the equivalent of 10 000 Bangladeshi Taka per month – around US130. That doesn’t leave a whole lot for food or other random stuff. Some people tip him above the 15 dirhams, others don’t. I asked him what he ate and where he got his food from as I motioned to the supermarket behind me.
“No no, too expensive, I buy from street seller near my house. Rice, milk…”
We moved on to deep stuff.
“What makes you happy? How come you smile all day like you do?”
And then the stare. THE stare. That one I’ve come to recognise.
He didn’t answer for a long time.
“Do you understand the question?” I asked as I patronizingly drew a smiley face in the dust on the back window of the next car waiting for a wash.
“No madam I understand.”
“On the outside I smile. On the inside I cry.”
On the inside I cried too.
“When you are thirty years old, in seven years time where to you hope to be? What do you hope to be doing? A wife, six kids, back home in Bangladesh?”
Laughing loudly he quickly replied: “No no madam. Not six kids. Too much money. Maybe wife. Yes. I want two more years here in Dubai, back to Bangladesh and start small business.“
“Ah…In what line? Do you want to wash cars in Bangladesh?”
“No, no after Dubai I never wash car again. I will make small business with salt. You know in Bangladesh we have much salt?”
No I don’t – don’t know that in Bangladesh there is much salt.
But what I do know is that with your smile and your attitude, dear Mohammed…
The world is your oyster – just don’t forget to add a dash of lemon and some salt.