In 1955, on a public bus in Alabama, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to stand up when asked to make room for white passengers. Her action was seized upon by a young clergyman named Martin Luther King who organised the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which catalysed the civil rights movement and brought it into nationwide focus; segregation on public transport became illegal the following year. Further laws continued to be passed to make all American citizens more equal, racial tolerance came forward in leaps and bounds and black Americans began to get voted into public office – culminating in the election of America's first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008.
In 2010, on a public bus in Dubai, an Indian family of four sitting in the front row of seats (marked 'LADIES & FAMILIES') was asked to move themselves – along with several large bags from Dubai Mall – to the back of the bus. They did so without hesitation, and none of the other passengers on the bus were moved to speak up, many of whom were also Indian. The event went unreported and the family got on with their lives.
This story was told to me by a colleague who visited Dubai earlier this year. It isn't the fact that this family was asked to move that is in itself shocking, though fifty years on from Rosa Parks, it is certainly saddening; it's the fact that this only happens to third-class citizens - the Filipinos, the Nepalis, and of course the millions of Indians. An American or British family wouldn't have been asked in the first place, and if they had been, they would likely have fought back in outrage. Not the Indians. It begs the question: where will the new Rosa Parks come from?
The Indians, however, reacted with an apathy that is unfortunately completely understandable. After all, the key difference between those Americans or British who wind up visiting or living in the Gulf states and the Indians who do the same is deep and all-influencing: the Indians, almost to a man, have to struggle from the outset. The typical story goes something like this:
Pay an agent somewhere between Rs. 50,000-100,000 just to get 'sponsored', set up with a job and get your visa, perhaps via dubious channels.
Actually get to Dubai/Abu Dhabi/Doha/Muscat/Riyadh and find yourself crammed into a tiny apartment with ten other guys, queue from 5am for the bathroom, slave away on a construction site all day, come back to your mattress and collapse.
Repeat until Friday when you can maybe talk to the folks back home for a minute until your Etisalat credit runs out.
Saturday (or Sunday if you're lucky), start over. The work may be hard, your roommates may be irritating, your boss may be a horrible person. Just have to deal with it.
Some can't. One guy I know hacked it for three months in Dubai before flying back ro Kerala, his pride wounded but with a vision of previously taken-for-granted greenery and family to guide him. Those that do make it, and stay for years, can work their way up into new positions, more money, different and more appealing careers, and a huge contribution to the family assets back home. Modern Kerala is almost entirely built on Gulf money, and some folks become very successful.
However, even those more successful guys – those who have the means to house themselves and their nuclear family in their own apartment – cannot change the colour of their skin, and so it goes that 'Antony RG', with his wife and kids, having just spent probably thousands of dirhams at Dubai Mall, gets asked to move to the back. After struggling for so long, often for so little, it isn't at all surprising that he doesn't want to cause a fuss. He would risk losing his job, his house, his career, and even his right to stay in the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, he would personally stand to gain nothing more than a maintained ego at the end of perhaps decades' worth of striving.
There is an obvious and important difference between Rosa Parks and 'Antony RG': Parks was in her own country, and standing up to her own discriminatory law. 'Antony', and all of his fellow Indians in the Gulf, are very much outsiders – perhaps even third-class citizens, after Emiratis and whites – and at bottom the UAE isn't his place, his land. His struggle is with dealing with that land, with its unfamiliar laws, desert heat and discriminatory attitudes, and not with fighting back against them. It is a struggle that seems to be self-perpetuating, a cycle of low standards, apathetic struggle and grim acceptance; struggling to live in the dire situation presented, using up all the energy that could be used to struggle against it.
Where will the new Rosa Parks come from? I have no idea. But wherever she does from, once she's found that desire and energy to struggle, I hope she brings her extended family to help her fight.