Sunday, August 30, 2009

Skin deep beauty on Ugly foundations

The following is an email I got from a close friend of mine. And remember that since Kuwait is gearing up, trying it's hardest to become the next 'Dubai' that all these problems are reflected in society here as well. Perhaps even more so.

"About 3 years ago I accidentally ended up spending 12 hours in transit in Dubai airport. And in that time I got to see beyond and beneath the shiny veneer that usually survives a mere hour's scrutiny...the Starbucks, the Ferrari parked up on blocks...blocks of gold revolving on a see a little bit of the dirty underbelly of it.

I got to talk to one of the Filipino workers in depth at the airport restaurant where all the non-first class passengers were pushed through like cattle in a stall. I trudged back and forth from one end of the airport to the other, past 6 foot posters of smiling Arabs and got beyond the feeling of "there's nothing to do" to "gee, this is really empty."

I learned how to cling to my luggage trolley with the same possessiveness of a homeless man...cos 12 hours is a long time to carry your bags around.
And in that strange mixture of sleep deprivation, restriction (no money to go anywhere outside of the airport), and too much time to medidate on the strange apparition that is Dubai, I began to see how the shiny skyscrapers and lavish man-made creations were built on a foundation of massive exploitation, greed, and injustice. A foundation that definitely cannot and will not stand.
It's just a matter of time."
- David

Friday, August 28, 2009

A growing debt

I attend a Filipino church here in Vancouver (cus my wife is Fil-Canadian) and there's a really sweet middle-aged Filipino lady that goes there. I met her about 5 years ago and she's a very unassuming lady, and nice to everyone.

However, on getting to know her I learned that before she became a Canadian citizen, she used to be a 'maid' in ... where else? - Kuwait. And as nice as this lady is, when you ask about her time there, she shuts up. She explains that she does not want to talk about her experiences in Kuwait and would rather focus on the here and now. Imagine that - A Canadian citizen.

Now I know it can't be too often that domestic helpers go on to become North American citizens ... but the Middle East doesn't just abuse its maids. Regular employees of every profession in Kuwait are having their passports illegally held, are being abused by the police, by their bosses, by the system and by the average guy walking on the streets.

And the more I get to know people who have worked in the Middle East and ended up becoming citizens in the west, the more I realise that Kuwait and other countries in the region are not just alienating 'poor, third world countries' and their people anymore. We are intentionally hurting and torturing future citizens of so-called 'first world' nations.

Not that it should matter where they are from and where they go. But Kuwait is slowly and surely accumulating a large and bloody debt. And one day it might not be the poor Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Bengalis and Indians that ask nicely, that that debt be paid.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

3 maids, 3 different cases

There is a Nepali maid who has been in hospital (not Al Razi) for over 3 years. They have not sent her back to Nepal because she has no one there (I'm not sure how this works legally). She seems SEVERELY depressed. She talks to no one and lays in bed throughout each day with blanket and cloth covering her face. Has to be fed apple juice through IV.

An Indonesian maid was brought in by agency, but her employer 'sold' her to his friend, who forced her to sleep with him and then forced her to have sex with 3-5 ppl a day as a prostitute. She jumped out of the window in despair. She was taken to Al Razi and then will be taken to jail. A classic case of human trafficking in Kuwait.

Sri Lankan maid, beaten by both the father and mother of the house - and apparently the children in the home as well. The lady is in Kuwait because her daughter back home is blind in one eye and she has to pay for medicine, and tremendous rains in sri lanka wiped out all her crops (she is a farmer)... she was also not fed anything in the house. She jumped - hospital - jail.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

awareness of the obvious

I'm out of the country right now, in Vancouver, Canada - a much needed break. I'm having a great time of course ... but I've noticed something. As an outsider, its amazing the stuff you can see so clearly, that isn't as obvious to locals.

For instance, for all its wonders, Vancouver has a few serious problems. One being that culturally, Vancouver sexualises its youth so much. Now I know we all have different opinions on sex education etc. but seriously - when I used to live here, the age of consent was 14. That means by law, your kid could have sex as early as 14 years old and if you as a parent tried to stop them, the police could actually charge YOU. Girls as early as 12 are walking around wearing next to nothing -in high school. Family skinny dipping day is an event where families bring their kids and they all get naked at the local indoor pool, with other families. Infant beauty pageants are in. Dolling up your babies in bikinis and makeup and making them strut their stuff as sexily as possible on a model ramp - is totally normal. And all of this is just skimming the surface.

And what are the results?

The biological age for puberty is actually physically changing in Vancouver society -becoming earlier and earlier. Pregnancies, babies, orphans - all over the place. In a high school in my neighbourhood they hold maternity classes where all the little 16year olds bring their babies to class and learn how to be mothers. Some of these moms are still wearing braces and have barely hit puberty. They go out clubbing and leave their kids with THEIR moms. Or else, prostitution and becoming a stripper mom are options to supporting your kid.

Oh and child molestations are a HUGE problem in Vancouver. Raping kids, and kidnappings - even murder to cover the whole thing up happens once in a while. Every few days the news announces another missing kid.

See to me, it makes sense that if you sexualise your little children, some people out there will actually SEE your child as a sex object. Imagine that!? You make your child a sex object, other ppl see your child as a sex object. Ridiculously obvious? Apparently not to Vancouverites. They pull their hair out trying to figure out why there are so many sex offenders in Vancouver. And all the while it's staring them in the face.

Do you have to be a foreigner to see this? In India, apparently its completely invisible to us, that our system of classing people according to the 'caste' system is causing so many social problems. 'Untouchables'? Marry only within your caste? Religious frenzy causing people to do stupid things like marrying dogs and snakes? A religious guru telling devoted but gullible parents that the gods have said that he must have sex with their young daughter?

All countries have something to be ashamed of. There is no point at all in trying to maintain a sort of false dignity and trying to be a country where no one admits that things are going wrong. I'll be the first to admit it - my country has some deep and dark closets where some of the most shameful and disgusting things are hidden.

But the correct response to something shameful is to face it and change it -not blindly deny it. Bring it out into the light, into the open, Drag it kicking and screaming. The truth, as they say, will set you free.

Which of course brings us to our own home - Kuwait. Do you have to be from the outside to see how OBVIOUS things are? We expats see the cause - and the effects,the problem and the results... and the links between them. And yet government, newspapers, and yes sometimes even citizens, if they actually ever think about it - are trying to figure out how society got here and how to solve the problems.

The answers, Kuwait, are right in front of you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shuwaikh Investigations Department

Just wanted to relate what happened to me a few months ago.

As you might know, a group of us used to go to Al Razi hospital just get to know some of the maids in wards 3 and 4. These are the abuse cases. More than a few cannot move at all because they are in casts from head to toe. A few can get around only in wheelchairs.

Well a certain lady eventually opened up and wanted to file a case against her employer. Her employer had tried to brutally strangle her. Later on the mama poured hot water on her. Finally they pushed her out of a window - in any other country that would be attempted murder. This poor lady has a four year old daughter back in her home country. She came to Kuwait to be able to make money to support her child's medical bills.

I am in touch with a Kuwaiti lawyer so I asked him to take up her case. After much trouble the agency that was holding her passport agreed to hand it over to the lawyer so he could start filing the case.

Well after a while, I started getting strange calls from Arabic speaking men. They would call me and as soon as I picked up my phone they would ask who I was. Naturally this used to annoy me so I asked who they were - but they usually didn't answer. Once in a while they would say oh we are with the hospital and just want to know who you are. One day I got a call from a familiar number and it was the Kuwaiti lawyer - who was at the Shuwaikh police station. He asked me to come in.

What followed was a disturbing experience. The head of the Shuwaikh Special Investigations (I guess that's what it's called) asked me where I was from. He was a large burly man with a beard and glasses and the most arrogant look on his face. I said I was Indian and immediately he smirked. He asked for my civil id and had it photocopied. He spoke to me in Arabic and I told him I don't speak the language. He smirked again and said in Arabic (the lawyer translated for me) I know you speak Arabic - in fact I know you speak it fluently so don't try and play games with me. The look on his face was so intimidating and I said - no I swear I don't speak Arabic. He got angry and said Don't you dare lie to me. Right now I can put you in jail. I can have you sent back to India. I got a bit scared and had no idea what to do.

Well anyways he said that if I ever go to Al Razi hospital again, he would give my file to the mubahath and 'they had ways of dealing with me.' I asked him - but who will help the maids? The hospitals lie and the budgets are going into someone's pockets. He said to me - It's none of your business. It's not your country. Now get out.

So I did. And I haven't gone to Al-Razi since. In fact all I do for maids right now is sit at home and write this blog every once in a while. And I feel so useless because although people are made aware... awareness is not my ultimate aim. Change is. And change isn't happening.

For the last six months I don't know the names of any of the maids at al Razi. I don't know what nationalities are coming in and what injuries they have recieved and by whose hands. But I do know that the hospitals still cheap out on their crutches, their medicine and the time they are allowed to recover in the ward. I know only the nurses and the cleaners in the wards treat them with any dignity. I know they are forced out of their beds and into the jails where they are treated like crap and yelled at like animals. Then they spend what seems to be a criminal sentence at the deportation center - waiting to go home to the rest of their humiliating lives.

These things haven't changed and I don't need to go every week to know that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A call to action

The following story is from one of our readers:

I know of a Filipino maid living opposite me who used to come onto the balcony dirty & thin. One day, I found papers on my balcony saying 'Help me, I have been locked in this house for 2 years and 8 months. They don't give me soap to wash myself or even let me have a shower. And I only eat scraps of food."

I went to the Filipino embassy and reported this. Initially they resisted and did nothing. They told me to call other people, but I kept insisting and getting angry... so eventually they went to the house.

I can see these same people now have an Indonesian maid. The Filipino maid is now home but had to undergo an operation as she developed thyroid problems from stress. She was only skin and bones. I am glad I was able to help her and am still in contact with her. I wish I could help many more that undergo ill treatment.

I know this story is not as horrific as the ones you have published. I want to thank you for having this group to open peoples eyes.

2nd story
Al Razi Hospital
An Indonesian girl jumped from 6th floor of a Kuwaiti owned house. The only words she can manage are "baba mu zain, mama mu zain' As she says this her eyes go very wide, almost in a scary way. I have a feeling she has lost her mind from her experiences. And why not? She has only been in Kuwait for one week!

Within two weeks of her being at the hospital, 11 new maid abuse cases are admitted to her ward. Broken bones, burns, as thin as rakes - and rape cases.

Every so often people will write to me and tell me similar stories about what they have seen or heard in their own neighbourhoods. In fact I have had 4 or 5 people write in because they have been so crushed by their experiences. They want to help in any way they can and don't know how. So if people want to help, what is stopping them?

You know that moment during a song, a TV show, a play, a book - the emotional climax - that almost makes you feel like you can change the world? It gives you enough energy and emotion at that moment to make you think -maybe I can do something different, something better with my life. You want to go out and make a difference and be a better person, but as soon as you step out into the real world of traffic jams, angry bosses, piled up office work, nagging relatives... the wind and the heat and everything makes you think... oh it was just an emotion. It wasn't real - these things in front of me are reality. What could I possibly do to change things?

DON'T lie to yourself. You can do it! One person has changed the world on numerous occasions. The entire course of history has changed millions of times because of the actions of people who acted alone. One person - Mother Theresa - completely changed the face of poverty in Calcutta. It changed the way people felt about the poor, changed the way the poor felt about themselves. One person, Gandhi, created a completely unique nation by freeing us from British rule through non violence. I don't know of any other country in the world that has earned its freedom in this way. These are just examples from my own country - no doubt you have many for your own as well. One person changes history permanently, all the time.

In fact, if you think about it, your every action every minute, changes history permanently. Even if you decide not to do something about the maids abuse situation in Kuwait, you have decided that that is your contribution to history... and future generations will work based on your decisions and either praise or lament your decision.

And if reality is what's getting in your way from getting involved in the maids abuse situation, don't let it. Don't coast along from song to song, movie to movie - thinking that you need to feel that spark of emotion to get a fire raging. A spark reminds you of what you should be doing. It is not the fuel that drives you and it never will be. Your own human will is what will change things and if you say "I will" then you will.

If not you, then who?

So let's stop reading and do something. In the next week or so please give thought to if you want to do something to help these suffering people. And if you decide that something must be done, please share with me your email address as a comment (I will not publish it). At the very least we can get together a group of Kuwaiti Citizens who feel strongly about this and put them in the same place at the same time so they can know that other citizens care too.

God bless you guys!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Recruitment Agencies worried about Kuwait's cooperation

This article is from a while back. It describes the fact that Kuwait is thinking about taking over the overall recruitment process for foreign labour and thereby getting rid of all these individual recruitment agencies. This is because it is at the stage of the recruitment agency that a good deal of corruption takes place. Lack of filtering for age (some girls coming in are as young as 14), law (last I heard it was illegal for Indian citizens to come to Kuwait as maids), and of course ability and mental health.

The recruitment agencies however, are in an uproar about what seems to be their lessening control over the lucrative trade in human life. I am in shock that to them, profit protection is SO important that they would sink so low as to say what they did in the article.

One of their arguments is that Kuwait should not take this step to improving the recruitment process because to remove corruption would be admitting to the international community that that there corruption in the first place. God forbid any country would want to admit to their mistakes, in order to progress to a point where those mistakes are no longer made. Regardless of your political opinion - it would be like George W. Bush continuing to insist there still ARE weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as his justification for the war in Iraq when, to my knowledge, they still haven't found any. hey no, we didn't make a mistake. (Insert country here) NEVER makes mistakes.

The second reason these agencies give is that if recruitment is taken over by one company, how will you let us, the corrupt companies, improve on our own? This is such a childish, petty excuse. Another one of their excuses is that abuse only happens in 5 percent of cases - which doesn't warrant any action.

I'm sorry but where in the hell did this number come from? EVEN if this were true that means that at any given time only twenty five thousand expat workers are being abused. 25, 000 families are being ruined and destroyed and nothing should be done because we have to protect the national reputation? Never mind of course that these figures are obviously only the formally recognised complaints - and we know that the majority of these abuse cases are never even heard of.

Ridiculous bureaucracy, red tape, official nonsense, rhetoric, newspeak...

- don't help the workers, that means people will know we were abusing them
- if you make a positive change by creating this one company, you won't give us - the other companies - the opportunity to to improve.
- 25, 000 abused people doesn't warrant a change

if that's what the article actually said - would you find these people stupid?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Dark Side of Dubai - Johann Hari

To the world, Dubai is the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region. A dominating skyline, row after row of glass pyramids and hotels.

But something isn't right. The cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. Countless buildings are half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on an artificial island – rainwater is leaking from the ceilings. And the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out.

This is a city built from nothing in just a few decades on credit, suppression and slavery. In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here. People would dive for pearls off the coast and it soon began to accumulate a cosmopolitan population from Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and other Arab countries, all hoping to make their fortune. They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it.

When oil was discovered, the sheikhs faced a dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert. So Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last. A city seemed to fall from the sky in just three decades, from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation.

Hidden in plain view
Today there are three different Dubais. Expats; Emiratis; and the foreign underclass, who built the city. You see the last kind everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors – but you are trained not to look. Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to where they live, an hour out of town. They used to travel on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they use small metal buses. Their home, Sonapur (City of Gold in Hindi) is miles and miles of identical concrete buildings housing around 300,000 men. The camps smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around me, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

Sahinal Monir is a slim 24-year-old Bangladeshi. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven." Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in his village telling the men that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) for working nine-to-five in construction. They would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay 220,000 takka upfront (£2,300) for the work visa – 'money easily remade in the first six months of work'. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as Sahinal arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told that he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat. Western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees. His salary would be 500 dirhams a month, less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But you have my passport, and I can't afford a ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied. It would take more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

Sahinal lives with 11 other men in a tiny concrete room cramped with bunkbeds. His belongings are piled on his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The holes in the ground in the corner of the camp are toilets, backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. The heat is unbearable without AC or fans. Water delivered to the camp isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.

"For work, you have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer." Sahinal is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame. Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work."

Does Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. "How can we think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about regrets..." He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker breaks the silence by adding: "I miss my country, my family and my land. We can grow food in Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil and buildings."

Since the recession, electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."

A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides, but they're not reported. They're classed as 'accidents'." Even after death, their families simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.

At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. "It helps you to feel numb", Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the glistening Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.

Mauled by the mall
Malls seem to stand on every street in Dubai. People gather to bask in the air conditioning. I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. "I love it here!" she says. "The heat, the malls, the beach!" Does it ever bother you that it's a slave society? She puts her head down "I try not to see," she says.

Unlike the expats and the slave class, I can't just approach the native Emiratis to ask questions when I see them wandering around – the men in cool white robes, the women in sweltering black. The men look offended, and tell you brusquely that Dubai is "fine." Ahmed al-Atar is a blogger and speaks perfect American-English, and quickly shows that he knows London, Los Angeles and Paris better than most westerners. Sitting back in his chair in Starbucks, he announces: "This is the best place in the world to be young! The government pays for your education up to PhD level. You get a free house when you get married. Free healthcare, and if it's not good enough here, they pay for you to go abroad. Almost everyone has a maid, a nanny, and a driver. And we never pay any taxes. Don't you wish you were Emirati?"

Sultan al-Qassemi, a 31-year-old Emirati columnist for the Dubai press looks angry when I bring up the slavery system. "People should give us credit," he insists. "We are the most tolerant people in the world. Everyone who comes here is treated with respect." Does he even know about the labour camps in Sonapur? He looks irritated. "You know, if there are 30 or 40 cases a year, that sounds like a lot but when you think about how many people are here..." 30 or 40? We're talking hundreds of thousands, I say. Sultan is furious. "You don't think Mexicans are treated badly in New York City? And how long did it take Britain to treat people well? I could come to London and write about the homeless people on Oxford Street and make your city sound like a terrible place, too! The workers here can leave any time they want! Any Indian can leave, any Asian can leave!"

But they can't, I point out. Their passports are taken away, and wages withheld. And why do you forbid the workers from going on strike against bad employers? "Thank God we don't allow that!" he exclaims. "Strikes are inconvenient! They go on the street – we're not having that. We won't be like France. Imagine a country where the workers can just stop whenever they want!" So what should the workers do when they are cheated and lied to? "Quit. Leave the country." I sigh. Sultan is seething now. "People in the West are always complaining about us," he says. Suddenly, he imitates his critics: "Why don't you treat animals better? Why don't you have better shampoo advertising? Why don't you treat labourers better?" It's a revealing order: animals, shampoo, then workers.

The Dunkin' Donuts Dissidents
But there is another face to the Emirati minority. Next to a Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin' Donuts, I meet Mohammed al-Mansoori. "Westerners come here and see the malls and the tall buildings." Mohammed tells me he was born in Dubai to a fisherman father who taught him one enduring lesson: Never follow the herd. Think for yourself. Horrified by the "system of slavery" his country was being built on, he spoke out to Human Rights Watch and the BBC. "So I was hauled in by the secret police and told: shut up, or you will lose you job, and your children will be unemployable," he says. "But how could I be silent?" He was stripped of his lawyer's licence and his passport – becoming yet another person imprisoned in this country. "I have been blacklisted and so have my children. The newspapers are not allowed to write about me."

Why is the state so keen to defend this system of slavery? He offers an explanation. "Most companies are owned by the government, so they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins. It's in their interests that the workers are slaves."

The Lifestyle
One night, I go to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the entrance there is a red telephone box, and London bus-stop signs. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.

I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties. "You stay here for The Lifestyle," they say. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: "Here, you go out every night. You'd never do that back home. It's great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don't have to do all that stuff. You party!" They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and explain how the city works. "You've got a hierarchy" Ann says. "It's the Emiratis at the top, then I'd say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it's the Filipinos, because they've got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you've got the Indians and all them lot."

Yet Dubai has disappointed them. Jules Taylor tells me: "If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."

Later, I start chatting to an Expat American who is desperate to get away from these people. She says: "All the people who couldn't succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they're rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I've never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world." She adds: "It's absolutely racist. Filipino girls get paid a quarter of the wages of a European doing the same job. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month."

The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory. It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless."

The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family with four children – Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. When I pleaded for a break, they shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Madam beat me with her fists and kicked me. They wouldn't pay me: they said they'd pay me after two years. What could I do? I was terrified."

One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – to find the Ethiopian consulate. After two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back. "How could I?" she asks. She has been in this hostel for 6 months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. "I lost my country, my daughter, everything," she says.

As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"

In the lobby of the Burj Al Arab, I start chatting to a couple from London. They have been coming to Dubai for 10 years now and love it. "You never know what you'll find here," he says. "On our last trip, at the beginning of the holiday, our window looked out on the sea. By the end, they'd built an entire island there." My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn't the slave class bother you? I hope they misunderstood me, because the woman replied: "That's what we come for! It's great, you can't do anything for yourself!" Her husband chimes in: "When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don't do is take it out for you when you have a piss!" And they both fall about laughing.

Fake Plastic Trees
On my final night in Dubai, I stop at a Pizza Hut on my way to the airport. My mind is whirring and distracted. I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. "It's OK," she says cautiously. 'Really?' I say. 'I can't stand it'. She sighs with relief and says: "This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised – everything in Dubai is fake. The trees are fake, the workers' contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!" But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. "I think Dubai is like an mirage. It's not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand."

As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: "And how may I help you tonight, sir?"

Some names in this article have been changed.

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