It would be glib to say that in 1996 I found myself in Kuwait. Truth be told, I had never been more lost in my life. I left Alaska—my home for four years—in July, the best month in the Last Frontier, when life breaks through the permafrost and the air tingles with pollen and renewed hope. When I left, the flowers were in bloom, the bears out of hibernation, salmon season was in full swing, rivers and trees were heavy with life, and the whole state was awash with tourists, outdoor festivals, cookouts and all forms of art. The landscape of the land I left behind couldn’t be further apart from the one that greeted me in Kuwait. My arrival coincided with the last hours of an unwelcoming sandstorm that had clouded the sky for a few days. When the sun came out, Kuwait simmered in a miasma at 120F. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, a violent searing puff of sand hit my face, fogged up my glasses, and punched me nice and square in my throat. This new kind of heat felt red, angry and sharp, like a discordant violin that sears and pierces and breaks the skin all the way to the other side of the skull.
In retrospect, I wish someone had given me a list of tricks to survive my first Arabian Desert summer, a useful inventory of dos and don’ts such as: Do not leave valuables locked in your car during the summer, the heat reduces plastic bottles, toys, and anything malleable into an amorphous mass of twisted polymers. Do not try fastening your seat belt as soon as you get in the car. The buckle will sear your fingers before you click the strap. If you don’t have the time to wait for your air-conditioning to cool down the steering wheel to a manageable temperature, wear gloves. You’ll feel as ridiculous as you look, but the gloves will protect your hands. Sprinkle the suffocation with sparkles of levity. Don’t take the heat too seriously. It is temporary. Play with it. Cook eggs on the hood of your car. Amuse yourself watching the whites bubble up and curl like the pages of an old book. Stare at the fully-clothed Muslim women bobbing in the waters of the Gulf and wonder how they manage to keep their scarves on. Drive toward that incredible lake in the middle of the road but realize that it’s a mirage, that nothing in the desert is what it seems.
I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Alaska, working as a dance ethnographer, when the opportunity to work in Kuwait came my way. Although I was not a qualified teacher and my professional interest at the time was interpreting cultures through dance, I accepted the offer without apprehension. After all, I was a Ph. D. candidate looking for a good dissertation topic and the Middle East seemed to offer endless possibilities. The teaching job was at a recently opened American school for girls. I was asked to teach various subjects: earth science because I had a degree in Petroleum Engineering, current conflicts because I was an anthropologist, French because I knew the basics, Spanish because I’m Colombian.
A few months after arriving in Kuwait, I went for a drive in the morning when the traffic along the Gulf Road was supposedly manageable. I blasted the AC in the jeep and ignored the 120F outside. I set out to visit the Kuwait Towers, the three slender monuments whose images were aired non-stop on the news during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The globes and the rockets which symbolize the ideals of humanity and technology were damaged during the first Gulf War, but later restored to its previous glory. I was thinking about how meticulously the architects had chosen exactly eight shades of blue, green and gray for the spheres as a way to evoke the tiled domes of historic mosques when I realized that I was driving in the opposite direction. From Salmiya, my neighborhood, I should have headed north toward the towers, but instead, I was driving south. I drove past the Regency Palace, the luxury hotel for wealthy Arabs, past the Radisson SAS—the five-star hotel and sports club we are members of through BP, past Messila—a beach club frequented by school teachers, past Ugaila beach—a littered stretch of sand, and then, as I drove between Fintas and Abu Khalifa—Bedouin towns frequented by expats looking for bootlegging paraphernalia—the landscape changed dramatically.
It was a different Kuwait out there, a microcosm of have-nots within an universe of wealth. The buildings were plastered with distinct signs of poverty. Old saris, raggedy clothes, ripped promotional t-shirts, all hung from improvised clotheslines crisscrossing the space between buildings like laser beams. Some of the buildings were in such poor condition that it was hard to tell whether they were under construction or demolition, or neither, as the case may be. The windows were shattered, the doors either gone or swinging from broken hinges, their fenceless balconies cluttered with clothes and rusted ornaments. It felt as though I was in a different country. This was not the Kuwait I knew and had lived in. To think that only several miles north was my home, an Arab state of opulence, flamboyance and comfort. My recollections of Kuwaiti mansions and palaces receded in my memory as I scanned the place.
From the comfort of my car, I saw the gaping holes on the walls where air-conditioning units once were. The thermometer read the outside temperature as121F. I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be live in one of these buildings, with the stifling heat, armies of bugs trampling one another, and the diseases that, without ventilation, I was certain, spread like wildfire. The structures themselves, unsuitable for human habitation under American standards, looked like they were about to implode. Yet, hundreds of South Asian workers called these buildings, commonly known as work camps, home.
And that’s how I decided the topic of my dissertation: I would design an empirical tool to assess the quality of life, QoL, of the women living in this particular work camp in front of me.
I gained access to the work camp through a group of American Charismatic sisters on a zealous mission to convert as many Hindu women to Christianity as they could and in the shortest possible time. The Charismatic sisters had been tirelessly working on about fifty women living on the fourth floor of the work camp. These residents were Indians from Kerala, brought into the country to work as janitors for public schools.
The first time I went with the Charismatics, I followed them upstairs in silence taking in the appalling sadness of the place. The staircase leading to the upper levels was dark, the bare electrical wires spilled downward as if reaching for the ground, making buzzing sounds over our heads. The place, littered with garbage, animal feces, and rotten food left to feed stray cats, reeked with a mixture of abandonment, onions, curries, and Indian spices coming from the dorms. I felt slightly dizzy. If neglect had a smell, this was it. Every floor, every wall, every ceiling was tainted with decay and deprivation.
On the fourth floor, a group of smiling women came to greet us at the door, or what was left of it, and we hugged each other as if we were old friends. In a place where bare necessities themselves were so precarious, every smile and every hug came as a boon and a miracle. The door was patched with pieces of cardboard and plywood. A missing bottom portion of the left door frame had been replaced with old socks tied together in a knot, which some of the sisters and I knocked out of place as we walked in. The door opened to a gloomy living room cluttered with suitcases and Coca-Cola crates all the way down to a dimly lit hall flanked by two rows of three bedrooms. The workers for whom there was no room in the six dormitories, were living in the dining room next to a black and white TV set, between a broken refrigerator that leaked onto the carpet and a failing sewing machine. The carpet, whose original color was unidentifiable was torn in some places and stained with blood, food, and most probably tears.
My lungs filled with hot thick air and the pungent smell of ginger and red onion coming from the boiling pot of curry that one of the women was cooking three feet away from me. She used four bricks to lift her bunk bed off the floor high enough to stow a complete kitchen beneath it: a kerosene stove, food, chipped plastic dishes, oxidized cutlery, the works. She squatted by her bed stirring and tasting the curry with a wooden stick. I looked around for fire extinguishers and emergency exits. There were none. I wanted to walk around the floor and look at the living conditions of these women, but I couldn’t find the right time to ask. I feared that if I pushed the sisters too hard they’d stop taking me along.
During my third visit I met Rina, a newly arrived Keralite. She had come to Kuwait from Kerala to be close to her mother, Wasalla, a long-time work-camp resident. Rina was twenty-three years old, tall, thin, and dark, with beautiful high cheekbones, a stunning smile full of white, even teeth, a long, black braid gleaming with rays of castor oil, and a happy-go-lucky disposition that bordered on oblivion.
“Sister, want to see the rooms?” she asked the moment she caught me stretching my neck looking down the hallways.
“Yes, please,” I said, and she jumped behind me, forming a two-wagon-train. I played along, choo-chooed away and led Rina out of the reception area, much to the amusement of residents and sisters.
Rina opened the first room: four dirty walls with four sets of bunk beds to accommodate eight women and their dreams, their memories of India, their past, present and future. A water pipe had burst on the floor above. The air inside the dimly lit room was thick and damp. Rivulets of moisture ran from the ceiling down the walls and onto a set of bunk beds soaking one edge of the mattresses. Rina lifted one dripping quilt, wrung it, looked around for a good place to hang it up to dry, and when she couldn’t find a place for it, she put it back and laughed hard. She saw comedy where I saw tragedy. The mattresses were thin layers of foam wrapped in hand-sewn pieces of fabric. On top of their beds were pillows, blankets still in their plastic wrapping, used rugs, little trinkets and clothes: some dirty, some clean, some dry, and some recently washed which were hung out on an improvised clothesline across the room and still dripping water onto their mattresses.
The other rooms were identical in size and dearth. Like the woman I had first seen cooking curry in the reception area, all residents had lifted their bunk beds off the floor. This dark, dusty space was their closet, storage room, pantry, kitchen, memory chest, armoire, and bathroom cabinet. Their rooms were a reflection of their life in Kuwait: dark, sad, chaotic, small. Still, a couple of rooms had an air of gaiety with posters of Shah Rukh Khan, the Indian movie star better known as King Khan. One of the posters showed King Khan embracing his co-star in the 1997 movie hit Dil To Pagal Hai; her face had being carefully excised and replaced with the face of one of the workers’. The air in their cage-like bedrooms was humid and thick with garlic. I felt light-headed and asked Rina to show me where I could get a drink of water.
The kitchen. A tiny windowless room of about 10 x 15 feet, where despite the lack of ventilation, 10 propane cylinders were connected to 10 small stoves with mismatched, amended hoses. The place resembled more a grade-school science project than a kitchen for grown-ups. The counters were improvised pedestals made with sheets of plywood laid on top of more stacked Coca-Cola crates. On this surface ten rudimentary stoves had been connected to the gas pipes. The place reeked of propane gas. I alerted Rina of the danger, but she looked more amused than concerned. She asked me to wait in the kitchen and disappeared, wrapping the scarf of her panjabi around her mouth. A few seconds later she came back with pieces of dry soap that she had collected from the showers. She put the chunks under the running water to form a moist matter which she used to patch the leaking hose. Rina hopped over the wide-open drain.
“Cockroaches and bugs this big,” she said with arms spread wide open and a smile across her face. “They get everywhere. Food, beds. Everywhere.”
During the summer months, Kuwait reaches temperatures sometimes above 130 ºF. Yet, the building was not equipped with AC units. During the winter, near-freezing cold fronts make their way across Kuwait. Yet, there was no heating system in place.
I was ashamed of every one of the comforts of my life.
“I’m working on my dissertation,” I said to Rina during my first solo visit. I wanted to make sure the women knew why I was there asking questions about their lives. “Can you translate that for me, please?” Rina looked hesitant. Either she didn’t know the word dissertation in Malayalam or that she didn’t know the meaning of the word.
“For my doctorate,” I said.
“You a doctor?” she asked, and before I could say anything she had already translated her interpretation of my words into Malayalam. There was an explosion of smiles and relief. I was about to be a doctor. I could heal them. I could cure anything, from a common cold to a cancer. I must have been a gift from the Christian God the Charismatic sisters preached about.
“It’s not that kind of doctor,” I rushed to explain. “I’ll be a doctor of philosophy.”
Rina looked disappointed. “Like a nurse?” she wanted to know.
I shook my head and waved my hands in the air. “No, no. I’m sorry. Not a doctor. Not a nurse.” Rina seemed even more disappointed. I didn’t have the words to explain what I was trying to achieve. What would the right words be to describe the intricacies of a QOL, Quality of Life model to a group of mostly illiterate women?
A swath of doubt lingered in the air. I had first come with the Charismatic sisters, but later told the residents I wasn’t from the church. I said I was about to be a doctor, not the type that cures, but a different kind. The women stared at me as if trying to determine how many lies I had told them in the past. Rina came to my rescue. “It’s ok. No doctor. No problem,” she said. And whatever else she said in Malayalam to the other women was enough to restore their faith and bring back the smiles. “You’re a sister,” she stated firmly, leaving no room for further discussion. And so, for two years, during my visits, I shared what little air there was to breathe with fifty women, twenty propane cylinders, and a variety of cockroaches named after the watchmen who guarded the building. The ugliest, the fattest, the most repulsive cockroaches were always named Ibrahim, after the heavy Pakistani guarding the building.
The women on the fourth floor shared a wide tapestry of common milestones: The trip to Kuwait was their first trip out of the State of Kerala, their first time living alone away from their families, their first time flying in an airplane, and their first time being a political and social minority abroad. And because they had never traveled abroad, they weren’t aware of the implications of not having a passport in Kuwait.
How does someone, who has never held a passport before understand its significance, its entry and exit value? Naturally, when the women’s Kuwaiti sponsor, commonly known as kafeel, asked them to surrender this golden booklet they did so without hesitation and full of gratitude that their passports were kept in safe holding.
The keeping of passports by the kafeel for the duration of the worker’s stay in Kuwait was a common practice. Common but illegal. Although it wasn’t based on a written law, it was encouraged and sanctioned by the authorities, who viewed this measure as a way to monitor the worker’s mobility and as a deterrent to immigrant unlawfulness. The underlying rationale for the confiscation of the passports being that without them, it was impossible for a foreigner who had committed a crime to flee the country.
We liked talking out on the balcony. It gave me a respite from the heaviness of the air inside the apartment and it gave Rina the opportunity to take stock of her life. She pointed at a majestic palace-like structure just a couple of miles down the road, towering, like a dream, over the village. It belonged to a Kuwaiti who had it built for his first wife. She had been displeased with the layout of the mansion and the couple never moved in. It had been vacant for a long time.
“I’m glad I can see that mansion from here,” Rina said, her head resting on my shoulder like any of my blood sisters would do. “It reminds me that the dreams of the poor never come true, at least not in Kuwait.” I don’t know why I said I’m really, really sorry, like I was asking for her forgiveness. I rested my head on hers. I looked down at the vacant lot across the street. I knew she was looking at my car.
“Let’s go inside, sister, you look cold,” Rina said. I understood her invitation to go back inside as her forgiveness for not being one of them. For coming to see them in a brand-new jeep, with a stomach full of good food, armed with a pad, a pen, and a digital camera. A tourist documenting an attraction in town only for two years.
We sat on a rug on the floor, next to a group of women chitchatting in Malayalam.
“What were your plans when you left India?” I asked Rina.
“Same as everybody else’s, sister,” Rina said, wiping her runny nose with a torn piece of well used Kleenex. “Come here, work hard, make money and if Kuwait didn’t turn out to be a nice place, go back home at any time.”
What she didn’t know was that once in Kuwait she would be forced to stay in the country for two years. No exceptions made, no ifs or buts. The labor law had shortened the length of contracts from five years in the 1970s to two years in the 1990s. The purpose of this law is to reinforce the worker’s transience, as temporary unskilled workers are not likely to revolt, unionize, or demand improvement of their working conditions and terms. They are in Kuwait to render services for two years, whether they want to or not, whether they’d adjusted or not, whether they’re happy or not.
The women next to us in the living room had fallen silent. They were sitting on Coca-Cola crates and from my lower vantage point, they looked like crestfallen queens. After chatting about their days, they each had sunk in a sort of quiet gloom. I took advantage of the silence.
“Didn’t the man who hired you tell you that you wouldn’t be able to leave Kuwait for two years?” Nobody answered. I got up, sat on a crate closer to theirs, and rephrased my question as we took turns rubbing each other’s hands, fighting the near-icy Kuwaiti winter.
“Didn’t your contracts say anything about how long you had to be in Kuwait?” I got a few smirks and scoffs in return.
“Mine was in English,” Sudevi said in Hindi. Rina translated for me.
“I had two: one in English and one in Arabic,” another woman said in Malayalam, as Rina patiently translated.
“Write that in your book, sister,” Rina added. She never stopped calling me sister or referring to the study as my book.
“She signed two contracts. Two,” Rina emphasized, her index and middle fingers in a V shape. “In two different languages that she doesn’t speak.”
All of them without exception had signed contracts in India. The recruiting agents—usually Indian go-betweens acting for Kuwaiti employers—offered the women an initial contract in English. This first document was often signed only by the worker; the Kuwaiti employer’s signature was not required. On arrival in Kuwait, the women were asked to sign another contract, this time in Arabic. This was not only the sole document accepted by the Ministry of Labor, but also in many occasions, not an exact translation of the original in English.
“How about salaries. Did you know how much money you would be making before you came to Kuwait?”
Without exception, all of them had signed a contract that stipulated a monthly salary of 30 Kuwaiti Dinars—roughly $90 US. However, a few obscure deductions followed and the women never received this amount. There was a housing administration fee and an arbitrary 5 KD deduction which was applied without further explanation from the outset. Consequently, the women were paid only 24. 750 KD or $74. 25 a month—about $0.47 per hour.
During the following visit to the camp, Rina revealed a disheartening detail she had forgotten to mention before. Although the contracts bound the workers to their Kuwaiti sponsor for two years, they were paid only for eighteen not twenty-four months. Their employer didn’t feel obligated to pay them during the three summer months, when the schools were closed. Not only were the women not paid, but they were not allowed to find a temporary second job either. By law, an immigrant can work only for the person or institution that sponsors her.
“So, every single one of you earns less than 200 KD a year. Am I right?” I asked a group of about 10 women who’d gathered around me. No, I wasn’t right. 200KD was the sum they would have received had they been paid every one of the nine months, which they hadn’t. The previous year they had been paid only four times. Every unpaid month, their employer gave them a salary-pending notification without further explanation.
The situation had taken a desperate tone as November approached and they had received no more than three payments in the entire year. In a bout of class solidarity and collective despair and frustration, the women had gone on strike. Their determination and courage triumphed and the following day they were called to work to collect May’s salary, making this payment the fourth and last of the year 1998. This was before I came to visit them for the first time with the Charismatic sisters. I wondered why nobody had mentioned this important moment during my interviews. Maybe they were so used to struggling that to measure one battle against another was a futile exercise. I smiled, pleased to know that underneath their acceptance of the status quo was a well of courage and determination. Then, it dawned on me that these women, who shared their tea with me, had survived an entire year on less than 300 dollars—the amount an American family of three on welfare would receive. My smile faded and the lovely taste of victory was gone.
Wasalla, lay in bed, with her face buried under the pillow.
“Strikes are shit,” she hissed, looking like a beast coming out of her burrow after a long period of hibernation: red eyes, colorless lips, black bags under her Indian eyes. She had news from their sponsor.
“He’ll renew everybody’s contracts, but he can offer us only18 KD a month.”
The Kuwaiti sponsor would allow them to extend their stay in Kuwait if they agreed to new terms. These include, but were not limited to, cleaning toilets from dawn to dusk and getting paid 54 dollars a month—the same amount I paid for a haircut. The room grew quiet as Wasalla retreated her swollen face back into the burrow underneath her pillow without case.
Assumpta, a quiet small woman whom I had seen only a few times, broke into tears upon hearing the news. She, like everybody else on the floor, worked as a school janitor from Saturday to Wednesday. However, because of the irregularity with which they had been paid, she had been forced to take part-time jobs as a domestic helper and a beautician. Three times a week after her regular cleaning job at the school, Assumpta worked as a housemaid. She received the equivalent of four dollars each of these three days for cleaning a Kuwaiti family’s house for four hours a day. On weekends, Assumpta worked as a beautician in Kuwaiti homes doing facials, manicures and pedicures, skills she had learned in a previous job. The people she worked for did not live in the same neighborhood, and since she couldn’t afford transportation, Assumpta covered long distances on foot. She worked about eighty hours a week, had no days off, and had a constant expression of despair across her face. She looked like if there was any strength left in her, she would run up and down the building breaking things and putting her firsts through walls.
Assumpta’s heartbreaking story was followed by Seria’s—a woman with a stomach tumor. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t deserve their life stories, their truths, the trust they had put in me. I couldn’t make promises that I knew in my heart of hearts I wouldn’t be able to fulfill. Week after week, month after month, I sat and listened. I clung to the anthropologist creed: I was there to document their lives, not to change them. And I went on.
Seria: Two months after getting married in 1991, her husband was offered a 90-dollars/month job as a gardener in Kuwait. His kafeel promised to help him with the process of bringing Seria to Kuwait as a dependent. Much to his dismay, on arrival he found out that to be able to bring his wife to Kuwait he had to, by law, earn a minimum monthly salary 1800 dollars—20 times his earnings. The only other option for the newlyweds to be together was to find Seria a job in Kuwait. A few months later, she was working as a live-in maid for a Bedouin family of four wives, one husband, several children, and an army of transient cousins, aunts, and uncles. From the onset the wives took turns in slapping and pulling Seria’s hair whenever they were displeased with her services, which was often.
“At least I could see my husband two Fridays each month,” Seria said.
Towards the end of her first year in Kuwait, Seria got pregnant. Confused about the legal formalities of a newborn baby, the couple asked her husband’s employer for guidance. Her kafeel, an old Kuwaiti man, helped them write a letter to the immigration lawyer of the Arab Times who had a column offering pro bono guidance to thousands of migrant workers. His answer was disheartening: They wouldn’t be able to sponsor the child because they didn’t meet the required salary cap. Even worse, Seria was not allowed to keep her baby because she was a domestic worker. She could give birth in Kuwait but would have to take the baby out of the country within the following 60 days. With no options left, Seria and her newborn left Kuwait and would not see her husband for another five years. In 1997 after the Indian doctors found her tumor, she found another job in Kuwait, this time as school janitor. She had to leave her toddler in Kerala with her family.
“That’s how I ended up here,” Seria said, leaning her chin on the broom cap, her eyes fixed on a dead cockroach she had just squashed.
“Was it worth it? I mean, are you happy?” I asked, looking for her eyes.
“Who? Me? Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think about it.” Seria wrapped both hands around the side of her stomach where the tumor was.
“At least, I get to see my husband every day after work, his kafeel is a good man, and my baby is in good hands. At least nobody slaps me this time around.”
“When will you see your baby again?”
“Hopefully, before this one kills me,” Seria said, pressing her round abdomen.
“Is the tumor benign?” I asked her.
“Is it a tumor that can be treated? One that will eventually disappear?”
Seria shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows?”
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Does it hurt?” Seria scoffed. “Only when I breathe.”
She left the room dragging the broom behind her. On her way out she swept two dead cockroaches, a ball of cat hair, some breadcrumbs, and a moribund moth wildly flapping its wings in a cloud of dust.
The first rounds of data analysis were devastating. My predetermined ideas and understanding of social mobility were at odds with the data. No sooner had I finished the data-gathering phase than I felt as though I had to start all over. When asked about personal satisfaction, the women were quick to point out they were in a better pace than the Indian domestic workers hired locally as housemaids. Unlike the domestic workers, they were not exposed to possible sexual harassment by their male employers, nor did they have to raise the children of the house as is customary in Kuwait. Although they didn’t like the working and living conditions, they still felt the work camp acted as a home away from home. I felt I’d stumbled upon a realm of personal satisfactions that I didn’t even know existed.
“At least here we’re together,” Assumpta had said, marking the beginning of an endless list of “at least,” excuses for each ill-treatment.
More troublesome, and contradicting my predictions, was the general feeling of a slight improvement in their quality of life. In Kuwait they had access to facilities that were out of their reach in India—gas stoves and running water, which made them feel that they had moved upwards on the social ladder. I had been visiting the Indian workers for over a year. I had become good friends with some of them and thoroughly acquainted with their personal lives beyond the limits of my social research. Through it all, they had taught me that their expectations and mine were a world apart. In their notion of social mobility, the transition from cow dung to gas ranges was an enviable leap forward.
“At least here we don’t have walk long distances to fetch fresh water,” was Sudevi’s revealing contribution to the conversation.
To top it all off, they had accepted Jesus in their hearts:
“Jesus, the American God, very nice God, Madam,” Sudevi added cheerfully, in her basic English.
I had been wrong all along. Kuwaiti gender segregation and the remoteness of the work camp, far from depriving them of romantic or sexual fulfillment, saved them from the dangers of arranged marriages to older suitors back in their villages in India.
The crowded living conditions were nowhere near as appalling to them as they were to me. To them, personal space and privacy were unnecessary Western commodities, unnatural luxuries in India, a country barely large enough to house one billion souls. What I documented as blatant ethnic discrimination—Indians vs. Kuwaitis—represented in fact, an unexpected egalitarianism, especially among the poorest, whom I wrongly perceived as the most oppressed.
“At least here at the work camp we’re all equal; at home, I’m Irava. Here we’re all same, same,” Sudevi explained.
She was an Irava, or untouchable, in India. The socially binding caste system imposed in her homeland was no longer applicable in the new setting. Kuwait was to Sudevi a symbol of freedom from caste oppression. The exposé undertone that I had planned for my dissertation had to be carefully re-evaluated.
In the year 2000, during my last visit to the camp, the insects seemed to be everywhere, bidding me farewell. It had rained hard for two solid days. The downpour caused the kitchen and bathroom drains to overflow. With the runoff came a stampede of terrified cockroaches swarming away from the rising waters, seeking the mugginess, warmth, and safety of the dorms. They crawled on pots and pans, trampling each other on their way up to someone’s mattress, sneaking into the folds of somebody else’s sari, making buzzing noises as they flew into the cracks in the wall and ceiling. I spent my last visit to the workers, sandal in hand, squashing fat cockroaches as they came out of the drain. I thought about Salma, one of my high school students. Last spring, she had brought me freshly pruned flowers to my desk. Out of the white morning glory crawled a tiny bug. Salma screamed in horror, jumped onto her desk, hyperventilated, and managed to pass out. The school nurse had to be called in. How much I wished she could be there, with nowhere to jump on, no audience to admire her histrionics, no American nurse to bring her back to life.
Rina grabbed my hand and pulled me into her bedroom. “What’s wrong, sister?” She asked me after I had said good bye to a few of the women. I thought about her question. Lately I had been feeling like a thief, that in writing about their conditions, I was exploiting their pain, their situation—even appropriating it, and ultimately using their life stories to further my education. Writing about human trafficking, a woman’s tumor, or appalling living conditions in a language that was thoroughly calculated from the comfort and safety of my well-lit, well-ventilated studio was not the same as having a tumor, co-habiting with cockroaches or being stripped of basic human rights. I knew that. I also knew that their pain was theirs and their survival mechanisms had to be of their own devise. Still, I wanted to do something tangible, something of substance that would better their lives in Kuwait. I had nothing. Only a pen and a pad.
I leaned on a bunk bed. It wobbled. I chose another one. I told her that I felt useless because I couldn’t do anything for them. That it didn’t matter how passionate I felt about their plight, I couldn’t write their way out of poverty. She looked me in the eye and giggled. Her giggles were so often and so poorly timed that I never knew if she had fully understood the gravity of their predicament.
Rina stood in front of me, held my hands in hers and swung our arms left, right, left, like little girls do.
“I know you’re sad, Sister. I know.”
I told her about my confusion. How difficult it was for me to understand why they insisted in staying in Kuwait, why they did so little to change their working conditions, or how they managed to see the bright side of their situation while I was getting more and more lost in the dark. Rina smiled as if she had liked what I said.
She looked so beautiful with those unusually fiery eyes that I asked her if I could please take a picture of her.
“Not in this filthy panjabi. Let me show you the real me,” and she pulled a plastic bag from under the bed before heading for the bathroom. A few minutes later she came back dressed in a purple silk sari with dabs of gold and ruby across her chest. That’s how I’d always remember her: standing against an old brown door, looking as frail as an ice sculpture about to cave in, yet unpretentious, beautiful, and enormous. The picture did not capture her moribund dreams, or the daintiness of her walk. It captured only an Indian woman dressed in a sari smiling against a brown old door.
Rina never stopped calling me sister, even after I stopped visiting them with the Charismatic group. I had noticed that at health centers and hospitals, female nurses, receptionists and patients addressed each other as sisters, a fact that I interpreted as a legacy of British colonialism in India and Kuwait. In the British health care system a sister is a head nurse in a hospital ward or clinic. This historical reason seemed too sterile to explain why Rina called me sister. There was tenderness, comradery, a kind of filial bond every time she said the word that I began to wonder if she saw me as her blood sister. After all, we were about the same height, bone structure and skin color. I asked her.
“The ladies from the church are sisters, nurses are sisters.”
“But I’m not from the church or a nurse,” I challenged her. “And Wasalla is not my mother.”
Rina giggled. “You’re still a sister.”
“Why? Why don’t you want to be my sister?” Rina asked, her voice slightly wounded. We smiled and she encircled my waist with her thin arms as if saying that regardless of whom or what I was, I would be her sister and that was the end of it.
We walked together to the parking lot, her hands around my waist and her head on my shoulder. We hugged before I got in my car. It was a long, warm, teary, sisterly embrace. I wanted to say something important, something crucial. I wanted to tell her something that would change the course of her life. I wanted to give her a gift that could save her from abject poverty and anonymity. I wished I could cradle her hands in mine and tell her that everything was going to be okay. I wished this unnamed thing, which I did not possess but longed to share with her, would fill her with renewed fortitude and get her ready to face each day, until it gave her the joy she deserved. But I had nothing to tell her, nothing to offer but an old desktop. I sobbed quietly.
“I love you, Sister,” Rina said.
We held gazes for a few seconds. I started the ignition but she didn’t move, and, neither did I.
Adriana Páramo is a cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate. Her book Looking for Esperanza, winner of the 2011 Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction was one of the top ten best books by Latino authors in 2012, the best Women’s Issues Book at the 2013 International Latino Book Awards and was an award winner at the 2012 BOYA, Book of the Year Awards. She is also the author of My Mother’s Funeral, a CNF work set in Colombia recently nominated for the Latino Books into Movies Award. She keeps a travel blog at: http://www.paramoadriana.com/travel-blog