As it appears in The Outpost Magazine, Issue 5, The Possibility of Warming Your Heart.
Leggings, running shoes, and a t-shirt she doesn’t mind swimming in.
The latter was Jonny’s suggestion, and Reem knew everybody was going to be sweating pools by the end of the day.
She parked her car next to a pillar marked G1. Stuffing the remainder of her dinner in the glove compartment (the last square of a chocolate bar and an empty packet of chips,) she switched the engine off, and Fairouz’s voice died along with the rush of the AC. She opened the door, and at once the heat engulfed her like an enclosing fist, so solid she wondered how the noise around her travelled.
It was forty minutes past five. She was late. She had left a little late, and had had to navigate into the crowded heart of old Dubai; an area, sitting on the north side of the creek, that used to be the city’s center, until the city developed two newer ones on the other side. Her car beeped as she locked it, and she made her way towards a plywood fence and through an opening framed with safety posters and construction-site rules. She stood in a narrow corridor, elevators on her right and two men in safety helmets ahead.
“Hi, excuse me.” They both turned to look at her.
“Sixth floor?” asked one of them, pressing the elevator call button.
“Um, yeah, the Sameness Project?” The elevator’s door opened. Thick dusty sheets of plastic covered its interior walls and floor.
“Yes, yes,” he gestured her in, then leaned around the door and pressed a button so shabby Reem couldn’t read the number. She watched the doors close, moving together and blocking her view of the construction site behind her. The site was off the parking lot of Deira City Center, a hotel renovation project, a three year-long endeavor planned by well-dressed people in air-conditioned offices, to be carried out by men in blue jumpsuits sharing a room somewhere on the edge of Dubai with five other jump-suited men.
The elevator’s chime was lost, as the doors opened, to the cacophony of the sixth floor. She walked out of the plastic-wrapped box into a room with corrugated steel panels on either side, asphalt floor, and ceiling made up of lines, lights and faded red pipes. Across from her the room opened its view to the crowded streets of Deira, and she could see glimpses of purple sunset between low buildings and high cranes. She knew if she looked in the other direction, she would see the high-rises Dubai was so famous for, towers built by a workforce so vast, fast and productive that most often forgot about it, thought of it not as a group of humans, but one of invisible machines, a programming code that worked quietly in the background where you didn’t see it, hear it or feel it.
Today, however, she stood in the middle of a site yet unfinished, the code was still running, the project still unfinished, and the Air-condition still uninstalled. She tucked a sweaty strand of hair behind her ear as she made her way across the room, camera where the blond hair and beard she was looking for stuck out behind a DSLR.
“Hey Jonny! So sorry I’m late.”
“No worries. We’re still waiting on Fiona to come from the Majid al-Futtaim HQ with the employees,” he said as he shook her hand.
She looked around and asked, “How’s it going? Everything ready?”
“Yeah, this is much more organized than last time.”
The room had a table against the windows, on top of which sat bright iceboxes, sweaty and stark in the pale room. A second table held a row of handkerchiefs, “We care about you” printed in six different languages. The room, as gray and unforgiving as any other parking lot, was buzzing with activity. People carried care packages to the adjacent space, filled the iceboxes with cans of soda, organized the handkerchiefs in small stacks, or just milled around meeting new people. The energy was infectious, and Reem found that, despite her just leaving her nine-to-five job, it was as though the day was just beginning.
Jonny stood back from the camera and surveyed the scene in front of him. The site workers were standing to the left of the room, watching the bustle with curiosity. Everything was in place: the video camera running, the refreshments ice-cold, the handkerchiefs stacked, the drawing table topped with paper and the ink on standby. There were four stations set up, each one of them there to encourage conversation that would open windows of connection and hidden doors of commonality between the day’s attendees.
Five years ago, if someone had asked him where he saw himself in the future, sweating in a hot parking lot in the Middle East, looking for moments of connection, might not have been the first thing that came to Jonny Kennaugh’s mind. After he and his wife Aimee were married, they had decided to leave New Zealand and see the world. When they’d arrived in Dubai in 2010, it was intended as a short trip to see family.
But during their stay, Lina, Aimee’s sister-in-law, told them about a trip she had made to Palestine. She had gone soon after giving birth to her daughter, and she spoke about a surreal experience of understanding she had had with an Israeli mother, on the stressful Israeli borders, an experience elevated above their own earthly struggles and differences. She talked about her realization that this woman, whom she was brought up thinking of as an enemy, was a mother very much like herself, with a daughter she loved and worried about and had dreams for, just like Lina had for her own. Lina spoke about wanting to show people that different languages and different faiths aside, we all share the same universal experiences wrapped up in the package we call humanity.
The idea began with talks on the beach and conversations around coffee, and escalated quickly up to brainstorming sessions in rented conference rooms, and eventually led to Lina’s suggestion, “Can I hire you guys to stay in Dubai and– let’s do this!”
With the concept of sameness at the center of their schemes, they began projects that reflected values of unity and connection. They varied in scale and scope, from the intimate Conversation Chair, where two strangers sat across from each other and picked conversation starters from helium balloons, to the month-long Soles and Stories where nannies and domestic workers in Dubai and Amman shared their stories as they worked on a blank pair of shoes.
Today, it’s their second go at Together We Make a Difference, a project with Majid al-Futtaim, the retail and leisure giant, in which employees are encouraged to connect with the blue-collar workers who sweat all day under the sweltering sun to make these MAF projects happen. The last event had been a success, but Jonny hoped for more interaction, more realization of this sameness that the employees who sit in air-conditioned offices share with those men who work in cranes in the heat all day. He looked around him, at the shining faces of his team, and thought, for starters, we all sweat the same.
His phone trilled and he picked up.
“Jonny! Everything set?” Fiona’s voice said.
“Yup. You coming up?”
“On our way.”
Two hundred and fifty men, half of the project’s construction workers, were gathered on the sixth floor of the parking lot. It was stuffy and humid, and it had been a long day, everyone up at six and on site by seven. Suhail stood with two of his friends; Yousuf, an enthusiastic, loud young man, and Ashok, an elderly man with a hooked nose and kind eyes. Chatter was usually slow at this time of the day as everyone waited for the bus back to their rooms, tired and hungry, but there was excitement in the break of their routine, and so they were louder than Suhail would have expected. Yousuf couldn’t stop talking about his trip to Bangladesh to get married. Suheil knew he was leaving in eight days, because Yousuf kept a calendar on the wall of their room, a big circle marking the 20th of August. He wondered briefly about his and Ashok’s new roommate. Ashok, on the other hand, was quiet, leaning his weight against the wall and nodding occasionally.
There was a commotion near the front, clapping and hooting. It seemed like people were moving through the steel panels, and Suhail’s curiosity grew.
“Do you want to go see what’s happening?”
The other two shrugged and followed him to the front. Standing on tiptoes to see above the heads of the gathered crowd, he saw into the next room a bustling crowd of people, the kind of people they saw tanning at the beach, when they went on Fridays ; some old but mostly young, around his sister’s age. Ashok’s children’s age.
“How’re the kids, Ashok?” Suhail asked.
“They are fine, thank you,” he replied with a smile, “I will be seeing them soon.” Ashok was retiring in a year, and Suhail will be getting yet another new roommate.
The volunteers’ voices floated, high and loud, as they walked with the workers along the line, giving them refreshments and making small talk.
“Hi! How are you? Long day?”
“Hey, I’m Kuvam. What’s your name?”
“Where’re you from? Do you read Urdu?”
Reem walked with two workers. The older man still had his helmet on, its white, shiny surface almost completely covered in safety stickers.
“Hi guys! I’m Reem. What’re your names?” she asked above the commotion around them.
“Yousuf and Ashok,” replied the younger man as the other gave a small smile.
She handed them sodas, “Where you guys from?”
“I’m from Bangladesh, and Ashok is from Mumbai,” he said, his eyes moving to the napkin she had just handed them. We care about you was printed in Urdu, English, and a few other languages.
“Oh, that’s cool. I’m from Palestine. How long have you guys been here?”
“Ashok eight years, and me four,” replied Yousuf.
Jonny was running around with the camera in his hand. Trying to keep from shaking the video too much, he looked for threads of connection to capture on film. Maybe, he hoped, he’d even catch the face of someone the second they get it, a look, almost blank but for the little color that tingles the skin and a heaviness that droops the eyelids.
As he watched the room’s constant movement, Jonny’s mind went back to last week’s event. A particular MAF employee stuck in his mind; a middle-aged man, suit and tie, helping put together the care packs in the morning, and in the evening, he was in his shirt, loud and active, talking to every worker he paired up with, asking about their families and their stays in Dubai and hugging each one before they left.
It was exactly for these incidents that the sameness project existed; their events just a medium to facilitate them. There was their project We’ve Got Your Back, where they paired up with resident yoga instructors and set out to find taxi drivers, stopping them at rest areas and gas stations, chatting about posture, sore backs, and giving tips on how to avoid them during their long drives around this bright spider-web city. And through this they had gotten to meet those cab drivers, the men inside the beige Toyotas that so many hate driving next to. The yogis and the drivers had spent the day stretching, exchanging anecdotes and family photos, and Jonny liked to think that next time one of the volunteers is cut off by a taxi, they might at least feel bad at cursing them.
Jonny carefully moved with his camera to the other room, where volunteers were adding the last group of care packs to the table.
One of his favorite projects, he reflected, was theirConversation Chair, through which he witnessed some of the most inspiring sparks of connectedness. He remembers when it was placed outside the white arches of the Archive, a library and a cultural hub sitting on the grassy stretches of Al-Safa Park, and he watched as friend of his decided to try it out. Jonny had seen him sit on one of the chairs, and after twenty awkward minutes, a woman approached the opposing chair and sat down. Jonny watched as they pulled a balloon down and made conversation. For forty-five minutes, the two strangers sat, tête-à-tête, and just talked. When they got up, they hugged, blinked a little too fast, and exchanged phone numbers. Jonny knew that they had found sameness between them. Later, his friend told him that they both had a terminally ill sibling.
Today might be too fast paced for such long and intimate encounters, but the brief moments of connectedness were much-needed breaks from the strong separation this place suffers from, a chance for people of different circles to get together, recognize the contributions of others and get a chance to say thank you.
“Do you have family in Bangladesh, Yousuf?” Reem asked
Yousuf’s hand moved in quick and wide arcs, “Yes. Mother, father and new wife.”
He drew ellipses that joined on one end and spread at the other. “Oh!” Reem gushed, “Is she pretty?”
“Very pretty! But I am sad. Because she is not here.”
She didn’t know what to say. She looked at the table, and realized he’d been drawing a tulip. “You should write your wife’s name next to it.”
Looking across the table, she saw Ashok writing something down next to a heart, his letters intertwined in smooth and perfect cursive that she rarely saw outside of computer screens.
“That’s beautiful. Where did you learn to write like that?”
He answered in Urdu, and the volunteer translated, and he looked at her, paused for a second, then replied with a soft cadence that seemed to curl out of him like the letters did from his pen.
“Middle school,” said the translator. “He studied in India up to middle school.”
“Wow,” she said, thoroughly impressed. They moved on to the next space, headed towards the care packages.
“Do you have children, Ashok?”
He nodded, and raised four fingers.
“Four? Girls or boys?”
“Two girls, two boys. Age like you. Do you have family here?”
“Yeah.” I smiled, “two brothers and a sister.”
Suhail was the last to step out of the queue as a tall, dark, young man came up to him.
“What’s your name?” The young man asked, handing him a can of 7-UP, dripping with icy water.
“No way! Say wallah! Ana my name is Suhail, too!” he said excitedly, pointing at himself.
Suhail laughed. “ We’re both Suhails then.”
“Where’re you from?”
“Mumbai,” he said. They reached a table with pens strewn around doodles filling its surface.
“I’m from Jordan. Here, want to draw something?”
Suhail took a pen from the table and drew a smiling face. Next to it, he wrote I Love Dubai!
“You like it here?” the MAF employee asked.
“Yes, very much. My father also does. He visits sometimes. Did not see my mother and sister for two years.” Suhail found himself saying. He got a sympathetic smile in reply.
Suhail accepted a carepack and a hug, curiosity about its content hurried him to the other room along with two other men in jumpsuits, but right as he was exiting, he was caught in a wave of applause, hoots and whistles and clapping and yelled thank yous. Startled, he smiled uncertainly, and watched as the volunteers all rushed around him, a hooting and yelling mass of sweaty faces. Some clapped him on his shoulder, a short man told him to take off his safety cap for a picture, and he turned around just in time to see a camera’s flash goes off, and he found himself thinking that a little gratitude can always go a long way.