By Sean Williams www.vice.com
It’s 10 PM and I’m in the back of a Dubai taxi, racing home after a shit day’s work. My driver is mumbling something in a mixture of Urdu and English as we thread through T-junctions and traffic lights.
“Just my mom, dad, and sister.”
“How much money do you give to your sister?”
“None?!” he cries.
Mahmud is 32 and from Peshawar, on Pakistan’s perilous border with Afghanistan. It’s the rocky hinterland where the US claims a new generation of Al Qaeda terrorists are being groomed, and only a few hours from the former home of Osama Bin Laden. It wasn’t politics that brought Mahmud a thousand miles across Asia–it was money, and even that’s not good anymore.
“Back home I had nothing,” he says. “Here, what I get I send to my sisters, my brothers, and parents.” Mahmud has been in Dubai six years. When he first got here, it was a very different place. Half of it wasn’t standing, certainly not the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world by a mile, an 828-meter middle finger at the western powers that ran Dubai as recently as 1971.
Back then the city was home to fewer than 100,000 people concentrated around a pearl-rich creek. Now, as we all know, it’s a sprawling super-city home to over two million, of which barely 20 percent are locals. Scores of South Asian service staff – laborers and taxi drivers like Mahmud, who saw a chance to earn western money in the Middle East and jumped at it.
The metro only has two lines, so everyone gets cabs. But the drivers aren’t making any money, especially after the financial claw-hammer crashed down on Dubai in 2008. On a lucky day, a driver used to be able to make up to a thousand dollars a month in fares. But the state-governed taxi firms make him pay back visa costs, medical check-ups, and car maintenance. The company also fines drivers up to $60 for missing monthly targets–they even pay $250 for their flight attendant-style uniforms.