Thursday, November 16, 2006


Chapter 8: Shift in Focus
Chapter 9

What is it that makes a truly charitable person? I suppose it takes becoming a bit of a Jesus Christ--willing ultimately to sacrifice it all. One gets into his head that some among his fellow human beings are being mistreated, and he resolves that this is wrong. He wants to make a stand; he wants to do something about it in his own small way. He has this great philanthropic drive, prodding him to do what is right.

Lurking in the shadows, however, is a voice that says,
You are a hypocrite. You act out of self-interest. When push comes to shove you will run. You are not ready to pay the price, and the only sacrifice you'll ever know is the one you chose not to make.
How is it that a man who pays Dhs 1,000,000 for a lofty perch atop the world, can approach with sincerity the poor man who has risked his life to build that perch. Will the poor man ever trust the rich man? Would the rich man dare to give-up half his ground to level the field?

These sorts of questions would somehow find their way competing with the simple desire to do what I thought was right, to take a stand, however, small--even if unwilling to bear any great cost. The truth was that in attempting to realize my own dream of owning that lofty perch, I had to sacrifice most of whatever other objectives I had, even that which might involve acts of charity. Such was the perceived value of the dream and such was the measure of my own limitations.

Whatever the ultimate motivation, whatever my limitations and regardless of how it might complicate my life, it still seemed right to follow the impulse to reach out a hand of compassion toward the beleaguered laborer. Even if I could not help in any substantial way, I might at least improve myself by learning to better appreciate the predicament of these men. It would do no good, in any event, to excessively critique my motives.

Raja Reddy was twenty-six years old, according to his passport. In fact, he did not know his exact age; no records were kept in his village at the time of his birth. I had only talked with him a few times, but I loved just repeating his name. Rajareddy, Rajareddy--it was like some kind of onomatopoeĆ­a.

I had met him on one of my strolls along the Marina promenade. He worked at the site of the Marina Emblem, a planned 36-storey tower at the near end of the canal. He was relatively tall, thin and very dark-skinned. Were his physical characteristics hereditary or the result of hard work in the hot sun? He had, in fact, features typical of many of the migrant workers from southern India. He was from the south-central state of Andhra Pradesh, from the district of Karim Nagar, not far from the town of Jagtial.

Raja Ready was friendly when I first met him--with a ready smile. It was early evening, and he was just finishing his shift. He was willing to talk about his work and his living conditions, in response to my questions. But his limited English meant that the going was slow. Before I could ascertain much, I shook his hand and said we'd meet again. He told me his shift was the same everyday, except for Fridays.

A week later I met him again, at the same place, about the same time; and we chatted further. He had already been in the UAE for three years and this was his second construction site. He was trained on the job as a plumber and by now had an assistant working under him. He was, some would say, an uneducated man from a backward village, but he spoke four languages, hardly a feat for the untalented. His native language was Telugu, he spoke fluent Hindi and Urdu, his English was passable and he understood enough Arabic to follow orders.

He was equally curious about me. Why wasn't I married, he wondered. How much was my salary? Why was I buying an apartment in Dubai? I told him of the places I had travelled in India and how I liked the culture, the religion, the history, the festivities, etc. In such a way, Raja Ready and I hit it off. I had to sometimes shush that voice in my head saying, "You're only interested in Raja Reddy as a research subject."

That was not the source of my interest although I was motivated by a desire to know about the world he had come from and the world he was now in--one unlike that which I inhabited, in a kind of parallel universe. I would not pay much attention to that silly voice in my head. Raja Ready was interesting and I enjoyed talking with him.

August 2006, and work was progressing at the MAG 218 site. Excavation it would appear was nearly complete, although there were still piles to drive and other works beyond the purview of a lay person like myself. That didn't stop me from updating my blog with as much technical detail as I could pretend to understand. I believed I was doing my job well. If only it were my job. I had been a near obsession for over a year and I was enjoying the role of reporter. I fancied myself more than that. Perhaps I could be a spokesperson, or better yet, the chairman of the board of owners.

Interestingly, real estate had come to be a fascinating subject for me--at least with regard to Dubai and the Marina. What were the trends? Who is buying in the Dubai Marina? How good an investment was it? The most interesting questions were, "Will the towers, when all are completed, sell out or will there be a glut?" and "What will happen with prices when finished units begin to flood the market--will they level off, dip or plummet?"

Construction was also an interesting area. How will supply be met with the huge demand from an increasing number of developments? How can delays be avoided? Where will the experienced and qualified builders come from? It was no surprise to me that there were delays in the MAG 218 tower, or on any of the other tower projects across the Marina. Construction start on 40-storey tower mid-2006, completion end 2007. Pronouncements like these were commonly made but never to be believed. Mid-2006 would become mid-2007, and end 2007 might become end 2009. Even that was optimistic. My real concern was that some towers would stall and even worse abandoned mid-way. It had not happened yet to any appreciable extent, but it could. Even the big players--perhaps especially the big players--were not to be trusted.

Nakheel is wonderful in its sense of vision, but has big problems with delivery. On extravagant projects like the Palm islands this can be forgiven, but on more down-to-earth projects it signifies an inability to execute. Some of it was hit and miss. The Mall of the Emirates was a big hit, Jumeirah islands and the Garden View villas are misses. On Jumeirah Lake Towers the verdict was still out.

Emaar, by comparison, had a stellar record. On even its most challenging products it seemed to excel. Dubai Marina Phase 1, its showpiece Marina project was an unqualified success and several other Emaar projects had come up along the Marina without incident. It was no wonder that even with delays and projects under the direction of a large variety of developers, the Marina was progressing at a pace unlike any other large development in Dubai.

Although no major failures had yet occurred, many eyes were on Damaac, the self-proclaimed largest private developer on the market. With 50 towers across a number of countries (although primarily in Dubai), 90% of that number existed as largely blueprints. Its first completed tower suffered some near disasters--with new tenants left in the lurch.

Although real estate, construction and the like had become new found passions, the stories of men like Raja Reddy harkened back to an earlier calling. Amid the towers of the Marina which seemed to symbolize wealth and progress, the workers who dug the foundation pits and raised the tower walls were the reverse, an image of destitution which echoed a pre-enlightened era of forced servitude. Raja Ready was a subject with whom I could practice empathy and service in accordance with the ideals of my youth. The human face of the Dubai Marina, not that of wealth and prestige, but one of humility and fortitude, became an image that would inspire me.

One week later, I again met Raja Reddy. He entreated, "Come Friday my camp. I not working." "I'd be glad to..." On this day Raja did not greet me with his usual infectious smile. "Accident today," he explained. One worker had fallen from a fourth floor beam and died. He was not using his harness, which was left with its strap dangling as he worked. Raja Ready knew the man although they had not been close. He couldn't help but think it could have been him or one of his closer comrades. Raja, however, would not be scaling many beams. Most of his plumbing work was carried out only after floors had been laid.

It had taken one hour before an ambulance reached the fallen man. He was still alive it seemed, some 30 minutes after the fall. His co-workers were angry. Many stopped their work at that point even though it was still early on their shifts. They were cautioned to return to working but some would not relent. Raja Reddy didn't join the protest. He didn't believe there was any point, and besides, he had a job to complete. The daily quotas of work were not hard for him as by his third year now he was quite experienced. He also knew that if he had stopped working, his assistant would have been forced to do the same.

Raja Reddy knew that this man needed every hour of pay he could get. He had borrowed money to get to Dubai, to which he had arrived only 6 weeks earlier. Gopal was older than Raja Reddy, but new to the job he worked under his experienced senior. I'm sorry," I offered. "Did you know the man? How did it happen?"

1776 (this post), total 15,661 words
Chapter X: under construction

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