Persian Pipe Dreams: Hope or Hoax?

May 21, 2010
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Faced with unemployment and poverty at home, Nepalis dream of becoming labourers in the Middle East.


I recently spent some time in Kathmandu, Nepal, once again deeply appreciating the actualisation of couchsurfing's goals of transforming travel from tourism to something more like experiential exchange. I stayed with a Nepali woman and her family for nine days (which she considered a short stay! Such hospitality...), learning how to cook Nepali daal bhat, dealing with Kathmandu's perennial issues of water and electricity shortages, and learning about both the joys and sorrows of what it's like to be struggling in today's Nepal.

When I say “struggling”, and if I use a word like “have-not”, I want to emphasise that my host is not a victim. She's an amazing and generous person who, realising that she can't travel, has the world come to her. She rarely has days when she's not hosting. The only time she did turn someone down was during the swine flu scare, and only because she was worried that her father, already ill, would be impacted by it.

That said, she and her family struggle with the same issues that impact nearly all Nepalis, the same issues that drive the guest-worker phenomenon in the Gulf. One in three Nepali families relies on remittances from Nepalis abroad, including my host's family. Living in Qatar, Nepali workers (along with other nationalities) form the invisible populations that fuel this city's growth. They're the ones who build the very visible shining towers, the heralded universities, the luxurious Pearl complex, and yet we know so little about them and their lives. My host's cousin had just returned to Kathmandu from Doha after quitting his company, exasperated and disheartened that they hadn't paid him for the 10 months of work he'd put in. He was preparing to go back overseas, this time trying his luck in Saudi Arabia.

This morning I caught a screening of “In Search of a Riyal”, Nepali-Tibetan director Kesang Tseten's documentary on Nepali workers here in Qatar that screened at the Aljazeera Documentary Film Festival. The film, in three sections focusing first on workers' preparations for travel, their time in Doha, and their return to Nepal, was excellent, humanising and individualising what seems so much like a faceless workforce here, and in a sense no one can have an accurate picture of the modern Gulf without hearing these stories.

Workers preparing to leave for Qatar go through a variety of processes. First, they decide to go, based on stories they hear, trends they become swept up in, and very much out of necessity. Unemployment is a major problem in Nepal, and many of the workers come from rural areas where there is zero employment aside from family farms, and those interviewed in the film frequently cited the loss of their land as the main reason for leaving.


Despite the harsh mental and physical realities, an increasing number of Nepali men are flocking into the Gulf with the hopes of locating a brighter future.

Despite the harsh mental and physical realities, an increasing number of Nepali men are flocking into the Gulf with the hopes of locating a brighter future.

Photo credit: Shunayata Film Production

The workers enter training programmes (of which I saw many everywhere I went in the Kathmandu Valley) where they learn various construction skills. In one scene the workers accepted their certificates of completion with broad, proud smiles. They're lectured on various cultural issues they'll encounter, taboos, and other dos and don'ts, such as how to use the tray table on the airplane, not to ask about pork, not to try to marry Malay Muslim women, and especially not to get involved in labour politics, try to join a union, or strike. The striking issue is brought up again and again; workers are constantly told that if they strike, they will immediately lose their visas, and it's mentioned later in the film that there are many Nepali workers imprisoned for striking.

Then the men leave excited for the riches that await them. I saw this on the airplane flying into the Gulf from Kathmandu. Of the Nepali workers on the plane, you could tell which were flying for the first time. They were the ones leaning over passengers to get a first glimpse of the desert coming into focus, or pressing their faces against the windows, laughing with one another.

Of course the reality is different. The film did a great job of connecting with workers both satisfied and dissatisfied with their experiences in Qatar. Some of them have come, worked hard, have been paid on time, and have returned. Of those whose experiences were negative, it's quite heartbreaking. Frequently they report being paid late (driving several of those interviewed to strike), not being able to pay back loans taken in Nepal to fund visa costs, sick workers not being able to take time off as they're not paid for sick days, workers falling to their deaths, workers being beaten by their bosses, "they treat us like animals," one man said. Another says "For uneducated people like us it's always the same, isn't it? We always sell ourselves with our own money." Perhaps worst of all to hear were the many, many con operations that the workers deal with, being cheated by other Nepalis. And despite this, they return to the Gulf again and again, among the many desperate for even a slim chance to return to Nepal a hero.


Krystina Derrickson is a blogger and new media guru based in Doha, Qatar. She received her MA in Sociocultural Anthropology in 2008 from Tulane University in New Orleans and spent a year studying in Cairo, Egypt. Her interests include the intersections between Islam, new media, and identity-making. Her blog is available at Ilm al-insaan.