41,282 brown men and women, all of them in their 60s, will be leaving the United Arab Emirates in the middle of June. 65% of them have lived in the Emirates for over two decades. 18,964 of them will be boarding a plane from Abu Dhabi International Airport. Incidentally, all of them were informed of their mandatory retirement from their respective companies at the same time.
May 13, a Thursday, will be their last working day.
Among the retirees is Vasudevan and his wife, Devi, who like the others, try in vain to book a ticket for June 15, a Tuesday. Ticket agents are baffled, the date’s significance a mystery, and make frantic calls, checking with sister airlines to see if additional flights can be arranged to accommodate this request. The airlines are convinced someone is playing a practical joke but the phones continue to ring. When it becomes clear that so many people are indeed preparing to go home, upper management gets to work. It will be the largest exodus of brown folk leaving the Emirates since August 1990, when thousands fled, assuming Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to be the advent of darker times.
By nightfall, the airlines offer a compromise, which is grudgingly accepted. The coveted June 15 departure date is no longer available, even though flights were added, but everyone is assured a flight home by June 22. By then rumors of the exodus hover like foul smog and an alarmed government is forced to step in. “The Emirates, especially Abu Dhabi, isn’t crumbling,” a government spokesman laughs, “many former residents have decided it is time to retire, that’s all; the young get old.”
At this point, a reporter from the BBC puts the spokesman on the spot, “Our understanding is that many of these men came here in the 70s. Will the government acknowledge their contributions before they leave for good?”
“A delegate will be there to see them off, yes. Many, I imagine, are as old as my parents. In our home, we see to it every guest is walked to the door.”
The Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Bangladeshi ambassadors are summoned by their respective consulates and told to be at Abu Dhabi International Airport on June 15. News channels get wind of the commotion and decide to cover the event live. The English dailies, The National, Khaleej Times, Gulf News, and Gulf Today assign their reporters related feature pieces.
Vasudevan’s last day at work involves tying up loose ends, cleaning out his cabin, saying goodbyes. That morning, he asks his superiors whether it might be possible to be granted a six-month extension. No, it isn’t. His Emirati residence visa will be canceled in a few weeks, his director tells him gently; his passport must stay with the company until his flight home. Vasudevan asks for more time, three months; his house in India is still under construction, he must find temporary accommodation for his family, maybe fly to India to sort things out and come back, is it possible to hold on to his passport? The director grants him two months to get his affairs in order, Vasudevan’s passport is returned. If Vasudevan had been allowed to continue, in November, he would have completed his thirty eighth year with the company. Not to be. His colleagues buy him lunch and drinking Pepsi, toast to a long and prosperous life, Insha’Allah. When Vasudevan leaves work for the last time, he reminds Salim, the Baluchi security guard, to watch over the two feral cats expecting canned tuna for breakfast. “They will mew at seven,” Vasudevan says, “always at seven.” The two shake hands, clasp palms.
Two weeks before the expected exodus, furniture and electronic stores can barely keep up with the demand—there is a clamor for ornate Arabic furniture and high-tech toys. The Iranian merchants near Mina port have their hands full, too—orders for Persian carpets skyrocket. There are rumors that high-end stores like Jashanmal and Grand Stores have run out of expensive frankincense and crockery. Many retirees negotiate with shipyards for bargain deals on cargo containers, which will transport their Emirati possessions. Those who cannot afford steel containers buy cardboard boxes and rope. All of this Gulf loot will live as reminders in new homes. The merchants talk of a Sikh man looking to smuggle a gazelle, five endangered Houbara bustards and four tons of red sand to embellish his Jaipur farmhouse.
June 15: Abu Dhabi International Airport’s departure lounge plays the Emirati, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepali national anthems. Reporters and camera crews loiter like animals near a watering hole. The Emirati delegate and the ambassadors are there, speeches are made. Representatives have been sent to the airports in Dubai and Sharjah. The mood is somber. Every passenger shakes hands with the assembled delegates; there is a lottery: 100 winners walk away with hand-stitched Emirati ethnic wear. There is a momentary distraction when a young man attempts to throw ink at the Emirati delegate. He is unsuccessful and furious policemen drag him away, struggling, like prey.
Vasudevan is there, so is Devi. They look on quietly, still smelling of their apartment of 23 years. In July, their building, one of the oldest on Hamdan Street, decrepit like a smoker’s lungs, will be razed to the ground. The landowner sent his tenants a notice six months ago; they took him to court, lost. A demolition of the premises will be euthanasia.
The delegates stay and watch the first plane take off, a PIA flight to Islamabad. People applaud. After acknowledging the waiting passengers, the delegates leave, flanked by more vigilant security.
Vasudevan sits by Devi, their shoulders touch. The airport chairs bite into their backs.
“I heard,” an airport staff member tells an Emirati officer, as passengers file through, “governments in the region will be surprising expatriates returning home on June 15 by waiving the customs duty on taxable merchandise.”