Arts, Culture & Media

A new documentary gives us a peek at life inside the labor camps of Dubai

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Champ of the Camp/Facebook

The Champ of the Camp documentary looks at life in the labor camps of the United Arab Emirates.

In the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, migrant workers do most of the heavy lifting. In construction, for example, the workers tend to come from India and other South Asian nations.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

A new documentary, "Champ of the Camp," by Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour, focuses on the migrants who live in camps on the outskirts of Dubai, and a talent contest, called "Camp ka Champ."

Kaabour grew up in the UAE and was baffled by the seperation between the laborers and the rest of society.

"Anyone who has lived in the Gulf knows that the city often has laborers working in its differnt corners and different streets, but people never get to interact with this community," he says.

"Champ of the Camp" is a competition modeled on a popular television song contest in India called "Antakshari," where people have to guess the song by listening to the first words of the lyrics or guess the actor who sang the song in a popular Bollywood movie.

"It relies heavily on good knowledge of Bollywood and a love for singing," Kaabour says.

The competition itself is a brand loyalty scheme that was launched by Western Union, one of the most popular companies for remitting money between countries. Western Union's biggest client in the UAE is the manual laborer. Many are South Asians who send money home to their families on the subcontinent at the end of the month.

Kaabour says it's sad these workers, who build some of the shiniest buildings in the world, never set foot in them once the buildings are completed.

Adnan is one of the major characters in the film. Kaboour says Adnan is a Pakistani citizen and has lived in the UAE for seven years. He managed to save enough money to build a house back home in Pakistan, where he is going to start a family with his wife.

Adnan is one of the men who helped build Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest tower on Earth. He can see the building it shimmer on the skyline from his camp on the outskirts of the city, but he's never been there. 

So Kaabour took him.

"This is the first time I have come here and I am awestruck," Adnan said in the film. "We struggled a lot on that project. When I look back, it seems unbelievable that we did the work. But there was a certain fire and passion to get the job done and it felt good. The people who live on the top — they are big businessmen. Their life is completely different. They enjoy life. They have no problems in life. It is we who have this problem because we can't afford to live in a big building."

Kaabour says he always felt the story of how these men provide for extended families back in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh despite enduring harsh conditions and discrimination is often unduly harsh on the residents of Dubai.

But that by no means is an excuse for some of the cruelties, he says. Sometimes these men get their salaries witheld, or they find their employwer has gone bankrupt, which means they don't get paid for months of work.

"This is all unfair and it is by no means an excuse, but it is a bitter reality that many men accept in order to give a better life to their families," Kaabour says.

Kaabour met Shofi during one of the quarterfinal rounds in the competition. Kaboour says Shofi belted out such heartfelt songs that a stampede took place at that camp.

Shofi came to the UAE as a youngster, missing his mother terribly. He still misses her.

Kaabour says Shofi is haunted by dreams of her that wake him up in tears many nights. On camera, Shofi said he was much happier working in the heat of Dubai summers, with temperatures up to 105 degrees, because it takes his mind off his mom.

"When I work, I think of people I am working for: my mother, my father, my younger brother — they are always on my mind. Sometimes I feel like I have no life. I work from morning to evening, I am drenched in sweat. I've been here three and a half years now. Sometimes I see my mother in my dreams and then I wake up and cry. But what can I do? I am helpless, I have to be here. Sometimes when I call home my mother says 'Son, come back. We don't want the money.' But still I have to be here and work," Shofi said in the film.

"Despite all the favors of working in Dubai, a labor camp is by no means a pleasant place," Kaabour says. "It's made of cement. It's pretty large and houses up to 3000 to 4000 men and has very basic amenities in it and lacks in any sort of color. However, this is the sort of place that made the Gulf economy's rise and this is how the Gulf came to be."

Kaabour says he hopes that by making this film, he has opened a window to the world of migrant workers. 

"On one side, some myths about camps and enslavement perhaps will be debunked. But at the same time, I hope that someone might watch this and think how these places can be improved or how the employment of these men and their contracts, and the nature of their stay, can be enhanced in a human direction," he says.

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