5:15 AM. Asad wakes up, dresses in the same jeans and polo shirt he wore yesterday, and goes out to wipe the Pajero clean of any sand that’s accumulated on its windows during the night. By 5:45 he’s on the road from his employer-provided accommodation in Mussafah – a dusty old district on the mainland – to pick up my father-in-law from his breezy luxury residence on Abu Dhabi island.
07:00. Today is Sunday, the first day of the work week in the Arab world, but Penelope will not attend nursery school today. She’s a three-day-per-week kid, which leaves Sundays free for Pony Club. We dress, eat breakfast, and leave our spacious three-bedroom at 8:15 a.m. I dial Asad then hang up quickly.
8:15 AM. My call jolts Asad from his nap in the driver’s seat. He sees my missed call and knows that we’re waiting for him, so he starts the Pajero and drives from a parking space on the street, up the stone driveway of our closed community, and coasts to a stop in front of our building. We have to be ready because security won’t let him park and wait for long – drivers are service workers, you see, and workers must wait outside, neither seen nor heard.
8:20 AM. Penelope sees the white Pajero and exclaims, “Tee! Tee!” She’s given Asad this nickname because his Pakistani name is too unfamiliar on her tongue. Asad jumps out of his seat and holds his arms wide. P runs to him, and he scoops her up, kisses her cheek, and puts her in her car seat. “Hi, Asad!” I say. “Hello, Ma’am,” he says. Then we’re on our way to Pony Club. I ask him, “Whatcha do last night?” He says, “Just playing the cards with friends, watching the movie on YouTube.” I ask him which movie and he says, “Chuck Norris movie.” He punches the air with his right fist and adds, “Action movie.” I laugh and say, “Good one!”
8:45 AM. Asad pulls up to the gates of the Royal Stables. The guard in the booth eyes him suspiciously, then relaxes when he sees us sitting in the back. He opens the gate and motions us through. Asad stops the jeep in the parking area and says he’ll be back for us at 11:00. “Be a good girl, Penelope,” he says. She blows him a kiss.
9:00 AM. We walk through the grounds to the pony rings. The lush greenery, perfectly manicured bushes, vibrant flowers, and bright white fences always take my breath away. I glance at Sheikh Zayed’s majlis and imagine him sitting there 30 years ago. Penelope runs to the table of riding helmets and makes a production of choosing the right one, even though they’re all the same. I pay 50 dirhams (about $13) for her to ride for her scheduled hour.
9:20 AM. Asad’s been up for four hours but is just now eating breakfast. He’s never hungry when he first wakes, and then our morning schedules prevent him from eating until much later. He goes to one of many small shops where migrant workers take tea and buys himself a steaming cup of chai and two pieces of paratha for 3 dirhams ($1). He chats with other guys – Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian – who represent the best and worst of this life. Jamil has just gone into the curtain business, a step up from his job stenciling designs on furniture. Kumar complains for the hundredth time about the condition of the old rickety bus he drives to and from a labor camp in the desert every day: “Those men build this city but aren’t worth the life of an animal!” he exclaims. Asad says, “But here, you are guaranteed money! No problem, no headache, no fighting with your brothers for food.” Then he leaves – it’s time to pick us up.
11:00 AM. By this time, Penelope’s ridden her favorite ponies – all of the white ones – and has slurped down a 15-dirham smoothie from the cafe. Asad is waiting; he’s always early, never late. On the ride home, I ask him about his sister who just got married, which leads him to comment on his own wife: “You know, I marry for 14 years. My wife, she never give me any problem, no headache. Many Pakistani women, they love gold too much. But my wife, she love me. After I marry, my life is paradise.” I tear up.
11:20 AM. Asad is on his way back to Mussafah; I rarely need him in the afternoons. He’ll stay at the tiny apartment he shares with four other men until 5 or 6:00 when he’ll drive back to the city and wait for my husband’s call to pick him up from work. Asad knows he could be waiting for hours, but he wants to beat the rush-hour traffic and, even more, he feels it’s better to wait for hours in the car than make Mr. Adam wait for even 10 minutes.
6:00 PM. I’m antsy. Penelope’s pissing me off with her incessant whining, and those old resentful feelings about my husband’s work schedule rear their ugly heads. I text him to see when he thinks he might be home. Today he says 7:00; I automatically add an hour and decide he’ll be home between 8 and 8:30. I think about how I always have to eat dinner alone, contemplate what to make, then think, “Fuck it. I’ll eat cereal.”
9:00 PM. Asad is finally home again after driving Mr. Adam from his office. He tries to Skype his family, but the poor connection won’t let him tonight. He calls instead. He chats with each one of his four children, then talks to his wife late into the night. She gives him updates: his oldest, a 13-year-old daughter and an exceptional student, had one of the highest scores in her class on the latest round of exams… but what prospects are there for her in Pakistan? Asad’s son, 11, got into another fistfight with a neighbor kid – in Asad’s absence, his brother-in-law has been trying to father the son but is worried he’s losing control; his 8-year-old daughter, the sassy one, wants Asad to send money for a new dress or else she’s not speaking to him for a month; and his youngest, a 3-year-old girl, just started pre-K and loves being grown-up like her siblings. This is how Asad must be a husband and father: as a face on a screen or a voice on a phone, 335 days of the year.
10:00 PM. I clean up the remainder of the sushi we ended up ordering. Adam flirts with his Blackberry – connection’s never a problem – while I stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows of our living room at the second-largest mosque in the Middle East, then I step onto the balcony to stare at Abu Dhabi’s downtown area glittering in the distance. I think about Asad and all the people he embodies, what he represents to me. I furrow my brows and wonder how and why we get dealt what we do, and I feel both deeply thankful and undeserving of my own hand.
Note: All of the insight I posted with Asad’s permission came from actual conversations and things he’s relayed to me about his schedule, friends, family, and his opinion on being a migrant worker in the UAE. I did not invent any details for the sake of this piece.