[I’ve changed the title from Review to Ramble because I find that I’m not just reviewing the book but rambling about other related topics.]
I was looking for a novel, in the world literature category, preferably from Asia, from the 20th century or later. What attracted me to Goat Days was the premise, a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and his tale of woe.
Having lived myself in Saudi Arabia, in the 1960s days of Yemeni workers as well as later in the 1980s during the influx of South Asian and Southeast Asian workers, I have heard my share of tales of woe. I was just curious as to why this particular tale won literary awards. Plus, of course, I needed something to serve up to my students.
I was surprised by how much I was impacted by Najeeb’s story, by his highs and lows in his faith in God, by his struggles, by his simple directness. My familiarity with the setting probably helped along the way. But the story strangely resonated strongly with my deep sense of survival.
The story is simple. An Indian / Malayalam young man, married and expecting a son or daughter, decides to sign up for a few years’ work in Saudi Arabia for financial reasons. He is joined by Hakeem, a young teen from the same region, whose mother recommends to his care at the train station. Neither speaks Arabic. As they arrive at the Riyadh airport, other workers are picked up by their sponsors, or arbab, but theirs doesn’t show up. Eventually, at night, one Arab shows up, dirty, stinky and rough. He goes around twice before picking them up and driving them off in the back of an ancient pick-up truck. After a few hours of driving off the road, they drop off Hakeem at what seems like nowhere in the middle of the desert, and arrive at a goat farm where Najeeb, hungry and thirsty, is expected to sleep with the goats. The Arab sponsor himself lives in a tent.
The next day, he is shown a pair of binoculars and a rifle. The use and efficacy of each is demonstrated. Najeeb gets the message. I’ll watch you and shoot you if you try to escape. He meets a “scary figure”, another Indian with long matted hair and beard, also stinky and dirty, who speaks only Hindi, so the two cannot communicate anyway. Soon, after Scary Figure has taught Najeeb what to do and how to milk goats, he disappears. The arbab doesn’t seem fazed by it.
The bulk of the novel describes his life in the following three years and four months. His first impulsive attempt at escaping. The usual beatings. The food he ate: pita bread and water, plus goat milk in the evening. The loss of hygiene because of water scarcity. The discovery of a human skeleton buried in a shallow grave nearby. Finally reconnecting with Hakeem who works in a neighboring farm, the two manage to communicate now and then surreptitiously behind their sponsors’ backs.
Eventually, Hakeem tells Najeeb that there’s a new worker on his farm, a Sudanese named Ibrahim. This man knows the cities and roads and will be able to escape and take them with him. Finally, one day, the arbabs go to attend a wedding, and the three run away on foot. They get lost in the desert and Hakeem dies of dehydration. Just as Najeeb thinks it’s his turn, they come upon a small oasis. After a few days recuperating at the oasis, the two set off again. Finally, just before they reach civilization, Ibrahim disappears mysteriously.
Once in town, Najeeb is rescued by other Indians. Eventually, he and Hameed –another escaped worker– decide to voluntarily surrender to the police so they will have a chance to be repatriated. Hameed’s arbab shows up at the prison and takes him back amid Hameed’s wailing and the arbab’s insults, blows and kicks. Then, Najeeb sees his own arbab walking into the prison. Surprisingly, he only patted Najeeb on the shoulder. Later, a friendly policeman told Najeeb that the arbab had recognized him, but that Najeeb “wasn’t on his visa”, otherwise, he’d have dragged him back. So, it turned out that he had been illegally kidnapped back upon his arrival, and used as a slave for three years, April 1996 to August 1999.
My first and last thought, upon reading this story, was: What kind of life was this for the arbab? True, he did not do the backbreaking labor, but he lived alone in a tent in the middle of the desert, and ate food barely better than that of his slaves. So in his mind, the conditions for his “slave” weren’t that bad. No tent, but there was some shade under the cot. Bedouins don’t sleep on beds but on thick mattresses. They don’t sit on chairs or sofas but on padded seats on the floor.
Slavery was still alive in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and was eradicated only in the 1960s. So for many Bedouins, the concept of an immigrant worker was quite alien in the 1980s and 1990s. They often treated them as slaves. No wonder the word salary or pay never appeared once in the book.
What fascinated me was not so much the suffering and spirit of Najeeb as the why and wherefore of his arbab. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I heard many tales about the maids and drivers we all employed, both from my friends –the employers– and the maids. I always loved a good story, and lent an indulgent ear to my maids’ sagas. There were two categories of foreign workers, the legal ones and the illegal ones.
Only Saudi families could hire legal maids and drivers, so all my expatriate friends hired illegal ones. I wanted to do the right thing, so when, after giving birth to my third child, I discussed with my husband the possibility of hiring a maid, we tried to do so legally.
Well, the conditions were, number 1, you have to be a Saudi national. We didn’t even qualify on the first condition! The rest were just as bad: #2, you have to have at least five children. #3, you have to bring a doctor’s letter stating your health doesn’t allow you to do housework. Well, I knew that every single Saudi friend I knew had often more than one maid and driver and did not fulfill #2 and #3… In other words, everyone was hiring illegally. All my expatriate friends were quite open about their illegal maids. So I was forced to hire illegally too.
I’ve always pondered the possibility of writing one day about that sub-strata and network of illegal immigrants in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s. One of my Filippina maids gave me a very thorough depiction of it. She arrived legally but got into a sexual tangle with her employer’s son and so ran away to join other illegal workers. There were “tribes” consisting of a few “families” living in an apartment with rooms subdivided by hanging sheets. Each “tribe” had its leader who was the law. When she chose to join one of those “tribes”, she was asked to choose one of the single men to “marry”. She chose the youngest one, who at least did not have a wife back home.
Don’t be shocked. Many of these immigrant men had a wife and often children back home. That was why they came in the first place, to make enough money to send home. Many of the maids also had husbands back home. But somehow, once in Saudi Arabia, they seemed to have entered a parallel reality where society operated on a different set of laws. Whoever they married was only a husband or wife under the law of the tribe within the immigrant sub-strata. Marriages were complete with paperwork and ceremonies. But if they returned home, be it the Philippines or Indonesia or Bangladesh, these were dissolved and they returned to the reality and the law of their land.
Inevitably, this situation led to a number of tragedies worth a good Hollywood movie, such as a wife working as a maid for years while the husband back home used the money she sent to marry another wife. But overall, it was a situation that arose to deal with an impossible situation: hundreds of thousands of people under the radar of the law. And it worked mostly quite well.
But to return to the psychology of an employer: most of us never took in school a course entitled How to treat employees. Then many of us suddenly became the proud employer of one or more maids, plus one or more drivers. (Women could not drive legally, thus the need for male drivers.) I’d have friends tell me I should not allow my maid to chat with the neighbor’s maid, or any random maid we’d meet in the shopping centers or parks. Or use the telephone. When we starting the maid out to dinner with us so she could look after the children and let me eat in peace, my friends were shocked! Fawzia is paying for her maid to eat at restaurants! And let me add that my friends are otherwise perfectly normal human beings.
Yes, you might say, but being mean to a maid is a far cry from starving, beating, whipping, and mistreating a man without paying him a salary. My take is that these are simply different shades of the same color. An educated woman in an apartment or a villa will also mistreat a maid but to a different degree. I’ve heard of people making the maid sleep under the dining table because they didn’t have an extra room or did not want to spend money buying an extra bed.
To come back to the book, my takeaway is the incredible spirit of survival of Najeeb, his constant conversation with God to keep himself afloat spiritually, but also the eye-opener of the living conditions of the Bedouin goat farmers. As Najeeb puts it, “if my arbab lies down in a tent in the middle of the desert, where am I going to stay?”