There are over a quarter of a million Egyptian immigrants working in the United Arab Emirates today–or rather, that is the number of those registered officially with the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower and Immigration. Egyptians–alongside Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos–are one of the many nationalities that make up a staggering 80 percent of the UAE population.
Mohammed el-Bisatie’s novel Drumbeat, recently published in English translation by AUC Press, addresses the strangeness of this symbiotic and unequal relationship between foreign labor and wealthy locals. The work has a wonderful comic premise that it unfortunately never fulfils: The soccer team of a fictional and unnamed Emirate makes it into the World Cup. The native population of the small kingdom travels, en masse, to Paris, where the soccer championship is being held.
Left behind are all the migrant workers, who emerge from their shadow existence as maids and drivers to find themselves more or less in control of the kingdom. They have large communal lunches on their masters’ lawns; they go for dips in their swimming pools. Husbands and wives who work for different households–and fear to contact each other because they claimed on their job applications that they were single–are reunited; and prisoners in jails are let out for the duration of the championship, promising to return to their cells afterward.
All this is observed–with strange detachment–by the unnamed narrator, an Egyptian driver and bodyguard. Then again, the narrator’s passive, unengaged stance is meant to suggest the deadening effect that his five years in the Emirate (enough time to save “for a two-story house in the village”) has had on him.
"This work isn’t just about the Emirates,” El-Bisatie told Al-Masry Al-Youm. The book is based on time he spent there, but also in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait.
The setting for Drumbeat is a departure for El-Bisatie, whose work most often takes place in an unnamed rural community in the Nile Delta. That’s where he situated his novel Clamor of the Lake (AUC Press, 2004), which chronicles the effect that Lake Montazah has on the fishermen and families who live around it; and his more recent work Hunger (AUC Press, 2008) is a quite literal depiction of the effects of physical and emotional hunger.
El-Bisatie is a member of the so-called "Sixties Generation" of Egyptian writers–which includes novelists such as Gamal el-Ghitany, Sonallah Ibrahim and Ibahim Aslan–and his work is marked by a concern with social justice and marginal communities, as well as a lyrical bent.
Millions of Egyptians have immigrated to Arab Gulf countries since the 1970s. This migration has become a fundamental part of the Egyptian economy, society and culture. Already in the 1990s, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s novel The Other Place(AUC Press, 2005) engaged in a rich and subtle exploration of the material lure and psychological toll of migration to an unnamed Gulf state.
While working a stint in the Gulf is one of the only ways Egyptians and other workers can dramatically alter their fortunes, the living conditions of migrants–who do not benefit from the same rights as citizens and whose employers have enormous power over their movements–have been regularly condemned by human rights groups. To El-Bisatie, the title "Drumbeat" represents vitality, the life force that is drained out of the broken-down migrant workers.
In addition to an account of what happens in the Emirate while its citizens are away, Drumbeat’s other main thread is the story that Zahiya, an Egyptian maid in a nearby villa, tells the narrator: The story of how the mistress of the house encouraged her to sleep with the master, and how she had his child, which has been adopted by the family as their own.
There are obvious shades of Scheherazade in the way the story is told: the narrator visits, night after night, to hear it unfold. The details are not particularly realistic, but the narrative’s intent is clearly allegorical, pointing to the way the servant is consumed and ultimately discarded by her masters. She makes a poignant figure, wandering about their house in their absence like a ghost, incapable even of telling her own story: “When I saw you I felt I had to speak with you. I have no one here I can talk to… I thought by speaking to you I might be able to feel a bit less homesick. But all I’ve spoken about was her [my mistress].”
In the book, much of the alienation and oppression the foreign workers suffer is of a sexual nature. At one point, the narrator says of some new arrivals: “Their blood was still warm–they had not made the adjustments the rest of us had.” For his part, he’s “heard too many stories to drop my guard: fifty lashes in a public flogging and expulsion […] How many of such cases had there been during my five years here?”
Fear of losing one’s job–or worse–has emasculated the narrator and his colleagues. They speak between themselves of “the curse.” The narrator postpones visiting Egypt because he’s anxious about disappointing his wife (he’s deeply relieved when, upon finally traveling home and seeing her, he feels “an overwhelming surge of lust”).
In both Zahiya and the narrator’s story, the point is made, none too subtly: Life in the Emirate either steals or suppresses one’s creative and reproductive powers; the kingdom survives by sucking the life out of its immigrant workers. This sexual subtext informs the book’s strangest scene, in which the local male workers congregate at a café to watch “the African” perform a feat of sexual prowess.
In Drumbeat, El-Bisatie’s lyricism is mostly absent. Instead, El-Bisatie’s narrator describes his surroundings in sparse, affectless language. This bland style effectively conveys the alienation of maids, drivers and “companions” trapped in gleaming suburban villas, subsumed into their masters’ lives. But it works less well in the scenes that are supposed to convey the excitement of the foreign workers taking over the city, holding festive parades and giant cook-outs in front of TV screens airing the soccer matches. These scenes are meant to be riotous and joyful, but come across as flat.
Drumbeat is one of those stories one can’t help wishing had been told differently–with more humour, detail, and action. Some of the storylines peter out inexplicably. The bland narration is positively vivid compared to some of the characters, who are often little more than narrative placeholders.
This melancholy fairytale is, however, affecting at times. It’s clear that El-Bisatie sympathizes with the plight of migrant workers. But ironically he ends up featuring them in a similar way to how their master’s treat them: interchangeable, undifferentiated, there to perform his bidding.