As I was taking my seat, I became conscious that the man next to me seemed to be a migrant worker. He obligingly inched his seat away to give me more space, even when I didn’t need it. I placed my handbag on the floor between his legs and mine, and again, he moved slightly.
His body language was respectful, careful … cautious.
Perhaps, he felt he owed me security. Perhaps, he felt he was taking up space on a soil that he saw as mine. Perhaps, he was trying to avoid being accused of being a hazard. Perhaps, he felt he was an unwelcome foreigner …
I turned to him and said, “Can I see this, please?” pointing to the printed programme in his hand. He nodded nervously and handed it to me. I looked at it, turned to him and asked if he speaks Bangla. He nodded and said, “Yes”. I smiled at him, noticing how light his brown eyes were.
I was excited to be there. I knew Bangla was a beautiful language, and highly poetic, and so I was impatient for the poetry to start. As the opening remarks were delivered, there was mention of the need for policy frameworks that create an environment where everyone feels welcome, and has access to a level playing field. I couldn’t help the cynic inside me that noticed the audience of about 80 members looked almost completely foreign. And a majority of them looked like migrant workers. (Here, the cynic inside me questioned the stereotypes in my head that decided they “looked” like migrant workers. What do migrant workers look like?) There was a group of about 20 dressed in a green-and-red outfit with the Bangladeshi flag design on the front.
The locals, or natives, could have been counted on my fingers. (What do locals look like? I don’t know. And yet, I do.)
The poetry recitals began. A young Bangladeshi man walked up to the standing microphone on stage when the name Muhammad Sharif Uddin was announced. He waited for some soft music to start playing before he said into the microphone Subha Sandhya (Good Evening). And then began the collection of mesmerising, graceful sounds that made up the Bangla he recited. One by one, fourteen men took the stage and recited, in all emotion and expression, their poetry on their experiences as migrant workers on foreign soil. Many of the poets have had their novels and short stories published in Bangladesh and Singapore. Many are degree holders in construction-related fields. I was both surprised, and somewhat ashamed at my surprise.
The recurring themes of the poetry were loneliness, love, family and patriotism. As I read the English translations of each poem on the projection behind the poets, I was in a constant state of awe. I had told myself I would not be swayed into over-sympathy, and being impressed simply because these were migrant workers.
The truth is, I didn’t have to be. These were genuinely talented poets, whose imaginations and concepts were coming across so beautifully even in the English translations that I wished I could understand the Bangla. My hair stood on end as I read the English translation of ‘Worker’ by Sromik Monir:
The guilt of being expatriate was something I had often felt myself, and heard affluent expat friends talk about. Hearing it from a migrant worker was a sudden reminder to me that the divisions and distinctions between us and them are products of our own creation. Indeed, it seems, at the root of it all, we feel the same emotions, we process the same thoughts.
Whether an expat as a banker in an international bank, or a worker on a construction site. We each feel the tug-of-war between the familiarity of home soil and the prosperity of foreign soil. We each feel the struggle of an identity blurred between two homes, two parallel existences that, like railway tracks, can run side by side, but never meet.
One poem at a time, the divisions and distinctions between me and the man sitting next to me were torn down. As we sat there, side by side, each of us nodding our heads in a shared understanding of the poets’ emotions, we were reduced to being just 2 people. Not a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani. Not a man and a woman. Not a foreigner and a native. Not a construction worker and an executive; but 2 humans able to share and appreciate a common emotion.
How quick we are to build borders, to create boundaries, to emphasise differences that allow us to label ourselves and others. How important it is to be able to categorise ourselves into clean-cut boxes of status, citizenship, race, religion and a hundred other things.
Do we dare admit to ourselves the insecurities we harbour deep inside us that require a constant need for comparison? Indeed – these divisions allow us to represent our lives in things and ideas that are daily symbols of our status, our identity. And these symbols reassure us that we are always better than someone else, we have more, we earn more, we spend more, we think more, we basically ARE more.
The human race has become so superior that we have gone from an instinct of survival to an instinct of success. And the biggest irony, the biggest tragedy of this phenomenon is that it has given rise to divisions that will ultimately not only lead to our failure, but also our extinction.
I dream, instead, of a world where these boxes are reason not for division, but for celebration. I dream of a world where the differences are appreciated and loved, instead of feared and hated. And I dream of a world where migrant workers are able to break down barriers, one poem at a time.
About Sidrah Ahmad
Having written casually for informal audiences through her blog for several years, she now writes for herself, and edits for FUCHSIA. Sidrah’s favourite things include spending time with her crazy family (the Pagalkhana), photography, poetry, reading, music, dance, clouds, rain and the night. She has a deep love for connecting with strangers, and believes that stories, and story-telling, have the power to change the world. She dreams of a world where boundaries and differences are only celebrated, and not a cause for divide. She currently works for the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), planning and developing social services for vulnerable children and youth.