By Rafia Zakaria
December 28, 13
The authorities at the Saudi Hospital where they finally found him said they had found his body in a rubbish heap near an industrial area in Arafat. The young Pakistani men who had been looking everywhere for him since his disappearance a day or so ago did not believe them.
They knew their friend and roommate, they knew the hopes with which he had arrived, the optimism with which he looked to the future. Even the night he disappeared, he had taken care to bathe and dress and had seemed happy. He said he was going out for just a little while. The next time they saw him, he was dead.
The story of A, a young man from a small village in the northwest of Pakistan, is hardly an unusual one. Unlike the millions that descend on the holy city of Makkah to pray for salvation and success, he came to find a job.
The eldest of seven, the procurement of a visa to Saudi Arabia to work near Arafat had been one of the luckiest things that had happened to him, a door to possibility and to a better future. It was difficult of course to leave home, not easy to forget the love of parents, the easy laughter of siblings; but, then, that alienation is the inheritance of nearly all migrant workers. In Arafat, through contacts from the relatives of other Pakistani migrant workers, he found a place to stay. It was crowded, full of other young men labouring for the Saudis; but it was what he had to do.
Then suddenly, one ordinary evening, after one ordinary day, he was gone. One of his friends from Pakistan, who was in the habit of calling or texting him several times a day, later said that on one of those tries, a man speaking Arabic with a Saudi accent answered the phone. It was never answered again and was not found in his belongings. When the new friends he had made in Saudi Arabia finally found him at the hospital, authorities handed them the paperwork that listed A’s death as suicide. This apparently is how many mysterious migrant workers’ deaths are classified in Saudi Arabia; it relieves their employers and the Saudi government from having to pay blood money or indemnity to the heirs of the deceased.
In the case of A, his poor family at home knew nothing of policy or procedures. They felt sure that their son, himself a devout Muslim, had not killed himself. But without money, certainties and demands for justice amount to scant little. For forty days, A’s body stayed at the morgue at the hospital, for that was how long it took for his family to gather up the amount needed to bring it back home, to bury it in the small village he had left with such big hopes.
The millions of Muslims that descend on Makkah every year associate the name of Arafat not with the unsolved murder of one migrant Pakistani worker, but with the rites and rituals of pilgrimage. These other stories form a sordid parallel narrative that is hidden by the sacred and shoved aside by the capitalist.
The faithful who come to Makkah to pray are focused toward their own salvation, for asking for blessings for their own friends and family. When these obligations are met, they look to the material, to the purchase of prayer beads and perfumes and all the glittering goodies available for purchase just beyond the threshold of the sites of holiness.
The fates of unfortunate others, dead and thrown into rubbish heaps, do not occur to them; it is not possible to imagine injustice in a venue that they have been trained to think is holy. Even as Saudi Arabia plans to expel several hundred thousand Pakistani workers in the next few months, millions of Pakistanis continue to vie for Hajj visas, the distribution of which has in itself been mired in scandal.
The evaluation of personal salvation outweighs the considerations of collective action; the fact that moral apathy means simply that a poor Pakistani worker’s life and, in this case, death will continue to remain unsolved and justice continues to be denied. A cheap life lost is nobody’s problem, a murder in Makkah not enough to question the ways of the holy, the pronouncements of the wealthy.
*Initials used to protect the identity of the deceased.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.