This particular journal entry begins on my first evening in the town of Rustaq. I had in the afternoon having spent my first couple of nights in Oman in a rather nice hotel in the capital, Muscat. After a three hour bus ride through the desert, I was hot, sweaty and in need of a shower. Thankfully, my company's fixer, Ayoub, was on hand to help me move in. After collecting my colleagues and I from the bus, he stuffed three of use and our luggage into his 4x4 and set about getting us moved in.
As my apartment was the nearest, I was first to be dropped off. After pulling into the dusty courtyard behind my apartment block we drew to a halt, Ayoub popped the trunk and the to of us jumped out. I was about to grab my bags when Ayoub gestured rather elaborately to stop, intimating that there was no need to exert myself. He then waved at a young man who I had not previously seen. The guy came trotting out of the shadows, gave me a sheepish little smile and then grabbed my suitcase from the vehicle. He proceeded to hoist it on its head and then carry it rather nimbly up two flights of stairs to my door. Ayoub and I were, apparently, free to stroll up at our leisure. I quickly learned that the young man in question was named Usman and he was employed by the owner of the apartment complex as a type of all purpose handyman slash labourer slash porter slash anything that needed doing. Ayoub assured me that if anything went wrong or if I needed anything doing, I should just knock on Usman,s door and he would there in a jiffy.
I soon learned that the door in question was not to an apartment in the block, but to a small hut to the side of the courtyard that was fitted with a single electric lightbulb. It was in pretty stark contrast to my own apartment, which had two bedrooms, two bathrooms and four separate A/C units. This was because Usman was Bangladeshi and was part of the army of manual workers and service employees that have been recruited to do the day-to-day jobs that Omanis feel are too dirty, too difficult or simply beneath them. It is a strange situation – Oman has something of a two-tier society.
If you go to a bank, a lawyers office or a governmental department, you are likely to find hundreds of Omanis in neatly pressed dish-dashas (traditional robes) sat behind remarkably large desks. However, if you need anything fixing or you want to go out for dinner, you will encounter only Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In Rustaq, all the restaurants and coffee shops were manned by south-Asians, as to were the aisles of the supermarkets and the sewing machines in the local tailors. The roads were dug by rather wizened looking Pakistanis with a variety of tools that looked like something from the Middle Ages. At the university in which I worked, the classrooms and offices were cleaned by Indians, who would also clean cars for a few extra Baishas (The smallest denomination of Omani currency). In Muscat, the situation was the same. At City Centre – the largest mall in the country – the entire food court was staffed by imported labour, although many of these were Thai and Chinese rather than Indian.
Usman was typical of the army of itinerant foreign labour. And, despite his rather meagre accommodation and some of the tasks he was forced to undertake, he was an immensely cheerful chap. For example, three weeks after my arrival, the drainage pipes in my kitchen blocked. So, I asked Usman if he could fix it. He was there a few minutes later with a plunger and a bottle of acid. He also had a giant rubber glove that he wore as he thrust his hand down into the deep recesses of my apartment's pipes. I must admit that, even though I was tremendously glad that I did not need to fix the problem myself, I felt bad about Usman.