Photo credit: SM Graphic Design

Her Green Scarf

The heat was stifling — that dry desert heat. The kind that made your skin burn if you were bold enough to test it. I was walking as fast as I could. My hotel was a short walk from the Burj Khalifa and everything else of interest in Dubai, but the beach was a little too far for my liking. After a long day at the seminar, a girl had to get some relief! And the cool breeze from the gulf was the only relief this girl was interested in.

I smiled at a policewoman walking by. Her uniform was rather unique: It was all green, with a long dress, suit jacket, and headscarf to match. She wore a hat with a white crown on top of her green scarf, displaying the Dubai Police emblem. She was well composed yet aloof, not fazed by the heat or my smile.

In contrast to her statuesque appearance, my frizzy hair was untamed even with six bobby pins and half a bottle of hairspray. Any makeup that did not melt away from the heat, had been smudged into non-existence by my compulsive fidgeting. Our lack of interaction was interrupted by a white van screeching past us. It was headed for the expected aftermath of brake failure.

The van crashed into a spunky bright red Lamborghini — one of many opulent brands of cars that roamed the streets of Dubai. Wealth and luxury is the norm there, but so is the poverty of the immigrant workers. Most are from the Indian subcontinent, in dire need to earn some money for their families back home.

Spotting a little boy in the back seat of the totaled van, I followed the policewoman to the scene in case she needed help. She was talking into her radiophone, probably calling for back up. Consequently, two sturdy men pulled up in a fancy police car. They addressed her as “Saba” and after a quick exchange of directives, they whisked the van driver away and drove off. I was quite agitated that no one had even acknowledged the little boy so far.

“Shouldn’t someone be helping him get out!?” I exclaimed in a display of bravado. (Questioning the authorities in Dubai is never a smart move!)

“The door is stuck,” she snubbed my inquisition immediately.

“We may have to jimmy the door open” a man’s voice intervened from behind me in a familiar accent.

“Jimmy” it open? He was most certainly from my neck of the woods!

“Do you have some sort of wire?” he asked, while examining the jammed door.

I fumbled in the depths of my purse, looking for something that could work. I felt the cool slippery touch of metal against my fingers and knew exactly what I had found. I pulled out a handful of bobby pins. My purse was always stocked with a generous supply because my bouncy curls often needed to be clipped into submission. I had also learned to use a bobby pin to unlock doors back in college. And since I managed to lock myself in or out of a number of places, bobby pins and I had formed an inseparable bond. To escape such predicaments, all I had to do was stretch a bobby pin out into a long wire, then push and adjust until I found the right traction in the lock. And voila! I had myself a jimmied lock.

Alex used a very different technique. He stuck the curved end of the bobby pin right in the keyhole like a key, and after a few twists and turns, the door opened with some ease. I was impressed by his skill and fervor, and his gentle manner with the little boy. He had also managed to introduce himself in the chaos, as Alex from Philly — my neck of the woods.

The little boy in the van couldn’t have been more than four years old. He had big brown eyes and a golden complexion. He managed a faint gracious smile as we came to his rescue. His blue helmet was hot from the burning sun, and his feet were bare and calloused. He gave my dress a tug every now and then, reminding me of my little nephews. Usually their tugs called for immediate attention like a diaper change, or an “oops” that needed sorting out. I wondered if he was trying to tell me something too.

“He is bleeding! We have to take him to the hospital!”

Saba pulled a spare dark green scarf out of her pocket, and proceeded to wrap it around the boy’s knee to cover his exposed wound.

“It’s a minor cut— he will be fine,” she mumbled under her breath.

The scarf was made from a slippery fabric, so the knot she tied, kept unraveling.

“Do you have any safety pins?” I was asked with zero eye contact.

“Um no, but I have plenty of bobby pins?”

She improvised and used a few of my bobby pins to clip the scarf to the little boy’s khaki pants. I made sure the scarf hugged his knee perfectly. He had been clinging to me the whole time.

“Just let us give him some water and food. We can bandage his knee and inform his caretakers later,” suggested Alex — the voice of reason.

Saba looked over at Alex as if he understood her limitations, and surprisingly her expression softened, just a bit. “Any idea where we can take him?”

We were sitting in an apartment on the fourth floor of a tall housing complex. Alex’s choice in decor was exquisite, but my focus remained on the little boy. He was horsing down some rice and milk like he had not eaten in ages. Saba was cleaning his wound and bandaging his knee.

“What is your name?” I was curious to learn more about him.

“Reza” he said, his voice was returning slowly since his body was replenished with much needed moisture and nourishment. With his energy back, he was the typical four year old toddler: playing with spoons on the table, rolling the salt shaker over my bobby pins, and crumpling up napkins into tiny balls. But he was still very quiet — too quiet.

“He is one of the camel kids,” sighed Alex, looking away to hide his pained expression.

“Who are the camel kids?” I asked, stumbling over the salt shaker under my feet.

“The Sheikhs have them race their camels. The lighter and younger they are, the better they race, and better the chances for the sheikhs to win their bets,” Alex continued in a cynical monotone.

“What about his parents?” I was horrified.

“Probably sold him” Saba stated in a matter-of fact kind of way, as if this was a common occurrence. For the first time, she looked directly at me.

“Are you seriously that naive?” Alex’s outburst was unexpected, a case of displaced anger perhaps. “This is how it is here. Everyone knows, but no one does anything to help. They treat their camels better than the kids that ride them.”

Saying goodbye to Reza was heartbreaking. Both Alex and I were struggling to hide our tears. But once reprimanded by Saba, we made a conscious effort to hold back so Reza did not get attached to us. “It is not fair to him,” she scolded. A statement of fact in all its irony. It was hard not to notice a hint of vulnerability in her unrelenting demeanor.

In my hotel room, I struggled with the bobby pins in my hair, pulling each one out with a tortured “ouch!” I couldn’t stop thinking about Reza. What would I do if it was one of my little nephews instead of him? I had to do something! I had to see for myself. I leaped out of bed and called Alex. We were going to the race tracks the next day.

Reza was first in the row, on a tall lean camel with two humps. He had the same blue helmet on and the green scarf was still secured on his knee with my bobby pins. He rode his camel with stealth and speed as the crowd cheered in applause. The seats were packed. I saw people from many different backgrounds and nationalities. Men were holding up cards with numbers for the camels they were betting on. Women were sipping on drinks, carrying binoculars and snacks, poised in their expensive garbs. I felt like puking.

“Camel Kid” by SM

“Child labor is very common here. The sheikhs refuse to talk about it and if you see, no news reporters or cameras are allowed here. The security is pretty tight.” Alex pointed out. I glanced around the stadium, there was no one from the Media in sight.

I also learned that Alex worked for an NGO that wanted to help these kids. There were thousands trapped as indentured servants, paying off the money that was given to their parents, with the false promise that their son would be a famous jockey in Dubai. Most of the others were street children, easy targets to exploit. Without any regulatory oversight and in the absence of their parents, these children suffered inexplicable atrocities — from starvation to sexual abuse, and much more.

Suddenly, the crowd was jeering and the race came to an abrupt halt. The camels were piled one on top of the other, and their trainers were in a panicked frenzy. The word from the crowd was that a little boy fell on the ground and almost got trampled on by the startled camels.

“Hello?…Saba…a boy fell in the race today…they won’t use him again…he must be hurt and the crowd is pretty riled up…yes…so they can’t resist…okay let’s go get him!” Alex rushed to the ambulance that was just pulling up.

I paced restlessly waiting for Alex to return. And then I saw it — a green scarf on the ground by the camels’ feet. Scattered next to the scarf, were my bobby pins. I kneeled on the floor, tears trickling down my face into the sand. Tears of joy, I did not want to hold back.

The plight of the camel kids is real, even though this story is fiction.

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