Ejo #66 – It Begins At Home (Thank You, Family)

The dictionary defines the word family as:  a group of people who are generally not blood relations but who share common attitudes, interests, or goals.  Admittedly that definition was way down the large list of options, but in this instance it perfectly describes us.  Yes, us.  For when I put out the call asking for your generosity, you answered.  We shared, on this occasion, a common attitude of recognising those less fortunate than us, the common interest of wanting to make a positive change for those people and the common goal of putting some food on their plate.

So we, as a family, put some money together and on a warm Friday morning on the 24th April, at a labour camp near the airport, we handed out bags of rice, lentils and oil to 250 workers. We also gave them a bread roll each, as well as a delicious, hot samosa.

Lining up around the corner

Lining up around the corner

In Australia, this guy would be hanging with his friends, chatting up girls and having fun.  In Dubai, he toils for no minimum wage so he can send money back home to his family and he lives in a labour camp.  That isn't right, and yet he still dazzles us with that smile.

In Australia, this guy would be hanging with his friends, chatting up girls and having fun. In Dubai, he toils in the heat to send money back home to his family – and he lives in a labour camp.  A LABOUR CAMP!  It’s just wrong, yet he’s still capable of that smile.  I just had to smile back and wish greater things for him.  

Some guys are super happy when they get their food and give you huge smiles, others don't and that's OK too.

Some guys are super happy when they get their food and give you huge smiles, others don’t and that’s OK too.  The one thing they do all have in common is that they are grateful.

This guy couldn't stop smiling the whole time - despite his broken arm.

This guy couldn’t stop smiling the whole time – despite his broken arm.

There's really no feeling like giving someone something that they need.  The exchange is meaningful beyond the mere products that you are handing out.

There’s really no feeling like giving someone something that they need. The exchange is meaningful beyond the mere products that you are handing out.

This guy couldn't believe his luck.  Free groceries and a samosa!!!!

This guy couldn’t believe his luck. Free groceries and a delicious samosa!!!!

Another happy customer.

Another happy customer.

Even a bread bun wrapped in plastic is sometimes beyond what they can afford to buy themselves.  It doesn't seem like much, and it probably isn't, but it's something and that's what we are working towards.

Even a bread bun wrapped in plastic is sometimes beyond what they can afford to buy themselves. It doesn’t seem like much, and it probably isn’t, but it has to be better than nothing – right?

Acting as honorary Project Manager for Care2Share (a corporate social responsibility initiative) Roshni is the heart and soul (as well as the brains) behind these handouts. Honestly, we could never do anything like this without her.  On the 26th and 27th June* we’ll take the rest of the funds and, with Roshni’s help, we’ll buy warm meals consisting of chicken biryani, dates, samosa, water, yoghurt and something sweet.  Over those two days, thanks to you, 643 men will be able to break their dry, hot, long Ramadan day of fasting with an Iftar meal that isn’t just sustaining, but actually delicious.

Though it’ll be hot as hell out there, I’m really looking forward to the Iftar handout.  Ramadan is a complex time and the Iftar meal is usually considered a great reward to make up for the difficulties faced, and sacrifices made, during the day.  Most of these guys can’t afford the luxury of a hot meal, and certainly not something as delicious as we will give them.  The gift goes far beyond the food though, something that those of you who have visited and helped with a handout know from experience.  The food is a great gift, yes, but it takes a back seat to the gift of humanity, kindness and compassion (a gift that rewards the giver as well as the recipient).

Thank you all for giving that gift.

It's faces like this that make this more than a worthwhile cause - they make it a personal high.

It’s expressions like this that elevate the effort from worthwhile cause to personal high. 

* David and I will be there on Saturday, 27th June handing out the Iftar meals. The handout on Friday, 26th June will be done by Roshni’s crack-team of regular volunteers – shout out to the men and women who regularly donate their time to help the cause. Not only are they lovely, kind people donating their time to others, they’re actually a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

Ejo #65 – Please Give Me Your Money

Please give me your money so I can buy some food with it. Not for me, but for the guys that toil and struggle every day in their efforts to build (and maintain) this sparkling, modern metropolis called Dubai.

Workers in Dubai

Workers getting on the bus heading back to camp.  The skyscrapers that they build in the background. 

I don’t normally beg for food. And if it was for me, I would actually just rather do without (I could probably stand to lose a couple of kilos anyway). But the money I’m asking you for is for a more worthy cause – one which my longtime readers will already be familiar with. Can you believe it’s been 18 months since I last asked you, my friends and family, to help me bring a smile to a labourer’s face (by putting some food in his belly)? Well, indeed a year and a half has tumbled past, and it’s time for me to once more get on my knees and ask you to part with some of your hard earned dollars.

Those of you who have contributed before know that the driving force behind the food donations is Roshni Raimalwala, the hard-working, behind-the-scenes advocate of the labourers and workers of the city – the ones that the government should be doing more to look after (check out the other work she does with Care 2 Share UAE).  She is out there every week (sandstorms and searing sunshine be damned) organising food and grocery handouts on behalf of companies, schools and sometimes individuals – like us – that wish to help.  During religious holidays like Ramadan and Eid, she also arranges larger hampers filled with toiletries, clothes and bedding.  Things the workers need and want, but simply can’t afford to buy on their own.

Standing in front of the building they'll never be able to enter.

Standing in front of the building they helped to build but will never be able to enter.

On Friday, 24th April 2015, David and I will be going to Muhaisnah labour camp (more commonly known as Sonapur, which ironically translates from Hindi as “Land of Gold”) where Roshni has facilitated a handout to be done by some children from one of the local schools. How wonderful is that??  I really think that growing up in this city, it’s super important for young kids to realise that Dubai is not all about beach clubs, malls, nannies and sparkling new bikes.  If they can see that the reason this city even exists is because an entire collective of human beings from another continent have built it from the ground up, surely that’s a great lesson for them to learn.  Another important lesson is to see that there are people less fortunate than they are, to put a face to those people and to reach their hands out to help them.  To make the situation real.  I believe that compassion is one of the most meaningful things that anyone can learn, and even better to learn it from a young age.  I am really looking forward to participating alongside, and meeting, the young philanthropists who have promised their time and energy towards the cause.  I wish you could come along too – and if you’re in Dubai and are interested, please get in touch with me and we can make that happen.

But if you are in Australia, or the US, UK or anywhere else in the world, and would still like to be involved, then please just pledge me a little bit of dough.  It doesn’t have to be a lot.  If you can make do without ten pounds, or five bucks or even just 20HKD then that will still contribute a great deal towards providing a tired, hungry, poor worker with some food that he otherwise would not have enjoyed.  If you can spare more, that would be even better.

Between us, David and I will match every single overseas donation.  So if you all raise the equivalent of 2000dhs, that’s how much we’ll put in the kitty too.  If it’s more, then we’ll be happy to dig deeper.

After all, it’s just money, right?

Ejo #64 – I Can’t Write Good No More

The other day I tried to write a short story. And I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t suffering from writer’s block – I knew the premise of the story. I knew what I wanted to say. I simply couldn’t put the words together in the right way in order to say it. The words spewed out of me in convulsions, inking themselves on the page in fractured, childish sentences. I persevered. A couple of hours later (a period long enough for the muse to flirt with me at least a little, usually leaving me with something of value to take home) all I had to show for my efforts were big black X’s scribbled all over the page, obliterating the crap that had disgorged from my pen. I was embarrassed by what I saw. I could not write a story.

I tried to remember the last time I wrote a completely new short story and realised it’s been over a year.

I recently went to a session of the Dubai Writer’s Group, a collective of writers that meets in a downtown café to critique each other’s work and, on alternate weeks, hold writing sessions. I went because it was one of my goals for 2015 to attend at least one of these sessions a month. I work better under some pressure and setting goals like this usually works for me (or, at least it has for this ejo which I’ve been publishing monthly since December 2010).

Because we were out of the country for most of January I couldn’t attend any of the writing workshops – so I signed up for a critique session instead. I submitted my story “Jackie” (yep, the one I wrote last year), and I will be the first to put my hand up right now and admit that this was a big fat cheat. The story was complete and didn’t need feedback. It had been edited and rewritten several times, and it was done. But I had to submit something and, sadly, it was the most recent piece of fiction I’d produced.

I won’t say I didn’t get anything out of the other writers’ evaluations of my work. A lot of what they said was actually a bit of an ego boost for me, and the criticism the piece garnered had more to do with the readers being unsatisfied and wanting to know more. I took that as a compliment. A couple of them said it was a good starting point for a novel. All very flattering. But did it achieve the goal I’d wanted? No. I’d promised myself I would go to those meetings in order to provide me with more motivation to write. And from the very first session I had already failed, because I’d failed to write something new.

In February I registered for one of the writing sessions, hoping that this would be a more successful venture, though my interest was already starting to wane. The meeting was cancelled five minutes before I left the house. Despite being grateful that I didn’t have to drive 45 minutes in weekend evening traffic to the café, I felt more disappointment than relief. That was the only February session I could make, so my second attempt at fulfilling my goal was as much of a failure, if not more so, than the first. At least I had actually attended in January.

At the beginning of March I half-heartedly checked their schedule of meetings and realised that I was rostered to work for all of them. Short of trying to swap some shifts around (no easy task) or chucking a sicky (not my stripe) I simply wouldn’t be able to attend. And that was the final straw for me. Though I can see the purpose of the Dubai Writer’s Group and how it would benefit some writers, I decided to change my goal from monthly attendance at their meetings to writing one short story a month. I figured that this, more than schlepping across town twelve times a year, would benefit my objective of writing more. And of becoming a better writer.

That is, until I actually sat down and tried to write a short story and discovered that I could no longer do so. The realisation didn’t happen right away; it was (painfully) slow to dawn. That first, difficult, attempt resulted in two or three passable paragraphs which I transcribed onto a Word document (I write fiction longhand, call me old-fashioned but I usually work better that way). The next day I had a look at my “work”, blinking with distaste as I read it. I attempted to continue what I’d started. I tried to improve it, to get it going. I truly gave it everything I had. The next three days I tried and tried and tried with the story, struggling to shape the protagonist in a way that would move the story to the place I wanted it to go. I wasn’t able to do it, and the feeling was terrible. Like I was adrift at sea, with no paddle. I thought about trashing the idea because, quite obviously, something wasn’t working with it. And it was only then that it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the story that was failing, it was me. I was rusty. My writing was awkward, and inept.

I’m not good at much, and that’s OK. But I’ve always been good at writing. I’m not saying I’m amazing, but it’s an art form that I’ve always been comfortable with. Words have always been my friends – even when I’ve been blocked, they’ve still been there, only out of reach. But the words coming out now were drivel. Words had turned their back on me. Probably because I had done the same to them.

Writing these ejos every month for the last few years has been very good for my essay writing. But fiction is a whole other kettle of fish, and (let’s be honest) I’ve been neglecting my fish. Just as you can’t expect to serve up an ace or play a flawless concerto when you lay down your tennis racket or violin for a year, how was I expecting to whip up a complex, engaging, well-structured story when I hadn’t given my pen any love for twelve, long months? How very arrogant of me. Well, I have learned my lesson – the hard way. I’ve been humbled. I no longer take my ability to write for granted. I see it as a little present given to me in the crazy, random lottery of life. And I realise that I need to keep working on it. Forever. I need to keep practicing or I’ll lose it. And that would truly be very sad for me.

All I have is words

All I have is words

I used to dream of making my living as a writer. I used to dream I’d write the great Australian novel, or a J.K.Rowling style blockbuster. Maybe a screenplay that would sweep all the awards for screenwriting (on top of making millions at the box-office). But when your goal is such a high-stake one, there is always so much more to lose. My fear of failure paralysed me, so instead of just giving it a go (and perhaps not achieving these lofty ideals) it was much easier for me to pop these goals in the dream drawer. In there, my dreams achieved Schrödinger’s Cat status. Maybe I WAS capable of literary superstardom. Maybe I wasn’t. But what if I opened the drawer and discovered a dead cat…. well, I didn’t want to take that risk.

I no longer dream of fame and critical acclaim for my writing. I now write because I know that I feel like shit when I don’t. My purpose in life is a simple one. It is to put pen to paper. Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”.  And unfortunately, for me, that seems to be true.  But I’ll keep plugging away at this little lemon of mine until I construct a story that I can be a little bit proud of. And when I’ve done that, I’ll write another one. And then another. I’ll keep doing that until I have twelve complete short stories at the end of the year. A collection. And whether I get published or not, I’ll know I’m doing the best that I can to not squander my little gift. I’ll be taking it out of the drawer and unwrapping it from the cotton wool. I’ll be polishing it off, throwing it up in the air and drop kicking it as hard as I can.