Um Al Naft, 1991
Capt. W. Patrick Gordon
To say that Abdullah looked filthy would be a massive understatement. Abdullah had passed filthy-looking weeks ago. In fact, there wasn’t an adjective strong enough to describe his looks as he stood in the evening shade behind the Hussein Center carefully appraising the crowd of Ramadan shoppers.
He wore a baggy shirt drooped over the top of loose-fitting pants held up by a frayed, waist drawstring. He gave the appearance of not having washed, bathed or even combed his hair in a month but, to the more observant, his odor was not yet offensive. He just looked like a train wreck, especially when he pulled aside his long shirt to expose the colostomy bag with its oozing waste and surrounding sores.
At night he slept on a bed made from a flattened cardboard box spread on the brick pavement between two buildings. His nearest neighbors were the two dumpsters holding the odorous trash of three Indian restaurants. He was occasionally awakened at night hearing the soft, scraping sounds of rats dining on leftovers. There was always enough food in the dumpster, so Abdullah had no fear of getting bitten.
He could have easily afforded a one-star hotel, but he had only one month to generate the cash he wanted before he went home to the Khar Region in west Mumbai, India.
He followed the Islamic dictum to remain as clean as possible, but not the appearance of cleanliness. He washed and prayed five times a day, but he never changed his clothes, or combed his hair. Relatively clean after prayers, he would rub his hands and face on the readily available, oil-soaked sands of the unpaved streets of the city that teemed with traffic ranging from motorcycles, cars, trucks and heavy earth moving and drilling equipment.
Um Al Naft, Mother of Oil, was a city on an incredibly fast pace of development.
He had to work hard during the times that Ramadan occurred in the cool months, but he slept better at night with the more moderate temperatures. Sometimes he even had to cover himself with plastic bags to stave off the chill. This month, which the Westerners called March, made his life even more difficult. It was obvious that pity rose in direct correlation to the temperature. The hotter it was the more pity he was shown.
In March the weather was pleasant for foreigners working in the country. It seemed that most of them were employed in the booming oil industry. By his standards their wages were astronomical. They called themselves “Expats”. His English was good enough to know that word was short for expatriates and he also understood the comments that his appearance prompted.
“On my God. That poor man! How can he survive like that?”
None of them realized that Abdullah was also a working expat.
The easiest targets were the Western women, the lighter their complexion, the better. They shocked the easiest and were the quickest to put large denomination bills into his hands, careful not to touch him as they did so. His preferred tactic was to approach them as they exited their cars. They were bent over a bit, and their eyes were at the level of his soiled bag, eliciting sufficient horror.
The darkest women were the most difficult to convince. He had a practical color scale in mind starting with the whites. He downgraded his possibilities from there to the light chocolate, a bit darker and then the deep black. The darker they were the more difficult they were to con. The yellow Orientals were deeply suspicious and ignored him completely. As a result of his survey he concentrated on the palest women and men he could find.
The men? The men followed pretty much the same pattern. Expat men weren’t as generous as their women, but they were quicker to put a hand in their pocket and pull out some amount of money, even a few coins. They would toss them to him and hurry into the nearby hotel for a cold beer and watch the rare English language televised European football game.
It was a job of numbers. The more people he approached in a day, the better his take-home pay. He didn’t know the expression, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince” but he would have appreciated it. His job was that of a salesman, whether it’s insurance, brushes, bibles or cars. It all boils down to the numbers. He was selling pity and the passing thought that, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
His father, quite old and infirmed as a result of the disabling afflictions conferred upon him by his father, was now comfortably wealthy in Khar. Now too old to travel, his father had taught him the skills required in the lucrative profession of begging. Abdullah’s two older brothers and one sister had been deliberately crippled at the hands of his cousin, in order for them to generate more money. But when Abdullah, the youngest, came along he was special. It was obvious that he would grow into a handsome man capable of bringing the entire family out of the darkness of poverty and into the world of Indian business.
His father made him practice daily, for hours at a time, in front of a slowly delaminating mirror in their bathroom. Both the mirror and the indoor toilet were items of great envy in their region of Khar. Abdullah perfected the weakened stance and faltering, exhausted walk along with the facial expressions of pain and sorrow that would literally suck the money from the pockets of the rich. He made his father very proud and he would continually tell his friends in Khar that young Abdullah was even better than he had been, and he had been exceptional. One of the best, he now owned a large house on the edge of Mumbai He was a man to be reckoned with, a man of substance. But Abdullah was bringing home more money now, every year, than he had made in two, or even three years. He was also learning how to invest in apartments. He already owned one with his father that was generating income that more than paid the mortgage. Their mutual decision for Abdullah to go to the Gulf States for Ramadan had been rewarding beyond their imagination.
The airplane pilot and his wife lived on the 15th floor of an apartment building across the parking lot from Abdulla’s begging territory. They often watched him through binoculars, often into the evening hours until it became too dark and they were unable to separate him from the others merging in and out of the poorly lighted area.
Once, at the urging of his wife, the captain had gone down to mingle with the crowd, purposely passing by Abdulla who performed brilliantly. Abdullah wrinkled his face in a contortion of pain while his left hand pulled aside his shirt to show the colostomy bag, his right hand-held palm upward in supplication. The captain had leaned down to look closely at the bag. He could see that it, and the sores around it, were fakes. He looked into Abdulla’s eyes, grinned, and said, “Good work and good luck my friend.” Abdulla cocked his head to one side and shrugged his shoulders. His expression revealing that, even though his English was limited, he knew he’d been busted.
The captain had intended to give him ten dirhams but, based on his new and intimate knowledge of Abdulla, decided to give him twenty instead. The captain appreciated the performance and was impressed by how Abdullah could quickly and smoothly accost a group of ladies who would easily succumb, placing money into his hands before hurrying away.
Abdullah was not free to ply his trade completely uninterrupted. He had the police to contend with. To him the police began with the fledgling Coast Guard, in their fiberglass, knock-off, cigarette-racing boats. Some of them had up to four big outboard motors on the low stern. They were fast enough to catch almost anything on the water. The dhow captain, who knew his father and had smuggled Abdullah into Um Al Naft, had told him about witnessing one of the high-powered boats, obviously handled by an inexperienced operator. The boat, engines idling, had been drifting backward on the tide and had closely approached an area of rocky riprap before the danger was recognized. As the pilot panicked, he jammed full power to all four of the engines. The torque pushed the bow up into the air and the stern down into the water. It plunged into the Gulf like a backward arrow.
In spite of it being an interesting story Abdullah was not sure he believed the dhow captain. He did not look trustworthy in spite of his father’s recommendation. The dhow captain was a huge man with a big head and a full, meaty face. A thick beard that should have been grey drooped from his chin in a reddish waterfall of henna. His face was so fat it made his eyes squint giving him an oriental appearance. Long arms and big hands revealed the strength that many years at sea, handling ropes and cargo had developed. Even after four annual, round trips with the dhow captain, Abdullah still felt uncomfortable with him. He was always glad to leave the dhow on both ends of the trip.
Other police were in the border patrol. At least that’s what he called them. They were the ones who, on docking, came on board and checked the paperwork of the cargo and the crew. He always managed to stay hidden until they completed their on-board search and returned to their assigned harbor gate.
Passing through the harbor gates was the easiest part of the trip. He made financial arrangements with a truck driver to burrow down into the load. The trucks were rarely stopped and, even if they were, it was only for a cursory paperwork check and, perhaps, a quick superficial look at the cargo. Abdullah wondered if part of his payment to the truck driver went to the police. He wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Finally, there was the Um Al Naft City Police. They were a continual worry and they were on the lookout for both men and women plying Abdullah’s trade. Begging in the country was forbidden. He could avoid the uniformed police but many of them did not wear police uniforms and were difficult to spot. Also, many of them were not local nationals but expatriates who were even more difficult to detect. The only giveaway was that they mostly traveled in pairs. He avoided pairs unless they were white or yellow Firangi, foreigners.
It had been a good month. No, in fact, it had been his best month ever. He had over thirty-five thousand U.S. dollars, half in rupees, the rest in dollars, sewn into a special undershirt. With that much money he could pay off his apartment or make a huge down payment on another. He would have to discuss this with his father when he got home.
The dhow captain made a return trip to Um Al Naft on the second day following the end of the celebration of Eid, the holiday ending the fasting period of Ramadan. He always tried to spend Ramadan and Eid with his family near the harbor at Danda Village but this year he was behind schedule. Not a soul saw Abdullah as he cut a hole in the sagging, rusted, harbor fence, slipped on board the dhow, and remained hidden until they were beyond the territorial waters of the country. Then he sat on deck and idly watched the barren coast of Iran disappear over the horizon on the port side of the dhow. Although lucrative he wondered if he really wanted to return again next year. The police were getting better and perhaps it was time to quit the Gulf.
If there had been a decent wind the captain would have raised the sun-faded sail, but they motored along quietly in the heavy smell of the burned diesel fuel hanging around them like their own, personal, low-level cloud.
The dhow captain looked at him intently from the wheel as Abdullah dozed in the warm sun. Abdullah looked heavier than normal. His chest seemed thicker, but his face remained beggar thin. The captain remembered the bragging father’s words about how successful his son was becoming. Bringing home more money than the father ever had.
What should he use, he pondered, the worn rusty pistol in the concealed drawer in the chart table? No, too noisy, if it even fired, and bullets were expensive. A knife would be efficient and cheaper.
Abdullah awoke from his nap with an arm tightly clenching his head and a fiery sensation at his throat. As the arm threw him to the deck, he could see the spurting blood and the puddle it was rapidly forming at his side. He grabbed his throat and saw the blood running through his fingers and down his arms as the realization hit him. He could sell pity; he just couldn’t buy it.
With the help of his long-serving deck hand the captain stripped Abdullah of his clothes; quite pleased with the heaviness of the thick, heavy undershirt. While the deckhand wired four ballast concrete blocks to Abdullah’s feet, the captain gutted him like a fish. Slitting open his belly would keep the gasses from dragging the body to the surface even with the concrete blocks attached. The clothes would be used with seawater to cleanse the deck before they too were weighted with stones and dropped over the side.
As Abdullah’s naked body slid beneath the surface of the Arabian Sea the deckhand sluiced the deck with buckets of saltwater as the captain developed his story for Abdullah’s father. The young man had never shown up at the pier. Perhaps he had met a lonesome Gori, European, and had run away with her. When Abdullah cleaned up, he was, after all, a very handsome young man.