VICE: Dubai Labour Camp’s Got Talent

My piece on the new VICE news site, about the singing sensations amid Dubai’s construction worker camps. We just never heard them over the diggers before… (Try not to let the US spellings annoy you.)

Singing contest Camp Ka Champ (“Champ of the Camp” in English) is like The X Factor except rather than allowing novice singers indulge in a vacuous pop-star fantasy for a few months, years after that boat sailed, it helps impoverished migrant workers in Dubai escape from the daily grind of building one of the world’s most opulent cities at break-neck speed.

Instead of Simon Cowell, with his tight t-shirt and eye-rolling theatrics, Dubai-based Indian singer and presenter Shobana Chandramohan plays judge. The format is different too: contestants fight to recognize a tune from its opening chords, then sing, however well, or badly, the remaining lyrics.

It’s a chance for every camp employee to show off their singing skills and Bollywood wisdom in front of everyone they live and work with — but only within government-regulated camps where workers have the right residency documents.

Understandably, tensions run high in the battle for the Champ stamp and the pressure mounts with every passing year. It was devised by UAE-based advertising agency Right Track to promote clients including Western Union, the company that transfers most of the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese worker’s salaries back to their families.

When the competition first hit UAE labor camps in 2008, 30 men entered. In 2013, 3,000 took a chance, with around 10,000 said to have come to watch the final. The prizes, even according to the contestants, aren’t life changing. They are flights home, a bit of cash, flat-screen TVs. You could argue that the champ’s biggest win is the veneration of his campmates.

A man currently earning similar respect in film industry camps is Lebanese-born long-term Dubai resident, director Mahmoud Kaabour. After producer Eva Sayre told him about Champ of the Camp during its second year, it quickly dawned on them that the contest could offer a way to get into the camps with a camera — plus permission.

The seed for this desire to record inside laborer accommodation was planted young. “At 14 I got a summer job in an UAE industrial area,” remembered Kaabour. “Every day I ate lunch in a cafeteria where laborers ate.”

“The following 20 years, my life in the UAE did not offer me such proximity to laborers again. I always thought that was baffling. I decided I wanted to create a film to break down that invisible wall between Dubai dwellers and the people who create and build Dubai for us.”

Eventually, access was granted and filming of the 2012 contest for the documentary Champ of the Camp began, albeit nervously. “I couldn’t actually understand why I was allowed in,” recalls Mahmoud.

“As a documentary maker anything I would have come across was going to end up being in the film,” he said. “Either the film would annoy the authorities for showing a side of the camps they did not approve of, even though I was in there legally. Or it was going to disappoint by not honoring the prevailing impression of what a (labor) camp is. I was anxious throughout.”

Then there is the sensitive issue of filmmaking itself in Dubai, following the much-publicized imprisonment of American expat Shezanne Cassim. Cassim was held on charges of threatening national security last April, after he and some friends posted a satirical short set in the emirate about a made-up martial arts school on YouTube. Following eight months in jail, the UAE deported him in January.

Kaabour’s reality-style film therefore follows an objective structure. Dozens of men were initially interviewed at the auditions, but only those who made it furthest in the Champ crusade become the film’s main characters. Knowing they’d be accused of interviewing men handpicked for either their positivity or particularly bleak circumstances, Kaabour is adamant about the documentary’s non-bias.

“We gave the voice entirely to the laborers and wanted them to say whatever it is they have to say,” he said. It turns out most workers just want to talk to their wives and children back home. Dozens are filmed singing Bollywood numbers and “ghazal” — classical Indian love songs. Some are comparable to American blues, with somber lyrics about wives and families. It seems the topic uppermost in most of the laborers’ minds is not the work they sweat through during the day, but whatever’s going on wherever they came from. While work contracts are typically at least three years, trips home are made once a year, if that.

“Sometimes I talk to my mother on the phone and she tells me to just come home, that they don’t need the money,” says one young man choking back tears. He hasn’t seen his family in three years. He ignores her, as he knows his parents need the Dhs700 ($190) monthly salary they sold their sliver of land in India for, in order to finance their son’s Dubai relocation.

An older man, Dhattu, seems more at peace with his situation. His job is to sweep the labor camps. He knows he will have to keep this job for several more years in order to marry off each of his three daughters. But before we’re introduced to Champ’s key characters, viewers are intrigued by shots inside the infamous “labor camps.”

While the accommodation appears to be an improvement on that which appalled the world in media reports in 2008 and 2009, even these regulated camps are a shock. Eight workers share a room with little storage or belongings, and dozens share kitchens with no AC, even during the summer’s 110-degree-plus heat.

Many of the camp inhabitants have come from impoverished villages, often without running water or reliable electricity, but that’s no excuse for substandard accommodation. “They are a strange construct,” said Kaabour, after spending months filming inside them. “They only exist in this part of the world, they have a gender imbalance, they’re transitory, they’re impersonal: this remains the great source of discomfort with labor camps.”

Dhattu says early on that he feels like he’s living “in jail,” though he laughs as he says it. The first uncensored screening of Champ of the Camp took place outdoors in front of more than 1,000 viewers in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, as part of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in December.

It is said to have triggered tears, so moved were the city’s relatively more affluent types to hear first-hand of the harsh realities of thousands of men living right next to them. Five of the laborers from the film were invited to a podium to sing immediately afterwards — they were met by a standing ovation.

“I like to think that there was some sort of social reconciliation happening that night in Dubai,” said Kaabour. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.” The film was released in the UAE at the end of January. There’s been interest from European distributors and Kaabour has been invited to speak at the International Labour Organization’s summit next month, on the topic of “creative narratives on labor and migration.”

But he’s still holding out for a little more love at home. “As we made the film, no one wanted to be seen as 100 percent siding with it. Even DIFF gave their budget to films over the Arab world other than ours. But when they saw it, they ended up throwing this huge (premiere). I think now, with the public support for the film, there’s going to be more backing,” the director said.

The latest Human Rights Watch report on the UAE outlines the continuing injustices for Dubai’s hundreds of thousands of migrant construction workers. There’s still no minimum wage. Some working environments have been deemed unsafe. Employers are said to continue to hold too much power over their workforce, while recruitment companies allegedly still illegally charge extortionate visa fees.

Obviously none of this can be tackled head on in a government-approved documentary. But the fact that Champ of the Camp gives a handful of Dubai’s sea of anonymous, overall-clad workers some depth and dignity — and that it can be shown inside the UAE — is a start. The fact Simon Cowell is nowhere to be seen is just a bonus.

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Review: Why putting lots of pollen on your face keeps you young

Set down one of Covent Garden’s sidestreets, Thai Square Spa is a haven of compact calm amid the West End hubbub. On my recent visit, I was firstly treated to two friendly faces and handed a short form to fill in by the Thai reception staff, before being encouraged to settle onto one of the traditional wooden seats, opposite a slightly tense looking couple (couples treatment first-timers, perhaps?). Next, I was flourished with some special herbal tea which, they informed me, had been freshly infused that morning. A couple of sips later – you never have time to drink that first cup of spa tea, do you? – I was introduced to my (again, Thai) facialist (yes, that is what someone who gives facials is called), who led me to the ladies changing room and handed me a dressing gown, slippers and a locker key. Thankfully, Thai Spa Square is not one of those places where you must change into disposable underwear for a facial – a procedure I never quite understand.

Once on my back on the massage table in the cosy, comfortably heated treatment room (not too cold, not too hot – keeping this Goldilocks happy), listening to the hushed, not-overly-plinky-plonky background music, my facialist got to work with my requested Seven Pollen Facial. Over the course of the next hour, she applied dozens of lotions and scrubs to my skin – all of them pleasant in odour and sans any skin-stinging side-effects. The products incorporated (you guessed it) seven different pollens as part of a secret recipe, famously used by the Thai royal family in order to keep skin balanced, relaxed and boasting a healthy glow, via a process of ‘cleansing, balancing, repairing, moisturising and awakening the skin’. I don’t think my skin has ever done so much in its life, let alone an hour.

And this facial wasn’t even just a ‘facial’ – it was a massage too. At least the last 15 minutes of the treatment (it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re in a dark room with your eyes closed and you’re almost deliriously relaxed) included a thorough head, neck, shoulder and arm massage, all to help encourage overall radiance.

Once I had my clothes back on, I repaired to the softly-lit unisex relaxation room for a full cup of that sweet herbal tea and a leisurely flick through the spa’s stock of magazines (stylish consumer titles including Dazed & Confused, Conde Nast Traveller and House & Garden – FYI). A quick farewell wave later – thankfully accompanied by no product hard-sell from staff, despite the display shelves upstairs – and I was back out on Covent Garden’s cobbled streets, markedly unwound, to the point where I wasn’t even overly worried about my lack of make-up. Whether passersby were, I don’t know. Or care.

The all-important question: did the facial make any actual difference to my face? Over the next few days, at least four people commented that my skin ‘looked good’. One even said it looked ‘all glowy’. And these aren’t the sort of people to give a compliment for no reason.

So, it seems those shimmering, wrinkle-free Thai Royals – and, perhaps, bees – are on to something.

Entrance Treatment room

I ♥ Contributors pages

I love Contributor pages. I love reading about the people who put magazines together. It’s always the first bit I flick to, if the editor has seen fit to include one. So, in the hope that you’re as nosy as I am, here’s my little appearance on Bespoke‘s Contributor page this issue, alongside some other interesting characters.

(PS: ‘musuem’ would be spelt that way – if it was a museum about people called ‘Sue’.)

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Review: Poetry slammin’ in NW1

Last night I went to see my first dose of live poetry in London at slam tour Hammer & Tongue‘s Camden leg, encouraged by host Michelle Madsen (who, did I mention, has a new book out?). As daunting as this Monday night jaunt may sound, the standard was impressively (and, I’ll be honest, unexpectedly) high – especially for those who had never ‘slammed’ before. Particular highlights were BBC Radio 4 Slam Champion Ben Mellor‘s piece about smashing up his late father’s old piano (surprisingly tear-jerking) and manic Chris Parkinson’s poem about the rise of the Grammar Nazis (“They started with the grocers”, a fabulous first line). Mutton-chopped Parkinson is also the man behind a certain Gumtree ad hunting for flatmates willing to dress up and impersonate a walrus for two hours a day in exchange for free rent – now the inspiration behind Kevin Smith’s next Hollywood film, out this ‘fall’.

And then there was the slam-dunking winner of the night’s new poet contest, whose name I don’t remember yet but will (she’s the lady in the image below – with the specs), and her romantic rhyme about lovers ‘S’ and ‘T’ who scratched their names onto Bournemouth pier, and without whom ‘R’ would never reach ‘U’. No faux rap-star accent or hand gestures, no glib subject matter; just a compulsive little story, hinting at the sort of pillow talk everyone can tap into.
It almost inspired me to write some rhymes myself.
Almost.
(But did I mention my friend Michelle Madsen has a book out?)

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The Telegraph: Tales of the unexpected – becoming an ex-expat

An article for The Telegraph about the trials and tribulations of settling back into London living after seven years away. Has the city gone mad, or have I?

It’s just over four months since I moved home. Following seven years in Dubai, I uprooted my comfortable, sunshine-filled expat life, packed it into boxes and sent if off on a ship back to London.

It was time to move back, be nearer my family and oldest friends and put an end to the constant limbo that hangs over one in a place so endlessly transient.

Once I had, I found I’d inherited a new and somewhat strange skill: the ability to look at my own country through sparklingly clear eyes. UK life differs sharply from that in the UAE, and there have been extra, unexpected difficulties involved in repatriating myself.

My personal speed and space boundaries had to be recalibrated first. London’s faster tempo was thrust upon me as soon as I touched ground, as hundreds of my fellow passengers marched off the plane and near-sprinted to border control.

For once I couldn’t overtake everyone; I struggled to even keep up. Clearly, living in a city of merely 2.1 million had readjusted my pace and parameters. But it isn’t just the fact I’ve come from somewhere less densely inhabited that makes me feel like London is overflowing. It’s because it is: back in 2006 the population here was 7.5 million – now it’s 8.3. The presence and pressure of those extra 800,000 residents is palpable.

Next up: my immune system needed a service. The minute the freakishly long summer ended (the best in seven years – talk about good timing), and I stepped into an office, I got a cold, cough, eye infection and my wisdom teeth flared up – all previous health issues that had laid dormant for years.

My body had gone soft, incapable of dealing with temperatures less than 25 degrees, or an office without air conditioning or a fleet of housekeeping staff. Thankfully, it only took my white blood cells a fortnight to catch up with me – which was almost as quick as HM Revenue and Customs.

But not everything has been a stinging slap-in-the-face sort of surprise. On the whole, it’s been a process of realising how much I’ve truly missed, without realising. By now my phone is stuffed with scenery shots: green fields, glistening lakes, pink sunsets, purple heather. The British countryside is stunning – it just took me seven years in an arid desert to notice. The smell of grass, the scattering leaves, the clearer light are all magical, truly. All that lush life feels so soothing and rehydrating for my wandering soul.

Similarly cheering has been my readjustment to London city life. At first, I’ll be honest, I felt frightened just walking down the street. I jumped out of my skin when a salesman asked if he could bother me for a moment. “No!” I impulse-barked at his raised eyebrows. Dubai doesn’t have much of a pedestrian culture; you hop in a cab to go anywhere, even cross the road at times, so you don’t actually come close to crowds of other human beings as often as here.

The UAE is also, comparatively, an incredibly safe place to live. Case in point: I once lost my debit card in a club, only to discover that a stranger had found it and cancelled it for me. So, initially, I felt like rather a babe in the wood walking about Hackney and Camden; as though I had “newcomer” etched in my eyes and “Dubai savings” on the watch on my wrist.

But time and time again I’ve been uplifted by the kindness of strangers: the man who lifted my stupidly heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs at Highbury and Islington station; the taxi driver who stopped the meter after a lengthy road diversion, then drove on and made sure I got safely to my front door; the older lady who shared my pain as we waited for an hour at Turnpike Lane for that mystical “replacement bus” one Sunday afternoon. Don’t get me started on my reacquaintance with cancelled/delayed/disappearing tubes, trains and buses: why can’t engineering works be done overnight when all motion stops anyway?

But yes, I’m happy to tell you, London remains, essentially, a friendly place. And that’s even amid the high street loons, like Kentish Town’s Cardboard Box Head Man, Lady Who Paints Her Face Bright Red and Man Who Wears Clown Make-Up. Honest.

I’m sure the shocks will keep on coming. In the past five days alone I’ve spotted an entire range of vibrators in Boots and a man with a pierced eyelid. I’ve drunk vodka shots with colleagues in the office. On top of that, a strange man, standing far too close at a pedestrian crossing, informed me that he uses the same brand of toilet roll as me, while looking intently at my transparent Sainsbury’s shopping bag. I must remember to buy a thick reusable one next time …

Yes, no doubt these cultural jolts will keep on striking as I immerse myself back fully into the swing of British life – until they suddenly, imperceptibly, stop.

For now? I’m just marvelling at them as they hit.

The Guardian: The monkey that went clubbing in Dubai

My latest piece in G2, about monkeys in clubs, tigers in offices and cheetahs on leads…

It’s a zoo out there: quite literally in the case of Dubai. Last week, one of the city’s nightclub-goers took a monkey to a club and – from the looks of one photograph – tried to get it drunk on vodka.

The small animal, wrapped around a man’s sizeable waist, made it past front-of-house staff at the five-month-old Vanity club long enough to be snapped in several photos, before being swiftly ejected and barred – along with its chaperone and his other, human, guests.

Shortly after, images of the monkey’s night out appeared on Facebook, apparently sporting the logo of the club night’s independent promoter. The resulting furore ran on Facebook and Twitter for days.

Dubai residents posted hundreds of comments, the vast majority expressing sympathy for the animal. Some called for the monkey’s owner to be deported, others for clubbers to boycott the venue in protest. (The club, meanwhile, swiftly distanced itself from the event, severing ties with the promoter, sacking the doormen and donating around £2,500 to local animal charities.)

But the big question is why this incident has come as such a shock to Dubai’s system. Monkeys are regularly seen around town. I am a former United Arab Emirates resident myself, and I once witnessed a shivering monkey, clothed in a baby’s nappy, being held out of a car window before a papping crowd. I was also once invited to see some tigers that were kept in the office HQ of a large well-known company. I declined, although a friend who was working with the business saw the captive big cats first-hand.

The sightings and stories are endless. In 2012, a shot of a tiger peering out of a car caused a minor Twitter storm. A cheetah on a lead was seen in 2011, and another was found dead in Al Ain in 2012 after escaping from a cage in a private villa, while a baboon made a break for it the same year.

So exactly how difficult is it to adopt an exotic pet in the UAE? A quick search leads to multiple sites offering marmoset monkeys and, among others, cheetah, tiger, leopard, cougar and jaguar cubs. An hour later, I’ve been emailed details of a 10-week-old cheetah cub I can welcome into my family from Cameroon for $1,700 (£1,042) – no questions regarding my prior cat-handling experience asked.

Gulf News, one of the UAE’s most-read newspapers, achieved a similar feat last year, showing that it was possible to acquire a black-market baby crocodile for less than £200 (the trader warned them to “take care” if it “grew big”).

In February 2013, it became illegal to import such animals into the UAE, but captive breeding is not so tightly regulated. The offending clubber has unwittingly increased support for Dubai’s fight against exotic pet ownership, and brought better regulation one step closer. Which makes for a fairly uplifting answer to the question: what happens when you get a monkey drunk?

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