By Mansi Choksi
Abdul Salam Abdullah Mulla’s eyes were closed, his hands raised to the sky, as he sang a Hindi film song about longing for a loved one. He was testing his voice—low, creaky—in an empty office room at a Dubai labor camp, a cluster of indistinct buildings which sprouted up on desert land to accommodate a rush of migrant workers like him. In a few hours, Mulla would take his singing to the stage.
On this evening in early October, the camp’s courtyard—a place where workers come to shake off the tempers that build in their rooms, claustrophobic hovels shared by up to eight men—had all the markers of glamour and showbiz. An enormous stage had been erected, complete with red carpet, projection screen, orchestra pit, and TV-style game-show podiums. On an ordinary day, residents of rooms on the ground level keep their windows shut. Conversations in the courtyard have a tendency to get loud, especially if alcohol is involved. But on this night, windows were flung open. Workers swarmed booths, surrounding the stage, where torches and teakettles were sold. Another stall distributed free tea. Some of the workers stood around at the camp’s gate, wondering if a celebrity was coming.
When the last busload of workers returned home after evening prayer, the crowd around the stage swelled to about fifty men, some craning their necks to get a good view. The summit of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, shimmered in the night sky.
A few hours later, Mulla sat onstage with his hand fixed on a buzzer. His face was pale. Mulla is forty years old, with a square face, floppy hair, and tinted eyeglasses. This was his fourth attempt to become Camp Ka Champ, or “Champ of the Camp” in Hindi. It’s a Bollywood-style singing and trivia competition, with the title awarded annually to two of the city’s roughly four thousand workers, most of whom come from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. This year, Mulla made it to the quarter-finals.
The contest, which is modelled on a nineteen-nineties Indian television game show called “Antakshari,” is an initiative put on by Right Track Advertising, an agency representing several companies that sponsor the contest, including a financial-services firm, a telecom company, an electronics firm, a hair-oil manufacturer, and a budget airline. The workers, who are spread across nearly a hundred camps in the city, are united by their familiarity with Bollywood, Rupa Vinod, managing director of Right Track, told me. If the workers enjoyed themselves and saw that winning prizes at the competition could improve their lives, she said, they were likely to buy from the brands associated with it.
Camp Ka Champ began in 2007, at the peak of bad press about labor camps in Dubai. In 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report with details of migrants suffering high incidence of injury and death, along with low wages and evidence that migrants were stopped from forming trade unions. After the report was released, a number of foreign journalists began to uncover more injustices inside the camps, publishing exposés with headlines like “Slaves of Dubai” and “Dark Side of the Dubai Dream.”
Since the report, the Emirati government has adopted human-rights recommendations made by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and made pledges to improve the rights of workers in the country. Earlier this year, Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum announced a points-based program to award good practices in labor welfare. In an initiative called Taqdeer, meaning “to measure” in Arabic, companies that rank high on worker welfare are given priority when bidding for government contracts.
Vinod told me that the government wasn’t involved in starting Camp Ka Champ—that the timing was a coincidence. “Even a camp can be a place of joy,” Vinod says. “One news reporter said, ‘I haven’t ever seen two thousand smiling faces in Dubai.’ That’s the kind of response we get.”
In eight years, the competition has grown. “When we started, we would have to go to their rooms and force them to at least come down and sing the national anthem,” she says. “Now, they are lining up for caps, bags, electronics, teacups, and money vouchers, because we incentivize them at every stage.”
Western Union, an American financial-services firm that serves the many workers who send money home to South Asia, is a key sponsor of the contest. The company donated an award of thirty-five thousand dirhams—roughly ninety-five hundred dollars—in gold for this year’s Camp Ka Champ winners. The show’s host, in turn, often reminds her audience that Western Union is the safest and easiest way to send money home.
To get ahead in the competition, you need expertise in Hindi film songs, actors, and trivia. In the first round of this year’s quarter-final competition, the workers could sing whatever they wanted—usually love songs or ballads about pain, homesickness, and sacrifice—until the judges cut them off. In the second round, participants would leap at buzzers to identify a Hindi film actor and sing one of his songs. Halfway through the competition, the contestants would be directed backstage to change from T-shirts displaying advertisements for Du, a telecom sponsor, to shirts that displayed Western Union logos. In the final round, the first worker to recognize a Hindi film song from its instrumental tune would sing it for a hundred points.
Eventually, twenty-four pairs of workers, each representing their employers, would be selected for the semifinal. Four of those teams would compete again in the finals and, finally, a winning pair would emerge. Those two crowned Camp Ka Champs would win the thirty-five-thousand-dirham gold prize from Western Union, along with airline tickets and electronics. Another worker would be named “Singer of the Season” for displaying remarkable singing talent. The Singer of the Season would win thirty-five thousand dirhams in cash from Du.
The two Camp Ka Champs would each receive an amount that would take Mulla at least a year to earn at his job. The Singer of the Season would win an amount that would take him two years to earn.
Mulla moved to Dubai, fourteen years ago, from Belagavi, his hometown in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, leaving behind a wife and three children. He started in Dubai as a helper, the lowest position in the labor community. He assisted skilled construction workers, spending his hours hoisting panes of glass, sawing wood, mopping, and sweeping. He convinced his managers that he could do more, and within three months, he was cooking at the site canteen, making omelette-bread, beans and paratha, lentils, and rice through the week. On Fridays and Sundays, he’d make biryani.
Five years later, in 2006, he got a driver’s license and began working for a sheikh who owned a construction firm. Mulla’s primary duty was transporting feed to a desert farm where the sheikh’s falcons, camels, and horses were kept. But the job required him to steer a car that kept sinking into the sand, straining his forearms. In 2010, he told his bosses that he could no longer bear the pain, and should probably return home. But they liked him so much, he said, that they told him he could start driving supervisors to work instead. He now ran errands, ferried toolkits, made photocopies, and transported small quantities of construction material. He started at six in the morning and often came home past midnight. “Whatever happens, I need to sweat somehow,” he told me, in Hindi. “If I sit in air-conditioning all day, I’ll get sick and that will be a bigger problem.”
Mulla was on good terms with the camp boss, and last year, he had moved into his own room. He chose to share it with two men from his hometown who were in need of mentoring, on the condition that they not drink or smoke. A day before we spoke at Camp Ka Champ, on Eid al-Adha, the Islamic holiday that is observed by sending a part of the meat of a sacrificed animal to the needy, he had received a pot of mutton from the sheikh. Mulla, in turn, had kept some of the mutton and distributed the rest to helpers—“poor souls.”
Mulla estimated that he had gone home six or seven times since coming to Dubai, visiting the people he worked to support: his parents, his wife, three children, three brothers, their wives, and his nieces and nephews. He had helped one of his brothers start a private taxi business and provided medical care for a brother who lost his legs to gangrene. And most of his family’s children were now in school or college. One of his daughters had found a job in a travel agency. “Love is a very big thing,” he said.
His daughters were now adults; his parents were getting old, and his son’s college fees had to be paid. The award money from this year’s Camp Ka Champ could ease the pressure, at least temporarily.
In the quarter-final competition, Mulla sang a song from a 1981 film called “Kudrat,” about undying love. After the competition was over, the judges called the forty-eight men who had been selected to advance to the semifinal. Mulla did not know if he’d done well enough. He had competed against younger men who knew more about recent films, but it was possible that the judge was impressed with his singing. When he got the call, he was surprised. (His teammate did not make the cut.)
“When God gives,” he said, “His blessings come crashing through the roof.”
It was the first time in four years of competing that Mulla had come this far. Last year, he drove the finalists from their camp to the event, and watched the competition from the sidelines. This year, he would be on stage, singing in front of a sea of people.
The 2015 Camp Ka Champ semifinals and finals were held on the same day, in Muhaisnah, a neighborhood that now has the nickname “Sonapur,” or “Land of Gold” in Hindi. Sonapur has a high density of labor camps. You can walk miles here without seeing a single woman. Lines of plastic chairs were arranged for the thousands of workers who would come from camps across the city to watch. At least three workers’ luck would change—two Champs and one Singer of the Season.
Mulla was so anxious that he forgot to eat. In his pocket was a piece of paper that contained handwritten lyrics of twelve songs, in case the judges gave him enough time.
The first round of the semifinals took nearly three hours. The crowd danced, hoisting plastic chairs into the air and screaming to raucous love songs. By the time Mulla got on stage to sing a sobering ballad from a nineteen-sixties Hindi film, it was close to 10 P.M. He stepped out from behind his lectern and walked to the center of the stage, carrying the microphone wire like a professional. But after he sang two verses, the music began to fade. He turned to the musicians and gestured for them to keep playing, but a drummer pointed to his watch and signaled for Mulla to sit down.
In the second round, the show’s host, a Bollywood-savvy singer and former radio host, asked the men to identify a song from its opening chords, and sing verses with English words like “bungalow” and “guitar.” Mulla had studied several recent songs that likely contained those words, but he couldn’t recall them. Whenever it was his team’s turn, an electrician from a competing team pressed the buzzer and belted out song after song.
When it became clear that his team was out of the running, he felt a small sense of relief. “This tension, it’s too much,” he told me after the competition. “I sing because it takes me to a nice place in my mind. Today, my mind was tension, tension, tension.”
The contestants huddled backstage about an hour later, waiting to hear who had qualified for the finals. When Mulla’s name wasn’t announced, he threw on a maroon shirt over the Du T-shirt he had been wearing, and walked to a nearby supermarket to get food. He watched the finals with the audience, as he had the year before.
The titles of Camp Ka Champ went to a catering supervisor and a restaurant administrator. Covered in confetti, they posed with enormous dummy checks and boxes containing home-theatre systems.
Past midnight, Mulla headed back to the company car to drive back to his camp, about forty minutes away. Someone near him started to sing. As he walked away, Mulla recited the lyrics of that song in Hindi, waving goodbye to me.
I’m not upset with you, life, I’m confused
I’m troubled by your innocent questions.