The mosque by our apartment building looks nothing like the mosque in the village where we work in Tanzania. The riches here produce shortcuts, manifest in the mosque near us and in countless others, past the Quranic pledge that building a mosque also means building a place for oneself in Heaven: beauty of that magnitude is already heavenly. Last Friday, the holy day, after a brisk cab ride to Dubai, I stood with a towering, pale green mosque at my back and four others of the ubiquitous granite color spread out in front of me. No more than half a mile separated the mosque farthest to my left from the one farthest to my right. Each of the five suggested, to me, what its pious financier would deny, that one can find Heaven here on earth.
The Kuwaiti government gave the handful of Muslims in our Tanzanian village a slightly crushed cracker box and tipped it over on its side. This low-slung Dareda Kati Village mosque has no minarets, so its loudspeakers for the calls to prayer sit right on top of the flat roof. Here in our desert neighborhood, Al Rifai mosque summons our neighbors to prayer from a pair of minarets as tall as seven-story buildings. These rise to almost three times the height of the place of worship, a stone cube as solid and unshakable as the faith of the people who leave their shoes outside before entering.
Did the workers who impressed an infinite variety of scallops and flourishes on the stone of Al Rifai, redeeming its parched monochrome surfaces for the one God, also build places for themselves in Heaven? If so, and if those workers came from Pakistan or the Philippines or Ethiopia, the distance they must cover between here and Heaven might be greater than for the rich man who paid them and who already lives in a celestial palace.
And does the Pakistani not travel the same distance to Heaven as the Filipino because they perform work of different quality? Does one or the other, having sweated more, now reside closer to Heaven? I see shops whose windows advertise laborers who will clean, cook, drive, fix appliances, and do all the other menial chores that people with money shouldn’t need to do. Helpfully, the shop windows also announce the nationalities of the workers they offer. That will help me in time, anyway. For now, in my ignorance I could easily hire, say, an Ethiopian to clean even though everybody else might know that Filipinos make better cleaners; I would hate to embarrass myself in that way.
However, if I find need for a knowledgeable and inexhaustible driver, I will know to hire a Pakistani or, in a pinch, an Indian. Pakistanis dominate the ranks of the taxi drivers who work for half or more of every twenty-four hours, seven days a week, excluding the forty-five days granted to them so they can visit home every year. In almost all cases that means the only forty-five days out of the year during which they can see their wives and children, whom the government here insisted on keeping out until recently. The economic downturn produced a shortage of tenants in the apartment buildings, so now the taxi drivers may bring over their families. Yet few drivers do this. A taxi driver’s commissions, even from three hundred and twenty consecutive twelve- to fourteen-hour workdays, cannot easily pay a family’s airfare all the way from Pakistan.
Many drivers look for extra ways to make a dollar. Riaz, born somewhere near Islamabad, handed me his card as my wife and I climbed out of his cab last weekend, assuring us that we could phone him any time, day or night, in case we needed a ride or a delivery or work done in our apartment. I called him the next day and he brought us Said and Jaheen, who put up the bedroom curtains which had waited anxiously on our floor for a week until the two small Pakistani men arrived with their drill.
Because the cost, including the fee charged by Riaz, came to under twenty dollars, I will not worry about the possibility that two Ethiopian or two Filipino men might have worked more swiftly and quietly and for less money.—Don Stoll