Andrew Gardner's "City of Strangers" Explores the Lives of Migrant Laborers in the Middle East

January 5, 2011

TACOMA, Wash. – While doing research in the Persian Gulf State of Bahrain, anthropologist Andrew Gardner stopped at a passport photo shop. Inside he saw an impressive desk, with an Oxford suit, clip-on tie, and white shirt collar hanging on a coat rack.

He asked about it and was told that migrant Indian workers, who sweat on construction sites and at hundreds of other unskilled positions in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, come to be suited up and have their smiling photograph taken at the desk. The pictures are sent to their families back home.

The migrant workers—millions of them who get locked into destitute lives and demeaning jobs by debts to labor brokers—do not want their parents, wives, and children to know the truth about their lives far from home.

City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain (Cornell University Press, 2010), a new book by Gardner, captures a hidden side of life in the Middle East. Its lessons have implications for societies everywhere that use, or may decide to create, a large migrant labor force.

Gardner is one of the first foreign researchers to spend time in the labor camps where many of Bahrain’s migrant workers live. These non-citizen workers make up about half of the tiny island kingdom’s population.

“Andrew M. Gardner lifts the lid on their lives and the many ways that they adapt and resist, as well as the ways they are beaten down,” wrote reviewer Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves. “This is the best of inquiry, engaged but clear-headed, analytical yet ready to make clear the injustices suffered.”

Gardner tells the migrants’ personal stories and analyzes the sponsorship system that binds each worker to one employer. He writes about an Indian laborer named Karunanidhi, who angered his scrap yard boss and was then forcibly trapped under an overturned bathtub. The boss drove a Jeep on top of the bathtub, found a few other men who were targets of his wrath, and locked them inside a freezer. When alarmed observers called the police, the boss was briefly jailed, then released.

City of Strangers spells out the moral and practical pitfalls of the Bahrain system: the creation of a huge underclass of men and women who have no means to justice and who often become the target of youth violence. Having borrowed $2,000 or more to buy the right to work in Bahrain, the migrants may find they are not paid for their labor at all, or very little. With their passports confiscated and their debt handcuffing them to their employer, they have little choice but to stay.

Armed with his interviews and research, Gardner goes beyond merely describing the system and boldly suggests changes that could improve the lot of the workers, without stemming the labor flow that is key to such cities’ wealth. Gardner explains that for the Middle Eastern states, the exploitative practices are a means to build industries and cities that will ensure the region’s international success, even as the oil runs out.

For the United States too, the book is meaningful. America has itself considered a more comprehensive guest worker visa policy. In that light, and with plenty of opportunities still open to do things right or wrong, the lessons that emerge from City of Strangers are chilling and instructive.

Andrew M. Gardner is assistant professor of anthropology at University of Puget Sound. He co-edited Dispatches from the Field: Neophyte Ethnographers in a Changing World (Waveland Press, 2006) and has written extensively on transnational labor and the people of the Gulf States for publishers including The Middle East Institute, Duke University Press, City and Society, Rutgers University Press, and Human Organization. In recent years he also has conducted research in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Photo top right: Andrew Gardner (left) and research assistant Deependra Giri.

Press-quality photos of Andrew Gardner with his research assistants and of workers in Bahrain can be downloaded from: www.pugetsound.edu/pressphotos.xml

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