When the dust settled after our recent move, I found myself with a pile of things we could no longer use, from Ikea bookshelves that didn’t fit in our new apartment to clothes no one wanted. If I’d been in New York, I would have hauled the entire lot to the Salvation Army and thought no more about it. Here in Abu Dhabi, however, I had a different option: I asked the woman who cleans our house – for the purposes of this column let’s call her “L” – if any of my cast-offs would be useful to her.
She took it all, even the Ikea furniture. She plans to bundle it into the cargo package that her sister is sending home, which means that my Ikea bookshelves will soon grace the house that “L” is building for her family in northern Sri Lanka.
I don’t know much about her life. I expect that she knows more about us, as is probably true for most domestic workers and their employers. I know that she has a mother who has worked in Abu Dhabi for almost 30 years, and that her sister works here too. I know her father in Sri Lanka just had eye surgery, that she has a husband and a teenage son. I know that she’s paid off the loan she used to build the first floor of her house and plans to take out another loan to build the second floor. She was born a Hindu but is now a Muslim who speaks Sinhalese, Tamil, Hindi and English, which means that she’s three languages ahead of me, the person with all the advanced degrees. And I know that she and her sister dream of starting a little restaurant in Sri Lanka when they are done working in Abu Dhabi. Judging from the food she’s cooked for us occasionally, the restaurant should be a smashing success.
Giving second-hand goods to a specific person is different than dropping off a box at Salvation Army. It is, on the one hand, a good feeling to know that “L” and her family will be able to use our old blender, the laptop that’s been replaced by a newer model, the souvenir T-shirts, the clothes I no longer wear. But my pile of throwaway stuff may also illustrate the depth of the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Is my old laptop really obsolete, for example, or do I just want the sleeker, faster newer model?
In an ironic cycle created by the global marketplace, some of the clothes that “L” will ship to Sri Lanka were manufactured in … Sri Lanka. Many garment workers cannot afford to buy what they make, which means that my cast-off skirt may end up outfitting someone who stitched its seams.
When we first moved to Abu Dhabi from New York, my children started asking if we were rich, a question they’d never asked before. In Manhattan, spotting poverty is as easy as seeing a homeless person sleeping on the subway, but extreme wealth is less visible, particularly to children. In Abu Dhabi, however, wealth is everywhere, from the Bentleys lined up at school pickup to the proliferation of haute couture shops in the malls. Who knows: maybe the habitués of Chanel and Dior look at my life the way I look at the life “L” has: awed by her good cheer in the face of adversity. Imagine it: I own no designer anything. Not even a purse or a key ring.
The only way I can ever answer my children’s questions about wealth is to offer a mini-lesson on perspective: as the children of literature professors, they’re not headed for mansions or Maseratis. But at the same time, the level of privilege they enjoy is almost unattainable for most of the people in the world, including Abu Dhabi’s construction workers, domestic workers and shop assistants. So no, I tell my kids, we’re not rich. Except that to many people in the world, yes we are. Moreover, I say, our privilege is due, at least in part, to the sheer dumb luck of being born in a certain place at a certain moment and not because we are any better or worse than anyone else.
I am not fasting during Ramadan but it seems right to use these long hot days to reflect with gratitude on all that I have. I have a life full of blessings, but I’m going to strive to make it a little less full of stuff.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her novel The Time Locket (written as Deborah Quinn) is now available on Amazon