Ali Liaqat, a handsome 24-year-old from Lahore, has a soft lower lip, an intelligent but withholding gaze and ramrod straight posture - the result of an overworked bad back. For 12 hours a day, he mans the front counter at the Al Falah laundry shop in Abu Dhabi, just off of Muroor Road about 9km from the Corniche. More than he would like, Ali's life is other people's laundry. One recent morning, I dropped off 12 dress shirts with Ali to be washed and pressed. But then I stuck around to see what becomes of Abu Dhabi's clothes - and the people who wash them - between drop-off and pickup.
In a tiny upstairs room at the shop, Muzaffer Iqbal's seven kilogram iron has five tiny rhinestones glued to its nose. At around noon, those little costume jewels were shuttling back and forth across a rumpled Kuwaiti kandura while Muzaffer gave me a primer on ironing national dress. "It looks easy," he said, smoothing out the white garment with his free hand while the other worked the iron, "but it's difficult."
The Kuwaiti kandura, he explained, has a stiff, raised collar and three special creases - one in front and two in back - that must run the length of the robe. Saudi kanduras have no creases but are made of polyester, which makes them treacherously susceptible to burns. Emirati national dress is the easiest of the bunch, he says: simple, creaseless and cotton. Then Muzaffer noticed a brown dust spot on the kandura he had been pressing. Without blinking, he crumpled it up, tied it into a loose knot and tossed it into a pile on the ground. It must have brushed up against something dusty en route from the washers. Now it had to start the whole cycle again. That means travelling. At the end of every day, the Al Falah shop sends all its dirty clothes to be washed at another shop about two kilometres away.
Downstairs, Ali was pouring a pile of shirts and underthings bound for the washers into the bottom end of an Emirati kandura - a common bundling technique. "This man is a sportsman," Ali said offhandedly, referring to the stuffed, upside-down robe. "He works in the police. He plays football, also goes to the gym." Ali, who has not even visited the Corniche in more than a year, barely knows the man. "I look at the clothes," he said, "and I can tell."
In one day, the Al Falah laundry shop goes through about six or seven bottles of spray starch, and each of its five employees presses approximately 100 garments. The shop processes about 45 garments per day for a nearby Lebanese restaurant; every afternoon, one of the men must ferry the loads past open grills and giant vats of pickled vegetables. The shop's owner provides the men with three small meals a day, and with meat twice a week. The men earn Dh1000 per month. Ali usually sends home Dh800 or Dh900. The cost to renew a residency visa after three years of working in the Emirates is Dh3,000, and the cost of a plane ticket to Pakistan is about Dh2,000. Ali has not had a day off in over a year.
Late in the afternoon, Ali began to pack the day's clean, pressed clothes into parcels. On each, he writes the customer's name or flat number - whatever helps him to match garments to faces. One customer reminds him of Cameron Diaz, and so, on each of her parcels, he writes "Camron". A driver typically carts the dirty clothes away at 11pm. At midnight, Ali walks across the street to the Adnoc Station, buys two cold drinks and downs them both by the car wash. After that he heads back into the shop and joins the other four men sleeping there; they pile up clothes against the window so that no one sees them spending the night in the shop.
The washing starts at 6am in the slow summer months (and at 4am during the rest of the year) at the shop two kilometres towards town. The massive green washing machines stand amid 30-litre cartons of Downy fabric softener and industrial-sized rubbish bins full of detergent. The operators slosh across the waterlogged floor in rubber boots and shorts. A two-metre-tall dryer radiates heat from its open door.
I arrived at the washing shop at around 9am, just in time to see one of my shirts poking out from a giant bundle of clothes on the front counter. My blue checked shirt was tangled together with a kaffiyeh, a trendy night-camouflage shirt, and a beige kandura. I felt a weird fellowship with the strangers who own them. A couple of hours later, Ali was ironing my shirts at the Al Falah shop. Out of curiosity, I asked him what he wanted to be when he was growing up.
Before he came to the Emirates four years ago, he said, he had hoped to become a journalist. But when family finances ran thin, he had to drop out of college. Then opportunity, such as it was, presented itself in the form of a job at the Al Falah laundry shop in Abu Dhabi. His best friend from college, he told me, just completed law school. Sometime this month, Ali plans to head home to Pakistan for the first time in more than two years. If he can find some way to make a living there, he says, he won't come back.