Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Bathroom Attendant

I went to the movies recently, I saw Killshot... but that is not the focus of this post.

When I first got to the mall, I used the ladies room. Now here in the mall, there is a bathroom attendant for each bathroom. Her job is to sit in the bathroom, clean it periodically, make sure there is toilet paper in the stalls, flush after the surprisingly large number of adult females who find it too complicated of a task to do themselves (perhaps they should paste detailed instructions complete with charts and pictures to the wall behind the toilet?), and hand paper towels to spoiled women who don't want to walk the extra five feet from the sink to the towel dispenser.

I noticed the attendant, sitting wearily next to the towel dispenser. Nobody looked at her, it was like she was just another inanimate part of the bathroom, like the towel dispenser or the garbage can. Even when she quickly got up to offer towels, she was not acknowledged. The towel would be accepted without a thank you, shukran, or even a nod of the head.

The attendant in the bathroom near the movie theatre this evening, was a very tired and sad looking middle aged Sri Lankan woman. She had huge dark circles under her eyes that gave her the look of someone who had not slept in weeks. As I headed towards the towel dispenser, she got up and got me a towel, "Thank you" I told her, automatically (I was raised to thank people who do small favors for me). Her face lit up, and I realized that it was something she seldom heard.

After checking the movie times and realizing that unless I wanted to see a cartoon, I would have to wait a little more than an hour until the next film capable of entertaining someone over 12 years of age started playing, I went to have a bite to eat and after that I went to the movie.

When the movie finished, having the pea sized bladder that I do, I was pressed again and went to the toilets. The same lady was there, in the same spot. While washing my hands, I watched her in the mirror, her weary expressionless face, and the women with fancy purses gliding by her, taking towels from her, leaving their poo for her to flush, who didn't see her.

As I was drying my hands, I asked her:

"What time does your duty finish"

"eleven thirty" she replied with shrug (11:30 PM)

"and what time does your duty begin?"

"morning nine o clock" she told me and then started to ramble half in her language and half broken English about how she goes home, has to cook, clean her clothes, then sleeps at around 3 am until 8 and in the morning when she gets up does it all over again - every day. So for 14 1/2 hours, every day, she lives in a toilet, leaving it only for a small break, and from what I know of salaries here, I doubt she earns more than 800 Dirhams (a little over 200 dollars) a month. She probably does it so that her family back home, can have a "better" life. As I was thinking this, a woman in a glittering abaya with an expensive handbag that costs way more than that woman makes in year limply threw a paper towel in the general direction of waste basket. It fluttered to the floor far short of its target and the Sri Lankan woman quickly bent to pick it up as the woman swept out the door without even looking at her. I felt weird, a mixture of guilt - for ever having complained about having a crappy life, sadness - because I knew that bleak as it is, there aren't many other options for women like her, and helplessness - because I wish I could do something that could make a lasting difference for people like her, and I don't know what I can do.

I stood there awkwardly for a moment, silent; there was nothing I could say really. So finally I wished her good night.

I have seen her a couple times since then. She always smiles when she sees me (she is usually expressionless), which makes me feel guilty, because I don't think I did something to deserve this recognition from her. But it made me realize that small as it might seem, being acknowledged as human and thanked for whatever assistance they provide, does mean something to the many underprivileged hard working people employed in similar positions here - the people who fade into the background and that we take for granted as we rush about our busy lives: cleaners, drivers, office boys / girls, fast food counter attendants, delivery men, and many, many others.


Anonymous said...

Well said. Rasulullah sas said in duniya look to those beneath us (as in poorer and in more difficult situations) and in akhira, look to those above us.
SubhanAllah, and we will never repay Allah for the blessings he has given us, not even the toilet cleaning lady.

Umm Ismail said...

MAsha allah sis Many People Don't Realize the little People are what Makes there Life easier. It is a shame Some people Walk over the ones that make them Survive most of the time. This is done all over the world From Muslim to Muslim Ect person to person.... But yet a Simple Thankyou means the world or a small gift or even smile is a Charity. Sis I believe speaking to her helps her and not treating her like a back drop. Jazakaallahu Khair


Kris and Bert said...

Thank you for writing this lovely post. My husband has just returned from Abu Dhabi and told me how a Pakistani worker who was clearly in front of him at a store was pushed aside so they could serve my husband. He was outraged and insisted they serve the gentleman who was there first. He said the man was embarrassed and apologised to my husband for the fuss. Sadly a co-worker suggested to my husband that this is how it is done here and you need to learn to live with it. We never want to learn to live with prejudice. Your post really brightened my day.

desertmonsoon said...

Al Ghariba, Umm Ismail,

Thanks for commenting.


You are welcome.

Probably one of the hardest things to accept about this place, is its reliance on a very large number of low wage workers who are treated as subhuman. It still bothers me and I have been here 10 years. There isn't much I can do as one person and a non citizen who does not own a business or have any influence or power, but I think if more people at least respected them as human beings it would make a difference.

But the Emiratis themselves need to make more of an effort, since this is their country and every one else is passing through. They set the tone for how these people are regarded and treated.

I am tired of hearing the same old excuse, well this is much better than their life back in their country. I don't know why they assume that is so.

Maybe better only in terms of money, which they don't enjoy because they send every extra bit back home to take care of their families and in order to be able to save anything at all in such an expensive place to live, they have to go without a lot and live in often subhuman conditions.

Even if someone lived in subhuman conditions back in their own country, I don't understand why we have to make sure they don't rise too far above that?! It reminds me of the way Mexican immigrants are treated by some people in the US, which is also really wrong and sad.

Pu├ža said...

A smile can mean so much!