Slavery, to many of us, is an anachronistic condition. The word may evoke ancient Egypt or the America of 18th and 19th centuries. Sadly, despite sincere abolition campaigns and declarations of universal human rights, the phenomenon remains real and in some regions, shockingly pervasive, to this day. In our time, an Australian human rights group recently estimated, some 46 million people are trapped in some kind of bondage – over half of the number being concentrated in the five countries of India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.
Based on true events, the slim and simple novel Goat Days written by the Bahrain-based Indian author Benny Daniel (“Benyamin”) – an expatriate since 1992 – is an unsettling but ultimately uplifting account of one form of modern-day slavery. It was upon the insistence of a friend that Benyamin, a Malayalee (native of the state of Kerala in south India), met and heard the extraordinary tale of fellow Malayalee Najeeb Muhammad, a former migrant worker in Saudi Arabia. He decided to write it down so that it could be “a moral for those who give up and collapse on facing the slightest obstacle.”
The Man Asian Literary Prize-longlisted Goat Days, which was originally published in Malayalam in 2008 and translated into English in 2012, is made up of four major parts – Prison, Desert, Escape and Refuge. With little knowledge of the outside world, Najeeb, a sand miner from Kerala, first lands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (via Mumbai) in April 1992 when the discord generated by the Gulf War (1990-91) has subsided and there is an upsurge of job opportunities in the oil kingdoms. His intentions are modest enough. He wants to accumulate some money and return to his pregnant wife in India. Live a life with a “gold watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain”. At the airport he is approached by an Arab, his “arbab” – a kind of sponsor, mentor – whom he thinks must be the “custodian of all his dreams, the visible god who would fulfill all his ambitions.” Najeeb is, however, immediately transported in a pickup truck out of the metropolis to the desert, where he must serve as a goatherd, sleep on the sand and must not waste precious water for “unnecessary” sanitary purposes. He must, all by himself, learn to interpret and act upon the angry Arabic commands of his arbab. Such episodes are quite common in the Middle East. The author has pointed out that: “The Gulf is a place of pure luck. It doesn’t matter about your education, your experience, your wealth, even. It’s how you use your chances when you get them.”
Over the next three years Najeeb is transformed into a revolting and savagely figure with matted hair, his body becoming the territory of lice and bugs. Fortunately, he is able to battle crippling feelings of loneliness and alienation due to his desire to live and his faith in God. He finally escapes from the house of the goats with the help of two companions (one dies and the other is lost in the sands) and later, thanks to a kind Arab driver and the hospitality of a group of Malayalees, is able to recover. He surrenders himself to the police and is, by a stroke of pure luck again, not claimed by his arbab and sent back to India.
The string of indignities and the great ordeal do not embitter Najeeb. It is fascinating how in the middle of his memories of scorching heat and corrosive wind, he is able to ask the reader not with little humour: “Would you believe me if I told you that my childhood ambition was to become a goatherd?”
A few of Najeeb’s aphorisms:
- A way to come out of our sorrow is to listen to the stories of those who endure situations worse than ours.
- We shouldn’t dream about the unfamiliar and about what only looks good from afar. When such dreams become reality, they are often impossible to come to terms with.
- …hasn’t it been proven many times that if necessity demands, a listener can understand any language. But it is also my experience that whatever the language, the listener will never understand if the need of the speaker to communicate is greater than the listener’s to understand.
Featured: “On the Edge” by User “amira_a”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr