Between Dreams and Ghosts

Between Dreams and Ghosts

Andrea Wright, Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Andrea Wright (AW): My interest in Indian migration to the Gulf states began in 2006 when I was living in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, a state in northeastern India. In the fall of that year, I took a trip to Beirut, Lebanon, that required a long layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Unfamiliar with the city, I decided to use the time to visit the Mall of the Emirates, as one of my Urdu teachers in Lucknow had asked for a picture of the ski slope inside the mall. Outside the airport, I followed the signs for local transportation and found a line of waiting taxis. Entering a taxi, I asked the driver, in Arabic, to take me to the mall. In response, he shook his head and indicated that he did not speak Arabic. As I watched the taxi’s meter tick upward, I asked the driver, in English, to take me to the mall. Once again, he shook his head, telling me, this time in English, that he could not understand my English. After repeating my request in English and Arabic again, I was unsure of how to proceed, and I began to feel nervous. At the time, I was on a modest fellowship for language study in India. My stipend was paid in rupees and calculated for Lucknow’s low cost of living. The taxi driver and I stared at each other, the meter continued to climb, and I could see my monthly stipend for food and other necessities rapidly disappearing as each minute increased the cost of the taxi ride. Finally, I repeated my request to the taxi driver, but this time in Hindi, hoping that he would understand.

As I finished my sentence, the driver looked taken aback. “Madame,” he asked, “how do you know Hindi?” I replied that I lived in Lucknow and studied Urdu and Hindi at a school there. My answer further surprised him, and he exclaimed that he was from a village near Lucknow. He then began to call his friends who worked in Dubai but were also from Uttar Pradesh. He told them that he had a White woman in his taxi—an American White woman who was now living in India and who could speak Hindi. During the calls, I spoke Hindi when asked so as to prove to the driver’s friends the validity of his claims. Eventually we decided that I would not go to the mall, and instead, I went to a tea stall where I met a group of men, all from villages in Uttar Pradesh who worked in Dubai as taxi drivers. Thus, my long layover shifted from looking at a ski slope in the desert to a day spent talking with Indian taxi drivers, learning about their lives, and hearing their reasons for working in the Gulf.

When I returned to Lucknow after my trip, I visited some of the families of the taxi drivers I met that day and listened to the experiences of individuals whose children, husbands, and/or fathers work in the Gulf. Often families reflected on the physical absence of their sons or husbands. Many also pointed to gifts brought home by migrants and items purchased with money sent by migrants, indicating ways in which the person, despite living far away, remained a presence in their daily lives. These gifts were sent because of affection and duty, and prospective migrants are warned, often through ghost stories, that forgetting one’s familial obligations could lead to death or disaster.

As I conducted research, I learned that dreams and ghosts are terms that migrants themselves invoke to explain and situate their migration. Throughout this book, I examine the poetics of ghosts and dreams and how they are used by migrants, as well as by other participants in labor migration to the Gulf. I find that future visions often emerge in dreams: dreams of modernity, material comfort, and expanding capitalist frontiers. These dreams build on past narratives, which my interlocutors most often discuss as traditions, obligations, or histories. Ghosts appear as reminders of the past; they shape contemporary practices and disrupt the present. Through these analyses, my goal for Between Dreams and Ghosts is to show that labor migration and oil production are deeply informed by participants’ dreams for the future, as well as the historical context in which they situate their activities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

AW: Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil is an ethnography of Indian migration to oil and gas projects in the Gulf. More than one million Indians travel annually to work in oil projects in the Gulf; one of the few international destinations where men without formal education can find lucrative employment. Between Dreams and Ghosts follows their migration, from villages in India to oil projects in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and back again.

Engaging all parties involved—the migrants themselves, the recruiting agencies that place them, the government bureaucrats that regulate their emigration, and the corporations that hire them—this book examines labor migration as a socio-cultural process that reshapes global capitalism. It demonstrates that migration is deeply informed both by workers’ dreams for the future and by the ghosts of history in the present, including the enduring legacies of colonial capitalism. As workers navigate bureaucratic hurdles to migration and working conditions in the Gulf, they influence and inform state policies and corporate practices. Prospective migrants often work in the spaces between government and business policies, mining moments of disjuncture for opportunities to elude or expedite formal channels. They migrate by building “influential networks” (a phrase used by workers themselves), and they build these networks with practices that include gift-giving and storytelling. By placing migrants at the center of global capital rather than its periphery, Between Dreams and Ghosts shows how migrants are not passive bodies at the mercy of abstract forces. At the same time, it reveals through their experiences a new understanding of contemporary resource extraction, governance, and global labor.

The book’s emphasis on the process by which migrants move to the Gulf and on migrants’ experiences provides new perspectives on labor in the oil industry. If we view the oil industry from a global or state-centered perspective, these scales distort labor to make the process appear frictionless. But if we attend to the process of Indian migration to the Gulf, we find this process destabilizes and questions the normalization of neoliberal imaginings. By neoliberalism, I am referring to the increasing privatization and liberalization of markets. Such economic shifts have an impact on labor. As people migrate in response to changing economic circumstances, temporary labor becomes increasingly the norm and workers are not represented by unions or political parties. In Between Dreams and Ghosts, neoliberalism is not an abstract concept that shapes migration; it emerges in signing contracts, cultivating entrepreneurial citizens, managing labor, envisioning the future, and fighting for one’s rights. Thus, an ethnographic perspective on labor in the oil industry questions the frictionless role of labor and demonstrates how precarious labor complicates the commodity chain. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AW: This is my first book. It builds upon the work I did for my PhD in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AW: I wrote this book with the hopes that it would be read by a wide audience as well as by specialists, which is why I include robust endnotes. I hope readers leave the book with a sense of how the precarity of migrant laborers is directly informed by colonial capitalism and neoliberal approaches to labor. The labor conditions in the Gulf are not unique—even though deaths of workers, abandoned camps, and other tragedies are seen as the failures of an individual and are classified as exceptional. This classification naturalizes economic, health, and social inequalities. But by attending to the process of migration and experiences of migrants, I hope the book contributes to our understandings of how attempts to atomize individuals are structured and how people cope within the confines of the rules and impositions they are subjected to.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

AW: I am currently working on my second book, Producing Labor Hierarchies: A History of Oil in the Arabian Sea. This book examines the history of labor and oil production in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and it interrogates the relationships among governments, oil companies, and mobile workforces. To understand these relations, the book focuses on working conditions, hiring practices, and worker actions from the 1930s to the 1970s—a period that includes the end of formal British imperialism in the Gulf and South Asia and the development of new state governments in both of those areas. In considering how lines between citizens and noncitizens were drawn and enforced, Producing Labor Hierarchies demonstrates that shifting definitions of human rights, national security, and race ultimately led to the evacuation of politics from the oilfields and cemented racialized labor hierarchies.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5: “The Rig and the Temple,” pp. 113–117)

In 2010, I made my first of what would become regular visits to a site in Musaffah, UAE, where an offshore, semi-submergible oil rig was being built. I was invited to visit the rig by Alex, a project manager working at Connex, an energy contracting firm. I had first met Alex a year earlier in Mumbai, when he was hiring workers for this project and others. As I drove through the industrial area of Musaffah, I had trouble finding the street names that were on the map he had emailed me prior to my visit. When I finally realized I was hopelessly lost, I called Alex for directions. Explaining that he had never driven himself to the construction site, Alex handed the phone to one of the company’s drivers, Kewat, and asked Kewat to give me directions. Kewat asked me where I was. As I tried to describe the area in which I had parked to make my call, I could find no distinct landmarks. With this little information, he encouraged me to continue driving forward and told me, “Mandir ke lie dekho!” (Look for the temple!). When I heard this, I was worried that I had misunderstood Kewat, and I asked for clarification. Kewat replied that I understood correctly—I should drive straight and look for the mandir, or Hindu temple. “It is so large,” he added, “you cannot miss it.” I was confused as to how a Hindu temple could be in Musaffah near this construction project. In 2010, there were no Hindu temples in Abu Dhabi, and the only Hindu temple in the UAE was located in an old department store in Dubai. Lost, as I often was during my research, I continued driving and began looking for a mandir.

Eventually an oil rig’s derrick appeared to my left, peeking over the buildings lining the road. I turned and, as I drove toward the construction site, I saw how the features of the oil rig mirrored the architecture of a Hindu mandir. The derrick was reminiscent of a vimaana, or tower, and the crown, which is at the top of the derrick, resembles a shikhara, a peak or domelike cap that sits on the vimaana. Meeting me at a security checkpoint, Kewat waited as I gave my passport to the guards, and the guards called a manager at Connex to check the legitimacy of my visit. After this process, Kewat ushered me to a group of trailers where Connex managers worked. As we walked past the partially constructed rig, Kewat gestured to it and asked, “Ye mandir jaisa dekhata hai, hai na?” (It looks just like a temple, don’t you agree?). Pointing to the Indian men working throughout the structure, he added, that because of hundreds of Indians moving around the area, Kewat believed it looked like a temple on a festival day.

Kewat was not the only person who referred to the rig as a temple. During the time I spent conducting research at this site, many men working in unskilled or semiskilled positions would refer their worksite as hamaara mandir (our temple). As Kewat’s directions indicate, describing the rig as a temple served to locate and differentiate this worksite in the industrial area of Musaffah. Musaffah is a large area, and there are always multiple construction projects underway, but during this first visit, none of the other construction projects in the area had the tall, imposing outlines of a semi-submergible, offshore oil rig.

Describing the rig as their mandir not only referenced the rig’s place in Musaffah but also the importance workers gave their migration and labor. This poetic reference to the rig as mandir highlights the aesthetic features of both the rig and the mandir. The description also reflects the pride workers experienced by working on such a large infrastructure project, particularly one that was related to oil. As I spent time with men working at the site, they regularly described oil, as well as oil infrastructure, as symbols of modernity, development, and the future. This chapter explores the importance of describing a rig as a temple through considering how workers also use the poetics of rigs and mandirs to define modernity, make claims for their inclusion in the Indian nation, and envision the future.

Mohammed, a Muslim from northern India, worked at this project for Connex. As he described the importance of his work building oil infrastructure, he told me it helped him be a good son by allowing him to send money to his father. But the meaning he gave his work at this project extended past fulfilling his familial obligations to also reflecting a way he contributed to the future of India. Explicitly, Mohammed connected his work to the process of “making India modern” and described his migration as a way to help both his country and his community progress economically and ideologically. Mohammed was not the only person who situated work on Gulf oil projects as part of India’s modernization. Both prospective migrants and current migrants tell me, with sincerity and excitement, that they work, or want to work, in the Gulf to “make India modern.” When men like Mohammed tell me this, I usually inquire as to what “modern” means, as the word seems, to me, to be amorphous and fleeting. In their answers, Indian migrants describe modernity and development as improvements to infrastructure, which includes airplanes, electricity, and clean running water. They also describe it as the increased consumption of commodities. In addition, workers from groups that face structural inequalities, such as Muslims, Adivasis (indigenous Indians), and Dalits, tell me their work in the Gulf contributes to modernity because it helps their community “stop being backward” or improves their community’s socioeconomic status. However, “making India modern” is not limited to material consumption and infrastructure; it implies more difficult-to-articulate dreams, including freedom; living in the city; doing what you want; and love matches as opposed to arranged marriages.

Discussions around modernity, participation in the Indian nation, and what the future will look like were of particular importance for many of the Indian men Connex employed at this rig construction site. Indian migrant laborers to the Gulf are often members of minority communities, and they face discrimination and exclusion in India. While the Indian government does not collect data on the religion of migrants, in my research, I have found that a disproportionately high percentage of laborers migrating to the Gulf are Muslims. Roughly 13 percent of India’s population is Muslim. Yet over 40 percent of my interviews with Indians abroad have been with Muslims, even though I make no selection for religion. In particular, at Connex’s rig construction site, over 50 percent of the workers from India were Muslims. For many young Indian men facing limited opportunities in their home villages, migration to the Gulf offers opportunities to fulfill their dreams and “move forward” or “move up” in what they saw as a graduated hierarchy of modernity. As I spoke with workers, and particularly those who are members of minority communities, many said they had more opportunities available to them while working in the Gulf than in India. This is because, they told me, multinational corporations did not discriminate against individuals due to their religion or caste, a practice they felt was common in India.

In exploring the poetics of the oil rig and the mandir, I draw attention to the work that migrants are doing in the space between the state, or the sovereign government of an area, and the nation, or the “imagined community” inhabiting the territory of the state. Through such poetics as the rig and the mandir, migrants draw attention to and reframe the meanings of state and nation. In particular, they position themselves as part of India’s development, and they critically insert themselves as part of the national body. Migrants also use poetics to engage with the inequalities inherent in the state and capitalism. By taking seriously the poetics of rig as mandir, we see how differing narratives of modernity and progress are developed and implemented.

The association migrants made between their work and modernity is reinforced by the ideological significance that oil and oil infrastructure play in Indian development plans. In the mid-twentieth century, oil facilitated dreams of expansive capitalist frontiers, and the state governed via reference to the future. Today oil is often overshadowed by the specter of disaster. As migrants drew parallels between oil rigs and temples, they articulated their role in India’s future. In this case, at the construction site in Abu Dhabi, the architectural style allowed for reference to Hindu temples, and the representation had meaning in the context of the Indian state and engagements with development.

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