Prisoners of the Green PassportNepali migrant worker who wrote poetry at construction sites in the Gulf
This is the 22nd instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.
I was sitting on the terrace of a building that was under construction in Doha. Night had fallen, but it was still hot.
Beads of sweat dropped on the page of my diary in which I was writing a poem, making the words illegible. Illegible but indelible. I still have that poem with me.
Words are all I have. I have gone three times to the Gulf to work. I have composed poetry at construction sites, under a lamppost in my labour camp, or in a crowded room with 11 other Nepalis.
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After a hard 12-hour day in the outdoor heat, being humiliated by an overbearing supervisor, it did not matter that there were 11 other people in my noisy and crowded room. I became oblivious to my surroundings, when my heart ached and venting in my diary was my only escape.
People talk of foreign employment as a compulsion and not a choice for Nepalis. For me, writing poems also feels like a compulsion. When I see the failures in our society that disproportionately impact the weakest, I have to get it out of my system through verse. Only then can I sit still, get a good night’s sleep.
I see power in words, in books, in literature. Growing up in a remote village near Dharan, my friends and I had started a भित्ते wall newspaper. We used to buy large drawing papers and hand-write news, copying the style of publications that did not make it to our village.
There was no photocopy service then, so we had to copy everything by hand from the master copy. It was difficult, but we loved it, and assigned beats for village news, interviews and literature to the news team.
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I was in charge of the literature section, and sought contributions from the community. We stuck the newspaper on a wall in the busy part of town so as many people as possible could read it.
Indeed, people would swarm around after every edition came out. Seeing the popularity of the paper, people made stands so the paper could be protected from the rain. Sometimes, when available, we used to paste original photos of the contributors or interviewees to illustrate the content. This would create quite the buzz, and inspire others to contribute as well. We had quite a fan following, and could influence village discussions on social issues.
When I migrated overseas for work, this desire to inculcate a reading habit among others followed me. It was not easy when access to books or newspapers was limited.
In Qatar in 2004, news from Nepal was not readily available to us migrants. When people came from Nepal carrying gifts like pickles, they used to be wrapped in newspapers. Sometimes the news in those pages would be more valuable than the pickle itself.
We would read those strips of paper, and share it among ourselves. It did not matter if the news was outdated, or if the paper was crumpled — it was still a valuable connection to our homes, and sometimes the only link with Nepal we had.
We would save these clippings under our pillows and reread them anytime we were bored or homesick. We would read them so many times that we could recite the contents from memory.
We would even know the obituaries by heart, with random details like the date when they died, or the names of their family members. When fellow Nepali visitors came to our camps, they would be in for a treat when we presented them with pieces of paper with Devnagari writing.
Things were very different in 2008 when I returned to Qatar for my second overseas stint. We were no longer just foreign workers, but part of a well developed Nepali community that prized Nepali food, literature and entertainment.
The Internet was taking over, and papers like Rajdhani and Kantipur had made it there. We visited other labour camps with Nepali books in our bags that we collected as donations from fellow Nepalis. We also brought more books from Nepal based on reviews they had read online.
We encouraged fellow Nepalis to hold book discussions. This was also how we identified the hidden writers and poets across Qatar. Soon, by convincing local Nepali businessmen to finance our work, we also had a small library.
In Saudi Arabia where I later worked in 2016, I was unable to access other camps due to unsuitable work hours, or location that made travelling difficult. But by then, social media offered a good alternative, and we had poem recitals on group video calls and Facebook messenger groups with members from across the world with whom we shared our writings.
I was one of those migrant workers who carried more books than clothes when traveling overseas. I hope that one day I will be able to start a library in Dharan in my mother’s memory. She died of cancer when I was away.
I could not return for her last rites because my status was irregular, and I had to wait for the next amnesty to leave the country without spending time in detention. Before she passed, relatives told me tears would roll down her face for me, even though she could not speak, for her youngest son. Her undocumented son.
When I was a young boy, after stroking my hair to put me to sleep, she used to often talk to herself thinking I was asleep. That was the way she coped with her hard life by letting her words out, and she passed on that to me.
She used to mumble how I was going to take care of her when I grew up and how I was going to be so “big”, perhaps a doctor, that it would shut the village naysayers up who insulted her, a single mother abandoned by her husband.
Recently, I was selected as the top 14 contestants from the 3,200 plus applicants for the Poet Idol in Nepal. My words were going to get a platform that I previously did not have access to with viewers from all over the world.
I was writing for myself in the past, but now after Poet Idol, my words carry more weight, and with it has come more responsibility to cover topics that matter. Whether the world was watching or not, however, I have always written poems.
I got eliminated after making it quite far, but I am grateful for the support I received, especially from the migrant community abroad. Had I won the Poet Idol, I would have used the prize money to build the library in my mother’s memory.
I recited poems touching on various aspects of the migrant experience and random people reached out to me to thank me for telling their stories as well. But I also received a fair amount of criticism. Some friends reminded me that work in the Middle East is not just in construction but also with computers.
It is true: people I know also hold supervisory and managerial positions and are making handsome salaries. But I can also tell stories of those who did not have the same luck, and whose voices need to be heard. I need villains to inspire my poems and the villains are present everywhere in stories of the weakest, the marginalised, whether in Nepal or abroad.
I have written many poems about societal issues to portray their lives and experiences. But I have also lost many poems because I had to leave behind my diary when I had to unexpectedly escape an abusive employer, or because I lost my phone.
It is always a relief to salvage some of the poems that I sent as audio recordings to my friends in Facebook messenger with whom the words would resonate because I was too excited to keep them just with me.
Now in Nepal I run a small भट्टी eatery. My hope is that I can stop going overseas for another attempt to make some savings when things get difficult in Nepal. But even after 19 years of working overseas three times, and at age 37, that is still not out of the question. I have pending loans and running this establishment can be financially limiting because of increasing family responsibilities.
Not having reliable livelihood alternatives or support systems makes life difficult and unpredictable. न समाउने हागो न टेक्ने हागो, as we say here. All I have are my words.
Translated from a conversation with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad.
Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.
हरियो पासपोर्ट भित्रका कैदिहरु
Prisoners of the Green Passport
देशमा आसुको वर्षा झारेर
एउटा मोनालिसा फोटो
त्रिभुवन बिमानस्थलमा खिचेर
भर्खर उसले देश छोड्यो।
After shedding tears at home,
He just left his country
To shed sweat in Arabia
After taking a Mona Lisa photo
At Tribhuvan Airport.
भोलि बाट उसले बिर्सनेछ
गाउमा बिताएको पच्चिसौ बसन्त
सम्झनेछ त केवल
पासपोर्ट भित्रको आफ्नो जवान चित्र।
He will forget tomorrow
The 25 springs of his village life
He will only remember
His youthful passport photo.
माथि आकाशबाट हेर्नेछ।
लहर नमिलेको इटाको थुप्रो जस्तो काठमाडौ
पृथ्वीनारायणका सेना जस्तै पहाडहरु
अनि,दछिण बाट उडि आएको बादलका थुम्काहरु
तराइको उखु खेती
बडेमाको अजिङ्गर जस्तो नदिहरु
भुकम्पमा भत्किएको गाउँ
र,बनिदै गरेको धरहरा
यसरी उसले देश भिजिट गर्दै
सात समुन्द्र कट्ने छ।
पुग्नेछ पानी जस्तै उडेर तेल र ग्यासहरुको देश।
He will gaze down at the pile of bricks
That is Kathmandu.
Himalayan towns, ruined by earthquake
A Dharara being rebuilt
Rows of peaks like Prithvi Narayan’s Army
Clouds climb up from the South
Over the Tarai’s sugarcane fields
Rivers slide like giant pythons.
Thus will he revisit his homeland
To the land where oil is water, gas is vapour.
त्यो समुन्द्रको पानीमा
उसले मेरो नदिको पानी पनि छ
यो पृथ्वी मेरो पनि हो भन्न पाउदैन।
घाम,जुन,ताराहरु आफ्नो सोच्न पाउदैन।
मात्र सोच्न पाउनेछ।
म बिक्रि भएको आधुनिक मान्छे।
He cannot feel the water of my rivers
In the sea water.
He cannot say the Earth is also mine
The sun, moon and stars cannot be mine
He is just a modern man, who has been sold.
पानी पर्नेछ अरबमा।
ठिक यहि बेला छाता ओड्नेछ सिंहदरबार।
Right then, it will rain in Arabia
And Singha Darbar will unfurl its umbrella.
हरियो पासपोर्ट भित्रका कैदिहरु रुझ्नेछन।
Soaking us prisoners of the Green Passport