Thursday, February 22, 2007


It's just like prison.
How many times have you heard this, or perhaps thought it yourself about some aspect or another of life? Recently these words were spoken to me by the employee of a catering company where I work in reference to his job and situation. Obviously he's unhappy, but is it really like prison?

As far as I know of his situation it involves a 12-hour workday, more or less for 6 days a week. The off-day offers little chance to get away, as public transport, including wait time, could mean 3 hours in transit to reach the city from the desert site where we work. That's up to 6 hours on a round trip.

On the other hand, his pay while not high includes a hardship stipend. Accommodation--less cramped than that in labor camps or the inner city--is also provided along with meals and some amenities, and the grounds are quite nice for a desert compound.

I recall my own experience when much younger of working in an even more confined and isolated setting. It was on an off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. My 12-hour shift was everyday and I opted to spend up to 5-weeks there without a return trip to the mainland. Once I got used to the environment, it all just came to seem normal. It was a 4-month sojourn in total for me.

Admittedly part of it was the luck of being with pleasant or at least interesting co-workers and other residents. Although I was nothing more than a lowly cleaner, the technicians and hardhat workers above me in status were often more than appreciative of the job I did. In the UAE, such niceties as people to clean up after you are often taken for granted if not expected and demanded. So, doing such work can clearly be more demeaning here.

Glass half-empty or half-full...

In a relative sense one may feel imprisoned within his or her particular setting. Whatever the amenities or lack thereof, one may just need to get away at regular intervals. Even a long time in transit might be a worthwhile price to pay. But many, I suppose, would choose to forgo the lesser of two bad choices and settle for the do-nothing-but-complain option. Even if several hours on a bus were too much to ask, a thirty-minute trip to a nearby albeit less exciting town could do the trick, which is another option for those stuck out at my desert compound.

Alas, that is one fundamental difference between real prison and the prison in our minds. There are options in even the hardest of situations on the outside. But we usually make life more difficult when choosing the wrong, perhaps easier, options that leave us with more despair.

The Real McCoy

I have seen a bit of real prison in the UAE. It usually starts with police confinement, where the accused suddenly finds himself whisked out of normal society and locked into a small hall with others. The wheels of justice which then go into action are slow and non-transparent. While one reads in the newspaper of people getting one to a few months in sentences for this or that minor infraction, the reality is that one never really knows what is going on with his case as the weeks and months roll on.

If only it were the matter of a clear-cut sentence, prison might be almost easy to bear. Instead, everything is a tomorrow or a day after that never comes... until it comes. And when it happens, it occurs in such a flash that one never has the chance to experience the gratification that anticipation should bring.

In a country where a majority of residents do not speak Arabic it is an added hardship that the justice system is conducted only in Arabic. From the menial traffic fine to court proceedings, everything is in Arabic and there is reticence to communicate in any other language. Real incarceration or imprisonment is, in every sense, a whole lot worse than even the most difficult of environments on the outside.

Perhaps there are exceptions. I have heard that some laborers would rather spend time in jail than remain in the predicaments they find in employment. They would prefer to take up an illegal yet more lucrative practice with risk of arrest, than put up with the hardships of job and squalid accommodations. Prison with its solid roof over head and 2 or 3 square meals a day seems less a disincentive to stay away from a life of crime. Jail becomes the better of two evils.

That is what I have heard, but I have never spoken to anyone who had carried out or planned such a strategy. A few perks, like a building with solid walls and regular meals, do not seem to me to be adequate compensation for the complete loss of one's freedom. Perhaps even under such adverse circumstances one can manage to cope by taking a glass-one-quarter-full perspective.

In any event, as few or limited as one's options may be in any situation within normal society, I doubt that it could ever really compare to being in prison.

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nuh ibn zbigniew gondek said...

As salaam alaikum.

Don't forget jumah prayer today.

If your too busy I've got my two pence and a khutbah up come on by:

Wa salaama,

nuh ibn

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