Literature in the Oil Age: A Review of Goat Days

by Sarah Waheed

Goat Days: English Cover
Aadujeevitam. Malayalam Cover

From that moment, like the maniyan fly, an unknown fear began to envelop my mind. An irrational doubt began to grip me, a feeling that this journey was not leading me to the Gulf life that I had been dreaming about and craving for. The Gulf I had learned about from so many people was not like this. A whiff of danger. Nothing clear.Goat Days (Aadujeevitam)

The age of oil has produced unprecedented scales of human confinement and brutality. At the same time, people are traveling faster, and in larger groups than ever before: migration to the Gulf following the oil boom of the 1970s is a case in point. There are currently some fifteen million migrant workers in the Gulf, hailing mostly from Asian, African, and Arab countries. The number of South Asian migrant laborers rose substantially in the 1990s, filling in for the displacements of Arab workers caused by the 1991 Gulf War. There are two and a half million migrant workers from Kerala alone, who annually send home sums amounting to 15% of total remittances to India.

Migrant workers spend years away from their families, work for extremely low wages, subsist in poor living conditions, and have their passports held by employers in places with virtually no enforceable labor laws. Their experiences have yet to be voiced within literature in as gripping an account as Benyamin’s novel Goat Days, forthcoming in English. Based on a true story, the novel has become a bestseller in the original Malayalam (Aadujivitam), winning the Kerala Sahitya Academy award. Benyamin, Benny Daniel’s pen name, is a Keralite who has lived in Bahrain since 1992.

I. Travel and Literature

There is a tremendous dearth of literature which un-cover the cultures born out of oil encounters. And, although migration to the Gulf constitutes the exemplary South Asian diaspora of our times, no other novel—none available in English, that is—has cast the migrant Gulf worker as its principal character. Benyamin does so by weaving rich descriptions of the protagonist’s surroundings with a robust interior monologue.

The narrator is Najeeb, a modest sand-miner from Kerala who travels to Riyadh via Bombay in the 1990s with the dream of earning his fortunes, only to become enslaved for over three years in the desert interior of Saudi Arabia on a goat farm (masara) at the mercy of a cruel boss (arbab). It is a novel of multiple crossings: from South India to the Gulf, from Riyadh to rural Saudi Arabia, and from dreams of economic betterment to impoverished disillusionment. But at the heart of Goat Days is the journey Najeeb makes from slavery to freedom, including a perilous desert trek. The novel is about the many dangers Najeeb faces in his struggle for emancipation.

What struck me as immediately compelling about Goat Days was the economy of its prose. Benyamin is direct and succinct:

Slightly off the sentry box, a wild lemon tree curved into the street. We squatted in its shade, hoping a guard would look up from his work and notice us. We remained like that for a long time. Meanwhile, one or two Arabs briskly went into the police station and at least three or four sauntered out. It was as if we were invisible to them.

Najeeb’s narrative is driven not only by his travels, but also by long bouts of waiting. This is why Goat Days makes for suspenseful reading: the reader follows Najeeb into a world where he is entirely dependent upon his ‘hosts’, as they transport him from one form of confinement to another. The passage quoted atop this essay recounts Najeeb’s journey with his new boss from the airport: he is aboard a truck headed further into the desert, and has no idea where they are going. By keeping the reader riveted, Benyamin makes legible a migratory arc that is invisible to audiences of Indian fiction. It is to the translator’s credit, Joseph Koyippaly, that the suspenseful quality of the original is intact.

It makes me happy whenever I find (English) translations of literature from South Asia because despite the rich and diverse literary cultures of this region, it is Indian English novels which have disproportionately won wide acclaim. Indian literature in English surged in the 1990s. One sub-set of this literature focused on South Asian migration to places where English is the predominant language. Much of it revolved around how (mostly) Indian immigrants re-fashioned their selves in the UK or the US, where they were torn between their old world and the new. Since novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Amit Chaudhuri, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, wrote in English, they acquired an international audience within Europe and the U.S., and read as quintessentially Indian. Yet, the predominant travel done by South Asians during the same decade, occurred within the geographical coordinates across the Global South, between India and the Gulf. This latter class of migrants is not typically ‘at home’ in English, nor do they have the liberty and leisure to write literature. As Daisy Rockwell explained in “Flyover Country”, there is a hierarchy of languages within South Asia’s multi-lingual landscape; those who study in English schools tend to be from the privileged classes. Malayalam’s status as a regional language in India limits its literature from reaching readers in the English-speaking world, which is why Benyamin’s Goat Days is particularly welcome.

Indian English fiction has had to contend with how to represent ‘un-translatable’ turns of phrase in Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi, etc., into English. Since the audience of Aadujeevitam is not presumed to be English-speaking, there is no attempt at representing what Malayalam speakers presumably sound like to English readers. This may be complicated by the fact that the English accents of speakers of Malayalam and other South Indian languages are frequently mocked by North Indian elites. This mockery is tied to a history of language politics in the South, where people resisted the hegemony of Hindi as the national language as Indian states were linguistically re-organized shortly after Independence.

But more importantly, Goat Days breaks new ground because it is a novel about a South Asian diaspora that is neither about ‘the West’ nor about elites. Hence, it is not principally concerned with themes of identity and belonging, such as those novels which focus on the Indian immigrant’s journey to the ‘West’ (Europe, U.S.) The migrant worker may live for years at a time away from home, and even learn Arabic, but assimilation through citizenship is not a possibility for him within the host countries of the Gulf, as it might be, say, in the US or the UK. Thus, the experience of “belonging, yet not belonging,” is a moot point in places such as Dubai, where the majority of the population is foreign, and which functions more or less as a brand name, as a world of consumers without democracy and laborers without just recompense.

What is also refreshing about Goat Days is its matter-of-fact, yet supple discussion of Islam, in terms of how Benyamin writes of Najeeb’s religiosity. It is not from the outside looking in, so there are no descriptions of how people congregate for prayer, how they pray, and the phrases of the actual prayers themselves. Najeeb’s religiosity, prayers, and beliefs are not exotic, nor do they correspond to any political program. His Muslim-ness is just as incidental and accidental as his arbab’s. By defying the many meanings of the Arabic word, arbab, which here means boss and savior, but also denotes the plural of god (rabb) — Najeeb repeatedly turns to his ultimate savior, in the very deserts which first heeded His name:

I didn’t know if Allah heard me or not. But the belief that Allah was looking after me instilled in me a new confidence. Non-believers, those of you fortunate to live merrily in the pleasant greenery Allah has bestowed on you, you might feel prayers are ridiculous rituals. For me, prayers were my bolt-hole. It was because of faith alone that I could be strong in spirit even when I was weak in my body. Otherwise, I would have withered and burnt like grass in that blazing wind. (Pg. 153)

Goat Days, then, is truly a literary narrative ‘from below’— about classes and peoples who are subjugated and subjected. So, the reader gets a feel for the dreams built upon limited life possibilities, followed by disillusionment. Najeeb’s travel to Saudi Arabia is wrought by the horrific circles in which he spins and spends: procuring a visa through an agent in Bombay, and being sponsored to facilitate his travel is costly and he sells everything just to make the trip to Riyadh. He describes his excitement for the journey, the dreams of “gold watch, TV, car,” leaving his wife with promises of many presents upon his return, and then the betrayal of those dreams: “When I recall those moments, I feel nauseated as though from the stench of a fourth-rate film scene.” (p. 39).

II. Labor and Violence

It is apt that the story opens in a prison — a place where Najeeb ‘voluntarily’ registers himself, for there is nowhere else to go if a worker has left his sponsor, and wishes to head home. Within the kafala system, a foreigner is barred from working in the GCC countries without local sponsorship (kafil). Once that employment relationship is severed, foreign workers become illegal residents, and must immediately leave the country. Since the kafala system ties workers’ permission of living and working in their host country, to the permission of their sponsor, it forbids them to seek alternative employment. Those who strike or complain about poor working conditions and abuse risk losing their jobs, criminalization, and deportation. Najeeb describes Sumesi jail as a place where “the prisoners, lying down in whatever space they could manage, resembled dead bodies laid out after a natural disaster,” (pg. 13) and elsewhere refers to his particular block as “a railway station where people arrived and departed.” (pg. 25)

Illegal residents are left there until their names and numbers are called out — numbers which are tattooed onto the workers’ forearms: “I had been to a madrassa as a child so I knew enough to identify it as 13858.” Most terrifying for Najeeb and his fellow inmates is what is known as the weekly ‘Parade Day’ in the prison: “the day for the Arabs to identify the absconding workers … all of us were made to stand in a line…Arabs would walk in front of us looking at each of us carefully, like eyewitnesses trying to identify the accused … The first reaction of the Arab who recognized his worker was to land a slap that could pop an eardrum. Some even unbuckled their belts to whip the prisoners till their anger subsided.” (pg. 21)

The violence meted out against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia may be mistakenly interpreted by some readers of this novel as a throwback to an ancient, ‘backwards’ 7th century world, epitomizing the flawed notion of Arab atavism, or some purported ‘Arab culture’ that tends towards violence. But the world in which Najeeb is trapped is thoroughly modern, and forged out of the interactions between Europeans/Americans and Arabs. Institutions such as the prisons built for absconding workers, and officiating regimes of passport and visa controls, owe their origins to a modern state building project: in Saudi Arabia’s case, this project was founded almost exclusively upon an oil extraction economy and the ruling elites who came to monopolize it.

Little is known about the history of 20th century slavery and indentured labor in the region prior to the 1970s oil boom. But the mass influx of millions of Indian migrant laborers to the oil kingdoms in recent times is reminiscent of a similar flow of labor across the same Indian Ocean, prior to, and on the cusp of, the discovery of oil. Indentured laborers from India were central to the successful functioning of the British Empire, and over a million of them were transported to colonies around the globe between the 1830s to the 1920s—initially taking the place of freed slaves on plantations of the West Indies.1 Indian diaspora populations from the West Indies and South Africa to Mauritius and Fiji, are living testament to British Indian ‘coolie’ recruitment; this global recruitment of Indian laborers, systematized and managed jointly by imperial, Indian, and colonial governments, was unprecedented.2 Indians were also used by the British as military labor and soldiers in the Mesopotamia campaign (1914) in World War I, at the end of which oil became a key motivation for establishing an Arab state (Iraq) in the conquered territory.3 Competition between Ottoman and British interests in the Arab territories of the Gulf was followed by the arrival of U.S. oil companies in the 1930s, which were pivotal in continuing to re-shape factionalized Arab tribal groups. American company officials privileged the reactionary and autocratic Saud family in particular, as the British had done before them.4

As Saudi Arabia rapidly modernized into a client nation-state, via its expanding oil-for-security relationship with the U.S, an international petroleum caste system was also established. In Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Provinces of the 1940s, Jim Crow laws were imported by American company officials, unequally segregating Arabs from Whites, but this phenomenon also involved contracting Indian laborers for domestic help and construction—thus dividing labor by race, an old imperial strategy.5 In fact, the term ‘caste’ was invoked by oil company officials, something that the Americans had picked up from the British, who had long been in the region.6 In this new petroleum caste system, hierarchies were determined by race and nationality privileging some (Anglo-American expatriates, Saudi elites) at the expense of others (poor Saudis, bedouins, migrant workers). One wonders, in fact, to what extent the rise of the Saudi welfare state and turn to foreign labor was in response to the crack-down on Saudi workers and unions. In 1949, several Pakistani workers returned home from Saudi Arabia, exposing in local newspapers, their mistreatment by the Americans:

On reaching Saudi Arabia, the young Pakistanis find out that the American officers drunk with racial arrogance … all too primed to subject young Muslims to an unscrupulous ‘lynch-the-nigger’ treatment. And when the ‘niggers’ muster enough courage to protest against the treatment meted out to them, they are first handed over to the Police and then dispatched to Pakistan without any regard for the terms of contract.7

Slavery, to which American officials in Saudi Arabia had turned a blind eye, was officially abolished in 1962 by King Faisal, but contract slavery continued. The absence of formal ‘slavery’, in fact, calls into question what is essentially the same phenomenon in the contemporary world, through contracts that assume some sort of consent which is meaningless. The structures of confinement, transport, and labor from India to the Gulf can be seen, then, as part of the global imperial history of the twentieth century. As for the millions of migrant workers who traveled to the Gulf in search of employment opportunities: they have found themselves trapped between state and the sponsor.

In local parlance, the Arabic word for sponsor/boss is arbab, which here means ‘savior’, and when newly-married Najeeb leaves home and first arrives in Saudi Arabia, he waits eagerly at the airport for the man who will take responsibility for him. Unlike the wealthy and urbane Arabs who greet all the other migrants, Najeeb’s arbab is poor. Ready to take up any task given to him, Najeeb nonetheless recoils in horror when he realizes where his arbab’s odor, ‘like the mixed smell of bone powder and dung,’ is coming from: a goat-farm where he is forced to work and live, prohibited from ever washing or bathing himself. The foul smells—from the stench of the goats to that of the clothes he is given to wear—lace the whole narrative:

In the beginning, everything in the masara had a nauseating stench. The smell emanating from goats’ urine, the stench of droppings, the reek of grass and hay that got wet with urine…Even the goats’ milk had a stench. Whenever I dipped khubus into the milk to eat, the smell would drill into my nostrils. How many times I vomited in the first days. But slowly, it retreated from me. Or I forgot about it. Later, although I tried many times, I could never experience it. It became so much a part of me I could not believe that such a stench had ever existed. (pg. 128)

III. Confinement and Slavery

For most privileged professional people, the experience of being forcibly confined for long periods of time is unthinkable. So it is very difficult to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in the desert, prohibited from bathing, washing after defecating, or drinking water more than thrice a day. Or what it is to live in perpetual fear of a captor who can mete out lashes, further confinement, and even death, at will. How is it to be abducted, incarcerated, and enslaved within the most powerful oil kingdom on earth? For Najeeb, time stops. Upon making his Faustian pact, there are the notes of heightened, then attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia; anxiety and boredom and fear blend together into an enveloping haze of dirt and disease. The voices of migrant workers to the Gulf have appeared within human rights reports; their images gloss the covers of various books and magazines, exposing the distribution of wealth within oil kingdoms. But a literary narrative from below does not simply expose. It makes knowledge of brutality intimate.

Reading Goat Days is akin to becoming a confidant of the protagonist. Najeeb addresses the reader in a matter-of-fact style, drawing her in to listen: “My thoughts were not of my home country, home, Sainu, Ummah, my unborn son/daughter… All such thoughts had become alien to me as they were to the dead who had reached the other world. So soon—you might wonder. My answer is yes.” (p. 94-95) Benyamin’s novel powerfully brings home the experience of a self that is treated as not quite human. Najeeb resists the dehumanizing conditions of his confinement by forging new intimacies across the vast expanse of isolation, and by virtue of his resolve to live and return home—a resolve bolstered through faith and brought to fruition by a set of fortunate circumstances. Isolated from his mother-tongue, there are only two kinds of communication left: the language of the arbab’s violence, and the language of human intimacy. Writing about slave narratives in the U.S., the novelist Toni Morrisson says:

In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must first get out of the way.

And this is precisely what Benyamin conveys so wonderfully. In a glossary of Arabic terms Najeeb offers the reader, he adds that:

If an Arabic expert among you asks whether the pronunciation and meaning of the words that I have tabled here are correct, I can only say I do not know. I’ve heard them like that, and have learned them like that…I could understand what the arbab meant by those words; and the arbab could understand me. One does not need to be a linguistic expert in order to communicate. (Pg. 97)

Najeeb suffers and survives the beatings, the imprisonment, the stark meals of bread and water, and the fear. Though he desperately wants to escape, he neither knows where they are, nor the direction of the closest town—at least a night’s drive from the farm. His arbab has a gun and a pair of binoculars. And though the reader may very well know from the beginning that Najeeb lives to recount the torment of his slavery, she is riveted. How does Najeeb eventually escape from a world that is not interested in him in any way but as a body that does work?

Najeeb’s only constant companions during his confinement are the goats themselves. Forced to sleep amongst them, Najeeb says, “I had become a goat.” As Najeeb’s dehumanizing time on the farm passes, he learns to identify each and every one of the goats, humanizing them in turn.

Apart from Pochakkari Ramani, I gave a name to each goat in the masara that I recognized to help me scold them and to make cuddling easier. People from my locality like Arabu Rabuthar, Maryamaimuna, Indipokkar, Niandu Raghavan, Parippu Vijayan, Chakki, Ammini, Kausu, Raufat, Pinki, Ammu, Razia and Thahira, and public figures like Jagathy, Mohanlal, and even EMS himself were a part of my masara. Each of them was dear to me in one way or another. Have you ever looked carefully at a goat’s face? It is quite similar to a human’s. I named the goats not only by looking at their faces but also relating their names to some character traits, their gait, the sounds they made, by incidents that reminded me of them. Just as how one gets a nickname back home…So there were many strange and personal reasons for each name I gave the goats. The logic of the names might be lost on others but they made perfect sense to me. (162-163)

For Najeeb, the goats become the physical extensions of his internal longings for home. An entire Malayali world comes alive as he narrates the colorful stories behind the names of family members, past loves, town-dwellers. In this way, he is able to temporarily subdue his nostalgia, “an acute craving” that “takes the form of a crazy urge to rush home, like a wild boar rushing wildly through sugarcane fields when it’s been shot.” (146) Story-telling itself is the means of Najeeb’s survival, for he has been thrown violently into the midst of multiple isolations. He is isolated from language, isolated from geography, and isolated from people, other than his arbab. He is even isolated from water. And so, Najeeb makes the strange and unfamiliar surroundings of his isolation, recognizable in order to hold on to his humanity and his sanity.

Descriptions of his helplessness, the arbab’s violence, the degeneration of his body, are punctuated by passages recounting small moments of joy, such as the rains, and the hope of escape. While Najeeb describes his world as a surreal one, trapped on an “alien planet with the goats and the arbab,” what is also evident in Benyamin’s telling is the mundane quality of Najeeb’s imprisonment. Confinement is a trap for catching time. It gives birth to never-ending schedules:

I understood what my menu for the days to come would be.
Early morning drink: fresh, breast-warm raw milk (only if one felt like it)
Breakfast: khubus, plain water
Lunch: khubus, plain water
Evening drink: fresh, breast-warm raw milk (only if one felt like it)
Dinner: khubus, plain water
And plain lukewarm water from the iron tank to drink in between meals (only when very necessary).

Goat Days is a contemporary slave narrative: telling his story and having it heard, is also part of Najeeb’s act of liberation. Liberation from waiting. For Najeeb is always waiting: he must wait for officials to acknowledge his presence; he must wait for his arbab to look away before he drinks water; he must wait for an opportunity to escape; he must wait in the prison for his number to be called; he must wait in the desert; he must wait before he can tell his story after he survives his escape. In Goat Days, Benyamin compels the reader to listen in, on the intimacies and solidarities born from the exchange of stories between men who share the perils of confined labor. From Hameed, his companion in Sumesi jail, to the man who helps Najeeb to freedom, a Somali named Ibrahim Khadri—wanted by the government, presumably for helping workers escape from their sponsors—Benyamin evocatively describes the oil kingdom from the perspective of those who come from afar to labor in its cities and deserts.

———
  1. See Thomas Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920, University of California Press, 2008. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. See Charles Townshend, Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia, Harvard University Press, 2011. []
  4. The despotic rule that Ibn Saud was building in the Arabian penninsula relied heavily on British financial support and weapons to defeat rival powers. []
  5. Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, Verso, 2009. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid. p.103 []

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Sarah Waheed is an author and a scholar of Urdu literature in the 19th century. She holds a Ph.D. from Tufts University.

11 thoughts on “Literature in the Oil Age: A Review of Goat Days”

  1. On a tangential note, I highly recommend the 1980s Malayalam film “Varavelppu” (it’s available from Surya with English subtitles), on a Gulf returnee to Kerala, with the amazing Mohanlal in the main role.

  2. It was very touching to read on the travails of the migrant Indians working in the Gulf countries who do not get any recognition and remain nameless/faceless in the Indian media. If a high profile Indian was searched at a US airport or an Indian student abused in Australia, it becomes an affront on all Indians and scores of hours of TV hours/miles of newspaper coloumns are devoted on it. But one hardly comes across any reportage or debates in the national media on the plight of migrant Indians in the Gulf who toil for a living and remits all their earnings, in order to make their families prosperous and provide the country the much needed foreign exchange. Such bias one can see from the govt agencies as well. It was therefore refreshing to read the review of the book Goat Days.
    However unfortunate the life of Najeeb might have been, one thinks it would be wrong to generalize his experience to that of an average Gulf emigrant, especially of those from Kerala. On seeing the prosperity the Gulf emigrants have brought in to Kerala landscape, in particular to the families of the working class, one would think Najeej’s to be of the few exceptions, yet needs to be highlighted. One hopes novels like Goat Days would go a long way towards making Indian media to empathaise with those toiling overseas in order to make the life of people at home happier and also sensitise the government agencies towards attending to their problems.

  3. It is clear from reading your review of Aadujivitham/Goat Days that it is a wonderfully written book. I am glad that Benyamin has ventured into the little known world of the malayalee migrant workers’ experience in the “Gulf”- as it known in Kerala. Amitav Ghosh in his “Sea of Poppies” presents the travails of hapless Bengali laborers (coolies) in a 19th century British ship. The theme presented by Benyamin is more immediate and relevant, one, as you rightly pointed out has not reached a wider audience. I am looking forward to reading Joseph Koyipally’s translation of this work. I must admit that I am bemused by the whole array of goats with Malayalee names and personalities, cannot wait to get introduced to the Mohanlal and the EMS who bay!!

  4. @Nikhil – second the recommendation of Arabikkatha. I really enjoyed that film, and was thinking of it as I read this review. Its gentle takedown of the dogmatic communist even as it highlighted the vulnerability of the Gulf workers was very well done.

  5. While it’s true that the story narrated in Aadujeevitam is unlikely to be told by or even familiar to the average Indian English author, especially of the ‘literary’ sort, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that it “makes legible a migratory arc that is invisible to audiences of Indian fiction.” I know you probably mean readers of Indian fiction in English, but even amongst these audiences, literature in English isn’t the only, or even the most significant, source of cultural insight into Indian experiences.

    Readers of Indian-English fiction aren’t a homogeneous group comprised solely of English speaking “North Indian elites”. They include ‘elites’ from the South, East and West as well. In any case, I think you’re overestimating the importance of this particular audience and their ability to shape the Indian imagination. If they had any real power, Rushdie would’ve had no problems showing up in person at the JLF this year.

    That said, I really enjoyed this piece and your thoughtful argument about modern day, petro-dollar rich Middle East being a product of its encounter with Western colonialism. Also, if you get a chance, watch the wonderful 2007 Malayalam film , ‘Arabikatha’, which was a fairly big hit in Kerala when it released. It’s the story of an idealistic Malayalee communist who finds himself working minimum wage jobs in Dubai to pay off debts to some of his less scrupulous comrades back home. It wonderfully captures both the opportunity and the vulnerability going to the Gulf represents for most Malayalees.

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