Aerotropolitans

This was first published in the Dhaka Tribune, April 4 2015

Say what you will about the Bangladeshi national character, but travel-shy we are most emphatically not. Young Bangladeshi men being transported for construction under a hot sun are a staple of the Asian-Middle Eastern routes. The middle class diaspora in the US, Europe and Australia seems permanently in the sky. Further afield, on a mini metro safari across the Sahara some years ago a friend met a group of Bangladeshi men in Western Sahara; its historic Spanish links were presumed to mean entry to Europe. (That driving a mini across the desert of deserts is outclassed by the adventures Bangladeshis endure to get to Europe surely says something). An impeccable concierge at a Dubai hotel was from Jessore. Bangladeshi women in DXB transit were en route to Jordan to work as nannies. I hear news of Bangladeshis nannies being ‘the most popular in Beirut’ from a Lebanese flight attendant. Here are Bangladeshi doctors going home to Virginia after a winter visit to ageing parents or a wedding. A grumpy group of young fellows sprawled muttering darkly in Bangla in Nairobi airport, having been there 48 hours after ‘paperwork issues’ on their way home from Maputo. Why Mozambique, I asked? Why not? His brother works there (nodding at one of the gang) and it sounded like fun. Was it fun? Yes, it was fun. What could Bangladeshis possibly be doing in Maputo, I wonder?

On my most recent flight to the airport FKA ZIA I sat with a pair of young women, Aisha and Marium, aged 27 to 29 (depending on which age you prefer), returning from a stint in the garments industry in Mauritius. There were maybe 60 of their colleagues on our flight, making it an unusually feminine flight to Bangladesh. It was news to me that Bangladeshi garments workers were now themselves being exported to work in another country. Aisha and Marium had been among 1200 young women recruited direct from their hometowns for garments work in Mauritius. I have no facts about their working conditions, but they gave the impression all was satisfactory – they got more or less what was agreed, and were treated reasonably.

But the work was always hard, and never paid as much as the hard work made it feel it was worth. So after three years and five years respectively, they were packing it in – not yet clear what they would do later – ‘perhaps tailoring because I know tailoring. Something I can do inside’, said Aisha vaguely. Marium had been away five years and so had missed a full third of her 15 year-old daughter’s life. Marium was thrilled to be coming home again. When we landed, she announced to those beyond her porthole, ‘People of Bangladesh, how have you been? People of Bangladesh!’

Taking off for an unknown other country, on a plane, with people you don’t know, to do work you don’t know – this must have been a terrifying prospect for these women in their late teens and early twenties. They agreed. It took great courage. One heard so many bad things. We talked about Mauritius – ‘well, as you work you eventually learn the language a bit’, and workers’ benefits. Marium was returning partly because she had been diagnosed with diabetes. It is not easy work, and people get sick and are always homesick, even when contracts are honoured and workers treated acceptably.

The idea of youthful travel and discovery is enduringly romantic in Western culture, and not only because of its imperial origins in Kipling and Rider Haggard. But these young Bangladeshis are not looking for Alex Garland’s beach, they are backpacking in the Dick Whittington tradition, trudging off in search of a living. They do this in the sky, making them not travellers as cosmopolitans enjoying the scene, cocktail in hand as they fly glamorously through the air, but as aerotropolitans, travelling workers, in their temporary nature always in motion between points. And in those points (and in-between) they are subject to rules and regimes governing who can go where for work.

Aerotropolitans or travelling workers are the majority denizens of what people have started calling the aerotropolis. The aerotropolis ideal – realised in cities like Atlanta in the US – is that the successful global cities of the future will be transport hubs, designed to transport goods and folk – city-scaled airports, in essence. The book Aerotropolis, The Way We’ll Live Next by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay gets very excited about the economic growth and the infrastructure needed and the logistical problems the aerotropolis solves, but says almost nothing about the humans that have to navigate these spaces.

As is proper for the solution to the problems of global trade logistics, the aerotropolis is the only space in which blatant class discrimination is now not only allowed but actively encouraged. Airlines consistently upgrade their business classes to attract that higher-profitability better class of passenger. Economy class passengers are required to witness the comfort of the better classes, and (costless) courtesies are not extended to the aerotropolitan by airline staff, to ensure that the fact of the economics of class are properly brought home. But these facts include that international air travel is increasingly about people being moved for work who would not get on a plane to take a vacation: Javanese women going back to Singaporean employers; Chinese workers returning from Zambian mines; Nigerian traders off to Shanghai for something or other.

And yet on their way to and back from these workplaces across the seas, travellers learn all kinds of stuff. My neighbour on Malaysian Airlines, Aisha, had learned some creole. She had views, largely positive, about how the mix of Mauritians managed to live well together, despite their anxieties about the environment and climate change. They kept in touch with home through ‘the net’ – ‘facebook and that sort of thing’. They knew they were coming home to gondogol (the political emergency of February 2015 was peaking) and this meant someone’s mother couldn’t come, or another had to stop in Dhaka for a few days. These were worldly women, unsurprised by much, knowledgeable and experienced.

Aerotropolitans may be adventurous, worldly and even bankrolled. But they effectively waive their citizenship rights when abroad, and even at home, their claims as citizens are lame. Being the one with the pen and the apparent facility with English, I was given the arrival and customs forms for several rows of fellow travellers to complete. This meant extracting information consistent with the passport for the form. Both of these could differ from the information given verbally by their holder. Many of these women went by just one name – Salima or Rahela or Marium. Their birthdates were fictional, depending on what was convenient or on administrative error. As documents of certification, they are unconvincing, flimsy even. You would have no chance of a visa to Europe or the US with paperwork like that.

So what does it mean to be an aerotropolitan? The rewards are potentially high: you could earn a good living by the home standard. And international travel brings worldliness – an ability to move around a world that is far from the small towns of Bangladesh, to speak with people who know no Bangla, fly on a plane, mix with people from anywhere, the experience of seeing unimagined cities and landscapes. But it is risky – many people end up in trouble or are cheated and there is no one to back you up. And in these many in-between places, in the aerotropolis while being transported to work, rights are suspended.

We are all becoming aerotropolitans in a globalised world that cares nothing for people and place. What are our rights as the denizens of the airport? Let us start with the economy class seat. See you at DXB.

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