In the darkness of the cramped room, I could barely see the worn picture of his wife. Between the flickers of the one light bulb hanging lonesome from the ceiling, Arjuna repeated the names I had learned before: Dayani, Sarasi. His beaming smile was almost jumping off his face as if to reach out to his distant family. I was surprised a man so tired could show such light. The other seven men in the room, looking weary and downtrodden, unapologetically stared at me in confusion and fascination from their perches on the many bunk beds that lined the shoddily constructed concrete walls. I could hardly blame them; I didn’t even knowing why I was there. I still didn’t know why exactly I had had followed Arjuna that morning in the first place.
I first saw Arjuna when I was walking to class. It was 9:02 AM; I was already late. Still, I paused briefly to watch as eight weary looking men in gray overalls, Arjuna among them, exited from a basement door in a nearby building and quietly piled into a matching gray van. The van’s engine hummed and entered the morning traffic. As the van pulled away, I continued my walk to Carnegie Mellon’s building in Education City, a mecca of knowledge in Doha, Qatar. I had seen big buildings before, but little could prepare me for the ornate structures that dominated the landscape in Education City, a place I would call home for a semester as an exchange student. Their high ceilings, long walkways, massive fountains and polished floors were wealth incarnate in a newly prosperous nation. By the time I made it to class that morning, I had quickly forgot the image of the tired men among the distracting veneer.
I did not see Arjuna until weeks later in an encounter after midnight in the massive atrium of the Carnegie Mellon building. In the late hours, the space felt like a castle and there was no one around to challenge my authority over my imagined kingdom. More importantly, there was no one around to alert me of my foreignness: my regrettable ignorance of Islam, the sore thumb that was my Western dress among the traditional thobes, my confusion with the gender norms. A hard-nosed boy from a darker side of Baltimore, I felt out of place among the newfound oil wealth of Doha. I grew up in a neighborhood characterized by the struggle to make ends meet and stories of making it were few and far in between. Having made it to college, I wasn’t even convinced I had made it yet. The initial allure of the Middle East - an escape from the problems I had finding a sense of self among the streets of my home - had vanished quickly as the familiar feeling of alienation set in again. Here in Doha, it seemed like everyone had made it already and I didn’t know where I fit. Among the silence of the late hours, however, I was at peace. Silence is a universal and ubiquitous language that requires no translation. At home, I spoke with silence in the early morning before my city woke; in Doha, my relationship with silence grew in the depths of night.
I had been reclining on the comfortable red and white striped bedouin cushions on the floor that were sprawled on a series of steps in the atrium when I saw him. I was idly leafing through Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, an interesting philosophical reworking of the ideas John Rawls had put forth in The Theory of Justice. I had always found that moments of silence were the best times to confront the big why’s proposed by life and Sen’s thoughts were a comfort in my confusion in Qatar.I read a particularly challenging notion where Sen argued that we should evaluate justice on a continuum, paused to think and looked up when I noticed him, a short man slowly cleaning the floor near the cushions with methodical efficiency, yet almost dancing with the mop in his hand. His movements were precise, each one flowed into the next and he seemed to follow a deeply engrained pattern that is earned only through tireless repetition. His face was furrowed in trance-like concentration that broke when I offered a greeting.
Startled, he stopped his dance across the floor. Does he even understand me? I wondered. I repeated my hello again, hoping that it would make sense with repetition. The sound of my voice bumped into him and brought a glimmer of understanding. His hands, firmly gripping the mop, loosened for a moment and he offered a confused nod, a tentative hello back and then quickly waved goodbye, resuming his work. I returned to my book casually but felt grateful to have met another foreigner. I could tell from his dark skin - a darkness different than the dark African-American tones that were my own - that the man was not from Qatar and something about his methodic dance across the floor told me that he didn’t want to be there. I didn’t, either, and I wondered if our reasons were the same.
A week following our first encounter, I saw him again after midnight, greeting him as the first night. This time the nod was replaced with a weak smile and I took this as a sign of improvement.
“Michael. My name is Michael,” I said, pointing to my chest.
His weak smile stretching on painfully, Arjuna paused to scratch his jet-black hair and readjust the gray overalls.
“What is your name?” I asked, pointing my hand at him with the palm up.
The silence, so comforting moments before, now loomed between us. I repeated my question and it sat in the air, gathering awkwardness.
“Arjuna,” he offered. He nodded and returned to his dance across the floor.
Arjuna. I knew this name. He was a hero in Hindu mythos, the central character in the Bhagavad Gita and a noble, peerless warrior. I had read the Gita in the silent Baltimore mornings after my Indian neighbor has given me a copy. I confidently jumped to the conclusion that Arjuna had come here from India, forgetting for a moment that Hinduism has a wide net cast on the world.
Days later I saw Arjuna again in the atrium. I braced myself for an attempt to speak Hindi, a language my neighbor had tried to teach me during my fascination with the Gita.
“Namaskāra," Good evening, I said. The word tumbled out of my mouth uncomfortably, unused in years, and barely reached him. Despite this, I was proud of my attempt and smiled.
Arjuna’s response indicated a similar sense of understanding as when the English hit him, but not the wide recognition I had expected from hearing his native tongue.
"Where are you from, Arjuna?” I tried in an attempt to clarify.
A quiet, blank stare answered my question.
“Home? America,” I said gesturing to myself. I feel foolish. He’s not a child, I thought.
“Sri Lanka,” Arjuna said.
“Sri Lanka!” I repeated back to him, overjoyed to have unraveled my mysterious friend’s story further. “Where in Sri Lanka? What city? What village?” I asked.
“Jaffna,” he responded. His face briefly wore the feeling of longing. Even then I suspected he had a family he had not seen for some time. As soon as it came, the look on his face vanished to be replaced by one of determination and his hand gripped the mop harder. He nodded and returned to work. I returned to the silence.
That brief encounter with Arjuna piqued my curiosity. Over the following days, I began to wonder more about the road he had traveled to get to Doha. I learned more about Jaffna and, determining that he would understand Tamil better, printed out a few pages of key words. Arjuna and I settled into a ritual in Doha’s late night silence that always would begin when I would call out a greeting. He would take a break and point to whatever book I was reading and I would try to explain what it was about. Over the semester we discussed Kant, Mill, Kurt Vonnegut and Tolkien. He liked hearing about the stories but his eyes would always light up when I would try to explain the philosophical texts I was reading.
We would puncture the quiet as we learned more about each other. We were close in age: he was three years my senior at 24. I discovered he had a wife, Dayani, and a daughter, Sarasi and that he understood much more English than he let on, perhaps to give us a chance to laugh at my Tamil. He learned of my mother, Gloria and my younger brother, Jonathan. Neither of us had known our father. I uncovered the sobering fact that he had not been back to Sri Lanka since he came to Qatar three years ago.
The more I learned about Arjuna, the more my curiosity shifted from philosophical texts to news reports and academic journals on migrant workers in Qatar. I learned that most of the country’s inhabitants were immigrants from the surrounding regions: the Arab states, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal. I read with dismayed interest the troubles the migrant laborers faced. Workers were recruited with the false promises of secure, well-paying jobs to support their families, only to be met by the harsh reality of Doha: dismal living and working conditions, reduced, delayed or missing pay, crippling and exploitative debt, withheld passports and restricted mobility. A rough life at best; slavery at worst. I saw Arjuna’s story in everything I read.
Eventually, the semester came to a close. I had made friends but none came close to the peculiar but comforting relationship I had forged in the silence of Doha with Arjuna. The initial blindness I had towards the many workers who silently maintained the campus’s massive buildings turned to stark awareness. Every man I saw was another Arjuna, another story. I wondered who I had been blind to back home, ashamed. How many Arjunas had toiled away in the background of my own story?
The last morning of classes I was running late again. 9:07 AM. I saw the van that picked up the night shift workers pull ahead of a taxi emptying some passengers. I walked past the van and Arjuna saw me through the windows; saw me wave the taxi driver down. I told the driver to follow the van. The van left the new glimmering cityscape the world knew as Doha and entered an industrial and gloomy sector populated with factories and five story buildings with windows filled with drying laundry. The van pulled up to one of these buildings. I paid the driver, stepped out of the taxi and called out to Arjuna.
His face was puzzled at my appearance. We stared at each other, the rashness of my decision to follow him there now apparent. I mumbled a few words in Tamil, trying to tell him that I was leaving soon, but they fell awkwardly to the ground. A silence stretched itself between the two of us until Arjuna reluctantly gestured for me to come inside.
I had been here before; it was as I had seen on the news reports and read during those late nights. We passed by a shared kitchen overrun by mosquitoes. Arjuna moved quickly past the staggering stench of the bathroom, where stagnant sewage had no place to drain. Each room was jam-packed with a dozen beds and men who looked tired and in poor health. Some shared Arjuna’s dark skin; others might have appeared that way from the layer of dirt worn on their faces. Towards the end of the corridor, Arjuna turned into his room. Grabbing a small container under his bed, he offered me some food. I politely declined, not wanting to take what was his. We sat on his bed, now comfortable in the silence of the other.
“Dayani and Sarasi. Do you have a picture?” I asked.
Arjuna nodded and reached under his bed again and produced a small box. Inside was the worn picture, the fading of the colors creeping inwards from the edges. Even with the fading colors, I could tell that his wife was beautiful and radiant, and by the looks of it, pregnant. It was then I realized that Arjuna had never actually met his own daughter. I smiled at Arjuna as he pointed out his family but it only hid what I was feeling inside.
Arjuna, like me, was a foreigner here. But I was soon to be leaving, unscathed. While I felt out of place, I would leave having tasted good food, met interesting people and gained insights about a world previously unknown to me. Arjuna would likely be stuck here until he got his passport back; maybe he would never leave, trapped by the false promises that got him there.
I checked my watch again; it was time for me to go. I had already missed my class for today, but I had things to do before my plane took off. Arjuna sensed my need to leave and we both stood up. I did not know how to say goodbye. Instinctively, I reached into my back pocket, pulled out my wallet and tried to give him all the riyals I had, an attempt to make Arjuna’s world a little more kind. Arjuna smiled appreciatively but refused in the same manner I had declined his offering of food. I rummaged through my backpack, found the The Idea of Justice and gave it to him. This time he did not refuse the gift. I wondered with doubt whether he would be able to understand any of it someday, but was oddly comforted by the thought of giving him a book with such a title.
“Namastē,” Goodbye, Arjuna said jokingly in Hindi, remembering one of our first encounters.
“Poittu varén,” I replied in Tamil.
We waited in silence for the taxi. As the car pulled away, I rolled down the window and shouted a greeting. Arjuna smiled, nodded and turned to go back inside.
The flight was delayed and did not take off until after midnight. The airplane’s jet engine roared at me. I liked airplanes because they offered a different kind of silence, the noise of the machine drowning out the world. It was a loud silence but I found it comforting to be isolated by its loudness among so many other passengers. I was on my way to return to the familiar morning silence of Baltimore and in that moment, I thought of Arjuna in the silence of Doha, dancing on the floor of the atrium, hand on his mop, waiting for me to say hello.