A true story told to me in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, during the Hajj pilgrimage of 2002, by someone who personally knew Faisal…
It was the middle of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and there was an hour left to sunset. Faisal was wearing a sleeveless vest and his Indian-style sarong, waiting for the fast to end. Even though the apartment was airconditioned, the humid heat in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah was still sufficient to drain even the fittest of men.
It had been three months since Faisal was made redundant from his job as a qualified engineer in a Saudi construction company. He had left his home in India five years earlier in search of a better income with which to support his elderly parents back home. But after three months without work, in his mid 30s, Faisal was beginning to fall into despair.
Jobless in his mid 30s, Faisal was beginning to fall into despair.
His redundancy had come as a surprise, but what was even more surprising was the kindness shown to him by his colleagues. A group of Pakistani labourers in his factory had invited him to come and live with them, rent-free, while he found another job. The eight of them were living in one cramped room in the poor part of Jeddah bustling with labourers from all over the world.
This was the wealth divide in Saudi Arabia: cheap labour from Asia and Africa supported every need of the wealthy Saudis from cooking and cleaning to driving and house repairs. Saudis who needed some manual work done just had to knock on the door of any apartment in the high-rise building, and they would find a worker ready and waiting to fulfill their every request.
The labourers worked hard during the day to earn their $150 (£90) monthly salary, so any opportunity to enhance that income was welcomed. From this $150, they would pay for rent and food, then send the rest back to their families back in their home countries. If they were lucky, they would receive one free air ticket every two years to visit their families.
Faisal’s Pakistani flatmates were busy preparing food for the breaking of the fast, which was only an hour away. Just then, the doorbell rang. Faisal opened the door, still in his vest and sarong.
Standing there was a Saudi man, dressed in the long white thowb and the red-and-white checkered headress that distinguished Saudis from non-Saudis. The whiff of the expensive scent of oud perfume meandered past Faisal’s nostrils. The Saudi man was looking for a manual labourer.
“The sewage pipe in my house has burst,” the Saudi man began. “There is faeces and urine all over the carpets. I need someone to clean it up but it has to be done right now, before the fast opens.”
“There is faeces and urine all over the carpets. I need someone to clean it up but it has to be done right now, before the fast opens.”
Faisal immediately agreed to do the job. When he returned to the room, his flatmates asked him who was at the door. He told them that it was a Saudi man looking for someone to clean up some mess in his house.
“You didn’t agree to do it, did you?” asked one of the flatmates.
“I did, I just came to get changed,” replied Faisal. “So what if I did?”
“You are a qualified engineer,” the flatmate replied. “You are not some cheap labourer. This work is below your status. And besides, it is almost time to open fast. Tell the man to find someone else.”
Faisal looked at his flatmates and said, “Here I am, praying to Allah day and night for a job. And now He sends sustenance to my doorstep and I am going to refuse it? Never.” Faisal changed into something more decent and then joined the Saudi man waiting outside.
The two engaged in small talk as they left the apartment building and began to walk towards the Saudi man’s car. The Saudi man asked Faisal about his background and Faisal told him his story. That he was a qualified engineer from India who had just lost his job so he was living with some colleagues until he found work again.
As they were walking and talking, the Saudi man reached into his pocket and gave Faisal an envelope that appeared to be full of cash.
“What’s this?” Faisal asked as he tried to return the envelope to the Saudi man. “I haven’t even done the work yet. And besides, this is far too much. The job won’t even cost that much. What’s going on?”
“Actually, there is no work,” the Saudi man smiled. “There’s no burst pipe and there’s no sewage. I wanted to give some charity but I wanted to give it to someone who really needed it. I made up the story about the sewage because I figured out that a fasting Muslim man who was prepared to clean up a stranger’s urine and faeces one hour before he opened his fast, must really be desperate. Pray to Allah to bless me, my friend. Assalamualaikum.”
“I figured out that a fasting Muslim man who was prepared to clean up a stranger’s urine and faeces one hour before he opened his fast, must really be desperate.”
And with that, the Saudi man got into a gleaming new Mercedes Benz and drove off in a flash. Faisal stood there in the middle of the road, speechless, with his mouth gaping open. He opened the envelope. In it was 100,000 Saudi riyals (about £20,000 or $30,000). Faisal’s eyes filled with tears.
Faisal hurried back to his apartment and told his astonished flatmates what had just happened. And then Faisal showed his gratitude to God. He divided the money into two halves. One half he distributed to his flatmates. These poor men had taken Faisal in and helped him during these last few difficult months, even though they did not have much themselves.
As for the other half, Faisal kept it for himself and his family. Once Ramadan was over, he returned with the money to start a new life in India, never to come back.
I post a new piece every Monday morning at 08:00 GMT/UTC. Enter your email address below in the field below to follow my blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.