On International Migrants Day, a Keralite migrant recalls his perilous journey to Dubai aboard an illegal dhow in 1969
"On the first day itself, the sea was rough. And the Uru (wooden dhow) we were travelling in was a small one too.
So the seawater was entering the dhow. The sailors were using three motors continuously to pump out the water.
Additionally, it was raining heavily too. And due to seasickness, most of us started to throw up.
And as we were all tired to death, we slept on our own vomit…"
These were the words of 73-year-old Mohammed Basheer, a Keralite, who dared to migrated to Dubai in 1969 on a dhow illegally, when he was a mere 17 years of age.
During the 1960s, unemployment in Kerala was forcing youth to migrate to the Arab Gulf in search of better living.
While many had already had the experience of migrating to South East Asian countries in 1940s and 1950s, people like Basheer were the first ones who dared to migrate to the Arab Gulf in search of fortune.
“Muscat, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Daman were the top-rated destinations where we could ‘mint’ money. So I also decided to migrate. But I chose the Arab Gulf,” Basheer said when The Lede met him at his house in Panen Kettu, a backwater village in Attingal, near Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala.
Bashir managed to find an agent in his village to assist him in migrating to the Arab Gulf. Bashir paid around Rs 1000 and boarded a train Mumbai.
Upon reaching Mumbai, he was taken to the Rann of Kutch, a marshy land in Gujarat, from where they could board the dhow to the Arab Gulf.
“We can’t do it in daylight. So we had to wait till sunset. And we were told that when the dhow comes, they will light a lamp and that is the signal to get into a small boat, row towards the dhow and board. But that night it didn’t happen. Some police patrolling would have happened. So we had to return to Mumbai,” Basheer said.
However, Basheer was not ready to give up. He again tried his luck after 10 days.
They came to Rann of Kutch again and waited for the signal from the lounge from 8 pm onwards.
“At around 2 am we got the signal. We saw a light blinking a bit far from the shore in the waters. We all ran to the small boats. We all were in a rush to the board the dhow. Somehow, we reached the dhow in minutes. We boarded the dhow by climbing up a knotted rope,” Basheer said adding that they were least bothered about facilities on board.
According to Basheer, they all woke up only the next afternoon. And when most of them got up, the sailors provided a roti, one tea and a tumbler of water.
“After three days, that food also was stopped. We were just surviving with a glass of water each day. We all were tired to death. Additionally, due to nausea, we all started to throw up. But we started to ignore that too. Rainwater would wash us, then we will vomit again, sleep there itself,” Basheer added.
Normally, in a week, a dhow starting from Gujarat would reach the Gulf coast. However, it took 13 days for the dhow with Basheer to reach Gulf coast.
“In between, the dhow’s engine got damaged. And due to heavy winds, we lost our direction. On a day, we were told that we neared even the Pakistan coast. Unfortunately, a person who was with us died due to illness. And the sailors tied a stone on his body with a rope and threw it into sea. What else can be done. We were not in mental state to cry either. And on the 13th day, early morning, we were told that we have reached Khor Fakkan in Sharjah,” Basheer added.
Khor Fakkan is a city and exclave of the Emirate of Sharjah, located on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), facing the Gulf of Oman, and geographically surrounded by the Emirate of Fujairah.
“The moment we heard that we have reached our dream land, we all tried to jump, and the boat turned upside down. We swam with all our energy. And when we reached the shore, we collapsed,” Basheer added.
According to Basheer, they reached the shore at around 6 am but all of them slept there itself till afternoon out of sheer tiredness.
“It would have been around 3 pm, we got up and walked some 2 kilometres to a small town. We found a small cafeteria there. They provided us free food. And a good Arab driver agreed to drop us in Dubai. We paid some Rs 150 too. Those days, the Indian Rupee could be traded there. Reaching Dubai, I got a job as a plumber on the first day itself. I worked for several companies, did some independent jobs, stayed for some 18 years and returned for good,” Basheer said adding that AED 5 ( now Rs 100) was his average monthly salary then.
Basheer worked for seven years continuously and returned only in 1976 after organising for a passport through his relatives in Kerala.
Basheer remained in touch with all those who were on that dhow and according to him, only he remains alive now.
“The rest have passed away. We went to the Gulf when those countries were in their nascent stage. And interestingly, we returned when others started to come there. But I have no regrets. We are always thankful to the Arab Gulf for providing us with an opportunity to work there and make a better living,” Basheer added.
Basheer is married and has three children. He runs a hollow bricks workshop near his home and is happy with his life even though illness is creeping up on him.
Only a few like Basheer who can tell the stories of migrating on a dhow to Arab Gulf in the 1960s are left in Kerala now.