Gulf Calling

by Nehal Ahmed

A tale of migration from Siwan, Bihar to Saudi Arabia, connecting intergenerational relations to transnational telecommunication, while reflecting on the alienation and anxiety, victimhood and void.

Papa with an ambulance at his workplace, Saudi Arabia; 198688.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

In the last few years, my understanding of labour migration has primarily been defined through novels, memoirs, cinema, music and academia. Although narratives of migration in Bollywood have frequently depicted the migrant diaspora, they have often been confined to the Gujaratis in the U.S.A. and the Punjabis in Canada. Despite Uttar Pradesh and Bihar contributing significantly to the workforce in the five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, interpersonal narratives of migration from these states are nearly non-existent, even in Bhojpuri cinema and folk music, which again are chiefly written by men. 


In the famous folk song, “Mirzapur Kailu Guljaar Ho, Kachaudi Gali Soon Kaila Balamu”, the wife laments about her husband leaving her alone. As she cannot express this explicitly, she uses a metaphor to compare her pain. The literal translation of the line reads, “O my husband! You deserted the famous street of our city and went to Mirzapur and made it glowing.” Even the Mammootty-starrer film, Pathemari and the novel, Goat Days by Benyamin are fictional narratives centred around the male Gulf migrant. 



A Long Road Called Hope 


For a prolonged time, Gulf migrants and their families (often colloquially addressed as ‘Arbian’), like many others from this region, have lacked the basic resources, time, and literacy needed for self-expression, rendering countless histories undocumented. In recent years, I’ve grown concerned about how socio-economic and administrative facets commonly receive attention, but there is an absence of interest in the social, psychological, cultural, and other everyday nuances of the migrants’ lives from our region, particularly female autonomy and intergenerational memories.


In my family, until now, six male members have worked in Gulf countries and two of them have returned after retirement. After pursuing class 10th, my father, Md Majaz*, and his friend, Firaq Uncle* quit their studies and started working at different construction sites in India. Their tryst with the Gulf began in the 1970s when someone helped them acquire passports and suggested they go to Delhi to meet an agent who could help them secure jobs. They travelled to Delhi for the first time by train and bus, and also walked for around 100 kilometres as they were unfamiliar with the local transport. 


In Delhi, they stayed with a driver (a close confidante from home) in a slum, who also helped them collect visas from the agent. Interestingly, Firaq Uncle (whom I call Abbu) recalls that it was the same day when an American spaceship had met with an accident, delaying their flight to Bombay. Uncertain of the imminent life in a foreign land then, they conceded to the agent’s terms and conditions, feeling relieved that they would finally earn good money and escape poverty. In the 2000s, at least one male member from each family in our village lived in an Arab country, typically for two years at a stretch and returning thereafter for a two-month vacation during which he spent time with his family, got married, met relatives, and attended to mundane obligations, leaving little room for conjugal privacy and other familial aspirations. 

Papa at his workplace, Saudi Arabia, 19861988.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

Familiar Objects in an Unfamiliar Land


For me, a striking part of migrant journeys across the Gulf has been the installation of a landline telephone connection—a symbol of luxury and achievement in villages back then. Its presence in one home turned it into a shared resource for the entire mohalla (neighbourhood), complete with certain unspoken rules, adding a socio-cultural dimension to this technology. The telephone owners’ duty to inform the intended call recipient and accurately deliver messages reinforced a sense of community, mutual reliance, and responsibility within the village. Some people also kept extension phone sets—one in common areas like the baramda (verandah) or kothri (men’s drawing room), and another in a bedroom, a newly built room, or on the first floor that was linked for the migrants’ wives to talk privately. Typically, people called during the daytime, making reaching a recipient from another home easier as nights were dark due to the absence of electricity. 

The bunk beds in Papa’s accommodation seemed like a luxury to us; 19861988, Saudi Arabia.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

 Papa with a telephone and an air-conditioner; 19861988, Saudi Arabia.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

Our home had a landline telephone that catered to almost six to seven houses in the mohalla. Usually, neighbours would depend on one person for a telephone connection and wouldn’t bother to install it in their own house. During one such call, being considered faster than others, I remember rushing to my Uncle to inform him about it. After learning that he had gone to town, I returned home alone, leaving everybody surprised. When Papa, who was at home during his two-month vacation from Saudi Arabia, enquired about Uncle’s whereabouts, I told him about his town visit. He then started preparing to leave for town to inform him, much to Amma’s (mother) disappointment. As kids, we were happy to accompany him on the motorcycle as we would get to drink botal (a bottle of Pepsi), which was available only in towns. After reaching, we realised that Uncle didn’t even consider the call urgent enough. Eventually, I could relate with Amma as she had lost out on the chance to spend her limited afternoon time with her husband.


Before my family owned a telephone connection, we used to visit a house in another mohalla as there was no connection in ours. We, especially Amma, eagerly awaited Papa’s call on the 1st or 2nd of every month. Around 11 a.m., he would call on Sultan Dadi’s phone and she would shout, “Jaldi aao! Majaz ka phone aya hai.(Come quickly! Majaz has called.) Her voice was special for she would deliver the most awaited messages every month. We would run to her lavish home with Dada (my grandfather) and gather in the kothri. I would gaze at the windows fitted with glass panes, with purdahs hung from iron rods, and a showcase that displayed decorative pieces. 


Usually, Papa would call, saying, “Main Majaz bol raha hun. Mere ghar se kisi ko bula dijiye. Main paanch minute baad phone karunga.(I am Majaz speaking. Please call someone from my house. I will call back in five minutes.) The owner—of both the home and telephone—would call us, following which, we would sit in front of the phone, waiting for the bell to ring. Often, when we did not receive the call due to emergencies on the other side, we would return home, disappointed with the limitations of the one-way communication system. Although briefly, Dada usually spoke first, warning Papa about not borrowing any money from anyone. After him, we (the children) placed our demands that kept changing according to our age and gender.

My brother and I—wearing sunglasses, t-shirts, and jeans sent by Papa; Siwan, 1999.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

A family photograph that was clicked using a camera roll sent by Papa; Siwan, 1995.

Courtesy of Tanweer Ahmed.

We concluded within a minute or two, after which Amma’s turn came. My siblings left but I always clung onto her. I remember how Sultan Dadi used to scold me, “Jao khelne! Amma ko baat karne do.” (Go and play! Let Amma talk.) Although Amma never asked me to leave, I wondered why Dadi kept pushing me out. Sometimes, I left, feeling insulted but mostly stayed back to overhear my parents’ conversations, wherein they discussed the school fees and the money that she had to send to my elder brother, studying in Aligarh. After growing up, I realised that Dadi just wanted to grant my parents privacy. 


From Words to Silences


Apart from the telephone, even letters were a popular means of staying connected. Being more personal, affordable, and accessible, they allowed one to express wholeheartedly, especially the new brides. At home, Amma would pack some khasta and bhunja (our native snacks) and stitch them all together in a piece of cloth with our letters. I remember, Papa once replied, “Jab bhi Nehal ka khat aata hai, main kayi maah tak usko padhta hoon.” (Whenever Nehal’s letter arrives, I read it for several months.) Only later, did I truly acknowledge his emotions and my naivety as a child who didn’t understand then that ‘maah’ meant month. 


Later, even recorded audio tapes were used by migrants to exchange messages but my family did not engage in this practice as it was mostly used by newly married couples; it was not widely respected among elders. Then, the coin-calling system emerged, with a coin offering a minute of conversation. Another method was operator-calling, often considered illegal, but still used frequently as it allowed migrants to talk for a longer duration at any desired time, marking the beginning of uninterrupted communication among migrant families. The advent of mobile phones in the subsequent years further allowed for more private conversations and individual autonomy. Initially, only migrants used them but later even their families joined in and the significance of landline phones gradually declined. Initially, without the Internet, there were options like calling cards. Papa would often caution us to talk for five minutes only when calling on someone else’s mobile, as he had bought a five-minute calling card.


In 2014 and 2015, Papa and Abbu returned from the Gulf respectively. They were among the first batch to leave, and now the third generation is working there. Besides WhatsApp, other apps like I.M.O. and Skype have also grown popular due to the easy accessibility of smartphones and the Internet. However, amidst this rapidly changing world, my most significant memory of Papa’s life abroad is still the installation of the landline telephone in our home—how I would inform all the migrants to dial our phone number instead of calling in another mohalla. I would proudly declare in one go, “Ab humaare ghar phone lag gaya hai aur humaara number 25240 hai; 06154 laga lena pehle.” (Now we have a telephone at our home and our number is 25240; please add 06154 as a prefix.


As happy as I have been, to be able to hold on to these bittersweet childhood memories, I cannot deny the fact that my father’s migration deprived me of a normal childhood and experiences that would have been possible in his presence. A sense of detachment and an agonizing silence lurk between us—a void that seems only to be deepening in this digital age, reminding me that I am not merely a participant of migration but also a victim of migration.


Also read: Lifelines of Gulf Migration


*Names have been changed on request to ensure anonymity.

About the author

Nehal Ahmed is a doctoral student at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His research interests include Indian Cinema, World Cinema and Migration studies. He writes for leading national and international dailies such as The Hindu, Aljazeera, The Telegraph, Ala and Outlook. Nothing Will be Forgotten: From Jamia to Shaheenbagh is his first book. He received the Muzaffar Ahmad Memorial Award for the book. It was also nominated for India’s prestigious Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar 2023. He is currently working on his second book, Gulf in My Family, based on Gulf Migration. He hails from Siwan, Bihar. At present, he lives in Delhi, and being a migrant himself, he is a keen observer of the subject. 


He can be reached on Instagram: @le_khaak