The Help

Many locals and expats, especially those with children, have a live-in nanny or have a maid who comes 2-3 times a week to clean. It’s such a common practice to have a live-in housekeeper that it’s literally built into the infrastructure of the houses. Many houses have “maid’s quarters” which essentially consists of a very small room and bathroom. I had initially envisioned maids quarters to be a detached little house on a sprawling estate – not a tiny room inside a 4 bedroom house. I lived in our house for weeks before I even knew what our “extra little room” was for. Now we use it as a place to iron; it’s roughly 8 feet by 6 feet.

I recently finished the wonderful book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett about black nannies who work for white families in Mississippi during the 1960s. It was a really interesting and relevant book to read in any context, but especially while living in Dubai.

(Don’t read next two paragraphs if you haven’t read the book but want to.)
There seems to be many parallels between the experiences of the nannies in the book and those in Dubai. For instance, as in the book, many maids here have left their own children behind to work as a nanny taking care of other people’s children. This enables them to send money home; home is usually the Philippines, but also Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka or Ethiopia. (by the way, the term ‘maid’ doesn’t seem to accurately describe a live-in nanny, but it’s used almost exclusively here.)

A major storyline of the book was the desire of the maids to tell the world what their job was like and the types of relationships they had with their employer. Much to their chagrin, they had to rely on a white woman to get it written and published. If Minnie and Aibleen had lived today, they could have easily written it themselves and posted it on a blog for the world to read! Apparently, a Filipina maid named “Sally” is doing exactly this. She writes anonymously, from her employer’s computer, about her experiences as hired help for a family in Dubai and dishes on the ups and down of her life as a maid.  Sally has close to 70,000 views on her blog and was featured in The Gulf News! Puts my blog to shame, that is for sure! Ha! (Update: after I posted this entry, the author has since written a disclaimer at the bottom on her blog stating that her story is a work of fiction.)

Maid-related news/gossip garners an inordinate amount of interest in Dubai.  Forums for expats are teeming with posts and questions about maids. What should you do if you suspect your husband is sleeping with your maid, what to do if you catch your maid doing bad things on the nanny cam, how much to pay a maid, etc. On a forum called “Expat Woman” there is an entire section dedicated to maid questions. A post entitled “maid and bottled water” was viewed close to 1,000 times! Why this subject line was intriguing enough for people to want to open it, I have no idea!  Inlcude the word “maid” and all of a sudden it’s a hot topic.

Local newspapers also frequently run stories about maids.  Recently there was a story about a maid who ran away from her employer after years of alleged abuse. (verbal abuse and no days off, ever. In other stories, there are allegations of terrible physical abuse as well.)�s secret plea for help

There was a heated back-and-forth in the Letters to the Editor section about why live-in maids should or should not be allowed to have a day off. The justification for not giving them a day off was that they are likely to go out and get pregnant and then end up accusing the husband where she works, which just ends up causing a lot of problems. Or she might go to work for another family on her day off, which is illegal here. Better to keep them in, seven days a week. (wow!)  Maids have very few rights and can easily be deported, which few of them are willing to risk since their family is depending on their income, so they often put up with miserable working conditions.

I’m intrigued by the way that some Emiratis (or non-westerners) so easily hand off their parenting duties to their maids. (I’ve never seen this with a westerner while living in Dubai, but maybe it happens?) A child throws a tantrum at the table in a restaurant, and the parents just continue eating and conversing as if nothing unusual or disruptive is occurring. The “maid,” who may or may not be allowed to eat at the restaurant with the rest of the family, must step in to calm the child down. Discipline doesn’t really seem to enter the equation. Or a mother just walks off in a huff while a child has a meltdown in a store. The maid, who’s wearing a pale blue “uniform” that looks roughly like a set of pajamas or scrubs, frantically tries to soothe the child. As a mother of two small children, it’s very strange to see these situations. I always end up staring accidentally because I’m just so curious about these cultural differences. Do I sometimes wish I could run away while my child is acting bratty at the grocery store? Absolutely! But I can’t imagine actually offloading that responsibility to someone else with such ease, just walking away from the situation as if I know none of them. It’s a different way of raising children, that is for sure.

“The Help” in Dubai is not limited to nannies. There are zillions of car washers, chauffeurs, picture hangers, delivery drivers bringing all sorts of things to your doorstep: drinking water, gas tanks for your BBQ and gas range, every kind of fast food, etc. Gas stations here are still completely full service. I can’t pump my gas, even if I wanted to. And of course, there are the gardeners.

Everyone who has a yard, also has a gardener who comes to the house daily. (yes, every day) They pedal around town on rickety looking but seemingly reliable bicycles while big, air-conditioned SUVs whiz by them. They carry their gardening tools in a crate or basket that is precariously attached to the front. Most of them have helmets, which they definitely need in this land of crazy driving, but they are often times too small, not strapped on, or sitting in their basket. Our gardener, Habib, was limping around miserably the other day. He told me he was knocked off his bike by a “crazy Iranian driver.” According to Habib, Iranians are the craziest drivers of all! (Sorry Mas :)) I can’t imagine how miserable these guys will be when summer is in full swing.

Habib’s wheels

I’ve never had so much help in my life. Honestly, it feels pretty weird. As in, uncomfortable weird. I’m not going to lie though, it is really nice to be relieved of some of the chores I don’t like doing. And we look forward to seeing “the help,” they definitely add color to our life in Dubai.  But at the end of the day, it makes me feel pretty spoiled and I wish that laws were in place to protect the workers and give them more rights.


About Lynda

Longhorns and Camels is a blog about exploring Dubai from the perspective of an expat from Texas. It features stories about living in Dubai including descriptions of local culture and popular activities in the region. It also includes photography of the UAE and other countries abroad. It has been recommended by several well-known guides for expatriates: InterNations, ExpatWoman and Expat Focus.
This entry was posted in Day-to-day living in Dubai, Emirati Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Help

  1. Jeff Silvey says:

    What an interesting blog. Good post.

    I wish I had some help. I have to do everything. 😉 Still, you’re right, I wouldn’t want to pawn off all of my responsibilities on others. Housework and the yard I need help with, disciplining my daughter I can work on myself.

  2. Maria says:

    I saw the same things in Singapore — interesting to know the maid situation in Dubai is similar. We turned the maid’s room in our house into a pantry, and used the maid’s bathroom (cold water only) to store luggage. No point in letting that valuable real estate go to waste!

  3. Judy says:

    How to deal with household help is a huge issue for many new expatriates. While the “help” part is wonderful, particularly if you have young children, it throws many in the deep-end of cross cultural misunderstandings. I recognized early on that I was hopeless when it came to being an employer, so limited myself to a once-a-week cleaning lady and did my best to be out of the house when she came. Enjoy it while you can!

  4. Tavia says:

    Very interesting Lynda, but a certain paragraph of your post also happens here in the US quite often, I don’t want to say it is exclusive to mothers who have money, but living in Los Angeles, and also in NY, I saw this type of parenting all the time, the mothers… if they were present would sit back on park benches, while the nannies chase the children, change their diapers, even stop them from fighting with other children. I was always with my boys, when at the park, I would talk with the nannies sometimes and many of them had also left a family behind to take care of children, though not common to “live-in” and certainly more freedom to leave and change employers. But this type of parenting isn’t limited to Dubai.

    • lyndasm says:

      Good point Tavia! I think that many of the westerners who are living in Dubai act differently from what you saw in NY/LA because they would never be able to afford this kind of help at home so they seem to have different expectations. They enjoy having the extra hands to help with the kids and having someone clean, but don’t want the nanny to completely take over as the primary caregiver to their kids.

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