The People Who Valued Bags More Than Their Lives

What seems to have attracted more attention than the fact that all 300 souls on board Emirates flight EK521 TRV-DXB escaped the burning Boeing 777-300 at Dubai International on August 3, 2016, with most of their hair still on their backs is that most of them paused to collect their hand baggage before escaping the burning plane! Many people could not believe what they were seeing! Here were a bunch of people, who already had survived a crash-landing plane, which was a miracle in itself, and now when it came to what could be the ultimate disaster in most people's minds, seemed to give two hoots about safety! Don't they realize the importance of the incident? How ludicrously stupid can people get? Don't they have any sense of decorum and safety procedures? Don't they realize that they are endangering theirs and others lives? And of course, this was followed by sickeningly healthy doses of racist, name-calling, India-bashing complete with expletives, to which the entire world seemed to agree with.

racist1 racist2

I am probably going to get a lot of flak for this, but what has to be said has to be said. Those people should not be judged. On the outset, let me say that what those baggage-grabbing passengers did was wrong, according to the international laws of aviation and etc. Today, security laws on airplanes have gotten so tight that while on board an airplane you are actually in temporary imprisonment, where you are legally required to obey every command of flight attendants. Most people obey this to the 't', but these people didn't. Most people schooled in western philosophies would find it difficult to understand why people behaved as they did, putting their lives in such grave danger. Here I try to answer why these people behave as they did.

Why did those passengers ignore their own safety and jump for their luggage instead of exiting the plane as fast as they could? Did they value luggage more than they did their lives? The answer is YES.

There are some things that most Indians and Westerners who lead cushy lives will never ever understand unless they experience it firsthand. The life of the Gulf expatriate (expat) (പ്രവാസി) is one such. Many people believe that you can just get on a plane, land in Dubai and start working at an office, expecting working and living conditions to be just like how it would be in India or the US or the UK. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. For starters, your right to stay in the country extends to only as long as you have a job there, and as per the wishes of your sponsor and the government. You might have been born and lived your entire life there, hell, your parents might have lived their entire lives there, but that does not matter. If you are asked to leave tomorrow, you have to, possibly never to return. There is no argument, no plea, no appeal, no case. Your entire life of many decades, all that you worked for can just poof! disappear overnight. In such a scenario, you will, with your life, hang on to whatever gives you any legitimacy in that country and will, by kilometers, avoid any actions or even thoughts that might get you deported. The Gulf expat life is an experience so surreal (not in a good way) that it is difficult to be articulated in words. People jumping at their luggage was pure instinct, which is one of the instincts you develop from years of being an expat. That expats hold on to their papers for their dear lives is an understatement. The part of the home where papers are kept is sacrosanct, inviolable and pure, which no pooja room or images of deities can match. Forget the plane, if you shook an expat awake at night and told his house was on fire, he would not run to the exit but to where his papers are kept. Some might still think it to be incredible that people would disregard their lives for papers. I will tell you, my friend, that after having been an expat long enough, you will realize there are things in life that are more valuable than life itself. You cannot understand this without experiencing it yourself. See, none of the rules you have learned in life until then apply once you become a Gulf expat. These are not democracies where voices of everyone is heard. Their rules are non-negotiable, inflexible, stringent and 100% binding, expected to be followed at all times. God help you if you don't. Unreasonable? Maybe. But if you are to live in their country, you will have to follow their rules. However, the lure of the largest numbers of employment opportunities on offer on the planet, offering pay that multiplies into stacks of home currency are hard to let go by. Expats hence end up selling their souls to make their fortunes in the desert. And no one understands the vagaries of expatriate life better than the Malayali പ്രവാസി. People see only the glamorous parts of Gulf life, which the ordinary Gulf NRI is mostly never even part of. What no one sees their sacrifices and problems, known only to them. I know people who have been in Dubai for six years but never even once been to its great Malls or the Marina, even to hang out. Let me allow a couple of long-time Gulf residents explain this better.

"Jokes about the flight fire-evacuation thing apart, if such a situation happens in real-life, there is no question that I too will grab the bag with my passport and documents first. If you want to know what it is like to lose one of the many cards (bank card, national IDs, driving license, vehicle registration, insurance card, company IDs, login cards etc.,) an expat carries around, you will have to go work in a Gulf country and experience it. Your life in the country is at the mercy of the bank or police or your employer or your sponsor. In my expat life of nearly two decades, I have not thrown away anything, not a flight ticket or a bank intimation letter. I would mostly never need those, but better be safe. In a country where there nowhere to turn in case of a problem, it is no wonder that people risk their lives to grab that "laptop bag" with their documents, the only things they really can call their own."

When one says “Gulf Expatriate Life”, the image that comes to mind is the pampered white guy living it up at JLT or the Marina, driving Porsches and brunching at Barasti while complaining that 20000 Dirhams is too less a salary, "Jumeira Janes" gushing about how awesome life is in this sunny paradise as compared to their soggy island. However, the vast majority of "expats” in Gulf countries are desperately poor people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc., but are referred to as "immigrants" rather than expats, because white privilege. "Expats" also get paid five times more for the same work "immigrants" do because of the significantly lesser amount of Melanin in their skin. These "immigrants" survive in crowded labor camps or dingy shared rooms to eke out a living in these desert oases for wages as low as Rs.20000 a month, so their families back home can at least think of making a living. These are poor people, not very educated with a very limited knowledge about the world. For them, their world is their family and their papers that enable them to work to feed them, their job in the Gulf. It does not go anywhere much beyond that. You wouldn't understand. They could give zero shits about you and your rules.

Nothing Gets Left Behind!

Nothing Gets Left Behind!

They have made incredible sacrifices, a life with their families, the happiness of seeing their kids grow up, their bonds with their parents, relatives, and friends, sacrifices privileged people whose biggest worry is not being able to catch some stupid Pokemon will never understand. They have surrendered their dreams, identity, personality and everything they were and knew for their job in the Gulf, their only shot at having a decent life. Their passport and identity papers are the only enablers for this life but also probably the only proof of their recorded existence on this planet. Their degree certificates are the only documents on what they are, the only monikers of their achievements in life, their everything. Those piles of documents and decks of cards are not "just documents". They are not even just the identity of its holder. They are the entire existence and being of their bearers and their family, the record of their existence. Or rather, only the papers exist, their holders do not. If the papers cease to exist, they, their spouse and children cease to exist, dead, non-entities, aliens who didn't even exist in the first place. Being a non-entity is a terrifying thing. What good is escaping with your lives when you aren't even alive in the first place? Anyone who thinks that they won't risk their lives to clutch those documents to their chests come what fire, flood or nuclear explosions, have you ever considered how it would be for your entire existence to be confined to a stack of papers, if which were gone erases your entire existence? Of course, you haven't. Every day in the Gulf is one of survival, where you cannot let your guard down.

"But you can get duplicates of those papers, no?" Really? Do you know how long it took for me to get a duplicate SSLC book (10th class pass certificate, Kerala state board) issued? Six freaking months. And do you expect authorities in these countries to pull out all the stops to make lives of expats immigrants comfortable? You really expect those people to survive in the Gulf without papers for months, do you? You expect the Indian embassy to help, do you? You really have no idea about how the real works, don't you? If you with your incredible privilege of having everything dropped into your lap are outraging about how those people, who you know nothing about, didn't act as per your rules set in your perfect little worlds, you have no fucking idea. The countries were these evacuation laws were made probably have systems in place to compensate people for their losses in all ways. But when you are from a poor country with systems that hardly work except to serve themselves, everything changes, sir. Your picture-perfect laws cannot apply to us. We cannot depend on our governments for anything. We are all on our own, the only way for us to survive is to take care of things ourselves. We are shown and taught every day that lives, including our own, are considered expendable in our country. "We can survive this", we tell ourselves every bloody morning before we head out. We know that we might possibly die by a falling electric post, but we don't expect it to happen today. We don't trust our systems, no matter how much we are reassured. We never let our guard down. And what was on display on board EK521 was all this.

People grabbing their luggage while escaping the burning plane was not an Indian thing or a cultural thing. It was, ironically, a survival thing.

Please do not judge the actions of the passengers of EK521 by your cushioned limited world-view experience of valets and chauffeurs with name boards. And again, it is still easy to try and say "I would've (or wouldn't have) done so and so in such a situation". Would you? Wouldn't you? Are you sure? I have seen perfectly rational human beings go completely nuts, dissolve into sobbing wrecks on losing a mobile phone, devices which aren't even remotely necessary for any kind of survival, whose data is all easily recoverable anyway. No one can predict how anyone will react in a moment of intense panic, no matter how sure one would be of one's selves otherwise. The brain literally shuts down and stops recording in such situations, letting raw instinct gathered from experience take over and control your actions. This is why people involved in accidents always say "there was a loud noise and then I don't remember anything", even though they might have escaped the scene and saved their loved ones or their belongings. While escaping the burning plane, what flashes through their minds is not the fear for their lives but the difficulties they would experience were they to lose their papers. Their lives are expendable, their papers are not. If your privilege still gets in the way of understanding this, I am sorry. Again, I am not supporting what those people did, but trying to explain why they didn't immediately exit the burning plane but stopped to grab their hand baggage.

Airlines' Indian-Bashing and Truths about "Indian" Flying Habits

It is long known that airlines of all hues openly practice racism against Indians. No, really, a quick Google search will confirm this. They fly their worst and oldest planes to India and offer the worst service served by openly racist flight attendants. And the EK521 incident acted to explosively release these kept in check by a hair trigger: Indians do not form queues, Indians get up and stand in the aisle, Indians scramble to retrieve baggage instead of exiting the plane, Indians drink too much... the list goes on and on. The only time when these airlines have no problem with Indians is when extorting us through their magic number fares they pull out of their vertical stabilizers. None, whatsoever. Can these privileged folks even start to think what their "guests" on Indian flights have to go through in their lives? Let us check a couple of incidents comparable to the Dubai one.

Asiana Airlines flight 214, San Francisco

This flight from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco, USA, was totally not full of Indians. The Boeing 777's (again) Chinese passengers reached for their baggage just like the Indians did. Oh, so maybe this is an Asian problem?

British Airlines flight 2276, Los Angeles

Aboard the crown's flag carrier, most prim and proper British gents and ladies scrambled to retrieve their luggage before exiting a burning again) B777. Brits? No way, they all be well-behaved, rational people, guv'nor! Maybe this plane was actually full of Indians wearing too much Fair and Lovely to look European? Or maybe this a Boeing 777 problem? Here is another one, this time, a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747. Oh, and of course, then there is the much maligned “Indian” habit of standing in the aisle as soon as the plane touches down.

I do not have much of international flying experience, so I ask those who do: Is this really an exclusively Indian phenomenon? Do all other nationalities and races in the world remain strapped to their seats like mannequins until the aerobridge connects with a solid, satisfying thump and a sexy female computer voice announces “docking procedure complete”? I guess they do? After all, we are the most uncivilized “fucking rats” as the exalted master of the skies so poignantly proclaimed. So, remember this for your next flight, kids. Those people randomly popping up in their seats like figures in a “pop goes the weasel” game when the plane touches down are all definitely Indians. Go across and say hi. Maybe you can secure some homemade lemon pickle.

And please, no one carries pickles and goddamn banana chips to Dubai anymore. You can get them everywhere in the Gulf (in the world). There is a Malayali restaurant/cafeteria every hundred meters and almost all grocery shops and supermarkets anywhere in the Arabian peninsula are run by Malayalees. That precious baggage space can be covered by something else, like cheap Indian clothes. And to whoever-you-are racist, bigoted flight attendant who thinks too much of him/herself, let me just remind you that you are still a fancy service agent in a suit and tie (that aren't even yours) who is (over)paid by us “fucking rats” Indians to serve our needs, as mandated by your employer. So stop whining and bring me my VAT 69, on the rocks, if you please. This is what you signed up for.

The Emirates crew did great work in evacuating all the 282 passengers in under 2 minutes despite all this, they do deserve a huge round of credit for this! And may God grant eternal peace to the brave Emirati firefighter who died battling the blaze to save the lives of all those passengers. You are a hero, our hero, my hero!

  • Aditya Krishnakumar

    Thanks for writing this. Everything that i wanted to say on the issue, said far better than i would have.

  • Rex

    Great post.

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