Saturday, August 08, 2009

Dubai’s ‘Dabbawallahs’ — the food delivery men

The bicycle diaries

(From WKND magazine)

7 August 2009

They saddle up on their cycles and hit the road to meet their deadlines before hunger strikes. Jethu Abraham talks to Dubai’s ‘Dabbawallahs’ — the food delivery men who keep office workers happy and fed

You may have caught a glimpse of them pedalling away as soon as the traffic signal turns red and the cars stop, or suddenly appearing out of a narrow alleyway. They have been here for years and have blended into Dubai’s busy street scenes. Their tools of trade remain unchanged — the brightly coloured crate, numerous plastic bags and, of course, the bicycle. They are Dubai’s answer to India’s dabbawallahs. Always on the move, delivering meals at different times these tiffin carriers differ from their famous counterparts in Mumbai. Unlike the latter who carry homemade meals, these men in Dubai work for restaurants, usually the ones which cannot afford a motorbike and driver for deliveries and consider a bicycle a more feasible and cost effective option to get around the city’s neighbourhoods. Cyclists in Dubai do not follow separate traffic laws, so they make their way along the roads or up the footpaths, whichever takes them to their destination quickest. And once there, they sometimes have to deal with the added chore of being given the wrong addresses and customer complaints before they are back on their bikes to hit the road again.


An endearing innocence crosses Hamza’s boyish face as he remembers his friends back home in Syria. “We spent the nights playing cards and going out having fun. We thought those days would never end,” he reminiscences. Working as a delivery boy at the Yahala restaurant, in Karama, for the last one year, Hamza is on his bicycle most of the day as he makes deliveries in and around the neighbourhood.

“I sometimes make as many as 50 deliveries a day, and once I’m back in the restaurant, I do other chores such as cleaning the glass and serving customers,” he says as he outlines his daily duties. For Hamza and his family, Dubai is their second home: his father works in logistics for a cargo company in the city and two of his brothers and a sister also live here. His mother and youngest brother live in Syria. “Dubai is definitely more modern than Syria, and the city has great laws in place, but I do miss my country a lot,” says the 23-year-old, who doesn’t have any ambitious plans about the future other than daily survival.

Hamza follows the shade most of the time as he pedals his way to deliver food parcels. His customers have always been cordial to him, he says. “If they have any complaints, I ask them to call the restaurant,” he says matter-of-factly. “The heat gets unbearable sometimes, but I hurry with the deliveries so that I can be back in the shade again,” he adds with a shy smile.

Tulsi Ram

“Cycling looks easy, but it can be a risky affair on the city’s busy roads,” says Tulsi Ram gravely as he outlines the risks he takes his line of work: delivering on time, riding against the traffic and making his way through the lanes of cars in Dubai. “I enjoy it as a form of exercise, but when you have a deadline to meet, it can be a bit tricky,” the 48-year-old from Nepal points out. Ram works at the Midnight Cafeteria, in Karama, and has been with the restaurant for the past three years. Earlier, he used to work as a delivery man in a restaurant in Delhi; he left India as it got increasingly difficult for him to maintain a family — a wife and four kids — on his meagre income.

These days, Ram takes his cycle only when there are sudden, urgent deliveries to be made, and the restaurant delivery motorbikes are out. The Dubai heat is quite unbearable at times, he says, but “there is no gain without some pain.” When asked if he has a word for the readers, he politely requests, “Please make sure that you give us the right address for delivery.”


A native of Chennai, India, 24-year-old Mohan works as a delivery boy for the Tiffin Time restaurant, in Al Quoz, and is well versed with the confusing roads that criss-cross around the offices in the area. “I begin my day at the restaurant at 4am where we pack 75 breakfast parcels to be delivered to a company on Shaikh Zayed Road. I help with the kitchen chores and assist the chief cook in preparing dishes and packing them for delivery,” he says. Once that is done, Mohan heads out on his regular routes to deliver breakfast to the offices in Al Quoz. He finishes his morning deliveries by around 10:30am and is back in the kitchen to help prepare the lunches — his favourite activity of the day.

“I have a diploma degree in catering with specialisations in production and service and I love cooking,” he explains. “When I came to Dubai, I hoped to further my interest in this area and for the first two months I helped out in the kitchen, but when one of our delivery boys left, I was put on the job.” He enjoys meeting people on his route and jokes about how he has favourites in every company he delivers to. “Some of them are very nice and tease me about my dialect and where I come from, but it’s all in good spirit.” But sometimes has to listen to complaints about the delay in delivery — something he attributes to the traffic and the fact that he is only on a bicycle, not on a motorbike!


Sporting a bright red cap and smiling widely, 48-year-old Mohammed is a popular employee at the Blue City Restaurant in Garhoud where he has worked for the past 13 years. He doesn’t have a cycle and doesn’t know how to ride one either, unlike many of his counterparts in the city. “It is very rare nowadays to find people who walk and do deliveries on foot, and many of the people I deliver to are a bit surprised when they realise that I walk everywhere,” he says. Mohammed walks from the Al Tayer Motors area and delivers food parcels to as faraway places as the City Centre.

He dispels any concerns about the strain walking in the sun every day causes on his body — and claims it has kept him fit and healthy! Mohammed has three children; two daughters and one son, who he has not seen for the last two years. A native of Kerala, he came to the city to save enough money for his eldest daughter’s wedding. “I was working as a delivery boy in Maharashtra and also sold purses and other accessories. A relative told me about this vacancy and I decided to come to Dubai,” he says.

Even though his eldest daughter is now married, he cannot return until he makes enough money for his second daughter’s wedding. “It is not greed for money. It is about the need to survive,” he says as a young boy from the restaurant hands him two more bags for his next round of deliveries.

Yemeni Kids Begging For Life in Saudi

Begging for life!
Hamid Al-Sulami | Arab News

DISTURBING TALE: A child begging at one of the streets in Jeddah. (AN photo by Ahmed Hashshad)

MAKKAH: Smuggling children from neighboring Yemen into Saudi Arabia to beg for money, especially during pilgrimage season and the holy month of Ramadan, is a rising phenomenon. Nobody really knows how many children are trafficked into the country and forced into bondage as child beggars. Estimates vary from a few dozen to as many as 10,000.

Whatever the number, it is recognized to be a problem that lies in the area of child exploitation and child labor. It is a violation of UN conventions on children’s rights, and it robs countless children of not just their childhood but adulthood as well, as they are kept out of school as virtual slaves to racketeers as slimy as the worst mafia captains. These overseers and criminals can even be the heartless fathers of these children.

Child begging rackets often involve a number of kids who are tossed out into the streets to beg or sell trinkets, forced to sleep on the street until they have accumulated an amount of money that is enough to keep them from being physically abused by their masters, and hopefully get a decent meal.

These kids can be seen begging in front of mosques or near gas stations and shops.

Yusuf Ali, 8, who was seen begging near a gas station in Jeddah, told Arab News that he was smuggled into the Kingdom a few months ago with a group of adults. His parents handed him off to a man who promised that the boy would find work in Saudi Arabia and send money home. “When I arrived in the Kingdom, a man named Abu Ayyoub placed me in front of this mosque and asked me to beg for money from the worshippers when they come out of the mosque after prayers,” said the boy. “He also asked me to beg at gas stations when it is not prayer time.”

The boy said his master takes about SR75 of the SR150 he usually makes in a day. He claims to live in a house he knew only as “Al-Izba” where several other beggars are housed. “I do not know when I can go back to mom,” he said in tears.

Ahmed Alami, a 10-year-old Yemeni boy begging at a rest house on the road to Makkah, said he lives alone in the nearby mountains. He says that he takes in about SR20 an hour, but half of that goes to the man to whom his father entrusted him. “My father sent me to Saudi Arabia to work with a friend of his in selling vegetables, but that man asked me to beg instead,” he said.

These stories are all too common on the streets in and around Jeddah. Most of the children are boys, but some are also girls. Mariam Salim, a girl who looked to be about 12, said she’s from a remote village in Yemen. “I have a family of seven members living in one room,” she told Arab News. “I send them whatever I make here.”

She was afraid to discuss her circumstances here. Near another gas station stood Omar Saleh, 12. At first he was apprehensive about speaking, but after a few minutes he told Arab News that he came here with his father and three brothers, walking and hitching rides from the Saudi-Yemen border.

“My father got a job and told us to beg,” said Saleh. “We’re professional beggars now.”