A world of majesty and cruelty



We have just taken off from Dubai for St Petersburg. My son is marvelling at the immensity of Dubai’s airport—now officially the busiest in the world. We have stood on a bus—stifling, cramped—and boarded our air-conditioned connecting flight with a deep sense of relief. We have watched the planes lining up behind ours on the shimmering tarmac, and have noted the outside temperature flashing on the screen: 44 degrees Celsius. Thank God we’re getting out of here.


But all I can think of as our plane speeds along the runway and takes off for cooler climes is the labourers constructing this oven of a city. I don’t have the figures at my fingertips, but I tell my son about the migrants I’ve read about from poorer countries who flock here in search of (comparatively) well-paid work, and who send their remittances to their impoverished families back home. Many of them work in inhumane, slave-like conditions. Some are held hostage and forced to work for their fare home

Earlier, we’d bought roubles at a currency exchange kiosk managed by a man from Bangalore. We’d walked up staircases whose bannisters and tiles were being polished by Indians and Bangladeshis, and had been admitted into the business lounge by a man from Indonesia. 

A Chinese woman at the breakfast bar pointed the way to our gate. All smiling, polite and professional. All migrants a long, long way from home, working for the benefit of those with the means to travel. 

I was reminded of the Filipino woman who sat beside me once on a flight from Manila to Hong Kong, plastic shopping bag filled with possessions on her lap, head flopped into her hands. I asked if I could help her, but she couldn’t even lift her weeping eyes to look at me. When we landed, she rushed to the bathroom and vomited into the basin. She was a nanny, leaving behind her own children to look after those of a wealthy family instead.

This is the problem with travel: you discover a world whose majesty exceeds your wildest dreams, but which is cruel beyond imagining. You adventure into heartbreakingly beautiful landscapes, but find (if you care to look) heartbreak underpinning them all: cultures eradicated, people suppressed, religions exterminated. Almost everywhere you go you find people and corporations and governments exploiting the weakest and most disadvantaged for their own benefit.

And you understand, if you have a conscience, that you are the beneficiary of such a system. As Australian Jesuit Tony Herbert SJ says in his new book, Disturbing the Dust, ‘the existence of the marginalised poor in our world is not an unfortunate act of fate, an unlucky fall of the dice. Their very existence is not an economic factor that is politically neutral, nor innocent of ethical judgement’.

Indeed, if such misfortune was random—if no-one was set to benefit from the diminution of another at his or her expense—then such a system would surely have become redundant. Why exploit someone (or something) if there is nothing to gain?


"The existence of the marginalised poor in our world is not an unfortunate act of fate, an unlucky fall of the dice."


In Fr Herbert’s case, he writes poignantly about the Dalit communities of Hazaribag, among whom he has worked during more than 50 years as a missionary in India. These people - otherwise known as ‘Untouchables’ - have endured crippling marginalisation at the hands of people who considered themselves superior to them.

Yet the Dalits, much like the labourers in Dubai, are people whose lack of choice and stature leads them to do the work we wouldn't dream of doing ourselves. And, compassionate though we think we are, says Fr Herbert, we all depend on a world order in which some people exist on the lower rungs. If not for the Bangladeshi cleaners and Chinese bar staff at Dubai Airport, who would ensure a pleasant transit experience for me? If not for the Filipino nannies, who would care for the expats’ children in Hong Kong and Singapore and Qatar?

What is the solution to such socio-economic imbalance? How to transform a thoroughly capitalist world in which greed advances the prosperity of those who already have much and entrenches the disadvantage of those who have little (money, education, a stable upbringing, a chance to further themselves)? Such change requires socialist policies and a sharing of the spoils—a transformation to which those who possess the world’s wealth are not willing to capitulate.

For those who care, there are small, albeit seemingly inconsequential, steps to be taken. To begin with, says Fr Herbert, ‘we need to go beyond merely identifying with the victims of poverty to examining the social and economic structures that cause poverty. The poor want this of us.’

Once we have educated ourselves as to the true reasons for the unequal spread of the world’s wealth, it is important to advocate for the poor. Identify with these people and speak in their favour, Fr Herbert says, for solidarity with the poor helps transform lives.

‘Such solidarity … demands a change in our usual way of thinking, which is generally moulded by structures proper to the middle class rather than to those on the margins,’ he writes. 

‘It means seeing reality from their point of view, of getting an inkling of their world of existence, of understanding the pain they experience.’

My own observations over the years haven’t changed the lives of the poor. But they have informed how I treat people, and how I vote. And these things, when enacted en masse among the advantaged, can bring about transformational change.




Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. Fr Tony Herbert’s new book, Disturbing the Dust, is published by Jesuit Mission and can be ordered online at www.jestuitmission.orgThe book will be officially launched on 22 August in Sydney.



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Existing comments

Thank you Catherine. An excellent piece. I often think of people existing in impoverished, and Third World conditions. I feel guilty, with my lovely, modern home around me; and the luxuries of Middle class living, in a First World democracy. I was a trained nurse for thirty five years, and I wanted to do a stint in a Third World country many years ago, but my health would never have been up to it.
Louw | 10 August 2017

A brief stay in Qatar last year alerted us to the cruelty you describe. But you have written of what we must do rather than just have it as the stuff of travel tales. You have done so beautifully and powerfully. Thank you Catherine.
Anne Gleeson | 11 August 2017

Thank you Catherine. Like you I am well travelled, both to Europe and Southeast Asia. I can identify strongly with your observations. My wife is a Filipino .We are (in my case was) in the teaching profession . We spend much time and energy and what money we can spare, trying to help the children in the school in her home town. We both believe strongly that a good education is a vital tool for these people to advance. Sadly the average traveller is simply not aware of or sadly does not notice the plight of these people.
Gavin | 11 August 2017

Dear Catherine, Thank you for your insightful article. It makes me cry!!! Toan Nguyen
Toan Nguyen | 11 August 2017

An excellent article in all respects.
John Walsh | 11 August 2017

Thank you Catherine for answering the question I was asking myself as we took off after a stop over in Dubai. 'Where are the poor - the beggars. In the midst of such wealth, privilege cleanliness and order they must exist. The only evidence seemed those hundreds of men who were digging up all those new freeways but of course I knew there was more to it than that..
Margaret McDonald | 11 August 2017

People have been commenting on poverty and inequality in poorer, now hopefully 'developing', countries since at least the time of Marco Polo. Sadly, in much of the world, you still have the filthy rich, as in Dubai and the dirt poor they ruthlessly exploit. Whether these exploited people are 'foreign', 'infidels' (as in the Gulf) or 'low caste', the face of exploitation is the same. Some exploitation - of the sexual variety - I find particularly odious. There are no women's movements in places like the Gulf to back the exploited women up. I fear the exploiters are sowing seeds they will be horrified to reap. Some of the exploited Indonesian maids in Hong Kong are, I believe, turning to Islamic radicalism. It is not a good look. It was thus in the old South Africa. Ditto Colonial India. I must confess, having spent my early years in a privileged position as the son of a servant of the Raj who 'stayed on' a bit I saw it all in a way I never would if I were just 'passing through'. It is a real situation and what the people who suffer it want are dignity and equitable treatment.
Edward Fido | 11 August 2017

Thanks for a welcome reminder of the cruelty and exploitation that underpin not only the lavish life styles of the rich but much of the comfort and pleasure enjoyed by those of us who are relatively affluent. It is too easy to fail to see and consider the injustices that, to a great extent, enable international air travel, cruises, luxury hotels etc. Work like Fr. Herbert's book should be widely read and heeded. As Catherine says, we need to remember that we are often beneficiaries of unjust systems. As consumers, we can influence change by demanding that our pleasure isn't subsidised by the pain of others.
Myrna | 11 August 2017

Thank you Catherine for an insightful article, at least until your ill-chosen opinions about capitalism versus socialism in improving the lot of the poor. There is overwhelming evidence that this is just not true. International trade has lifted billions out of poverty over the past 3 decades and continues to do so at an exponential rate. Trade needs rules, such as the WTO and the unfortunately dead-or-dying TPP agreement, and re-distributive taxes need to stop over-concentration of wealth, but only democracies (the flip side of capitalism) can do that. Totalitarianism whenever of the monopolistic monarchies in the gulf, or totalitarian kleptocratic "socialism" such as Russia (and to some extent China) , or crony-corruption as in the Phillipines and lots of Africa are all ruinous for human flourishing. Add to these evils the lack of education and access to contraception for young women, and you have overwhelming poverty. Fortunately, we now know how to fix it.
Eugene | 11 August 2017

At some awful hour of the night I went to the Ladies in the Dubai airport lounge prior to boarding the plane leaving at 2.35am for home. Although taller than the bench tops the most forlorn little girl I have ever seen looked as if she sought the comfort of disappearing into the space below the sinks. She unblinkingly engaged my eyes and those of the Filipina attendant, but did not move a muscle until the woman she was waiting for left the cubicle. This woman must have seen the questions in our faces and explained that the child was five years old, from Sudan and that she, a nurse, was accompanying her on a medical evacuation for surgery in London. Her brother of six was with a male attendant. They had both survived a terrible vehicle accident that killed their parents and other siblings. The Filipina woman took the little face and kissed it, her flowing tears wetting the child’s neck. I wondered if perhaps she was thinking of her own children or siblings, so far away and on a day after a terrible typhoon had struck her homeland. It was all unbearably sad
Judyth Watson | 11 August 2017

Guest workers are everywhere to be seen in Dubai: taxi drivers hail from Bangladesh and India and in response to my interest about their origins are keen to know how to get to Australia. I tell them and explain how difficult the process is. Poor buggers are far from family, sending money home to educate children and siblings. The taxi drivers are no doubt better off objectively than the thousands of construction workers who I imagine risk their lives every working day. I see buses collecting obvious foreigners to take them I suppose to and from work – I am told that many men live in communal housing provided by big companies, some share flats with countrymen. On my way home stayed at a terrible hotel, The Carlton Towers purportedly a 3 – 4 star but way down list and as I had prepaid and as it was for a short time I thought to grin and bear it [and tell Jane the agent]. I honestly think it is a come and meet a girl place with many Russian and Filipinas in the front hall and bars. Many Sheiky looking blokes too, paying them attention.
Judyth Watson | 11 August 2017

Currently, more than one in nine people in our world lives in chronic malnourishment. So, if each of us gave about one eighth of our food - and if we all ensured just and honest distribution - every human being could be fed. Luke 16:25 - ". . remember that in your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus (the starving beggar). Now he is being comforted here (in Heaven) while you are (eternally separated) in agony." But then, how many people listen to The New Testament today?
Dr Marty Rice | 11 August 2017

I have never felt comfortable in Dubai airport the place is built on slavery
Maureen stewart | 12 August 2017

I feel the same way about things. Sometimes its interfered with my writing (I'm a journalist). Like I've written an opera review beginning with a contemplation about the poor on the road who would never have known about one. LOL! Misplaced socialism. Or whatever. After all its not the musicians' fault they have privileges. They're just doing what they are programmed to do.
shana verghis | 12 April 2018


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