From a highly respected author whose books consistently expose political and social injustice comes this gut-wrenching story about modern-day slavery. Eight-year-old Rashid and his toddler brother Shari are from the Punjab region of Pakistan. Their mother, recently widowed and now destitute, has reluctantly agreed to allow her brother and a stranger to take them to Dubai. In return, she is told, she will receive money and the children, a better life.
Once in Dubai, the boys are prised from their uncle, separated and forced to work on camel farms, or uzbas, as jockeys and stable hands. Conditions are appalling. Forced to work day and night, they are abused and beaten, and deliberately starved to keep their weight down. The story centres on Rashid and tells of his experience and that of the other children on the uzba. The author sensitively captures the everyday existence and broken lives of these children, some of them aged just two or three. She also portrays their feelings and emotions – homesickness and weariness, jealousies and childishness. Crucial to the story are the vivid descriptions of place, which help to create a strong sense of dislocation – from the squalid outhouses to the racetracks and, above all, the desert landscape of heat and night-time cold that the children endure.
The story is meticulously researched, the characters based on the lives of real children trafficked to the United Arab Emirates from surrounding countries and used as camel jockeys. In 2005, the exploitation of child jockeys in the UAE was prohibited. Since then, a minority of children – like some of the characters – have been returned home while the less fortunate – like some of the other characters – have been disappeared, perhaps sold into a new life of slavery. Terrible but true, this is a deeply affecting story that should be read by all secondary school children.