In the early morning light, a Sri Lankan man with a bright-orange head wrap shakes some crumbly cement off his trowel and sets another block carefully on the low wall. Around the corner, just outside the compound wall of an enormous villa, two Indian men sit in the cab of their little pickup truck, the engine idling. Its gentle purr is one of the few sounds on this quiet new day. Another South Asian with thick, bushy hair and an even bushier mustache sits on the curb across the street, elbows to knees, lost in thought. Every few minutes, he brings a mug of steaming coffee to his lips.
At the first light of dawn—around four o’clock—we were called by minarets around the city to come to prayer. Not long after, as the sun made its way higher into the sky and peeked over tall office buildings on the distant horizon, the neighborhood awoke not with local people but with those who serve them: houseboys, teaboys, construction workers, maids, domestic helpers, road workers, garbage collectors, drivers, and grounds crews.
The “locals,” as we call them, were here last night, blazing through the streets in Landcruisers, filing into high-end malls and trendy coffee shops and expensive restaurants. The air was thick with shisha smoke and strong cologne; glittering cufflinks and starched headscarves caught my eyes. The late-night streets are the domain of the shabab—the young, unmarried men who wander together in small packs. Though frivolous, fashion-conscious, and careless in their youthfulness, they become poised and polite as the situation demands. Now, they are fast asleep.
When the thread between darkness and light becomes visible, the morning breaks with the quietness of a street sweeper, solemn in his yellow jumpsuit.
There are trays of coffee to be cleared from the late-night majilis, cigarette butts to be swept from the curb, sidewalks to be built, and mud-splashed SUVs to be hosed down. There are headscarves to be starched and breakfasts to be prepared. Nevertheless, while the master and madam sleep, the pace is slow, and a cup of coffee can be enjoyed on a curb. There is no watchful eye, no demanding voice. It is the secret of the morning shared among all the workers, from the delivery man to the housemaid to the man swathed in orange who rests his bucket on the wall and lifts his face as if thanking the sun for its impartial warmth. Yes, he is in on the secret too.
A thin Indonesian woman leans out of a second-story window, gingerly wiping the dust off the reflective glass panes. Our eyes meet and curiosity marks her face: interest in the anomaly of me. When she steals a glance once more, I throw my arm in the air. Before ducking back through the open window, she throws her own arm up in a happy wave, a beautiful smile spreading across her face.