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The Weight of a Brick

by ABI MEHREGAN in Tehran

28 Jul 2010 00:05Comments
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Backbreaking labor for minimal pay defines essential economic sector.

Take an open space, flat, an acre or two, with easily excavated soil, with sun-baked, perspiring souls dragging themselves, bent down, to and fro, energetically yet wearily. Place it anywhere, in a town south or west of Tehran, in a poor peripheral town of any other city, and you have one of the thousands of brick kilns strewn around Iran.

These people you see will take whatever risk, work however long, under the blistering hot summer sun or in blistering dry winter winds, on ground slippery with moist clay, to earn enough for a bite or two, just enough sustenance for another day. Mostly of Afghan origin, with their slight builds they can slither through the kilns' small openings to empty them of scalding baked bricks and replenish them with heavy, water-laden clay molds. The new molds are laid out precisely in the dark kiln, the fired bricks carefully arranged to cool down slowly.

The routine repeats for the entire day till the sun goes down, and starts again before it rises, and again and again in a stream of endless days.

At sunset, these people travel long distances to homes that have no resemblance to those made with the products of their labor. To homes where they hope for an ever-elusive restful night, in filth and sweltering summer heat, or filth and cold winter wind, sustained only by fleeting moments with their wives and children. Their sleep, a mere blink before they return hurriedly over the same long distances to load and unload the kilns, for about $200 a month. No insurance, no social security, nor benefits of any kind. While the desiccating dust sucks the moisture from the mucus lining of their eyes and noses, and their throats, and deeper down, their lungs. No contracts, no labor representation. Yet, through broad smiles they will declare that they are content. They will declare that this is their fate, and then smile further with their eyes, too, as they clutch their pathetic pay in their palms long since parched and depleted of all vitality by the moisture-hungry clay. They will wave in salutation and disappear in the rush to their homes for another abbreviated night.

Some of them are a bit luckier than the rest. Their bread is dabbed with butter, their skin a bit less dry. Their faces suggest a semblance of pride. They prevaricate. They rephrase the truth of the laborers' condition. They shout incessant orders. They have a subconscious mission to make the hot sun feel hotter, the winter winds more cruel. They hire and fire at will and whim, mercilessly dismissing anyone so bold as to demand overtime pay or raise any complaint above a whisper.

These foremen remain menial slaves, as well, beholden to the slightest beckoning of their bosses. Their contentment is ten or twenty seasonal laborers in their grips. They can loosen that grip only momentarily, now and then, take an offered glass of tea, to press their bosses' outstreached hands, or to wash the dust off their bosses' shoes.

When a kiln shuts down for a holiday, the foremen remain, the bosses remain, the owners remain. But the laborers have to rush about seeking empty spots in the labor pool of other kilns so that they can provide another few morsels for their wives and children for another day. If lucky, they may land a position through a friend of a friend.

Maroon, beige, and ochre: the cities' crisp, uniform bricks are all made one by one by these thin, sweaty, sun-baked and wind-blasted laborers. If you get a chance to shake the hand of one of them, his cracked skin will scrape your soul, and deep within his eyes you will glimpse lost years, vanished in hopeless toil. Yet, every day we effortlessly cruise past them with nary a notice.

This is a redacted version of the original text in Farsi.

Photos by Iran Arte

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau, Iran Arte.

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