In the winter of 2008, Collin Ishaq traveled from Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates to work as an air-side operator at Dubai’s international airport. He moved into a shared room in an industrial dormitory, known as a labor camp, that was built to accommodate a wave of migrant workers coming from South Asia. His camp was on the outskirts; from there, even the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, looked like a distant star. It was the kind of dispiriting place where everyone understood that their dreams were maxed out.
On a whim one evening, Ishaq tried his luck at a Bollywood singing competition called Camp Ka Champ, meaning Champ of the Camp, an annual goodwill exercise by a money-transfer firm. The firm’s business came mostly from migrants working as construction laborers, drivers, cooks, electricians, or cleaners, who relied on the service to send money home to their families. After Ramadan each year, the singing competition went from camp to camp, like a traveling carnival. Workers often auditioned year after year in the hope of winning. That year, Ishaq won on his first attempt.
When I met Ishaq in 2015, he was already a small celebrity. After winning the show in 2008, he had been selected as a finalist in 2012, and had moved out of the camps and into an apartment in the city, where he had launched a part-time singing career. That evening, during a semifinal of Camp Ka Champ, I watched a group of workers haul him into the air until his feet were floating. He had just finished channeling the Pakistani singer Atif Aslam with a song from a Bollywood movie, Race 2, and his singing had sent the crowd into a delirious uproar. In the air, bobbing up and down on the shoulders of workers, many with cheeks that looked as if they had turned into leather from working in the smoldering sun, Ishaq looked content.