It’s the middle of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims around the world. In addition to being a period of fasting, Ramadan is also peak season for prime-time entertainment. Arab TV stations compete for millions of viewers as they broadcast the region’s most popular soap operas, talk shows and music videos during and after iftar (the end-of-day meal with which observers break their fasts).
In the Gulf, however, an important figure is erased from these mass-produced images: the migrant worker. Although they play a central role in maintaining daily life throughout the region, migrant laborers are never represented within pop culture. This is especially apparent in soap operas, in which the main characters sit by themselves in their lavishly decorated, ultraclean villas, cook their own food, drive their own cars to work and independently conduct other daily activities. Such images of autonomous life are far from reality: most citizens of Gulf states are serviced 24/7 by housemaids, cooks, drivers and sanitation workers, who come largely from South and Southeast Asia.
The video above hijacks excerpts from Gulf soap operas to superimpose images of domestic workers onto their unrealistic settings, making the presence of migrant laborers both undeniable and surreal. The title of the work, SOAP, conflates the shorthand for “soap opera” with a bar of soap, that evanescent object that seems to magically leave a state of cleanliness in its wake. Its disregarded presence mirrors the precarious existence of the migrant worker who wields it.