The smile I travel for
There is a smile I see once in a while that makes all my travels worthwhile. I found one last weekend, at a villa in the mountains above Beirut.
Friends of a friend invited us to a lunch at their summer home, built up in the pine trees and the cool of higher altitude. The family was extremely wealthy so it was an enormous house, complete with a pool, tennis courts, gardens and domestic staff, including an Ethiopian maid called Frey.
I have never felt comfortable with the dynamic of domestic staff. A Lebanese friend calls it my "white guilt": the European's discomfort with what we perceive to be the neo-colonial practice of hiring serving staff from developing countries here in Lebanon. I think I just call it two years of interviewing returnee migrant workers for the International Labour Organization in Geneva (you can read a bit about some of the work here if you like, in my earlier post, Human Trafficking: Learning to Listen).
It doesn't take long to notice that every large, middle-upper class family in Beirut has a maid or nanny at home. She is often, but not always, of African or South Asian origin, and wears a bright mint green or rose pink striped outfit. I glimpse the pinks and greens in the backseats of cars, supporting a child, mid-tantrum, or through the branches of trees in backyards.
If arranged through official agencies and channels, this working agreement can be a secure and successful way for migrant workers to earn a far higher wage than would be possible in their home countries. But so often it is not, and every time I see the pink or mint green, I want to know if these women are adequately protected by the Lebanese government and their home governments. The Kafala system, at work in Lebanon and across the Arab world, requires the employer of any migrant domestic worker to take full legal responsibility for them, which means taking their passport on arrival. This puts migrant domestic workers in an extremely vulnerable position. They can quite literally, and quite legally, disappear.
At the villa in the mountains I left the dinner table to go to the kitchens to chat to Frey, whose braided hair I recognized from Ethiopia. She spoke only English in the Arabic-French household, so we chatted for a bit and I asked her where she was from. When she said Addis Ababa, I told her I had been there and showed her my Ethiopian shoulder-shrugging dance, singing the famous 'Addis Ababa' song, which, if you like Ethiopian music, or if you were in Ethiopia around 2010, will know goes a bit like this.
I don't think I've made someone laugh so hard in years. When I mentioned to Frey I had traveled to her country when I was twenty, she told me she was twenty now. My little sister's age, I said, then imagined my twenty-year old self staying not only a month, but for years in Ethiopia, working as a maid. I realised just how brave Frey was.
We carried on chatting under the guise of her teaching me how to make Arabic coffee. She had been at the house for sixteen months and had six months left to go. The family, though big for one girl to look after, were lovely, she said, and the work gave her a lot of opportunities: a chance to learn French, Arabic, and earn enough money to make a good start to life back home. But home was something she missed every day, especially her mother. So we danced again, there at the sink, to make her smile, and in this moment I was so glad I had spent a month in Ethiopia one summer, years ago, so I knew which song to sing and which dance to dance to make a homesick girl up in the Lebanese mountains smile.
Frey's smile reminded me of something I carry with me, wherever I go, a Bangladeshi one taka note, given to me by my friend Kazi, years ago. Almost a year after I came back from Bangladesh I met Kazi in the curry house in our local town in England, where he worked as a waiter. When I told him I had been in Bangladesh, he was so happy, and told me that he came from the capital city of Dhaka. He asked me what I had seen, what I remembered from his homeland, so I told him all I could: about the places, the smells, the sounds. When we finished our meal he thanked me for talking to him about his country and presented me with something so precious: a note his father had given him, one of the first one taka notes printed when Bangladesh gained it's independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The print is slightly wonky and looking at it, I get the feeling that it was joyfully rushed through a printing press as soon as independence was announced. A piece of currency that said, at last, after years of oppression, the People's Republic of Bangladesh.
I carry it with me, in a plastic wallet, to remind me of the smiles I travel for, that make the world feel smaller; those moments of human exchange that let people born thousands of miles apart, who are sometimes thousands of miles from home, feel closer on the paths they've set out to walk.
Mother and daughter smiles, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. 2010.
For more reading from Lebanon:
Conjugating the Future, Israel-Palestine this 2014