The Spectrum of Hired Help

A couple weeks ago, we trekked up to the mountains of Faraya to seek escape from the intense heat plaguing Beirut. The climate is remarkably cooler, and the clean, pristine air revitalizing. We made our way to Faqra, a beautiful resort village studded with mansions, gated communities, a golf course, and ski slopes. We arrived to the hustle and bustle of a street circus that had drawn out throngs of kids and their parents.

But these weren't village kids per se. These were the privileged children of wealthy families who own swanky villas in Faqra and vacation there exclusively in the summer and winter. They sport fashionable wear, wile their summers in day camp, and are vigilantly tended to by live-in maids. In fact, many families have more than one maid, depending on the number of kids they have in tote.

This scene got me thinking about so-called domestic servitude in Lebanon. With the growing number of mothers in the workforce, many families rely on paid help to maintain the household and raise the children. Maids come with a price tag directly correlated to their nationality (and indirectly, to their English education): Filipinas are the priciest, followed by Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, and Sri Lankans. The family to which the maid is assigned determines the pleasantness of her experience in Lebanon: working for an affluent family introduces her to a comfortable world and lifestyle she otherwise would never be privy to.

At Faqra, I saw the Filipinas congregated together, decked out in plainsclothes and gabbing away in Tagalog, watching over the kids. They seemed happy, their voices loud and chirpy, their smiles baring their teeth. They donned jeans, name-brand Tees, comfortable tennis shoes, and some even baseball caps to shield their eyes from the sun. Typical American wear. In the US, these ladies would blend right in. A servant working for a Lebanese middle class family, on the other hand, is likely to be dressed in a white uniform with apron, wear plastic clogs or flip flops, and have her hair bundled in a nest atop her head. Her voice is invariably inaudible, her eyes elusive, and her gaze to the ground. Even when spoken to, she will nod obsequiously and do what is asked of her.

I've noticed, too, that Filipinas are all equipped with mobile phones, and not just your basic dial-pad variety. The girl giving me a manicure a few months ago wielded her Samsung Galaxy to reply to one of her own clients, via Whatsapp! The more traditional housemaid will most likely not have a mobile phone, and her calls, restricted to relatives back home, will be arranged and mediated by the family with whom she resides. She will work full-time, seven days a week, whereas her Filipina counterpart may get the coveted Sunday off (you can see public buses teeming with these girls as they hit the town in throngs on Sundays).

Coming to Lebanon, then, has different implications for these domestic dolls. While many get relegated to the house to scrub, scour, and cook, others act as child governesses and are quickly adopted into the family as one of its own. They have almost every amenity of modern living--by Lebanese standards, granted--at their disposal, and several even find companionship here (the esthetician from above met her Egyptian husband in Lebanon and they were thereafter married in the Philippines). They even have specialty food stores, mini marts and restaurants tucked inside those marts (read about my unfortunate dining experience at New Indo-Lankan here).

It's true that in some parts of the world, the color of your skin still dictates your salary, living situation, and the level of treatment you receive. In Lebanon, that may be so, but no matter your race or creed, you'll always be a slave: a slave to exorbitant mobile phone plans, a slave to poor public transportation, and a slave to endless electricity outages. Equal opportunity access galore.

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