Lebanon. When Domestic Workers Take Over the Words of the Masters

The Multiple Paths of the Arabic Language · Tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers work in Lebanon. For them, learning Arabic becomes a tool for empowerment and freedom.

© Dalal Mitwally

It’s a quiet and hot Sunday afternoon in August. Streets are empty, far from Beirut’s usual hustle and bustle. In Ashrafieh, however, an apartment is packed, with a crowd of around 30 meeting in the main room. They’re listening intently to Rahaf Dandash talking. We’re at the Migrant Community Center (MCC), an organization that supports migrant domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon. Rahaf, MCC’s Beirut coordinator, is moderating the meeting, enumerating the different talking points and giving the weekly update, about activities, planned trips, projects and organizational matters. The room is filled with members, from various nationalities, but there are predominantly people from Ethiopia and Sudan. Interestingly, despite the mix of the audience, the conversations are taking place in Arabic.

250,000 migrant workers

MCC, part of the Anti-Racism Movement that was founded in 2010, was started out of need to provide a safe space for and by migrant workers. It’s a place where they can rest, vent, and build a supportive community. It has over 500 members, from over 12 countries, and from all kinds of backgrounds.

Lebanon is home for almost 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, from countries like Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cameroun, among others. For a country of around 5 million people, it is estimated that one in four families hires a domestic worker. They do all kinds of jobs, and for the most part, they learn Arabic, in households that don’t speak any other language. They face harsh working conditions, as well as endemic racism and sexism.

It is expected from the employees to speak Arabic almost overnight. People who grew up speaking Amharic in Ethiopia or Sinhalese in Sri Lanka now can communicate in that language. Slowly, in places like MCC, the language has become a tool that brings people together, used by activists and members alike.

“If you know the language, then you know your rights, and you know how to deal with people,” explains Rasha, an Ethiopian activist and domestic workers, who’s also a member of MCC.

Rasha was one of the many people who accepted to share their experience, but via voice message due to time and work constraints. Some preferred not using their real names, and so they were changed to preserve their anonymity.

First contact with Arabic

Like Rasha, all migrant domestic workers come to Lebanon through the Kafala system, which literally means sponsorship. This system, which is in place in many countries in the region, has a set of rules that are distinct from other Lebanese labor laws. Kafala regulations control the entry, residence and employment of these workers, and deny some of the protections that regular employees usually enjoy under the law. These include a minimum wage, reparations for unfair dismissal, and social security, among other things.

Migrant domestic workers are generally exposed right away to the language, as they arrive in the country. When they land for the first time, they are separated at the airport from other passengers and put in a room by General Security, the governmental entity in charge of monitoring foreign residents and issuing them visas and work permits. There, they wait for their employers to arrive and pick them up. “You can’t say anything, really, and even if you did, the agent wouldn’t understand you, and neither will you,” explains Rasha, who remembers her arrival to the country, 12 years ago.

Her passport was taken away from her as soon as she landed, and was handed to her employer, even though this is against the law. According to domestic workers’ standard contract, which they have to sign when they start working, they are allowed to keep their passports, but agencies and employers alike keep the documents away from them, as a way to keep them from leaving the house.

“Madame will come and take you”

When Maya1 arrived in Lebanon from Ethiopia in 2011 at the age of 29, she didn’t understand a word of Arabic. She was told, while waiting for her employer, that “Madame will come and take you,” in English. “Madame” is the word used to describe the employer they interact the most at home, who generally is a woman since these are household related chores. Maya was one of those who could understand English, and so was able to grasp some of what was said at the airport. “But when Madame came, she only spoke Arabic,” she continues.

“In the car, she spoke to me only in Arabic. I couldn’t understand anything, so we just tried to communicate with signs, a little. But she would converse with me normally in Arabic, as if I knew what she was saying, and I would not understand one word, nothing,” Maya says, recalling their first interaction in a language that she was hearing for the first time.

This experience is not an exception. “The employer won’t learn your language—he’s not in your country, you’re in his, so you’re supposed to learn his language in order to talk to him,” says Salam who arrived from Ethiopia in 2011 also. It took Salam eight months to learn it. She relentlessly practiced the language, every day, asking questions, taking notes, and again asking even more questions. “I had a lot of energy, and I asked a lot of questions, to a point where people would get annoyed at me. If I didn’t understand something, even if it meant asking 40 times, I would ask again. This way of thinking was how I learned how to speak Arabic,” she explains.

Some of the first words workers hear and learn are direct commands, said in the feminine form. “The words I understood right away were may [water], taa’e [come], jeebeh [bring], rooheh [go],” Maya remembers. Rasha’s first words she understood were different: “they were la’ [no] and naa’m [yes],” she vividly remembers. Her employer at the time wouldn’t even let her say “yes” in English if someone called up her name, even though she understood English. Rasha had to say it in Arabic.

Insults and orders

Since this is how they are generally addressed to, some end up learning how to speak Arabic that way, using the same terminology, sentence structure, and the feminine form to everything.

“Ask a domestic worker about her earliest memories of Arabic and they will often be insults, commands, or other forms of verbal abuse,” explains Summaya Kassamali, an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, in a written interview.

Yalla. Yalla was the first word I understood,” recalls Tania, who comes from Sri Lanka. “Yalla yalla ya siri lankieh [come on, you Sri Lankan], taa’e [come], emshe [walk],” she enumerated, when she described her first few days spent in Lebanon. Migrant domestic workers were often derogatorily referred to as “Sri Lankan,” regardless of their nationality, because many came first from the country. This denomination was replaced by etiopiyeh, Ethiopian, when more workers started coming from there, while still disregarding the person’s nationality.

Tania was brought to Lebanon by an agency in December 1993, “I imagined that I would get a good job, to be a secretary, an assistant. That’s what I had applied for.” Instead, she spent her first six days in the country locked in an empty filthy room with other foreign workers, without any mattresses or water. The agency would take her from house to house, to see if anyone wanted to hire her and she was even at some point taken to a brothel, but managed to escape from it.

“I understood the country and its people in this short time, that there is no solution,” she says.

Words for learning

“The Madame with whom I worked with in the first period used to get very bothered that I wasn’t understanding what she was saying. And I would get angry at myself,” says Maya, “and when she would speak to me, she would say that I didn’t know how to speak Arabic, you would feel as if she was yelling. So it was very, very hard.”

And so many workers learn how to speak the language in just few months, but still get criticized for not speaking it fluently, or fast enough.

“[T] here is a set of practices surrounding speaking to (let alone speaking about) domestic workers that is a central part of the architecture of violence directed at them—and of course, most of this happens in Arabic,” writes Summaya. Maya felt it.

“You sometimes had the impression that they were talking about you, when they talked to each other, and they would get angry if there was one thing you didn’t understand. And it’s not a nice feeling.”

It only took her two months to understand the basic words and commands, and six months to make herself understood and grasp most of it. In comparison, most Western expats spend months—if not years—in Lebanon without needing to learn Arabic in order to work or get by.

“For the first six to eight months, it’s very hard. You’re learning everything from scratch, like a child. [The employer] shows you everything just once,” says Rasha, who was 21 when she had to learn the language.

“Every day is yalla, yalla, yalla. This is the word for everything,” says Tania. The word yalla, usually commonly used in spoken Arabic to mean “let’s go,” is used here as a command, “go on,” to tell someone to do something, faster.

Everyone had a different method to learn the language. Some watched television series in Arabic on a daily basis, others starting talking with other domestic workers in Arabic, wrote words down with their own letters, asked questions. What helped the most was practice.

A friend of Rasha’s has been working in Lebanon for six years, caring for a sick old lady, who barely talks. “She didn’t get to practice, or talk to anyone, and you would think that she had just arrived in the country with the way she speaks Arabic,” she says.

Most of the original lexicon for those who learned the language, other than commands and directives, was related to the kitchen and domestic work, since this is what they are exposed to at home.

“Basal, banadoura, and all those related to cooking and the kitchen, were very easy to learn,” says Maya. And they were some of the first words she learned. Rasha worked at a home that had children, which helped her also to learn faster. “Whenever they would come, they would tell you they want something, like water for example, and you could learn with them,” she says. “But if you’re not the type to catch words, and remember, then it would very hard [to learn],” she continues.

A matter of survival

Speaking Arabic makes it possible for some people, who didn’t originally share the same language to communicate.

“You know, Arabic benefitted me a lot here, not just a little,” says Maya, “my neighbor is also Ethiopian, but from another village than mine, and so doesn’t speak Amharic.” There are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia. “To communicate, we speak to each other in Arabic. My friend’s employer is always surprised, wondering why we were talking Arabic to each other,” she recounts, laughing.

“Knowing Arabic is often a matter of survival,” writes Patricia who works with the Facebook page “This is Lebanon”. “The more fluent the worker is in Arabic, the more empowered she is,” she explains. Some of the people interviewed for this article went along these lines.

The fact that the majority of migrant domestic workers are women adds yet another layer of sexism over that of racism, with some exposed to sexual harassment and assault while walking on the street. Knowing Arabic helps defending yourself. “If you’re walking on the street, and someone harasses you, you would know how to answer back,” says Rasha.

Estelle sees as learning the language a proper tool for everyday use, from going around Beirut, taking cab rides, to go grocery shopping and negotiating prices. “Learning the language is good, you learn the language when you enter the country, sway [a little] to protect yourself,” she says.

Estelle came from Ghana nine years ago, and it took her over three years to learn the basics of Arabic, and get by. She has been able to find her own community, through at church, with people from different countries in Africa taking part, and has been going around different places, for this church’s activities, like to Miziara, a village in the north, two hours from Beirut. “I can’t speak typical Arabic. If you go fast, I will not understand it, but if it’s little by little, I will understand, how to protect myself, how to come, how to go,” she explains.

She has a very philosophical view on having learned the language: “When you come to a country, if you learn something, it’s better than nothing,” she concludes. In Lebanon, many speak French or English, and so migrant domestic workers who speak those languages could get by, depending on where they work, which is Estelle’s case. She is able to communicate with her agency and the people she works for in English.

“For me personally, when I came to Lebanon, all the people I had to deal with spoke a little bit French,” explains Natalie, who’s from Madagascar and has been living and working in Lebanon for the past 23 years. “So I would speak French with them. Even though it would sometimes be hard for them, they would still speak to me in French.” She did learn the basics, “I do understand Arabic, but I don’t really speak it, since I never really needed to learn it. If I have to though, I could make myself understood in Arabic. But to have a discussion, really, I am not capable of doing it in that language,” she continues.

From dialect to literal Arabic

Workers learn through their employers, and so they imprint their dialect and accent, which sometimes leads to amusing anecdotes. This is the case of Mira who has worked for two old ladies from the northern town of Zgharta and who speaks with a very heavy, and recognizable dialect from that region. Every few sentences or so, Mira says “yerham mawtek,” a gloomy and somewhat archaic expression specific to that town, which roughly translates as “may your dead relatives rest in peace,” and is used as a warm thank you.

The language that migrant domestic workers learn on the job is the spoken Lebanese dialect, ‘ammiyeh, which is very distinct from literary Arabic. And as a result, it is not often that people who learn the spoken language know how to read and write too. Texting in Arabic is then done with Latin letters instead.

Rasha decided differently. In addition to all her work, she’s also learning how to speak, read, and write literary Arabic. “Whenever I hear fos’ha [literary Arabic], I laugh, because it’s as if I didn’t know how to speak Arabic at all, it’s a completely different language,” she says. “I told myself that I had to learn how to write and read it. And so I learned how to write the letters, I practiced it,” she continues. The Lebanese dialect is different from literary Arabic, when it comes to some of the words, their pronunciation, the grammar and even the way sentences are constructed.

“When I wanted to watch the evening news, I realized that sometimes I couldn’t understand . . . because they use words in fos’ha, not the words that we use on a daily basis. I always needed to focus a lot to try to decipher what was being said,” explains Rasha. And learning how to read and write were beneficial for her, “to know what we’re signing on, sometimes,” she adds.

The standard contract that all workers sign before starting working with their sponsors is in Arabic. Even though they are supposed to be translated into several languages, a report by Amnesty shows that this is generally not the case. Other than contracts, it can be sometimes hard for people to do everyday things, like direct themselves with street signs written in Arabic and French, or grocery shopping, doing paperwork, or simple things like checking the date their residency permit expires.

Rasha also has other reasons to learn literary Arabic. “Since you’re already living here, maybe you would want to build a life here, and have children. How can you teach your child how to write and read letters, if you don’t know how to do it yourself?”

She’s been taking those classes for four months now, at MCC. Arabic, as well as English and French, classes are provided for free by the organization. They’re given by volunteers, several times per week, but with a special focus on weekends, since workers usually only get Sundays off. There are seven volunteers, giving 21 classes overall, for around 180 students.

Maya is for instance taking weekly English lessons too. “In MCC we usually speak only in Arabic, except for the English classes, where we only speak English with our teacher, so that we can learn better,” she says.

To defend one’ s rights

Back at MCC on that Sunday early afternoon. Rahaf, the Beirut coordinator, gives more details about registering for the marathon for members, and the beach trips that were planned for everyone. Some members ask questions in Arabic, side discussions are whispered, also in Arabic, but some words are translated into Amharic when a person needs it.

Even though many of the meetings at MCC are in Arabic, not all of them are in that language. If someone doesn’t speak it, the meeting is generally translated to French and English. “When we have all those nationalities in Lebanon, that are under the same system, the only way is to change the system, and the only way to organize, is for these communities to come together. Then definitely, language plays a role,” Rahaf explains.

With or without the language, domestic workers are taking matters into their own hands. As insiders of the Kafala system, having been through it for years, decades for some, they know where change should happen, and what kind of help and support is needed.

Many workers report poor working conditions, sleeping in living rooms or on balconies, being deprived of food, or working in several houses, without their permission. The sponsorship system makes it very difficult, almost impossible, for them to terminate their contract. Some decide to flee the household, for reasons ranging from harsh working conditions, lack of payment, or to escape physical or emotional abuse. Those who do so automatically become illegal immigrants, and face arrest and deportation if caught.

“With this system, it’s always the employer who has the last word. Even when we’re right, we’ll always be victims of this system. Even when the employer has done something wrong, we’ll get deported,” explains Natalie.

There are also instances of workers, after being pushed to the edge, trying to either run away in very dangerous ways, if they are locked in homes, or have attempted or completed suicide. These are happening at alarming rates: A Human Rights Watch report from 2008 found that at least one migrant domestic worker died every week, either driven to suicide, by accident on the job, or murdered. Another 2017 report by The New Humanitarian stated that, on average, two domestic workers were dying per week.

May 1st, Workers’ Day

On May Day, or usually a Sunday close of May 1st to include as many domestic workers as possible, a yearly march is organized to try to change things. Every year, it takes a different route, usually in popular, residential neighborhoods, to spread more awareness. While people walk, chant, and clap in the streets, dozens of workers wave from the balconies, not able to join protesters.

The banners, slogans, and chants are numerous, and in several languages, Arabic, but also English, French, Amharic, and others. “We’re targeting the Lebanese people, this is why the chants in the protests are usually in Arabic,” Rahaf explains. The speeches are made in different languages, but the Lebanese traditional media outlets covering the march usually only stick around for the speeches in Arabic.

Other than the yearly march, some are helping on the ground. Natalie, for instance, decided to build a network of her own with like-minded workers and activists, and took part to workshops and events. She co-founded in 2016 the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, with a group of seven other domestic workers, which gathers 70 members from over seven countries. They believe in women’s empowerment to fight racism and sexism. She works on a full-time basis as a domestic worker in the same house she’s been working at since her arrival, and is an activist on Saturdays and Sundays. Rasha, on the other hand, is behind a support network for Ethiopian workers named Nyale Nyale, which means in Amharic “you are mine, and I am yours.” It is a support network for Ethiopian workers who have left their employers, and who don’t know where to go. Tania, too, is using her past experience into a strength, and created a community with 35 other Sri Lankan workers. In addition to all of these activities, she became a chef after going to a culinary school, and organizes dinners and events in various organizations.

Some decided to move their activism online to reach out to a wider public. This is Lebanon is a Facebook page that has over 47,000 followers at the time the article was written. It was started by Dipendra Uprety to expose some of the abuse. He lived in Lebanon for years and volunteered with the honorary consulate of Nepal, before moving to Canada. What he saw there made him want to do more.

The Facebook page names and shames employers who abuse their employees in one way or another. The collective relies on anonymous tips given by neighbors, co-workers, or witnesses of the abuse, and tries to fill in where the authorities have failed the workers.

While it first started posting in English, the page publishes in Arabic now, because “increasingly, the informants are Arabs,” explains Patricia, one of the page’s team members, in an email interview. And so, with more Arabic post, “this week we had three Arabic speakers report abusers.” This means that the audience reached by the page has expanded to more Arabic speaking followers.

Ending “modern-day slavery”

Despite the situation, these messages are more and more spread across social media and the traditional media alike. There is still a long way to go, but Natalie is not all pessimistic. Since she has lived in the country for over two decades, she has felt some things change, although she believes that domestic workers are far from being treated fairly. “Things have changed a little. People understand that we are human beings, that the girls need to eat, to sleep, that sleeping in balconies is not a solution, and that we sometimes need protection,” she explains.

And there might be some hope after all. The minister of labor, Camille Abousleiman, stated a few months ago that the kafala system is like “modern-day slavery”, and believes it should be changed. It was the first time that a public official announced it this way, even though one still has to see if anything would be done. It is in stark contrast with his predecessor who banned the syndicate for domestic workers’ creation and blocking all kinds of changes.

“I still have hope to be honest. I’ve been an activist for 10 years now, and so I was happy with this announcement. I feel full with this little bread crumb, because we haven’t had a lot of those, and I don’t lose hope,” concludes Natalie, with excitement.

In the meantime, and despite it all, people from dozens of countries are speaking a new language, and making it theirs.

Some of the people interviewed now mix Arabic with their mother tongue, even when they talk to their families back home. “When I talk to my parents, I mix with the languages. I say yaane [which means] often when I speak in Amharic, as well as shu [what], and masalan [for examples]. That one I used a lot,” says Maya. “Maa’ouleh [can you believe it], I like that one,” says Rasha, with a smile, “and I use it pretty often.”

And that’s the beauty and the strength in learning a new language, and making it their own.

1Name has been changed.