Culture

On the discomforts of being serviced

BEIRUT: A young woman (actor Bernadette Hodeib) enters a Beirut salon, adorned in tasteful Oriental flourishes, and takes a seat. An unsmiling domestic worker steps into the frame and sets herself to her employer’s right, as if posing for a portrait.

In a second nicely framed tableau of a Beirut salon, one with a Modernist decor, Hodeib again enters the frame. She’s followed now by two domestics in pink maids wear who flank her as she grins at the camera.

So commences “A Maid for Each” (“Makhdoumin”). Maher Abi Samra’s 2016 feature-length doc examines the place of non-Arab domestics in Lebanon’s culture and psyche.

The story of Lebanese labor is a complex and fragmented one.

Among the features of local labor history is its citizens’ long custom of emigration and cash remittance.

Mirroring this history are stories of immigrants who toil in the country’s urban and rural economies.

Partisan narratives reflect the multiply nuanced roles Syrian nationals have played in Lebanon’s political economy, but guest workers include other Arabs and non-Arabs.

One sector in which non-Arabs seem prominent is that of maids.

Agencies that feed workers into this market draw upon supply chains in countries that include the Philippines, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, but “Sri Lanki” has become a vernacular term for “domestic laborer.”

The bulk of the film is located in the offices of Al Raed House Made, a labor brokerage run by Zein al-Amin. There, Abi Samra’s camera gazes upon Amin and his staff’s haggling with families seeking servants.

“I have one who’s worked in Saudia, if you like,” Amin tells his mobile. “A Christian? Of course you can have a Christian.

“If you want a Muslim,” he laughs, “you have to specify whether you want Sunni or Shiite.”

The agency is also where families can negotiate the exchange of a maid they don’t like for another. Servants who feel they’re being mistreated can request reassignment too. Abi Samra’s fly-on-the-wall camera captures plenty.

“Makhdoumin” occupies a distinct place in relation to the short list of Lebanese docs that take up domestic service in the country.

Lebanon’s non-Arab domestic labor found cinematic expression in 2006-07 with the appearance of a pair of docs by Dima al-Joundi and Carol Mansour.

Joundi’s 53-minute “Maid for Sale,” 2006, relates the plight of the country’s Sri Lankan domestics, whose number she estimates to have been 150,000 at the time.

The doc turns its lens on several shared features of the region’s guest workers – passports confiscated; a life confined in the employers’ house; wages as low as $100 a month – and the truancy, impoverishment and attempted suicide these conditions can provoke.

Made in partnership with the ILO and the NGO Caritas, Mansour’s 26-minute “Maid in Lebanon,” 2007, also takes up the stories of Asian women who migrate to work as domestics in the Arab world. The film follows the paths female workers follow from Sri Lanka to Lebanon, sharing anecdotes of wages and passports withheld, physical and psychological abuse, torture and rape.

Mansour’s 40-minute follow-up, “Maid in Lebanon II: Voices from Home,” 2011, elaborates upon these complex relationships.

Abi Samra’s oeuvre is not huge but it is diverse. Among his features, “Shatila Roundabout,” 2004, is a lyrical gambol through the Palestinian refugee camp whose name evokes massacre and war, while its residents are encased in a revolving door-like stasis. With “Sheoeyin Kenna,” (“We Were Communists,” 2010), the filmmaker – himself a communist fighter during Lebanon’s civil war – deploys an autobiographical approach while echoing the collective mea culpa that has convulsed many former leftist militants since the late-20th century.

“Makhdoumin” echoes this autobiographical bent. After its fictional opening frames, Abi Samra’s voiceover recollects how, two decades before, he and his siblings got their mother a domestic.

His mum’s advancing years was a factor in their decision, but so was the perception that families without a maid were declasse.

That said, as soon as the maid arrived in the household, his family began to experience a mixture of discomfort and shame (not uncommon, it seems, among families who employ live-in servants) and the dehumanizing attitude their constant presence can condition.

Abi Samra’s film cares about the plight of domestic guest workers as much as Joundi and Mansour’s docs, but that isn’t his focus. As its Arabic title (literally “Those who are served”) suggests, he’s concerned with the distorting effects Lebanon’s labor regime has upon those whom it nominally serves – a self-consciousness that made it difficult for him to find members of the makhdoumin willing to discuss their experiences on camera.

At times the film’s insights are cultural, as when Abi Samra relates the story of “Sitt Salma,” a south Asian domestic who arrived to Lebanon in the 1930s and made herself rich as an import agent for guest workers.

When he finishes her story, the filmmaker’s voiceover notes that Sitt Salma is a fiction, assembled from the anecdotes of several brokers and Lebanese women who themselves had worked as domestics.

The film frames its parochial stories of labor agents, guest workers and employers within a wider narrative of late capitalism. Once, the filmmaker recalls, Rono (the domestic he and his siblings employed to work at their parent’s place) had to return to Bangladesh. Two of her sisters had been among the 1,135 factory workers killed when their workplace went up in flames.

These are the options the unregulated globalized economy offers.

Abi Samra and DP Claire Mathon have made a, sometimes successful, effort to develop a cinematic language appropriate to this subject matter. One solution they devised for periods of filmmaker voiceover and secondary anecdote is a series of slow panning shots of Beirut apartment blocks – ascending, descending and lateral – suggesting the distinction between exterior appearances and domestic dynamics.

At one point, he recounts anecdotes of the makhdoumin while the camera moves laterally over an unbroken row of tower blocks at evening. As the anecdotes conclude, the camera finds a break in the urban landscape. There it rests, framing Mount Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2017, on page 16.

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