Her devout mother was firmly against it. But as a teenager drifting through the drudgery of Addis Ababa’s slums, the possibility of earning dollars as a maid in Beirut was irresistible. Why shouldn’t a poor Ethiopian girl choose her own destiny? Except that Meron Lemma, like so many other Habesha (Ethiopian) migrants to the Middle East, had no idea what she was doing.
The ugly truth hit Meron as she peered down thirteen storeys to the Beirut street below. Trapped and mistreated by the harsh Madame and callous offspring in a tempestuous penthouse-cum-prison, Meron wondered if she’d return to her mother in a coffin. Was jumping from the balcony the only escape? What would happen if Madame’s son, Shafeek, showed interested in Meron? And why did Meron provoke such spite in Madame’s two daughters? How could Meron’s Habesha spirit hold out against this daily onslaught? Would her wit, memory and Bible verse be enough?
Rich with bi-cultural detail, ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’ is typical for Ethiopia’s domestic workers in Beirut today, succumbing to un-investigated horrors within ‘respectable’ family homes. Here, through the escalating suspense endured by our heroine, the unremitting Hell of Lebanese servitude is laid bare in this, the first of its kind: a fictionalised account of one maid's real ordeal.
Two days later, I’m entranced by those delicious vivid crescents once more. I break off another perfect banana; a comfortable fit between palm and fingers, as if designed specifically to sit in my hand. There are ten on the bunch – now less one – and two old stalks turned black with age. The fresh pale green stalk staring back at me is the issue.
I pick up Madame’s superior lighter – polished heavy grey stone with chrome striker – which is sitting just a short stretch away. I ignite it and hold the flame against the exposed stalk for a few seconds. It quickly blackens. Madame now has three black stalks to look at. But maybe she counts them every morning?
Later, she comes back to me on that very point.
‘Meron, you stealing another banana.’
‘Not me, Madame,’ I lie.
‘Why you lying? I know you did.’
‘I didn’t.... Madame.’
‘You come here....’
She leads me into the lounge and sits me down on the floor, in front of the television. Perhaps we will watch some TV together and relax a little. At last, some Madame-servant bonding, without Nazia butting in.
She flicks on the DVD player. Great! A movie! The vast screen is filled by a blurry black and white picture. All I can see is a skinny black girl in a revolting maid’s uniform standing next to some bananas. She pulls one off and eats it. Seconds later, she holds a stone lighter to the stalk. Nice lighter. The girl is me. I’m a film star.
‘Oh yes! You’re right. I remember.... I did eat a banana, Madame. I was so desperately hungry.’
She has left me very little room for fabrication.
‘What you doing here, Meron? Where you learning things like that, burning a banana stalk to look black? Why you not stay in Addis Ababa and do good things with this mind you got? What you doing in my home, causing my problems, wasting my time, spending my money.... Allah! Why you here?’
The volume has increased; her words are coming faster. Her left eyebrow is arched. A single arched eyebrow concerns me; it suggests imbalance within.
‘I don’t know.... I’m just here, Madame.’
I need to get back inside the Shed. Writing this from the sand-blown Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where eyes sting, mouths taste of salt and the tapping of keyboards is accompanied by ominous crunching sounds, it might be sensible for my laptop and I to take shelter from the sandstorm. Or at the very least, I could close my mouth instead of gaping inanely at the glorious copy-editing job that…
And for that reason - as well as many others - I am overjoyed to note that 'No Lipstick in Lebanon' is fully funded and can now move onto the publication stage. WOO-HOO!
In the year 2000, a speeding London Transport bus almost finished me off as I paused mid-stride, mid-Mare Street, outside Hackney Town Hall (a sorry end for anyone) and this prompted massive changes in my hitherto mundane life…
Caught on a mobile phone today, a domestic worker in Beirut (probably Ethiopian but not 100% sure) jumps or is pushed to her death. The authorities will say she jumped, and even if she did jump, what kind of terrible working conditions drove her to suicide?
The footage is a stark and horrific reminder that many in Lebanon see migrant workers' lives as cheap and dispensable. My book also aims to…
Here are a handful of my Beirut images, garnered in 2012 from a few days of perilous wandering in the name of ‘book research’. Author’s notes follow the relevant extracts from 'No Lipstick in Lebanon'.
“Beirut’s backdrop is immediately unremitting. Endless rows of dirty colourless apartment blocks merge into a many-eyed monster surging upwards from the ground to prod a fluffy blue sky…
Here is a modest collection of my Ethiopian photos that inspired particular moments in 'No Lipstick in Lebanon', included with relevant lines from the book.
"Tadelle has been plucked from The Bible and placed two millenia hence... he is an Old Testament natural, most at ease on Moses' shoulder, forging across the Sinai Desert with a heavy stone tablet tucked under each arm. The Old Testament is…
“Happy Anti-Slavery Day!” or is it “Unhappy Anti-Slavery Day!” Judging from the state of the world, including the UK, it would seem to be distinctly “Unhappy”.
Slavery, ISIS or Ebola, there are evils in the world that we assume most right-minded individuals are firmly opposed to and it is difficult to understand how they flourish. But I have serious doubts about the world’s commitment to abolishing…
Firstly, welcome to the first Shed entry for ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’ and secondly, a huge ‘thank you’ for pledging on our book. I really appreciate it, and so does my wife, my two young children (one barely detached from the placenta), and my Ethiopian mother-in-law. Actually, my Shed is quite cramped and the Council are going to issue an Overcrowding Notice any day now. Hemingway never had this…
These people are helping to fund No Lipstick in Lebanon .