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Cover of No Lipstick in Lebanon

High-rise hell: an Ethiopian maid’s frantic scramble for life in the Middle East

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.

Son of a Fleet Street journalist, Paul Timblick has travelled and taught English in numerous countries over the last fifteen years. One of them – Peru – inspired his first book ‘Perune Juice’, an autobiographical ramble underpinned by humour, history and the sex life of llamas. It may have become a cult classic to chew over in the very highest of the Andes, especially amongst the woollier fraternity.

Poking around in other cultures whilst searching for a wife, Paul eventually found himself confronted with surely one of the most fascinating of all societies: Ethiopia. And the new wife quickly found him. Her name was Fasika and she carried a riveting story around that begged for a mass readership. That was in 2011. Now, one wedding, two babies and three years later, Paul and Fasika offer up their other ‘baby’, ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’, for publication.

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.’

Read more...

Pain of Sand

Saturday, 21 February 2015

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…

Life is Short

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

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…

Horrific Beirut video

Monday, 10 November 2014

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…

From Lense to Lines - Part 2 Beirut

Thursday, 6 November 2014

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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…

From Lense to Lines - Part 1 Ethiopia

Thursday, 23 October 2014

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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…

Support Anti-Slavery Day Tomorrow (18th October)

Friday, 17 October 2014

“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…

A Bit of Context and Vision

Friday, 10 October 2014

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…

Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson asked:

Paul, I have just read the 'Shed' entry and decided to try and share this via my Facebook page. Whilst I was able to see how to 'Like' your book on Facebook, there was no obvious way to do a "share" via my timeline, and I had to do a clumsy manual workaround. So my heads up is, try to make the job of doing this easier, and it might make it easier to get the message out. Have I missed something? FYI I have just 'friended' you on Facebook so you can see how I ended up having to do the process (might be me). In the time that I have been writing this message, one of my Facebook friends has "re-shared" it and tagged particular people who she thinks might be interested in your book, so I think this method might just work quite well for you.

Paul Timblick
Paul Timblick replied:

Thanks for this, Ian. It's not just you. I had exactly the same problem until a FB friend somehow shared it with the world, including me! I shall refer this one to the Unbound Technical Department and get back to you.

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