No Lipstick in Lebanon

By Paul Timblick with Fasika Sorssa

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

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 don’t have a considered answer at my fingertips. Does she want my life history?

Whichever muscle is tugging the eyebrow towards her fringe is certainly sure of itself. I fear the lever at the other end of that muscle; it is part of something unsettled, brooding, agitated, feverishly grabbing away at an eyebrow muscle as a precursor to some kind of unimaginable ire.

‘No! I not believe you.... you steal my fruit when you feel like... just because we signed contract!’ gabbles Madame, now fully absorbing the atrocity that has occurred. ‘You betray me again, Meron!’


‘Why you eat my banana?’ she screams. ‘I know you bad before you come here.... agency tell me you look like bad girl in photo.... I say “no, no, she got good taste, her hair look good”, but now, yes, I see they completely right.... you out of control! Like animal.... why you eat my fruit? Bananas for my family, not for thief! Me-ron! Why? Why?’

The words don’t come. Madame’s trigger has been flicked, torrents of Arabic incoherence streaming from her lips. I don’t understand a single word. Exaggerated gesticulations consume her flailing arms. I’m suddenly mesmerised by her hands flying off in all directions before my eyes. She could be batting mosquitoes buzzing around our heads, but I see no insects of any description. Madame’s hair quivers in time with body and hands. I’ve seen incredible choreography in Addis, but her wild movements without music are a triumph in the world of original dance!

Her hands are flying in too close to my head; I stand back a pace or two, but she closes up on me again.

‘Talk to me! Talk! Why, Meron? Why?’

My mind seizes up. Why? This is ridiculous. One banana and our world is on the brink of collapse! I start laughing. I can’t help it.

Madame can’t believe I’m laughing at her. She’s momentarily stunned, before hard slaps land on my face. Ow! Ow! Madame’s eyeballs are set to burst open like hot popcorn on the stove. She’s singing out for Allah, the words strung together so rapidly it sounds like an exultant ululation sung at an Addis wedding. Ouch! Ouch! She’s out of control, on another emotional plane, blabbering like the possessed. This woman is mad! Her hands fire in at my face, splattering me like an ant; there’s nothing I can do except duck and back away and shield my face from the attack.

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