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

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Bit of Context and Vision

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 problem with his Shed.

I am keen to use these weekly Shed entries to illuminate the background to our book and it is a pretty diverse background; it’s almost another book! (Anyone want to pledge on my Shed?) Let me explain. As someone who has pledged, you have joined this book’s long journey and are very much part of it, since the book’s publication now depends largely on you. This journey began when a sixteen-year-old girl in Addis Ababa, ‘Meron’ (based on my wife, Fasika) decided she wanted to change her life and would risk a maid position in Beirut. Her turbulent times in Beirut are recounted in ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’ but the process of creating this finished story has included an Ethiopian wedding, a dangerous research trip to Beirut, another migration and a cynical Englishman who nearly destroyed all of this before it even began (ahem, that’s me). These sections of the journey will fill the Shed in the coming weeks.

But I think it’s useful to start with some context, which helps to explain my overall vision for the book. Most of us in Britain have some general awareness of servants being abused and maltreated by Arab employers, whether in London or the Middle East. Occasionally, ugly stories rear their heads in our national press and we shake our heads for a few seconds, before rushing onto the evening’s TV schedule. “That’s so inhuman... now then, what time’s Downton?”

I aim to lure readers into an in-depth study of a single vulnerable migrant worker while steering well clear of any statistic-laden, brow-beating, hand-wringing clumps of text that interest only those who are paid to be interested. Yes, this subject needs statistics and sympathy but far more than that it needs mass emotional engagement. (For statistics, try, for sympathy try And the book is not a rant. Rants are verbal vomiting: unpleasant, messy and best done in private. No, I am seeking to tell a story – largely my wife’s story – that generates real interest. Meron’s story has to redden eyes, whiten knuckles and flatten buttocks: it has to compete with Downton. If No Lipstick can stir up a mass readership, this means mass awareness-raising, which in turn can have a massively positive effect on the inhuman cultural mindset prevalent in the Middle East.

What is this inhuman cultural mindset? Stereotyping is dangerous and unfair: there are many kind, lovely people living in the Middle East. But the sad fact is that racism and sexism are both unresolved issues in this region, and girls like our Meron happen to tick both the wrong boxes. In fact, a black girl (and non-Muslim) who knows absolutely nobody and barely speaks the language is already so disadvantaged when she enters Arab society that an analogy of naked Christians and hungry lions barely does her justice.

Meron’s plight is further compounded by a belief that Africans are on Earth merely to serve others, especially in manual jobs that non-migrants are loathe to do. Every self-respecting middle and upper class household in Beirut, for example, is expected to have a maid and she will often be Ethiopian. The wealthier Lebanese are ‘above’ menial chores, a mentality mirrored in the Gulf States. It is clearly a bad case of ‘superiority complex’ and it is very entrenched.

In Britain, we don’t think like that. But we used to. For this reason, I refrain from explicit criticism of Middle Eastern society: it is better to accept that they are further back than us on the arc of equality and all they need is a damned good prod to push them out of our eighteenth century. Let a riveting story do the talking. It could even be a best-seller, which is then made into a Hollywood blockbuster; not a bad way to prod our Middle Eastern friends along through the centuries. (NB. This is the ‘Vision’ part.)

Yes, I know... ‘No Lipstick’ isn’t even published yet, but this is where you come in. I’ve taken responsibility for delivering a slab of paper covered in interesting words. I think it’s a fair distribution of responsibility if you, the potential reader, can simply pledge and share (with friends) your interest in the book. Actually, you get a pretty good deal: it’s just a case of moving the mouse around the screen for a few minutes and clicking here, there and everywhere. As for me, I now have a much harder task: motivating you to do this.

Exciting your clicking finger is where the Shed comes in and I will endeavour to make it as informative and entertaining as possible, but would welcome any suggestions or questions that could also fill the Shed. Equally, if you have any first-hand experience of this issue, feel free to share it. Please drop me a line (, even if you only want to say ‘Hello’. Remember, we are now on the same journey: fellow passengers if you will. Hang on, if we’re fellow passengers, who’s driving this thing? Aargh!!

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