An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean Sea just minutes after taking off in Beirut early this morning. Ninety people (including seven crew) were aboard the flight bound for Addis Ababa that included 54 Lebanese and 22 Ethiopians as well as passengers of other nationalities. Early reports indicate that most of the Lebanese passengers were probably either traveling to Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa where many Lebanese citizens work and live. The Ethiopians passengers were most likely migrant domestic workers returning from their jobs in Lebanon back to their homes. It’s also been reported that the wife of the French Ambassador in Lebanon was a passenger on the flight. As of now, a couple dozen bodies have been recovered from the sea and there is little hope of finding any survivors.
While working at my house in the Sanayeh neighborhood of Beirut I noticed some commotion in the street below. I saw a bunch of people and police gathered pointing up at the building. I knew already what had happened. Suicide by domestic workers in this country is not a rare occurrence.
As I went down I stopped the first two people I saw, they were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I asked them what happened. One of the men replied, “A Sri Lankan woman (“Sirlankia” in Arabic) died.”
Of course, she was not Sri Lankan, but this is the general term used to describe domestic workers in Lebanon. As I spoke with people at the scene I found a man and woman from the Filipino Embassy in Beirut who told me that she was 28-year-old Theresa Seda of the Philipines. Like many women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, she had come to Beirut to be employed as a domestic worker in a family’s home. Most middle and upper class families in Beirut and elsewhere around Lebanon have domestic workers who they pay a small salary to live with them and take care of all the household chores.
There have been countless stories of abuse over recent years. In 2006, it was widely known that as families escaped the indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Beirut and went to the mountains, they locked the workers inside their homes preventing them from also fleeing the attacks. I was surprised to hear that during the war an animal rights groups in Lebanon went around rescuing household pets who were abandoned in similar circumstances, yet no group bothered to do the same for the human workers. Now, only the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar regularly reports on deaths and abuse of domestic workers, but the abuse is known to be widespread and I hear stories of suicide nearly every other week.
Theresa’s body has laid on the street for over an hour. In the same building where she jumped from I could see other foreign workers continue with their duties washing windows as they paused every few moments to see what was happening below on the street. As I write this now Theresa’s body is still below, cars and people pass just inches away, few stop to inquire as to what happened. Business as usual. I heard from the police that she cut herself on the balcony with a knife before jumping to her death, there is no question about it: this was a suicide.
UPDATE 15 NOVEMBER 2010:
I regret the certainty in which I originally wrote that Theresa’s death was in fact a suicide. After months of investigating this case and meeting her sister in Holland recently, it is impossible to deduce how Theresa died exactly. The only ones capable of conducting a proper investigation into her death, the Lebanese authorities, did not do so. There is however sufficient evidence to show that Theresa faced abuse and exploitation at the hands of her employers, and we will release all of this information in the coming months as part of a project telling the story of Theresa’s life.
“This is my story, the story of an Arab woman,” Wadad Makdisi Cortas states in the opening line of her memoir A World I Loved. Born Wadad Makdisi in Beirut in 1909, which at that time was considered a part of Syria, she discovered Arab nationalism at a young age and lived a life true to the idea in every sense. Cortas, born a Greek Orthodox Christian, believed passionately that Arabs, in order to protect their culture and values, should liberate themselves from Western colonialism which sought to impose its ways and divide the people.
Though the memoir was originally written in Arabic, Cortas’ daughter Mariam Said explains in the book’s introduction: “She felt compelled to write in English to explain to the West the politics around the Palestinian tragedy …” (xxviii). Before her death in 1979, Cortas gave the manuscript to Mariam’s husband, the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said, for publication. At first, the family was unable to find a publisher. But after the 11 September 2001 attacks and subsequent US-led wars in the Middle East, the region became the focus of much of the world. It was then, Mariam Said writes, “that the time for her book had come” (xxix).
Cortas’ story begins in 1917, the year of the infamous Balfour Declaration in which the British promised Arab Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, and the year before an old empire would be replaced with a new one. World War I marked the end to centuries of Ottoman rule and the beginning of the French and British Mandate over much of the Middle East; Syria and Lebanon fell under the control of the French. While growing up, Cortas had no choice but to become involved in politics. Her father, a professor of Arabic at what is now the American University of Beirut, sent her to the still-operating secular Ahliah National School for Girls in Beirut. She learned much through him and his intellectual colleagues who would meet at the family’s home to discuss issues of the time. Throughout the book, she quotes her father’s lessons: “‘No one loves us for our black eyes,’ goes a saying that Father often repeated. ‘These big nations are selfish; their major aim is to use us as tools to further their interests and ambitions'” (34).
The rains have begun in Beirut. Summer is over and in a matter of minutes the city has taken on a completely different feel. The air is fresher and the water is giving life to the dehydrated vegetation on my balcony and in the park below. I feel like this dude after a hot day in Caracas, Venezuela a few months ago:
Last night, hundreds of supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party and other leftist groups gathered just around the corner from my house near Sanayeh in Beirut. They celebrated the 27th anniversary of their first resistance operation in Beirut against the Israeli army after the latter’s brutal invasion of the Lebanese capital in 1982. The attack happened at the same time while Israeli troops sealed off the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp allowing right-wing Phalangist militias to kill thousands of unarmed and defenseless Palestinian refugees.