Before yesterday, many Ethiopian friends who I’ve come to know recently through a photography project I’m working on documenting the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon found it hard to believe that their country’s top musical icon would perform in Beirut.
One male Ethiopian friend who manages a shop and is savvy about Lebanese culture called him Ethiopia’s George Wassouf, while most Ethiopian women who I’ve talked to said he is their country’s Michael Jackson.
In the decades that foreign women from outside the Arab world have come to work in Lebanon, this is the first time that a major Ethiopian pop star has performed here. With tens of thousands of Ethiopian women currently working in Lebanon, the Lebanese promoter who brought Teddy knew that he could bring out a crowd. For the past few weeks, posters in both Amharic and English have gone up across the city and not one Ethiopian who I’ve talked to was unaware that the concert was happening.
Even though many women are not allowed a day off by their employers, and with tickets at $40 a pop (around 25% of an average monthly salary for an Ethiopian domestic worker), thousands of Ethiopian women, along with a few handfuls of their Lebanese employers, boyfriends and others made it to see Teddy.
It felt like I boarded a plane and flew somewhere far away from Lebanon when I arrived at the Sports City concert hall near central Beirut yesterday afternoon. Apart from the Lebanese attendees, security and concert organizers, there were few non-black faces lining up outside. Women were dressed in T-shirts with images of Teddy Afro, Bob Marley, Haile Selassie and other designs celebrating Ethiopian and African culture.
For the few police officers checking bags at the door, there would be no whistling, flirting, or any other kind of harassment like I’ve seen and heard happen often in Beirut. Yesterday, the authority was greatly outnumbered. Thousands of Ethiopian women passed them one by one, walking all over the boys in black and white camouflage. Nothing was going to stop these workers from celebrating the place that they’ve had to leave in search of a better life.
The concert began at around 4:30pm, and until it ended nearly four hours later, the ground underneath Sports City shook to the dance steps of nearly everyone in the arena, including this white American photographer. Another American who has long lived in Lebanon, told me that the concert was the best event he’s ever been to in Lebanon, right alongside celebrations in the south in 2000 after Israel withdrew nearly all of its 22 year long occupation.
If it felt like Liberation Day for many of these Ethiopian workers who have been subject to exploitation and abuse over the years, it was only temporary. Today, the women return to their lives inside of families’ homes no doubt thinking back to those few hours yesterday evening.