Robert Fisk points out that “the Arab Spring” has driven the region’s appalling racism out of the news.
I fear very much that the video of Alem Dechasa’s recent torment in Beirut is all too typical of the treatment meted out to foreign domestic workers across the Arab world (there are 200,000 in Lebanon alone).
Many hundreds of thousands have now seen the footage of 33-year-old Ms Dechasa being abused and humiliated and pushed into a taxi by Ali Mahfouz, the Lebanese agent who brought her to Lebanon as a domestic worker. Ms Dechasa was transported to hospital where she was placed in the psychiatric wing and where, on 14 March, she hanged herself. She was a mother of two and could not stand the thought of being deported back to her native Ethiopia. That may not have been the only reason for her mental agony.
I hadn’t seen it. I have now.
I recall the Sri Lankan girl who turned up in Commodore Street at the height of the Israeli siege and shelling of West Beirut in 1982, pleading for help and protection. Like tens of thousands of other domestic workers from the sub-continent, her passport had been taken from her the moment she began her work as a domestic “slave” in the city; and her employers had then fled abroad to safety – taking the girl’s passport with them so she could not leave herself. She was rescued by a hotel proprietor when he discovered that local taxi drivers were offering her a “bed” in their vehicles in return for sex.
Everyone who lives in Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt or Syria, for that matter, or – especially – the Gulf, is well aware of this outrage, albeit cloaked in a pious silence by the politicians and prelates and businessmen of these societies.
In Cairo, I once remarked to the Egyptian hosts at a dinner on the awful scars on the face of the young woman serving food to us. I was ostracised for the rest of the meal and – thankfully – never invited again.
It’s a familiar story but that doesn’t make it any less horrible.
Saudi Arabia long ago fell into the habit of chopping off the heads of migrant workers who were accused of assault or murder or drug-running, after trials that bore no relation to international justice. In 1993, for example, a Christian Filipino woman accused of killing her employer and his family was dragged into a public square in Dammam and forced to kneel on the ground where her executioner pulled her scarf from her head before decapitating her with a sword.
Then there was 19-year old Sithi Farouq, a Sri Lankan housemaid accused of killing her employer’s four-year-old daughter in 1994. She claimed her employer’s aunt had accidentally killed the girl. On 13 April, 1995, she was led from her prison cell in the United Arab Emirates to stand in a courtyard in a white abaya gown, crying uncontrollably, before a nine-man firing squad which shot her down. It was her 20th birthday. God’s mercy, enshrined in the first words of the Koran, could not be extended to her, it seems, in her hour of need.
That’s because “God’s mercy” is a cruel joke.