My Shame: A Lebanese in Madagascar


Beautifully written. Many people we know shared similar accounts while in India or Srilanka or other South Asian countries. Till when?

I’d like to share a story that’s not really easy to tell and which has something to do with what Sari wrote in the previous post. Not surprisingly since I can’t seem to shut up about it, most of my friends know that I spent 2 months in Madagascar last summer.

A Lebanese going to Madagascar may have been one of these few accidents of our age! We Lebanese are used to seeing them Malagasy coming to our homes. We don’t really question that. After all, we don’t question much these days. With all our “business revolutions”, our unbelievably corrupted politicians, the brainless men and women who support them, our passions for the Dubaization of Lebanon and for portraying Lebanon as one big party with no culture or history whatsoever, anything seem to go. That big amnesia we call the civil war seem to affect us much more than we’d like to admit.
Anyway, I spent about 45 days in a lovely village called Ambohibola. Next to it is the better known village of Androka, a charming place where most of the 15 000 inhabitants are Mahafaly farmers. Being a WWF Volunteer, I was really treated with respect by everyone – WWF has been in the area for a while – and had the honor to meet many warm and interesting people whom I’m physically incapable of forgetting.

Funnily enough, Madagascar shares a common history with Lebanon. We were both French colonies and we both seem to have corruption from the high top down to the low bottom. For example, A police officer tried to blackmail me by asking for money in broken French at the airport as I was leaving in exchange for keeping quiet about my overweight luggage. It was due to my camera so I carried it and told him to shove it – he didn’t like that, my bad. I seemed to notice more similarities every day, from the bad electricity to the useless traffic lights. But hey, their internet is way faster despite being one of the economically poorest nations on Earth and I didn’t see a single accident in about 50 hours on the road as opposed to the 1 accident per day I see in Lebanon on average. But enough ranting like an amateur, let me level up.

Androka and Antsikoroke – a village closer to Ambohibola – were part of the villages that have seen women leave to work in Lebanon and I had the fortune, or rather misfortune, to find out that two of these women are now missing. The Androka woman was supposed to return home 3 years ago and the Antsikoroke woman was supposed to return home 12 years ago. Shocked yet? Let me continue, the Androka woman stopped sending money home at one point for no known reason and the Antsikoroke never even contacted her family. Now you might think I’m jumping to conclusions here by claiming that both women are probably enslaved or dead but what if I told you that 17 Malagasy maids died in Lebanon last year?  What if I told you that foreign domestic workers are not covered by Lebanon’s labor laws?

We are basically telling them that they may be miserable enough to leave their country in search of money to feed their families and come to ours only to expect to be treated as sub-humans.
Back to Madagascar. It took me a few seconds to hit rock bottom when I was talking to an elderly man in Androka. He was the woman’s grandfather and he stopped talking when I told him where I’m from. He couldn’t look me in the eyes. He lowered his head and went back inside his house. Mr Cheban, our translator, didn’t know what to say as I stood there blank-faced. He tried to comfort me – we talked about women coming to Lebanon as maids the day before – but couldn’t find the words. I repeat, HE tried to comfort ME. It was my fellow citizens who have caused this suffering, and it was one of that woman’s fellow citizens who was trying to comfort me. I uttered no more words that day.

By the way, when I said that he was that woman’s grandfather, I didn’t mean biologically speaking necessarily. In traditional Malagasy culture, ancestors are literally worshipped and the elderly are treated with the highest possible amount of respect. Any old man or woman can be called grandmother or grandfather. So an elderly man lowering his head to a 20-year old is something unheard of.
I couldn’t describe the feeling of shame and disgust that I had felt at that moment towards my so-called fellow citizens of Lebanon. I know we Lebanese are used to complaining about everything. We even have “neswen el 7ay” (women of the neighborhood) who do it on a daily basis. But that was different. I wasn’t even complaining. I simply did not know what to say. I couldn’t justify it in any way, I was simply part of a gigantic crime that involves a few millions of people. The situation that foreign workers have to endure in Lebanon may be better in some cases than the slaves of Dubai – I’ve had the opportunity to see them as well – who are left with cleaning the floor behind the rich shoppers and driving them around, but we can simply give no excuses.

If you think that the solution is to simply allow this to go on and just try and treat these people better, allow me to quote Oscar Wilde who wrote in his brilliant piece “The Soul of Man under Socialism” that “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, [..] the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life [..] coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralizes. They are perfectly right.” The only true act of “charity” – a word I despise more than I can explain – and affirmation of the universality of human rights would be to not allow any woman to be degraded to the state of cleaning up our shit. As Sari said in his post “Do we really need to prepare 3 salads, 4 pasta types, and 2 different turkey breeds to satisfy our family’s appetite for Christmas? Do we really need to disinfect our kitchen counter and change our bed sheets 3 times a week? Do we really need 24/7 baby-sitters?”
No, we sure as hell do not.

I’ll leave you with a relatively happy thought:
I can’t describe how warm I felt when I was around these people. I know that my fellow volunteer, roommate and good friend Eirik from Norway could back me up on this. We spent hours talking about how unusually secure and comfortable we were around these people. Despite barely speaking more than a few sentences in each other’s native languages, we were still able to bond quite well. I left that place with warm goodbyes and “come back soon” wishes and I sure as hell plan on going back. The differences that every culture exhibits is dwarfed by the universal similarities that we all share despite how convinced we are of the uniqueness of our own culture. The pathetic titles we give to each other all serve social roles and have no actual substances independent of context. The reason why Malagasy, Sri Lankas, Ethiopians, Filipinos and others come to Lebanon for work is simply because they don’t have enough cash in their pockets. That’s it. You have nothing whatsoever that makes you more special. You’re simply luckier. You got the easier role within our globalized world. Give it some thought and stop believing that sad lie that you were somehow chosen.

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