Vol. 5 Num 767 Mon. July 24, 2006  

Beirut: Illusion of a silver Porsche

[Excerpt from the forthcoming essay "Invisible Migrants", to be published in Men of the Global South, Zed Books, Adam Jones ed.]

I have a ritual when I arrive in the hotel in a new city. After a quick shower, I immediately go looking for a spot to get Internet access. In Beirut for an art festival, I discovered that the best location to receive wireless internet signals was the hallway outside my hotel room. Sitting on the stairs to check email every morning, I soon became a familiar sight to the maids cleaning the hotel. On the third day, an Asian maid finally worked up the courage to ask me in English: "Are you Indian?"

Forsaking my usual sarcastic response, I simply replied, "No, I'm Bangladeshi." Her face immediately lit up. "I'm from Bangladesh too!" Switching from halting English to rapid-fire Bengali, she started asking me which district I was from, where my home village was, when I had arrived, what I was doing there, and more. Farzana* was from Comilla. She was one of two Bangladeshi employees in the hotel. The other was Anis, a downstairs guard I had noticed earlier.

Farzana said something which made me realize why she was so excited: "Allah, you know, I have been in Beirut for seven years, been at this hotel for five years. You are the first Bangladeshi guest I have seen. We see Indians all the time, but Bangladeshis, never!"

During the two weeks that followed, Farzana and I fell into a routine of morning conversations. From these alaaps I learnt that Bangladeshis were relatively new arrivals here, but had already become one of the big groups of migrant workers, after Ethiopians and Filipinos. Sri Lankan maids were of course the Lebanese archetype (their horrific conditions are documented in Carole Mansour's recent film Maid In Lebanon); but Bangladeshis were starting to replace them in some jobs.

Although the community was recent, almost everyone had been here for at least seven years. Seven years is roughly the amount of time that new visas had been blocked under the previous Syrian regime, so that was the marker for migration. Although the Bangladeshis had established a strong community, they mixed freely with other migrant groups. A day after I visited the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, I learnt from Farzana that it was also the site for the very popular Sunday "Bangla market." That was when roving Bengali sellers would set up temporary shops next to the camps and sell Bengali food, trinkets, music and films. "Not just Bangladeshi," she said proudly, "but others also buy our items!"

After the festival ended, Farzana invited me to have lunch at her home. There, I met several other members of her community, mostly working as maids and building guards. The man who interested me most was Hamid, a garrulous nightguard who became my guide through Beirut. To start things off, I asked Hamid why he had two massive posters of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This seemed an odd juxtaposition with progressive Lebanese who mourned Hariri's death but maintained a healthy skepticism about his ties with big business. But Hamid very enthusiastically told me that Hariri was the man who could claim credit for rebuilding war-torn Beirut. "If only Bangladesh could have a Hariri," he added wistfully. Though some Lebanese artists had warned me that there was a lot of racism in Lebannon, Hamid and his friends seemed to have absolutely no complaints. Rather, he kept insisting that the Lebanese treated them "fairly," and certainly better than other Arab countries.

The only time Hamid became tentative was when he started talking about his family. Like many other migrants, he had managed to return home only once during his twelve years. During that trip, he married, and brought his wife back to Beirut. Soon afterwards, his wife gave birth to their first son, Rubayat. But the pressures of providing for both wife and son were too much, and he was forced to send them back to Bangladesh. When I asked how he was coping without his new family, Hamid gave a slightly embarrassed smile. Then he stood up straight and said: "This is what's written in our fate. Allah gives some a lot, so he has to give others little. This is the path written for us, so we just have to manage."

As if to change the topic, he started showing me pictures of his son. In one photo, Rubayat was standing in front of a silver Porsche. "I asked them to do that on the computer," he explained, pointing to the car. Looking again at the sports car, I wondered if it was meant to give the family back home an illusion of wealth, or whether it was simply there as a nice backdrop. Hamid started handing the photo over to me, and I protested that I couldn't take his copy. "No, no, take it, I have many more copies"; then, with a quiet insistence: "Please. I want you to take it."

I wonder where he is now? In a Lebanon under ferocious attack, where even US citizens are stranded, and the wealthiest Beirutis are taking to the mountains, what hope for poor Bengalis with nowhere to go.

Naeem Mohaiemen is director of Visible, a collective that works on art interventions related to post 9/11 security panic .

* All names have been changed for privacy reasons