Slavery in the Arab World

by Samer Beyhum

Slavery in the Arab world still exists to this day. Of course they do not call it « cleaning service ». At least in Lebanon they do. Basically it is an off where people go and flip through a catalog of Asian and east African women and men, the client selects the one they like best and soon thereafter the unsuspecting individual leaves their home and family behind with the promise that they will be sending home money monthly for sustenance. The bewildered person arrives at Beirut airport and is whisked away to the new employer’s house where he or she ends up living in a small bathroom sized room with nothing more than a matters. The maid is then instantly required to learn all of madam’s wishes and to comply with them at all times. Many of these « maids » are locked in the house; they rarely get a chance to leave the house or apartment lest they run away. And if they do run away they cannot go back to their country because their employer would be in possession of their passports. The « maid » has to be alert 24/7 at the beck and call of her masters.

More often than not these poor « maids » are subjected to beatings whenever they do something wrong or whenever « madam » feels like venting her frustration on someone. Sometimes the punishment goes beyond beating. A man went as far as to burn two of his « maids » after having severely beaten them up. The Lebanese courts did no more than fine him $333. Often, these poor « maids » are sexual harassed and some cases raped. When I was young and still at high school, I remember once when a schoolmate was bragging about his sexual exploits. « I cam home and there was no one but me and the maid… I got her drunk… striped her naked and had my way with her” He seemed to imply that the poor girl was a willing participant, but somehow I doubted that. Everyone in while in the news or by word of mouth we would hear of a « maid » who had jumped to her death from one of the tall apartment buildings. Why? hushed voices tell of how badly she was treated. How she was denied leave to go home and see her children. How she was denied pay. How whenever something goes missing in the household the first person to be accused and beaten for it is the « maid ». very rarely though, the « maid » manages to escape only to end up on the streets of Beirut in the hands of one pimp or another who forces her into prostitution.

My mother, being the humanitarian that she is, has harbored many of these run away « maids » under threat of being imprisoned herself for doing something so illegal as being human. She would heir a « maid » and helps her get off the street. My mother treated these women with dignity. They were not maids to us. We were not allowed to order them around or have them do our chores for us and we were expected to respect them. I love my mother for her idealism and I am happy to have inherited that trait form her. Sometimes the women that we harbored would manage to save enough for their trip back home or to move on to new more adduced households. Many of them always returned to see my mother and simply chat. My mother always had presents to give away anytime they showed up and especially on special occasions like Christmas and Ramadan.

But this blog is not about my mother and her humanitarian expeditions. This is a blog about the pervasiveness of slavery in the Arab world. I used to think the situation was bad but I quickly found out that the situation in other more affluent Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE was by far much worse.

I lived for two years in Dubai and I cringed every time I met an Indian « laborer » most of these men had come from India with the promise of a better pay. They would arrive at Dubai airport and spend sometimes days sleeping on the floor waiting for their « sponsor » to show up with the appropriate paperwork before they are faired off to a construction site where they lived like sardine in an un-air-conditioned cargo container. Atmospheric temperature in the UAE reaches 55c in summer. I had the misfortune of seeing one of these hell holes once. I had hired a young Indian man called Shafi as an IT technician. The kid was well educated. I drove him home one day and he showed me where he lived with his father and I was shocked. I wanted to do something but he asked me not to get myself in trouble. I insisted, he was grateful but insisted that nothing could be done for now.

Some of these men are forced to work around the clock and sometimes they just loose it and take advantage of a law in Dubai that stipulates that in the case of man slaughter the family of the deceased would be paid « blood money ». For some of these wretched Indian souls, this was a sacrifice they were willing to make so that their families back home would survive.

Back home in Lebanon I was once invited over to a new acquaintance’s place for dinner. The « maid » was a quiet person and looked terribly reached and frightened of her « madam ». I felt uncomfortable and felt like saying something when the poor woman made an insignificant mistake and was slapped for it. At some point I could no longer bare it and I intervened on her behalf « please stop treating this human like an animal » I asked my host. The host, the mother of my acquaintance, reeled around laughing. « This is not a human being, she is an animal and will be treated as such » at that point I excused myself and abruptly left.

This was not an isolated cases. People regarded these poor migrant workers like animals. The masters mocked them all the time and made sure to make them feel stupid at every turn. Some of these poor migrants where actually well educated. Doctors, economists, historians. All turned to doing menial work for wealthier people in wealthier countries because the economy back home was virtually nonexistent.

The Lebanese are an arrogant bunch. But the Saudi Arabians, being oil rich affluent and all, are by far more arrogant. For the rich Saudis, everyone can be bought, literally. And when a person is bought they can do anything they like to them. One Sri Lankan woman last year barley escaped her prisoners and upon medical examination it was discovered that she was tortured by her « employer » with needles and nails being stuck in to her body…. 24 nails and needles seen on x-ray which doctors eventually managed to remove some of them. These are the kinds of horrors that migrant workers endure at the hands of those without humanity and who think that humans can be owned like any property and that they can do whatever they want to what « belongs » to them.

Yesterday I read an article at the BBC website, a report about an Indonesian woman who was executed, beheaded, for killing her employers. Of course the Saudi courts probably ignored her testimony regarding how she was badly beaten on a regular basis and the courts probably ignored that migrant workers in Saudi Arabia (or any other Arab country) cannot complain about such sad acts against them to the authorities as they have no rights and no structure or law that exists or is enforced to protect them from abuse.

So the poor woman who probably resorted to murder in an attempt to defend herself, her body, and her mind like any human would do when confronted by an abusive jailer who regards you as property and with no legal authority to defend you, was beheaded. I abhor violence and killing anyone for whatever reason is wrong, I do not deny that, but this is an extenuating circumstance and if justice is to be blind then justice needs to take in to account such incomprehensible and appalling situations as this poor beheaded « maid » has to endure before she lost it and killed in an act of self preservation those who broke her and destroyed her and humiliated her and tortured her and when no one and no authority was willing to protect her or the multitude of migrant workers who are in the same situation as she was in.

Saudi Arabia (and most of the Arab world for that matter) is not the bastion of Islam that it processes to be. For Islam does not condone this kind (or any other kind) of barbarism. The sooner that my Arab brother and sister learn the lessons that they should learn and start treating others with dignity and respect of their human rights, the better it will be for everyone involved.

As for the Lebanese, well… my dear brother and sisters…. If you want to be a proud nation… if you want an end to the political stupidity that ravages our country…. Then it is time to wise up and start treating everyone around you with dignity…. Slavery is wrong and no matter what name you white wash it with it is still slavery and still wrong.

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