Serve but don’t swim

The racist policies of Lebanon

There is an apocryphal story that has circulated around Beirut in various versions and goes something like this: a Filipina woman is swimming in the pool of an elegant private club. The Lebanese staff frantically tell her to get out, since domestic workers aren’t allowed in the pool. The story’s denouement comes when it is revealed that the Filipina woman is the wife of the ambassador — not a maid. 

Someone unfamiliar with regional folkways could be excused for not understanding the story. But for those living in Lebanon, or in Cairo or Dubai, certain nationalities have become code for specific professions: Slavic nations produce prostitutes, Egyptians are doormen and Syrians manual laborers — while Ethiopian, Sri Lankan and Filipina women are invariably domestic workers. So ingrained are these stereotypes that the most common word for a maid in Lebanon is “Sri Lankan.”

The story about the wife of the ambassador of the Philippines reveals a mixture of racism and classism that is difficult to parse, because the two are so inextricably intertwined. The swimmer is somehow excused for being Filipina, since her husband’s rank trumps his ethnic and national origins. I’ve heard similar stories of Americans or Europeans barred from nightclubs or swimming pools, or otherwise submitted to petty humiliations, because of the color of their skin or their ethnic origins, only to have the situation rectified by flashing a western passport. But finally, they are the lucky ones; they can escape the worst of the discrimination by simply producing western papers.

Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to quantify the discrimination suffered by foreign domestic workers in Lebanon. According to a study carried out by senior researcher Nadim Houry, 17 out of 27 beach resorts polled put restrictions on African and Asian domestic workers, ranging from prohibiting them from swimming at all to restricting access to the swimming pool.

Curious to know which places didn’t allow domestic workers in the pool, I made some calls posing as a father who’d like to bring his kids and their nanny, and then posted the results on my blog.  Here is a sampling of the results.

Eddé Sands (Byblos): Entrance is free for nannies, and according to the woman I spoke to, there is no problem for them to swim in either the pool or the sea.
Cyan (Kaslik): Under no circumstances are domestic workers allowed to swim, even if they pay full admission.  

Riviera Hotel (Beirut): Admission for nannies is apparently free, but they cannot swim in either the pool or the sea. When I asked if they could swim if they pay an entrance fee, I was told that it wasn’t a problem.

Laguava Resort (Rmeileh): Even if a domestic worker pays for entry as a normal guest, she cannot swim in the pool for adults, only in the “family pool” for children and the sea.   
Bamboo Bay (Jiyeh): If a domestic worker pays, she can use the facilities like any other paying guests. 

Jiyeh Marina (Jiyeh): For admission purposes, nannies are “considered as children,” and are allowed to swim “if they have a swimsuit,” but according to the woman I spoke to, “we prefer them not to.”

The BBC recently found similar discrimination at the Sporting Club, one of Beirut’s best known beach clubs, where the club’s manager acknowledged that “from a foreigner’s point of view,” his club was practicing discrimination. He defended the practice, explaining that he would have complaints from customers and lose business if he allowed domestic workers to enjoy the facilities like everyone else. Western foreigners, on the other hand, are more than welcome at Sporting Club.

Recreational swimming has a prominent place in the history of the American civil rights movement. In 1948, Strom Thurmond ran for president on an explicitly segregationist platform: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” Thurmond said in one campaign speech. 

Given the rampant discrimination in all aspects of domestic workers’ lives, getting worked up about swimming pools may seem a bit frivolous. But in Lebanon, like the segregated American south, the pool is but a symbol of larger injustice. Migrant workers are not considered equal with Lebanese under the country’s law.  They are in some cases abused with no legal recourse. For the huge role they play in Lebanon, migrant laborors deserve better. 

The buses in Lebanon are not segregated, so it would be misplaced to call for action like the 1955 bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. And after all, with so many domestic workers denied the right to even leave the house, it’s hard to imagine how a boycott led by migrant workers would have much of an effect. Beaches with racist entrance policies, on the other hand, might be a good place to start for the rest of us.

SEAN LEE is an instructor at the English department at the American University of Beirut