Re-membering the body in the bag: on racism and Lebanon.


On Saturday morning, the media reported that parts of a dismembered body of a migrant worker were found inside a plastic bag, in front of a bank. The news didn’t mention if it was found near the bank in a garbage pile, nor it mentioned if it was placed in front of the bank, let’s say in front of its main gate, waiting to be found, picked up, and remembered by finding other pieces, making a body whole, then adding it to the list of countless bodies of migrant workers, nameless, faceless and already forgotten by those who brought them to Lebanon as if truly they migrate to die, or to go back home broken, tortured, and exploited.

The sponsorship system, that we call the “kafala system”, entails a series of administrative procedures that allows Lebanese and legal residents of Lebanon (from all nationalities) to hire a domestic worker through a specialized agency, and where the General Security-Visa Section grants the employer the right to obtain an entrance visa for the worker, which also “ties” her to the employer, meaning she is legally trapped in the household, shared between households without additional payment, and in the majority of these houses she has no proper access to food, privacy, or medication, and lacks clear and fixed working hours. Sometimes households withhold her salaries. 

Lebanese Non-Governmental Organizations have been working to contest this legal system through various ways, mostly through shedding the light on how the sponsorship system allows violations against the universal declaration of human rights, how it creates an environment where crimes can take place on the side of the employer as much as the employee (theft, physical harm, sexual assault), or through arguing that it simply is a procedure that needs to be more regulated or reformed. There is a couple of very famous studies that were presented to the public and launched in the middle of campaigns to “reform”  the system or  even abolish the Kafala system, but none of these studies acknowledge racism as the actual issue that permits such procedures to fester and flourish over thousands of migrant bodies, alive, dead, or dismembered. Racism isn’t a misunderstanding between the “employer” and the “migrant worker”, and the employer is not forced to take her hostage because if she did anything wrong, the employer will be at fault. In the 45 years of the kafala system, please show us when an employer was ever held accountable for anything, even for the deaths in his/her own household? 

Almost once a month in Lebanon, or on “good days” once every two months, news about murdered migrant workers surface. Before the economic crisis, responses to these murders were stronger and louder. After the crisis, they get less visibility as the crisis itself occupies most of the media content, but also due to the fact that we all have been feeding a narrative that indicates that we are waiting for the bigger tragedy, and therefore, anything that happens till that arrives (if ever) is considered another clue, a shred of evidence that we are in the right direction, a one-way ticket to where the big tragedy will happen. This doesn’t allow us to check in with our feelings, stances, and understanding, as if the discomfort they cause is eased instantly by remembering that we are anticipating a bigger tragedy, not the death of one individual. Therefore, a dismembered body isn’t in itself the tragedy, but becomes an indication for the one to come. 

Months after the great crash of the lira, and months before the 4th of August 2020 explosion, Lebanese media published a few reports insinuating that migrant workers have aided in the economic collapse because they transfer USD outside of Lebanon, and some were using migrant workers’ organizing in front of their embassies asking to be repatriated to highlight how the quality of life in Lebanon has dropped. During this phase, Lebanese people were standing in line in the morning to demand their USD from the banks, and at night, bullying the migrant worker in their household to accept payment in Lebanese Lira, because she works in Lebanon and not in the USA. I say this, because it comes down to this, a sense of entitlement, privilege, and superiority that determines the relationship between those who claim themselves Lebanese and those who- for many reasons- must live and share their country with them. It strikes me sometimes, that when someone says “I am Lebanese”, or say “we the Lebanese”, they are referring to an imagined “better” position on the scale of humanity that exists in Lebanon. That it is not a nationality but an advanced position.

Reforming the Kafala system, or even abolishing it, can never fix that. Criminalizing racism and discrimination can, I think. I hope.

I have been wondering since yesterday about how quickly they knew she was Ethiopian; did they mean to say the body was black? But mostly wondering about the first statement, where the past experiences have led the source to declare the perpetrator was a foreigner because he probably did not own a car and could be living in a crowded or poor neighborhood. I can write 20 pages of why this is wrong and horrible, probably when you read it you will also think the same, you thought about what does owning a car have to do with being poor and having to be a foreigner and living in a crowded neighborhood, and they are great questions. But also what does it mean for someone to write this, in the same day where people stood in line for hours to get gas, where even the most crowded neighborhoods are empty because no one can find work and everyone is home waiting, and most importantly, how come suddenly the suspect is a foreigner -are Lebanese nationals now exempt from suspicion? But this is exactly the only question we need to ask, why rather than understanding who the body is, what happened to her, and how to remember her, we are asked to be very afraid of foreigners but the kind that lives in poor/crowded neighborhoods and does not drive a car.

When I wanted to read more about the news, the first website I opened, said this: “The security source suggested that, based on past experiences of investigations into such crimes, the perpetrator was also a foreigner.”

He probably did not own a car and could be living in a “crowded or poor neighborhood” where he could not get rid of the body except in this way so as not to attract attention, the source added. “This criminal may be unstable and have high homicidal tendencies, and he may have addictions or have other motives. The rate of crimes against foreign workers is increasing in Lebanon.”

And the second confirmed it’s an “Ethiopian” migrant worker.

The idea that the Lebanese employer should be responsible for the behavior of the migrant domestic worker in their house  indirectly accepts to generalize 300,000 migrant workers as a probable criminal, because racism does that, it places you on a pedestal where you think you are naturally better than other people, and by exploiting them you prove your superiority. Racism is the need to be right, better, and treated differently. We also need to examine the fact that, the sponsorship system cannot be reformed or abolished, while the same law and low enforcement allow different forms of discrimination. Racism against Palestinians that was made into written laws has led to legalizing procedures like sponsorship systems to which the law gives a person the right to exploit another person. The exploitation of Syrian workers rebuilding this country has normalized  the existence of cheap labor offered by a specific group of people. This is how also intersectionality is understood, how oppressions are entangled not how many causes/cases you represent. Racism should be spoken about openly, honestly, and regardless of how uncomfortable people get, and how defensive they want to be.

This morning, the news surfaced, the identity of the woman/person remains unknown, and they said “Ethiopian” because this became a synonym for black. What happened to what most likely  is a woman’s body, is probably a nightmare, I wonder if she was then alive, or was she dead? I remembered the killing of a young girl also a few months ago, a Lebanese girl whose name was known and whose face was mourned. But this is exactly what racism does, migrant workers, Syrian and Palestinian women become anonymous, numerical incidents, and cases never closed, murderers never caught, and racism never acknowledged. Regardless of the greater tragedy we think is going to strike and that will give a meaning to all of these horrors that we have been witnessing on a daily basis, there needs to be an honest discussion about racism. 

My brain has shifted between wanting to know who is this body, how to remember her so that her death is not normal and taking me to that night where they found a heartbeat under the rubble under the rubble and it ended up being a false hope, a reminder that we should not look for survivors, that she didn’t survive. We must figure out how to situate our anti-racism work and actions now more than ever, but we also must provide the space for migrant communities to grieve this and feel this while we hold the space for them to do so, through making sure that we do not normalize with this, that we don’t accept this. We must insist to know the truth and to make sure we know the person who has been dismembered and to ensure that she is remembered by us and that her identity is revealed to us, and so that we mourn her and so that we speak her name, and let her rest in peace and power.

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