Arabic unexpectedly brings people together

Learning the language can become a useful tool for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers

Illustration by Dalal Mitwally – 7iber

It’s a quiet and hot Sunday afternoon in August in Beirut. Streets are empty, far from the city’s usual hustle and bustle. In the Ashrafieh neighbourhood however, an apartment is packed, with a crowd of around 30 people in the main room listening intently to Rahaf Dandash talking. We’re at the Migrant Community Center (MCC), an organisation that supports migrant domestic workers’ rights in Lebanon. Rahaf, MCC’s Beirut coordinator, is moderating the meeting, enumerating the different talking points and giving the weekly update about activities, planned trips, projects and organisational matters. The room is filled with members from various nationalities, predominantly from Ethiopia and Sudan. Interestingly, despite the mix of the audience, the conversations are taking place in Arabic.

A big and diverse migrant community

MCC, part of Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement that was founded in 2010, was started out of a need to provide a safe space for and by migrant workers. It’s a place where people can rest, vent and build a supportive community. The group has over 500 members from over 12 countries today, and from all kinds of backgrounds.

Lebanon is home to almost 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, from countries including Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cameroon and others. In a country of around 5 million people, it is estimated that one in four families hires a domestic worker. These women do all kinds of jobs, and for the most part, they learn Arabic, in households that don’t speak any other language. They face harsh working conditions, as well as endemic racism and sexism.

For many employees who come to Lebanon, it is expected from them to speak Arabic almost overnight. In comparison, many Western migrants spend months – if not years – in Lebanon without needing to learn Arabic in order to work or get by. People who grew up speaking Amharic in Ethiopia or Sinhalese in Sri Lanka now can communicate in Arabic, when they originally didn’t have a language in common. And so, slowly, in places like MCC, Arabic has become a tool that brings people together, used by everyone.

“If you know the language then you know your rights, and you know how to deal with people,” explains Rasha, an Ethiopian activist and domestic worker who is also a member of MCC.

Rasha, who prefers to use her first name only, is one of many people who accepted to share their experiences but via voice message, due to time and work constraints. Some preferred to not use their real names, so they were changed to preserve their anonymity.

First contact with Arabic

Like Rasha, all migrant domestic workers come to Lebanon through the system of kafala, which literally means sponsorship. This system, in place in many countries in the region, has a set of rules that are distinct from other Lebanese labour laws. Kafala regulations control the entry, residence and employment of workers, and deny some of the protections that regular employees enjoy under the law. These include a minimum wage, reparations for unfair dismissal and social security, among other things.

Migrant domestic workers are generally exposed right away to the language as they arrive in the country. When landing for the first time, they are separated at the airport from other passengers and put in a room by General Security, the governmental entity in charge of monitoring foreign residents and issuing them visas and work permits. There, they are left to wait for their employers to arrive and pick them up.

“You can’t say anything, really [when waiting at the airport], and even if you did, the airport employee wouldn’t understand you, and neither would you [understand them],” explains Rasha, who remembers her arrival to the country 12 years ago.

Her passport was taken away as soon as she landed and handed to her employer, even though this is against Lebanese law. According to domestic workers’ standard contracts, which are signed when people start working, they are allowed to keep their passports, but agencies and employers alike often keep the documents away from their employees, as a way to keep them from leaving the house.

“But she would converse with me normally in Arabic, as if I knew what she was saying, and I would not understand one word, nothing”

When Maya* arrived in Lebanon from Ethiopia in 2011 at the age of 29, she didn’t understand a word of Arabic. She was told, while waiting for her employer, that “Madame will come and take you,” in English. “Madame” is the word used to describe the employer they interact the most at home, who generally is a woman since these are household related chores. Maya could understand English, so was able to grasp some of what was said at the airport. “But when madame came, she only spoke Arabic,” she says.

“In the car, she spoke to me only in Arabic. I couldn’t understand anything so we just tried to communicate with signs, a little. But she would converse with me normally in Arabic, as if I knew what she was saying, and I would not understand one word, nothing,” Maya says, recalling their first interaction in a language that she was hearing for the first time.

This experience is not an exception.

“The employer won’t learn your language – they are not in your country, you’re in theirs, so you’re supposed to learn their language in order to talk to them,” says Salam* who also arrived from Ethiopia in 2011.

It took Salam eight months to learn. She relentlessly practiced the language everyday, asking questions, taking notes, and again asking even more questions.

“I had a lot of energy and asked a lot of questions, to a point where people would get annoyed at me. If I didn’t understand something, even if it meant asking 40 times, I would ask again. This way of thinking was how I learned how to speak Arabic,” she explains.

Yalla, talk!

Some of the first words workers hear and learn are direct commands, said in the feminine form, since most of them are women.

“Words I understood right away were may [water], taa’e [come], jeebeh [bring] and rooheh [go],” Maya remembers.

Rasha’s first words were different.

“They were la’ [no] and naa’m [yes],” she recalls.

Her employer at the time wouldn’t even let her say “yes” in English if someone called her name, even though she understood English. Rasha had to say it in Arabic.

Since this is how many migrant workers generally are addressed, some end up learning to speak Arabic that way, using the same terminology, sentence structure and the feminine form for everything.

Yalla. Yalla was the first word I understood”

“Ask a domestic worker about her earliest memories of Arabic and they will often be insults, commands or other forms of verbal abuse,” explains Summaya Kassamali, an anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, in a written interview.

Yalla. Yalla was the first word I understood,” recalls Tania, who comes from Sri Lanka.

Yalla yalla, ya Siri Lankieh [come on, you Sri Lankan], taa’e [come], emshe [walk],” she enumerated when describing her first few days in Lebanon.

Migrant domestic workers were often derogatorily referred to as “Sri Lankan”, regardless of their nationality, because many of the early employees came from the country. This denomination then was replaced by Etiopiyeh, Ethiopian, when more workers started coming from there; still disregarding the person’s nationality.

Tania was brought to Lebanon by an agency in December 1993.

“I imagined that I would get a good job, to be a secretary, an assistant. That’s what I had applied for.”

Instead, she spent her first six days in the country locked inside an empty, filthy room with other foreign workers, without any mattresses or water. The agency then took her from house to house, to see if anyone wanted to hire her. She was even taken to a brothel at some point, but managed to escape from it.

“I understood something about the country and its people in this short time: that there is no solution,” she says.

Yalla, learn!

“The madame with whom I worked during the first period used to get very bothered when I didn’t understand what she was saying. And I would get angry at myself,” says Maya from Ethiopia.

“When she spoke to me, she would say that I didn’t know how to speak Arabic, as if she was yelling. So it was very, very hard.”

Even as many workers learn how to speak the language in just a few months – much faster than many others who come to live and work in Lebanon – they still get criticised for not speaking it fluently, or fast enough.

“[T]here is a set of practices surrounding speaking to (let alone speaking about) domestic workers that is a central part of the architecture of violence directed at them – and of course, most of this happens in Arabic,” writes Summaya.

Maya felt this before learning the language.

“You sometimes had the impression that they were talking about you, when they talked to each other, and they would get angry if there was one thing you didn’t understand. And it’s not a nice feeling.”

It only took her two months to understand basic words and commands, and six months to make herself understood and grasp most of the Lebanese Arabic accent.

“The first six to eight months are very hard. You’re learning everything from scratch, like a child. [The employer] shows you everything just once,” says Rasha, who was 21 when she began learning the language.

“Everyday, it‘is yalla, yalla, yalla. This is the word for everything,” says Tania.

The word yalla, usually commonly used in spoken Arabic to mean “let’s go,” is used here as a command, “go on,” to tell someone to do something faster.

Everyone interviewed for this article described a different method to learn the language. Some watched television series in Arabic on a daily basis, others started talking with other domestic workers in Arabic; yet others wrote down words using the letters of their own alphabet or asked questions. For all, what helped the most was practice.

Most of the original lexicon, other than commands and directives, was related to the kitchen and domestic work, since this is what employees are exposed to at home.

“if you’re not the type to catch words, and remember, then it’s very hard”

Rasha’s first job was with a family with children, which helped her to learn faster.

“Whenever [the kids]would come, they would tell you they wanted something, like water for example, and you could learn with them,” she says.

“But if you’re not the type to catch words, and remember, then it’s very hard [to learn].”

Yalla, everyday!

Speaking Arabic also makes it possible for people who don’t originally share the same language to communicate.

“You know, Arabic has benefitted me a lot here, not just a little,” says Maya.

“My neighbour is also Ethiopian but from another village than mine, and doesn’t speak Amharic.”

There are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia.

“To communicate, we speak to each other in Arabic. My friend’s employer is always surprised, wondering why we were talking Arabic to each other,” she recounts, laughing.

“Knowing Arabic is often a matter of survival,” writes Patricia who works with the Facebook page This is Lebanon. The groups was started by Dipendra Uprety who lived in Lebanon for years and volunteered with the honorary consulate of Nepal, before moving to Canada. It exposes the abuse domestic workers face, by naming and shaming employers.

“The more fluent a worker is in Arabic, the more empowered she is,” she says.

The fact that the majority of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers are women adds another layer of discrimination to the racism that people who are not white routinely face in the country: that of sexism. Knowing Arabic helps to defend yourself against that.

“If you’re walking on the street and someone harasses you, you know how to answer back,” says Rasha.

Estelle* sees Arabic as a tool for everyday use, from going around Beirut and taking cabs to grocery shopping and negotiating prices.

“Learning the language when entering the country is good, you learn a little to protect yourself,” she says.

Estelle came from Ghana nine years ago, and it took her over three years to learn the basics of Arabic. She has been able to find her own community at a church in Beirut, where people from many different countries in Africa meet, and has been going to different places for this church’s activities, like the village of Miziara two hours north of Beirut.

“If you talk fast I will not understand it, but if it’s slow I understand: how to protect myself, how to come and go [somewhere],” she explains.

Her view on having learned the language is philosophical: “When you come to a country, if you learn something, it’s better than nothing.”

In Lebanon, many people speak French or English so migrant domestic workers who speak those languages can get by, depending on where they work. This is Estelle’s case. She is able to communicate with her agency and the people she works for in English.

“When I came to Lebanon, everyone I had to deal with spoke a little bit of French”

Natalie*, comes from Madagascar and has been living and working in Lebanon for the past 23 years. “For me personally, when I came to Lebanon, everyone I had to deal with spoke a little bit of French,” she explains.

“So I would speak French with them. Even though it would be hard for them sometimes they still spoke to me in French.”

Still, Natalie learned the basics of Arabic.

“I do understand Arabic, but I don’t really speak it since I never really needed to learn it. If I have to, though, I could make myself understood. But to have a discussion, really, I am not capable of it in that language,” she continues.

A Lebanese kind of Arabic

Workers learn through their employers, and so pick up their dialects and accents in the process, which sometimes leads to amusing anecdotes. This is the case of Mira* who worked for two old ladies from the northern town of Zgharta and now speaks with a very heavy and recognisable dialect. Every few sentences or so, Mira says “yerham mawtek,” a gloomy and somewhat archaic expression specific to that town, which roughly translates to “may your dead relatives rest in peace” and is used as a warm thank you.

The language migrant domestic workers learn on the job is the spoken Lebanese dialect, ‘ammiyeh, which (like all spoken accents in the Arab world) is very distinct from literary Arabic. As a result, it is not often that people who learn the spoken language also know how to read and write.

“I laugh, because it’s as if I didn’t know how to speak Arabic at all, it’s a completely different language”

Rasha from Ethiopia decided differently. In addition to all her work, she is also learning how to speak, read and write literary Arabic.

“Whenever I hear fosha [literary Arabic] I laugh, because it’s as if I didn’t know how to speak Arabic at all, it’s a completely different language,” she says.

“I told myself that I had to learn how to write and read it. And so I learned how to write the letters, I practiced it,” she continues.

The Lebanese and other dialects are different from literary Arabic when it comes many words and their pronunciation, grammar and the way sentences are constructed.

“When I wanted to watch the evening news, I realised that sometimes I couldn’t understand… because they use words in fosha, not the words we use on a daily basis. I always needed to focus a lot to try and decipher what was being said,” explains Rasha.

She also wanted to learn how to read in order to be able to read things like the her work contract, or administrative papers, “to know what we’re signing on,” she adds.

The standard contract all workers sign before starting to work with their sponsors is in Arabic. Even though these are supposed to be translated into several languages, a report by Amnesty shows that this is generally not the case. Other than these contracts, it can sometimes be hard for people to do everyday things, like direct themselves using street signs written in Arabic and French, or grocery shopping, paperwork and simple things like checking the date their residency permit expires.

Rasha also has other reasons to learn literary Arabic.

“Since you’re already living here, maybe you would want to build a life here, and have children. How can you teach your child how to write and read the letters if you don’t know how to do it yourself?”

She’s been taking classes for five months now at MCC. Arabic, as well as English and French, classes are provided for free by the organisation. They’re given by volunteers, several times per week but mostly on weekends, since workers usually only get Sundays off. There are seven volunteers at the center in Beirut giving 21 classes overall, for around 180 students.

Activism on the ground

Back at MCC on that Sunday afternoon, Rahaf, the Beirut coordinator, gives more details about registering for the upcoming marathon and beach trips planned for everyone. Some members ask questions in Arabic, side discussions are whispered – also in Arabic – but with some words translated into Amharic when a person needs it.

The only way to organise is for these communities to come together

Even though many meetings at MCC are in Arabic, not all are in that language. If someone doesn’t speak it, the meeting is generally translated to French and English.

“With all these nationalities in Lebanon under the same system […] the only way to organise is for these communities to come together. Then definitely, language plays a role,” Rahaf explains.

With or without the language, domestic workers are taking matters into their own hands. As insiders to the kafala system, having lived under it for years – decades for some – they know where change should happen, and what kind of help and support is needed.

Many workers report poor working conditions, having to sleep in living rooms or on balconies, being deprived of food or having to work in several houses, without their permission. The sponsorship system makes it very difficult, almost impossible, to terminate their contracts. Some decide to flee the households where they work, for reasons ranging from harsh working conditions and lack of payment to physical or emotional abuse. Those who do so automatically become illegal immigrants, and face arrest and deportation if caught.

“With this system, it’s always the employer who has the last word. Even when we’re right, we’ll always be victims of this system. Even when the employer has done something wrong, we’ll get deported,” says Natalie.

There are also instances of workers, after having been pushed to the edge, trying to either run away in very dangerous ways, if they are locked inside homes, or attempting or complete suicide. These instances are happening at alarming rates: a Human Rights Watch report from 2008 found that at least one migrant domestic worker died every week, either driven to suicide, by accidents on the job, or murdered. Another 2017 report by The New Humanitarian stated that, on average, two domestic workers die per week.

On May Day, or usually a Sunday close to May 1 to include as many domestic workers as possible, a yearly march is organised to try and change things. Every year it takes a different route, usually through popular, residential neighbourhoods, to spread awareness. While people walk, chant and clap in the streets, dozens of workers wave from the balconies, not able to join the protesters.

The banners, slogans and chants are numerous, and in several languages: Arabic, but also English, French, Amharic and others.

“We’re targeting the Lebanese people, this is why the chants are usually in Arabic,” Rahaf explains.

And there are initiatives other than the yearly march. Natalie, for instance, decided to build a network of her own with like-minded workers and activists. In 2016 she co-founded the Alliance for Domestic Workers, which gathers 70 members from over seven countries, along with a group of seven other domestic workers. They believe in women’s empowerment as a means to fight racism and sexism. Natalie still works on a full-time basis as a domestic worker in the same house she’s been working at since her arrival, and is an activist on Saturdays and Sundays.

Rasha, on the other hand, is behind a support network for Ethiopian workers who have left their employers and have nowhere to go, named Nyale Nyale, which means “you are mine and I am yours” in Amharic. Tania, too, turned her past bad experiences into a strength, and created a community along with 35 other Sri Lankan workers. In addition to this, she became a chef after going to a culinary school, and now organises dinners and events for various organisations.

Some hope in sight

There is still a long way to go, but Natalie is not all pessimistic. Since she has lived in the country for over two decades, she has felt some things change, although she believes that domestic workers are far from being treated fairly.

And there might be some hope after all. The caretaker minister of labour, Camille Abousleiman, stated a few months ago that the kafala system is like “modern-day slavery”, and believes it should be changed. It was the first time that a public official announced it this way, even though one still has to see if anything would be done. It is in stark contrast with his predecessor who banned the syndicate for domestic workers’ creation and blocked all kinds of change.

“I feel full only from this little bread crumb because we haven’t had a lot of them”

“I still have hope to be honest. I’ve been an activist for 10 years now and was happy with this announcement. I feel full only from this little bread crumb because we haven’t had a lot of them, and I won’t lose hope,” concludes Natalie.

In the meantime, and despite the long way to go for better working conditions, people from dozens of countries living in Lebanon are both speaking a new language and making it their own.

“When I talk to my parents, I mix languages. I often say yaane [which means] when I speak in Amharic, as well as shu [what] and masalan [for example],” says Maya.

Rasha too mixes Arabic with her mother tongue, even when speaking to her family and others back home.

Maa’ouleh [can you believe it], I like that one, and use it pretty often.”


* Name has been changed.


This story is part of a bigger dossier on the topic of “language” which was produced as part of the activities of the Independent Media Network on the Arab World. This regional cooperation brings together Al-Jumhuriya, Assafir Al-Arabi, Mada Masr, Maghreb Emergent, Mashallah News, Nawaat, 7iber and Orient XXI.

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