The Place Is Not the Place

Hana Sleiman with Beza Girma

Artwork: Aline Deschamps, "Two former domestic workers from Sierra Leone hang out in their shared-house in Tariq El Jdide (Beirut, Lebanon). There are over twenty women living in this small apartment - as they keep welcoming other "sisters" from their home country who have escaped abuses or have been left on the street by their employers, in the midst of a pandemic and of an economic collapse in the country." Photograph, 2020

This text emerged from a conversation that started informally nearly ten years ago over many days and nights in Beirut, but that took place formally in May of 2022 from outside Beirut, between myself in Berlin, Germany, and Beza Girma in Hawassa, Ethiopia.

Inspired by the theme of ‘b-sh-r’,[1] we discussed Beirut’s multiple cities and the people that circulate in them: how they move, the ruptures in their paths, and their unplanned arrivals and returns.

Whereas I find writing about my personal present difficult, this text was all the more difficult for two reasons. The first–shared by many I suspect–is that I have lost all but the language of clichés to speak about Beirut. The second is that I felt constrained by the deep discomfort of the asymmetrical power relation in our conversation.

Beza and I first met many years ago, regularly spending Sunday mornings at home, cooking and talking. A lot of our talks were about womanhood in Beirut, and the many ways in which we inhabit the place differently. Real as the oppression is for Palestinian and Syrian refugees, it does not compare to the kafala system that governs the lives of migrant worker communities in Lebanon. Given our individual structural positions as a middle-class Palestinian refugee and an Ethiopian migrant worker, I always thought twice about my grievances before I expressed them. Similarly, I hesitated to place our experiences side by side in this text, lest I signal oblivion to the power structures at play. This, however, never imprisoned our conversations, nor did it foreclose our ability to engage on multiple registers of personal and political.

It is in this spirit that I wrote this text: an attempt to narrate how we have inhabited Beirut, together and separately, and what we have carried with us moving forward. It departs from the conversation we had in May and weaves in questions and thoughts that have weighed on us for over a decade.

‘The country does not hate you. Its people hate you.’

Why do we love places that engineer our oppression? This question haunted my conversation with Beza Girma. Despite over a decade of life under Kafala, Beza has only grown fonder of Lebanon. When she had to leave over a year ago, she, as many of us—nationals, refugees and migrants—was devastated. She yearns for a life back in Hamra, a life of friendship and comradery in the home she and her community created with literal blood, sweat and tears. 

The story Beza told me was of a young woman coming of age in Beirut. It was not about kafala and its horrors, nor was it about a life in cloistered servitude (omnipresent as these experiences were). Beza’s story was that of an Ethiopian woman finding her way in the world. It was about the thrills and the heartbreaks of her twenties, the transitions into different stages of adulthood, the question of whether to have (more) children, how to mend one’s relationship with one’s mother, and above all, a story of how female friendships make the world go round.

To arrive at this story, we must start at the end.

In 2021, after over a decade in Beirut, Beza returned to her home in Hawasaa, Ethiopia, to have her second child. She had left her first child with her sister when she first traveled to Beirut as a teenager, and wanted a different experience for her second. She could not fathom having a black child in Beirut, nor could she bear life in the aftermath of the storm that overtook Lebanon starting 2019: a revolution, a financial collapse, and an explosion. Although she told many stories of brutal racial violence, she said it was not these things that broke her. It was the persistent mundane violence that cut the deepest.

She recounted her first echography appointment in a Beirut hospital where the technician told her off for being pregnant: “you’re not here to have children, you’re here to work.” A few months prior, she had confronted her employer about a pay raise: $250 a month for 12-hour working days simply did not cut it given Lebanon’s economic crisis. “You should be grateful”, he said, “ibn el-balad is not working”.[2] “It broke me”, she said. “Even if you live there for twenty years you will remain a stranger.” Beza was as emotional telling these stories as when she recounted how, as a domestic worker, she had a cyst removed from her breast and was back at work two hours later, blood dripping down her ribs.

After her employer refused her raise, she decided to leave: to have a child with her partner and move back to raise her in Hawassa. Beza described the sheer impossibility of raising racialized children in Lebanon. She told stories of Lebanese parents asking for an Ethiopian child to be sat far from their own, of Ethiopian-Lebanese children being moved to other schools, even sent to school in Ethiopia to spare them the horror. “If I needed to leave [to Lebanon] now, I would leave her behind… I accepted this [life], I was forced to. I now live with it. She’s young and she won’t know.”

But why does Beza love a place so violent? A place where she could never raise her baby girl? A place that hates her? “I still love Lebanon. I changed a lot, physically, mentally. I learned a lot in Beirut. I love it… it’s the people. The country does not hate you… Its people hate you.”

The reverse is also true: places don’t love you – their people love you. Beza described the few friendships that changed her view of “white people” (referring to the Lebanese and presumably some other Arabs), women with whom she worked, engaging as friends, as people who belong to a place, as equals. That this is exceptional is scandalous. We inhabit the same city, and yet rarely engage with migrant worker communities outside the framework of service provision or political solidarity. We rarely, if ever, engage as friends, neighbors, or curious strangers with whom unexpected intimacies and antagonisms might emerge. This is of course classed and gendered in addition to being racialized, but it is inexcusable, shameful even. It is part of the daily mundane violence we all practice against migrant workers.

Despite these interracial exceptions Beza described, it was the community of Ethiopian women that made Beirut home. The woman who took her in after she escaped her employer’s home and found her first ‘freelance’ job. The seven women with whom she shared a three-bedroom apartment, with whom she cooked and fought and grieved, with whom she built a family, a home. “No one will go hungry if one of us is working” she said. But home is a thorny concept. “There is a law that governs you in a different way… I pay rent but I cannot play loud music. Any of the neighbors can call 112 [the police]. If they come you’ll go to jail. There is no mercy, you can’t reason with them.” She said they protected themselves through constant self-monitoring. “I do what I want outside, but at home I’m careful.” Home is outside, the few hours a day when she is not working or sleeping. The fleeting moments of joy that make one’s life memorable, bearable. Why, then, would one stay here?

The Camp is not Beautiful. We are beautiful.[3]

At home in Hawassa, Beza never follows Ethiopian news. She listens to Lebanese news only. She is unable to connect to the community she has returned to and sees little point in building a full life there. “I stay with my daughter and niece, my son is at school. I am rebuilding my relationship with my mom, who left me when I was young. I opened a small café, and I am working there.” But it is difficult, she says.

My friend Forat recently told me that everytime she moves to a new city, it takes her two years to reconcile with the old one. To tie loose ends, to lose hope and kill nostalgia, to sever a limb. I asked Beza if this resonated with her, she simply reversed the question, “how do you feel about Lebanon? You have everything outside [in the United Kingdom], what brings you back?”

It is my aging parents, I told her. Like all Palestinians, I knew I would need to leave at some point if I were to have a life. I decided to sever that limb in 2018, after a series of heartbreaks and ‘bureaucratic’ troubles. I successfully completed the mission (or thought I did) in the summer of 2019. After the Camps Revolt, and before “revolution proper”. That the Camps Revolt fell out of the narrative of revolution in Lebanon was the final straw, but I’ll come back to that in a bit. 

“They do not want us. They do not like Palestinians” I told her (even if many love Palestine. Lebanon has its own sinister brand of anti-Palestinianism, both in mainstream and in alternative spaces).

Graffiti – Nahr el-Bared camp [From: Nastopia] Photo by Marwa Loubani (Facebook), 2019. 

“See, you still want something from them,” Beza said. She, on the other hand, did not wait for their recognition. “I am not Lebanese, I am Ethiopian. I will live in this country the way I want to, no matter how unjust it is. I will not wait for any Lebanese person to think we are equal. I put my mind to this. That’s why no one can hurt me… For you it’s hard, your parents are there, and you want to live where you grew up.”

After some defensiveness I conceded. “You’re right. I do want something from them, and I hate it.”

I want a work permit. The right to own property. To spend less time in the halls and offices of ministries. To pull less strings and call in less favors. Bureaucracy is refugees’ tenth circle of hell, a layer of human existence that many are (luckily) oblivious to. Over the course of 74 years, the state has custom-tailored an arsenal of exclusionary laws and arbitrary practices that govern our lives. How can one build a dignified life without the right to work or own their home?

I want the wall surrounding Ein el-Helwe to disappear. The ghettoization and securitization to end. I wanted Nahr el-Bared to not have been destroyed, for more ‘comrades’ to have been more comrade-like. This is by far the most taboo subject on Palestinians in Lebanon. One day, we will talk all about this. I want this day to come sooner rather than later.

I want the May Day protests that bring together refugees, migrants and nationals to be more than an annual festivity of progressive folklore. I want to have a real conversation among the non-nationals, maybe even (I dared dream one day) a movement. I want our ‘scene’ to be less toxic, less chauvinist, less homophobic, less misogynistic, less cliquish. I want the city to be less violent and brutal.

I want the Camps Revolt of 2019 to have been seen. For it to be part of the narrative of thawra, whatever that is. (If Palestinians’ labor protests can be so easily erased, what hope do migrants have?)

Exactly three years ago, the Palestinian camps of Lebanon were raging with popular protests over the right to work. The camps’ revolt started on 15 July 2019 and lasted for 3 months, dovetailing with the beginning of the Lebanese October revolution. It is remarkable that most analysis of revolutionary fervor in Lebanon starts in October, completely erasing mass protest in the 12 Palestinian camps and in some Lebanese cities.[4] More remarkable is the omission of the labor and class underpinnings of the camps revolt when analyzing the economic roots of the Lebanese revolution.

One can argue that the crisis in the camps was an early warning of Lebanon’s final arrival at a breaking point, as it is those at the bottom who feel the crisis most acutely. Of the many communities that are at the bottom – the Lebanese poor, Syrian refugees, migrant worker communities and others – the Palestinians were the first to erupt in protest. I would further argue the camps’ revolt was not only an early warning of crisis but also the first spark of revolt against it. That this is absent from most analysis of the October revolution is telling of the Lebanese-nationalist citizen-centric nature of the discourse around it – but that is a story for another day.

Many of Lebanon’s residents are crushed under the weight of the crisis. But I am not interested in the many. I am interested in the few. Those of us who marched the streets in October 2019, despite the prevailing chauvinism, with our hearts jumping out of our chests with love and pride. Those who—every morning before heading down to the streets—worked hard to silence that voice inside. The certainty that we don’t belong, that our struggles don’t matter, that our demands will not be voiced, and that we will never be of the place. We can only ever be in it.

We will never be of the place. We can only ever be in it. Why, then, do we love the place? Nasri Hajjaj so eloquently summed it up: “There was nothing beautiful about the camp except for us. We are beautiful, and not the camp.”[5]

“Ode to Ein El Helwi Refugee camp”, Amal Kaawash, 2013

The place is not beautiful. We project our beauty on the place. We project on it our lives—their sweet-bitter contradictions, the love and laughter and safety we experienced, the core memories that sculpted our person. We make it beautiful. A kind of beauty that escapes the gaze of most. The beauty of Dawra on a Sunday afternoon. The beauty of Ein el-Helwe from our balcony at sunset. Fleeting moments of serenity and sublimity that punctuate years of structural violence.

In a piece on the camps revolt, Moné Makkawi, paraphrasing Audrey Lorde, wrote, “Those who live in the master’s house know intimately the web of forces that define the material conditions of their daily lives. At the crossroads of inequity and injustice, Palestinians know best the necessity to reclaim and reshape such forces.”[6]

Whereas Palestinians and Syrians live in the masters’ figurative house, it is migrant domestic workers who literally dwell in the masters’ abode, and their experiences provide an intimate insight into streets, offices and homes across the country’s geography. Have we taken interest in what they have seen? Have we looked in that mirror, to see our reflection in their eyes? It is chilling to consider how ugly we can be.

How would we see ourselves if we listened to the stories of the many residents of Lebanon – its citizens, refugees, migrants, non-IDs? What if we think of these stories not as a mirror or lens to view Lebanese society, but as the very threads that make up its fabric? What I am advocating here is not a multiculturalist reading of Lebanon against its nationalist grain. Neither is it a move from the periphery to the center in an attempt to recover the voices erased from historical narrative.

On the contrary, it is an invitation to reckon with who we are. To reckon with the place we have collectively created.

The place is us. It does not hate us. It is not beautiful. It is us, and we, sometimes, are beautiful. 

[1] In her editorial introduction to the section on Human in The Derivative’s third issue, Sumayya Kassamali wrote that the texts began with the speculative provocation, “What would it look like, to you, for us to meet in a Beirut that allowed us to encounter each other as humans?”. In addition to Sumayya’s editorial guidance, she created the space where this decade-long conversation with Beza took place. This text is heavily informed by her personal insight and scholarly work.

[2] Ibn el-balad, (ابن البلد) literally ‘the sons of the country’, refers to Lebanese nationals.

[3] Paraphrasing Nasri Hajjaj’s poem Atathakkar (اتذكر), quoted below.

[4] For more on the revolution see:

Makkawi, Moné. “‘Your Decision and Ours’: Palestinian Strikes in Lebanon and Contemporary Urban Rights.” Arab Urbanism العمران العربيّ, 14 Aug. 2020, [English];

Sleiman, Hana & Islam al-Khatib. “حراك المخيّمات الفلسطينية في لبنان: محاولة جديدة للخروج من الهامش.” 
7iber حبر, Aug 9 2019
حراك المخيّمات الفلسطينية في لبنان: محاولة جديدة للخروج من الهامش – 7iber | حبر [Arabic]

[5] Hajjaj, Nasri (1951-2021). “اتذكر” Atathakkar. Lebanon: undated. Originally published on the late author’s Facebook page


المخيم ليس جميلاً
لا شيء فيه
يدعو إلى زعزعة الروح سحراً
ولا حتى دوالي العنب
وأشجار التين
والحواكير الصغيرة الفخورة
بالبصل والنعناع
والفجل والمردقوش
والحبق سارق انتباه الأنوف
المخيم لعنة
كنا نعتقد بأنها مؤقتة
لكنها استوطنت أرواحنا
فرحنا نبحث عن الجماليّ في
أزقتها وسقوفها الهشة
،غافلين عن الجمال الخفيّ
لم يكن في المخيم
ما هو جميل
نحن الجميلون
وليس المخيم

نصري حجاج –

[6] Makkawi, M.