Where being Muslim and black is reason enough for a beating

Christians and Muslims are equal, but being black can invite assault
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The Independent Online

I knew something was wrong when Mona called me to say she had fallen down in the street and been taken to hospital. For six years, Mona has cleaned The Independent's Beirut office and cooked for a 100 guests. She is not clumsy.

I knew something was wrong when Mona called me to say she had fallen down in the street and been taken to hospital. For six years, Mona has cleaned The Independent's Beirut office and cooked for a 100 guests. She is not clumsy.

A tall, handsome woman from Togo who speaks French like a machine-gun, she is punctual and hard-working. Her best dish - a pastry topped with a mass of boiling cheese - is a speciality I have named "Pizza Togolaisi".

Falling down in a street was not Mona. And when she turned up two days later, I realised at once what had happened. Her forehead was grotesquely bruised, cut twice by what appeared to be a sharp object. Like many Africans in Beirut, Mona has been harassed by men before.

Several years ago, she had to flee a taxi-driver who not only turned into a would-be rapist but who then tried to get the local police to charge her with assault when she refused his advances. Mona is a Muslim and wears a scarf. And she lives in the mainly Christian eastern district of Beirut.

But last week's story was the worst she has told me. "I was taking the 'service' [shared] taxi to west Beirut from home," she said. "The driver said he'd take me here and then he picked up another woman who wanted to go to Bourj Hammoud, which is in the opposite direction - and he turned off then to go first to Bourj Hammoud." Mona objected in vain. So she climbed out of the taxi to find alternative transport.

"But the driver jumped out after me and said I'd have to pay the fare. I said no, that he hadn't taken me where he'd promised. Then he climbed out of his taxi and came towards me, shouting 'f ... you people' so I started to run."

Mona admits that after being chased for some metres and in an act of panic, she threw a piece of concrete at the taxi driver. That's when the beating began. "First, he hit me very hard on the face and he had these big rings on his fingers that cut my skin. Then a man came from behind, pretending to separate us. But he actually pulled my scarf from my hair over my face so I couldn't see and then pinioned my arms behind my back so the driver could go on beating me on the head and shoulders."

All this, Mona said, while a grey-uniformed traffic policeman stood on the pavement and watched without attempting to protect her. After a minute - by which time her scarf had fallen from her face - several African friends recognised Mona, intervened and took her to hospital. The doctors asked if she knew the driver's name or the number of the taxi. Of course, she did not.

I told Mona that if she ever saw the driver again, she was to call me at once and I would hurry to the street and have him arrested. Some hope. The word of a black African cleaning woman doesn't count against a Lebanese man. Or woman. Indeed, I have often been embarrassed, visiting the homes of well-educated Lebanese families, by their behaviour towards their servants. There is no "please" or "thank you", often just shouted commands with a faint echo of imperial India. "Jib"is the commonest word; it means "bring".

Many Lebanese families with Sri Lankan maids simply confiscate their passports when they arrive in the country, virtually imprisoning them in the house, publishing their names in the newspapers if they dare to escape and seek employment elsewhere.

It is an odd fact that most cases of racist harassment appear to take place in the eastern, Christian part of Beirut - indeed most, though not all, of the daily crime reports in the papers emanate from Christian districts where, I suppose, Mona suffers the combined crime of being black and Muslim. Her taxi driver was a Christian. So was the policeman who did nothing. But so were the medical staff who tried to help her. And Mona's predecessor, Joanna - a plump Christian Ghanaian woman who would sing hymns in the kitchen as shells rained down around the house - was often abused in Muslim districts as a betenjan, an eggplant.

So I often find myself wondering why a country that has suffered so much, whose people have been treated as cannon fodder by so many foreign armies, whose self-respect has been maintained against all the odds, should show so little compassion towards Third World foreigners.

True, an anti-corruption campaign by the Lebanese president ended an extortion racket in which African workers had to pay hundreds of dollars for renewal of their identity papers. But in a nation in which equality of Muslim and Christian before the law has become an act of faith, being African or black invites insult and assault. Mona's wounds speak for themselves.