Racist Business as Usual at Beirut Airport
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Monday, October 8, 2012
Beirut - On October 6, this past Saturday, Abed Shaheen was waiting at Gate 11 in Beirut’s Rafik Hariri Airport to board a late afternoon Dubai-bound flight.
To him, there was nothing exceptional about the passengers waiting to board the Air Arabia flight; it was the usual diverse mix of people that often travel from Beirut to Dubai, and vice versa.
Then, an airport employee, a woman in her late 20s wearing the signature turquoise blue of Middle East Airlines (MEA), stood at the counter of Gate 11 and made an announcement. Shaheen could hardly believe what he heard next. “Filipino people stop talking,” she shouted in English. She then turned to her male counterpart beside her and laughed.
She continued with a slightly modified warning, in what Shaheen described as a sarcastic tone, “Filipino Nepal people – talking not allowed here.”
She directed her comments toward a group of women, who, once in seemingly high spirits, were now silent. The other passengers who had queued for boarding weren’t impressed with the employee’s “joke.” Shaheen, unwilling to let her continue, approached the counter and “made a scene,” as he described it. The male employee threatened to void his ticket and the female employee chimed in, “Management doesn’t even want this kind of people on the flight,” and, “Even if you complain, this will be thrown away and we dare you to do anything about it.”
The employees then went about business as usual, validating boarding passes for the already delayed flight.
As is custom with stories so repulsive that they border on unbelievable, Shaheen posted it on Facebook. He also filed a complaint with Air Arabia – even though it was not their employee – and then wrote an email to MEA Ground Handling’s general manager Richard Mujais.
In a phone call with Al-Akhbar, Mujais said of the incident, “This is not acceptable. It’s not within our culture – our staff are not trained this way. We have to investigate the situation and see what has happened.”
Mujais wouldn’t give details on what an investigation would entail nor how long it would take, but he said, “We’re not going to ignore it if that’s what you’re worried about. It will be taken into full account, that I can assure you.”
Asked if this has happened in the past, he said no, that this was an “odd” and “most unusual” case. “In our profession the customer is right – he’s always right – but we have to check and see,” he said.
Even if Mujais doesn’t see this incident as indicative of wider trends at the Beirut airport, one look at the arrivals terminal would prove otherwise.
When planes offload at the Beirut airport, most arriving passengers – after immigration and customs – are free to leave the airport. Female domestic workers, who arrive mostly via Doha and Dubai, are not. They are escorted off the planes by tan-uniformed officers to a room marked “General Security” where they wait to be retrieved by their future employers.
In the makeshift waiting area facing the holding center, rows of metal chairs face a flat-screen television that reads, “Claim Domestic Workers” in Arabic. Below it, a ticket dispenser assigns numbers to Lebanese who have arrived to “claim” their worker. The electronic display uses the Arabic word istilam for claim – the same word employed at the nearby baggage pick-up.
The Lebanese who have taken a ticket from the dispenser sit patiently in the chairs and look on as dozens of women enter the restricted room. Over the course of an hour watching the room, only three women are “claimed” by their future employers. The moment of tradeoff is sealed when the General Security officer leads the woman from the room and hands the new arrivee’s passport directly to the employer. On this day, two of the three Lebanese returned the passports immediately to their rightful owners.
The General Security outpost at the airport is just one of the physical nodes of global labor control designed to keep track of incoming workers, but it also helps explain how the MEA ground employee’s action wasn’t just another example of casual racism. While there’s no doubt that the employee was acting on her own deplorable racist sentiments, she might’ve felt that a little rough talk to keep these “Nepal Filipinos” in line was a part of her job. Even sadder is the realization that the airport employee, in her assessment of management not wanting these “kind of people” on the flight, might have been speaking the truth as she knew it.