As I strolled casually down this major city street I savored the sweet smells of spices as I walked by small grocery shops, admired the dangling gold earrings and embroidered “saris” of women giggling as they strutted down the sidewalk, and edged closer than I normally would to passersby hoping to catch a few phrases in my mother tongue of Bengali. This would seem like a typical day for a Kiva Fellow cruising the crowded streets of Kolkata, but strangely enough Kiva does not yet work in India, and it took me a few surreal moments to remember that I was still in Beirut. Little did I know that on this seemingly normal Sunday I would find myself in Beirut’s multi-ethnic shopping and food district of “Dora” to celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year with my cleaning lady and her friends, also service workers from South Asia living in Lebanon.
A Feast to Celebrate the New Year:
The way this Sunday adventure came about was when my cleaning lady told me that April 14 was Sri Lankan New Year. Generally a fan of any country’s new year and extremely fond of my charismatic, spunky, and extremely sweet cleaning lady, I suggested that we do something to celebrate. We agreed that a lunch outing in Dora, famous among foreign workers for its cheap goods and food, would be an appropriate destination for the day. The preferred restaurant of the group was closed for a reason at first unclear to me. With the conversation between the restaurant owner and the group in Tamil, I was, for the first time since my arrival in Lebanon, in a strange position where I could not communicate in Arabic. I came to understand that the police had raided the restaurant to check if customers (mostly South Asian) had the appropriate residency and work documents to live in Lebanon. Apparently (as confirmed by the Filipina cleaning woman in the Ameen office) this has become a common occurrence in Dora. Thankfully all in our group had the required legal documents. Thankfully (and sadly) I also knew that simply being American meant that I would not likely be interrogated on my reasons for roaming the streets of Dora on this Sunday afternoon. Determined to fulfill our mission and fill our stomachs, we marched on to another nearby restaurant.
Located above a South Asian supermarket, the restaurant’s décor was far from inviting. But we did not let the tattered plastic table cloths and stacked soda bottle crates in the corner deter us from enjoying our feast. With only a few words from the group, the server, an Indian man from Punjab, intrinsically understood the food request and brought out several small bowls of Sri Lankan delicacies—parsley and coconut salad, chicken curry, sautéed eggplant, dried spiced fish, and yellow lentils. Carefully watching the behavior of the group members, my French roommate and I were pleased that we could unabashedly indulge in the experience and eat with our hands. After filing in a line to wash our turmeric-stained hands, we returned to the table. My roommate and I had already agreed before leaving our apartment that day that we would pay the bill. I tried and failed to intercept the bill as the waiter handed it to one of the Sri Lankan women. After a small squabbling match with the ladies, we reluctantly let them pay. I wrongly assumed that we should treat them; I figured it only made sense as they are all working as laborers in Lebanon. But I did not realize that on this occasion, the celebration of their country’s New Year, it was not a question of money. They were clearly proud and genuinely sincere to share this special day with two unlikely Western guests in an unlikely place, this run-down restaurant in Dora.
Shopping in Sri Lankan Style:
I have to say our Sri Lankan feast was extra enjoyable as it followed two intensive hours of trekking from store to store with these charming and energetic ladies. Although small in stature, these South Asian women (4 Sri Lankan and 1 Nepali) were on a serious undertaking to shop before they would even think of food. And shop they did! From imposter sportswear for $1 for their children who they may not see for a year or two, to vibrant $7 saris for their female relatives in Sri Lanka, to a special purchase of a $415 ornamental gold necklace from an Armenian jewelry shop, these women did their part to support the Lebanese economy! The adventure to the Armenian gold shop was by far the most interesting as it was packed with South Asian customers waiting two rows deep to be served and there was a comedic exchange between the customers in broken Arabic and English and the two Armenian storeowners in Arabic, equally broken English, and even Tamil!
I would expect to hear Hindi and Urdu spoken in the markets of Dubai by South Asian vendors, and I have grown accustomed to the nonchalant intermingling of Arabic, French, and English among Lebanon’s more educated classes, but I did not ever expect to hear an Armenian jeweler in Beirut to negotiate gold prices in Tamil, a language spoken thousands of miles away in Southern India and Sri Lanka. Yet again Lebanon had managed to impress and intrigue me with its complex and diverse social layers.
Lebanon without the Lebanese:
I realize that Kiva lenders may be surprised and confused why I have written several blog entries on the foreign workers in Lebanon when they are typically investing in businesses of Lebanese entrepreneurs. Maybe it is because almost every wealthy home, large office, or popular restaurant employs a foreign worker from Asia or Africa. Maybe it is because of my own Indian heritage that I am fascinated by the strong presence of service workers from South Asia; I am trying to figure out how I myself fit into this intricate social web as I am American, but also Indian, I can pass as an Arab (most days), and I am here in Lebanon as a temporary foreign worker, though in a professional capacity. Whatever the reason, it is clear that a Lebanon without the Lebanese will never be and I am truly grateful for that. But a Lebanon without international influences, be it language, culture, or the presence of foreign service workers, also will never be….at least not the Lebanon I have come to know. It may take a few more samplings of the homemade Indian sweets that I purchased in Dora for me to fully understand Lebanon’s complicated cultural context!
Nishita Roy is a Kiva Fellow (Class 10) serving in Lebanon. Get involved with Kiva’s Lebanon partners, Ameen s.a.l. and Al Majmoua, today! Make an impact by lending to a Middle East entrepreneur today!