In the Country of the Servants, an Eyeful

Among well-to-do Lebanese, a ‘Sri Lankan’ is slang for a household servant. A Lebanese journalist steps off the plane in Sri Lanka, homeland of the servants, and finds a strange country where everything seems to work better and more efficiently than back home. Al Akhbar visits the ‘Sri Lankans’:

Colombo – Sri Lanka is a nationality, not a job. That should be clear to anyone.

Not so in Lebanon. A “Sri Lankan,” here, could be from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, or the Philippines. The identity has become a synonym for domestic service workers. In Lebanon, it is perfectly normal to hear someone asking her friend, “Which country is your ‘Sri Lankan’ from?” The question is full of ignorance, even hatred and irrational racism, pointing to a feeling of Lebanese superiority toward the people of Sri Lanka.

Those who ask it somehow fail to realize there is a full-fledged country called Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon and, in ancient times, Serendipity. It has a civilization which goes further back in time, to ages before Christ. Yet some idiots here reduce the people who live there to the status of “servant.” Some are unaware that their favorite tea was grown, manufactured, and made famous by that people.

In fact, the issue goes beyond domestic workers. The moniker “Sri Lankan” in Lebanon refers to anything considered “lower.” One often hears Lebanese comparing a woman to a Sri Lankan, as a form of denigration.

Tell an acquaintance in Lebanon you are going to visit Sri Lanka, and you will get a glimpse of this condescension: the eyebrows go up, a cringe crosses their face, and the disbelieving question comes: “Are you seriously going to Sri Lanka?,” as if you were saying something incredible or unbelievable. But why this disgusting arrogance?

The moment you touch down in Sri Lanka, you can’t help noticing how things are different here. The airport in the capital Colombo is where the surprises begin. The prepaid mobile phone card is not just cheap, compared to Lebanon, but high-speed Internet mobile service, 4G, has been available throughout the country, which is five times the size of Lebanon, for over a year. In Lebanon, it is still under trial and limited to a few neighborhoods in Beirut.

The 3G service, which has recently arrived in Lebanon, has been available in Sri Lanka for the past four years. The network does not break down, whether in Colombo in the west, Kandy in the center of the country, or Trincomalee in the north. The service is fast and dependable. Nobody curses the Internet like we do in Lebanon.

Public highways in Sri Lanka are more similar to those in Europe. The white lines on the highways are as bright as snow. The roads are illuminated throughout the night. There is nothing here, in any city, which resembles the dark highway between Tripoli and Beirut.

In a country of 20 million, you rarely hear erratic car horns and might think silence is inscribed in the law. Later, you would find out that the people hate noise and prefer serenity. They know nothing of car drifting [tashfit, a popular bad-boy activity among local youth].

We ask our taxi driver, Atholinaka, about power cuts. “Employees fix whatever malfunctions occur on the power lines due to the weather. It happens an average of four times a month and only lasts for a few hours,” he answers. He is unaware of what this question means in Lebanon.

Power cuts only occur during emergency malfunctions. Electricity is a given and there is no need to discuss it. In short, electricity in Sri Lanka is not rationed. After a few days spent around the luxurious tea farms, you ask yourself, is Lebanon better than Sri Lanka at anything?

Some might say Lebanon went through a civil war and is today dealing with its consequences. But they would soon be disappointed to find out that Sri Lanka had a 25-year civil war between its two main ethnicities, the Hindu Tamil Tigers and the majority Buddhists who controlled the government. It ended four years ago and Sri Lanka is moving forward.

So Lebanon has no excuse; there is no reason for this sense of superiority. If we insisted on making racist distinctions, all indications would suggest that it is Lebanon that is inferior. The Lebanese, infamous for mocking other nationalities, are discovering that those nations are more civilized and advanced than themselves. Thus, the joke is on the Lebanese, whether they realize it or not.

While the Lebanese parliament was extending its term after failing to issue a new electoral law, Sri Lanka was enjoying an electoral process based on proportional representation. The Lebanese cannot dream of such a law, under the pretext of parity, quotas, not to mention the most famous mantra, “coexistence.”

Again, such pretexts collapse at Sri Lanka’s borders, even though the country, like Lebanon, is composed of various religions and sects, mainly Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Moreover, Lebanon does not suffer from ethnic conflicts, while Sri Lanka has several ethnicities, the Sinhalese, Tamil, Moro, and Malawi.

Everyone over 18 years old can vote in Sri Lanka. Do the activists in Lebanon, who have not stopped calling for lowering the voting age, know about this?

In recent years, many people have become aware of the occupation of Lebanon’s public beachfront. Citizens cannot go to the beach without first having to pay a resort for access even though beach access is a legal right for every citizen. However, the corrupt and influential barons are stronger than the law.

This is something you will not see in Sri Lanka. The country’s beaches facing the Indian Ocean outnumber those of Lebanon. Furthermore, they are the property of all citizens. Poor people can walk along the sand across from the fanciest hotels and resorts in Colombo, alongside the tourists and the wealthy. The same goes for all the coastal cities, from Negombo to Galle.

People here eat what they grow. Their relation to the land is strong. The country is the number one exporter of tea worldwide, but it is also famous for its rice, coconut, and rubber. This might annoy some tourists, but so what? The priority is for citizens. This is how tourists are seen by the people of Sri Lanka. It’s what the grocer, fishmonger, and leather merchant say. It is a general culture, opposite to what we have here. They do not suffer from feelings of inferiority to the white man and are proud of their civilization and current situation.

A visitor to Sri Lanka does not need much time to discover the level of culture and education. Most city dwellers speak English, going back to British colonialism in the island, which ended in 1948. However, the educational system is sophisticated, free from elementary to university, and compulsory until 14 years of age. Therefore, 90 percent of 15-year-old Sri Lankans are literate. In Lebanon, on the other hand, education is not free and not compulsory after the age of 13.

Sri Lanka is an agricultural country of the finest type. People here eat what they grow. Their relation to the land is strong. The country is the number one exporter of tea worldwide, but it is also famous for its rice, coconut, and rubber. Agricultural activity absorbs 50 percent of the workforce, with the remaining work is distributed between industry and services. Today, all that is left of the relationship between Lebanese and their land are chants and traditional songs. If it was not for imports, we would not find anything to eat.

As for transportation, in addition to cars, the use of motorcycles is encouraged by the state (as opposed to their arbitrary suppression in Lebanon due to the inability to organize them). There is also a network of rail that covers the country. Indian-made Tok Toks are also prevalent. Rarely does one find someone on a motorcycle here without a helmet. The percentage of women drivers is almost that of the men. The culture of “breaking the law” is not very popular there. Everyone fears policemen and respects them.

Even animal rights supporters will find what they are looking for in Sri Lanka. Dogs sleep in the street. Cars tend to avoid them, not the opposite. People’s relationship with animals is humanistic. They do not hurt them and provide them with food on the roadside, as part of the popular culture.

This could be the impact of Buddhism, which forbids the harming of animals. There is no need for organizations calling for animal rights here.

This is Sri Lanka, or some of it at least, the country whose citizens do not know much about Lebanon, except that it is an Arab country, “like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” A tour guide in the Sigiriya region says the only thing he knows about Arabs is that “a Sri Lankan domestic worker was beheaded by sword last month after being falsely accused.”

The man, in his 70s, knows only this about Arabs. You are forced to tell him that you are Arab but not from Saudi. However, you feel ashamed about telling him what happens to the domestic workers in Lebanon, of all nationalities, who are treated like slaves under the oppressive “sponsorship” system.

Mohamed Nazzal