Saturday, January 19, 2013

An Ethiopian theater of servitude comes to the NEST

The Daily Star

Domestic worker by day, artist by night, always outspoken, Rahel Zegeye appears undaunted by the fact that General Security’s censorship department has yet to approve the script of her first play, “Shouting Without a Listener.”

“If they refuse we’ll hold a protest,” she says, laughing. “No really, I hope they approve it.”

Zegeye, 32, comes across as irrepressible and self-assured as she welcomes The Daily Star to her office. The office is not, in fact, hers. It belongs to a friend of her sponsor, one of the many supporters and allies who have rallied around Zegeye since she became a leader in the movement for migrant workers’ rights. When her friend is out of town, she takes messages and uses the office as her own.

Zegeye moved to Lebanon from her native Ethiopia 13 years ago, leaving behind a budding career in television and theater. At the time, her father, a former police captain who she cites as one of her inspirations, had been fired from his job and the family was in dire straits.

Like many women who come to Lebanon from Africa and Asia to labor in domestic service, Zegeye found herself trapped in an abusive family with no support from her embassy or the Lebanese authorities. She took solace in the community of her church, and there she began to collect the stories of women like her.

“I was going to church every Sunday so I would see many problems,” she recalls, “women who had been beaten, abused, or were sick, and some who died. No one was taking action.”

Zegeye fashioned a scenario from the anecdotes she collected. Using her own camera, she devoted her rare days off to filming and directing, employing other Ethiopian women as actors.

When Israel’s monthlong siege began in July 2006, Zegeye left her employer for good, expecting to fly home as soon as the airport reopened. In the meantime, she started working for a Lebanese friend who offered to sponsor her. Zegeye decided to stay in Beirut even after the war ended and flights resumed, but it would take another four years to wrest her papers back from her former employer.

Zegeye’s experience and that of her friends pushed her to become more active. She eventually finished her film, “Beirut,” which was screened in town and received coverage from international press outlets such as the BBC and Al-Jazeera.

“My father said the media is the best way to reach people,” says Zegeye of her return to her roots as an entertainer. “Change needs to come from the bottom up. How long before people learn this?”

Following her film’s success in attracting attention to the plight of migrant workers, Zegeye coordinated with the Migrant Workers Task Force in organizing a concert in Ethiopia. Its objective was to raise awareness of the conditions Ethiopians face abroad and to pressure the state to be more active in defending them.

While back in her home country, Zegeye met the families of many women with whom they’d lost contact since traveling to Lebanon, or who wanted Zegeye to check up on them.

“One woman came to me saying, ‘My daughter is missing. Please look for her,’” Zegeye explains. Upon returning to Lebanon she discovered that, unbeknownst to her family, the daughter had died.

“They told me: ‘Yes, she died, they buried her here.’” Zegeye says, her features pinched with emotion. “I said, ‘How? How did they just bury her?’”

The incident inspired Zegeye to write “Shouting without a Listener.” She says she’s eschewed a simplistic black-and-white representation of victimhood and attempts instead to explore the intricate relationship between Ethiopian women, their employers and their host country.

“I want it to be a surprise, but I will say there is a good family, a bad family, an office and an embassy,” she says. “It’s about a girl named Lili and how she bears everything she goes through, how she helps her friend, herself and her madame. It’s about love, and showing that we are people just like you.”

Zegeye wrote the script in Amharic, one of the official languages of Ethiopia, then translated it into Arabic. The cast is a mix of Ethiopians and Lebanese, all amateurs, most of them somehow connected to the migrant worker community.

Though she still works as a domestic, Zegeye is no longer bound by an employment agency or an abusive sponsor. She has considered returning to Ethiopia, but speaking out about her government’s failure to protect its citizens has earned her enemies back home, and she’s even received threatening messages. She is currently waiting to see whether Addis Ababa will renew her passport before deciding whether she can return.

“They are selling us like oil,” Zegeye says.

Whether she stays in Lebanon, returns to Ethiopia or immigrates elsewhere, Zegeye remains committed to continuing the fight she started.

“I want my rights,” she says. “I’m working for the mothers.”

“Shouting Without a Listener” is scheduled to be staged Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Near East School of Theology, Sourati Street (off Jeanne D’Arc), in Ras Beirut. For more information, please call 01-354-194, 01-346-708, or 01-349-901.

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