Below is an interview we conducted with Alex Shams, a coordinator with the Migrant Workers Task Force in Lebanon. The organization recently produced three excellent spoof tourism ads for Lebanon, describing the different abuses domestic workers suffer in Lebanon.
M-R: Could you describe the work of the Migrant Workers Task Force?
Alex Shams.: The Task Force is a volunteer collective of activists on migrant worker rights issues in Lebanon. We work on these issues through a variety of initiatives- for example, we have weekly language classes in which we teach English, French, and Arabic to migrant workers. In addition, we have organized protests, vigils for migrant workers who are victims of abuse, and fundraisers for human rights activists from within the migrant community.
M-R: What is the idea behind these satirical videos? What is their aim?
A. S.: The videos wanted to poke fun at the idea of Lebanon as a major tourist destination by examining the experience of hundreds of thousands of foreigners during their stay in Lebanon.
Originally, we came up with the idea because of recent Ministry of Tourism ad campaign, Lebanon Blues, that sought to sell Lebanon by highlighting its various attractions. In a particularly misogynistic and demeaning clip, it attempted to sell Lebanon by offering clips of women's body parts and focusing on a rather horny man wishing to come back.
Our revulsion at the Ministry's decision to objectify Lebanese women and use their bodies to attract tourists set us to thinking about how we could respond, and thus was born "Welcome to Lebanon," the videos the Ministry of Tourism SHOULD be showing foreigners who come to Lebanon.
M-R: What would you tell people in Lebanon who might say that you're tarnishing the image of Lebanon by doing these videos?
A. S.: I think that Lebanese society has to come to terms with the fact that the endemic racism and slavery-like conditions for many migrant workers is a massive shame for this entire country, and pointing out the horrific treatment of foreigners rightly brings this situation to light. Hopefully the shame of having the country's reputation "tarnished" can be redirected into shame at abusing human beings whose only crime is to have come to Lebanon for work.
M-R: Do you think most people in Lebanon are aware of the oppression and mistreatment of the 1.2 million migrant workers in their country? Do you think that non-Lebanese are aware of this serious problem?
A. S.: I think unfortunately violence and oppression against migrant workers has become normalized in Lebanon. People don't consider locking a woman up in your house for 2 years or not giving her a day off a human rights violation; they consider it ordinary! Even educated people well-versed in the rights of minorities and other oppressed groups, do not see these widespread abuses as problematic. While most people would protest violent abuse of migrant workers, they do not see the denial of basic human rights like the examples highlighted in the films as problematic!
While it is important for non-Lebanese to learn about the issues of migrant rights and campaign for the implementation and enforcement of international legislation on the issues, it ultimately rests with the Lebanese to affect positive anti-racist change in their own society.
Here are the videos produced by MWTF and directed by Jowe Harfouche. The names of the other people involved in the production of these videos are listed in the descriptions of the YouTube videos.