Breaking the equation ( Sri Lankan = maid)

In a new series of illustrated Arabic language children's books, author Laila Zahed and illustrator Maya Tawil aim to raise awareness and create more tolerance of foreign migrant workers' cultures among Lebanon's youngest generation. MENASSAT had a chat with the author.
The cover of author Laila Zahed and illustrator Maya Tawil's book "Mimi in Sri Lanka." © Now Lebanon

BEIRUT, May 18, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In “Mimi in the Philippines,” one of the three books in a series published by Beirut-based Turning Point Books, the young school girl Mimi travels to the Philippines in her dreams where she learns more about the land and culture of her nanny.

During her imaginary trip, Mimi is taught greeting phrases in Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines, and learns about the island’s nature and resources, as well as the country’s culinary traditions, from a “local friend” that accompanies Mimi in her travels.

A similar scenario plays out in the two other books making up the series. Mimi travels to Ethiopia and Sri Lanka in her dreams - two countries that, along with the Philippines, constitute the homelands of the majority of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers.

Each book also features a map showing the location of the country in relation to Lebanon, as well as a brief fact sheet providing the reader with some basic knowledge, such as the country's local language and population size. 

According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch in April 2008, Lebanon has an estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the country, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

While these workers play a crucial role in many Lebanese households, a significant number of them face exploitation and frequent abuse by agencies and their employers.

“The most common complaints made by domestic workers to embassies and nongovernmental organizations include non-payment or delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace, no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. In some cases, workers have died while attempting to escape these conditions, some by jumping from balconies,” HRW reported about the situation of foreign workers in Lebanon.

"One-sided relationship"

The “Mimi series” is Laila Zahed’s first book project. A geneticist by profession, Zahed’s previous publications mostly consisted of scientific papers in medical journals.

But with this project, Zahed took somewhat of a 180 degree turn, as the author is not “particularly familiar with the field of books and publishing,” she told MENASSAT.

Speaking about the series, Zahed said it all started with her longtime-friend Maya Tawil, the illustrator of the Mimi books, who encouraged her to do a joint book project.

“When I decided to explore a different direction in my life, I started thinking of a subject I could cover in children's books, which would bring a fresh new idea. So came the idea of books for children, which would tell them about the countries their helpers at home come from, ” Zahed told MENASSAT.

The idea behind the project, said Zahed, stems from the need for more understanding of the cultures of foreign workers in Lebanese society. In essence, she sought to increase intercultural exchange between Lebanese and foreign workers, in an attempt to debunk stereotypes through the books

“My idea originally came from the fact that the relationship with foreign workers (in Lebanon) is often one-sided. The domestic worker at home is often the one who adapts to our culture: she learns our language, learns to eat or even cook our food, knows our country but often no one asks her where she is coming from and how she expresses herself in her own language. Through these books, I want to break the prevalent equation of Sri Lankan = maid, Phillipina = maid,” Zahed said.

Begin at an early age

And in Zahed’s opinion, the best way to foster tolerance and respect of other cultures is to begin at an early age. Hence, the young target audience.
“I wanted these books to be for children between the ages of five and eight because this is the age where children who can read are cared for most closely by their helpers. I thought that if we started early with the children, they would understand and respect the people they are living with at home, and would grow into adults who are tolerant and respectful of other cultures and social classes,” she said.

Zahed’s texts are accompanied by Tawil’s colorful illustrations and photos from the countries of Mimi’s travels, giving readers the feeling of a children’s travel diary.

“Maya (Tawil) wanted to create Arabic children's books which are modern and attractive, yet simple and clear. The books read a bit like a scrapbook where Mimi has put the photographs she has taken during her trip. The photos also give authenticity to the story and the country it talks about,” said Zahed.

In terms of future projects, Zahed said she hopes to continue working on the “Mimi series.” The recently published series was sponsored by The International Labor Organization through the Canadian Development Fund.

Zahed might do the next books on Madagascar or Nepal - two countries which domestic workers are also recruited from.  There is also the chance that the Mimi books expand to become an entire collection of children’s books.

“The Mimi series could also be a series of books allowing children to know about other countries in a fun way. So we could also make Mimi in France, or Mimi in Japan, or even Mimi in Lebanon,” she said.