A Jordanian media man came for a visit the other day. Accompanying him was Barakat, a diminutive and shabbily dressed Saudi with impressive foliage of hair on his face which instantly reminded me of Pancho Villa. Barakat had a problem they needed to air out.
It so happened that a couple of days before their visit, Barakat’s Filipino maid had unexpectedly disappeared. His wife woke up one morning only to find the maid’s sleeping mat folded, and the front door unlocked. Her frantic calls to Barakat who was at work at the time brought him back rapidly to their apartment.
After checking out their place for any missing items of value, Barakat sought to question some of the neighbours in the adjoining apartments. No one had observed anything. The building watchman was next, but he was of no help. He was busy around the corner most of the morning washing and cleaning the landlord’s two cars.
Barakat was perplexed. How dare this woman do this to him, he muttered as he sat across me. For some unexplained reasons, I could not help get Clint Eastwood and those spaghetti westerns with their array of villains out of my mind as I tried to focus my wandering thoughts. Barakat would have been on the receiving end of Eastwood’s gun muzzle.
“Are you sure she took off voluntarily? Is there any chance she may have been in some of an accident or is simply out on an errand…”? I asked before he interrupted me. “We do not allow her to leave our apartment … ever. She was brought here to work, and that’s all we ever let her do” he replied emphatically.
“Have you informed the concerned authorities” I continued less graciously, feeling slightly uncomfortable in the presence of this man whose mannerism was beginning to make me realise why his maid may have run away? Samir, the Jordanian, at this point, interjected that they both had spent the previous day going from one government agency to the other to get all this information taken care of. After several perplexing detours from one bureaucracy to another, they believed that they had covered all bases.
“Does your wife work, … And what can I do to help?” I cautiously asked with mixed feelings. “No, my wife is not employed anywhere. And she is not a housekeeper or a maid. That is why I went through all the trouble of applying for and recruiting a maid. This maid was never good from the start,” he continued. “All she did was clean the apartment, do the laundry, and iron the clothes. And there are only five of us … my wife, our three children, and me. And what irritated me the most was that she could never cook an appealing Kabsa or fix my Sheesha right.”
In the evenings, when Barakat’s relatives came for a visit, the maid was expected to prepare tea and other delicacies for the guests, which was not such an unusual demand, he added. When all the family members had retired for the night, she was counted upon to mop up the mess before she went to sleep. On weekends, Barakat usually entertained his extended family, and his maid was required to prepare food and desert for well over two dozen people, in spite of the protocols of the Covid-19 demanding otherwise!
Barakat evoked memories of tyranny against hired help, untold tales of terror and persecution against some of the gentler denizens on this planet. And Barakat did not appear to be a very gentle individual.
As Barakat sat there spewing forth his wrath and contempt on the maid and her whole civilisation, I could not help but think that here was an ignorant man who for some twist of economic abundance, has assumed that he has purchased a human being and her freedom. Slavery was abolished centuries ago, and yet there emerges a breed of individuals who by virtue of their fortune seek to make slaves of those they employ.
Samir at this point noticed the quizzical frown on my face and interrupted to ask me if I could be of any help. With a look of disdain, and a shake of my head I silently ended up this encounter.
Here in the Kingdom, we do have our share of deviates, criminals, and what not. Neither our religion nor culture condones the harming or abuse of others. But we will not deny that aberrations exist within small pockets of our society. A few abusive employers do not constitute the make-up of a nation. With imported domestic labour bordering two million in this country, sadly there will exist a number who will be abused, tortured, or discriminated against. The government has passed enough laws in the books in recent times for the legal protection of the domestic worker.
However, when such cases come to light, the call from all quarters of this society is for swift and harsh punishment against the perpetrators, whoever they may be. Quite often, social media becomes a tool for seeking justice. The majority of Saudis do not excuse or condone such behaviour. And neither does our religion or government.
— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena