Welcome to the Lanka and Philippines Stores. It’s a call shop, located on a small street near Tripoli’s international fair. Most days, it appears empty. But on Sundays, it comes to life.
Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, and Filipino women stand in the store’s alley, talking on cordless phones, leaning against the wall. Those without phones gather in small circles and wait for their friends to finish. Most are dressed up and a few carry shopping bags.
These women are migrant domestic workers—they work as maids, nannies, and servants and live with middle- and upper-class Lebanese families. On Sundays, domestic workers with decent employers leave their workplaces to meet friends, attend church, and call home.
When in Tripoli, I want to speak to these women. I want to discover their Lebanon. What is your favourite Lebanese recipe? What are your favourite spots in the city? What’s your perception of urban life here? The 2006 war? How do you feel about balconies—where so many domestic workers hang laundry, but also themselves?
I can’t ask a stranger these questions. But maybe one of the women will speak to me about the call shop. On our last Sunday in Lebanon, S. and I grab an umbrella and walk to the shop.
A young woman waits by the door. She’s from Ethiopia or Eritrea, I can’t tell. She tells us that she lives and works in Beirut, but that today, she’s visiting her sister in Tripoli. Earlier, they attended mass and shopped on Azmi Street. I sense she’s open to talking, so I continue. Since when have you been working here? “Too much,” she says, looking away and laughing. I re-ask the question. She says, “two months.” Surprised, I reply, “You’ve not been here very long.” She looks confused. So do I. So, I ask the question again. She answers, “four years.”
I understand now. Today was this woman’s first day off in two months. She changes the subject and looks over to the women with the cordless phones. She proposes I enter the call shop.
Inside the Lanka and Philippines Stores, five or six women huddle around a young man. They call him Ali. He stands near his desk with one cordless phone in each hand (as mentioned in an earlier post, most shop owners and merchants have a desk in their shops). We loiter near the action and become part of the huddle.
Displayed on the shelves are beauty products, clothes, Filipino snacks, and DVDs. MoneyGram posters hang above Ali’s desk. The women call out Ali’s name as though he were an annoying nephew who could do no good. A Filipina, sitting on a chair, watches the crowd. She moves her head back and forth at the frenzy and tells us that today is the busiest day of the week. She holds a small piece of paper, the size of a Post-it note. On it are three phone numbers.
Another woman hands Ali-the-telephone-operator a piece of paper. He dials the number, waits for an answer, says hello, and hands the woman the phone. Phone on ear, the woman leaves the shop to talk in the alley.
I turn to Ali. S. translates. “Are you the owner?” “Yes, I am.” He looks to be in his twenties.
He asks me if I want to call my country. “No.”
He looks confused. Why else would I be here? My father-in-law had warned me that the call-shop owner wouldn’t understand my interest in the shop or the migrant workers. Indeed. Ali found me strange. I continue, “Do men make calls from here?” “Yes, some men,” he says. “Mostly Sudanese migrant workers.” But today, there were none. Not letting him ignore me, I ask, “Are there other call shops in the neighbourhood?” He shakes his head. “No, there are maybe five call shops in the city.” He finally turns away to dial a number.
After a couple of minutes, we thank him for his time and walk out. The woman we had spoken to earlier is talking with friends. We open our umbrella and return to the apartment.
Sundays at Ali’s call shop are a special site.