Fernando’s not the kind of guy I meet every day. With three kids, a self-declared obsession with all things cricket and minimal interest in Beirut’s nightlife, he’s not like many people I know. But as we sat talking in one of Achrafieh’s cafes, it was none of these dissimilarities that attracted the stares from other customers.
Fernando is a migrant worker. One of the thousands that Beirut could not live without, he and his compatriots sweep our roads, scrub our floors and stack our shelves. Largely out of (willful) sight and always out of mind, it’s an uncomfortable truth for many that they are Beirut’s hidden lifeblood. The surprise of those seeing a Sri Lankan migrant and a Westerner sitting together in a Beirut cafe was hardly unexpected.
A family far from home
As a foreigner in Lebanon, most days I’m asked why I’m here. It’s not a question people often ask Fernando but his answer is simple: the money. Which is ironic given that working in an office building and holding down two cleaning jobs he makes a mere $5,400 a year, a pittance by almost any standard. With the salary he earns working six days a week, every week of the year, he can house his wife and children in Sri Lanka, he can send them to school and give them a life he could only have dreamed of. But for migrants like him, the price of providing for family is costly, and cruel. While he speaks to his children every morning on the phone, Fernando only sees them for one month out of every thirty six, just once every three years.
Several thousand kilometres may separate him and his children, but living in Beirut Fernando is far from having no family. Lebanon’s south Asian workers are bound together by more than just the hardships they endure. For them, while the law may be Lebanese, cricket is most definitely king.
Fernando makes his priorities crystal clear, “You know, the cricket is the second best thing in my week. The first is to speak to my kids every day, to see how they’re doing, and the second is to play cricket. That’s it, completely.”
Come rain, come shine, for Fernando and his ‘guys’ Sunday means only one thing – cricket. He laughs to himself, “We’re crazy about it. In winter the sky is totally black and we’re there. Sometimes it starts raining, so we stay, we hide under the trees. We’re like forty plus years old and we’re acting like teenagers.”
For close to seventeen years now Sri Lankan migrants have gathered together in a dusty car park for Sunday cricket. A ‘gentleman’s game’ it may be, but for these guys car park cricket is every bit as serious as the world’s largest tournaments. With over twenty teams now playing, games aren’t a casual knock-about. After a loss, Fernando’s teammates can’t sleep. These matches are the centre of a community, a source of pride and status.
Sundays see friends and families come to watch their teams. Birthdays, marriages and festivals are celebrated by the boundary walls, taking up precious pitch space. But for Fernando this is what car park cricket is really about: community and home. “When I play cricket it’s totally like I’m living in Sri Lanka” he says.
Beirut’s cricketing community took an unusual turn when two years ago a young Englishman walked past the steel gates that hide the city’s most popular cricketing venue. Raised on a school diet of Latin verbs and cricket practice, William, a high school teacher, was drawn to the sport as he had never imagined it before. Within months Lebanon had its first western cricket club, St. George’s, and soon after, its first international tournament.
At organised events you would find food stalls with south Asian delicacies, a DJ spinning Sri Lankan beats and a troupe of drummers bringing a taste of the sub-continent to the backstreets of Beirut.
William saw these Sundays as a unique chance for new friendships and communities to be born, saying that “There are a lot of migrant events here, but they’re run by migrants, for migrants. This is one of the few events in Beirut that’s brought everyone, expats, locals and migrants together on a level cultural playing field.”
Several successful events saw word of the tournaments spread and crowds grow. And it wasn’t just a brotherhood of sportsmen; three women’s teams now compete and are more than a match for their international opponents. From the humblest of beginnings, car park cricket had hit the big-time. With teams of expats, support from embassies, charities, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and even a video crew from the world’s official cricketing council, cricket had brought the world into the lives of Fernando’s cricketers.
The pitch may have been rough, the talent raw, but a Monot car park provided the most level of playing fields for Beirut’s forgotten workers.
But hopes for empowerment, friendship and community were short-lived. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a country where it doesn’t take much searching to find examples of migrants being marginalised, the tournament was shut down.
Having organised wide-reaching international support for their match, William and the organisers set about trying to win over the car park’s owners.
Weeks later, they had their answer. Emails from the owners’ lawyers threatened legal action against “trespassing” if anyone tried to use the site. It was clear that there was no chance for Monot’s migrant workers to receive the invaluable international attention they desperately sought.
An uncomfortable question
With everyone I spoke to, the same question seemed to burn through every conversation. If this tournament with its international coverage had been solely for Beirut’s blossoming expatriate community, a team of British batsmen or sporting South Africans, would the event have been cancelled? On this point I had no answer from the lawyers. The first hint of questions along racial lines brought threats of libel and the strong-arm tactics that perhaps any legal representative worth their salt should master. But some might say that often no answer is the most telling.
But the legal minds facing down this seemingly sinister sports match were adamant on one point. For years their clients had allowed informal gatherings to take place on this apparently sacred patch of asphalt, enabling migrants to “spend time together and even to play cricket” – Arab hospitality at its finest. Their ‘policy’ of allowing no formally organised events on their land was repeatedly emphasised to me, but just months ago the car park had been used for events in Monot’s first ‘car-free day’. Of course, as owners of private land, they are firmly within their rights to deny its use to whomever they please.
Their lawyer eventually insisted to me on the phone that, provided there would be no ‘market place’ or stalls, the event could go ahead for one final time. However, this didn’t match at all with the account from the event’s organisers. William described efforts to get permission as a “wild goose chase”. In an email to the lawyers he apologised for planning the event without prior permission. “I thought that with the International Cricketing Council involved, with the British embassy involved, with the ILO involved, there was no possible way for the owners to say no.” It was a judgement that could cost Beirut’s migrant workers dearly. But perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole affair was the ILO’s abandonment of the event once it ran into difficulty. The ILO representative I spoke to was cagey about the organisation being implicated in any trouble over the event’s organisation. They also refused to comment publicly on their involvement – surely not their proudest hour standing up for workers’ rights.
Ultimately, it is Fernando’s cricketers who have to suffer the real consequences of this international fracas. With the tournament cancelled, gone is the opportunity for the car park’s owners to enjoy some invaluable publicity, but more painful is the loss the cricketers may have to endure. Fernando has played in underground building sites and abandoned army bases but the loss of their weekly cricket ground would be almost too much to bear, “They cancel the tournament, fine. But all we need is for them to let us play.”
He added, “Those owners, I’m sure, don’t have any idea what we are feeling, how much they give us, how much they are helping us. It’s not a physical thing but is so important for us – for our families back home to know we are happy.” But in the face of crushing disappointment, Fernando’s humility was astonishing, “I am not angry with them at all, if they say don’t play, I don’t blame.” It is a viewpoint common among the migrant workers and one that William struggles to understand, “It should be a basic human right that you don’t work seven days a week. There’s this weird dynamic where they think that ‘we’re really lucky’, they feel they’re being treated really nicely by being given this opportunity to play cricket.” William refuses to let this put an end to cricket in Beirut but it is telling of the difficulties they face that the community’s upcoming tournament has been relocated to Broumana. Hopefully this won’t be a permanent exile.
For Fernando, fighting the attitudes of Lebanese society was futile. “If we argue, we’re always on the losing side” Fernando says, “We can’t be angry, we can’t argue.” But this battle against prejudice was supposed to be at the centre of the day’s events.
The real battle
This tournament would have celebrated the entire migrant community in Beirut. The charity Souk el Tayeb had planned to cater for the event, with the migrant workers it supports preparing their own traditional dishes. Jihane, one of the charity’s co-ordinators spoke of the importance of events that cut through social divides. “There are very bad reputations about refugees and migrants here in Lebanon, we try to show them as normal human beings through the their own traditional food they cook.”
But prejudice has always dogged their work in Lebanon, “The first time we set up stalls, the first customers scorned, “I’ll take some food for my maid, not for me.” But since then we have seen so much change.” For Jihane, food is just as powerful a medium as sport, “People fall in love with their food. When you start discussing food, real understanding starts.”
Last Sunday I went along to see Beirut’s only “cricket pitch” for myself. Just metres away from the car park, in the church of St. Joseph, a prayer rally was being held for migrant workers from across Beirut. Prayers were said and hymns were sung but I couldn’t help wonder if much would change for them. For the international bodies involved, this tournament was all about breaking down social and cultural barriers. William was one of the first Brits that any of the players had ever met. Kind and warm-hearted, he broke down all images of the stiff upper-lipped British colonisers that Fernando had grown up with. But sadly, it will be a long while before migrant workers are seen in a new light. As long as migrants clean our toilets and scrub our floors, treated as mere subservient shadows, prejudice will continue to hang over them.
Standing in the car park, my umbrella collapsing under the weight of the rain and not a soul in sight, the scene was pretty desolate. But as much as I felt down about my Sunday morning, I knew that across the city there were dozens of men and women feeling far more depressed by the first of this winter’s storms. For Sunday meant cricket, and no matter what the lawyers said, rain had stopped play.