Salwa: The governess with no regrets
Youssef Bazzi - 16/12/2005
Before the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war aristocratic and bourgeoisie families employed either Lebanese maids (the most expensive) or otherwise Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish and Palestinian women. Some of the classier families would even bring over nannies and governesses from France and England to educate their children and manage their luxurious and wealthy households. It was all part of the firmly entrenched class traditions of the time; the chauffeur, the gardener, the maid, the trainer and the chef were vital components of a family's prestige and elevated social standing. These workers, in turn, had there own inviolable dignity, were well respected and were fully aware of their rights, duties and obligations.
From this vanished world comes the story of Salwa, a maid and governess. When the war broke out the only residents left in the building were Salwa and her sister on the fifth floor, Sayyida, an Egyptian maid, and the Sudanese butler, Othman. The Shamoun family, along with the Thabits, Tajirs, Abilas and Halabis had all left the country or gone elsewhere in Lebanon. Only Salwa the governess remained with the keys to the apartments, guardian of the building's treasures and works of art. Guided by nothing but her own instincts she faced down the militiamen who tried to take over the building, then made a deal with a party leader on the following terms: no flat was to be requisitioned or its contents repossessed; in exchange for her handing over the grandest apartments to receive foreign delegations or to hold dinner parties for prominent politicians, Salwa herself was to be personally put in charge of all the arrangements.
She was only seven years old when her family handed her to the dealer, who said he would put her to work in Damascus. She ended up in Jordan working for the Al-Tabaa family. She was, she says, lucky. The head of the house was a Pasha, and he gave both Salwa and his children--who were her age--10 Palestinian pennies a day as pocket money. Aside from playing with the children, her only job was to carry the tray of coffee cups and distribute them to the guests. In the conservative Islamic society of the day women would not mingle with the men and other guests. They would pour the coffee, and little Salwa would take the cups. All the housework was done by two completely veiled maids, one Egyptian, the other Sudanese. Salwa would spend her days playing with the children in the courtyard, where they would be joined by Prince Hussein who was later to become King of Jordan. Salwa says: "The young prince loved playing on bicycles. I would always be popping in and out of the house to bring them sandwiches." Salwa spent three years in Jordan, and recalls that the family had adopted her as one of their own. There was no difference between her and the other children: they sat and ate together and wore the same clothes; they even got the same pocket money. She would sleep with the youngest child and an aunt. The family were forced to send her home, however, because of her daily nagging on the subject. "They put up with a lot from me," she says. They handed her over to two soldiers who took her back to her village. "I was ten years old, "she continues, "and on the way home one of the soldiers offered to marry me."
A few months later her sister went to work for the Karam family in Al-Hadath in Lebanon, and her family sent the same way, to work for the Al-Matar family, a relatively poor family, where she worked for the next eight years. Salwa, who, as she put it "had become a whizz at bringing up children", couldn't bear to the housework. The family accepted her for who she was and never once blamed her for her refusal to do any housework, since she dedicated herself to the children. Instead, it was the wife who used to cook, clean and polish. "I couldn't reach the polishing cloth," says Salwa. In the Al-Matar's house she slept with the children and their grandmother. "My entire life, I've never slept in the kitchen or the servants' quarters," she says. At that time, the late 1940s, Salwa would take trips into Beirut from their home in Al-Hadath to watch Farid Al-Atrash films at the cinema. "I had no fixed holiday, and I'd get 30 lira a month. But I could go out whenever I liked to buy things, visit relatives of mine who were working in other homes nearby or just to go for a walk."
After eight years she had an argument with her employer who refused to raise her salary. In a temper she left the house and went to a relative Admun Karam, who told her: "You're just like a daughter to me." She lived with Admun, unemployed for a while, before starting work at a nearby coffee shop where she worked for a short time before making her way to Beirut to work for the Al-Anja family on Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Injlizi street. "In 1958, the year of the revolution, we spent the summer in Barmana. I remember a US Marine of Lebanese descent who used to come to the house to eat kebbe." A year later, as the two halves of the United Arab Republic broke apart and reverted to being Egypt and Syria, she left the Al-Anjas. When she heard the announcement of the end of the UAR, she went down into the street carrying petrol and ashes and lit a fire to celebrate.
In those days she was free to go back to village whenever she liked, and she used to pay secret visits to the Al-Matar children she had raised herself. Salwa ended up working at the Aazar family's villa in Fardan where her only job was working in the kitchen as their cook. Salwa remembers her mistress as "the best of women". There were many servants, and whenever a fight would break out between them, the master of the house would say: "Listen! There are no maids in this house: we're all one family!" Alongside Salwa in the kitchen there was a gardener, a chauffeur and a butler. She used to go to the Automatic cafe, and once took part in television competition, winning 70 lira in the process: "I took the cash and went to the cabaret with my friends. We were eating and drinking and had no idea it was a disreputable place." The family used to amuse themselves with social gambling, and whenever the Aazar family did well they would distribute their winnings amongst the servants. "When I realized the money was haram I started handing it out to the poor," Salwa recalls.
After a fight with the butler, Salwa went to work in a house in May Ziada Street (Al-Qantari--Clemenceau). While she was there she learnt to read and write after studying for 22 hours at the Young Christian Women's Association at the Peach Market in Fakhri Bey Street. Whenever she got angry or upset she would say to the her employers, "I'll leave tomorrow... I'm not going to work." Nervy, moody, proud Salwa soon took moved to the Abilas'. "I would stop working for them, then come back whenever I felt like it," she recalls, "the Abilas and the Mufarrajs were the biggest families I ever worked for. I felt they were my families. I gave them everything. I raised their children until they got married and had children themselves... I felt that I was a grandmother and their children my grandchildren." The Abila family gave her the keys to the safe and would consult with her on the trials and tribulations of family life. There was nothing she didn't know. During the war Salwa and her sister stayed behind in the enormous flat, looking after the whole building.
Alone and growing old (they are currently in their seventies) they lived on, alone, it the Muffarajs' flat. While the families dispersed to London, Paris and Dubai, Salwa and her sister sat in the crumbling building surrounded by decaying furniture and the mildewed old pictures hung on the walls. Nowadays Salwa spemds her time gardening on the balcony while her frail and unwell sister spends her daysin her room, filled with posters of pop stars. Nothing happens here. Salwa says that she has given all she has to her siblings and their children. She paid for them through college, bore the cost of their weddings and bought them their own homes. Ever since the mid-1940s Salwa has been working in Lebanese homes.
As she puts it, if she had saved her money for herself, she'd be one of the richest women in the country. "I've built houses in the village for my family and I've raised my siblings' children and the children of the people I worked for. That was my role in life." Despite a few love affairs, Salwa never married. She claims she feels no loss or regrets: "I've had my fill of men... I'm happy with my plants and my sick sister." Youssef Bazzi