“How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him. He has known a fear beyond every other.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
For the first time in three months, the blazing sun of an unseasonably hot, early Beiruti summer was obscured by a small group of white clouds. The shadows loomed large in the early morning, providing a blessed relief for the dozens of men standing in the gravel and squalor underneath the highway that links west Beirut with the east of the city. Even at 7am, the heat and the humidity tends to be unbearable. But today the conditions were just right. Today was a good day to wait for The Master.
Every morning the men, all from Syria, travelled here to find a day’s work. Every day most go home penniless as trucks trundle past, picking up only a lucky few for the lowest paid, most menial and dangerous jobs Lebanon has on an ad hoc basis. It’s the purest form of labour capitalism. Yet the potential consequences are disregarded by blind necessity. Still they wait hopefully in increasing numbers for their potential employers’ temporary patronage.
They wait on what used to be the site of the Green Line, a jagged-concrete schism, both metaphorical and literal, that divided Beirut’s Christian and Muslims during the country's brutal civil war. Martyr’s Square used to be a no man's land lined by bunkers and snipers, pitted with anti tank mines. Now it is a car park full of top of the range BMW and Mercedes; a Buddha Bar opens its doors to Beirut’s beautiful people just behind it; luxury apartment buildings dot the sidewalk under the watchful eye of the yellow-stoned Rafik Hariri mosque, the grand project of Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, a project he never saw completed upon his assassination in 2005 and which marks his final resting place.
The Hariri clan and their political backers pointed the finger of blame for his assassination towards Syria, and sparked the Cedar Revolution that saw the Syrian army forced to leave the country. Now what remains in an economic occupation of the poor: anywhere up to 300,000 Syrian workers live in squalid conditions in Lebanon, and astonishing five per cent of Syria’s working population.
"Every morning the men travelled here to find a day’s work. Every day most go home penniless as trucks trundle past, picking up only a lucky few for the lowest paid, most menial and dangerous jobs Lebanon has."
The Lebanese complain that the Syrians undercut Lebanese workers, keeping unemployment stubbornly high and wages low by living in inhumane conditions so that they can send money for food back to their families. It is estimated anywhere close to $2billion of remittances get sent east every year. The Syrians complain they are exploited, beaten and ostracized because of their nationality.
“I am Syrian, Sunni, for Al Karameh and Palermo,” shouted Mohammad, a young man from Homs with a neat hair cut and a forceful manner, giving his allegiances – geographical, religious, footballing – in order of importance. He and his ten friends stood on the same corner, waiting, casting covetous glances at the open-backed, brightly-painted trucks that trundled slowly past, looking for suitable men for whatever job the driver has been instructed to collect help for. The men stared back in silence. He didn’t stop.
“If you want a photo, it will be $100,” Mohammad insisted, hustling for extra cash as his crew gathered. Abdul, another young man from Homs, tried to describe his day over the rapidly depreciating photography rate.
“We have been here since 6am,” Abdul explained tiredly.
“$50!” Mohammad interjected.
“But nothing has come.”
“A manoushi [Lebanese cheese bread]? Maybe you can get us to England, so we can work, just three of us. Ok?”
We agreed on a price of ten kaks for an interview, the horseshoe shaped flat bread with sesame seeds, usually filled with cheese, that Lebanon’s working classes eat for breakfast. Ten minutes later I scuttled over the road with two bags full of hot bread. The group set upon them, ripping the contents from the bag, from each other’s hands. One fell to the floor, out of its paper wrapper, and in to the gutter. The group broke from the fervour for a split second, looking down at the discarded, now dirty bread, before turning to the rest of the bag to argue over its contents.
When was the last time you ate, I asked Mohammad as he devoured his breakfast?
The rest of the crowd had quickly dispersed. The kak in the gutter had been taken too.
The cover from the clouds finally disappeared, releasing the sun’s heat. Every hour that passed lengthened Mohammad and Abdul’s already poor odds of earning a $15 daily fee. Before 2005 it was $20.
By 9am, still no one had been picked up, yet the numbers grew. At dawn almost two dozen hopefully stood here. Now several hundred took shelter in the shadows waiting for anyone to come.
"The Syrians complain they are exploited, beaten and ostracized because of their nationality."
“We are all from Syria,” another man called Omar told me. He came from Hasakah, along with the group that sat around him. For protection and encouragement each group stuck to their own kind, the junction a microcosm of Syria’s own internal regional differences and antagonisms.
“We have been here since 4am. The Master comes and picks up two or three of us sometimes.”
What kind of work do you get?
“Sometimes we are farmers, sometimes we are builders. Sometimes,” Omar smiles, making the shape of an imaginary shovel and prodding it at the floor, “we dig holes.”
The Master was a difficult man to pin down. Any truck that slowed quickly sped off when told a journalist wanted to speak to him, as if he had been caught in the act of negotiating for sex. “They take jobs from the Lebanese and keep pay low because they will live in a ditch if they have to,” explained one Lebanese who, nevertheless, hires Syrians when he needed any property renovation done. He wished to remain anonymous. “But they are cheap. Even if they live on $5 here, sending back $10 is a fortune. That would feed a family for a week [in Syria].”
Omar hadn’t worked yesterday. But this highway was the best chance he had. Lots of vans, he explained, came past from all over the city, from the south – ironically, up Damascus Road – east and west. Sometimes, though, they had to run for their lives.
“We wait until we are bored. I will stay a few hours more or until the police come. Sometimes they come and we have to run away quickly.”
His imaginary shovel turns into an imaginary baton. Their status is officially legal but unofficially sanctioned. Only a few hundred work visas are issued each year, an absurdly low number given the reality, but with no visa needed to cross into Lebanon there is no barrier to their arrival.
For the men on the economic frontline, the sharpest end of black and white capitalism, it’s not exploitation or safety or visas that they think of. Just The Master and his truck. And the $15. “Write about Syria, not Lebanon,” Omar says. “Write about why I am here, how poor Syria is.” He lights a cigarette and joins his friends back on the curbside, squinting into the now-scorching sun, waiting for The Master to come.
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