Multi-ethnic cities the world over contain distinct cultural quarters, but Beirut would probably be hard-pressed to create its own Little Italy or Chinatown. A little Manila, however, would likely not be a problem, as Lebanon has a burgeoning Filipino population, despite the fact that their culture has remained cut off from that of the Lebanese.
Case in point is Ilokandia-Amy’s Cuisine. Owned and run by a Filipina with Lebanese citizenship through marriage, Ilokandia sells an array of products imported from the Philippines and doubles as a casual restaurant that serves traditional Filipino meals for 5,000 LL ($3).
As a sign on the front door advertises, here you can indulge in Halo-Halo - a popular dessert made of shaved ice, milk, boiled sweet beans and fruits. The Pakbet, a salty boiled vegetable and fish dish, is also particularly popular, says Julie, the Filipina resident chef.
The locale has become a gathering point for Filipina women on their days off, such as Sonya, who has been in Lebanon for six years and now lives in Dohat Amaroun with a family whose children she takes care of. Every Sunday she takes a taxi to Hamra and comes to Ilonkandia to meet her friends.
Yet despite a buzzing atmosphere and a prime location on one of Hamra's busiest streets, Lebanese seldom drop in. "Just for chewing gum, or to get change," said one of Sonya's friends.
The segregation of cultures
Whereas Japanese and Chinese restaurants have crept up as the country discovered the culinary delights of sushi and spring rolls, Filipino influences have yet to infiltrate the mainstream in Lebanon. Yet there are far more Filipinos here than from any other Asian country.
With an estimated population of 30,000, they make up seven percent of the country’s workforce, according to a 2008 policy paper by the Kanlungan Center Foundation based in the Philippines.
Most of the country’s Filipinos are women employed by local families as domestic workers. As such, they are "are at the bottom rung of migrants… deemed lower than migrant professionals, foreign skilled laborers, and non-Lebanese maintenance or cleaning crew in commercial establishments,” the Kanlungan Center Foundation reported. Simply put, although Filipinos play a large role in the day-to-day lives of the Lebanese, they are widely perceived as inferior.
While the Lebanese may feel a sense of superiority toward an ethnic group they deem their servant class, the Filipino community is not necessarily eager for closer relations, as was made clear through several conversations with both Filipino workers and store owners alike. Many just want to hang out with their fellow Filipinos and speak their native Tagalog after a long week of work, while others do not have their paper work in order and don’t want to risk getting caught and deported. Nonetheless, the culture is very much present in the oft over-looked periphery of the mainstream social scene.
There are about eight or ten locales like Ilokandia that cater to the Filipino community in the Hamra area alone, and in Dora there are many more, says store owner Zakaria Al-Jizi, a Lebanese married to a Filipina he met almost 25 years ago.
His own decade-old shop facing Ilonkandia is perhaps best known to Beirutis by the bright Western Union sign displayed outside, but to the Filipino community it is "The Manila Market".
Aside from utilizing Jizi's money transfer services, customers can stock up on Phil Food and Reno brand food stuffs from the Philippines, they can make cheaper than normal calls to their home country, and they purchase copies of Filipino DVDs and CDs.
"You should come back on Sunday,” Jizi said during a weekday visit.
While many local businesses close on Sundays, he instead expands and opens up the store's second-floor restaurant. Packing in around 70 people each week, Jizi serves up specialties such as Pansit bihon, noodles fried with soy sauce and citrus, topped with sliced meat and chopped vegetables.
Because Sunday is the sole day off for the majority of the domestic work force, this is when Filipino culture manifests itself in Lebanon, and gathering for meals is among the most popular day-off activities for the community.
“You know, all week we eat the Lebanese food. So on the day off we like to have food from our country,” said Anna, a domestic worker for a young family with a toddler, who frequents the Manila Market, often after attending Sunday mass.
As the Philippines are largely Christian, several of the country’s churches have become both havens and meeting points for Sunday mass. The St. Francis Catholic Church in Hamra and the St. Joseph Catholic Church and Migrant Center in Tabaris are by far the most popular, drawing large crowds every Sunday.
But as in any society, there are several different layers of the Filipino cultural scene. For those who prefer to use their Sundays to learn, St. Joseph offers English, Arabic and Health Science classes after mass. These are free of charge, and although not exclusive to the Filipino community, they are the ethnic group that tends to predominate, according to Anna, who learned first aid through the church’s health course.
Others, however, use their days off to let off steam and have a good time. And so several nightclubs, such as Black List and Rhapsody in Hamra, cater almost exclusively to the Filipino community on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, said Jizi.
In Antelias, right on the Jal ad- Dib highway, a well-known ten year-old nightclub essentially becomes a Filipino day club once a week. On Sundays it opens from 12 p.m. until 5 p.m. and is frequented mostly by Filipina women and Egyptian or Syrian men, who make up many of the country’s male laborers.
With the lack of men in their tightly-knit ethnic social circles formed around Sunday mass and meals, Filipinas seek romance among the Arab workers who hang out in places such as the Antelias day club.
Here the patrons happily order San Miguel beers, made in the Philippines, and dance the day away. Come five o’clock, the Saturday Night Fever themed music dies down and several couples make their way out the doors, hand in hand.
While Fouad, a bouncer at the day club, does not doubt that these couples share genuine feelings for each other, he doubts the longevity of such liaisons. While most of the Filipina’s are Christian, most of the Arab patrons are Muslim and hence marriage is problematic, he said.
Yet, there appear to be some exceptions “A few Filipinos here have been married with Lebanese, so somehow the families … have adapted to the Filipino culture, to the way of life,” said a representative of the Philippines Embassy, on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, a lot of the restaurants that cater to the Filipino community are run by married Filipino/Lebanese couples, and such pairings are rare examples of the two cultures integrating and collaborating, as opposed to co-existing almost entirely separately.
Some of the names in this article have been changed