“How come I’ve never seen you people before?”
“Because we are the people you do not see.”
This exchange, between a gangster who traffics in human organs and a Nigerian illegal immigrant cab driver in the British film Dirty, Pretty Things, drives home the central theme of Stephen Frears’ 2002 drama about the underground lives of immigrants in London. The African cab driver, the prostitute and the Turkish maid are the people who make life for the middle class and the rich possible in cities like London, Paris and New York.
Who they were in their home countries (a doctor, in the case of the film’s Nigerian cab driver), what they suffered, the daily compromises they must make in order to survive in an underground economy that offers no protections and meager wages, are largely irrelevant to those of us living in mainstream society. They cut our lawns and work as busboys in the finest restaurants, and we see them, but we don’t see them.
And perhaps this is what made the story of Nafissatou Diallo — the Guinean-immigrant hotel housekeeper who alleged that she was the victim of a brutal sexual assault at the hands of one of the most powerful men in Europe — so compelling. For a brief period, while charges against her attacker were pending, we were forced to look at the life of a woman whom so many New Yorkers encounter every day but never really see. Diallo’s account — that she was attacked by a naked and determined male guest in a $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel Hotel — was so credible that police seized her alleged assailant, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as he tried to leave on a flight to Paris, arrested him and held him at Rikers Island.
Fast-forward three months, and after a brief farewell tour at the International Monetary Fund, Strauss-Kahn is a free man, expected to arrive in France Sunday, where a renewed political career is not out of the question. His supporters will surely harden their conviction that DSK was a victim of outright lies — if not extortion. Diallo, her version of the events discredited, finds that even her future in America may be in jeopardy.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that it ended this way. Strauss-Kahn’s defense team launched into attack mode as soon as he was arrested on May 14, seeking to discredit his accuser. The prosecution team also began to investigate the background of the accuser as they sought to test the soundness of their case.
Within weeks, word began to leak that the Guinean immigrant may have lied on her application for political asylum. That within days after the attack, she participated in a phone call with an accused drug dealer. That in that call, she spoke of the fact that Strauss-Kahn is wealthy and influential. The New York Post issued an unsubstantiated report that Diallo had been a prostitute in the past.
It was as though a magic wand had been waved. Diallo was quickly discredited. It was rumored that the case against Strauss-Kahn could not stand in the face of accusations by a witness with so many “credibility problems.” Newspaper columns shifted the focus from exploring the excesses of a powerful man with a trail of ugly stories involving unwanted advances on unsuspecting women to speculation about the improper motives of the housekeeper.