The Maid's Tale

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey & John Solomon

She was paid to clean up after the rich and powerful. Then she walked into Dominique Strauss-Kahn's room--and a global scandal. Now she tells her story.

"Hello? Housekeeping."

The maid hovered in the suite's large living room, just inside the entrance. The 32-year-old Guinean, an employee of the Sofitel hotel, had been told by a room-service waiter that room 2806 was now free for cleaning, "Hello? Housekeeping," the maid called out again. No reply. The door to the bedroom, to her left, was open, and she could see part of the bed. She glanced around the living room for luggage, saw none. "Hello? Housekeeping." Then a naked man with white hair suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere.

That's how Nafissatou Diallo describes the start of the explosive incident on Saturday, May 14, that would forever change her life--and that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and, until that moment, the man tipped to be the next president of France. Now the woman known universally as the "DSK maid" has broken her public silence for the first time, talking for more than three hours with NEWSWEEK at the office of her attorneys, Thompson Wigdor, on New York City's Fifth Avenue.

"Nafi" Diallo is not glamorous. Her light-brown skin is pitted with what look like faint acne scars, and her dark hair is hennaed, straightened, and worn flat to her head, but she has a womanly, statuesque figure. When her face is in repose, there is an opaque melancholy to it. Working at the Sofitel for the last three years, with its security and stability, was clearly the best job she'd ever hoped to have, after years braiding hair and working in a friend's store in the Bronx as a newcomer from Guinea in 2003.

Diallo cannot read or write in any language; she has few "close friends," she says, and some of the men she has spent time with, whom she does not call fiances or boyfriends, but "just friends," appear to have taken advantage of her. One, now in a federal detention center in Arizona awaiting deportation after a drug conviction, won her confidence--and, she says, access to her bank accounts--by giving her fake designer bags: "Six or seven of them," she says. "They weren't very good." Her face goes almost blank. "He was my friend that I trust--that I used to trust," she says.

Some of Diallo's most upbeat moments in the interview came when she recounted the small promotions and credits available at the Sofitel for a job done well. She was supposed to clean 14 rooms a day for a wage of $25 an hour plus tips, according to her union. It's an achievement, Diallo said, to get a whole floor of your own because it saves the time wasted going up and down in the elevator to clean random individual rooms. Another maid had gone on maternity leave in April, Diallo said, and she'd gotten the 28th floor. "I keep that floor," said Diallo. "I never had a floor before." When every door has a "Do Not Disturb" notice, maids save precious minutes by going to the hall closet and quickly refilling their cleaning carts with soap, towels, and other amenities. Diallo's eyes lit up talking about the routine and about her colleagues. "We worked as a team," she said. "I loved the job. I liked the people. All different countries, American, African, and Chinese. But we were the same there."

Occasionally as Diallo talked, she wept, and there were moments when the tears seemed forced. Almost all questions about her past in West Africa were met with vague responses. She was reluctant to talk about her father, an imam who ran a Quranic school out of the family home in rural Guinea. Her husband died of "an illness," she said. So did a daughter who was 3 or 4 months old--she wasn't sure. Diallo was raped by two soldiers who arrested her for a curfew violation at night in Conakry, the Guinean capital. When they had finished with her, they released her the next morning, she said, but made her clean up the scene of the assault. …