Mixed-race Le­banese face dis­crim­i­na­tion

Hard­ships of those with po­lit­i­cal rights but sub­ject to racism less im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: Jaa­far Is­saoui shares the anx­i­eties of many young Le­banese. He wor­ries about the lack of good jobs and un­cer­tainty about his fu­ture, the high cost of health care and the fear that he or a loved one could die “at the door of the hos­pi­tal” in an emer­gency.

Driven by those con­cerns, the 21year-old from Beirut’s south­ern sub­urbs joined a group of friends at a mass protest held in the cap­i­tal’s Down­town two days be­fore Christ­mas, against fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture and ser­vices amid a stale­mate over the gov­ern­ment for­ma­tion process.

But there he was re­minded that while he may have the same hopes and fears as many other Le­banese cit­i­zens, those cit­i­zens do not al­ways ac­cept him as one of them.

Is­saoui is the son of a Le­banese fa­ther and a Guinean mother, and his dark skin and African fea­tures mark him as dif­fer­ent.

Some of the protesters in the crowd as­sumed that he was a mi­grant worker from Su­dan or Ethiopia and be­gan taunt­ing him.

“They said to me, ‘Why did you come down here?’” Is­saoui told The Daily Star.

“I told them, ‘I came down here just as you did. The things that brought you out here are the same things that pushed me to come.’”

The mock­ing com­ments con­tin­ued af­ter­ward on­line, as a photo of Is­saoui among the protesters be­gan spread­ing on so­cial me­dia.

Is­saoui said he pointed out to some of his taunters that he is Le­banese just as they are, but also added that “it’s not their busi­ness if I’m Le­banese or not. Even if I weren’t Le­banese, I live in this coun­try, you know?”

The mis­treat­ment of some 200,000 mi­grants from var­i­ous African and Asian coun­tries who come to be em­ployed in Le­banon as do­mes­tic work­ers, in­clud­ing sub­stan­tial num­bers from the Philip­pines and Sri Lanka, has been widely doc­u­mented and has spurred cam­paigns to re­form their le­gal rights.

But the sit­u­a­tion of mixed-race Le­banese cit­i­zens such as Is­saoui, who have po­lit­i­cal rights but in many cases face the same racism, is less vis­i­ble.

For chil­dren of Le­banese and African or Asian par­ents, race and class dis­crim­i­na­tion are in­ter­wo­ven, says Rima Ma­jed, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut. The chil­dren of Le­banese peo­ple mar­ried to Western­ers, by con­trast, of­ten have en­hanced so­cial sta­tus in Le­banon.

The “imag­ined hi­er­ar­chy of races” goes back to the days of the slave trade as well as to the “his­tory of Le­banese mi­gra­tion to Africa, where, again, Le­banese have ex­ploited the Africans,” Ma­jed said. Per­cep­tions of Asian im­mi­grants, mean­while, are based largely on their pres­ence as do­mes­tic work­ers. In both cases, she said, “it is a class-based re­la­tion­ship.”

“Skin color is of course a ma­jor de­ter­mi­nant of how peo­ple will in­ter­act with you,” she said. “But be­yond the first en­counter, it’s also very much about your broader so­cial po­si­tion.” This, she said, is de­ter­mined by other things as well.

“It’s im­por­tant to look at [racism] in­ter-sec­tion­ally by look­ing at class, gen­der, so­cial cap­i­tal: who you are, what your job is, your pres­tige in so­ci­ety, who your fam­ily is. These are all things that af­fect peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences of racism and the dif­fer­ent types of racism they go through.”

In Is­saoui’s case, his fa­ther met his mother while work­ing in Guinea.

They mar­ried but sep­a­rated when he was a tod­dler, and Is­saoui re­turned to Le­banon with his fa­ther, where he was raised in Beirut’s south­ern sub­urbs, re­turn­ing to Guinea only to visit his mother.

His fa­ther’s fam­ily im­me­di­ately ac­cepted him as one of their own, Is­saoui said, and his aunt in par­tic­u­lar treated him like a son.

The neigh­bors, who knew his fam­ily, also treated him as one of them. But when he en­tered school, it was a dif­fer­ent story.

“The other kids wouldn’t come close and sit next to me, for in­stance, and if I would sit next to some­one, he would run away,” Is­saoui said. “They would make fun of me in class.”

Over time, he said, he learned to let racist com­ments roll off his back.

“The first pe­riod, it was dif­fi­cult, but af­ter­ward I learned, and I put it in my head that if I’m go­ing to con­tinue lis­ten­ing to this and that, I’m go­ing to suf­fer,” he said. “No, I have to ig­nore it.” To­day, most of his friends are Le­banese. He lives in Haret Hreik and works in a print­ing shop and as a con­tract videog­ra­pher on movies, TV se­ries and com­mer­cials. He dreams of pur­su­ing a ca­reer in film.

Un­til last month’s protest, he added, he had al­most for­got­ten about the racist at­ti­tudes of many of his coun­try­men.

Hus­sein Makke, the son of a Le­banese fa­ther and a Filip­ina mother, has a more com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with his her­itage.

Although he holds a Le­banese pass­port, he grew up in Ivory Coast, and apart from sum­mer vis­its he had not lived in Le­banon un­til he moved back three years ago to study cin­ema at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 2018, he re­turned to Ivory Coast, where he works in his fa­ther’s pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio.

Like Is­saoui, Makke said his fa­ther’s fam­ily ac­cepted him with­out ques­tion. At univer­sity, too, he was wel­comed and made friends.

But other en­coun­ters left him wary of his re­cep­tion by the wider so­ci­ety. He still avoids con­tact with his grand­mother’s neigh­bors in his fa­ther’s home­town in the south, af­ter hear­ing how they had openly judged his fa­ther for mar­ry­ing a “Filip­ina house­maid.” (His mother is not a house­maid.)

He also wit­nessed some in­ci­dents of overt racism dur­ing early vis­its to Le­banon. “Once, I re­mem­ber we went to a swim­ming pool, I think I was like 8, and my mom went to pay for the en­trance for us, and the woman an­swered her, ‘We don’t take money from house­maids,’” he said.

But of­ten the reaction he en­coun­ters is one of con­fu­sion rather than out­right hos­til­ity. When he ar­rived for univer­sity, apart from his Asian fea­tures, Makke was sport­ing long dread­locks in homage to the reg­gae mu­sic he’d grown up with, and he spoke bro­ken Ara­bic.

“I al­ways have peo­ple who are watch­ing me, like, re­ally scan­ning me, like, ‘Who’s that guy?’” he said.

“They tell me, ‘You don’t look like a Le­banese, you don’t look like a Hus­sein.’”

In some ways, Makke said, he feels more com­fort­able dur­ing vis­its to the Philip­pines, where no one would look twice at him. There peo­ple would ad­dress him in the na­tive lan­guage (he does not speak Ta­ga­log), un­like in Le­banon, where many peo­ple as­sume he is for­eign and speak to him in English.

Still, he does not feel that he fully be­longs to ei­ther cul­ture.

“When peo­ple ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your na­tion­al­ity?’ I al­ways have this an­swer: ‘I’m half-Le­banese, halfFilipi­no, but I grew up in Ivory Coast,’” he said. “I don’t re­ally know where to sit­u­ate my­self. I learned a lot from Le­banese cul­ture, and Filipino and Ivo­rian too.”

Makke said he doesn’t pic­ture him­self set­tling in Le­banon in the long run.

Is­saoui, though, said he’d al­ways con­sid­ered Le­banon his home and had planned to stay. Only re­cently has he been con­sid­er­ing mov­ing to find bet­ter work op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I want to se­cure my fu­ture and such, and here there’s noth­ing, so be­cause of this, I want to travel,” he said. “But I love this coun­try. The most beau­ti­ful coun­try and the one that I love is Le­banon.”

Is­saoui said he pointed out to some of his taunters that he is Le­banese just as they are.

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