Mixed-race Lebanese face discrimination
Hardships of those with political rights but subject to racism less immediately evident
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.