The instincts of a slave

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for someone growing up in Lebanon who has never travelled abroad, it’s hard NOT to be “racist” to a degree. Don’t shoot me just yet. By “racist” here I mean to make prejudiced assumptions about how much money a customer has to spend or what job a person holds based on their skin colour.

Socio-racial apartheid is a fact in Lebanon. Almost all Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Africans one might see in Lebanon are domestic workers, doormen or garbage men. That means they come to Lebanon on a specific working visa and have few rights and low wages. It’s easy to form stereotypes. In fact I’ve spoken to tourists who have been mistaken for domestic help because of their ethnic origin.

maid texting downtown beirut

In uniform or not, always a maid in Lebanon

I am tempted to say this is racism based on classism: Maybe a store owner will bend over backwards if he thinks you are a rich tourist, whatever your ethnic origin, but if he assumes you cannot possibly be a rich tourist (informed by his pitifully limited experience) then he won’t pay you much attention.

After all, pretty much any black person the shopkeeper has ever seen is earning a pittance doing menial chores. Even in the West we accept non-racial classism as a fact of life, albeit an unpleasant one.

But it’s one thing to assume another can’t afford your services and another thing altogether to refuse them on the basis of race.

A Lebanese friend took her Sri Lankan friend to the hairdresser the other day (pause for the Lebanese readers to get their heads round that one). Not a big posh chain, just one of those small corner places. In fact she took her to five salons, and one after another refused to cut her hair because she’s Sri Lankan.

One said he’d lose all his customers if they saw him. Clearly he felt that not one of those customers would be concerned that he turn a paying customer away on socio-racial grounds.

But many Lebanese have tasted life abroad in countries where such behaviour is not only socially unacceptable, but criminal. Ignorance still breeds there too though, and many Lebanese have faced a share of prejudice and conceit in the States or in England, where people assume that Lebanon is a dusty, dirty desert where women are whipped for flashing an ankle.

But perhaps the worst of it is that many of these return with their own prejudices intact. They may pride themselves on their studies abroad, on their foreign passports, and (oh the irony) on having a higher level of “civilisation” than their compatriots. But poor un-travelled Lebanese aren’t more racist. If anything they are more human.

Of course some good hearts with a strong sense of justice are sickened to return to their homeland and find it stuck in the sixties with regard to interracial relations.

As for the others, after struggling in the US with misconceptions of their beautiful country being a terrorist-infested hole with camels as currency, they are relieved to return to a life where they have a guaranteed three layers of social strata beneath them. And they’re not going to let go of that in a hurry.

Because part of the reason foreign workers are so common in families and businesses is that people need to feel important. More important than the neighbours, more important than the workers, more important in the eyes of Western friends.

In the UK or the US it is no longer possible to guess a person’s job from their skin colour. But it’s not something to congratulate ourselves on. It took decades of anti-discrimination law. Attitudes changed very slowly. Were the law not enforced the west would slip backwards. Here in Lebanon, legislation is not even on the side of minorities. With foreign workers viewed more or less as property in the eyes of the law, attitudes in society have a long way to go. Don’t even get me started on law enforcement.

Seeing some battle with their own complexes reminds me of what I recently read about Antonius Felix, once governor of a Roman province here in the Near East. A former slave, he used his connections to climb the ladder of influence. As procurator, he earned such a reputation for cruelty and self-indulgence, it was said he “wielded the power of king with all the instincts of a slave”. In the Western world they so admire, the Lebanese know they may face disdain from some; but back home they are king.

5 Responses to “The instincts of a slave”

  1. Fadi says:

    Right on the nose ! Hopefully anti-racism legislation will come to Lebanon soon..

  2. Tia says:

    Should I be worried?!! I’m Canadian and Black, and I’m going to Lebanon to visit a friend (who’s Lebanese). I asked her about this situation, and she told me that unless I dress like a maid, there’s nothing to worry about. Another friend told me that if I look like I have money, there is nothing to worry about…

    • Hi Tia, most people will guess at a glance that you’re on vacation from your clothes and other clues – your attitude, your company etc. I really doubt you will have any unpleasant experiences. As you’re Canadian, I think you will find that the other major bias here – that is the one towards the west – will ensure people treat you very well indeed. I’m sure you’ll see the best of the Lebanese – their hospitality, ingenuity and warmth. I’d be interested to hear your feedback on your trip all the same.

  3. Fatin says:

    I appreciate this article as I am African-American and have just accepted a teaching job outside of Tripoli. Like Tia, I have also been concerned that I would be mistaken for a maid and face discrimination. But then I think of the times here in the States where I have been followed around stores, or given strange looks (in places where people aren’t used to seeing Blacks) or the one time I was in the dressing room of a clothing shop, trying on an outift with the tags still on and an older white woman had the nerve to ask me to go find her another size! In other words, I am not too worried; if anything, experiencing race/class relations in Lebanon is part of the experience of travelling abroad, especially for a person of color. I’ve also lived in Saudi Arabia where Indians and Filipinos are on the bottom of the social strata; I was shocked, as in the States people from these groups do quite well and are solidly middle class, if not higher. I’m rambling now, but my point is that people all the over the world want to feel more important than others; the attitude is that as long as there’s some group lower than you, you know you’re doing ok. What I’ve seen just makes me more proud and thankful that I’m an American; if that Sri Lankan woman had experienced that here, she’d own that shop eventually, know what I mean? Thanks for the eye-opening articles!

  4. Tia says:

    Hi Georgia,
    I came back from Lebanon a few days ago, and I must say, that it was a pleasant trip overall! My friend made sure that I was kept busy and entertained! And everyone one I met was truly nice to me. I got to see different parts of Lebanon, from Jounieh to Sour, and the villages inland. I didn’t experience any form of overt discrimination, but then again, I was always with someone. Would I have been treated differently if I was wandering by myself? Who knows…but Fatin hits the nail on the head on 2 points: 1) people do need to feel important and knowing that someone is “below” them makes them feel better about themselves and 2) no matter where you are in the world, there will always be people displaying their ignorance and close-mindedness! I think that it is part of traveling is a learning process for both the traveler and the people encountered during travels. I don’t regret going, and I expect this to be the last time either!

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