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.

When one prejudice hides another

Racism in Lebanon

Syrian labourer saying prayers on the job

Yet again Lebanon is split by pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian feeling. Which reminds me of a joke I was told here.

A Lebanese, a Syrian, and a black man are in a hospital waiting room. All of their wives are in labour. The men are talking anxiously to one another trying to stay calm. Then the doctor walks in and announces that all of their wives have given birth to healthy baby boys all within minutes of each other. The men start celebrating and congratulating each other, but then the doctor says, “But I have a bit of bad news”. The men fall silent. He continues, “The nurse got confused and we don’t know which boy belongs to whom”. At that the Lebanese man runs into the maternity ward and grabs the black baby, yelling, “This one is mine!” The doctor runs after him and objects, “But sir, both you and your wife are white.” The Lebanese man looks at him and replies, “Listen, one of the other two is Syrian, I am NOT taking any chances!”

Is this a racist joke or is it a joke on racism, a joke ridiculing the stupidity of racism? I tend to think people here use it as the latter.

I’d say it’s a joke on “next-door neighbour” prejudice, the type where the French poke fun at their Belgian neighbours, and the English try to put down the Scots. Most of those kind of jokes have more in common with sibling rivalry than racism.

It hints at the bitterness the Lebanese still feel against Syria which withdrew from Lebanon relatively recently (2005). And it highlights the lasting prejudice against the many Syrian labourers currently earning their living in the country.

Racism in Lebanon

domestic worker takes a rare break

But I have a feeling the punchline relies not just on the genetic impossibility of the black baby belonging to the white couple, but on the understanding that in Lebanon, associating with blacks is a much bigger deal than associating with Syrians. Jokes like this hang on that click of recognition, that ring of truth. These attitudes still ring true in Lebanese society today.

Ironically, the setting is unrealistic – the Lebanese, Syrian and black man all chatting in the same hospital waiting room, even under such stress.

My husband visited a Nigerian friend in hospital a while back. He’d just had an operation. At the reception, no-one could find his name. After having it spelt out, the receptionist realised she was not dealing with a Lebanese patient but rather an immigrant. This explained everything. Immigrant workers were not listed along with all the other patients. They were stashed away at the other end of the hospital on their own.

After the Ethiopian Airlines plane crash off the coast of Lebanon in January 2010, it was rumoured that those who died were put in separate morgues according to race – Lebanese and European in one, Ethiopian maids in another, so grieving families and friends need not mix. This wouldn’t even be surprising to people who know Lebanon, let alone shocking.

People are tickled by the “extremes” the Lebanese joke character is willing to go to because of his next-door neighbour prejudice. Is this because they view interracial association as “extreme” (and are therefore racist)? Or do they just recognise how rare it is in their own racist society (and are therefore alert to social issues)?

Although Lebanese may tell this joke to ridicule themselves and their own next-door neighbour prejudice, I feel that in telling it they overlook a deeper racism, a racism without which they wouldn’t find the joke funny.  I think it’s a joke on racism towards their neighbours of the same gene pool. But it’s a racist joke regarding blacks. It only works if you share the basic assumption that ending up with a black baby would be not just scientifically impossible, but also socially inconceivable.

Mundane luxuries

And here’s the text of the piece the BBC aired in September, or you can listen here.

There is an old saying here in the Middle East that a woman’s grave remains open for forty days after childbirth; so I guess now is a good time to reflect on my recent experience of the maternity ward of a large hospital here in Beirut.

That’s far from the only adage I’ve heard over the last nine months. Folk wisdom is held in higher esteem than white coats and I was warned against a great many evils, from ketchup to crossing my legs. My local well-wishers spurned modern ultrasound and confidently told me the baby’s gender, basing their conclusions on what I ate and whether I looked more or less attractive than pre-pregnancy. Admittedly, their gender predictions were only wrong half the time. The few who were not categorical invariably told me, “Inshallah it’s a boy, God willing.”

Given this traditional social backdrop, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my brief hospital stay for the delivery, so I dropped by for a tour of the facilities. The façade was shiny and modern, though the effect was somewhat undermined by signs warning visitors that: “Firearms are strictly forbidden in the hospital”. In the delivery suite I innocently asked the doctor whether there would be a mirror on the day to see the crowning as in some European hospitals. “No,” he told me, deadpan, “that’s what you get for giving birth in the third world.”

The irony became apparent when the midwife showed me round the accommodation options, which have clearly been borrowed from a hotel brochure. “There’s first class, second class, junior suite and VIP,” she said. “The top-end rooms boast a separate sitting room, a fridge, a PC, Wi-Fi and a webcam.” I looked at the plaque on the door of the sitting room marking it as the exclusive reserve of the patient’s guests. “That must help keep all those visitors out of your way,” I suggested, and she made a face.

“What’s the no-frills option like?” I asked. She showed me rooms shared by two beds with an en suite loo and the shower down the corridor. Not exactly hardship. Still, what would people think? In death, perhaps, all are equal, but for the Lebanese, social distinction is just as important in sickness as in health.

The fact that a hospital does better business by reducing its patient capacity in order to provide hotel-style creature comforts is rather telling. In this tiny country, where first world meets third, luxury has become almost mundane. Extravagance is not just for the rich, the lower middle classes are getting their dose too.

domestic worker Beirut Lebanon

domestic worker takes a brief break

Domestic help epitomises this trend. Here, live-in maids are more common than dishwashers. Unlike the latest Whirlpool appliance, they still work during the daily power cuts and they’ve got a lot more functions. And just like those one-time luxury machines in the West, immigrant workers are now cheap enough in Lebanon for families on a very average income, costing about $200/£150 a month.

But cheap labour is not the only factor behind this generalisation of luxury. Society here feels an overriding need to be seen living the high life. The civil war shook up the fortunes of many and new money has been decisive to the way that people have tried to redefine their sense of identity. When dozens of friends and family turn up the day after you’ve given birth – because they will – it now matters that you have a VIP lounge with your name on it and a fridge to store the delicacies they bring. Once home, having hired staff open the door to your guests in a frilly apron is just another way to keep up with the neighbours.

In fact, 24/7 home help is so run-of-the-mill in Beirut that new distinctions are needed to establish one’s social standing, giving free rein to racial prejudice. A Filipina with pale skin and good English may be favoured over a Bangladeshi, while a Malagasy import tops the charts for many who want their children to grow up speaking French.
As I leave the hospital, I give the parking guy my pink ticket – because valet parking isn’t just for posh restaurants and hotels, it’s for anything from corner shops to fast food chains. He expects a decent tip, of course. After all, aren’t all Westerners rich? I wonder what he would think if he knew that back home we park our own cars when we’re not on the bus, and that most people giving birth share a ward with another three to five women.

Thinking back, as my grave prepares to close again, I reckon there are harder places to dodge death for forty days.

The patriarch and the pecking order

Lebanese family time

family time

Beyond the obvious differences in the traditional roles of men and women, living in a society where basic rights depend on gender holds the occasional eyeopener. I have become accustomed to people assuming I don’t work, don’t drive, and do 100% of the cooking. I wasn’t overly surprised to be receive consoling comments about expecting a girl. But although many Lebanese women do work and drive, these stereotypes are not on their way to oblivion.

There has been recent coverage in local media of the fact that women are not able to open bank accounts for their children. The father must be present at the bank to carry out the required formalities. It is also true that a domestic worker cannot open a bank account for herself alone. She needs permission from her employer.

I wonder if permission of the mistress of the house is enough or whether she needs the patriarch’s signature. This could mean a married Lebanese woman has more authority over her maid than her own children, while the domestic worker is actually taking a maternal role with the kids. Its a particularly confusing pecking order especially if the kids start ordering the maid around as of age six.

On a visit to a new gynaecologist I was buzzed in and stood for a moment or two waiting to see if I would be registered first or if I should take a seat on the leather couches. After a moment the receptionist looked up. Her first words were: “What is your husband’s name?” The main identifier for my pregnancy health record. I noted also that the nursery on the maternity ward at one hospital, full of tiny babies in tiny beds, bore a notice restricting access to “mothers and husbands only”.

I knew that a family head could claim a daughter as a dependant until marriage, regardless of her age, and after marriage should she become a widow, while boys cease to be declarable after 18 or after their education ends. But I only recently discovered that while a man can claim a tax rebate for his non-working wife and any children, a working woman with an unemployed husband can claim neither for him, nor for any children. Not much consolation in the fact that her wages would be lower than a man’s anyway so she would not be taxed so much.

It’s not exactly a thriving stay-at-home dad culture. Having said that, since my husband and I work from home anyway, people seem to think we are both going to be stay-at-home parents, which is not quite the same thing. But never mind, we can always hire a foreigner to be our 24-hour nanny, cook and cleaner at rates so low as to make it nearly look like a good option to have a stranger sharing our flat and bringing up our kids. But not quite.

A new take on an old joke

eternal cleaning

There was a guy waiting in line at the Pearly Gates for his chance to enter heaven. The line was long and there was an offer to go for a tour of hell. Down in hell it was like one big party – beautiful people laughing, drinking, gambling. After returning from his tour he passed through the Pearly Gates but the quiet chanting and constant playing of the harps in heaven seemed incredibly dull compared to life in hell. The white clouds, wings and robes were beginning to get on his nerves. After a while he could stand it no longer and asked God for permission to transfer into hell permanently. Upon arrival into hell, he was immediately chained and thrown into a vat of boiling oil. He couldn’t understand what was happening. This was nothing like the hell he visited earlier. He called out to the Devil for an explanation. “Don’t  Read the rest of this entry »