Talking racism

Mixed feelings in Lebanon

Marta Bogdanska and Nisreen Kaj
Marta Bogdanska and Nisreen Kaj

Tiny Lebanon, resting on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, builds much of its identity on a reputed diversity. Religiously, linguistically and culturally, Lebanon is more mixed than most, not least other countries of the same size. Its ethnic diversity on the other hand is less well known – and, according to the experiences of many mixed Lebanese, not as celebrated. Nisreen Kaj, herself of mixed Lebanese-Nigerian heritage, and Marta Bogdanska, a Polish photographer, just finished a tour around Lebanon with their project Mixed Feelings, a photo exhibit of cross-culture Lebanese. Mashallah met with Nisreen and talked about racism, prejudices, making change and growing up with David Attenborough.

Hello Nisreen, how’s the project going?

It’s going well, Marta and I have had a few busy weeks. Marta is back in Poland now, I’ve spent all day in Tripoli actually, we did our last exhibit at Al Manar University up there. It was good. We’ve been around Lebanon with the project – first in Beirut, at AltCity and Issam Fares Institute at AUB, then at NDU [Notre Dame University] in Zouk Mosbeh, the municipality space in Sour, and now finally in Tripoli. When visiting universities, we always put up the exhibit and leave it for a week. It gives students the time to look at the photos and take them in. Every day they will have a different question, get a new perspective.

We had a long talk with the students in Tripoli. An open-hearted one, to say the least. Someone [brought up the topic of beach clubs discriminating against people who don’t look ‘typically’ Lebanese and] said that, “All people, as long as they can pay the entrance to the beach, should be allowed in to swim,” to which another student replied, “Well this is Lebanon. It’s up to the person who owns the business to do whatever with that business.”

That had me thinking of this photo taken by a photographer and film director during the segregation in the United States. It’s a photo of an ice cream parlor with the bar where you order ice cream outside. You see the white people standing there and the black people around the corner – it’s the same space but you come from here and I come from there. To me that image is very striking because it shows a place with no strict borders, no real demarcation; yet the segregation is there. It popped up in my head during the discussion because of course, that’s how people thought. This is my business and I can do what I want. I can have a separate treatment for black people and for white people.

That’s what you get when there’s no system [to safeguard against discrimination]. Like in Lebanon – you can say that it’s all good and dandy but the thing is, there’s no system in place like there is elsewhere. At work, if you face racism from colleagues and talk to your superiors about it, they just tell you to put up with it. There’s no system to regulate people’s individual behavior. Fighting racism is all about addressing the system, or lack of system. We need more legal activism, because that’s where you make real change.

Fighting racism is all about addressing the system, or lack of system.

Mixed feelings exhibit addresses racism in Lebanon

True. In many places, legislation actually came before a broader change in people’s attitudes. Like the equal right for women and men to vote, or bans on slavery.

Yes. I feel that there should be a lot of people working with us, from every angle possible and during the same timeframe. I’ve been doing a lot of awareness – yes, awareness is good but when are we going to do lobbying? Because you can do awareness until, you know, thy kingdom come. And people still think in racial terms. We need to discuss the concept of ‘race’ and how it doesn’t exist and to find other pertinent terminology.

Myself, as a kid, I always identified as a half-caste. In Nigeria, that’s what you say when you have a white father or a white mother. We use that word – I only thought it was derogatory when I went to the UK two years ago. For most of my thirty-three years of living, “half-caste” was just normal. It’s only now that I’m like, wait – half a caste, that’s really weird!

Tell us about growing up in Nigeria with one part of the family being Lebanese.

In Nigeria I was always Lebanese. My father was like – she’s Lebanese obviously, because I’m Lebanese. But he never taught me Arabic so I don’t think it was something he thought about deeply, he was just Lebanese. He passed on food to us. Food, stories and music. Or not music maybe, but Mexican soap operas in Arabic! That’s how I got a bit of Lebanon in Nigeria.

And I went to Lebanese school. There are lots of Lebanese in Lagos, so enough people to have a Lebanese school. I was in a Nigerian school until the age of eleven, then I moved. It was kind of hard to assimilate in the beginning. I came to school with cornrows and the kids would say, “Aren’t you Lebanese – why do you have cornrows?” So I made friends with a lot of foreigners – Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Bulgarians.

This was in 1992. My father had come there earlier, just before the war [in Lebanon]. I think most of all he was young and wanted to leave. A lot of Lebanese at that time left really young. Many went to that part of Africa, especially people from the South, but from elsewhere too. My father comes from Beirut. I don’t remember the exact story but he was 16 and I think his aunt or someone in his family told him, “I can find you work in Canada or Nigeria,” and he just picked Nigeria, because he’d never been to Africa. He had these stereotypes about Africa, like – I will be in nature, I will see animals. And that last part, that’s really my father: all my childhood he watched animal videos, sometimes while we sat for dinner. It was always us watching the lion kill the buffalo while having dinner. David Attenborough – I grew up with this guy’s voice in our living room, he was like my uncle. That was my childhood.

I came to school with cornrows and the kids would say, “Aren’t you Lebanese – why do you have cornrows?” So I made friends with a lot of foreigners – Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Russians, Bulgarians.

Did you spend time in Lebanon as well as a kid?

I came when I was four but I barely remember anything. I remember my grandfather’s car when meeting him for the first time, I remember how he made sandwiches for me: yellow cheese on Lebanese bread and he would roll them and put them on this really huge fork and roast them over the gas cooker. And I remember how he made tea in these yellow transparent cups and I liked how when you stirred the tea you could see it through the cup. It was cold and I wore black stockings, which I didn’t have in Nigeria, and boots; they had this fur, white fur on the top. No one would wear winter boots in Nigeria. And I remember how I had to dance in front of my family whom I didn’t know. I remember Castle Moussa. These little things. I came again when I was 16, I remember that more clearly, and then finally I came for a third time and I stayed.

At AltCity in Beirut

So tell us more about Mixed Feelings. What kind of things did you experience traveling with the exhibition?

The really nice thing about moving the project around is that we met a lot of new people. People we didn’t know were here in Lebanon. A group from Tripoli with a Ghanaian mum and a Lebanese dad, people from Akkar who are Sierra Leonean-Lebanese. This woman in London who emailed me, she’s Ghanaian-Lebanese, 50 years old and looking for her lost father. And people share their stories, their experiences of racism. Some things that I hear… I feel really, if someone said that to me, I’d punch their teeth out! And I think, how strong aren’t these people who manage to laugh and be really functional about it and share their stories.

“In Nigeria I was always Lebanese”

Someone at NDU told me she heard from another student, “What are you doing here, in your country don’t you climb trees?” She was the only black student in her department. A Ghanaian-Lebanese told me her first husband, each time he would insult her, used racial insults. And this diplomat I met here said to me, “You know why I’m leaving Lebanon not happy? Every country I’ve been to I’ve gone to the gym, to the golf course, and felt that I was part of a community. But not here, I don’t feel like I belong.”

These kinds of things, when I bring them up for discussion, people tell me, “You’re attacking Lebanon when Lebanon is not as bad as other countries.” But what, is there a racism meter where if you’re not above five then it’s OK not to do anything? This is an issue that every country needs to deal with, including Lebanon.

There’s a book about Lebanon called Colonial Subjects, I think, by an author called Elizabeth Thompson [Colonial Citizens]. She has a picture in it from during the French mandate, propaganda against the French. But it actually shows not only French but also Senegalese soldiers. There’s a caricature of an African man looking mean, with big teeth, leering and grabbing hold of a Lebanese woman. That image is really interesting because when you ask about racism in Lebanon and how it started nobody knows, but then you go back in Lebanon’s history and realise that hey, maybe that’s one of the ways it started, when the French brought soldiers from Africa here.

But what, is there a racism meter where if you’re not above five then it’s OK not to do anything? This is an issue that every country needs to deal with, including Lebanon.

What other things have happened, what else have you learned from going around with the exhibition? 

We have to take baby steps. Saying something about Syrians facing discrimination for example, that can be a no-go area. Very political. [Racism] is something you have to approach in a smart way. For us, making the project about mixed Lebanese was a way to have at least a buffer between the Africans or Asians and the Lebanese; to have someone that’s seen (rightly or wrongly) to represent both and then start a discussion from there. That way, no one can dismiss these experiences because they’re “foreigners”. Because this is Lebanese experiencing this.

There’s racism in this country, we know it. I don’t think people are stupid, people know this. The baladiye [municipality] for instance, they know well there’s racism but they don’t think it’s super important. They feel that at the end of the day, there are lots of other things to do on a daily basis.

So probably this project is one way to put things in motion, to look at the idea of “us” and “them” in the Lebanese context. What about the coming future – what’s next now that this tour is over?

We’re already busy actually because we’re doing a second project. An archive-based one, looking at people’s personal archives – a fancy way of saying that we’re going through family photo albums! We’re reproducing photos of mixed Lebanese families. So any photos that people have they can give to us and we will scan them, print them in different sizes and then do an exhibition in Beirut starting at the end of January. We are already very busy, it’s pretty intense working like this. We’d need to be a bigger team!

The exhibit on tour, in Beirut and in Sour

All photos courtesy of Marta Bogdanska, except the first one, courtesy of Mourad Ayyash. You can follow Mixed Feelings through their Facebook page or that of the Heinrich Böll foundation, which supported the project.


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