Lebanese community attempts to preserve its identity in Ivory Coast

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People walk on March 12, 2013 past a poster bearing the portraits of Ivory Coast President Alassane Outtara (R) and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman on the Republic Square in Abidjan. AFP/Sia Kambou

Published Thursday, November 13, 2014

At the playground of the Lebanese School, in the neighborhood of Treichville in Abidjan, Principal Mohammed Sherri calls the students in a southern Lebanese dialect. The students reply with a similar accent but with a rolled letter R. The impact of French, Ivory Coast’s official language, is apparent on the students, as well as the teaching staff. Most of them were born and raised in this country, and Arabic has gradually disappeared from daily use.

Maintaining bonds with Lebanon, and the social and religious customs related to its language, has compelled some prominent figures in the Lebanese community to establish schools that teach Arabic, in addition to the regular curriculum taught in the Ivory Coast.

In the late 1980s, Fadi Asaf established the Lebanese school in residential Zone 4. In 1992, the delegation of the Supreme Islamic Shia Council created the Lebanese Institute of Education in Treichville. Lebanese community imam Sheikh Adnan Zalghout explained that influential figures donated enough money to buy a piece of land and build and equip the school.

The aims of this establishment span from merely providing education in Arabic to imposing restrictions on the behavior and look of students – from kindergarten to high school – in a conservative Lebanese manner. When the council sent Zalghout in 1981, "Religiosity was very low among Lebanese, who were inclined towards French and African mannerisms, in addition to the complete absence of Arabic."

"The first generation in the community did not have time to teach their children Arabic or the customs of their native land," he said.

The early immigrants focused on their daily life and establishing their companies. While most women helped their husbands at work, children grew up under the supervision of housekeepers and later enrolled in national or French schools. An identity crisis set in. Lebanese students were assimilating with other nationalities, especially in French missionary schools.

Ghada Zorkot, head of preschool and primary education in the institute, grew up in a French school with students from 62 nationalities, including Israelis.

Most of the students at the Lebanese School – better known as the Sheikh's school – are from the south. But the establishment also includes Moroccan, Syrian, Algerian and Egyptian nationals. Kodo, the music teacher, taught them the Lebanese national anthem and Silghi, an employee, encourages them to use the Lebanese dialect she picked up while working as a domestic worker in Lebanon. Arabic language teacher Wafa Mroue is in charge of organizing Independence Day and Liberation Day celebrations. She teaches the students how to dance the dabke and sing national songs. Mroue is currently finishing her master’s at a Lebanese university on "Problems of Teaching Arabic in the Diaspora," based on her 14-year experience in the institute. She remarks on the emerging awareness of some people who prevent their children from speaking French at home or with those who understand Arabic.

However, this is not enough to control the type of Lebanese identity.

"I am half Lebanese, half Ivorian," explains Ezzeddine, a student from Barish (Tyre). He was born and raised in Abidjan, like the rest of his colleagues. For him, Lebanon is a place for summer vacations, which he often finds tiresome. Hassan, from Abbasieh, lists the reasons why he does not want to live in Lebanon, which include the security situation and the electricity and water cuts. Nour has her own reasons; she feels like a stranger in her native country. Store owners in her village would double the price whenever she bought something, because she comes from an African country, and to them it means she is rich.

On the other hand, the students mention Fatima Hashem, who seems to be unique in wanting to return to her town of al-Kharayeb. She had spent the past two years in Lebanon due to a family situation and was comfortable among relatives. She hated the idea of having to return to Abidjan, where she grew up, and is waiting to graduate and attend a university in Lebanon, since there are none where she lives.

Despite the existence of three Lebanese schools, which hold around 3,000 students, the desire to establish a Lebanese university persists. In addition to the national university in Abidjan, there is one other university run by Lebanese professor Jihad Jaber, which is affiliated to a French university.

Assil, another Lebanese student, worries about what will happen after she graduates from high school. Her father refuses to send her to Lebanon alone to continue her university education. For Nour, she is allowed to go on the condition that her mother and brothers return with her. Many of their friends lost their chance at a higher education because they are women or because their parents could not afford to send them abroad. Young men, on the other hand, have less of a desire to continue their education, aspiring instead to make money and run their families’ companies.

Maronite mission

The Lebanese Maronite Sacred Heart mission in Ivory Coast established the first Lebanese – and foreign – school in the Abidjan neighborhood of Adjame, where most of the Lebanese used to live. [Despite the name], the school was nonetheless open to all confessions. Jean Serhal, who currently heads the mission, indicates that most of the prominent figures in the Lebanese expatriate community and several Ivory Coast officials and businessmen graduated from the school. Although it adopted the French curriculum, it taught Arabic as a secondary language. In recent years, however, Lebanese expats began moving out of Adjame and moved their children to other schools. Currently, most of its students are locals and immigrants from Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Algeria; they are predominantly from the lower middle class so they pay symbolic fees. Although the teaching staff is also Ivorian, they teach about Lebanese independence and continue to celebrate it. Serhal also notes the expat community's support for the school and the creation of a sports stadium that is open to the public.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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