Mixed Feelings: Not Allowed to Feel Lebanese
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Thursday, June 28, 2012
Being born in Nigeria to a Lebanese father and a Nigerian mother was, for Nisreen Kaj, like being born in a “bubble.” The activist and copywriter grew up in Lagos with a relatively rosy view of racial co-existence. Then, she moved to Lebanon. “I was a bit naïve and expected things to be as they were back home,” she said. Instead, she was subject to frequent incidences of racism and race-based presumptions about her identity.
“It’s like you’ve already assumed that I’m a maid or a prostitute or I work in a kitchen,” she said. “They’ve already made assumptions about you based on your mistaken identity.”
Kaj knew she wasn’t alone in her experiences, but it seemed that talk about racism in Lebanon was almost always interpreted through the paradigm of class. Though class is crucial to discussions of race, Kaj felt there was a need to “bring new social groups into this discourse.”
Now, Kaj and Beirut-based Polish photographer Marta Bogdańska have debuted a new photography and narrative project titled “Mixed Feelings” that questions what it means to be a Lebanese of mixed roots. Through a combination of portrait photographs and interviews with Lebanese of mixed African or Asian heritage, they’ve raised new questions about racism and “othering” in Lebanon.
“To have this first encounter when you enter [the exhibit] and you see these faces that you probably wouldn’t consider Lebanese, you’re a bit confused,” said Bogdańska. “Then it actually turns out they’re all Lebanese. We wanted to use this moment of surprise.”
Bogdańska and Kaj agreed that straight-on portraits, void of background ornamentation, best depicted the story they wish to tell: of many Lebanese who, despite being passport holders, feel estranged yet rooted to their identities. “One guy explained to us that when he was in his country of origin, he identified as Lebanese because he was allowed to identify as Lebanese,” said Kaj. “Then when he moved to Lebanon, he lost his sense of Lebanese-ship.”
The small gallery space at Hamra’s Dar al-Musawwir is lined with 30 portraits interspersed with anonymous quotes from interviewees. Some of the quotes are forlorn (“…I don’t really have friends in Lebanon…”), some reference the incessant name-calling, while others mention how Lebanese like dark skin tones.
This typifies the paradoxical social reality that many Lebanese of mixed ethnicity inhabit, yet perhaps don’t always articulate on a daily basis. According to the project organizers, about a third of their interviewees have since departed Lebanon. “This was a recurring theme that I felt that they don’t see their future here,” said Bogdańska. “Of course it’s also connected to economic reasons and Lebanon being in a difficult situation, but I think the main reason is the discrimination and racism that they encounter here.”
The opening night of the exhibit drew a large, sweating crowd to Dar al-Musawwir, making the gallery’s rooms seem small. A presentation with panelists from Human Rights Watch, the Anti-Racism Movement, and Insan Association resulted in dozens crammed into a really hot room to hear about racism in Lebanon.
A three-page document was distributed that presented themes identified in interviews along with ample material to back it up. With the combined presentation, hand-out, and revealing quotes attached to the photographs, the message of the exhibit was at risk of being over articulated. This likely stemmed from a desire and enthusiasm to take advantage of this public platform to shed light on a little-talked-about subject, as well as the organizers’ goal of creating a “sociological” project. After all, Kaj related a story from a journalist friend who said that, during a lecture to university students, half the class didn’t even know that black Lebanese existed.
Even without the supplementary material, the photos and select quotes of “Mixed Feelings” are, in their simplicity, more than enough to speak volumes about what it is to be different in Lebanon.
“Mixed Feelings” is on display at Dar al-Mussawir in Wardieh, Hamra until July 18.