A "Racist" Lebanese Travels to Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu devotees dance during the Hindu religious ceremony in Wattala on 10 July 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ishara S.Kodikara)

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Monday, July 15, 2013

What makes the Land of the Cedars more unique than the Land of Luxury Tea? The answer is nothing. Sri Lanka goes forward on the path to development, while Lebanon treads the path of backwardness.

Colombo – Sri Lanka is a nationality, not a profession. This should be clear to everyone. However, in Lebanon, the situation is different. A “Sri Lankan,” here, could be from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, or the Philippines. The identity has become a synonym for domestic service workers. In Lebanon, it’s normal to hear someone asking her friend, "Which country is your 'Sri Lankan' from?" The question is full of ignorance, even hatred and irrational racism, pointing to a feeling of Lebanese superiority toward the people of Sri Lanka.

Those who ask it are ignorant that there is a full-fledged country called Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon and, in ancient times, Serendip. It has a civilization which goes further back in time, ages before Christ. Yet the people who live there are reduced by some idiots here to the status of “servant.” Some are unaware that their favorite tea was grown, manufactured, and made famous by that people.

In fact, the issue goes beyond domestic workers. The moniker “Sri Lankan” in Lebanon refers to anything considered “lower.” One often hears Lebanese comparing a woman to a Sri Lankan, as a form of denigration.

One of the quickest ways to hear some phrases is when one declares they will be visiting Sri Lanka for tourism. "Are you really going to Sri Lanka?" one would ask, as if one had mentioned an incredible event. But why this disgusting arrogance?

Lamentable Comparisons

The comparisons begin as soon as you step on Sri Lanka's soil. The airport in the capital Colombo is where the surprises begin. The prepaid mobile phone card is not just cheap, compared to Lebanon, but high-speed Internet mobile service, 4G, has been available throughout the country, which is five times the size of Lebanon, for over a year. In Lebanon, it is still under trial and limited to some neighborhoods in Beirut.

The 3G service, which has recently arrived in Lebanon, has been available in Sri Lanka for the past four years. The network does not break, whether in Colombo in the west, Kandy in the center of the country, or Trincomalee in the north. The service is fast and dependable. Nobody curses the Internet like in Lebanon.

Public highways in Sri Lanka are more similar to those in Europe. The white lines on the highways are as bright as snow. The roads are illuminated throughout the night. There is nothing here, in any city, which resembles the dark highway between Tripoli and Beirut.

In a country of 20 million, you rarely hear erratic car horns and might think silence is inscribed in the law. Later, you would find out that the people hate noise and prefer serenity. They have no idea about car gliding.

We ask our taxi driver, Atholinaka, about power cuts. "Employees fix whatever malfunctions occur on the power lines due to the weather. It happens an average of four times a month and only lasts for a few hours," he answers. He is unaware of what this question means in Lebanon.

Power cuts only occur during emergency malfunctions. Electricity is a given and there is no need to discuss it. In short, electricity in Sri Lanka is not rationed. After a few days spent around the luxurious tea farms, you ask yourself, is Lebanon better than Sri Lanka in anything?

In Politics Too

Some might say Lebanon went through a civil war and is today dealing with its consequences. But they would soon be disappointed to find out that Sri Lanka had a 25-year civil war between its two main ethnicities, the Hindu Tamil Tigers and the majority Buddhists who controlled the government. It ended four years ago and Sri Lanka is moving forward.

Thus, there is no excuse for Lebanon. There is no reason for this sense of superiority. If there should be discrimination, indicators point to Lebanon as being inferior. The Lebanese, infamous for their jokes about other nations, are discovering that those nations are more civilized and advanced. Thus, the joke is on the Lebanese, whether they know it or not.

While the Lebanese parliament was extending its term after failing to issue a new electoral law, Sri Lanka was enjoying an electoral process based on proportional representation. The Lebanese cannot dream of such a law, under the pretext of parity, quotas, not to mention the most famous mantra, “coexistence.”

Again, such pretexts collapse at Sri Lanka's borders, even though the country, like Lebanon, is composed of various religions and sects, mainly Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Moreover, Lebanon does not suffer from ethnic conflicts, while Sri Lanka has several ethnicities, the Sinhalese, Tamil, Moro, and Malawi.

Everyone over 18 years old can vote in Sri Lanka. Do the activists in Lebanon, who have not stopped calling for lowering the voting age, know about this?

In recent years, many people have become aware of the occupation of Lebanon’s public beachfront. Citizens cannot go to the beach without first having to pay a resort for access even though beach access is a legal right for every citizen. However, the corrupt and influential barons are stronger than the law.

This is something you will not see in Sri Lanka. The country’s beaches facing the Indian Ocean outnumber those of Lebanon. Furthermore, they are the property of all citizens. Poor people can walk along the sand across from the fanciest hotels and resorts in Colombo, alongside the tourists and the wealthy. The same goes for all the coastal cities, from Negombo to Galle.

This might annoy some tourists, but so what? The priority is for citizens. This is how tourists are seen by the people of Sri Lanka. It’s what the grocer, fishmonger, and leather merchant say. It is a general culture, opposite to what we have here. They do not suffer from feelings of inferiority to the white man and are proud of their civilization and current situation.

Culture and Farming

A visitor to Sri Lanka does not need much time to discover the level of culture and education. Most city dwellers speak English, going back to British colonialism in the island, which ended in 1948. However, the educational system is sophisticated, free from elementary to university, and compulsory until 14 years of age. Therefore, 90 percent of 15-year-old Sri Lankans are literate. In Lebanon, on the other hand, education is not free and not compulsory after the age of 13.

Sri Lanka is an agricultural country of the finest type. People here eat what they grow. Their relation to the land is strong. The country is the number one exporter of tea worldwide, but it is also famous for its rice, coconut, and rubber. Agricultural activity absorbs 50 percent of the workforce, with the remaining work is distributed between industry and services. Today, all that is left of the relationship between Lebanese and their land are chants and traditional songs. If it was not for imports, we would not find anything to eat.

As for transportation, in addition to cars, the use of motorcycles is encouraged by the state (as opposed to their arbitrary suppression in Lebanon due to the inability to organize them). There is also a network of rail that covers the country. Indian-made Tok Toks are also prevalent. Rarely does one find someone on a motorcycle here without a helmet. The percentage of women drivers is almost that of the men. The culture of “breaking the law” is not very popular there. Everyone fears policemen and respects them.

Even animal rights supporters will find what they are looking for in Sri Lanka. Dogs sleep in the street. Cars tend to avoid them, not the opposite. People's relationship with animals is humanistic. They do not hurt them and provide them with food on the roadside, as part of the popular culture.

This could be the impact of Buddhism, which forbids the harming of animals. There is no need for organizations calling for animal rights here.

This is Sri Lanka, or some of it at least, the country whose citizens do not know much about Lebanon, except that it is an Arab country, "like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf." A tour guide in the Sigiriya region says the only thing he knows about Arabs is that "a Sri Lankan domestic worker was beheaded by sword last month after being falsely accused."

The man, in his 70s, knows only this about Arabs. You are forced to tell him that you are Arab but not from Saudi. However, you feel ashamed about telling him what happens to the domestic workers in Lebanon, of all nationalities, who are treated like slaves under the oppressive "sponsorship" system.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Yes, in some ways Sri Lanka is more "developed" than Lebanon, but in terms of its economy it isn't really and that's what matters to poor rural Sri Lankans who find their way to Lebanon for work. Huge disparities exist between Colombo and its rural poor, especially those living in the North.

And what glitters is not always gold. Sri Lanka puts on a stunning face for its tourist but deep down it can be racist. With anti muslim sentiment at an all time high Sri Lankans think that the Arab world is barbaric, backward, uneducated given all the news that comes from Saudi.

Prejudices exist but shouldn't cloud our judgments of our fellow people.

Not really. I am writing this note after having spent nearly two weeks in Elephant Island and can tell you that economically and socially speaking Sri Lanka is more advanced than our beloved Lebnan. I did not come across any anti Muslim feelings. All religions live in harmony with each other and as the writer stated, they do not like to break the law and respect the police. People may be poor, but eat much better than in Lebnan. Hey Lebanese also make their way to other places to work, for otherwise they would remain poor in Lebnan. Bottom line, stop looking down upon everyone, whether from Ethiopia or Sri Lanka. Lebnan should accept the fact that it is just another country in the world that is trying to improve the economic, social and political well being of its population.

You forgot to mention: the beautiful country of yours "Sri Lanka" is also hostile towards Muslims...is that anything to be proud of!

If you only knew some stories of how sri lankan families send their daughters and wives to suffer and work hard to send backmoney to find out how badly it was spent and the poorwoman has n
othing savings null ...

Well,
I do not quite agree with this artice. I am a Sri Lankan of Moorish
heritage, one of the original families of the from Bilad as-Sham. And I
know the area of greater Syria and have travelled across the
Mediteranian region. Lebanon in particular lacks a lot of things that a
country should, but has progressed some what much faster than Sri Lanka.
Maybe Sri Lanka has more development in some ways, Lebanon might have
it in another. You can't just blindly compare and say which is better.
Moreover Lebanon might tend to be more racist, while the Maronite
Catholics and the Maronite Arab Muslims might agree to dis-agree. In
fact it is wrong to say that Lebanese are Arabs. Although most Lebanese
adhere to Islam, they are not nessecerely of Arab heritage. They are as
much as Lebanese origin as the Maronit Catholics or more simply the
Ancient Lebanese tribes(not Arab) who converted to Islam. So in a
nutshell, not every country is perfect.

Congratulations on a great article!
I do find the comparisons somewhat unfair though... For Sri Lanka!

"Moreover, Lebanon does not suffer from ethnic conflicts, while Sri Lanka has several ethnicities, the Sinhalese, Tamil, Moro, and Malawi."

I commend your well written article. But I will point this out, it seems that your affinity to ill represent Lebanon can't be pure all the way through. Meaning, you fail to explain why so many people flock to Lebanon almost every year and why the country even with civil conflict for over 20 year is the only country in the region that hold a multi-religious government that as you astutely pointed out isn't far from functional far from the pure ideal government that Sri-Lanka maintains.

I am not Lebanese nor would I want to be, but your article is far from objective which is laughably ironic since the very same topic that you discuss is intolerance and "racism"...

With all this mistreatment that you speak of..that is well known throughout the region. Why is it that foreigners still flock to Beirut and Tripoli..

-AK

Ive been there once colombo and candy , gotta admit it has a wonderful natural beauty, but people there are uncivilized at all they would use u in a very un polite way, money speakers, and they speak arabic better than english.and they arr calm because of their laziness I love srilanka as a country .but their government should concentrate on education more. Such a country doesn't deserve to be wasted

Sri lanka literacy rate 99%

well,. it is clear you dont know any thing about sri lanka other than just being to colombo and kandy. only those who operate companies who send people to arab countries for slavery speak arab. and others do not. and also claiming about being civilized or not, we are certainly more than KSA. And its funny to read your comment.

I also heard they have smoke some great indo weed and have an amazing surfing scene.

At the expense of sounding like I am defending the racist Lebanese, I have to say that this article sounds too amateurish. It's as if it's just taunting the racist lebanese with a broad-brush type description of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka must have serious economic problems if women (and some men) are leaving to come work in a country where they're discriminated against very harshly. I mean good for Sri Lanka, if they managed to fix problems that the Lebanese haven't yet, and likely won't any time soon, but how does that help the Lebanese reflect on their racism. Besides, is the racism of the Lebanese the cause for which they're lagging behind technologically or for which their infrastructure is in such dire conditions. Aren't the most racist of the Lebanese their richest who have stolen their wealth.
Again, that's not to take anything away from Sri Lanka and its population, but this article just reeks of self-righteousness and is possibly terribly inaccurate.

I agree with the article.

But sadly i live in the US and people are racist and blind here too. everyone thinks lebanon is a desert and they always tell me"it must be awful in the heat there" etc etc etc. every day the same stereotypes from the most powerful country in the world.

racism and ignorance is everywhere. the lebanese have to figure out the economy and build their nation first. then we can start talking about culture and civilization and education everyone to be politically correct.

priorities

The article is a commendable attempt to address Lebanese racism, but it is much too naive about Sri Lanka and its autocratic leadership, which not only have created mass graves for Tamils but have assasinated numerous dissident Sinhalese like Lasantha.

The reason not to be racist against Sri Lankans has nothing to do with how wonderful Sri Lanka is, it has to do with the fact everyone -- including people who don't come from countries with good power grids and internet connections -- deserves to be treated with respect.

Thank you for posting the article. I felt a lot of similar emotions after returning from there. The Sri Lankans might be less educated, but they are definitely more civilized: they respect each other and the planet way more than we do.
Before your Lebanese ego replies to this, pay Sri Lanka a visit ;)

One word: perfection. Very well said Mohamed.
A piece of advice for all the lebanese around the world: you need to wake up and realize that any nationality, be it Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, American or Chinese are just as good as any other lebanese on this earth.
Wake up Lebanon, wake up!

There are poor people in Sri-Lanka. Those coming to Lebanon are not representative of the whole population and the country, but the poorer, more rural people.
They happen to be earning much less on average than what they would in Lebanon, and be in dire need of money, that is why they do it.
I have always wondered why people from the Philippines (a beautiful country), Sri-Lanka, Nepal would go to Lebanon, and why people from Ethiopia would leave their parent, to go live in isolation, far from their culture, for years at a time...
Don't they have better options? Hopefully not dubai where they would work for 12 hour days in possibly worse conditions.
The economic need and a culture of working outside the country might contribute to this situation...

BTW, judging a country by the situation of internet and electricity... not brilliant either!

This article should've been only about Sri-Lanka. The part of it concerning Lebanon is wrong and irrelevant. I am Lebanese and I've heard these stereotypes about Lebanese so many times.
But I know better. You should dwell on the overwhelming cases of friendship and outstanding relations between Lebanese families and Sri-lankan workers in Lebanon.

And concentrate on the mistreatments in the countries where they are systematic, and where racism is the rule. Check the Gulf countries, then come Bach and check Lebanon without prejudging.

Dear Sir,

I would like to congratulate you about this beautiful article. I just arrived from Srilanka.. I spent one week there.. I found it that it is the most beautiful country i visited in my life.. I liked the population.. we MUST respect them in their country and in Lebanon..

Have a nice day,

Tina

Great article I used to always make the comparison how hypocritical and ignorant the Lebanese are and this article hits the point precisely. If only the Lebanese which unfortunately I am one were to travel abroad to so called third world countries they would see that Lebanon is the real backward land of tribes.

Totally true, i went to sri lanka it's an amazing country, they talk about nature of lebanon and how lovely and beautiful it's nothing comparing to sri lanka even the people are so kind and modest and the country is so clean despite the poverty
when i returned to lebanon an ignorant officer in the airport laughed because he saw Sri lankan visa on my passport.
Really lebanese people should grow up and open up to the world because all the world is moving forward and we are moving backwards

A tourist like this fromLebanon to Sri Lanka may learn something from the tale of a man who went to heaven and got fed up watching people chilling by lakes of honey and milk, and sitting about passing time in comfort. He wanted to know what he was missing by not going to hell. He asked for a permit to be allowed to go down for a couple of weeks and was granted it. In hell, people were drinking wine and partying and dancing to music. When he came back to heaven, he quickly got bored and wanted to go back down again. He went up to the Almighty, and asked to go back down. The Almighty being busy, told him he could, but it was a one way ticket this time. The man agreed. When he went down this time, people were burning in raging fires and screaming. He asked the devil, 'What's happened. When I came the last time everyone was partying.'

'You were a tourist then,' the devil replied.

Yes, there is terrible racism in Lebanon, one that must stop, but the glitter of Sri Lanka, (which is not one nation) hides decades of discrimination and violence against the Tamils, not to mention the recent slaughter (when the LTTE controlled North and East was overrun by the Sri Lankan military), the abduction of women and the displacement of hundreds and thousands of Tamils.

Irrespective of the scriptures of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims or Hindus - in Sri Lanka or else where - violence is not theological but political. Simplistic references as in this articles to animal rights (which some animals may not agree with, if they could speak) ignore history.

The contradictions of Lebanon cannot be juxtaposed with those of Sri Lanka, both countries' issues have to be understood in their own local and regional contexts. Suppression of political aspirations as in Sri Lanka of the Tamils does not resolve conflicts which created the issues in the first place. As it can't anywhere.

one question,
how about money wise over there?
why they are still coming to Lebanon in this big number and not going back to Sri Lanka if it is this beautiful and living there is so peaceful ?
thank you for a reply

Seriously, that's all you can think of?

How about money wise in Lebanon? And why are twice the population in Lebanon working and living outside the beautiful, green coexisting (not to mention peaceful and tolerant) Lebanon? Why is it a dream for most of the Lebanese to get any other nationality and escape the country?

I'm of Lebanese origin leaving in the states. I would like to ask you which part of the article you think is not true? And why is it that there are more Lebanese living outside Lebanon than Lebanon itself? And those left behind would leave if they had the opportunity? One more question... have you ever been Lebanon?

What a smart question, obviously because the cost of living is so much cheaper in Sri lanka that the couple of hundred dollars they make here can buy them a lot there. Unlike the situation in our LUXURIOUS COUNTRY where everyone is paid very little and the cost of living is VERY HIGH.
Big difference, and still better from their side.
Another good question is why do all the lebanese fly away to all the Gulf countries....

and why no many Lebanese are emigrating out of Lebanon and not going back?

it is Serendib not Serendipity. Google before you translate. :) it helps.

Yes, which is from the root Arabic word for serendipity. Google first ;)

This is so true. I visited Sri Lanka several times and found it to be much more than Lebanon. It a land of laws with minimum corruption and respect for authority.
Lebanon on the other hand is lawless, corrupt, backward. Lebanon is not a country but, a collection of tribes, landlords and criminals. Everyone is out to steal, cheat, get ahead by any mean possible.
Our government and politicians are the worst, comparable to African nations.
Our politicians work for themselves and are always looking for ways to fleece the populous.
I am going to stop writing because it is upsetting me.

Thank you Al-Akhbar for this article. I can only hope that Lebanese learn to respect themselves. Racism is a reflection of one's disrespect for the self. A person can only respect others when he/she has respect for himself/herself.

Excellent, hard-hitting article.

What else can be said? Development in nations torn by civil strife only happens when one side wins and imposes its political will on the other faction(s), preferably in a conciliatory manner rather than genocide. Much of Sri Lanka's progress can be attributed to this fact. Civil wars should play out to their logical conclusion, otherwise the suffering of a country continues indefinitely by means of an artificial peace that no one is really happy with. Lebanon's civil war did not end, it was merely "frozen" by Taif. Hence, the deadlock and the lack of genuine progress.

Thank you Al-Akhbar for this article. I can only hope that Lebanese learn to respect themselves. Racism is a reflection of one's disrespect for the self. A person can only respect others when he/she has respect for himself/herself.

Excellent article, Mr Nazzal.
Refreshingly honest, and pinpoints the root of all the ills plaguing our society. I only wish more could be said (and written) in order to awaken us and drag us away from our barbarisms. Bravo!

Bravo Mohamed. About time somebody wrote this piece. I visited Sri Lanka on holiday several years ago, on the eve of the national election that was well organised and held on time despite acute political divisions in the country at the time. I was similarly amazed by the things you seem to have impressed you and, as a Lebanese citizen, uncomfortable with the baseless arrogance and chauvinism some - not all - Lebanese tend to exhibit towards these countries. I have also been to Ethiopia on holiday, another magnificent place with lots to boast about, and also saw a country moving forward successfully. And, I worked in Nepal for years which, although has really huge problems, can still teach others a thing or two about societal, mutual respect. In all three countries, each with violent backgrounds of their own, there was always an awkward silence when I say where I was from.

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