Mixed Feelings: Not Allowed to Feel Lebanese

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Al-Akhbar Management

From the "Mixed Feelings" exhibit at Dar al-Mussawir (Photo: Marta Bogdańska)

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.

Comments

Human is a social animal. The only thing he can't live without after food and water is love. and his hunger for love is even more than his for food or water. Every one must care for the people who get ignored in this long run. They are humans too, they have some desires which are really not getting fulfilled

How sad to read those beneath comments. So basically Lebanon is a piece from hell. Its people are full of hate. You're black??? " oh so you're a prostitute, a maid bla bla bla". It's ugly to see how people start talking trash about my country, yes there are problems...but could you tell me what did you do to improve our society?? oh yeah you left liberia. Good job and well done.

Good thing you didn't move to the US...then you'll know what it means to suffer as a black person.

Lebanese society doesn't discriminate against blacks, unfortunately this society may have stereotyped blacks. In the US there's discrimination.

I love black people btw. I have tons of beautiful memories with them. And I hope one day I can marry a mixed race lebanese girl.

Now I'm wondering, HOW LEBANESE PEOPLE GET TREATED IN AFRICA???? DON'T THEY GET KIDNAPPED FOR RANSOMS??

I will tell you I am half lebanese half haitian. My mother's side of the family disowned us because we mixed. Miss me with that "we aren't racist" shit

LOL typical racist excuse "I had tons of fun memories with them" and "I wish to marry a mix race"
Lebanon is a racist country, ask me because I am an African American who visited your "Nice Humble country" for a week and I was basically treated as an unpleasant guest, someone people can't wait to get rid of. I walk on the street and 99% of passerbys look at me in disgust, matter of fact, I had a young guy come up to and say "what's up my n***r." And please don't compare your country with mine, and yes there is discrimination but it is not as nearly bad as yours. Didn't you know that we just elected an African American president? Can your country pull that off? Hell NO. So sit your ass down and accept the fact.

When I read this article it was really moving, but I also have gone through the same thing in Lebanon. I am also a biracial Lebanese nigerian , I schooled in Lebanon for 5 years and those years were the worst years of my life. I thought no one could understand the meaning of being a black Lebanese , my mom too struggled in that country. Every at school, or in the school bus I normally get picked on for being dark skinned. I hated going out , cause when ever I did the kids in my neighborhood called sirlankiyi , in the normal world that's a person from sirilanka , but to them it meant cleaner , maid or nanny . It was very hard living there, but the good thing was that I had just a few good friends. And now I'm living in nigeria happy and thankfull that God allowed me to get out of there peacefully .

I think the real problem stems from Lebanese not wanting to address racism in their country. Some blatantly refuse to accept that it exists,even saying that Lebanese discriminate among Lebanese or that racism is everywhere....thus making it acceptable here. How does this make it right or even acceptable. I still can't understand how a country of people can pride themselves on having foreign passports yet be one of the racists group of people.

I am very thankful for the courage of al-akhbar to shed the light on such a vital issue. I also thank the photographer and ms. Kaj for their tremendous efforts to get the message through. I hope that each individual of a mixed race will tell their stories and make this issue be recognized by the bigger organizations out there.
My mother is a dark african lebanese that got slapped on her face by a bus driver because he refused to drop her where she wanted to get off, telling her " I will drop you off where ever I want to."
It saddens me that those Lebanese men go to Africa impregnate the women and bring the children as house maids!!!!! It is also repulsive to know that the youth of lebanon are raised up to be as ignorant as their parents.

I am very thankful for the courage of al-akhbar to shed the light on such a vital issue. I also thank the photographer and ms. Kaj for their tremendous efforts to get the message through. I hope that each individual of a mixed race will tell their stories and make this issue be recognized by the bigger organizations out there.
My mother is a dark african lebanese that got slapped on her face by a bus driver because he refused to drop her where she wanted to get off, telling her " I will drop you off where ever I want to."
It saddens me that those Lebanese men go to Africa impregnate the women and bring the children as house maids!!!!! It is also repulsive to know that the youth of lebanon are raised up to be as ignorant as their parents.

i once live in Lebanon, i have read your article and it feels like u re telling my tail. i was know by Iris Farhat now i prefer to go by the name of Iris Hall. I have moved to Liberia, and consider my life there as a mistake. i dont feel proud telling people about my experiences in that country. i now have a beautiful job and my respect as a human. My advice to girls that mess around with Lebanese men re to be very STRONG and dont have kids cause they will never have a place to belong. It pains and i am never going to make the mistake to return. i have destroyed my passport and harweyeh.

thanks for the alight, they will know we re humans too. And God created us all.
I have a joke that say, Lebanese will all be surprise when judgement day comes and God is black. not much of a joke but it did comfort me many days.

Peace

I'm Lebanese-Iraqi so it doesn't show I'm not Lebanese. I now have an autistic son and I don't think I will ever take him to Lebanon. Not worth it knowing he could be hurt by outrageous things people say without qualm.

I commend the fact that al-Akhbar tackles these issues. It is a big problem and a real stain on the honor of all Lebanese. I have a relative who is physically challenged (although it is not obvious by just looking at him) and when he visits Lebanon he is ridiculed and mocked. I simply could not believe what he experienced- it really opened my eyes and made me look at Lebanese society differently.

Perhaps no one told the Lebanese that the true measure of a society is in how it treats its most disadvantaged citizens.

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