New exhibit highlights struggle of Lebanese of African and Asian heritage

Renee Abi Saad from Jisr Qade
Renee Abi Saad from Jisr Qade

Students from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Hamra goers might have noticed the Mixed Feelings exhibition telling the story of Lebanese of African and Asian heritage and their daily struggles. The project, which will tour Lebanon, is the brainchild of Lebanese Nigerian researcher and activist Nisreen Kaj and Polish photographer and artist Marta Bogdanska and has involved several key members of Lebanon’s civil society as well as several NGOs in highlighting the oft-ignored daily realities of those among us who have an African or Asian parent. Mixed Feelings, explained in detail below, is a collection of 33 photos of those Lebanese accompanied by quotes touching on the subjects of ‘race’, racism, ‘othering’, racialization and national belonging. The following piece was written by both Marta and Nisreen and comprises of the answers they gave to questions sent to them by email.

Introducing Marta and Nisreen

Marta Bogdanska: I am a Polish photographer, artist and cultural organizer. I live between Beirut and Warsaw right now. I used to do a lot of projects and activism (e.g. feminism) in Poland before, and issues of discrimination, “othering” were always important to me. I work in various disciplines: creating and executing my own projects (art and other), doing photography, working with media, and recently also filming and working as a DoP. In the “Mixed Feelings” project I immediately got involved when Nisreen told me about her initial idea and we then discussed lots of ways and possible paths the project could take. I am the photographer and co-curator of the project, but I am also involved in all other activities: research, logistics, organization, documentation of the project etc.

Nisreen Kaj: I’m Lebanese Nigerian, born and lived in Lagos until 2001, and then in Beirut after that. I’ve worked various jobs (all within the “creative” field), and have also volunteered in different capacities in Lebanon’s third sector and civic society movements and initiatives, from cooking, to coordination, to communications. I did a one-year program on “Racism and Ethnicity Studies” at the University of Leeds, and have put out a couple of e-papers as well, all touching upon the same subject, so you can tell this is a personal interest of mine, trying to understand, define and address racism, specifically in Lebanon. With regards to Mixed Feelings, I “conceptualized” the original concept of the project and I work on its general production – i.e., organization, coordination, logistics, research, framing the talks, outreach, communications, and so on.

This project is in cooperation with Heinrich Boell Foundation, Middle East Office.

Describing the Project

Woman looking at photographs from the Mixed Feelings exhibition at AltCity, September 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska
Woman looking at photographs from the Mixed Feelings exhibition at AltCity, September 24, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

First, we should probably explain at this point that the Mixed Feelings project currently comprises 2 components:

One entitled Mixed Feelings: Racism and ‘Othering’ from a Lebanese Perspective: This part comprises 33 photos of Lebanese who are of African or Asian heritage, along with quotes in Arabic and English taken from interviews with about a third of the participants, that touch on a number of subjects such as “race”, racism, ‘othering’, racialization, national belonging, and so on.

Mixed Feelings: Racism and ‘Othering’ from a Lebanese Perspective was created at the end of 2011, and in 2012 it was shown in Dar Al Mussawir (Hamra), along with a panel discussion on the opening day comprising Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, Rana Boukarim of the Anti Racism Movement (ARM), and Lala Arabian of Insan Association, and us (Nisreen and Marta)

This year, we are moving this same exhibition around the country, to 5 locations, in an attempt to get more people and diverse public involved in the project and in the discussion around racism. At each space, we have a talk scheduled involving the general public and a speaker.

So far, the project has been shown at AltCity on the 24th of September, with Wadih Al Asmar from the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) and Nisreen, and at the Issam Fares Institute at AUB on the 8th of October, with Nisreen, Francesca Ankrah from the project, Roula Hamati, Research and Advocacy Officer at Insan Association, and Rania Masri from the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. It will also travel to Notre Dame University Louaize on the 22nd of October and to the Tyre Municipality (at a cultural space next to the ruins, on the 6th of November), and we are still working on a 5th location in Tripoli Al Manar University in Abu Samra neighborhood, for the 20th of November.

Audience member looks at a picture that was presented to the public during the panel discusion at IFI in AUB, October 8, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska
Audience member looks at a picture that was presented to the public during the panel discusion at IFI in AUB, October 8, 2014, Beirut. Photo by Marta Bogdanska

The other part of the project is under the tentative title “Portraits of ‘Race’ in an Intimate Space’. We’re still working on this part, so we can’t say much about it yet, but if all goes well, it should be completed and be accessible to the public sometime early next year.

In general, Mixed Feelings is a social and visual project that aims at unpacking and examining the issues of ‘race’, racialization and racism in Lebanon, and creating more in-depth dialogue and debate around these subjects.

Miriam Al Hayek from Tripoli
Miriam Al Hayek from Tripoli

So, the main motivation of the project is to talk about racism, simply. Racism is an important issue that is rarely directly addressed within and by civil society movements in Lebanon and around the world, yet it is an issue that definitely needs to be understood and defined within its time- and geographic- specific context, and then addressed accordingly.

If you look at Lebanon, we have around 250,000 migrant domestic workers (in an overall workforce of 1.45 million, and this figure is estimated to be higher), primarily women from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Madagascar and a number of West African nations. This is a significant number of people who provide much needed services, who live here, who develop relationships here, who have families here, who assimilate, integrate, spend, earn, etc. They are very much part and parcel of Lebanon, and are a significant part of the country’s ethno-scape.

Yet, due to a number of factors – such as socio-economic status; doing what is perceived as dirty work; being perceived as foreign / outsiders / ‘others’; and gender-related vulnerabilities – these women and associated social groups frequently find themselves marginalized and excluded, facing racism and racialization, all of this which sometimes leads to tragic consequences (such as suicides, and physical, sexual, mental and psychological abuses).

Ibrahim Al Hayek from Tripoli
Ibrahim Al Hayek from Tripoli

Furthermore, classism is usually tied to negative stereotyping and has become the excuse for “race” based discrimination in the country, a “we don’t have a racism problem, we just don’t want to swim with a maid or housekeeper, regardless of her nationality” way of thinking, where you have these class divisions (that are also very unacceptable) based on perceived “racial identifiers”, which is actually then racism, and which also demonstrates how racism is about intersectionality, about intersecting oppressions, and not just about “skin color”.

In addition to this “classism, not racism” discourse, you also have a discourse on racism in Lebanon that is very much an ‘us’ versus ‘the outsiders’ narrative; so we have the existence of two seemingly homogeneous and separate units – us the Lebanese and them the outsiders – that leaves little or no room to explore any other position or experience with racism in the country. And that is why we wanted to highlight the presence of mixed Lebanese (specifically Lebanese of African or Asian heritage in Lebanon), and to ask them to speak out on their experiences with racism and ‘othering’ here. We felt that in order to alter this discourse, this “us versus them, classism not racism”, etc., we needed to create a project that attempts to clear a space for multiple and previously unheard voices on the subject.

Nour Lhaf from Akkar
Nour Lhaf from Akkar

We chose photography to be the medium to use in this project because it can create a viewer’s reaction very fast. It is accessible to everyone and it talks to you immediately, without words. We want to confuse people a little bit in the beginning: to make then ponder about who are the people in these photographs at first and then to realize and think. It is an awareness project but because all the participants are recognizable it becomes also intimate and personal.

This year, with the traveling exhibition that goes from one place to another, we are also trying to build a community around the project, which is starting to work out. A lot of people speak about it and we are getting positive feedback.

Inspiration behind the project

Fady El-Khoury from Hasroun
Fady El-Khoury from Hasroun

The project was inspired by a number of factors, of course, but mainly by 3 main experiences in particular:

  • That of photojournalist Simba Russeau at a discussion in an Ethics class at AUB that took place a few years ago;
  • That of Nisreen as a black Lebanese, as well as experiences with racism shared with her by friends in Lebanon who are: Lebanese of mixed heritage, who are Asian or African, or who are perceived as Asian or African;
  • And that of Nisreen’s time as a volunteer in third sector initiatives addressing the issues faced by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, such as with Taste Culture, the 24/7 Labour Day Campaign, Anti Racism Movement, and the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF).

The last two experiences are sort of obvious, so we’ll elaborate a bit more on the AUB Talk.

At this AUB Ethics class, Simba spoke to students about the various issues faced by Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, including racism, and also particularly about the Kafala System. Faced by the usual reactions from students – such as it not being common to see black people with “expensive” things so of course the assumption would be that they stole these items, etc. – she then presented the case of a black Lebanese who faced discrimination based on physiognomic identifiers, and asked the class what they thought about that. This brought about two interesting reactions: one, many students in the classroom agreed that this was racism (whereas the same group generally did not feel treatment of Migrant Domestic Workers was racist), and many were also not aware that black Lebanese existed.

Leila Zahar from Saida
Leila Zahar from Saida

So, in 2011, Nisreen approached Marta with the idea to create a photography project with Lebanese of African or Asian heritage, in an attempt to highlight their existence and to bring in different voices into the discourse on “race”, racism and racialization in the country. From there we discussed different ideas, Nisreen contacted a few friends to take part in Mixed Feelings, and this is how we started the project. When we had a first batch of 10 portraits ready, Marta approach the Heinrich Boell Foundation Middle East Office, and they were very interested in the project and started supporting it on the spot, and have been our supporters since then till date.

Taking the project to its final visual form was a very interesting process – to work with people who were opening up in front of us and the camera, sharing their experiences, and allowing the photo to reveal a little bit about who they are, show their strength and beauty.

The Participants

The participants of the project are friends, contacts of friends, people we met along the way, people we sought out, just various individuals who were interested in doing what they could to address racism in Lebanon, through their stories, experiences, insights, and existence. These Lebanese of African or Asian heritage are, in varying degrees and through unique as well as shared experiences, the victims of ‘race’ thinking, racialization and racism, and as a social group, they are often identified by what they are not (and so are on some level occupiers of both the ‘us’ and ‘them’). They bring a unique position to the discourse; their existence blurs racial lines and challenges the fixedness of (a white Lebanese) identity; it challenges the social construct of ‘race’ and its ties to national belonging; it allows for the dialogue around racism in Lebanon to focus on racism and not become appropriated into a discussion centered solely on classism.

Gaby Melki from Ain El Remmaneh
Gaby Melki from Ain El Remmaneh

Final Comments

There is this interesting quote from a piece by Zygmunt Bauman: “All societies produce strangers, but each kind of society produces its own strangers, and produces them in its own inimitable way, [..] strangers who do not fit the cognitive, moral or aesthetic” maps chartered and the neat divisions drawn by society.

And this is what we hope people will understand when they see Mixed Feelings, and we hope based on this people will begin to question, to ask how and why we create these divisions, based on what, how and why we ‘other’, what is racism, why do we still believe in this social construct of “race”, etc. We hope that wherever this project goes, that people who interact with it, who see will take something important out of the exhibition, and understand that tackling racism in Lebanon matters not only because of the damage it causes to victims and their families, but that it is also personal, that is has a negative impact on all communities in relation to cohesion and integration.

Wissam Yassine from Akkar
Wissam Yassine from Akkar

This project hopefully shows us that if we don’t care about the racism faced by people we see as foreigners or outsiders or others, well then let’s look at ourselves, let’s talk about the racism that Lebanese “of color” face daily from other Lebanese, to understand that racism is a big deal and this big deal needs to be dealt with because what may seem insignificant today in terms of discrimination and hate crimes against groups perceived as ‘other’ in Lebanon can and will escalate quickly if not dealt with timely, holistically and appropriately.

Till now people who had seen the project expressed a lot of interest. There was one student that came and after looking at the pictures and reading the quotes from interviews she said: “Lebanon is all about discrimination”. When seeing the project people tend to come and share their experiences and thoughts and hopefully this will grow slowly, and create an atmosphere in which people can start talking about these issues.

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