Mixed feelings

“The people photographed are so beautiful they make you feel like having mixed race babies,” said Kevork Baboyan, one of many attendees at Wednesday’s opening of the photography exhibition, Mixed Feelings. 
Over the years, racism has slowly but steadily started to raise eyebrows in Lebanon, a country that is infamous for abusing migrant domestic workers and discriminating against refugees and other groups of society. Rarely, however, has anyone addressed racism between Lebanese until Lebanese-Nigerian activist Nisreen Kaj sought – in collaboration with Beirut-based Polish photographer Marta Bogdanska -- to explore the concepts of race and identity.
“Living in Beirut as a black Lebanese has [clearly highlighted] the hierarchy of skin color and ethnicity in the country,” Kaj told NOW Extra. “This reality has gotten under my skin, which is only a figure of speech, for it is in fact about the surface, about the skin, about the way we perceive identity, race, and ethnicity.”
Opening at Hamra’s Dar al-Musawwir, the launch combined images and interviews of some 30 Lebanese from African and Asian descent and was produced in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Middle East Office.
At the core of Lebanon’s discourse on racism is the template narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘the outsiders,’ structured along binary lines of opposition, of the existence of two homogeneous and separate units with no room to explore any other position or experience with racism in the country, Kaj told NOW Extra.
“We wanted to make space for other voices to be heard, to broaden the discourse on racism, and we felt a good place to start would be through a social group identified as Lebanese and a medium everyone can relate to – photography.”
The opening night also featured a panel discussion that included Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry, the Anti-Racism Movement’s Rana Boukarim as well as Insan Association’s Lala Arabian, who stressed that children in Lebanon are being brought up to be racists, regardless of whether or not it was done intentionally. “We must change this mentality,” she said.

Meanwhile, Boukarim discussed the work done by the Anti-Racism Movement, especially with migrant domestic workers, while Houry focused his feedback on the increasing “ghettoization” of Lebanese society and its impact, whether with regard to racial discrimination or sectarianism. He also noted the state’s unwillingness to address the predicament.
The ensuing discussion engaged attendees who touched on the blurred lines between racism and classism. However, others brought up the ever recurring question: While the exhibit had a great turnout, those present are, at the end of the day, the more progressive in the country. How does one reach out to the very people who discriminate against others?
To this end, one attendee suggested training authority personnel, such as police and General Security staff. Indeed, one testimony addressed the paradox of trying to live in a society “where even National Security [staff members] don’t respect you.”
With the intention of raising the issues of race, identity and racism from the general pragmatic sense to a deeper, socio-anthropological context, Kaj, who is currently pursuing an MA in Racism and Ethnicity Studies from UK’s University of Leeds, said the exhibit’s three themes revolve around: racism by youth against youth; boundary building and identity fetishism; and stereotyping, racialization and racism.
After the opening, Lebanese-Togolese graphic designer Fady el-Khoury talked to NOW Extra about his experience with racism in Lebanon, noting that it was a challenge when he was looking for a job.
When asked whether racism was more prevalent in Lebanon as compared to other Arab nations, Khoury said it was “particularly [widespread] here, but this is exhibit is a start.”
“They see my car keys and can’t believe I own a car… so [people at the supermarket] follow me to see whether or not it’s actually possible,” said Khoury’s mother laughingly, recounting the incident with equal humor and frustration.
When asked about the turnout, Kaj said she was very pleased as she had expected less people to attend. But she admitted her frustration with a friend who did not show up because, according to him, he wasn’t racist. “But then I asked him if he’d marry an Ethiopian, for example, and he [flat out] said no.”
Sadly, this only seems to reaffirm a statement by one of the attendees who said that racism in Lebanon seems to be so engrained that it’s almost subconscious.

Mixed Feelings is running until July 18 at Dar al-Musawwir in Hamra. For more information, please click here.