How to read the Syrian body: Lebanese racist ideologies and politics of difference
The story of the Syrian body as seen by Lebanese eyes is not a new one, it dates back to the time when Syrian workers migrated to Lebanon and became cheap labor, around the country’s largest institutional and urban development in the 1950s. And cheap labor, with time, cheapens the body itself and disciplines it. People then would speak of the Syrian worker as someone coming from dark places of Syria, unknown barbaric villages that manufacture people who were completely different from Lebanese. “Not all Syrians are backward”, the story went, “but these people who come to Lebanon and work in construction and other cheap form of labor, come “men wara al ba2ar”, they are dirty, ignorant and stupid”. Somehow labor exploitation disappears onto the Syrian worker’s body, thereby making it as ontologically different and alien, not just for middle and upper class Lebanese but for their fellow Lebanese workers as well.
I want to relate and analyze the racist ideologies embedded in two stories that were told to me about the Syrian body or on “how Syrians are”: one is by a Lebanese service driver trying to find a job for his son, and the other by a feminist scholar during a conference against torture for Lebanese police officers.
The Syrian worker: a non-suffering body meant for cheap labor
The first story goes something like this:
“I spent my whole life working as a service driver trying to put my children in school so they could have a better life. Now my son is almost done with school, he is very smart, and I want him to go to college. But college is very expensive. You know how it is in Lebanon. It is impossible for people like us to afford a good education. I also don’t want to spend too much money on him and spoil him, he needs to get a job so that he learns the value of money, like I did. I am looking for jobs for him but it is difficult. He went and talked with Barbar and they said he can work there. But I went there and saw the conditions of work, it is terrible (for more on the dire work conditions ta Barbar see this article). All the workers there are Syrian (which is not true), they work more than 12 hours a day, they are sweating all the time in the kitchen. They (the Syrian workers) can work under these conditions because they are used to it. Their bodies do not get sick from working under these awful conditions like we do. They are used to misery and disgusting conditions. They would eat anything and they will survive. But my son will fall sick on his first day, I cannot have him work there“
From all the racist signaling and stories I hear on a daily basis in Beirut, this was for me the most terrifying. It is revelatory of the engrained matter-of-fact racism against Syrian bodies who are read as naturally disciplined commodities of labor. It is a racist statement signaling bodies of Syrian workers who not only are nonreactive to diseases and abhorring conditions produced by labor exploitation, but are bodies manufactured, habituated and made exactly for these forms of labor.
While Lebanese spend an incredible amount of time everyday trying to shape their bodies, skin, postures, accents and clothes to resemble and pass as the coveted European and American body, the Syrian body, a constant reminder of what they actually resemble, becomes so threatening to their modern and civilized aspirations that it needs to be recreated and reproduced as essentially different from the Lebanese body.
The service worker, arguably coming from modest means and is exposed to oppressive working conditions himself, cannot relate to the Syrian worker at all, and cannot sympathize with his labor conditions or see himself in his shoes. On the contrary, with this narrative, he produces a Syrian body that is ontologically different from his own, an unfathomable threatening body who is unresponsive to disease and pain. While he comments on the high prices of schools, he is not able to read the labor exploitation that marks the Syrian body but, instead, reads it as part of the body’s nature.
This narrative is not restricted to Syrian bodies in Lebanon. One constantly hears such stories about the awful conditions foreign domestic workers can handle without any problem. The joke goes “what happens when a Syrian worker marries an Ethiopian domestic worker? Their child will be the superman worker, he will be able to work 24 hours without rest or food”. And now this narrative is being transferred onto Syrian refugees who do not need that much attention, aid, blankets or food since they are used to poverty and misery. Becoming a refugee has been the best thing that has ever happened to them, apparently.
The absence of motherhood in Syrian women refugees
The Second story was at a week-long conference on torture for the Lebanese police that I attended for my research. During lunch, I sat down with two police officers, a feminist academic and a Palestinian UN representative who were both lecturing at the conference. The feminist started commenting on an incident that happened a week before, where a huge storm had flooded refugee tents in the Eastern side and a less than a year old baby was lost and died in the flood. Her narrative went something like this:
“How can this happen? Is this possible?! What kind of mother would neglect her baby this way? This is appalling! Some people have no understanding of motherhood and how to take care of their children. I am disgusted and angry at these people, they get kids and then throw them away! How can she let go of her baby like that?” while the police officers kept politely quiet, giving room for “experts” to discuss, the UN representative suggested with a lot concern that awareness campaigns needed to start in the Bekaa on similar issues.
I still remember staring at my empty plate, holding my knife so tight, slowly directing it in the direction of the proclaimed feminist. It was one of those rare moments where I was completely taken aback, probably, if I am to be honest about it, because I never thought a conversation between a UN representative and a feminist academic can get so racist and goes unchallenged as a valid and normal anecdote. I then forbid myself from screaming and told myself that I will write about this, that my job is to write about things like these and not cause an angry scene. After all, the lunch room was full of police officers, and even if the conference was against torture, I can totally see the feminist screaming “SEIZE HER” while policemen gather around to beat the shit out of me. So I kept my mouth shut.
And I regret it so much. This particular story gave me week-long migraines and back pains. Sometimes, it is just best to scream and point a knife at someone, especially at them racist feminists and UN representatives. But I did not. So all I am left with is my ability to analyze her story and see what this normalized and terrifying racism against Syrian refugees can tell us. And how to counter it.
Okay, so when “experts” and UN representatives who produce legitimate and formal knowledge about feminism and the situation of women in Lebanon and the Middle East are capable of uttering such racist logic, that tells me that the ideology and the politics of difference are successfully engrained and embedded within Lebanese ideological institutions, and are taken for granted as normal and casual understanding of Syrian bodies. Syrian women refugees lack the natural instinct of motherhood and need humanitarian awareness campaigns to learn how to be mothers and how to take care of their own children. The fact that the Lebanese government would not allow refugees to stay in something other than a tent, the fact that no one prepared any form of protection against the storm, were completely omitted from the narrative. The blame fell utterly and completely on the uncivilized body of the Syrian woman who simply lacks the ontological and essential skill of motherhood. Perhaps making her “aware” of her disability might help, adds the UN representatives.
Summary: how to counter Lebanese racist ideology?
These two stories coming from two Lebanese representing different social class, experience and authority reveal how successful and hegemonic Lebanese racist ideology is. Anyone who is still nagging about the absence of his Lebanese state can take a look at the state ideologies of racism against Syrian refugees who are now blamed for everything wrong with Lebanon including absurd things like traffic and electricity cuts. Our state seems to ideologically be very present and powerful.
What these two stories have in common is this terrifying systematic forgetting and erasure of the material conditions of labor and of being a refugee that Syrian workers and refugees are finding themselves in. This ideological forgetting, or this systematic inability to see what is quite apparent is what needs to be countered. After doing research for two years on humanitarian interventions and being bombarded with different “awareness campaigns” directed at different vulnerable groups in Lebanon, I find absolute pleasure in turning these campaigns towards the people who actually need someone to take off their ideological glasses for them to see. But the more I sit and argue with racist people by unveiling the material conditions of exploitation of Syrians in Lebanon, the more I am terrified at how easily they can simply turn their arguments somewhere else in order to sustain their racist ideologies.
Because, again, ideologies of difference and of racism are powerful in Lebanon, probably the most powerful ideology that everyone agrees on without it being challenged.
Because, if it wasn’t for these ideologies, Lebanese have to face the facts that the city of Beirut itself was built, developed, renovated and made into a cosmopolitan city by the blood and sweat of Syrian workers. Who built your city? Who constructed all your buildings? One by one with his bare hands? Who assembled Beirut’s entire infrastructural system? Who planted and took care of your trees? Your gardens? And your lands? How picked up your fruits and vegetables and transported them to the market? who fixed your cars? Who fixed your electricity? Who built your roads? Your high ways? Who cleaned them? This city stands tall over the shoulders of Syrians.
A doomed city that smells and stinks everyday, where evil is becoming normal and a matter of fact and where the ability to empathize and relate to the other (who is not really an other at all, but more like an embarrassing brother we wish we never had, someone so close to us that it scares us) has vanished, unless the other is European. Our bros the Europeans.