the interrogations of shamshouma

The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon: Competing economies of compassion


We might now be beyond the point of wondering why there is no real political, economic and social solidarity with the Syrians in Lebanon, not even a solidarity of sympathy towards the suffering they were exposed to both in Syria and Lebanon. A compassion that is at a level which, arguably, does not reckon a strong political affiliation of some sort or even intellectual work, but more of a human ability, impulse or emotion to recognize, acknowledge and show solidarity with the other’s suffering.

Not only that there is no solidarity, which the national discourse justifies by providing the economic situation as an excuse (and yes, even with the absence of the state, we still manage to produce and solidify a hegemonic racist discourse against the Syrians that everyone buys into, sometimes to the extent of uttering idiotic statements like “It’s appalling how the Syrians break the traffic law all the time!” which makes me want to punch someone in the face), there is a daily structural minute forms of discrimination against and scapegoating of “the Syrian” as responsible for all the historical and existing Lebanese problems.

This hegemonic discourse erases all violent Lebanese state policies against workers and public state institutions, and provides the frame through which animosity, rather than solidarity, is produced. the Syrian presence in itself poses a threat to the Lebanese identity (which now everyone seems to know what it is) defined in complete opposition to what the other, the Syrian, is in the Lebanese imaginary; to Lebanese institutions, which now everyone seems eager to salvage and preserve their “efficiency”, from education (for an important article on racist educational policies against “non Lebanese” see this), economic rights, up to traffic laws violated everyday by the Syrians.The Lebanese “culture” itself is now under attack, from the influx of foreigners with a completely different cultural traditions, norms and ways of bieng. It seems that the Lebanese define themselves in relation to their “other”, the ever so essentially different creature called the Syrian.

But still, what is most striking, at least to me, is the overgrowing discourse of de-legitimizing the suffering of Syrians, especially Syrian refugees, and sometimes even failing to see this suffering at all. This, I believe, is also tied to, and disruptive of, a certain political economy of suffering that exists in Lebanon, which makes even the ‘Syrian suffering’ a threat to the national discourse around violence and suffering in Lebanon.

I will convey two recurrent stories here to make my point clearer:

We have suffered too/We have suffered more

The first story is quite a recurrent one. It is the story of a Lebanese encountering a Syrian. The Syrian is usually in this story silent, quiet and does not want to speak of what she has witnessed, what she has gone through, what she has seen. The Lebanese, by the mere fact of encountering a Syrian, say in a service car or in the lobby of a clinic, etc. , starts telling the Syrian about how and what she has seen is nothing compared to what he has gone through during the civil war. Story after story after story, from staying long hours in line to get bread, to hiding and running from shelling, to seeing dead bodies in the streets, to random massacres and losing loved ones, the Lebanese purges stories of his own suffering, stories that would probably not have been shared otherwise. Frantically, he recites his long and maybe hidden or forgotten stories, one story after the other, while the Syrian sits quietly, maybe not knowing what to answer, or maybe just appalled by the distastefulness of this recounting of the Lebanese suffering that gives it much more value and intensity than her own untold, but more imminent experience. I have heard this recurrent story numerous times. It ends with the Lebanese telling the Syrian that her suffering is nothing compared to his and what he has gone through.

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

Syrian refugee gives his e-card to the supermarket manager. photo by Dalia Khamissy

No one ever gave us a stipend! : Economies of compassion and global recognition of suffering

The second story is a recurrent commentary on the stipends that the Syrian refugees get because of their suffering. These commentaries range from signaling that the refugees have money and keep exploiting the Lebanese economy to discussing in details what they are allowed to buy with this money. One person in particular was quite angry at the fact that a liquor store he saw had a sticker that says “we can accept refugee cards” (he is probably referring here to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)’s e-card system for Syrian refugees in Lebanon). “Do they get to also buy alcohol with their stipend”?! He says, in an angry tone, appalled that the stipend might cover something more than the refugees’ basic vital needs. Then he says: “no one ever gave us anything for our suffering in the civil war!..and we suffered so much more than them, but we got nothing in return”.

This “suffering envy”, or this jealousy over basically everything a Syrian possess from a story of suffering to a monthly stipend, is appalling, yes. But the point is that it also reveals a whole economy of suffering set by global humanitarian organizations that make suffering into a commodity that refugees have to perform, possess and show in order to get asylum and recognition. But also, this suffering envy reveals how unbearable the other’s pain is, and how it shakes and disrupts the Lebanese’s own narrative of violence and suffering.

Disrupting the Lebanese politics of suffering: The unbearable suffering of Syrians in Lebanon

The suffering of the Syrians is unbearable. It is a sudden reminder of the multiple layers of violence that the Lebanese have themselves gone through and that they have no national discourse or frame through which they are allowed to express, formally and to the world, how much they have and still suffer from injuries of violence. This absence of suffering has many reasons that I am still trying to understand. One of it is the dominant representation of Lebanon and the Lebanese as “naturally resilient to wars and violence”. These representations describe the Lebanese as indifferent to violence and war, tanning in a bikini while Beirut is bombed, where the geopolitical nature of Lebanon makes it “naturally susceptible to war and violence” (as if Lebanon naturally attracts violence and war which has genetically equipped Lebanese to become resilient and almost indifferent to war). Other reasons are of course post-civil war state ideologies of erasures through “reconstruction”, erasing all physical and semiotic presence of civil war violence form Lebanon, and with it any possible national discourse of suffering.

It is through these representations that the suffering of the Syrian is read. It is of course interpreted and appropriated by the Lebanese’s own narrative of suffering. This is how, I think, Syrian suffering loses any meaning in Lebanon, and does not register any kind of collective solidarity or compassion (of course people and individual sympathize but I am speaking her of a collective and political solidarity. Rather, it automatically signals the Lebanese’s own form of suffering, or to be more specific, its absence.

 The Syrian does not appear to be suffering in Lebanon. It is incredible how big a threat is this Syrian. Her suffering signals and threatens the Lebanese’s politics of suffering; her need for labor and work threatens to damage the whole Lebanese economic structure.

Stuck between humanitarian global market of suffering, manifested in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that UNHCR and hosting countries need to see and recognize in order to give a refugee status, and the Lebanese own privileged suffering, Syrians’ own experience of loss, violence and pain is left unrecognized, unaccounted for and forbidden to emerge in certain cases. If we think about it, the Lebanese and Syrian has gone through a lot of common experiences and have shared a lot of ordeals. It is quite sad to see that  suffering both shared and experienced by the Lebanese and the Syrian does not produce any kind of political solidarity or a political community that identifies this suffering as one.

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