Neighborhood residents watch TV on a Hamra street corner recently.
I recently did an interview with Los Angeles Public Radio about the perpetuation of media stereotypes during these times of political transition– both those of Islam in the Western media (based on my recent piece in Al Monitor) as well as the negative portrayals that have been given new life in the Arab world. Our discussion focused on the dire situation experienced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon: not only do they face a lack of rooms and public services, but also the residue of decades of stereotypes in Lebanese popular culture that have painted “The Syrian” as both buffon-like and dangerous.
“The Syrian” has long been the mainstay of Lebanese popular humor, including television parody shows that often feature Syrian characters as an intelligence agents who terrify the neighborhood such as the serial, gun-slinging role of “Tahseen” on the show La Youmal. Typically in such comedy shows, Syrian dialects are exaggerated and Syrians are represented as one-dimensional agents of an oppressive regime. A Lebanese television director who wrote such scripts once told me that his stereotypes were justified due to the history of the Syrian government’s military activities in Lebanon, where its role was seen by many as a destabilizing in its support for feuding militias during the civil war and corrupt politicians in the post war period. But as the uprisings and violence engulf Syria, the stereotype seems to be changing–at least somewhat–with a distinction increasingly being made among some Lebanese between the Syrian regime and the Syrian people, largely as a result of TV images that paint Syrian civilians as victims of those same regime agents. In addition, the influx of refugees has created fresh contact between many Syrians and Lebanese and some positive synergies seem to be happening particularly among young artists and activists. On the other hand, just as the violence has helped complicate some generalized portrayals, it has also bolstered others. These include “The Shiite” and “The Alawite,” who are viewed simplistically as ‘the enemy’ among many Syrian Sunni refugees I have spoken to. Though there have been attacks on some Syrian migrant workers, I’ve heard unsubstantiated tales of murder and militarization allegedly perpetrated by “The Shiites”– so much so that some Syrian refugees tell me they are largely avoiding Shiite areas for both work and refuge. Undoubtedly these simplistic views have also been strengthened by television images, particularly the preachings of angry anti-regime clerics who have called for Assad-loyal Alawites “to be fed to the dogs.” For more about these trends and their worrying future prospects, listen to my full interview at the Ian Masters’ show on KPFK.