The paralysis of self-loathing

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    The following piece was published in the May issue of Bold Magazine, but both the subject and self-loathing are as relevant today as ever before.  

    The Paralysis Of Self-Loathing


    By Habib Battah           



    T

    his is a horrible place,” a prominent Lebanese activist recently wrote on Facebook. “There are exceptions. But the general rule is this is a horrible place.” 


    The comment came as an introduction to a link the activist shared to a New York Times article that claimed that plastic roof shelters had been banned in Lebanon due to a fear among “The Lebanese” that the refugees would be staying indefinitely. 

    The Times reporter surmised: “The Lebanese view even the most modest shelters with suspicion” and “In the eyes of the Lebanese, the box shelters… could encourage the Syrians to stay.” 

    Indeed, many readers would agree with the activist, asking ’what type of hell is this Lebanon and how wicked are its people if they would like to see homeless refugees suffer?’ Surely the reporter had done some extensive research to come up with such sweeping conclusions. Yet there are only four Lebanese interviewed in the article: two are sheltering Syrian families on their property for free, a third was attempting to install the questionable shelters for a Norwegian aid agency and only one – a government bureaucrat – voiced intense skepticism about the shelters. 

    Even if one is to accept the utter nonsense of stereotyping an entire country based on a handful of interviews, the result of this completely unscientific survey seems to contradict the reporter’s conclusions. Far from rejecting the homeless, three out of four Lebanese respondents were actively building shelters or hosting refugees. In fact according to the UNHCR some 36,000 Syrians are living with Lebanese families (a figure absent from most Western reports) and thousands more are living in unfinished Lebanese homes and buildings with the help of aid agencies. 

    But the Times’ careless journalism does not stop there. The reporter further assumes that the government’s ban on setting up refugee camps for Syrians is simply an obvious reflection of popular will. He writes: “The Lebanese have so far rejected the establishment of any refugee camp…” 

    Yet a nation-wide study released earlier this year by the Norwegian research institute Fafo found that 70% of Lebanese wanted the establishment of refugee camps. This sentiment clearly contradicts the assumption by The Times and several other publications that Lebanese government decisions are based on popular will. The question then becomes: how does the government make such determinations and who exactly in the government is responsible for making them? But few, even in the Lebanese media, have bothered to ask such questions. 

    To be sure, the Fafo survey also found that half of respondents felt threatened by the refugee crisis, particularly the poor, who fear they will lose jobs to the Syrians. But these are not empty suspicions. The World Bank projects that up to 300,000 Lebanese will lose jobs as a result of the influx of cheap Syrian labor by next year, boosting unemployment to 20% and sending over 100,000 Lebanese into poverty. And with up to 3,000 Syrians pouring into Lebanon per day, the refugee numbers are expected to grow to 2 million by 2014, an unprecedented 50% increase in Lebanon’s total population over just three years. The influx has put a huge strain on public institutions: schools and hospitals are over capacity, sanitation and power services are faltering. 

    The World Bank predicts that the crisis will cost Lebanon $7 billion by the end of this year, but the debt-ridden government has received less than 0.01% of its appeal to the international community. Meanwhile North America and Europe have only approved asylum for some 700 Syrians, which is less than 0.06% of the number residing in Lebanon. The Bank has concluded that “no country in history” has had to deal with a crisis on this scale with so little foreign aid. 

    All this is not to say that discrimination toward the refugees does not exist, and there have been a number of violent incidents over recent months, including the torching of a camp site. But Lebanon, which is still reeling from its own civil war, is also divided on the issue of refugees. There is no monolithic “Lebanese view.” For every act of violence, there have also been massive grassroots relief efforts to help the refugees. One Beirut initiative last month saw some 25 trucks of clothing donated in one day. Meanwhile it is Lebanese nationals who form the backbone of relief efforts. Most of the field workers employed by the UN and other non-profit organizations are Lebanese, including those trying to build the semi-permanent structures blocked by their own state. 

    This type of nuanced analysis is of little concern to a foreign correspondent, whose job it is to paint a hurried snapshot of that foreign place he is reporting from to satisfy the passing interest of viewers back home. To portray the Lebanese as a racist people living in a racist place is a visceral, easily digestible narrative and one that editors back home seem to appreciate. 

    At worst, the correspondent’s narrow view of Lebanon evolves into a glib self-righteousness, a sort of scolding of the Lebanese in the form of sarcasm. For example, Time Magazine recently tweeted: “Ikea wants to give Syrian refugees pre-fab housing that Lebanon fears will be too nice.” Similarly, an article appearing in UAE-daily The National, sneered, “Shelters too big a luxury in Lebanon while Syrian refugees freeze.” 

    Of course neither piece reminds its local readers that their own countries (the US and the UAE) have accepted virtually zero Syrian refugees. But more disturbing, neither publication relays a quote to back up its snide headline, which in both cases appears to have simply been invented for sensational purposes. It’s hard to imagine where substituting sarcasm for reporting would be acceptable journalism but the practice has become hugely popular when dealing with Lebanon, a place that is made increasingly too easy to hate, even for locals. 

    Indeed, more worrying than the foreign perceptions from abroad is the pervasive adoption of such stereotypical narratives by Lebanese themselves. How often is it that we hear the phrase “Welcome to Lebanon” used derisively in public discourse? The apathy bred by such statements is deeply damaging. By blaming Lebanese society as a whole for everyday problems, any effort to drive change through accountability is marginalized. Rather than attack specific issues that plague all countries such as racism, xenophobia and corruption, phrases like “this country will never change” and “I can’t wait to get my visa” have become accepted catch-all explanations. They equate to little more than a form of surrender. 

    When the government bans shelters, it is the role of the media to pinpoint accountability by understanding how such an inhumane decision was taken and which officials took it. When we avoid such questions and are satisfied with vague, self-loathing answers like “this country is horrible,” the process of accountability is lost, and those culpable officials remain unnamed and are free to continue ruling with impunity. 

    It is true that Lebanon faces a laundry list of daunting social and political problems. Many of them are rooted in the constant state of conflict and the complete lack of a reconciliation process. The post-war amnesty afforded to criminal militia leaders has perpetuated their corrupt patronage and fear mongering. Still citizens are not helpless. For all those that have surrendered their rights by accepting injustice or leaving the country altogether, there are daily confrontations with authority, from bloggers taking on corporate power to local TV crews naming and shaming officials that have threatened and assaulted them. These efforts are successful when they are focused and targeted. Writing off problems with bitterness and self-deprecating stereotypes only breeds the type of hopelessness that keeps the political class in business. It also denies any serious discussion about the roots of deep-seated and troubling social grievances.

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