As tourists flock to Lebanon from far and wide, will racism desist?

Lebanon has seen record numbers of tourists this year, with an increasing number of visitors from Asia and Africa, as well as mixed-ethnicity Lebanese returning home for the summer. However, many of them have experienced appalling treatment, amid racist perceptions that conflate the sight of dark skin or Asian features with those of Lebanon's 250,000 domestic workers.
migrant worker beach
Ethiopian domestic worker, dressed in full attire at a private beach in Lebanon, watches her employer's son. Beirut, Lebanon. June 2009. ©Simba Russeau.

Beirut, August 18, 2009 (MENASSAT) – After a day of visiting relatives outside of the capital city, Karim and his mother took the bus back down to Beirut. Along the way, the vehicle was stopped at a military checkpoint, a scene that is common for most Lebanese and a nightmare for many African and Asian migrants. Karim, who is half-African, half-Lebanese, was traveling with his African mother when the soldiers entered the bus and asked everyone to show their identity papers. While searching the bag for his wallet to obtain his military standby card and identity papers, one of the officers in charge ordered the arrest of Karim.

During several hours in custody, Karim was subjected to countless acts of physical and verbal abuse; all the while, not one soldier even bothered to check his wallet for his Lebanese ID and military card.

“It wasn’t until my mother shouted that they call a relative who is known in the military that the soldiers stopped mistreating me and checked my papers,” says Karim. “Even then, they tried to save face by claiming that my military card was new but in fact it had been issued over ten years ago.”

“Stories of racism, like this one, are normal for most half-caste Lebanese,” says Ed. “Lebanon is a racist country and we’re not even accepted within our own society.”

Summer fun

Since the election of president Michel Sleiman in May 2008, tourism has made a dramatic recovery with the arrival of nearly 1.3 million foreigners in the country. According to the Director General of the Ministry of Tourism, Nada Sardouk, Lebanon is expected to welcome two million visitors by the end of the year.

Located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Lebanon has traditionally enjoyed a reputation as a major destination for Arabs from the Gulf states and, increasingly, for tourists from Asia and Europe.

The latest figures released by the Ministry of Tourism, indicated that nearly 96,000 tourists visited the country in February of this year.

With summer in full swing now, the public and private beaches are packed with tourists and Lebanese enjoying a bit of relaxation. However, for dark-skinned and Asian tourists, reality paints a different picture.

“My friend, who is African-French, came to spend his vacation with me in Beirut last summer and we were all supposed to meet in Gemmayze for drinks,” says French student Amelie.

“I heard him shouting my name from outside and I went to see what was the problem. A Lebanese guy was trying to prevent him from entering the bar because he was Black, even though he explained to him many times in French that he was on vacation from France.”

Bira, who is an African Brazilian, was visiting his son. One day while walking to the market in Gemmayze, which was a few meters away from where he was staying, the police stopped him and asked for his papers. Because he just wanted to get some items from the shop, he hadn’t brought his Brazilian passport but offered to go home and get it. Instead, he was ordered to leave his son beside him and then handcuffed. After the officer went to speak on his walkie-talkie, he asked Bira where he was from.

“I’m from Brazil,” said Bira. Responding, the officer removed the handcuffs and told Bira, “Welcome to Lebanon” and left.

Racism is a taboo topic in Lebanon, and the majority of Lebanese will deny that it exists in their country. But according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) survey, 17 out of 30 private beach resorts admitted to having a policy of denying African and Asian domestic workers admission to the pools.

One beach resort allowed maids to enter the beach but were not allowed access to the pools, “because Lebanese are not used to the sight of maids swimming,” said HRW.

“I was recently at a beach resort and my maid was watching over my 2 year-old son who was playing in the pool, while I was basking in the sun a couple of meters away,” says Tania, a Lebanese mother of three. “Suddenly the life guard approached and asked me to remove my maid, who was sitting with her feet in the pool, because one of the ladies felt disgusted by the sight!”


Most African and Asians in Lebanon are presumed to be servants, which causes the majority of Lebanese to categorize their prejudice towards people based on the color of skin or their Asian features. Light-skinned Black or Asian professionals working in Lebanon, as well as students or Lebanese of mixed heritage, are subjected to continuous harassment, because many Lebanese believe that Ethiopian and Filipino domestic migrants work in prostitution.

According to an opinion piece in November of 2005 on the website Ya Libnan, even journalists have contributed to this negative portrayal of migrant workers. The opinion piece referred to an article in the Daily Star titled, “The Discreet Charms of the Domestic Worker,” in which author Nahla Atiyah betrays the pervasive ignorance that informs racism in the country. In the piece, Atiyah claims that the abusive treatment most domestic workers are subjected to is acceptable because most women travel to Lebanon disguised as domestic workers, “but are in fact evil backstabbing thieves.”

She ended by saying, "I guess it would help to reach out to our domestics. To better understand what goes on in the deep folds of their minds. I might then better figure out why my Filipina, miles away from home and here to send her father to hospital and brother to school, squanders her very first pay [check] on a walkman blasting the latest music chart."

During a recent discussion in an ethics class at the American University of Beirut (AUB), students were presented with an article detailing the slave-like treatment of an African woman. When asked if this was racism the student supported the claim that “domestic workers should face the reality that Lebanese are like this and if they don’t like it then they should go home.”

“Lebanese are prejudice towards one another,” said Zeina. “I experience prejudice always because I wear hijab, so I think that these women shouldn’t complain.”

Although the majority of the class denied that the treatment of domestic workers was racist when presented with an incident of an African-Lebanese who was mistreated due to the color of his skin, all of them agreed that this was racism.

“This is racism because if they are Lebanese then they should not be treated this way,” said Kamal.

Even more interesting was the reaction from most of the students who seemed unaware of the existence of mixed-ethnicity Lebanese in the country. Nevertheless, if you bring up the issue of racism in Lebanon, most Lebanese will say, “of course as a foreigner you would call it that.”