BEIRUT — As many visitors to Lebanon can attest, some Lebanese have the rather charming habit of asking them, “Do you love Lebanon?” One assumes they actually mean to inquire if the visitor likes Lebanon and is enjoying their visit. No doubt most do, given this country’s kaleidoscope of attractive and hospitable features that, to name just a few, include idyllic spring weather, wonderful topography, delicious food, a nearly unmatched collection of archeological remains from half a dozen civilizations, and not least, a friendly people who make visitors feel at home.
But with the arrival of the vernal equinox and the rebirth of flora and fauna, accompanied by rising water temperatures of the Mediterranean an uglier facet of this gifted country surfaces: racism.
Discrimination and endemic racist practices are mainly directed against foreign female domestic workers from the Philippines, East Africa, and Ethiopia, who work as maids and nannies for Lebanese families, and against dark-skinned men. At the same time, Palestinian refugees are even denied rights the others who are targeted receive, the most elementary civil rights to work and to own a home outside their cramped, fetid camps.
According to Human Rights Watch, some resorts do not even allow African and Asian domestic workers to wear bathing suits or sun themselves. In 2005, filmmaker Carol Mansour produced a documentary on the conditions that foreign workers encounter in Lebanon titled “Maid in Lebanon.”
Each spring and summer, reports surface in the media of the many beaches and private swimming pools that are segregated and off limits to people of color and those judged to be of lesser socio-economic worth. Among those cited regularly for blatant discrimination are several hotels whose swimming pools are off limits, as one sign at the Sporting Beach Club warned: “Maids are not allowed.” Among the more egregious violators, according to Beirut’s Daily Star, are Villamar in Khalde, Beirut’s Coral Beach, Beirut’s Les Creneaux, and Beirut’s Sporting Club, but there are more than a dozen others.
Human Rights Watch has claimed that more than 50 percent of Lebanon’s beach clubs do not allow migrant guest workers from Asia and Africa in their swimming pools, and some even physically block their entrance at the door.
Race-based discrimination is practiced not just at private beaches but also has been attempted at Beirut’s only free public beach, the nearly mile long Ramlet al Baida shore, located within walking distance of Hamra and three Palestinian refugee camps, Mar Elias, Shatila, and Burj al Barajeneh as well as the Hezbollah area of Dahiyeh. With its wide beach, excellent sand, generally sparse flotsam and jetsam from Saida’s huge garbage mountain that Lebanon’s south to north current deposits during storms at all beaches to its north, and no entrance fee, Ramlet al Baida is popular with foreign workers and low income and refugee families from several countries in the region forced recently into Lebanon by western invasions of their country.
For years, some residents from the more than 150 high-rise apartments buildings, across from Rafik Hariri Boulevard from RAB beach, many owned by wealthy foreigners from the Gulf, have been trying to get this beach closed down in order to privatize it for their exclusive personal use. Hezbollah and some progressive civic organizations have to date blocked the theft of this priceless public space and following a series of beach cleanups, some by Palestinian ‘camp kids’ and environmental groups, the Beirut municipality, to its credit, has started regular trash collections from RAB beach and to educate beach goers to deposit their picnic waste in the recently placed trash bins.
But this has not stopped certain publicly paid lifeguards from trying to segregate this public beach and shunt certain targeted beach users, including foreign domestic workers, Middle Eastern refugees from Iraq, Kurdistan, Africa, and Palestine, to the north end of RAB, very close to where the black brook of untreated sewage from the apartment buildings across the road enters the Mediterranean.
An investigation conducted recently by the Washington DC-Beirut based Palestine Civil Rights Campaign is instructive. One particular lifeguard at RAM justified his attempts at segregation at this public facility by claiming authoritatively that “It’s better for them (those of color and refugee status).” When asked in what ways “it is better for them” his ideas became vaguer but he did offer his clear view that “Palestinians should leave Lebanon and that they do not work and anyhow they often don’t know how to read or write—most are illiterate.” The gentleman is from Tripoli and may have been unaware that Palestinians in Lebanon are barred by law from working in nearly every possible job, more than 70 professions at latest count. But he may know something about illiteracy up north where he hails from, including the recent United Nations Development Programs survey of Tripoli which reveals a 21 percent illiteracy rate for 15-29 year olds, by far the highest in Lebanon and one of the highest in the world, due to high drop-out rates, especially among boys in the area.
By contrast, Palestinians, even while barred generally from Lebanese public schools and with school dropout and illiteracy rates higher in Lebanon’s 12 camps than in any of the 58 UNWRA organized Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, or Syria, still somehow managed in 2011 to keep illiteracy among their countrymen at 4.7 for those aged 15 years and above, including 2.1 percent among males and 7.4 percent among females. These figures are contained in the recent report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ Special Statistical Bulletin on the 64th Anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba.
Clearly Lebanon’s Parliament needs to do much more to help their disadvantaged communities such as north Lebanon with its high unemployment rates (men more than 52 percent, women at 97 percent according to the UNDP study) and to allow Palestinians the same right to work as other foreigners are allowed.
Racism-driven attempts at segregation at Ramlet al Baida public beach as well as private beaches are reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid era, current accelerating trends in Israel toward segregating Palestinians generally from claimed “open to all” public facilities, and American hostility towards blacks that in many southern communities were enshrined in law as recently as the 1950’s with racist practices and profiling continuing today.
To their credit, a few Lebanese civil society organizations such as the activist groups Anti-Racism Movement and the Migrant Worker’s Task Force are fighting against these racist practices and some Lebanese government agencies are also.
Following a frank and at times heated meeting between a PCRC delegation and Lebanese officials at the Mar Elias offices of the Beirut Municipality at which the RAB beach situation was thoroughly discussed including the possibility of a sit-in/swim in and open-ended demonstration, or issuing a call for Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command to conduct an onsite “investigation”, Beirut Municipality officials pledged an immediate investigation with serious remedial actions as warranted. To their credit they kept their word and no sooner had the PCRC expressed its gratitude, than Nada Sardouk, director-general of the Tourism Ministry, sent a letter addressed to the owners of beach clubs and pools demanding “quality in receiving customers, with no discrimination in terms of race, nationality or … special needs.” Among the circular’s other stipulations are requirements for lifeguards and free drinking water. Sardouk pledges that citations and fines will be issued to all violators.
Lebanon, its people and government, is very capable of removing this blight of bathing facility discrimination from their seemingly simultaneously blessed and cursed country. As Nadim Khoury, Lebanese investigator for Human Rights Watch noted recently, Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism edict baring race based discrimination or attempts at segregation, “ is encouraging in principle, the key will be whether it is enforced”.