THE multilingual, fashion-conscious residents of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, fancy their city to be cosmopolitan. But not everyone is welcome. Black people and foreigners from Asia and elsewhere in the third world who make up the bulk of migrant workers are often turned away from the city’s smarter venues. Conscious of the bad blood this can cause, Lebanon’s government has warned beach clubs against barring entry on the basis of race, nationality or disability.
But racism is unlikely to be erased overnight, either in Lebanon or in many other Middle Eastern countries where blacks are routinely looked down on. Racist taunts are often heard on Egypt’s streets, and in Yemen, darker-skinned people, known as al-akhdam (“the servants”), who make up perhaps 5% of the population, are confined to menial jobs and tend to dwell in slums. In Libya rebel militias often targeted darker-skinned people from nearby countries such as Chad and Mali and from countries further south, accusing them of being mercenaries of Muammar Qaddafi.
Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Chinese-Americans, among others, whisper of racist slurs both at work and on Lebanon’s streets. “When black or Asian friends visit,” says a young Lebanese professional, “I’m at the airport the moment they land to make sure immigration officers don’t ask inappropriate questions. It’s a disgrace.”
Some people blame the legacy of the slave trade, which brought sub-Saharan Africans, as well as others, to the region from the 7th century onwards. But Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group says that racism persists in the region because governments have been lax about tackling it. “There are racists everywhere in the world, but in many countries it is now taboo to make comments, partly because there are laws against it,” he says. “Here, even when there is legislation, it is never applied.”
Snobbery makes things worse. Millions of foreigners in the Middle East do cleaning and building jobs which locals consider beneath them. Sponsorship schemes often deny such workers basic rights. “People just see us as cheap labour,” says a Filipino university graduate who makes $200 a month in a Beirut beauty parlour. Some beach clubs have already said they will ignore the new regulation. Their customers, they say, would not tolerate having to rub shoulders with the dark-skinned servant class.