Against Ontologies of Hospitality: About Syrian Refugeehood in Northern Lebanon (October, 2016)

http://www.mei.edu/content/map/against-ontologies-hospitality-about-syrian-refugeehood-northern-lebanon

This essay explores the relationship between Syrian refugees and local Lebanese. In particular, it discusses the dominance of the discourse of ‘hospitality’ in the international media depiction of this relationship and in the humanitarian response informed by it. As this essay will show, these tendencies have resulted in the ‘hospitality’ discourse informing and reinforcing the international response to the Syrian refugee influx into and presence in Lebanon.

More specifically, the essay unpacks the dominant ‘hospitality discourse,’ which rests on three interrelated notions. First, hospitality employed as a social order instrument characterizes the relationship between refugees and local Lebanese as defined chiefly by the latter’s generous offers of sanctuary. Second, hospitality as a media narrative and epistemic construction portrays Lebanon as a country straining under the weight of the refugee burden, depicted as “existential problem.” Finally, hospitality as a local way to respond to the official declaration of emergency crisis has allowed the “hosts” to “other” the refugees and instability threats.

Syrians in Lebanon: A Pre-Refugee Sociology

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2016, there were more than one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon.[1] However, this massive influx is not the first ‘encounter’ between Syrians and Lebanese.

In the framework of an ambivalent Lebanese-Syrian nationhood in Akkar, which is used to sharing moral, social, and political capital across a historically porous border, hospitality has paved the way for a process of differentiation from people who did notused to be “the Other.” It is legitimate to wonder why this differentiation process, in a sense, needs to happen. Hence, what is the sociology underlying such a need to differentiate oneself from the economy of the Syrian refugee, while paradoxically making space for it? For a partial answer, we need to get back to the conflicted politics of gift and exchange[2] and the tension, put forward by Derrida, that characterizes the never exclusively voluntary act of hosting. Hosts must have power over the domain in which they host, as well as power over the guest.[3] The tension remains, and a people’s collective morality is evaluated according to the accomplishment of charitable acts. However, self-sufficiency—which the earlier Syrian laborers of Akkar certainly did not lack—is still demanded by the hosts. The legacy of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and Akkar in particular (1976–2005), as well as the common nationhood that ties the two peoples together, unearths the inappropriateness of a discourse built on the traditionallimits of hospitality and assimilation, which are in fact generous acts activated within society, “as long as one leaves Otherness behind.”[4]

Historically, Akkari hospitality goes beyond the politics of “spare couches.”

Historically, Akkari hospitality goes beyond the politics of “spare couches.” And to distinguish the non-economic migratory status of Syrian nationals from economic migrants has become even more nonsensical after March 2011, the start of the uprising in the main Syrian cities and the subsequent regime’s repression. Some Syrian nationals, in a sense, were also Akkaris, insofar as Akkaris themselves strived to get access to Syrian welfare, crossing the border to reach the nearby province of Homs rather than driving all the way down to Lebanon’s Tripoli to benefit from a scant welfare system. The lack of hospitals, schools, and means of transportation has long since rendered this region hostile to comfortable inhabitation and detached it from a modern state that was originally crafted as Beirut-centric. Moreover, it has encouraged foreign investments in the third sector rather than reinforcing basic services.[5]

Hospitality, when spontaneously offered in the first months of the Syrian crisis, was in fact conceived and enacted at a grassroots level as a religious[6] and cultural duty, a “sacred commandment of charity”[7] to assign strangers a place in a community whose functioning was already guaranteed by demographically hybrid forces of labor.

Since 2012 international humanitarian organizations have financed some local families to enable them to host the refugees temporarily. This ended up “internationalizing” the tacit and unmediated Syrian-Lebanese relationship. By thus interposing themselves, humanitarian agencies have played a key role in shaping social relations; for example, by ensuring that particular local resources are prioritized over others that are less functional to humanitarian global governance.

With the intervention of the humanitarian agencies and the “neoliberalization” of local hospitality by paying local families to host Syrian refugees for a limited period of time, usually over a maximum period of a year, hospitality has gradually become an aid toolkit item to be temporarily delivered. Yet, the sociological character of local hospitality does not fade away with the “humanitarianization” of the act of hosting, as the Albanian experience of hosting Kosovar refugees has proved.

Scholars and newsmakers have therefore used hospitality as a lens through which to understand the entanglement of Syrian-Lebanese relations over the past five and a half years. As such, it has repeatedly been defined as “limited” due to the massive influx of refugees, with Lebanon referred to as being “under strain.” Socio-economic accounts of the prosperity of Lebanese landlords and employers and the increase in productivity thanks to lower workforce costs have sought to turn the sword tip of blame toward Lebanese greed in an effort to alleviate the Syrian “guests” from the burden of being scapegoated at a national level and becoming targets of disdain for having a “large number of children” and a “different culture and mentality.”[8]

Unpacking the ‘Hospitality’ Trope

The common international media portrayal of the relationship between Syrian refugees and Lebanese tends to ‘hype’ the phenomenon of hospitality.[9] Commentators have sometimes seen the local hospitality phenomenon in Lebanon as turning a vertical power system into a horizontal one, despite the risk of neglecting the feudal societal fabric of northern Lebanon’s hosting villages, which rely on wealthy and powerful families.[10] In this region, the privileges of a few people contrast with the overall inadequacy of services and infrastructure.

Refugee-refugee—also called “South-South”[11]—hospitality has recently entered academic studies and finally re-consigned dignity to unofficial acts of coping with crisis and helping others to cope. The hospitality provided by local refugee communities in Lebanon opens up new spaces of recognition. It sheds light not only on refugees’ agency—which certainly does not wait for “northern” recognition in order to exist in practice—but also on new phenomena of alienation among “uninsured people,” whose self-reliance is inherently unachievable.[12]

Lebanese hospitality is neither simply a case-by-case negotiation to tackle the everyday refugee crisis nor solely a generous or interested act of offering shelter to communities that Lebanese feel proximity to refugees in several respects.

More specifically, Lebanese hospitality is neither simply a case-by-case negotiation to tackle the everyday refugee crisis nor solely a generous or interested act of offering shelter to communities that Lebanese feel proximity to refugees in several respects. Hospitality is also the narrative that local and international media and the humanitarian enterprise weave together. The idea of a “hosting Lebanon”—a country already struggling under the weight of its economic and political crises—is positioned in the space between historical truth and the necessity to maintain social order. In this sense, the idea delivered to the public is that of a Lebanon strained by the “refugee crisis” per se, where the humanitarian structures, in concert with the central government, are efficient actors calming local tensions and flattening historical complexities by promoting accounts of generosity and victimhood.

To clarify how hospitality is also an epistemic construction, it is necessary to highlight how the Syrian conflict and the refugees are conceived and spoken of at an official level. While the US government conceives of Syrian refugees as people fleeing shelling and persecution due to their sectarian or ethnic background, the refugees often mention that no one helped them change their political condition when they were still inside the country. Indeed, international humanitarian agencies traditionally deal with deserving humanitarian victims rather than victims of human rights violations.

“We cannot bear this burden; they should go back to Syria and resettle,” was the political proposal of Antoine Chedid, Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States.[13] To make people resettle in Syria by setting up camps inside the conflict-ridden country— “which is 18 times bigger than its Lebanese neighbor,” as Chedid pointed out—is a way of re-domesticating the conflict and the management of the conflict and an attractive alternative to opening borders to the displaced. By contrast, the international humanitarian machine, which represents the Geneva-based international community, has contributed to internationalizing[14] the Syrian conflict through programs and policies. Humanitarianism, which supports local hospitality and renders it sustainable, is increasingly employed as a conflict resolution force aimed at triggering friendships and social ties that surely preceded the crisis. It is therefore employed to pursue international security agendas as well.[15]

The idea of generosity, hospitality, and its limits implicitly accuses the Syrians of having overstayed their welcome, insofar as it foregrounds the chronic predicament of the Akkar region, the decrease in local employment due to the presence of cheaper menial labor, and the increase in the cost of living and housing owing to the newcomers’ influx. Hospitality therefore came to be described as an existential problem for Lebanon. Discourses of greed or grievance, as sparking enduring conflicts and war economies in the Middle East, are growing louder and louder, and have gradually silenced more important narratives.

In a nutshell, at a rhetorical level, Lebaneseness is stigmatized as generous in order to uphold humanitarian practices, which associate the importance of social order with their mission of being a conflict resolution force. At a historical-material level, local communities, whatever their social status, attempt to protect wealth accumulation or basic livelihoods through the act of hosting either for free or for pay to be able to host.

Hospitality on the Borderline between Normality and Crisis

Hospitality and hostility are two sides of the same coin, marking an undecided and ambivalent space between proximity and distance.[16] If hospitality implied an unconditional law, an absolute openness, it would be impossible to organize it into a law or politics;[17] moreover, it would destroy the host’s mastery of the home, which enables hospitality in the first place.[18] Rather than a home, we would be left with an indeterminate space that could offer nothing determinate, and hospitality per se would be ineffective.

That being said, in a country where intermarriage has always used to be a common social practice, why is 82 percent of the Lebanese population now reported to feel uncomfortable with the notion of marrying a Syrian?[19] And why do Syrian nationals claim to be mistreated, to the extent that they are now trying to change their accent in order not to be marked as “Syrian refugees” and undergo discrimination? The process of “othering” the Syrians in Lebanon took place during the process of refugeehood as an improvised way of dealing with the influx and marking the territory as theirs, that is to manage and control “the home.” In a geopolitical scenario officially declared as a “state of emergency,” safeguarding the home comes into play, along with as a responsibility toward the Other, as an in-crisis strategy of local self-determination. This has led local Akkaris to reinvent their relationship to the pre-existing presence of the Syrian nationals in response to the announced crisis.

In this way, in-crisis hospitality has produced spaces to which some inhabitants belong—insofar as their sense of belonging has been reinforced by their act of hosting—while others do not and instead turn into temporary guests. Indeed, before the crisis, Syrian nationals used to inhabit the same space mostly in the capacity of unskilled cheap laborers, marking the continuity of the sovereign Akkari host lord. In this sense, the social construction of hospitality has not only fed the political rhetoric of “Lebanon the bountiful” but has also acted as a societal fragmentation force, undermining the previous relations that these laborers used to hold in Akkar before moving to Lebanon with their own families due to the full-scale conflict.

In other words, as a form of unwilling humanitarianism, hospitality made the traditionally porous borders between Lebanon and Syria socially meaningful. The collective act of producing an outside has served the purpose of Lebanese Akkaris to prevent the spillover of violence and preserve relative social order. The absence of a well-bounded “Syrian community” in Akkar, “melting like sugar in tea,”[20] facilitated the task of “othering” the refugees.

Anywhere it takes place, Derrida’s “hostipitality”—a combination of hospis and hostis, of hostility and hospitality—characterizes contexts in which transit and permanent resettlement slip beyond individual and family acts of decision. The unsustainable limitlessness of hospitality has turned narratives on Akkar’s spirit from those of grievance to those of greed, acting as a force of global compassion toward the Syrian crisis. In settings of displacement and uncertainty, it becomes even more important to re-consign such ambivalence to hospitality, which goes far beyond unconditional receptiveness, regardless of historical conditions and trajectories.

We need an explanatory politics that combines daily struggle with calculation strategies-something both the hosts and the guests (including humanitarian agencies) are familiar with.

 


[1] U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR),http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122.

[2] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies(London: Routledge, 1990).

[3] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality (Stanford, CA: Stanford California Press, 2000).

[4] Brian A. Watkins, “Asylum-Seekers, Spare Couches, and the Politics of Hospitality.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association, Denver, Colorado, November 20, 2015.

[5] Sahar T. Issa, Irna Van Der Molen, Manal R. Nader, and Jon C. Lovett, “Spatial Variation of Vulnerability in Geographic Areas of North Lebanon”, European Scientific Journal 2 (2014): 261-273.

[6] The Old and New Testaments and the Koran have many references to the commandment to shelter strangers.

[7] Heidrun Friese, “The Limits of Hospitality,” Paragraph 32, 1 (2009): 51.

[8] Author’s conversation with a Lebanese resident. ‘Ebrine, Northern Lebanon, April 2016.

[9] Doreen Abi Raad, “Lebanon strains under weight of refugees,” Catholic News Service, January 7, 2016, accessed October 23, 2016,http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/lebanon-strains-un….

[10] Helen Mackreath, “Cosmopolitanism in Akkar? Why the Role of Host Families Is Significant,” E-International Relations, May 28, 2015, accessed October 23, 2016,http://www.e-ir.info/2015/05/28/cosmopolitanism-in-akkar-why-the-role-of….

[11] Julia Pacitto and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh “Writing the ‘Other’ into Humanitarian Discourse: Framing Theory and Practice in South-South Humanitarian Responses to Forced Displacement,” Working Paper Series No. 93, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2013.

[12] Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending Wars: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge, UK: Polity Publications, 2007).

[13] Speech delivered by Antoine Chedid at the Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., October 29, 2013.

[14] Chedid himself rejected the specifically Lebanese responsibility of a conflict that is increasingly becoming regional by pointing out that the crisis is not of their making; rather, it is international. See conference recap webcast athttp://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/humanitarian-crisis-impact-syrian- refugees-lebanon.

[15] Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending Wars: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge, UK: Polity Publications, 2007).

[16] Heidrun Friese, “The Limits of Hospitality,” Paragraph 32, 1 (2009): 52.

[17] Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in G. Borradori, (ed.) Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 129.

[18] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002) 364.

[19] Cathrine M. Thorleifsson, “The Limits of Hospitality: Coping Strategies among Displaced Syrians in Lebanon,” Third World Quarterly 37, 6 (2016): 1079.

[20] John Chalcraft, The Invisible CageSyrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

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