In April 2013, I was laid off of my job, a job in which I spend a lot of time looking at Islamist militant propaganda. I immediately began applying for aid jobs in Turkey and in Lebanon, as I was moved by the plight of Syrians fleeing that country, where I used to live. I’m a relatively fluent Arabic speaker and, moreover, had some experience working with refugees before—in, irony of ironies, Syria itself—so I thought I might be able to help somehow. I never got any of those jobs; in fact, I never even got a call or e-mail back. Three months later I was rehired at my old workplace.
A couple of weeks ago, I had drinks with a friend I rarely see, a white(-passing) woman, maybe once a year or so. We were catching up on each other’s lives, and she told me a story that I won’t soon forget. Sometime last year, she was on an aid mission in an internally displaced person’s camp in northern Syria, organized by a Turkish organization. Another worker on the trip was a Turkish black man; she didn’t know what his heritage was, but she was certain that he had lived in Turkey for most or all of his life, and spoke both Turkish and Arabic fluently.
She then told me about how this man, a man who was using his skills and time to help others, was constantly treated with disrespect and disdain from the Syrian IDPs. The most disgusting thing of all that she witnessed, she told me, was that during a round of food aid distribution Syrians refused to accept food that he had touched.
Let that sink in.
Homeless Syrians in camps.
Would-be refugees, were it not for the technical distinction that they had not yet crossed a border.
Refusing food because it was touched by a black man.
Those of you who have known me for a while know that I often complain about my experiences in the Arab world, especially in Syria, which was hands down the worst year of my life. The most pertinent aspect of my experience in the Middle East has been my blackness. And so, unsurprisingly, my complaints are often met with a certain skepticism or inability to empathize by my white peers who have also spent time in the region. It’s always strangely gratifying and vindicating when a white person opens up to me about having witnessed an act of such egregious racism perpetrated by Arabs; “NOW do you get why I hated it?” I ask. They usually do.
I’m glad I never got those jobs I applied for.
A grim coincidence was that this friend-date I had was on the very same night of the Paris attacks. Over the next few days, my Facebook feed would be inundated with plaintive posts from my super progressive friends, lots of Arabs among them, and media commentary about the “hypocrisy” of Western media coverage of, and sympathy for, Paris, particularly when Beirut had been bombed the previous day.
As though it were a true allegation that Beirut wasn’t covered in the media. And, more importantly, as though it’s actually hypocritical, as a person or as a media institution, to have deeper emotional attachments to one place over another.
Paris is my favorite city outside of America that I’ve been to thus far. One of the reasons why is because of how wonderfully I was treated there; in stark contrast to my Syrian experience, it is the only place I’ve ever been in my life where I feel like I received special, preferential treatment for being African-American. This is simply my own, individual feeling and experience, and not at all related to what I know intellectually about France’s long and storied history of violent, racist, colonial terrorism abroad, and how that legacy is refracted in its own domestic brand of racism against Muslims and Africans.
By the same token, Beirut is the Arab city where I experienced the least racism; only one incident in the roughly two weeks of time I spent there. This, too, is not a reflection of Beirut’s sordid reputation as one of the most horribly racist places in the Arab world, but of my own personal experience. And that is why Beirut, against the odds, is my favorite Arab city.
Nevertheless, it’s still a city where I experienced racism, if only one time. Paris never once made me ill at ease; on the contrary, I felt thoroughly welcomed for the short week I was there. It was incredibly refreshing. In less than a week, Paris did more to make me feel at home than Damascus did in a full year. This is even more striking when you consider that I know Arabic well but can't even ask for a bathroom in French.
I've noted in the past that it feels eminently self-indulgent and stupendously petty to complain about my individual and singularly awful formative experience in Syria at a time when that country is the site of the most brutal war of the 21st century thus far.
But the truth is that I felt heartsick and shocked by the attacks in Paris, which occurred at specific locations that I’d never even heard of before. What does it mean that I only feel that same shock and panic in regards to Syria when the bomb or atrocity I hear about happens somewhere that I have actually, specifically stepped foot in or near? What should I make of the macabre realization that, at this point, I have seen more Syrians in bloody pieces than Syrians that shared a kind word with me for the whole year that I actually lived there?
I don’t have an answer.
But if you do, I hope it’s better than calling me a hypocrite