It Can Only Go Up From Here

By Nisreen Kaj


For a long time, I was sure Lebanon was in the sky.

I was, I think, five years old and unaware of an already-decade-long civil war raging, when I first left Lagos for Beirut. I remember flashes, here and there, like how excited I was to be in a plane for the first time. Nigeria – country of my birth, country of my mother – was below, and Lebanon – my father’s country, where I was from – was above; it was that simple in my child’s mind. It felt like I was moving on up, just like in that Jeffersons theme song.

I didn’t know much about Lebanon but I knew I was Lebanese because my father is Lebanese. We ate piping hot man’oushe za’atar religiously on Sundays, and I knew words like alwada’a and arjouki because Dad rented Sindibad on VHS. I knew I was Lebanese, because people told me I was, some even calling me oyinbo, “white”, an identity of difference but one that did not feel undesirable; on the contrary. And I knew a few things about Lebanon, like the weather in February, from audio cassette recordings sent by family I’d never met.

I remember the one and only time I spent with my grandmother in Aramoun, on that land so steep it felt like I would fall off and land in Lagos. I remember adoring my brown suede boots with the zippers and fake fur. And I remember my grandfather, how he served me tea in a yellow transparent cup and watched me stir and stir with childish glee (we had only opaque cups at home, you see).

I came back to Lebanon again when I was 16. By then I knew the story of how my grandmother had fled to Tripoli in the north during the war while my grandfather protected the family home, alone, with a gun. I remember bullet holes in a wall somewhere. I remember the cross-dresser in high heels and fishnet stockings in my aunt’s neighbourhood, and how no one (but me) reacted as he walked by.

It would take a third visit for me to properly understand my relationship with Lebanon. It was on this trip – I had come to study at university – that I began to realise that who I am (or who I thought I was) is a production, never complete, always in process (Thank you Mr Hall).

Nisreen Kaj, far left corner, at Lebanese Community School, Lagos, Nigeria, 1994

Nisreen Kaj, far left corner, at Lebanese Community School, Lagos, Nigeria, 1994



By the first month of my first year here, I had learnt how to walk. I walked everywhere, whenever I could, into newly acquired independence. I learned to navigate Beirut’s web of beautiful streets that went up and down at every turn with ease. I also learnt I was Ethiopian, Sudani, Sri Lankan (not Nigerian and never Lebanese). I became the maid, the prostitute. I was immoral, unintelligent, filthy. I was, exotic, samra (tanned), and surprisingly fluent in English.

As weeks rushed by, I became invisible. People would walk past without a glance as I held a door open for them, and they would respond to the white friend next to me even though I was the one who had asked for directions.

At other times, I was so visible that mothers would anxiously question sons about my presence, teenagers would follow me and chant “sharmouta, sharmouta” (“whore, whore”), and police would rudely demand my ikamah, resident permit, only to be surprised at being handed my ikhraj il aid, some apologizing for the mistake made, although the seconds before and after discovering my legal Lebanese-ness, I was the same person.

Nisreen Kaj with her mother Joyce, 1983  (photographs courtesy of Nisreen Kaj)

Nisreen Kaj with her mother Joyce, 1983 (photographs courtesy of Nisreen Kaj)

Over 72 per cent of work permits issued by profession in Lebanon in 2007 fell under the category “maids”. Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 female migrant domestic workers (in a working population of around 1.5 million). These women come from countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Madagascar and Nepal and work as providers of affordable child and elderly care services.


Yet, although they form a substantial part of the country’s labour force and ethno-scape, migrant domestic workers are excluded from Lebanese labour law, leaving them without the protections and benefits available to others, such as the legal right to form or join unions and the right to a minimum wage.


In addition, they work under the kafala system, a sponsorship system that ties the worker to one kafeel (sponsor) who becomes legally responsible for her. This system provides the employer with legal protection, a sense of ownership, and has a paternalistic aspect to it as well, as it renders the employee dependent, legally and otherwise, on her kafeel (in fact, it’s not very unusual to hear a migrant domestic worker refer to an employer as “mama” or “baba”).


As a consequence of this Labour Law exclusion, the kafala, and a number of other factors – such as socio-economic status; doing what is viewed as dirty work; being seen as foreign / ‘others’; and gender-related vulnerabilities – the sector is rife with complaints of non-payment and under-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, forced confinement, restricted communication, food deprivation, inadequate living conditions, excessive work hours, and physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse.


All of this has created a condition of modern-day slavery in Lebanon, where migrant domestic workers are dying at an alarming rate, often by committing suicide or trying to escape from an employer.


The demography of Lebanon’s domestic worker population was very different prior to its civil war. The position of domestic help was usually filled by women from neighbouring countries such as Palestine, Syria and Egypt, who, although they were similarly excluded from the Labour Law, did not experience the same abuse as today’s migrant labourers. According to a 2010 publication by sociologist Ray Jureidini, this was primarily due to “a shared culture with an understanding that family honour was at stake”. The civil war led to a mass exodus from Lebanon to different parts of the world and Jureidini says it was during this period that employment agencies started recruiting Sri Lankans to work in Lebanon as domestic workers, resulting in today’s very lucrative industry. The kafala system was introduced a year after the war ended in 1990.


I called my father a few times during my first year at university, asking to come back home. Dad would tell me to finish my studies, and assure me that it would all pass. A decade later, he called and out of the blue he said, “Nisreen, I’m so sorry for all you’ve had to go through all these years.” Hearing my father say that brought tears of absolute relief. Hearing those words from him lightened my spirits. But it pained me as well, to think that he felt some kind of guilt for the racism I’ve had to endure living here.

In the years between the first plea to my father and that apology, I graduated from university and found myself in a job I secretly enjoyed, but where I also had to bite my tongue when racist shit was being said by seemingly educated colleagues (like how Sudanese were biologically proven to be less intelligent than Lebanese). I also found myself volunteering with organisations and initiatives such as the Antiracism Movement, Support the Rights of Migrant Domestic Workers, the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, the Insan Association, and the Migrant Workers Task Force. It was through one such initiative, Taste Kulcha, that I began to find a different way to view the racism I had been facing here, one which pushed me to see it within the larger social and historical context.


I met Hayeon Lee and Simba Russeau in early 2009.

At that time, Simba was starting what she described as a “cultural exchange platform” called Taste Kulcha, and Hayeon and I joined her. We spent weekends together eating what I reinvented as Nigerian food or what we accepted as Korean cuisine. We laughed and made light of our experiences of racism – “Did he really ask you why all crime in South Africa is done by black people!?” – and went about our work. It was a great year.

It was during the months of Taste Kulcha that Simba had a discussion with university students on the issues faced by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

During that talk, students said they were not used to seeing black people in Lebanon with “expensive” things, so it was only normal to assume that they were stolen. Some said Lebanon was an expensive country, so it was best for migrant domestic workers to have no choice than to reside in the homes of their employers; the kafala was “for their own benefit”.

Since there seemed to be no sympathy for migrant domestic workers, Simba then presented the case of a black Lebanese who faced discrimination based on physiognomic identifiers, and asked the students what they thought about that. There were two main reactions: first, many agreed that this was racism, “because if they are Lebanese then they should not be treated this way”; and second, many of the students were not even aware that black Lebanese existed.

That for me was quite a revelation.

I decided there and then that I wanted to work on a photography project with Simba on Lebanese of African or Asian heritage. There were many reasons for this, but two really stuck out for me. One was to show that we did in fact exist. That you could be black and Lebanese. The other was that, after years of listening, observing and volunteering, I felt it was time the discourse on racism in Lebanon – which for a long time was binary in nature – included new voices, the voices of Lebanese who faced racism.

Simba and I started discussing how to go about the project. Sadly, Simba had to leave Lebanon soon after and a year later I approached another photographer, Marta Bogdanska. We put together Mixed Feelings (in cooperation with Heinrich Böll Foundation MEO), and I developed the project’s framework and content further during my MA in Racism and Ethnicity Studies at the University of Leeds.

Within the Mixed Feelings project, we created two sub-projects. The first one presented portraits of 33 Lebanese individuals of African or Asian heritage. These photos were orchestrated, each face captured against a white background, giving no context, leaving the audience to see only the person in front of them. Cutting through the photos were textual portraits, comprising quotes taken from interviews conducted with some of the participants. The second sub-project comprised reproduced material from the personal archives of 16 Lebanese families of African or Asian heritage (photos, letters, documents, interviews), in an attempt to explore racism, otherness and sameness, belonging and socialisation,  within our society’s core unit, the family.

In 2014 we took the first Mixed Feelings sub-project around Lebanon and I also learned a few things during these travels. For instance, during a talk we had at Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, a representative from Insan Association highlighted the number of ways in which racism is embedded within different systems in Lebanon.

She explained that migrant workers are categorised into four classes each of which is afforded different rights. In category 1 are “white collar” workers such as CEOs and owners of companies – jobs dominated by Europeans and Americans – and category 4 is specific to migrant domestic workers. She explained that categories 1 and 2 have the right to family reunification, a right not extended to workers in the third and fourth categories. She also explained how recruitment agencies perpetuate the racialisation of migrant domestic workers, where, for instance, Filipinos are among the highest paid in Lebanon as they are thought to be more intelligent and better at cleaning. And she pointed out how the Ministry of Education has all but made it impossible for migrant domestic workers to register their children at public schools or semi-private schools.


Going to the village of Miziara in the north of Lebanon was an enriching experience for me. There is a mansion in the shape of an aeroplane with the statue of the Virgin Mary in its tail, and another shaped like a pyramid. Miziara is also the home of the Chaghourys (arguably the richest Lebanese family in Nigeria). And there are roads there named Nigeria Avenue and Abuja Avenue. There’s a lot of Nigeria in Lebanon.


As a kid I went to Tade School. I loved singing the Nigerian national anthem and the times I spent with Gbenga kneeling in the corner with our arms up as punishment for arriving late yet again. When I finished Primary 4, my father sent me to Lebanese Community School (LCS), where I spent mornings reciting the Lebanese national anthem in Arabic.

I remember one of my first days in LCS, a student approached me in that concrete playground devoid of greenery and after exchanging a few words, she asked, “So, what religion are you?”

My father is Muslim, my mother Christian. We celebrate Christmas, which was my favourite holiday because the moths are nowhere in sight, and Apapa Amusement Park, white lacy socks and pots of steaming hot jollof rice become more present. We also celebrate Salah, Eid, my least favourite holiday because I never got enough money from dad.

But I answered “Muslim” because that was what my father was and so that was what I was; it was that simple in my child mind.

“Yes, but are you shi’a or sunni?” she asked. Almost apologetically I stumbled out the words “I don’t know what that means”, because I really didn’t know what it meant and I felt bad for not knowing. “How can you not know what you are?” she said before storming off.

I didn’t think much of this until almost a decade later.


 The Lebanese arrived in West Africa around the late 1800s, with speculative sources putting the date as early as 1860 in Dakar. What is certain is my father’s arrival in December 1975, a hundred years later. Mohammed Kaj found himself in Sokoto, Nigeria, at the age of 16, months after the start of the Lebanese Civil War.

My father was the smartest kid in school, with the second highest baccalaureate II grade in all of Lebanon (he tutored the student who came in first). I never needed a dictionary or an atlas growing up; I could ask dad anything. He can tell you just about everything there is to know about Nigeria’s history, politics and football. He speaks fluent Hausa. He had his car stolen at gunpoint, was beaten to a pulp by armed robbers while my mother and brothers were kept locked in the bathroom, and almost drowned with my mom at Bar Beach when I was a kid. There is no bigger fan of pounded yam, banga with snails, and kolanut. Yet over the past 40 years he has refused to get a Nigerian passport. To do so, he feels, would be to sever the ties with his homeland. But he rarely goes back to Lebanon, and when he does, he can’t wait to go back to Nigeria.


 During my upbringing in Lagos, I was the “half-caste”, two halves that made a whole. Others called me oyinbo, “white”, an identity of difference but one that did not feel undesirable; on the contrary. I remember one evening in Leeds a Nigerian friend making a jab at me for being mixed, specifically for being of Lebanese heritage. And before the comment had sunk in, another Nigerian friend came to my defence saying, “She no dey shame us, she no dey shame us, why you dey talk like that?” It was the first time in 30 years that it crossed my mind that all the years growing up in Nigeria as a “half-caste” could be perceived as shameful.


A few of years ago, I went back home for a holiday and I insisted on going to a funeral. I had never attended a funeral in my life. So when I heard that my mother’s uncle’s mother had died and she would be buried in her village, I insisted on going. I guess I also wanted to see the things I never really knew, like my mother’s childhood home, her family, family I’d never met.

I remember not being allowed into church because I had on a pair of wrap trousers and no headscarf. I stood outside watching women in knee-length skirts pray. I remember the clean air,  thick lace and men in beautiful wrappers and black hats. Trumpets blared, drums played and music filled us. People danced as the coffin moved up and down in the hands and over the heads of carriers in blue and white. Performers twisted and twitched and guests wondered why a rainmaker had not been consulted to hold back the rain. My mother’s uncle’s mother was buried in the middle of her living room.

I struggle to understand why exactly this day did not disturb me as it did people to whom I tell this story in Lebanon. I found it beautiful, the entire experience. The celebration of a long life lived, rather than a plunge into sadness. And that returning to the ground, and in a way that coming back home, it felt natural, just like how the end of a long life is intended to be.









This article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.

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