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A Lebanese fairytale and Africa’s first Female president

By Laurent de Saint Périer, translated by Olivier Milland
Posted on Friday, 13 April 2012 14:44

Seen as wealthy, exploiters, indolent, Chiite Muslims, Christians from the mountain areas, Lebanese expatriates in Africa are still the object of stereotypical images that belong to the bygone era.

“What do I think about the Lebanese in Africa?

“Exploiters, rich, gold diggers…” Raja, leaning on the counter of Torino café in Beirut, recites the words in no particular order. “They are mad about money. They go there to make money,” adds Giles.

By a strange coincidence, the clichés over Lebanese Africans in their country of origin is no different from what is said in Senegal. Answering the same question, a shop keeper in the centre of Beirut says: “Colonial Chiite Muslims imbibed with ill gotten dollars.” This illusory image of unscrupulous turbanned conquistadors on a pilgrimage to the savage land of gold and diamond to amass riches, then return and show off ostentatiously in the star-studded night clubs of the Lebanese capital.

Conquistadors were soldiers, explorers and adventures that were used by Spanish and Portuguese empires to conquer territories and open trade routes. “People are at sea as to what life really is on the African continent. “Here, the image is of a big gold mine” explains Ricardo Karam, a television presenter.

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Despite being far removed from reality, these stereotypes are rooted in real stories of generations who for over a century underwent a series of migrations, as they fled famine and wars. Whilst the first wave of Lebanese who flocked out of the middle eastern country were mostly Christians from the mountainous regions, the Chiite Muslims who fled the southern part of the country during the 15 year civil war between 1975 and 1990, in their thousands, have now become Lebanon’s biggest Diaspora community in West Africa. The majority of these Lebanese expatriates live very average lives. But others have been very successful.

One of them, the son of a Chiite fisherman from Tyr, left the country at the beginning of the civil war to settle in Côte d’Ivoire. From “the toil of his brow” the self-learned man has now built an empire, which he says has become envy of the Lebanese community. Basking in the pleasures of the world renowned holiday city of Beirut, the fisherman’s son from Tyr, spoke on condition of anonymity. He said: “The Lebanese only see us having fun on holidays here. “Unfortunately, some believe that we live in luxury in Africa without considering all the hard work behind…”

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In the hinterland, the realities of the distant continent are more palpable than on the streets of the capital. “Those in the cities of Beirut and Tripoli, in the north, have a stereotypical view of how life is in Africa, contrary to the Christians from the mountain areas or the Chiites from the south,” says julien Abi Ramia, a journalist.

Abi Ramia refers to an unreported demonstration by numerous families who gathered in the capital in 2010 to protest against the country’s minister of Foreign Affairs whose decision to recognise the legitimacy of the then embattled Ivorian president had put the security of their relatives and families in Côte d’Ivoire on the line.

Nonetheless, for families whose loved ones opt for the African odyssey, the cliché sometimes turns into a fairy tale. Most Lebanese still remember the grandfather who fled the famine during the Ottoman conscription and embarked for Marseilles, where he tried sailing to New York. Deceived by a French tour operator who was working on colonial projects, he landed on an African coast where he ended up making a great fortune. In his office in one of the affluent suburbs of the Lebanese capital, a well-established lawyer, narrates the story of his own grandfather, who left Lebanon and moved to Liberia in 1912. The old man quickly prospered as a merchant.

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“He lived with a Liberian woman, with whom he had a daughter. That daughter later got married to a certain Johnson, and bore a daughter, Ellen Johnson, who is now president of Liberia!” says the lawyer, without the fierce extramarital taboos that prevail in Lebanon. “We have Lebanese people in every village, and they are perfectly integrated. “They have adopted our customs, our language and sometimes even our colour” said a former ambassador from Côte d’Ivoire who was leading a business delegation to Lebanon.

This article was first published in French in our sister magazine Jeune Afrique, issue 2674-2675.

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