Anger towards Lebanon is brewing in Sudan and in Sudanese online forums. According to reports in the Arab media, a fundraising party held by Sudanese immigrants and asylum seekers in Beirut in aid of a child with cancer, was raided by Lebanese security apparently on the hunt for illegal residents.
Eyewitnesses report that although most of those attending produced valid residency cards, this did not spare them from being handcuffed, beaten and racially abused. According to Sudanese and Lebanese newspaper reports (in Arabic), the detainees were referred to as animals who "learned how to wear nice clothes" and "black pieces of coal", and lined up flat on their bellies. Some members of the police, seemingly ignorant of the fact that there are any Arabic-speaking black Arabs, asked some of the Sudanese how they spoke Arabic so fluently. The Sudanese responded that they were Arabs from Sudan. In disbelief, the officers thought that they were being mocked, and another round of beating started.
The Lebanese authorities have launched an investigation, but deny that there was any racial motivation to the raid. On the skin-colour and race spectrum, Sudan is possibly the most African of the Arab League nations. Lebanon on the other hand, or at least the image the country portrays in the media, is fair and Occidental, both in culture and race (Lebanese applicants at my university regularly ticked the "Caucasian" box on application forms). This incident highlights the unspoken, unsettling chasm between the two nations in terms of popular perceptions of different races in the Arab world. While mistreatment of migrant workers attracts coverage, the subtleties of intra-Arab discrimination rarely do.
Lebanon is no stranger to such controversy. Following a plane crash in the country earlier this year, it was reported that "even though there were nine nationalities aboard the Boeing 737 jet, which burst into flames and crashed into the sea minutes after taking off in a violent thunderstorm on Monday morning, the Lebanese, naturally enough, only concerned themselves with one".
The families of Ethiopian migrant workers were segregated into separate rooms and DNA testing and identification of dead bodies was prioritised for Lebanese citizens. Unfortunately, this, in addition to the well-publicised plight of foreign maids in the Lebanon and such insensitivity as manifested in the "Nubian monkey" affair, makes it hard to dismiss this episode as a one-off incident.
Ironically, in an unusual and unique phenomenon of Arab migration to Africa, the Lebanese remain the biggest non-African migrant minority in west Africa. This community goes back as far as the 19th century, spawning a racial sub-category of African-Lebanese mulattoes and amassing riches in Sierra Leone where it has dominated the diamond industry. In a typically colonialist fashion, this embracing of Africans does not seem to apply back home.
However, there is a public pan-Arab narrative to which all states adhere. Meetings of the Arab League are usually sessions elegising, praising and paying homage to the host country's leader and each other.
The meme is that Arabs are all brothers in race, language, history, and anybody who dares suggests otherwise is a turncoat agitator in the pay of the west. Hence, both the Sudanese and Lebanese governments are doing their best to downplay the affair. The Lebanese ambassador in Khartoum even went so far as to praise being black by saying that "priests wear black as a sign of respect and that the Kaaba in Mecca is covered in black silk". As if the slurs were some sort of compliment. The Sudanese ambassador in Lebanon condemned a call to boycott Lebanese products as "sabotage". This is not surprising as Sudan itself does not have a glowing record of treating its non-Arab citizens particularly well. In addition, most Sudanese residents in Lebanon fled from such conditions in Sudan, which does not predispose the Sudanese diplomatic mission to a very sympathetic stance.
Sadly, it is a region where few are innocent. Northern Sudan, which dominates the rest of the country politically and culturally, has since independence downplayed its African heritage and amplified its Arab and Muslim character, subscribing to the popular perception that Arabs are superior to Africans. Needless to say, according to statements on behalf of the Lebanese and Sudanese governments, this incident "will not affect the fraternal relations between the two nations".