4 February 2012

MTV Lebanon: Ktir Racist

My article published in Al-Akhbar paper on Saturday, February 4, 2012

Workers clean up the glass facade of the MTV building in Naccache, north of Beirut. (Photo: AFP - Ramzi Haidar)

Social media activists have been sharing a Youtube clip from a show on Lebanon's Murr TV (MTV) called “Ktir Salbeh” along with angry comments such as “shame on you MTV,” “such a disgrace,” “MTV being racist again,” and “another low for MTV.”
Salbeh means negative in Arabic. More than 15 years ago, kids started using the word as “cool.” It always sounded a bit daft since it is actually nonsensical in Arabic and doesn’t even sound “cool.” But to be used after the word Ktir (very) on a TV show more than a decade later, it might only be cool for grandmas.

Once one gets past the obnoxious name of the show, they will find the actual video disturbing in many ways. The Youtube video in question shows young powdered Lebanese people walking in an olive grove (How symbolic) towards the camera and starting their masterful sentences with “Ktirrr salbehh that Palestinians have this and have that, while the “poor” Lebanese don’t have this and don’t have that.” “Ktirr salbeh, their logic goes, that some people are talking about the rights of Palestinians to own apartments while if a Lebanese found an apartment, they can’t even afford to pay for it!”

How are these two problems comparable? How can discriminating against people and banning them from owning property in a country where they’ve lived most of their lives be comparable to someone who at the moment can’t afford to buy a flat? They are comparable if “Palestinians” is a euphemism for “inferior,” the same way “animal” is often used as a derogatory term in Arab parlance.

MTV’s bottom line is: It is ktir ridiculous to talk about Palestinian rights in Lebanon when the Lebanese don’t enjoy their full rights. It is absolutely true that if the Lebanese had civil rights and a government that does not simply cater to the rich and powerful, it would have been easier to talk about the rights of the underprivileged, like Palestinian refugees, women, migrant workers, children, and homosexuals.

Graffiti condemning the channel spread all around Naccache, Bliss, Clemenceu, Hamra, Jal El-Dib and a few other places. (Photo: Anti Racism movement blog)

But no one is waiting for this to happen anymore. Feminist activists have recently been doing a great job of lobbying and campaigning. The same applies to the anti-racism movement supporting migrant workers specially domestic workers who die on a regular basis in Lebanon without retribution.

I could easily imagine one of these MTV characters trying to sound posh while shouting at a domestic worker who has hung herself from a balcony: “ktir salbeh that we now have to care about you while I don’t have enough money to buy a new outfit.”

One wonders if any of these people on MTV have ever entered a Palestinian refugee camp. As one tweep remarked “The way these people are talking on MTV you'd think Palestinians in Lebanon lived in palaces and it was the Lebanese who lived in refugee camps.” About 400,000 Palestinians live in overcrowded refugee camps all over Lebanon, while being denied their basic civil rights.

The most depressing thing is that this is not the first time that MTV has aired blatantly racist content. Facebook is full of angry people commenting on how MTV represents people from Lebanon’s city of Baalbak in the Bekaa valley as insane violent farmers.

Less than two months ago, MTV aired a distressing and highly dangerous report on how “foreigners” are the main reason behind crimes in the Christian neighborhood of Burj Hammoud. The report fails to mention that the Christians in Burj Hammoud, who are mostly of Armenian descent, were once foreigners and refugees as well. The area should have been celebrated for welcoming other communities instead of demonizing them and spreading sectarian fear and xenophobic hate.

Ktir Salbeh has recently made fun of migrant domestic workers. When interviewed by Now Lebanon this week, the show’s director Hani Khafsheh claimed that the critics do not understand the program’s sense of humour. He also tried hiding behind the double meaning of the word salbeh by claiming that here it was used as “negative.” As activists rightfully told Now Lebanon, “racism is not funny.” MTV thinks they are being radical and the voice of “freedom” as their slogan proudly remarks. They think they are communicating with the middle class, well-educated people from the Christian suburbs who still use the word salbeh.

If they are so keen on entertaining this group exclusively while alienating the majority in Lebanon who feel racially and religiously discriminated by MTV, then it would be better for them to stop fueling the stereotype of obnoxious, selfish and posh sounding Christians.

During the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, I remember hearing on the radio a Lebanese woman crying while saying “get us out of here.” Her pleas broke my heart until I heard the rest of it: “even MY Filipino got evacuated.” By “her Filipino” she means the domestic helper who is from the Philippines. In her case as in the case of MTV, the woman was using the term as a euphemism for “inferior,” an animal.

It is a sad irony that those behind MTV programs think they are naming and shaming. They think they are pointing the finger at what is wrong with society, oblivious to the fact that they are a very clear reflection of everything that is wrong with Lebanese society.

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