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Sunday, July 16, 2017

It’s been over a month since Trinidad was featured on the now infamous “Bourdain show”. Considering what we saw, or to be more precise, what was shown to us, we need to ask ourselves what the expectation was in the first place. After all, these were the impressions of a first-time visitor, who was here for about five days, and condensed those experiences into a single 40-minute episode. It was hardly the television equivalent of a Fodor’s Travel Guide. And yet, despite those limitations, it was the boastful statements from a couple of Arab-Trinidadians that overshadowed everything else, stoking the ire of the population and unleashing a torrent of accusations, insults, and calls for action.

As it turned out, the Parts Unknown episode inadvertently shifted the focus from the excitement over our food and culture to a controversy involving our social schisms. Much has already been written about the offending segment, with varying opinions and analyses provided by the Express’ Darryn Boodan and Martin Daly, and, as recent as last week, by the Guardian’s Tony Rakhal-Fraser. So what else is there to say that hasn’t been said already? What else indeed…

I’m sure there are those citizens (most likely in the Arab community) who wish that this brouhaha would just go away, succumbing to the short-term memory syndrome that Trinbagonians typically suffer from. Admittedly, as a member myself, I too wanted, wished, and waited for the very same thing, which is why I chose not to address it directly. So why now? What was it that changed my mind? The thing that bothered me more than the statements in question, was the public’s extremely and needlessly harsh reaction to them.

As aghast as I was by what was said on the programme, I chalked it up to hubris—the people who made them may have just gotten carried away. But that’s not how the rest of the population took it. For in the days that followed social media exploded in outrage. At the very least there were calls for an apology and to boycott Arab-owned businesses. The more extreme voices, however, sought to portray this one ethnicity as the architects for all the criminality in our country.

Some readers may think this column is going to be nothing more than a defence of my own kind because “dem Syrian does stick together”. If that be the case, I submit that there are situations where silence solves nothing especially when it involves an injustice. The negative stereotyping of Arab-Trinidadians is a long-standing practice; in fact, as one meme that circulated on Facebook joked, it’s one of the few things that bring Trinbagonians together. So it’s something that’s been going on for a long, long time.

While attending secondary school, I was one of two “Syrian” students in my form (shout out to my bro Mo) and not a day went by when we weren’t tormented by our peers. We heard it all, from being part of the (so-called) mafia, to putting drugs in the pizza, to how “cousins make dozens”. Even some of our teachers—yes our TEACHERS—would make disparaging remarks to us, insinuating that we didn’t have to work hard scholastically because we were going to end up taking over our family businesses. Imagine what that does to a young person; the impression that they are not only “different” but also “apart” from society. But you know what I remember the most, it was the vehemence in their voices when being called “Syrian”, as if that was reason enough to be treated with scorn.

Since I never oppressed or cheated my classmates, I could only conclude they were just repeating the nastiness their elders said about my kind. And now they, as the adults, are passing it on to the next generation, meaning that these feelings of malice seem destined to continue.

The members of the Arab-Trinidadian community, for the most part, have done well for themselves and their families. And yet for that they are despised—the fallout from the Bourdain show only confirmed that sentiment. I imagine that even if the inflammatory statements hadn’t been made criticisms would have followed nonetheless, albeit a little less caustic. The detractors would have probably picked on their choice to don ethnic wear, or the lavish feast that was prepared, or even their mere presence on the show. This stems from the pervasive narrative that their accomplishments were achieved via illegal means. Nothing could be further from the truth, but no one seems to care about the years of hard work and dedication that it took.

Perhaps the animosity is how the public rationalises their success, choosing instead to believe the lies and seize on any opportunity to remind them that they will never be truly accepted. This is something we all need to reflect on, for the show brought out little of the best and a lot of the worst about us as a national community.

As a Trinidadian citizen of Syrian-Arab descent, I am left pondering an important question: how should I feel about my country knowing how my country feels about me?

Ryan Hadeed


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