A lot of negative publicity has been and will continue to be generated on social media from the segment of Anthony Bourdain’s "Parts Unknown" program that allegedly portrayed the Syrian-Lebanese community of Trinidad and Tobago. I am a member of this community and I am ashamed and embarrassed by what was said by the people he interviewed. They do not represent my value system or my understanding of the part I play in the development of our nation. I’m not sure whether the apology by Mario Sabga-Aboud (who I must disclose, is my first cousin) was accepted by the population.
The views represented on the program were made, in my view, by “a community within a community” and not the community itself. I am not a member of that small community within a community and neither are countless other humble Trinbagonian citizens of Syrian-Lebanese heritage.
Every ethnic group have contributed according to their ability to the social and economic development of our nation. Sensible, unbiased citizens should be be equally proud of all citizens contributions, and be mindful that Trinbagonians like Anise Hadeed, the master pan man, and De Mighty Trini have helped shape our culture. My community has even produced a Soca Elvis. Any cursory glance of the “Trini Posse” at every cricket match here or elsewhere in the Caribbean will show you members of the community I come from, and not the community shown on the terrace of that posh balcony on the show.
Citizens should recall that Mario, who boastfully said “we're the most powerful minority” is the son of a former serving diplomat of our country who in 1973 was hand-selected by Dr. Eric Williams to conduct negotiations with OPEC. Instead of joining OPEC, he advised the government that the country would reap all the benefits of the Arab oil embargo (higher oil prices) without any of the obligations of membership. And I've also been told that he was a humble lawyer from St. Vincent Street at the time. Speaking of law, sensible citizens should also remember that a member of our community serves this nation every day in the High Court, and that many of the lawyers who appear in the courts, delivering real justice to their clients, come from this community. This community has produced respected doctors, engineers, dentists, entrepreneurs and even a Catholic priest, the late Father Moses.
And what of Hannibal Najaar, the national football player and one time coach of the TT national team? Do these supercilious voices represent his? Was the film edited to remove any mention of the Chaconia-meddled Syrian Lebanese Women's Association that, by its fund-raising drives, has pumped millions of dollars into countless local charities? Members of the community have served with unblemished distinction in our parliament as independent senators in the past, and at the present time too. Speaking for myself, and, hopefully not regarded as being immodest for saying this, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization of which I (a so-called “Syrian”) am an executive and founding member, has significantly contributed to the birth of our country’s modern environmental movement. We have fought every government and every type of corporate entity all the way to the Privy Council to demand human/environmental justice. There is no personal profit from this!
Today social media hate-mail abounds as a result of these insipid comments televised for international consumption. As one commentator said on social media “the cat is out of the bag”. But there is no cat in the bag at all, despite the unwarranted comments by Bourdin’s guests. Syria is a nation, it's not an ethnicity. There is no ethnic group called “Syrian”. To label someone a Syrian is to question their nationality. A Syrian carries a Syrian passport. None of us us carry Syrian passports. We proudly carry the passports of Trinidad and Tobago. Therefore, to call me a “Syrian” is to question my nationality as a citizen of TT and no one has that right! Like you, I am proud of my heritage and of my ancestor’s foundation and sacrifice.
Our forefathers came here as penniless immigrants. They first arrived in the late 1800’s (the Joseph family from Belmont, the Sabgas, and the Abrahams) but most arrived after the end of the First War and the defeat of the Turkish colonizers. Almost all of these immigrants came from impoverished agrarian villages, in the Christian sections of Syria and Lebanon. They were poor farmers, most of them unskilled. They came here with nothing, like most of our fellow citizens. They started out life with a suitcase on their heads selling pins and needles, shoe making, tailoring…whatever they could get. Everybody knows that story. They worked very hard, saved their money, invested, and grew into what you see today. But not all members of my community are members of those who were portrayed on TV. Today, many live humble lives in Belmont, Arima, Woodbrook, and San Fernando, tending to stores, managing their professions, and playing Mas, music and sports. They do not consider themselves as “powerful”. Many are managing by like the rest of our citizens.
So when I saw the outpouring of hatred on social media, the association of my community with drugs and guns, with being some type of “mafia” I realized something. Regardless of what arrogant nonsense was said, some people naturally hate us. They have something caustic in their souls that causes them to despise us. It has a lot to do with the commercial success of the few among my community, the cars they drive, the houses they live in, the companies they own. I imagine that if the so-called “Syrians” were still all walking around shoeless, with suitcases on their heads they wouldn't be despised this much. But maybe I'm misreading TT society. It's possible that we would still face bias, simply for being ‘different from the rest’. Perhaps there is a substrata of unconscious racial intolerance just below the surface of our ‘rainbow country’ such as what surfaced in the Coup. This hatred also has something to do with the suspicion that we are all involved in illegal activities. We got rich too fast for everybody's liking. Never mind that Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Richard Branson were billionaires in their 30s—never mind that sacrifice, innovation and hard work shortens the height of every ladder to every top.
I look at my community and do not see any more inter-marriage or insularity than in other racial groups. I believe that the statistics would support this. The percentile of intermarriage within a TT community, by my observation, is about equal in all our ethnic, religious, and racial groups: Chinese, English and French creole, Portuguese, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and yes, high-brown Afro-Saxons, and even Tobagonians. Often, marriages take place on the unconscious or conscious bias or preference, and this cuts across all the classes and groups.
The percentage of marriage outside of the communities is also similar for all groups, though I don't have the benefit of any scientific research on the topic. Speaking for my own family of five, one married a half Lebanese-half Caucasian guy from New Brunswick, Canada, one married a Trini ‘red woman’, one married a Chinese Jamaican woman, one is in a 25-year common-law relationship with a half Indian half Caucasian woman, and only one married a member of the Syrian-Lebanese community. All marriages were welcomed by my parents as acts of love, and respected as solemn matters of choice. And there are a lot of successful intermarriage among our and all communities. The commentators on social media did not look at what we all share as “arrivants” but sought to viciously locate our differences.
As for insularity, the percentages appear to me to be somewhat different. There are communities within communities everywhere. You go to some private parties and it seems like you walked into an ethnic convention. I refer here to the top 1% in all the communities. But among my community it's perhaps higher than in the other communities. Some of these supercilious elitists demand intermarriage from their children and only socialize among themselves. There is an air of superiority among this group, but it is a very small group which I, and many like me, have shunned. I and many like me do not belong to this group. I imagine that this elitism affects the top 1% in all the communities and it sickens me as being un-Trinbagonian behavior.
These nascent hatreds surfaced when this show was aired. In fact, for me, it showed me which cat really jumped out of the bag. An ugly, hateful one that wanted to scratch my eyes out.
So that is why I'm taking the risk of writing this letter publicly, of facing the scorn of certain members of my own community, and communities across our multi ethnic nation. These gentlemen created the wrong impression about me and my minority community. They unleashed a flood of hateful, racist diatribes from ordinary folk that I must face daily on the streets, at the Central Market, out at sea, and amongst fellow naturalists/humanists and sustainable development activists. I ask for fairness from them, and of course, from you, the rest of the sensible citizenry. It is time for us to confront this irrational bigotry. It is time to start a national conversation based on accurate, sensible data. It is time to unite around something more inspiring than venomous hate and bigotry.