In Nadine Labaki’s new film Capernaum, the radio-transmitted voice of the incarcerated child protagonist tells his parents–and the Lebanese public, by extension–to stop having children, since they cannot provide them with a respectable life. Critics have pointed to the film’s Malthusian message of solving poverty by population control. What has been less noted in commentaries is that the film’s biopolitical imaginary captures the reality for black and brown migrant workers in Lebanon, where population control has a racialized effect.
Female domestic migrant workers contracted under the Kafala sponsorship are not allowed to marry or have children in Lebanon. Under this labor contract, the migrant worker exists legally as an extension of her employer-family. As Nayla Moukarbel has pointed out, female domestic workers are expected to care for others while denied their own relations of love and kin. The domestic migrant worker is included into the Lebanese family-nation as a legal exception, since she has no path to actual legal membership in the Lebanese nation-state, where patrilineal and sectarian lineage sets the condition for citizenship. In what follows, I show how the migrant’s imposed status as a double stranger–kinless and alien–through the Kafala system constitutes a specific kind of violence: A violence that is not simply exploitative, but racial. It is racial in that it does not merely break the migrant’s laboring body, but her lineage.
This specific form of racialized biopolitical violence echoes a history that reverberates across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The first displacement on the trans-Atlantic route was the separation of the enslaved from their mother. The second displacement was the cutting of the paternal bond. The slave’s status as orphaned–a status imposed by violent separation–enabled the exploitation of her as a subject lacking a life and family of her own, and therefore under the patronage of her master. As Hortense Spillers once noted, in her seminal article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the combined systems of slavery and incarceration rendered the black father an absent figure in a US cultural imaginary, where the black woman has often doubled as mother-father–despite the social reality of black family life being more complex.
The historical context of the Arab Mediterranean suggests a notable reversal of Spiller’s formula. In contrast to the Atlantic model of slavery, in the Ottoman Empire, children of female slaves did not inherit their mother’s status, but were born “free,” under the patronage of their master-father. In the harems of Ottoman Egypt and Greater Syria, Sudanese female slaves were often denied maternal linkage to their children, who became heirs of their masters.
This history repeats itself in contemporary Lebanon, where the migrant child is legally papa’s baby and mama’s maybe. Because the no-pregnancy policy does not apply to male migrant workers, the migrant father becomes the legal guardian of the child. Consequently, their children exist only on condition of the father. As mentioned, children born of migrant fathers and mothers have no path to Lebanese citizenship. Meanwhile, they can only obtain foreign citizenship through paternal recognition. If the father denies parental linkage, the child is rendered not only “illegal” in Lebanon, but stateless in the world.
Such is the fate of the black child we encounter in Nadine Labaki’s new film Capernaum. Tigest, the child’s Ethiopian mother, knows that her status as a migrant worker in Lebanon renders her motherhood a legal impossibility. The father absent, her son is rendered illegal, too. He is born into a life of disguise. During the day, he is hidden in the restaurant bathroom where she works. On the street, he is covered in her sack. At home, he is kept behind heavy curtains. Living on the edge of the Lebanese underground economy, the mother must navigate the dual threats of the police, who will deport the child, and the smuggler, who wants to profit from him. In the racial economy of migration, the black boy is at once desired and despised, rendered valuable and valueless.
When many female domestic migrant workers still do become pregnant, whether voluntarily by their partners or, as is often the case, involuntarily by their male employers, they are expelled from their jobs, and subject to arrest and deportation. Of the two hundred thousand or more female migrant workers in Lebanon, twenty to thirty thousand have children in Lebanon, the majority of whom live undocumented. In a recent report on migrant motherhood in Lebanon, Bina Fernandez argues that “the Lebanese government’s restrictions on MDWs' rights to legally marry and have children has the unintended counter-effect of propelling these women and their children into irregular status and precarious single motherhood.” The effect of Lebanese migration policy is certainly one of precarious motherhood–but is it unintended? The structural denial of black and brown kinship is not accidental, nor is it limited to the Lebanese case, as migrant children currently separated from their parents across the US-Mexico border know all too well.
While black and brown migrants in Lebanon form bonds of reproductive and social kinship despite their legal status, their existence as a family remains structurally impossible and, arguably, culturally unimaginable in Lebanon. If imagined at all, the migrant family is spatially confined to an exceptional or marginal space within the Lebanese state. In the Lebanese reality depicted in Capernaum, for example, the migrant mother is faced with the choice of separation or incarceration. The compromise is their re-unification behind bars. The film’s bittersweet finale, in which migrant mother and child are let to live together within the necro-political zone of the prison, suggests the limits of imagination for migrant kinship in contemporary Lebanon.
[Still images from Nadine Labaki's "Capernaum."]