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The divisiveness of one phrase

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Like a child playing with their favourite toy, Trinbagonians have become obsessed with the contemporary socio-economic term “the 1%”.

Ever since its utterance on the June 2017 episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” that featured our tiny island, it has become a slur that’s hurled at members of the local Arab community ie “dem Syrian people”. It is perhaps one of the few things that have withstood our citizenry’s 10 days mentality.

And every time you think its usage has fallen out of style, it tends to come back with a vengeance. Its recent emergence was two weeks ago when Gerald Aboud, proprietor of Starlite Drugs, made the comment, “Two stupid holidays in the middle of the week.” Just one sentence – less than ten words – and a torrent of hate and admonition was unleashed.

Of course, our country’s prejudice towards the Arab community had long existed before the term entered our vernacular. But its addition, especially when used in conjunction with and in contrast to “the 99%”, just gave our people a new way to express the divisive notion that it was “us against them”. Were Mr Aboud’s words poorly chosen? Yes, absolutely; he didn’t have to refer to the holidays as stupid. And with one of them celebrating our ethnic diversity and the other a religious observance, it appeared as a slap in the face to both Indo-Trinidadians and Roman Catholics. I am not going to defend Mr Aboud; he has already addressed the matter. However, it is my opinion that the quick and vitriolic reaction only proves that our society will look for any and every opportunity to verbally abuse Arab-Trinidadians.

Even if Mr Aboud’s comment didn’t include the inflammatory adjective, referring only to the two holidays and the perceived repercussions, the responses would have been negative nonetheless.

Facebook users were convinced that his sole concern was the loss of revenue and cared little for his staff. Of course, they took aim on all Arab-owned businesses as well, decrying how they take advantage of hard-working Trinbagonians. Much like the fallout following the Bourdain show, there were calls for boycotts of their businesses. Some of the more colourful posts even suggested that there be a “Syrian Departure Day”. Similar to the point I made in my previous column – citizens saw only the person, and with their own preconceptions about what he represented, ignored any truth his words may have contained.

The irony here is that most people, if they exercise some objectivity, could relate to what Mr Aboud was complaining about.

It’s not about the number of holidays or their falling in the middle of the working week… it’s that our country’s productivity suffers as a result. In our eagerness to enjoy a break from our usual routine, more often than not, the day before becomes an unofficial half-day. And when there’s a long weekend involved, we sometimes need an extra day just to recuperate from all that partying and relaxing to get back into “work mode”.

The two holidays we just had was a prime example of such a scenario. Despite being a short week to begin with, it’s a safe bet that lots of folks left work early on Tuesday and then took Friday off.

Such is life here in Trinidad and Tobago. If you had some important business to conduct or had an emergency, getting things done during that week would have been challenging to say the least.

I would like to think that Mr Aboud’s comment was an expression of that frustration. But that’s not how Trinbagonians chose to read it. The discourse surrounding that comment says so much about our national consciousness… and lack thereof. Espousing racial hatred was more important than recognising a flagrant shortcoming of our work ethic.

Unfortunately, that seems to be this country’s modus operandi and I’m tired of hoping for better. Anyway, we have another long weekend thanks to two more holidays; extra-long for those who decide to take the Monday off. I suppose there’s nothing stupid about that.

Ryan Hadeed


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