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Story Publication logo January 23, 2024

Film Review: Documenting Statelessness in Lebanon


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Women are leading Lebanon’s film industry. They are illuminating Lebanon’s environmental crisis...


This review was originally published in New Lines Magazine.

Marie Surae, director of “I’m Not Lakit,” with Saleh, the film’s protagonist. Image courtesy of Marie Surae. Lebanon, undated.

A recent film explores the stark realities of life for the country’s disenfranchised.

“What do you do?” a salt-and-pepper bearded cobbler in Sidon innocently asks a customer, in the opening of Russian filmmaker Marie Surae’s documentary “I’m Not Lakit.”

“Nothing,” admits the customer, a 20-something named Saleh (and the film’s protagonist). While for most this question would be mere small talk, it strikes a deeper chord for Saleh. As a stateless person in Lebanon, he is unable to legally work and struggles to support himself in the only country he has ever known.

“You don’t make any dollars?” the well-meaning cobbler presses, unaware of Saleh’s predicament. Saleh reluctantly smiles.

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It is a telling introduction to “I’m Not Lakit,” which premiered at the Beirut International Women Film Festival in March 2022 before screening at the Hollywood Arab Film Festival last year. It follows the story of Saleh as he navigates life as a stateless, abandoned child born out of wedlock in Lebanon. As someone labeled a “lakit” — a derogatory term used to describe children born outside of certified marriages in Lebanon, roughly translating as “bastard” — Saleh lacks a passport, surname and legal nationality. Without any citizenship, he cannot receive an education, obtain a passport or even legally work.

“According to Lebanese law, he is absolutely disenfranchised,” state the film’s opening credits. “He has been in jail several times because he has no documents. … In a country with 18 officially recognized religions, he can’t join any of them.”

One of the reasons that Saleh and many others are born stateless is Lebanon’s antiquated 1925 nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women from passing on their nationality to their children. This law, with roots in Lebanon’s French mandate, clearly discriminates against women by preventing them from passing their nationality on to their children or to foreign spouses — a right that Lebanese men enjoy in full.

“The colonial heritage of nationality laws basically says ‘patriarchy, patriarchy, patriarchy,’” Joey Poladoghly, a researcher on statelessness, tells New Lines. By only granting this right to men, the Lebanese government leaves no path to citizenship for an individual if their father is not Lebanese or, as in Saleh’s case, their father is unknown.

However, Saleh’s case is even more complicated. Born to a Palestinian mother and an unknown father, he can inherit neither Palestinian nationality from his mother nor any citizenship from his father. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, estimated at over 479,000, almost 10% of the population, are largely stateless, denied Lebanese citizenship despite their long-term presence in the country, dating to the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948.

“Saleh was born on Lebanese soil, but he couldn’t receive the citizenship of either of his parents, because a Palestinian mother can’t pass on her Palestinian citizenship [even] to her legitimate child,” Judge Rana Akoum of the Lebanese Ministry of Justice explains in the film. “And because … he doesn’t know who his father is, he can’t receive any citizenship from him.”

Over the years, many human rights organizations have tried to advocate to amend the nationality law, to address both statelessness and gender-based discrimination in Lebanon.

Human Rights Watch has said that “Lebanon should amend the nationality law to grant citizenship to the children and spouses of Lebanese women and end discrimination,” pointing out that in addition to rendering thousands of children across Lebanon stateless, the nationality law inherently discriminates against women.

While public data on statelessness in Lebanon does not exist (the country has not conducted an official census since 1932), a 2013 Frontiers Ruwad Association study estimated that there were anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 stateless people living in Lebanon — not including Palestinians or migrants. According to their research, 73% of Lebanon’s stateless population (again, not including Palestinians) have a Lebanese mother who was unable to pass on her nationality to her children.

Although several countries across the Middle East and North Africa grant equal nationality rights to children of women and men (such as Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen), a 2022 Equality Now report pointed out that 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa still did not. The Lebanese Parliament has refused to amend Lebanon’s nationality law, violating not only international law but also Article 7 of its own constitution, which stipulates, “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law.”

While the Lebanese Nationality Law, also known as Decree 15 of 1925, contains some safeguards against statelessness, these are rarely implemented. For instance, it includes a provision that allows children born to unknown parents (in Lebanon) to obtain Lebanese nationality, but the process is not automatic. Any child born in Lebanon — including those born out of wedlock — must be registered with the Personal Status Civil Authorities within a year of birth to be eligible for nationality. Otherwise, the process becomes cumbersome, often involving a lengthy court battle and, specifically, a late birth registration lawsuit.

Birth registration becomes a complicated process for parents who do not register their children immediately in Lebanon. According to a report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, many parents do not register children born out of wedlock in the country, either out of a lack of knowledge that such a registration is possible or because of the stigma and perceived scandal of acknowledging an illegitimate child.

“People with no citizenship can have the right to citizenship,” Akoum says, explaining that this technically applies to people who are eligible for citizenship under Decree 15 but were unregistered at birth. However, the process of filing for late birth registration and applying for Lebanese citizenship retroactively is extremely difficult. “Because they don’t have access to education, from the very start, they don’t have that springboard; they don’t have the knowledge, the know-how to basically … say that they are eligible for citizenship,” Poladoghly explains. Thus, even those legally entitled to Lebanese nationality often face an uphill battle in procuring citizenship. This has led the U.N., for example, to call for Lebanon to adopt a digital birth registration system, remove the age limit on birth registration and launch an awareness campaign to demystify the registration process.

Saleh, the film’s protagonist, faces double discrimination: both as a stateless person and as someone referred to in Lebanon as a “lakit,” an outdated Islamic term used to refer to an illegitimate child, often (but not necessarily) one who is abandoned and whose parentage is unknown. Not every “lakit” is stateless, but sometimes the two categories overlap, as in the case of Saleh, who both lacks a nationality and was born out of wedlock.

“A ‘lakit’ — someone who is born out of wedlock — could still be eligible for Lebanese citizenship depending on their situation. A stateless person, that’s a done deal,” Poladoghly says, pointing out that while not all of them are stateless, the circumstances of most so-called “lakits” leave them vulnerable to becoming stateless.

Still, the term “lakit” has no real legal meaning, only a social one. While it still exists in the vernacular, it is absent from Lebanese law. It is used mainly pejoratively in Lebanon today.

“The term ‘lakit’ is … worse than ‘bastard,’” Poladoghly says. “‘Lakit,’ you whisper it, you don’t say it out loud – it’s too big of a word to use,” he adds, saying that he would rather the term was eliminated. It is often used to insinuate that a child’s mother is a prostitute, rendering the child heavily stigmatized in Lebanon.

“I’m Not Lakit” specifically explores a child’s experience of statelessness, illuminating the countless hardships that these children often face. “A lot of bad things happened to me,” Saleh reflects, sharing that he grew up in an orphanage, after being abandoned by his mother, Gada. His six siblings grew up in different orphanages, compounding his feelings of loneliness.

“As punishment, they locked us in the toilet,” he continues, sharing that those who ran the orphanage — which was ironically called “Home of Hope” — routinely beat the children. “It was a very severe punishment. You must stay on your knees from dark till dawn, kneel on the ground and raise your hands.”

Saleh ultimately ran away from the orphanage, cycling in and out of homelessness. To date, he does not know his exact age or birthday. He knows he was born in Sidon and introduces himself as 23, but Surae guesses he is younger.

“I think he’s 18 or 19,” Surae estimates of Saleh’s age at the time of filming. “But he doesn’t know because he doesn’t have documents, and [his] mother is also not sure about his age.”

Due to his lack of nationality, Saleh has been unable to work legally for his entire life, leaving him vulnerable to exploitation. Indeed, upon starting filming, Surae found Saleh working for free for a family in Sidon. He was not allowed to bathe. She was able to connect him with Father Majdi Allawi, a priest who took him in and arranged for him to stay at a home for disadvantaged boys and the elderly, but Saleh could still not get a job save for volunteering at a bakery in Bourj Hammoud, a stint organized by Allawi. Lacking a formal education, he is unable to read or write in Arabic and faces severe psychological problems. His inability to work “affects him badly,” according to Jean Paul Salameh, director of SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon, who is interviewed in the film.

“He reaches a point when he says, ‘If I don’t exist, why do I live? I don’t even have a document,’” Salameh recounts.

Uneducated, undocumented and unemployed, Saleh faces a precarious future. As he is no longer a minor, the only way he can gain Lebanese citizenship is if his mother marries a Lebanese man who chooses to adopt him so he can pass on his nationality.

“The problem is not only one Saleh. The problem is a thousand people like Saleh,” Surae says. “We show this problem [in the film], but I think it will not be solved.”

In a country mired in troubles — be it the financial crisis, the garbage crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic or the Beirut port explosion in 2020 that killed hundreds and wounded thousands — addressing statelessness is far from the top of the government’s agenda.

“It’s not problem number one for them, [especially] with this deep economic crisis,” Surae says.

One of the issues that perpetuates statelessness in Lebanon is the government’s reluctance to adequately assess the stateless population. “The first and foremost step [toward solving the statelessness crisis] is to conduct a census about undocumented persons to understand their number,” Akoum proposes, reasoning that this would at least illustrate the scale of the problem.

Poladoghly echoes this. “We don’t have data,” he says. “When we talk about statelessness studies in Lebanon specifically, what we’re struggling [with] is gaps in data — gaps in numbers — because you’re talking about individuals who don’t fit in any data index.”

One of the reasons the Lebanese government has not attempted to count the stateless population or attempted any government census is a fear of upsetting the delicate sectarian balance upon which the country was founded, whereby power is distributed among its various religious sects under a system known as consociationalism. Indeed, in the aftermath of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, sectarian tensions remain high and the government is wary of conducting a census out of concern that such a count could reignite sectarian strife if the population balance were revealed to have shifted.

“They [the Lebanese government] are very wary of tipping the sectarian balance,” Poladoghly says, noting that “demographic” concerns are often cited in discussions on amending the Lebanese nationality law. “Islamophobia … is really at the roots of why women aren’t being allowed to have equal citizenship rights in Lebanon,” he says.

A census alone will not alleviate the plight of stateless people. Ultimately, stateless individuals in Lebanon must not only be counted but granted citizenship as well through reform of Lebanon’s nationality law.

“The second thing we can work on to improve this situation is to amend personal law,” Akoum continues, “in particular, to give a Lebanese woman the right to pass on her citizenship to her children.”

Advocates have called for Lebanon to not only amend its patriarchal nationality law but also adopt a “jus soli” model of citizenship, that is, granting citizenship to everyone born in the country. Surae supports this approach.

“I think they should register everybody and give them nationality because they’re born in Lebanon,” she says. The Lebanese Ministry of Justice’s prosecutorial council has created a draft law to amend the nationality law “to ensure full equality between a man and a Lebanese woman,” but it remains just that — a draft.

While “I’m Not Lakit” excels at raising awareness about the often-complicated nature of statelessness in Lebanon, it falls short in its portrayal of Saleh’s mother, Gada, who is shown as a villain. At one point, the producers invite Gada to meet Saleh, which the film makes clear she agrees to only because of the hefty wad of cash she receives in return.

“You came here for the money, right?” asks a producer audibly before handing her a crisply folded bill at the beginning of the interview.

When Saleh and Gada meet, Gada is chastised by Saleh’s former neighbor for having seven children, all of whom she was unable to take care of and were found in the streets. As of filming, she was expecting an eighth. “From day one, no one took care of the children,” says the former neighbor, who helped the production team. “They all grew up in orphanages. None of them grew up in a family.”

The camera lingers on Gada, her face creased, taking a long puff of her cigarette, as it paints her as a neglectful mother. “Do you consider yourself a good mother?” the producers pointedly ask. Another narrative might have foregrounded the fact that she is a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, which precludes her from working in a range of professions and subjects her to a life of marginalization, given the discrimination so often faced by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are largely unable to return to Palestine. It might have emphasized the state of poverty she lives in, with no employment aside from selling plastic water bottles on the street.

Instead, “I’m Not Lakit” casts Gada in such an unseemly light as to overshadow the role of the state in perpetuating statelessness in Lebanon. When Gada leans in to kiss her son on the cheek, Saleh visibly flinches, leaning away. He removes his mother’s arm from his shoulder, refuses to make eye contact with her and barely speaks a word in the entire meeting, aside from declaring that he is not happy to see her and will not move back in with her under any circumstances.

“I won’t forgive her,” Saleh says in the film to his younger brother, Mahmud, to whom he is introduced for the first time. “My conscience won’t let me forgive her.”

The brothers recount how they were both beaten by Gada as well. “Her name is Gada. I don’t call her mother. Can’t call her mother,” Mahmud proclaims, with which Saleh agrees. “I don’t love her either. She abandoned me.” He adds: “It’s important to me that I never see her again. Better to put her in jail; then she’ll be out of our lives.”

By imbuing the film with heavy-handed criticism of Gada and framing her in black-and-white terms, the documentary misses out on an opportunity to show that Gada is a victim too, unable to secure a future for herself or her children because of her twice-marginalized status as both a Palestinian refugee and a woman in a patriarchal society. “The mother is always the issue in the eyes of society, in the eyes of the government, in the eyes of everything,” Poladoghly stresses, a sentiment the film seems to reinforce.

Indeed, rather than ruminating on the ways in which Gada, too, is victimized as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and empathizing with her situation, the film transforms her into a flimsy stereotype of a negligent mother, breaking the fourth wall and the objective stance it otherwise adopts with pointed comments that prompt the viewer to judge Gada as a mother, divorced from any redeeming context.

Moreover, Gada cannot respond to the film’s unempathetic criticisms. The departure from its documentary style in the dramatized encounter between Saleh and his mother raises questions of cinematic objectivity and tests the confines of its own self-proclaimed genre as a documentary.

By centering blame on Gada — an easy target — the scene in which Saleh and his mother meet begins to undermine the film’s own message, that statelessness is fundamentally a systemic issue requiring systemic solutions. Indeed, in exhorting the audience to hold Gada responsible for her son’s struggles, the scene begins to champion an oversimplified, disingenuous portrait of personal responsibility over state responsibility, one that seems to falsely imply that Gada’s failures are primarily to blame for Saleh’s predicament.

This oversimplification seems unnecessary. Surae’s film successfully chronicles the obstacles that Saleh faces in Lebanon; it just needs to trust that the audience will understand the complex nature of the problem — which it has so adeptly illuminated — without resorting to crafting a villain. Put simply, it could do without the histrionics of its climactic scene.

The film ends with a grand aerial shot of Baalbek, a set of ancient Roman ruins in Lebanon designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The camera zooms in on Saleh, his figure small against the colossal temples behind him, as he lists all the countries he hopes he can travel to someday. “America, Spain, Russia … Germany, Italy, Brazil,” Saleh begins. We can’t help but remember that his stateless status prevents him from obtaining a Lebanese passport, so unless Saleh gets a laissez-passer from the Lebanese government, which would allow him to travel to and from Lebanon freely, these travels are impossible. So too are his ambitions of buying a house for his siblings, as Lebanon bars Palestinian refugees from owning property.

“I know that something good is coming my way in the future,” Saleh says. “There is a future waiting for me, and it will be good and exciting. … It will make me forget my past.” As viewers, we want to believe him. Despite the lure of the dramatic ending and Saleh’s admirable optimism, I still felt a churn in my stomach as I heard these aspirations, a feeling that Saleh’s hopes, due to his lack of nationality, would inevitably be dashed.

Dishing out hope is a risky business, especially when it may entail lofty promises. “I’m afraid that they [the production team] might have given him [Saleh] a glimpse of hope that was not even there to begin with,” Poladoghly says of the documentary. “I think one of the most dangerous things you can do for stateless individuals is to instill hope.”

The film also publicly divulges Saleh’s status as an individual labeled “lakit,” a disclosure with potential legal implications. It is unclear to what extent the film offered Saleh any sort of protection, particularly given his vulnerable status.

Given the power dynamics inherent in the project, I would question the film’s genre as a documentary. Indeed, calling it a documentary confers a veneer of objectivity, one that is brought into question by the fact that Saleh does not have narrative control over his own story arc. While the film does much to raise awareness, Saleh is ultimately still stateless, a reality that belies the film’s final heavy dose of optimism. Telling Saleh’s story is a crucial first step, but alone it is not enough. Statelessness is ultimately a legal problem, one that requires legal remedies.

Unfortunately, we do not know what happened to Saleh. About a month after filming concluded, he ran away from Allawi and the production team. “He ran away from him [Allawi], from us, from everybody,” Surae says.

After watching the documentary’s premiere in Beirut, Claudine Aoun, president of the National Commission for Lebanese Women and daughter of former Lebanese President Michel Aoun, offered to help Saleh but, according to Surae, Saleh did not show up at the meeting.

The film’s executive producer offered Saleh a job as a crew member but, again, he did not attend the meeting. The crew also tried to help Saleh rent a flat, Surae says, but similarly, Saleh did not show up to the meeting that was arranged.

Still, Surae makes clear: “It’s not the fault of Saleh,” noting that he has experienced significant trauma. “It’s a problem of the government. … If the government gave some chances to such people, they [could] be somebody.”

A lighting assistant last saw Saleh in the streets of Beirut, but the production team does not know where he is now.

“If you want to create a fairy tale, it’s impossible,” Surae says of Saleh’s situation. “It’s not a story with a happy end.”

“I cannot change the Lebanese law,” Surae continues, alluding to the fact that unless the nationality law changes, the situation of stateless people born out of wedlock in Lebanon is likely to remain unchanged. Surae is skeptical both that the law will change in the near future and that a census will be undertaken. In light of these hurdles, the film’s ending, while cinematic, belies the extent to which Saleh’s hands are tied when it comes to creating a future in a world in which he cannot legally work, study, travel, obtain citizenship or even have a last name.

What the film does excellently, however, is shed light on an often overlooked issue in Lebanon. It refuses to play into hackneyed tropes that treat the stateless as a homogeneous mass, instead humanizing Saleh and recognizing his voice and agency.

“Stateless people are not powerless; they’re disempowered,” Poladoghly says. “They are not inherently vulnerable; they are made vulnerable.” It is in recognizing this truth — and Saleh’s agency — that the film succeeds most. While Saleh is undoubtedly a victim of the system, he is also portrayed as a young man on the cusp of adulthood who likes soccer, resents his mother, smiles often and wants to buy a house for his brothers and sisters, most of whom he has never met. The film focuses not just on Saleh’s struggles but on the ordinary aspects of his life, on his penchants and personality.

Ultimately, the film accomplishes not just the journalistic task of raising awareness of individuals referred to as “lakits” in Lebanon but a political one too. It uplifts Saleh’s voice, sitting with uncomfortable silences, letting the camera linger and refusing to let anyone other than Saleh tell his own story. In a world in which the stateless are so often spoken for by others, refusing to give in to paraphrase or shift the microphone to someone else is the film’s most radical act. We begin to understand Saleh’s inner turmoil not only through statistics or official reports, but through the voice of a kind, shy teenager seeking to make his way in a world that denies his very existence.


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