Category Archives: LSF2012

Day 5 (June 27) – Al Majmoua, AUB, Youth Shadow Government

Day 5 was another one of our more substantive days. In the morning, we met Youssef Fawaz, the Executive Director of Al Majmoua, an NGO based out of Lebanon that helps individuals with their microfinancing needs. I was not really all that aware of microfinancing prior to this meeting, the idea of giving people small loans to be paid off in a short amount of time. They fill in the gaps where commercial banks won’t, often giving loans to start businesses or help with small home repairs.

Much of what Al Majmoua finances is what Fawaz called “hidden businesses.” Started primarily by women, these are jobs done from within the home–seamstresses, hairdressers, food production. In fact, the organization was started in 1998 to solely help women. This was expanded to men in 2001, again primarily for smaller businesses and home repairs. Today, they have 32,000 clients otherwise unable to be helped by formal banking.

Al Majmoua is one of 20 such NGOs in Lebanon, which is surprisingly high for a country of only 4 million. In addition, there is no government-wide credit bureau, so there have been problems of people overborrowing, or using one loan from one NGO to pay a loan from another. Yet he did share many success stories. Al Majmoua only has a 1% rate of nonrepayment, which is incredibly high.

After that, we took a tour of the American University of Beirut. The campus is gorgeous, and I would love to return and walk for hours (when it’s not 100 degrees outside). We had a tour guide from the student body who took us around showing us the many buildings and giving us the history of the university. The oldest hall on campus had actually been bombed by the Israelis during one of the many wars but has since been rebuilt.

We stopped at the AUB bookstore during the visit, and I was able to pick up a few presents for people back home. We also went to the archaeological museum on campus–the only one left in Lebanon that was untouched by mortars. The collection is stunning. My dear friend Tyler would have loved all of the intact amphorae (including handles) on display. The museum has pieces dating back to the neolithic period, with nearly 60% of the pieces coming from Baalbek–we’ll get to Baalbek in a few posts.

The afternoon was a little rough, as a few of us had gotten quite a bit of sun at AUB. We went to Kababji for lunch, a higher-end kebab restaurant where we were able to sample many different types of kebab sandwiches. After a little bit of a drive, we ended up at the offices of the newspaper An-Nahar, an Arabic language newspaper dating back to 1933. An-Nahar has been very involved with the creation of the Youth Shadow Government in 2006. Of the 200-500 applications received, between 8 and 20 youth ages 20-27 are chosen. These young adults are assigned a ministry of parliament to shadow for one year. They learn the policy, write reports, meet with ministers, and try to lobby for issues important to the youth. For instance, a Beirut-wide recycling initiative was adopted because of youth involvement. These young adults do all of this work on their own time and often go into public positions after they finish the program.

After some free time back at the hotel, we went out for dinner at a kind of laid back Lebanese fusion restaurant. I had a crab sandwich wrap that was so good. Crab is a little different here, a little more firm like lobster. The best was the dessert:

20120701-020935.jpg

Yup, that’s a fresh, thin pita spread with warm Nutella and crushed hazelnuts, and topped with chopped up bananas.

Day 4 (June 26) – Dinner

Dinner Tuesday was amazing. We ate traditional Lebanese food outside under the sky in Beirut at Al Falamanki. It was a really great space, with tables situated under trees and vines. Everyone who had wanted to smoke shisha was able to–double apple all around. The food was so very good–starting again with mezze, and followed by kibbe (fried balls of ground spiced beef) and kebabs. Dessert was chilled fruits–cherries, apricots, etc.–in a bowl of ice.

This was one of the best dinners we’ve had, both for the food and the camaraderie. Al Falamanki has a small museum on site of old hats, guns, and other cultural items.

Day 4 (June 26) – Meetings with Former MPs, Political Parties, and Businessmen

Day 4 was another long day of meetings and food. In the morning we met with the Beirut Trader’s Association. There, we discussed a lot of economic issues, including problems for women (only 30% of the workforce) and youth (25% of which are under the poverty line). We learned a lot about the banking system as well as how the government spends its money. I will elaborate on all of this during my year of blogging for my fellowship.

After that, we had lunch and then a meeting with the youth director for the Democratic Renewal Movement, a political party focusing on non-partisan engagement with youth (primarily–anyone’s allowed in). One of the biggest issues we talked about was collective memory. Many of today’s youth were born after the Civil War, and given there is no standardized history text about that period, many children and youth have very little education in what happened. There seems to be a country-wide need to move on, to move forward, and unfortunately, that in some ways has led to a generation ignorant of the war their parents went through.

We also discussed problems with elections. Election reform is a huge topic of conversation in the United States at the moment, but after hearing a discussion of how elections work in Lebanon, “hanging chads” don’t seem to be nearly as problematic anymore. Apparently, there is no standard for the ballots used to elect members of parliament. A sticky note with your votes scrawled on it counts! So many political parties will print their own ballots, with candidates conveniently missing, and hand them out in communities. For instance, they would give me twenty and ask me to hand them out to my friends. If all twenty are not back in the ballot box, they come to me after the election and there are… problems. This is one of the common themes of government corruption that we have discussed since arriving here.

Our final two meetings were with former members of parliament, who are also board members for the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. One of the individuals spent a lot of time explaining the economic situation in Lebanon, while the other spent time discussing Muslim-Christian dialogue. As Lebanon is a country with democratic elections, and yet also a confessional society, many votes will split on religious lines. One of the biggest divisions is on the issue of Syria. For instance, there are those in Lebanon (some Christian, some Muslims – mostly Christian) that seem to prefer a secular dictatorship/autocracy over a democracy that will bring Islamists to power. This is quite telling for a country that has prided itself on being a democracy since the 1940s.

So that’s what we learned. I’ll update soon.

Day 3 (June 25) – Meetings with Social Activists and Economic and Business Leaders

The last two days have been packed with meetings and short trips out into different districts of Beirut. I haven’t taken many photos, as we have primarily been doing Q&As with local leaders, but I’m sure some will surface from the group in the next couple days.

On Monday, we began our week meeting with leaders from local media outlets and discussed issues from the upcoming 2013 elections (which seem to be on everyone’s minds, though very few seem very hopeful of much change) to the problem of history textbooks of the Lebanese Civil War. At the heart of many of our questions, causing us to get sidetracked repeatedly, was the ever-looming presence of the conflict in Syria. This meeting was the start of many that felt… I don’t want to say hopeless, but maybe laced with trepidation of any positive future. It seems like many are just surviving day-to-day, and there is a great lack of long-term vision or planning based regrettably on the uncertainty of the early lives of many of today’s leaders.

We also met with the president of the of the RDCL (Rassemblement des Cadres Libanaise), the Lebanese Business Association. One of the biggest problems he saw going forward for Lebanon was the issue of brain drain. Only 4 million Lebanese live in Lebanon, with 14 million living in diaspora. Very few return, and many of the youth growing up in Lebanon now leave for college or graduate school and never return. Another important problem in Lebanon at the moment is the Social Security system, with about 10% of the population actually paying into it, and only half of their employers actually matching benefits. The cost of medical care has skyrocketed because of this, and many people are frustrated that the government is not doing more.

This was another major theme – the role of government in society. On the one hand, the people of Lebanon do not wish to have too strong of a central government, with the examples of Syria and Egypt’s autocratic regimes so close by. Yet, taxes do very little for social programs or infrastructural improvements. Less than 5% of the government’s budget is spent on things like unemployment benefits (virtually nonexistent), road repairs, power grids, etc. About a third goes towards paying for the government, with another third going towards public sector employes. The final third goes towards paying off the national debt, which is nearly 200% of GDP.

Monday night, we were taken to a pub for dinner for Lebanese “American” food. I honestly thought I’d never have guacamole in the Middle East! The fare was a mix of Lebanese and American foods: chips, salsa, and guacamole followed by fried halloumi, a non-aged cheese that does not melt when heated–very salty and delicious! We stayed for a few hours before going to a couple of clubs and bars to experience Beirut’s night life. American music is pervasive, with French and Arabic music mixed in as well. I’m pretty sure I heard some Shakira, too, so there was some Spanish as well.

Having stayed up far too late Monday night (1:30 a.m.-ish),, we finally went to bed.

Day 2 (June 24) – Beirut and Locations North and East

So I’m a little behind, mostly due to needing sleep. Jet lag hit me finally sometime yesterday, and I was just wiped.

Our second day was mostly sight-seeing, with a trip north out of the city, paralleling the Mediterranean for quite a while before turning east over the mountains. Our trip through the mountains was stunning, with winding, serpentine roads zig-zagging upward, as the incline was too steep to go straight up. For instance, this is what we could see out of the bus windows:

20120626-024208.jpg

Our first stop was the Khalil Gibran museum. I had always known of Gibran as a poet, but never as an artist. I’m sure I will post a much lengthier post once I’m back and have a better internet connection. But for now, it was a gorgeous home, built into the side of a mountain overlooking a primarily Maronite town. In the basement is his actual burial site and small shrine-like area. His art was hung in all the rooms of the quite large house.

From there we went to the Cedars National Forest. It was absolutely stunning! We walked through a lot of it before stopping for lunch at the far end. Unfortunately, my camera’s battery died halfway through the forest, so I had to use my iPhone for backup. Note to self: Take a backup camera with me from now on.

20120626-025009.jpg

Did I mention we got to play in the snow? Um, yes. The mountains really are that high, and the road over to our next destination cut thru leftover snow (that was still like 10 feet deep!) Like this:

20120626-025518.jpg

Ok, so maybe like 15 feet…

My favorite part by far was our trip to Baalbek/Heliopolis, bringing my Decapolis count up to three (maybe four? Did Pella count? I doubt it.). I love ruins far too much. Especially when we’re allowed to climb around on them. The US would freak out! Anyways, here are some pictures!

20120626-025712.jpg

20120626-025740.jpg

We stopped at a skee-ball, carnival-type thing (think like the boardwalk in MD) on the way back (I’m going to add better details to all of these entries later). Dinner that night at a high-end traditional Lebanese restaurant and in bed sometime after midnight. We started with mezze (a series of small dishes. Like appetizers, but generally a bit heavier) consisting of hummus, baba ghanoush, cheese wrapped in fried filo, tabouli, fatoush, etc. Dinner was primarily different types of grilled meats, served with bread. Dessert was a creamy cheese-based dessert sprinkled with nuts and crispy bits (think like shredded wheat, but finer). All-in-all, a pretty awesome day!

Day 1 (June 23) – Live Achrafieh Festival

20120624-002259.jpg

Stage at the Live Achrafieh Festival. Sorry the pics are so awful.

Last night, our hosts surprised us with a special outing, just up the street from our hotel. A square in Achrafieh (our suburb of Beirut) had been closed to traffic, and a full stage/sound system/jumbotron system was set up for the Live Achrafieh Festival.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Years ago, I attended the Jerash Music Festival in Amman, so I suppose I was expecting something along those lines–everyone in an amphitheatre, little to no dancing…

I was completely wrong. It was such a loud, noisy, joyous event. Free concert aside, people of all generations were in the streets singing, dancing, and waving Lebanese flags.

20120624-003010.jpg

I can’t think of a concert would get a cross-generational attendance together in the same way in the States. Our group immediately integrated into the crowd, with many of our members dancing and interacting with people. I’ve got a short video here that really doesn’t do anything justice, but will give you a feel of the sounds of the concert.

The square in Achrafieh that the event was at has a memorial in honor of Bachir Gemayal, former Prime Minister of Lebanon assassinated in 1982. And yet, at this place commemorating such a sorrowful event, there was so much joy last night.

This type of event is part of why we are here on this fellowship. I think some people picture any sort of crowd in the Middle East as something violent, unstable, and unsafe. Throw flags into the mix, and you’ve got a horrible situation. And yet last night couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I’m sure I had a ridiculous grin on my face the entire night, just watching these people be so happy and joyous, enjoying their country’s music and showing pride in their home.

Day 1 (June 23) – Beirut

20120623-114700.jpg

This picture is really why I’m already loving this country. Pictured above are the Malakite Catholic church and the mosque built by Hariri. The small building between them, touching walls is the home of the Malakite priests.

Beirut really has everything. For instance, we had coffee here:

20120623-115304.jpg

Yeah, we were in a hurry.

We saw so many things today, from the Phoenecian period, to the Roman, Early Christian, Mamluk, Byzantine, Ottoman, to the present. Hariri’s memorial was particularly poignant, as was the Malakite Church pictured above. As ornate as the Greek Orthdox church we visited was, the Malakite church had an understated beauty that was just stunning.

The trip leaders are worried about shocking our systems too quickly with rich, Lebanese food, so they took us out for Italian today for lunch. It was a five-course meal of some of the best Italian food I have ever had: breads, salads, pizza, pasta, and dessert.

We’re on a break at the moment, but tonight, we will be going out for dinner and then to a music festival. I cannot wait!

June 22 – Traveling Update

8:42 AM local time. I don’t have Wi-Fi situated very well yet, so updates may be few and far between at first. Managed to dash off a text to the family while on the airport’s wi-fi. I had expected immediate access at our hotel, but that has not occurred as planned, so hopefully someone disseminated the information to all y’all.

Landed in Beirut last night at 8:30 PM local time (1:30 EDT). I don’t intend make this a running advertisement for Turkish Airlines, but wow, were our flights nice! Flight 1 left Dulles at 11:30 PM and landed about 10 hours later. Two full meals of excellent food (salmon, cheesecake, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes and eggplant; a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, fruit, cheese). Excellent Turkish wine. Our 1.5 hour layover in Istanbul involved mostly walking and finding our terminal. Another 1.5 hour flight, where they fed us *again* (cheese/tomato/cucumber sandwich, salad, cherry pound cake), and we landed in Beirut.

We were met at the airport by Melkar El-Khoury, a representative from the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, our co-sponsor, who had arranged transportation to our hotel, the Hotel Alexandre.

All-in-all, I’m fine. We have orientation and a tour of the city today. I’m not terribly jet-lagged (landing when we did, I was able to immediately go to sleep and sleep 8 hours), but I am still pretty tired. I am very much looking forward to a pot of Turkish coffee this morning!

“A Country of Contradictions”

20120621-220457.jpg

LSF 2012 Participants with Ambassador Antoine Chedid at the Lebanese Embassy, Washington, DC

Sitting at Dulles, 9:13 PM EDT. Thought I’d get some thoughts down from today’s orientation at the National Council on US-Arab Relations.

It was a truly excellent day. The Council provided us the opportunity to speak with many individuals from all sides the US-Lebanese relationship. Meetings included a trip to the Lebanese Embassy, a meeting at Al Arabiya, a representative from the State Department, an individual from the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation (our co-sponsors), and other experts from the area.

It was incredibly awesome to reconnect with Josh, Dr. Anthony, and out of nowhere Mark, who had been the National Council Rep for MAL when I was a student, as well as a fellow Chief Justice of the ACJ. I have been connected with this organization since 2004, and I swear, I doubt I’ll ever *not* be involved with these programs.

There were so many themes woven throughout today, but the phrase I heard more often than not was that Lebanon is “a country of contractions.” In the same country, there are Shia, Sunni, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Jews, Druze; moderates, liberals, conservatives… All jumbled together in a democratically elected, Confessional government. It’s mindblowing.

My own research tends to look at personal status law, namely marriage, in Palestine and Israel. I had been wondering how much I would be able to look at this issue being in Lebanon, but judging form some of our conversations today, it seems that there will be a wealth of information in country.

I found it interesting that several of our speakers believed that Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state actor in the world. I suppose that makes a lot of sense, but I’d honestly never thought about it before. Hezbollah has a stronger military and far more missiles and weapons than many state militaries. And yet, Hezbollah’s popularity has gone way down since 2006, given their current support of Syria.

Speaking of Syria, another conversation turned to the role of the Arab League should any of the violence in Syria escalate or cause issues in Lebanon. The Arab League has changed dramatically in the last 18 months, for instance sending monitors into Syria from other Arab nations. For any of us who have done Model Arab League, the word “sovereignty” gets thrown around, you know that this is a big step for the Arab League. So the AL definitely has the ability to step in in some capacity, should Syria escalate further, based on this precedent. Then again, given the absolute slaughter that has happened so far in Syria, and given that the Charter of the League allows for the protection of all Arab people, the AL can easily have a leading role in the future.

So all-in-all, it was a wonderful, informative day. I have a cohort of fellow travelers that seem like so much fun, and I honestly can’t wait to stuff my face with Lebanese food. 9:58 PM EDT now. Boarding at 10:20; flying at 11:25. Insha’Allah, we will have a wonderful flight!

I’ll try to check in in Istanbul (layover). Otherwise, hellllooooooooo Beirut!

House of Stone – Anthony Shadid

As part of our fellowship requirements for our trip to Lebanon, I chose Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone. I’m honestly not sure why. I think I just went with my normal “go with something farther down the list” strategy. I’m glad I got lucky, as I really did enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

There were so many themes in this book that resonated with me. Shadid’s lengthy explanations of hospitality, both stated plainly (xiv) and woven throughout his narrative remind me of my weeks in Jordan. To this day, the saddest casualty of my shoddy packing on the return trip from Jordan is a reed pipe that was given to me by a shop owner, simply because I was a guest in his town.

This book is divided into two stories woven together: the story of Shadid’s renovations of his forebear’s home in Marjayoun and snippets of journal entries and stories of his ancestors. Shadid’s discussions of house and home remind me of the themes of home in my own life, as I sit in my grandparents’ living room reading this book (xv). As a Navy brat, we moved around constantly, and my grandparents’ home was one of the few constants in my life. It, like Shadid’s home in Lebanon, was built by a family member, and generations of my family have lived here.

I learned from the book of the diaspora of Lebanese out of Lebanon in the 20s after the fall of the Ottoman empire (xvii), which I suppose makes sense if I had ever taken any time to think about it. Both sides of my family have moved across country or away from their original homes for a multitude of reasons, but none of them had been for chaos and bloodshed.

Throughout the book, characters describe Lebanon as a land of war, as “lands where war has never ended” (42). And I think on some level that goes with how we sometimes perceive Lebanon from the United States. And yet, Shadid’s story is not one of violence and bloodshed. It’s the same as any family narrative here–bickering between cousins, the importance of knowing your roots, the love of home. The town of Marjayoun is not at war, at least not in the time period he described. Shadid does a good job of not sugar-coating his description of his home city; in fact, a piece he wrote in the Washington Post angered many from Marjayoun because they did not find it to be kind enough. The difference in the war narrative versus the day-to-day life narrative put Lebanon into greater perspective for me.

Honestly, I can’t understand the concept of constant war, not really. The United States has been at constant war since I was in high school (ten years at this point), but those wars only have a cursory effect on my day-to-day life. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected my friends in the Armed Forces’ lives, and of course there are economical and social ramifications at home, but I am not surrounded by constant bloodshed. While Lebanon is in a period of relative peace at the moment, I just can’t empathize with the feeling expressed in the book that the constant feeling that “there will always be wars in Lebanon” (151). I hope that the people of Lebanon can get to a point that they cannot empathize with that feeling, either.