Tag Archives: Lebanon

Election Musings – US and Lebanon

Yeah, I’m not going to get on a soapbox about which candidate to vote for in the US general election.  If you don’t know who you’re voting for by now, nothing I can say will change your mind.  Just vote from an informed position, please.

We’ve heard a lot this election cycle about voter fraud and seen a lot of fingerpointing on both sides from individuals who say the other side is trying to rig the vote or keep individuals from voting.  Within my own state, there is an investigation into the actions of Colin Small, accused of throwing away voter registrations in Harrisonburg, VA.  I am not going to speak to this much, only to point out that anyone from any party who attempts to sway the vote should be ashamed of themselves.

Despite the problems we may or may not be having in the US, other countries face even more problematic election challenges.  While on my study visit this summer, one of the major problems being discussed in Lebanon was election reform.  We spoke with many associated with the political system, including many members of youth movements, and nearly everyone agreed that election reform is vital for Lebanon’s continued status as a republic in the Middle East.  Currently, there is no official ballot system in Lebanon.  If you can write down who you wish to vote for on a sticky note and get it to a polling place, you can vote.  Sounds relatively egalitarian, right?  Vote for who you want and ignore who you could care less about.

Except it’s not that simple.  Political parties within Lebanon make a habit of printing their own ballots, conveniently including and excluding individuals running for certain offices.  They pass these ballots out to key people within communities, telling them to circulate the ballots to their friends and neighbors.

The entire system is rigged so they know how many ballots go out and how many come in.  If they do not all return on election day, party members return to these voter’s homes demanding to know why they did not follow through with their “requests.”  If they do all return, you are rewarded.  Forget secrecy.  If you vote for the “wrong” candidate on these ballots, it’s easily traced back to you or your neighborhood.  Forget “free elections” when coercion is part of the system.

Is the US system flawed?  Probably.  I haven’t done enough research to really know.  Here’s some interesting info from PolitiFact.  Yes, I was born into a privileged station where my right to vote has never been questioned (citizenship for generations on all sides of the family), and I am grateful for the position I earned from zygote status.  But what I do know is that I am incredibly lucky to live in a place where my vote is between me and that little lever machine (and G-d, I suppose).

Reformers in Lebanon are asking simply for a ballot system that is free, fair, and systematic.  It doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me.  I doubt the legislation will pass in time for the 2013 general election, but I do hope that it can happen soon.

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Devastation in Achrafieh

I was heartbroken to read the news of car bomb in Achrafieh this afternoon, killing eight and injuring far more.  The site of the bombing, Sassine Square, was home to a memorial for former President Bachir Gemayel, assassinated at that spot in 1982.  I cannot believe this community has yet another event to mourn.  Some sources are reporting that the intended target for the attack may have been Wissam al-Hassan, head of the intelligence branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).  Mr. Hassan, killed in the blast, had recently aided in the arrest of Michael, a pro-Syrian politician and former information minister, who had been planning a bomb plot.  As of now, no party or organization has taken credit for the bombing today.

Achrafieh was our home in Beirut for my ten days there this summer, and the reverberations from the explosion in Sassine Square have rippled all the way to Blacksburg.  My first day in Beirut, we attended the Live Achrafieh Festival right in Sassine Square.  The mixture of Muslims and Christians, all enjoying a night of Lebanese music and culture, overjoyed me at the time.  It is devastating to think that some of those very people might be dead or injured today.

To give you some idea of how close our hotel was to Sassine Square, here’s a map:

“A” is my hotel. “B” is Sassine Square. We were 3/10ths of a mile away.

By even writing this entry, I’m sure many are going to respond by doing their “told ya so” dance and by reminding me why they think I shouldn’t have gone on my study visit in the first place.  I still maintain that traveling to Lebanon was completely worth it.  Beirut today is far different from the Beirut I visited in June and July, namely because of the escalation of events in Syria. Whatever the cause of today’s events, no one can argue that they are not tragic.  Many of us have been worried about the violence in Syria spilling over into Lebanon, and I truly hope that this event is isolated and not indicative of incidents to come for historically war-torn Lebanon.

“You’re So Brave”

I often have conversations with my family about what I’m doing in school and get the idea from them that they think what I’m accomplishing is “exceptional” in some way.  I always have a rough time seeing this.  I mean, I am daily surrounded by people doing the exact same things as me, often far exceeding my ability to do them.  So no, I don’t see reading three books a week, while also writing four responses and grading fifty essays as anything but “normal.”  It takes getting outside of your box to see a bigger picture.

While I understand this concept, I still get surprised every time someone remarks that I’m “so brave” for having gone to Lebanon.  I can only interpret this phrase in one of two ways:  one, that people really think it takes bravery to go to a place perceived to be unsafe, or two, that they really mean that I’m “such an idiot.”  I honestly don’t think either are true, but then again, this might be like the school situation in general – maybe I’m just too far into my world to realize the bigger picture.

Does it take “bravery” to realize that much of the world is “unsafe” and to decide to be a citizen of it anyways?  Most of the things that make “other places” unsafe is a lack of understanding of cultural practices.  Not-knowing = fear = unsafe.

Were there parts of Beirut that felt less safe than others?  Of course.  Are some parts of South Baltimore less safe than Pasadena, MD?  Um, yes.  Do you make the mental choice when walking down the street to hold your purse on the not-street side of the sidewalk so it’s less likely to be snatched?  You surely do.  All major cities have these rules.  Are there parts of Lebanon I had no business being in?  Absolutely.  Which is why I didn’t go.

Being brave in this instance really just means being a little bit savvy.  I really believe that.  But maybe, I only do because I really am “such an idiot.”  I way over-packed for this trip to Lebanon, mostly because I wanted to be sure I had everything I needed for every situation we encountered.  I had an hijab in my purse at all times, not because I was afraid, but because I understood that it was possible we might randomly stop at a mosque, and I probably would need something to cover my hair.  This isn’t bravery—it’s common sense.  Common sense that only goes from doing your research beforehand and getting to know the place you’re going.

Obviously, Syria is right next door to Lebanon, and going near a war zone is probably not the best idea if you have no reason (or no training) to be there.  So we didn’t get near the northern border of Lebanon.  And yes, the State Department does have a travel warning on Lebanon, (at the time I went) not because of problems in Lebanon itself but the possibility of problems in areas surrounding.  There are travel warnings on many of the nations US citizens regularly travel to, Israel being one of the most common, so a travel warning isn’t an automatic decisionmaker.

In the end, it comes down to doing your research and weighing your options.  Was it more likely that something “bad” would happen to me in Beirut than Blacksburg?  Probably.  Was it likely that something “bad” would happen to me at all in Lebanon?  Less than you would think.  The LRF and NCUSAR prepared us in the days and weeks before the trip on what to expect.  Everyone on the trip had experience studying the Middle East prior to the trip.  While in Lebanon, we had guides and hosts whose top priority was to keep us safe.  If it was unsafe for us to be someplace, we didn’t go.  For instance, there was initially a day trip planned to Tripoli.  We decided mid-trip that this was an unsafe option, and we didn’t go.

I really don’t think going on this trip confirms my bravery in any way.  This isn’t the word to describe it at all.  I understand that most people who use this word to describe me are really saying something about themselves more than me – that they think it takes bravery to go to Lebanon.  As part of my fellowship, it is my goal to dispel some of these fears – to explain to others why the experience of other people’s cultures and traditions is exciting, not something that requires bravery.

Youth, Sports, Politics, and Society in Lebanon – Simon Abi Ramia

On June 29, the LSF met with Simon Abi Ramia, President of Youth & Sports Committee of the parliament of Lebanon.  Our discussion was widespread, focusing on sports and youth (of course) but also on politics, religion, and society within Lebanon.  His insight touched upon many of the national and regional issues currently in play in Lebanon.

My 110+ wpm typing speed meant I was able to take transcript-level notes of this meeting, and with Abi Ramia’s kind permission, I am now able to share it with you.  I think this is a great insight into exactly what kinds of meetings we had.

If you would, could you please talk about the recent programs you’ve put forth, namely the Outdoor Lebanon and the National Youth Policy?

AR – There is a difference between the Ministry and the Youth Committee in Lebanon.  We have the government and under it we have the Committee of Youth and Sports.  The Committee’s mission is to make laws and also to examine the work of the government.  One of our greatest problems is that the Youth and Sports Committee is not considered very important in Lebanon; it is considered a secondary ministry.

I have tried since becoming chairman of this committee to increase this committee’s importance in Lebanon.  As ministers, we cannot only speak about politics and not be interested in the youth policy and sports.  I think that sports are something that can federate our cities beyond politics and religion.

In Lebanon, we have a very small budget for this ministry – about 2-3 million USD.  This is the salary of a football player in France for one month, perhaps [laughs].  The budget of the same ministry in France is about 1 billion USD per year.  We only have 2 or 3 million to give as donations to clubs and sports federations.  If you want to have a good policy and the ability to assure follow-up on programs, you have to give money to this ministry.

Currently, we are working on some targets.  For example, in Europe they have youth cards – with them, you can have a reductions in entertainment and public activities to get the youth involved.  We need this sort of ID for youth here.  We are hoping that it will be launched in September.

You have to know also that in Lebanon, youth cannot vote if they are not 21 years old.  In other countries, it’s about 18.  In Scandinavian countries, they are working to give this right to vote to 16-year-olds.  Along with my colleagues, I presented a proposal of law one month ago that would lower the voting age.  I think this is necessary because, for example, in order to found an organization or NGO in Lebanon, you must be 20 years old.  You cannot officially be a member of an organization in Lebanon if you are not 20.  I proposed that this age be lowered to 18 years old.  It’s a first step in allowing our youth to be able to vote when reach 18.  And also, and this proposal I suggested would allow people between 15 and 18 to be a member, but not a director, of an association or NGOs.  For example, they would be able to assist to the meetings.  I think it’s a good step for youth, because in Lebanon, the political age of maturity is 21 years, so now, I think we can work on it.

Also, our committee adopted a document.  Since 2000, many NGOs work together with youth to know what the problems of youth in Lebanon are.  For example, these problems include access to property and housing, health problems – many youth are not covered by health programs, nor do they have access to transportation to go to their universities and schools. We now have 120 recommendations by this youth forum before the Ministry.  And, in our committee, we are working to propose laws to answer to the youth’s needs.

Has this committee been consulting with NGOS?

AR – Yes, so we can propose them through laws.  It is very important because before, we didn’t work on the youth problems.  I think it’s a good committee. It will take time, because it is Lebanon.  It is a good beginning.  If I am reelected in one year, I will follow up this mission.

We have also the other part in our committee, the sports.  We are working to propose many laws to promote sports in Lebanon.  We have many individual competencies, but we do not have a unified policy.  We are working on it with other committees.

You know we have many political problems in Lebanon.  Two years ago, I organized a football match between all the ministers of parliament (MP) and ministers from all parties, on the 13th of April, the beginning of the war in 1975.  It was, I think, a good initiative.  I wanted to give a message that we can have political differences, but we can play together; we can have social relations together.  In Lebanon, we have a big problem.  We speak about democracy without using it on a daily basis.  If I speak with another party, you can find some guys from my own party who criticize my attitude with them, asking why I’m speaking with an enemy.  I tried by this match, especially for youth, to send a message that we can have differences between us, we can be from different parties, but we can have social relations.  We can play together.

There is a challenge for employment among the youth.  What is the parliament in general and your committee specifically doing to build employment opportunities for youth and young people in Lebanon?

AR – I was in Cyprus last week, and every morning, I read the newspapers in English because I was preparing for this meeting and having to speak in English [laughs].  We have a big problem.  We cannot speak about unemployment problems if we do not have a global policy for youth and for Lebanon.  In Lebanon, when you look at the statistics, we have only 25 percent of youth that automatically get jobs after university.  In Lebanon, we have four million people in the country and you have 12 million in the diaspora.  Lebanon is a small country, and we do not have a lot of natural resources that can give jobs to youth.  We have to work on this.

I’ll give you an example.  Last year, we worked with the former Minister of Labor on a law.  When a company or society hires a new graduate, they do not have to pay taxes to the state on this employee for a year, and gradually, the taxes will increase for two years.  Two years after the employee is hired, the company will pay taxes as they would for other employees.  Thus, we can give more incentives to companies to have youth work for them.  But it’s not the only solution.  You know, we have to have a general policy.

In Lebanon 40 years ago, when we earned our bachelor’s, we wanted to be a lawyer or an engineer or doctor.  Nobody wanted to do other things.  So now, we’ve started to see different careers for students, but our government must have a policy for students in sectors where they can find work.  The other problem is that we do not have resources—our country is poor. I don’t mean in individuals; I’m speaking about resources.  For example, Lebanon has 20 billion USD in revenue, and we spend 20 billion.  This 20 billion is just to pay the interest on our public debt and to pay the salaries of public employees.  We don’t have money for infrastructure for this reason.  When we want to build some infrastructure and other kind of projects, we have to find a country or NGO to help us.  So, we have a structural problem.  It needs a global policy.  Right now, we don’t have it.

In several of our meetings, they have discussed that the private sector is interested in being involved with infrastructure, with the possibility of privatization.  What are your thoughts?

AR – I am with them, and I think for example with electricity, we are going to have a partnership between public and private sectors.  Not only in electricity, but in many other sectors as well.  I think that Lebanese public money is not enough for Lebanon.  We need private investment as well.  I do not think our government is against this idea.

How would you overcome some of the political obstacles to achieve this partnership?

AR – For electricity, we have a law in Lebanon that only the state produces electricity and distributes it.  We have to change this law.  Now we are working on it to allow private investors to become partners in producing and distributing electricity.  The Ministry has contact with three private companies and service providers. It’s a beginning, this public-private partnership (PPP), and it needs to happen.  We cannot privatize all our energy sectors, but I think that we are moving for a partnership between public and private investment in Lebanon in many sectors.

As an MP, how do you engage with your constituency?

AR – I am the MP of Byblos (Jbeil).  In Beirut, I am not very far from my area.  When there is no traffic, it is 30 minutes away.  The work of the MPs in Lebanon is not like other countries.  I spend 80% of my time with citizens, because we do not have a good administration.  You can have a citizen wait for electricity in his home for a year or three.  The MPs are the link between citizens and administration.

We have a lot of corruption in Lebanon.  When you have your rights, your actual demands, you have to pay someone working in the public administration.  I go two afternoons per week to my office in Jbeil from 4 p.m. to 8-10 p.m., and I receive people in my office.  I take their requests and follow up with my team.  I really have no weekends with my family, because there is a difference between being a MP of Beirut and the coasts and the MPs of the mountains.  When I am in my village on the weekends, where there are only 1200 people, when I wake up at 7 a.m., people from many villages at my home to give me their requests.  You can be sure that I have good contact with citizens in my constituencies.  Yesterday, I attended four funerals.  Today, I have three.  On the weekend, I attend 6 or 7 weddings, so we spend a lot of time on this kind of social obligations.

When I was elected, I had been in France for 23 years.  I have many French MP friends.  When I was elected, I decided to not be like other Lebanese MPs.  I was very criticized for not going to weddings/baptisms/etc.  So now, I do it.  I have a Lebanese friend in America for 45 years, married to an American woman.  He lost his mother in Jbeil this year and had lost his mother-in-law six months before in the states.  For his mother-in-law, there were only six people in the church, and he received three texts, two letters, and maybe four or five calls.  When he was here for his mother’s funeral, in the three days after the funeral, he was visited 1000 people – this tells you the importance of the social relations.   There’s a big difference between your cultural system and the Lebanese system.  Because I spent more time in France than Lebanon, it was difficult to adapt.

You had devastating Civil War that lasted almost a generation.  I am curious to understand how the youth understand the Civil War and what the narrative is for them.  Has something been learned?  How are the youth perceiving what happened and why it happened?  Is the new generation going to view their country and their allegiances differently?  And, if so, how?  What are the mechanisms in place?

AR – I will try to be very honest and clear.  The problem in Lebanon that we never try to be independent and to live our independence.  Many political forces here are still receiving orders from and have connections with other regional countries.  I think that we never had a natural state, because many Lebanese citizens believe we gained our independence from international decisions.  The people of Lebanon know the names of all the foreign ambassadors in the country, but they do not know the MPs for their area.  When we invite foreign ambassadors to our home, we are proud to display to our neighbors that we had a foreign ambassador at home yesterday.

Our mentality is not independent.  The future of Lebanon is not decided by the Lebanese citizens, but rather by regional, political, and international decision makers.  I think that is the reason of our civil war.  I can spend many hours speaking about this.  To be clear, you have a big community in our country, the Shi’a community:  they are in permanent connection with sponsor, Iran.  And you have the Sunni citizens in permanent connection the Saudis.  And they have freedom of movement in Lebanon.  When they speak about foreign policy, it is dominated by the policy of their sponsors.

And also, we have another problem in that we follow our community more than our national citizenship.  First of all, I am Maronite, Christian, and Lebanese and not Lebanese, Christian, and Maronite.  This is a big problem because this is the reality.  If I want to be an MP and I am a Maronite, I have to find a Maronite seat in the country to be MP.  Our system is made to put you in this kind of mindset.

And I think that the political leaders of Lebanon, they are very happy with this system, because they can always have hegemony in their communities.  For example, if you are Maronite and you want a post in the administration, you cannot be there solely on your competence.  You must have the blessing of your political leader and your community leaders, and then you can be in your position in the administration.

Perhaps I didn’t answer your question about youth now…  Our problem is that we do not have a common discourse about the beginning of the war.  The former Minister of Education, he tried to have a common history book that you learn in the schools.  In Lebanon, for two years, we tried to have this book.  We didn’t succeed because of many interpretations of all persons sitting around the table making decision about this book.  Everyone is offending each other, and I think that because of this, we never made a judgment about the civil war in Lebanon.  I mean, I am a Christian.  If I think that Christian leaders made some errors in the war, I can think about it but I cannot say it, because I have always to defend my community.  This is a big problem – we are still caught in this sectarian system.

Can you expand a discussion of the bloc you are associated with in parliament (the Change and Reform Bloc)?

AR – We have many blocs, and we have 17 committees in parliament.  In each committee, you have some MPs from our bloc.  I am the chairman of this committee, and I can be a member in one other.  I am also a member of the committee of ecology and the environment.  When we have problems about these two issues, I can be involved.  When people speak with me about other problems, I see them in these committees to follow up.  When we are discussing legislation, we have a meeting per week, and we speak in our meetings about laws in the parliament and also about the political issues also.  It takes time, you know.

If you ask me if I’m very happy in what I’m doing, I can tell you no, because it’s not the way that I pictured it.  We have many obstacles in Lebanon.  When we want to reform, it is very difficult because of religious obstacles and generational divides.  It is very complicated, our country, but I have to push forward to make some reforms. If I can make some new laws for youth, it will be a good beginning.  When we have no government, we have to wait for eight months, nine months, one year to create a new government.  It is very complicated.  For this reason, what you can do in the States in one day takes one year in Lebanon.  It is very consensual here because of religious implications.

Is your term ending 2013?  And do you plan to run again or retire?

AR – I will continue.  First of all, my party will decide who will run in my area.  I think I have done a good job as MP, and I think I can do more than I am doing now.  When I speak about my frustration, it is to tell you that I do not think that I am alone in thinking this.  We have many MPs in our parliament, especially youth in different parties.  We want to make something different for our country.  We can make huge reforms, but it is very very difficult.  For this reason, I will be the candidate in one year.  This doesn’t mean I am not very satisfied with my work.  It is not my fault; it is the fault of the system.

Returning back to sports, I know that now, for many women in the Muslim world, the Islamic Women’s Games are their only option for competition.  Do you see things changing for women?

AR – It’s a big problem in the Arab society, the veil.  First of all, in Lebanon, you have many women champions, and they will represent Lebanon in London in one month.  I am proud to say that we have many female Lebanese athletes from Lebanon for the Olympic games.  Recently in Lebanon, we had a problem with internal national security because the first time that 30-40% of women are wearing the veil, and we are not like other countries.  It’s a big problem, and you know when you start to speak about God and not scientific things, it is difficult to change your ideas, so I don’t have an answer for you.

For Lebanon, for example, we will never see an athlete representing Lebanon with a veil.  I cannot speak about other countries.  My problem now is that we are assisting all these Arab revolutions, and I was expecting a dream – we work for democracy, human rights, pluralism, and I am discovering that we are going backwards with the Islamic Brotherhood, so I have many questions about the future of this region.

In Lebanon, 30 years ago, you couldn’t find a woman with a veil.  Now, you go to the south Beirut suburbs, Baalbek, Tripoli, and you will find it.  And also, when you go to all Arab countries now, you find it.  It’s a big problem.  It’s not only a sports problem – it’s a big problem.  I am afraid for the future, because this is a phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent in our society.

Do you have any programs getting more women in the government?

AR – We don’t have this kind of program.  When I spoke about the law I proposed, it is a way to motivate youth to go to assist.  All our political parties are built as simple associations.  In this way, I can encourage motivation in the youth to build and be a member of these political associations.  We don’t have other programs now.  In Lebanon, generally, all people are political.  They are not waiting for us to give them motivation to get into political activity; they are already motivated.

Could you share with us what thoughts you may have and what you wish to impart to us to take back to the US about Lebanon?

AR – I need a conference [to discuss all my ideas]!  First of all, I think that you cannot have an idea about Lebanon from TV; you must come here, you must be in contact with the Lebanese people to begin to understand our problems.  Now, you are meeting me.  In an hour, you’ll meet someone else and have another approach to the political problems in our country and in the region.

Second, I think that when you make this kind of trip here, you can learn and you can get more information about our real problems.  Lebanon is not like any other Arab country – I want you to know that we have a specificity here that we are living in.  Lebanon is not a democracy, but we have elections, we have a president.  You cannot find this system in other Arab countries.  Also, I think that you have to understand that I don’t like to speak of confessions and religious issues, but there is a problem, especially for Christians, because of radical Islam within Sunni and Shi’a.  For this reason, why I spoke of how 30 years ago, you’d never find a hijab.  Now you can find it everywhere.  It means that we are afraid (as a Christian person) not only in Lebanon but for the entire region, and I think that it’s the most important problem – how to interact with Islam in this country and also in this region.  We can write poems… but concretely, we are living with this problem.

I think that, for example, in the US, you [the US administration] forget that there are Christians here.  The US administration has only two targets:  petrol and Israel.  For this reason, I think there is a miscommunication between the Lebanese and the American administration.  The American administration must integrate in its political culture that we cannot defend human values by preaching and speeches.  We have many questions about the policy of the US.  Your public opinion doesn’t understand the problem here.  In France, there are 577 MPs.  I’m sure that only 50 MPs understand the problem of this region.  500 are not able to tell you where Lebanon even is.  Perhaps, they can mix up Lebanon with Libya or Iran.  At the same time, you are leading the world—US and Europe—so I hope in your visit you can get the real problems of our country.  I know you cannot change American policy.  If there is someone on the beach watching to the other person drown… you cannot just tell them what to do instead of pulling them out.

Transcriber’s note:  I have not changed the content of this meeting in any way, other than to clean it up for spelling and grammar.  I really loved the way Abi Ramia spoke, so I have attempted to keep his cadence and words intact.

Day 10+ (July 2-3) – Princesses, LAU, Shatilla, Le Péché, Flight

For those of you still following my trip blog, I do apologize for the delay.  there is just such a finality to writing this post, and I honestly haven’t wanted to deal with it.  While my post-fellowship plan includes extensive blogging of my trip research, this is really the last “Today we did X” kind of post, and it really does end the trip in some ways.

Originally planned for our last day in Beirut was a wrap-up session with the LRF and a farewell dinner at Le Péché.  Through some discussion of our goals and some amazing flexibility on the part of the LRF, we were able to have several extra meetings, including meeting with Druze Princess Hayat Arslan, one of the coolest women I’ve ever met.  Arslan met with us at her home in Aley, a beautiful mansion overlooking Beirut.  It looks a little something like this:

Hayat Arslan's House

No big deal… Just kind of huge.

Arslan and her two daughters spent about an hour and a half with us, discussing women’s place in politics in Lebanon.  Currently, there are only four women in Parliament, which Arslan sees as a huge problem for equality.  She proposes a quota system requiring a minimum of 30 women in Parliament at any given time.  Without the quota, she argues, women will never have the opportunity to run for office effectively.  Right now, the few women who do choose to run for office are often bullied out by a much stronger, better financed good-ol’-boy system.  I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about that.  I can see both sides of the issue.  I’m planning to do an election-related piece later on this blog when I’ve had more time to think about it.

I was also able to cross “make an idiot out of myself in front of a Princess” off my bucket list at Arslan’s house.  Totally tripped and spilled tea all over her patio.  Saved the china though.  Go me.

ANYWHO, after that, we visited the Lebanese American University, who hosted us for a goodbye lunch of falafel, a tradition in their SINARC program.  Our study visit escort, Linda Funsch, had helped start an Arab Women’s Studies a program at LAU, and it was really cool to go back with her after 30 years and meet with people she knew then.  We also were able to interact with students in the summer Arabic program, talking about Model Arab League and our joint experiences in Beirut.

Originally we were then supposed to visit Shatilla, the Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.  Unfortunately, we were not able to do more than drive by, but the sight was heartbreaking even from the street.  Beirut is a city where the buildings are fairly close together, but nothing prepared me for the cube-shaped concrete apartments crammed together in Shatilla.  As the camp was supposed to only be temporary, the land it is on cannot possibly accommodate its current numbers, and residents have had to build up, not out.  I plan to do an entire post on Palestinians in Lebanon at some point, so more on this to follow.

After a marathon of packing and photo-swapping back at the hotel we left for our farewell dinner at Le Péché in Junieh.  The restaurant was stunning, with a open air area overlooking the water, mountains, and city below.  Dinner consisted of different types of fish, grilled calamari, mezze, dessert, wine and arak.  We stayed far longer than I think any of us anticipated, enjoying our last night with our wonderful hosts.

We arrived back at the hotel near midnight with only an hour and a half to get back to the airport to depart.  It was both exciting and sad to be going home, and I think we were honestly all pretty tired as well.  I flew home with the same group of 6 I came over with.  It was a completely different flight this time, with all of us knowing each other so much better than on the flight from DC.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to blog about Lebanon.  I’ve only barely begun to think and process this wonderful study visit.  This blog will continue to talk about Lebanon, and really anything else that pops into my head.  Next on the agenda definitely is a post comparing the pros and cons of traveling with a laptop v. an iPad.

Day 7 (June 29) – Parliament, Jeita, Byblos, Pepe Abed

Sorry I am so behind on this blog.  The end of the trip was a whirlwind, followed by travel home, Dad’s birthday, travel back to VA, etc.  Here goes though.

Day 7 was fascinating.  It started with a meeting at Parliament with MP Simon Abi Ramia, the President of the Youth and Sports Committee.  I really appreciated meeting with Abi Ramia.  His candor when discussing the issues was refreshing.  Due to my mad typing skills, I was able to transcribe nearly our entire meeting, which will be posted as a blog entry at a later date. Afterward, we went for a trip towards the north to visit Jeita and Byblos (Jbeil).  On the way, we stopped at Zaatar W Zeit for lunch, a restaurant described by one of the Fellowship as “Middle Eastern Panera, but not awful!”  The food was excellent–Melkar ordered a sampling of all of their sandwiches, so we were stuffed by the end of the trip (NOTE:  I had written this entire entry and some dumb keystrokes made me lose it GRRR).    The best part of the stop had to be the only happy picture of Angela Merkel I’ve ever seen:

She only minds when it’s Dubya…

Following lunch, we made our way to Jeita Grotto.  Unfortunately, I have no pictures from the caves, as I really didn’t want my camera confiscated.  Some of my fellow Fellowshippers were far more brave than I.  When I get a link to their pics/vid, I’ll share them with y’all.

The caves themselves were absolutely awesome.  Growing up, we went to Indian Echo Caverns in PA, which pale in comparison.  The caves are accessible from two points, upper and lower.  The upper is a hike through on foot, while the lower is done in a boat.  The caves are considered a national treasure, and people travel worldwide to visit them.

After the Grotto, we headed to Jbeil (Byblos) to visit the Phoenician (and other civilizations’) ruins there.  I loved Jbeil.  If I were going to live anywhere in Lebanon, it would be in the mountains near Gibran’s museum or in Jbeil.  Jbeil had the old souks (albeit in a touristy way) that I had been expecting the whole trip.  The weather was cooler than Beirut, and the Med was cleaner and bluer.  We had a crazy tour guide named Yazid thru Jbeil who made the trip an absolute blast.  A former history professor, Yazid spent the talk teaching us about history, peppered with off-color jokes and teaching us how to curse in Arabic.  We had a blast.  We ended our trip through the old souks with a glass of Lebanese wine as a Fellowship.

Dinner that night was my favorite–seafood!  We went to Pepe Abed’s a seaside restaurant serving fresh catch seafood from the Med.  Pepe Abed was apparently quite the character, and you can see it in his restaurant.  The walls were covered Sardi‘s-style with photos of all the famous people who had eaten there.  The restaurant itself had its own museum of antiquities Pepe Abed had collected from around Lebanon.  The waitstaff was very generous in letting us in to visit the different rooms of the museum, as well as being on-call to answer questions about the food and wine.

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:

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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.