Even Dogs Wanna Leave: BETA Launches Lebanese Expat Pets Program

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 1.25.10 PM

It’s no secret many of us dream of a a visa to live and work abroad. Lebanese folks with dual citizenships are often seen as the lucky ones, and even a good catch if you’re looking to get married. This sad reality isn’t just for Lebanon’s humans though, it’s also applicable to Lebanon’s shelter dogs.

BETA’s shelter is full, but local adoption rates are very low. The fact that most dogs are not puppies, pure-bred or have a permanent injury because of abuse from Lebanese people, means that many dogs don’t find a loving home here. Also, BETA has a no-kill policy, which means dogs that never get adopted are not killed like in other animal shelters.

So, BETA has decided to ask expats and foreign folks to adopt their dogs. They launched a website, www.xpatpets.com in hopes of both encouraging local adoption, and finding a loving home for these cutie pies anywhere around the world.

I really hope this encourages some of you to adopt a doggie, or at least donate or volunteer whatever you can. And if you’re abroad, consider this, and just look at their adorable faces <3

Gino’s Blog Interviews Maz Jobrani

10849809_10154930057185080_20119201008323191_n

So, I had the honor of getting an exclusive interview with Maz Jobrani before his show for Sanad in Beirut on Sunday. The folks at the Hitlon Hotels in Lebanon were kind enough to invite me for lunch and an uncensored chat with a comedian I look up to and appreciate. Here’s our interview:

It’s not your first time here in Beirut, so, what do you think of our city?

I’ve been here a couple of times, but I never stayed long enough, you know, I have two kids at home and my schedule. My first time was with the Axis of Evil in 2007. We did like 5 shows, so they took us around, up into the mountains. We even tried to meet Hezbollah at one point! It was a crazy trip. Then another time, I came with my wife when my son was almost 2-years-old and we stayed in the beautiful Downtown Beirut.

I love Beirut, I think Beirut is amazing. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I really would love to spend more time here.

Have you partied in Beirut? Like, not just your shows, but our nightlife?

When we came with Axis of Evil, we did party! I didn’t know much about Lebanon and Beirut before coming here. I didn’t know the levels you guys take your parties to.

We went to a club called Crystal, it was a Wednesday, an off-day, and it was rock and roll, I mean not rock and roll music, but Techno or whatever. I look over and there’s chains coming from the ceiling and girls were holding those chains and like making out. It was crazy, and the guy turned to me and said, “Yeah, you should come Friday,” and I was like, it gets even crazier!

Yeah, the level of partying in Beirut is at another level. When I was in Beirut with my wife and kid before heading out to New York, our friends from there got in touch and told us they couldn’t wait for us to fly in to party hard. And I said, “this is the party capital, Beirut.” And my theory is that apart from the Lebanese I know being very much into living life and enjoying life, part of it has to do that with the Civil War, people just got tired of it. So, when fighting would break out in the streets, people would just say, let’s take it up to the mountains!”. There’s a resilience that the Lebanese people have, and I think it’s beautiful. You guys are some of the top partiers in the world, easy.

Your comedy can be categorized as observational, but for someone like me from Middle East, a lot of times it’s like it has a deeper message behind it. Would you say you do? And what message exactly?

I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy as a kid, and ultimately, I just wanted to be funny. And I think as I got into it though, and started to talk about being of Middle-Eastern descent, Iranian descent, and growing up in American, I think issues started coming up that were social and political. I think that if you can’t do comedy that has a message somewhere, you know, it doesn’t have to be obvious, but it’s got some political points in there, is my favorite type of comedy. You know, like you said, I’m also a fan of The Colbert Report as well as The Daily Show. But, also in the middle of my show, I do silly stuff. DL Hugley said this one time: “When you do comedy, it’s like giving people medicine but hiding it in orange juice, so they don’t taste it”

Many Americans aren’t aware of the discrimination of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim people, so my joke about the Arab family on the plane, or even people who look Muslim, it could be Christian Lebanese. So, when you tell them the joke, they laugh about it, but they also know, “hey, this is real”. So, it’s a way of delivering the news.

The region is in turmoil, as your jokes illustrate when you say “how do you know the Middle East is going crazy? When Beirut is the safest place there!”. Has that changed your jokes and shows?

I know the rest of the Middle East is going crazy when Lebanon is the most peaceful place in the region. A lot of times, it’s just what really hits me, like for example, I had a Syrian ask me, why don’t you do jokes about Syria. I said, well, I’ve never been to Syria. I don’t sit down and say, I have to write a joke about this topic. If it comes to me, it makes me laugh, then I do it. In light of the situation, I joke about learning to talk Arabic, and I say, if you just say the words you do know and throw in some food in the middle, people will think you speak it. Like, “Yalla, shawarma, yalla yalla, wallahi!” So, I was saying yalla, yalla, hurry, hurry, but you are always late. And Salam Alaykom, which is “may peace be upon you”, and then you go outside and start a war. So, no one is listening to anybody, and it’s a joke Arabs have laughed at.

It’s just about figuring out a light way to say it. I never make fun of the victims or people who are refugees. I think one of the jobs of comedy is to make fun of those in power, not those who don’t have power.

Are you a geek? We were talking about Star Wars earlier, so I had to ask!

I’ll be honest with you, I think I was a bit of a geek when I was younger. I was a big fan of comedy too, that’s why I ended up being a comedian. I don’t have the patience or maybe just lost interest in video games, so not anymore. I loved Star Wars, but didn’t really like the prequels, but when I saw the new trailer, I said, hey maybe I’ll go see the new one. I got excited. My son is 6 now, and I’m kinda waiting for the right age to watch Star Wars with him.

You don’t really distinguish between Persian and Arab, and focus on the Middle East being one kind of “front”. Is that true, and why?

I do, I always make jokes about how Arabs and Persians are different. The problem is that the US is so isolated, that if you don’t open your eyes, if you don’t travel, you’d think everyone’s the same. I used to joke about that, on how my US passport it says “born in Iran” and I’d joke about how some Arab countries like Kuwait don’t get along, and I’d get asked all these questions. Some Arab countries don’t even get along with each other, and I say, the whole area is not one country. I hear people say “just bomb the whole goddamn region”, and you go, “but they’re different countries, which are probably enemies”. Like the Bush administration going into Iraq, where a Sunni minority, was ruling a Shiite majority, and they expected to be greeted with flowers and once you remove the dictator, everyone would just get along (not that the dictator was any good!). But it’s this level of ignorance that is unbelievable. I remember when they were looking for Bin Laden, they asked a bunch of senators if Bin Laden was Shiite or Sunni, and they didn’t know!”

Lebanon has always been known for its free speech and liberal ideals, but recently, a crackdown on free speech and increased censorship is hurting that. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I’m really bothered by censorship. I think people should be allowed to say what they wanna say. I think there’s some of that going on the in the US as well. I think social media has made it so that if somebody is offended at all, they make a big deal out of it. If you have to limit your thoughts and ideas because you might offend somebody, I think a lot of artistic ideas would be pulled back and that’s bad. On the other side, I’m not with saying things just to provoke. With social media, everyone has a platform. Like, just to say something racist.

I hope Lebanon doesn’t go that way. I think it’s all political and they’re looking for excuses. I think it’s easier for me from the outside to say “just do your thing and don’t worry about it”, but ultimately, those who are trying to stop people from saying what they wanna say, is that we live in an information age. So, no matter what you say, whether you’re in China or Iran or Saudi Arabia or wherever, and you’re trying to block people from hearing or seeing things, hey man, it’s just one click away. It’s almost futile, a futile effort to stop people from saying what they wanna say. And I think a lot of regimes are realizing that young people wanna say what they wanna say, they want their freedom of speech, and the laws need to be fair.

I think the West has progressed a lot more than countries here in that aspect. In the US, I can go up on TV and make fun of the president. There are many countries here where I can’t make fun of the leadership. But that shows you the security of the system, cause the president of the US knows he’s not gonna be overthrown by my joke, whereas in some countries, they feel if you disrespect the leader, others might disrespect the leader and threaten the leadership. But, hey, if you’re secure in your leadership, and you’re fair, you shouldn’t worry about what people say.

I hope that freedom of speech progresses in the region. Online it will, it’s unstoppable. No matter how closed off the regime is, people know what’s going on.

One of the hardest things in comedy is knowing when it’s ok to joke about something, especially something tragic. How do you gauge that?

I’ve seen comedians do jokes about tragedies the same day, especially now with social media. I personally try to be very conscious of not making fun of any victims in any way. If a war were to break out, or like the cop killing in St Louis, I wouldn’t find myself making fun of Michael Brown. But, if the police chief says something ridiculous, you can make fun of that. The incident is so tragic, but you can make fun of something that was said that needs to be ridiculed.

This girl in Kuwait tweeted me after a joke I did after Boston bombing, how my first thought was, my heart goes out to all the victims, but how my second thought was, please don’t be Middle Eastern… Don’t be one of us. So, this girl in Kuwait thought it was offensive because people died, and I tried to explain in the 140 characters that I disagree, or else there’d be no comedy. It’s about making fun of the hypocritical things that come out of tragedy.

22609365

Maz was awesome. He was a lot fun to be around, very knowledgeable about the world’s current affairs and very passionate about what he does. He’s starring in new feature film that will be released in 2015, and is releasing his book “I am not a Terrorist, but I’ve Played One on TV” in February.

Christmas Series: Beirut Chants Till December 23rd! And its Free

I love Classical music. Whether it’s one musician, a quartet, a choir a whole orchestra or all of the above. Christmas is an especially magical time for such performances in Beirut’s many, many historic churches.

For 7 years now, Beirut Chants has been bringing to life these churches with local and international acts of all kinds: choral, sacred music, chamber and philharmonic orchestra performances and appearances by international soloists.

It already started on December 1st, but will continue till the 23rd.

You can check out their complete schedule here. Also, I’ve taken the liberty of selecting a handful I think will be really worth your while:

Friday December 12

The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, at St Georges Maronite Cathedral in Downtown Beirut. I love the LPO, and their weekly performances in a church near USJ right off Monot Street. This is one Beirut Chant night I definitely will not miss. 8:00PM

490x368

Monday December 15

Vadym Kholodenko in St Louis Capuchin Church (the one with the tall steeple everyone photographs with the mosque minarets in Downtown, right next to the Saraya). Kholodenko is the 2013 Gold Medalist of the Cliburn International Piano Competition. So, if you’re a fan of a grand piano on the altar of a gorgeous old church, then it’s a no-brainer. 8:00PM

Tuesday December 16

The 40-member Fayha Choir from Tripoli and its suburbs will be in the St. Elie Church in Kantari on Tuesday. It’s a beautiful sight and experience, from an amazing city with an unfairly tarnished reputation. You might know them from the Arabs Got Talent show too. So, if you’re into choirs, Kantari is where you wanna be on Tuesday at 8:00PM

Al Fayha' ChoirFriday December 19

The LPO joins forces with the choirs of the National Conservatory, the Antonine University & NDU and Soprano Felicitas Fuchs. This is one of the grandest Christmas concerts of the lineup, and if you miss the 12 December one, you aren’t allowed to miss this one. Starts at 8:00PM in the St Joseph Church in Monot.

There are plenty of other dates and musicians, including several children’s choirs and soloists. I just picked a handful that I’d like to go to myself.

Check the Beirut Chants Facebook page for more information!

Train Train: Trains in Lebanon Again?

10505401_341595856000646_884157835895384363_n

Traffic in Lebanon is insane, and for many reasons. First, Lebanese people are horrible drivers. Lanes and traffic lights and signs might as well just be modern art to them. They speed, overtake each other dangerously, go in the wrong direction, etc. Our traffic cops are good at Whatsapping their friends and whistling at girls walking on the street, the only thing truly enforced are the unfair parking tickets, which are haphazard and mean, given that no alternative parking is ever available, and if it is, some scumbag valet services that’s friends with the cops gets them.

Second, infrastructure projects in Lebanon are always geared towards how much money the contractor will make, not how useful it is for the flow of traffic and taxpayers’ wellbeing. Useless bridges with 8 lanes, just to allow for one lane under them, with a pricetag that’ll add many millions to the companies constructing them who are friends with the government at the time the contracts are awarded.

Third, very poor planning, like the Jounieh bay highway, which magically squeezes into two lanes after being 3 to 4 lanes before and after the Jounieh part. Imagine Lebanese drivers split into 4 lanes (5 actually, I mean, who cares about the lanes, right?) squeezing into 2 lanes in a battle to the death with crazy cab, truck and bus drivers. And with so many buildings crowding that strip of highway, it’s almost unimaginable that it can ever be expanded in a feasible way.

Trains might not be the silver bullet to solve our traffic problems, but it surely is a major part. Here are a few cool facts from the Train Train NGO’s Facebook page:

10351262_318486034978295_8330545528591238353_n

10369215_320354491458116_4804961381555749628_n

10378304_326589040834661_754371084432851142_n

10491973_335282419965323_6982083521024503903_n

10527773_332198950273670_2162965543379465081_n

Kalam Ennas Cool Reports

Here’s a cool report about the Lebanese railroads’ impressive history

And this one is a heartbreaking account of one of Lebanon’s train conductors, now 85 and abandoned by the country and government he served for almost 50 years.

Byblos-Batroun Rail Plans

Mr Maalouf has been trying to relaunch the line between the coast cities of Byblos and Batroun, to show the feasibility of having trains running again. “We need a success story,” he says. The project, with a budget of £430,000, should take only a matter of months to complete, but Mr Maalouf is still waiting for the green light from the Lebanese government.

via The Independent

It’s hard to believe the government would ever OK this. After all, our members of parliament are only good at a handful of things: punching taxpayers, suing taxpayers, extending their terms and increasing their wages.

But, there are other ways to make the money and get the projects done: the private sector. With enough public support, maybe, just maybe, we could rebuild that railway. I’m not sure how useful a train between the relatively close and congestion-free Byblos and Batroun would be, but still, as Maalouf said “we need a success story”.

Now, many of the remaining tracks and stations are government property: public property. But, so are our beaches, and almost every single centimeter of beach has been built-up by the private sector. So, why not do the same with the railroads, but at least this time, it’s for a nobler cause than making people pay 50,000LBP to swim in a publicly-owned beach.

It’d cost around 700,000 USD according to Train Train, why not let brands sponsor each segment or station, having for example the “Sanita Station” in Halat, the “Bank Byblos Station” near Jbeil, etc. I’m sure 700,000 USD won’t be too hard a sell for such an epic comeback for something our generations never saw live, despite it dating back almost 120 years…

Imagine the jobs it’d create and the momentum it’d kick off to resume rehabilitating our railway all the way from our northernmost tip, to Lebanon’s southernmost and hopefully into the Bekaa. It’ll also be interesting to see how Lebanese will adapt to blocking railroads, like they so casually and consistently do to roads…

Major Victory Against Censorship in Lebanon

10371492_741637102540352_3913011538697511593_n

One struggle I’ve been part of for the past few years has been exceptionally fruitful. I’m proud to be part of March, the NGO that stands for freedom of speech and anti-censorship in Lebanon. For the better part of the past 2 years, we’ve been in a bitter fight with the General Security’s Censorship Bureau. A play we originally wrote with the title of “Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta3″ was censored, and the former team at the Censorship Bureau launched a vicious and juvenile media attack, citing anonymous critics’ opinions as reason enough to justify their ban (“expert opinions” included that the “language was too poor” and that the writers “did not have the necessary mental capacity and maturity”.) The play satirized the censorship process in Lebanon.

Unwilling to give up, we rewrote another play titled “La 3younak Sidna”, which was essentially the story of how “Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta3″ was banned. We also included basically the entire script of the original, plus what happened before and after we applied for approval.

Days ago, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that our second attempt, was approved fully as-is. Flabbergasted would best describe our reactions at this unexpectedly positive decision by the Censorship Bureau. It’s important to note that since our last attempt, the chief of the bureau and most of the team have been replaced and the new chief and team seemed far less intent on censoring free speech.

This complete shift in attitude and contradicting verdicts only reassure what we’ve always said: that the law is too vague, and allows for interpretation either way depending on the person wearing the censorship hat. So, here, I’d like to thank the bureau for taking the right decision and respecting taxpayers’ right to express themselves freely without consequence. I’d also like to thank the Interior Ministry, who followed up on the process and encouraged a more lenient performance. I also hope that this will be the first of many steps towards a more pragmatic stance on censorship from the government far more acceptable than the past few years’ policies.

We’ll be debuting our new play soon at AUB, more details in the coming few days!

Visit Beirut’s Newly Paint Up-ed Staircase!

10411215_980782825282174_1793525698535287238_n

It’s the 7th time the Dizhayners have organized a Paint Up project in Beirut that transforms one of the city’s iconic, deteriorating staircases into an urban art masterpiece. The events are always fun, with volunteers from all over Lebanon joining in to finish the monumental task in just 6 hours.

This time though, Chad the Mad (Chady Abousleiman), one of my favorite street artists in Beirut, collaborated with them and added his awesome signature, surreal touch to the middle-section of the stairs. Meaning, it’s even more awesome than the other staircases we all love and know around Beirut, like the one in Mar Mikhail most Lebanese people have a profile picture or two on.

But, the staircase is supposed to undergo much-needed renovations “soon” (which hopefully isn’t anytime soon given the Lebanese government’s track record), and with other staircases being threatened by the monstrosity that is the Fouad Boutros Highway, these amazing, world-renowned stairs are a very endangered species.

So, make the most of them while we still have them, and participate in the next Paint Up event to help preserve these rare pedestrian lifelines in a city choked with useless, absurdly-priced cement skyscrapers with sidewalks that are not wheelchair-accessible and often serve as a parking spot instead of a safe pedestrian path.

The Azariyeh stairs are located here, and below is a screenshot of their location (the space-age looking thing on the right is ABC Ashrafieh for reference)

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 3.30.42 PM

Car-Free Day This Sunday in Sodeco-Abdel Wahab Streets!

10600638_713193452098971_773891049827641658_nI absolutely adore those car-free days Achrafieh 2020 holds regularly. My favorite so far was the Gemmayzeh one, where the kiosks, local businesses, food, drink and entertainment was awesome. The vibes were positive throughout the day, and families, young folks and the elderly all joined in the fun.

I’d like to see iconic streets like Gouraud (Gemmayzeh), Monot, Mar Mikhael, Abdel Wahab, etc. become fully pedestrian. It’d be heaven: no traffic jams, less pollution, more enjoyable atmosphere and MOST IMPORTANTLY: no fucking valet parking.

Here’s to hoping we’ll see that someday during our lifetimes, but for now, one street for one Sunday at a time will have to do! See you all there!

RSVP here.

 

Classic Burger Truck Offering Shares for Fans

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 7.43.26 PM

Many of y’all love CBJ. I love it too, and it’s a regular lunch spot for me when in Beirut. It’s fast, easy and tastes good. The success of their business model needs no explanation, as you can see them popping up everywhere and beyond Lebanon now.

What I found especially cool though, is that they’re opening a sister business, Classic Burger Truck. I got an email invitation to check out their Eureeca.com page, and I thought it’s a really cool idea if you have the money. Lotsa times, I wonder how did this or that business choose its investors, and it’s usually friends or people who’ve already done business together. Now, these types of ventures, like “mybar” and “myclub” if you remember, don’t always pick up, but then again, it wasn’t on an online platform like now which operates similar to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Zoomaal. The main difference I guess only this offers you equity (shares) in the business instead of the perks or products an entrepreneur decides on other crowd-funded sites. Then again, remember, you can pay as littles as a few dollars on those websites, when the desired tickets here are worth 2,500USD…

I don’t have that kind of money, but I wouldn’t mind if one of you guys and gals becomes a big investor and rewards me with some Swiss and Mushroom burgers =P. I also think it’s a great example other successful entrepreneurs might consider using, to make sure they can branch out into uncharted waters, without risking the success of their existing business.

The code is: “classic”

Audio Kultur’s Launch Party: Fighting for the Right to Party

1229819_763391260391286_6582328821079451718_n
 

Despite the many subjects I tackle on this blog, I pride myself in that my main “area of expertise” and the posts that have gotten most attention over the past five years, were the ones related to nightlife.

I fucking love to party. From The Basement days where it all began, to the mega-clubs and concepts today like The Garten, Uberhause, C U NXT SAT, The Grand Factory, B 018, Decks on the Beach and many, many more. House music + Lebanese people = some of the best clubbing experiences in the world. I’ve partied in so many cities, and I say this wholeheartedly, nothing is like Beirut. Here, we party because we have a reason to, not just to get drunk or high like in most places. It’s our church, our therapy, our escape from the otherwise unpleasant reality we live in. No bomb, war, assassination or other forms of violence can stop the party. Both good and bad, the sometimes over-the-top party scene is one of the last vestiges of the “liberal” Lebanon we love and aspire to.

I wrote a feature on that topic for Audio Kultur earlier this year, and I feel it still holds true, especially with today’s Vice piece on just that (worth the read.)

Next Saturday, all the major party crews are coming together under the Garten’s dome to show the unity of this magnificent scene. I mean, just look at the lineup… It brings tears to my eyes, coupled with the debut of “Muscle Shoals”, a Secret Walls live graff session and the support of awesome folks like Red Bull’s Quarter Tone Frequency radio and the Wickerpark Festival crew.

You CANNOT miss this. It pains me to know I’m going to be missing it. I would’ve absolutely loved to be with all of you there.

Always keep the party going Beirut. I love you all <3

RSVP here.

Embrace: A Suicide Every 3 Days in Lebanon. Help Stop This!

10370960_810024525695099_3452561785803967405_n

Mental illness is still a taboo subject in Lebanon. Mentally ill people hide it, and when they can’t, their loved ones hide it for them from the rest of society. It’s still seen as something to be ashamed of, and to some people even as something that’s a deserved “punishment” by god or whatever.

But, its impact is real, and given the striking numbers of psychoactive drug prescriptions in Lebanon: 1 million tranquilizers, 642000 anti-depressants in 2011 [source], coupled with the devastating reality that every 3 days, someone in Lebanon takes their own life, goes to show you that a LOT can and needs to be done.

That’s why I was very happy to find out about the Embrace Fund, a regional and national campaign to raise awareness and provide support for mental illness. It’s in partnership with the AUBMC’s Psychiatry Department, and earlier today, they had their “walk into the dawn” activation towards the Raouche Rock (Pigeon Rock in Beirut), which is infamous as a top choice for people committing suicide by jumping off of it into the Mediterranean Sea.

Here’s their Facebook page, so you can find out how to help. On their website, you can submit your own story about a struggle with mental illness, and read those who wrote their own and wanted it to be published. You can also sign up to become a member, or make a donation, or both! So, head to EmbraceFund.org and sign up!