10 Years Later…

I’m alone a lot. I know folks think I’m always at a party or exploring some cool stuff with cool people, but remember, my Instagram is the stuff I choose to share. I live alone. I travel alone. I work alone. Sometimes I watch a movie alone. Sometimes I even go clubbing alone.

Being alone allows you to think a lot. Thinking uninterruptedly because the free WiFi is just 30 minutes at that airport. Thinking uninterruptedly because there’s no smoking area in that terminal (the one that caters for the budget airlines). Thinking uninterruptedly because you’re not worried someone traveling with you forgot something and you need to go back to the security check.

“Eurotrips” aren’t something new, and by any standard, I’m very late to that party. But this one was exceptionally epiphany-inducing for me. It might have been the solitude. It might have been the legal drugs. It might have been the music. It might have been the people I met. I’m not really sure, but one thing I knew it coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the Hariri assassination. I knew it would coincide with that anniversary, so I knew I’d probably be sitting on a river bank in Amsterdam with a rolled-up joint to ponder that a little.

Love

I love Lebanon. I love its people. I’ve fallen in love with a few Lebanese girls. My closest friends are Lebanese. Most of my family is Lebanese. It’s where I went to school, where I had my first kiss, where I partied my first party and where I raised my dog.

I love my hometown of Ehden. I love the heavily-scarred, over-choked Beirut. I love the parties there and I love the DJs that spin in them and create their music. I love that a Lebanese person can get themselves out of a tight spot in pretty resourceful (though not always ethical) way.

I love the weather. I love the resilience. I love that almost every major civilization has conquered and eventually liberated us, leaving some of their ruins, and their genes, behind. I love we have an opinion on everything, even if it has nothing to do with us. I love that everyone thinks they’re an expert on everything, and often get into embarrassing situations because of that. I love how everyone tries to be holier-than-thou when behind closed doors they’d make Mia Khalifa blush.

Hate

I hate it because we’ve spent unlimited billions of dollars on electricity, but we have none. I hate it because our slow internet is always expensive, and when it isn’t, our quotas suddenly become shorter. I hate it because they think they have the right to censor us. I hate it because almost every person thinks they’re important enough somehow to dictate how others should live and what they can and cannot do with their own lives and decisions.

I hate it because I know everything done politically in the name of the people, involves a not-so-secret contract worth many, many millions. (Remember the fire extinguisher thing a few years back? Well, compare the current food and garbage and casino and port ludicrous issues as exactly the same). I hate it because I’m 24 and I’ve never voted, and don’t think I will anytime soon. I hate it because issues that I care about like civil marriage, women’s rights, no police brutality, fair courts and respect for human rights always gets sabotaged by filthy religious men and the politicians that fall under the same corrupt sect.

I hate it because the police do miracles to crackdown on harmless civilians for having a beard, or smoking a joint, or other petty “crimes”, but when someone actually commits a crime, like block a road, murder, assassinate, terrorize, they are left to roam free and unabated (maybe cause the cops are too chicken like their favorite food, or simply, there’s not much bribe money in it). I hate it because people think revenge is right, and often take it into their own penis and head-chopping barbaric hands I hate it because people think being a soldier means benefits from the government, not the duty that includes putting your life and liberty on the line for the sake of your country, and expect us to release terrorists for their sake, terrorists who will try to the exact same vile things again, instead of trying to rescue them like a military should, not pander and court a stupid, barbaric terrorist network.

I hate it most though, because it punishes hope. Being hopeful in Lebanon is like being stupid. I didn’t particularly like Rafic Hariri. I had not forgotten that for most of his life, he was a partner in the Syrian occupier’s crimes, and only when their interests shifted, the very public strife between them arose. The images paid for on TV ads and spots making Hariri look divine made me uneasy, and the fact that people who a week earlier wouldn’t have hesitated calling him a “bad man” to put it politely, were suddenly shedding tears at the edited videos with sad soundtracks about his life. But, I hated the Syrian occupation and everything about it, and I was hoping that the loudspeaking vans and pick-up trucks that kept inviting people to go down to Martyr’s Square and tell the government to resign and the Syrian occupiers to get out, would actually amount to something. It did. And I did go down, with very big hopes about a Lebanon we could be proud of and live in and look up to.

A couple of weeks later, the mostly bonafide Syrian lackies who had suddenly become March 14 freedom fighters, reverted to their old ways and gutted the very essence of the March 2005 movement, with the disgusting and aptly named “foursome” electoral coalition which ensured that the Christian parties that had been actual “14 March” for years (LF and FPM) stayed out of power. All the years of struggle against the Syrian occupation, while the newcomers to M14 getting fat from the crumbs the Syrian regime was dropping on the floors of torture dungeons for them. That was the first slap in a hopeful kid like me’s face.

Then, Gebran died, and none of those left could be trusted anymore. And I switched camps. But, I don’t like ideologies and I don’t like Arabist nationalists and I don’t like Islamist ideologues and above all else, I don’t really like hypocrites. So, that didn’t last long, and ever since, I’ve been watching how the two pathetically incompetent camps have performed worse than anyone’s wildest (and incredibly low) expectations.

I hate it because it makes me feel guilty. I feel guilty because when we work on a specific cause, I still feel like we giving others hope, when we have none… And that has been taking its toll on me, and I hate that.

It forced us to make our goals less ambitious. A lot less ambitious. In a decade, we went from restoring our old, free, independent country, to “please don’t kill us with this toxic chemical and that rabid law” and “no guys, it’s not ok to beat and rape your wife cause of your religion”, and “please stop wasting so much energy and time ruining young people’s lives for a quick buck”, and “hey, why is it unsafe to run an election, but it’s safe to take taxes and arrest people with zero probable cause or legal precedent”, and the list goes on and on.

Gateless, Fenceless Metros Did It

Berlin’s metro and trams don’t have gated stations. People can just walk in and sit without paying first. But they do. Imagine the money saved on all those gates and fences and stations. The transport authority trusts the people will do the right thing, and the people know that if they don’t pay for what they use, the city won’t be able to afford running that service anymore. Of course, if an inspector asks you for a ticket, and you don’t have one, you’ll get a fine (but didn’t run into any of those in over a week).

Picture a metro in Beirut. It’s hard to imagine it ever being completed because most of the money for it would be in politicians’ pockets, like everything else. Assuming it did though, imagine the vandalism and sabotage it’d endure by Lebanese folks: people who have historically never learned to trust a government or respect authority, which was mostly foreign invaders. Look at what the disgusting creatures that run the generators in Zahle are doing: they’re shooting transformers that promised to provide the area with something that should be an absolute basic right, not an unattainable luxury: 24-hour electricity. And look what the cops and politicians are doing about it: nothing. Imagine what the service and bus drivers that keep menacing our roads, would do if we had a better, cheaper and more efficient alternative…

Instead, they make big deals about corruption scandals like in the past few weeks the Casino one, and the Port one, where the real issue is only that they didn’t split the crooked money between themselves evenly, so they try to turn it into a religious or national thing (with the Maronite church, frustrated it can’t influence the political class to vote for a Maronite president, always meddling in these non-religious affairs, trying to fill the president’s shoes, which don’t really do much btw). The casino thing ended by paying off fake employees with your real tax liras, and in the meantime, you watched a dramatic sitcom unfold, when really, a microscopic casino that no one visits doesn’t need 3 fucking thousand employees with 200,000USD of severance…

The Fortress Has Fallen

A good friend once told me that Lebanon is a fortress, where anything bad can go in, but barely anything can escape. More like a prison. We all know how restrictive our passport is, and how difficult it is to secure a student or work visa, or immigration, to somewhere where we could build a better life for ourselves. That didn’t bother me before, and the thought of trying to stay away no matter what the cost, was never an option. It is now though. I’ve realized that other than the States, there’s plenty of countries I’d rather live in than at home, and that’s sad. When we get hungry and someone suggests we order delivery here, I immediately think of local Lebanese delivery spots, then remember I’m not there anymore.

I guess, 10 years later, I’ve become the person who will probably persuade others to leave, instead of persuading my family and friends why I, and they, shouldn’t.

Charlie Hebdo Massacre from One Arab’s Point of View

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We’re a generation with no purpose. We don’t have world wars to fight in, we don’t have an industrial revolution to initiate and the common denominator of all the verdicts on a generation like ours, is: “obsessed with their Facebook profiles”. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth…

Our generation’s duty is monumental, and we haven’t had a proper start before a major onslaught. Our fight is to keep the liberal ideals we have in some parts of the world, and try to encourage the same set of ideals in others. Our struggle is between the democratic, peaceful secular form of governance, and religion-based dictatorships that excel at murder of innocents, quashing individual and human rights and nurturing violent hatred and intolerance.

Today’s horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices was a major blow to every freedom-loving person in this world. The 12 heroes who were killed are martyrs in the age-old struggle for free speech. Right after North Korea’s digital terrorist attack on free speech in the United States last month, the fundamentalist muslim criminals struck both flesh and bone, and the freedom all of us take for granted, when not holding dear.

As an Arab, and quite a liberal one, the terrorist attack hit hard for many reasons. For one, Charlie Hebdo is the perfect example to follow for anyone who publishes “controversial” content. They set the standard with each issue, and their staunch resilience in the face of countless threats and several attacks. For two, in a part of the world where freedom is a scarce resource in perpetual depletion, the West and many of its media outlets embody the goals we aspire to accomplish. It’s always there, it’ll always be there, and if it gets that bad, we can always move westwards and be part of a liberal society elsewhere. So, when that “safe-haven” gets so savagely attacked, it makes our unfortunate circumstance even more unenviable. If the Islamist extremists can get to Charlie Hebdo in the heart of Paris, where they are a tiny anomaly, imagine what that means for us, in a place in the world where these islamist extremists form parasitic hordes that plunder, kill and rape everyone that doesn’t submit to their violent, archaic religious laws.

I know today was very hard, and that it my make others think twice about publishing freely. But it can’t. We’re counting on you. Our hope is to eventually defeat this violent current, so you cannot let its brainwashed minions score a victory on the “home turf” of free speech. Please, publish the cartoons again, and again, and again. Maybe with time, the murderous savages that kill for a drawing in the name of their god, will get it through their thick heads that they can never stop us, and every attempt to only fuels our cause more. Charlie Hebdo needs to stay our symbol of hope in our times’ greatest struggle.

As for the murderous cowards who attacked pens and pencils with assault rifles, I ask you, what god are you serving, if he asks you to kill human beings over a fucking drawing? How do you think this makes your fellow muslims and arabs feel? Proud? No. Ashamed, and horrified. Yes, ashamed that these horrendous individuals share our languages and the religion of some of us. Horrified that we’re in such close encounters with them every day of our lives. Horrified their terror can spread to supposedly much safer and freer parts of the world. Shame on you, and I hope justice is done swiftly on you. And know that your disgusting crimes only serve to prove the cartoons right. Violently reacting to peaceful suggestions your religion is violent. Geniuses. You do exponentially more to ruin the face of Islam than you allege these 12 heroes you killed did. And by the way, in your hatred fueled crime, the police officer you gunned down in cold blood was a Muslim, Ahmad Merabet. You killed in the name of the prophet, a man who shares the same name.

Now more than ever, we need to stand up and fight for our right to free speech and expression. We cannot let the rising tide of extremist religious ideologies and the malicious censorship being enforced in Lebanon win. We’re Lebanon. We’re supposed to be the Paris of the Middle East, and so, we are just as involved in today’s tragedy, and it is just as much our mission to make sure their deaths were not in vain. That the wheels of time will turn in the favor of choice and liberty, tolerance and equality under a fair, democratic, secular law.

Thank you for everything Stéphane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac and all the other victims. Your work will continue to inspire us all, and we will always cherish your memory and achievements.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.

Why We Don’t Want Weed Legal in Lebanon (YET), Just Decriminalized (NOW)

I have been a very vocal advocate of decriminalization of marijuana in Lebanon for years. If not for my personal appreciation for the plant, for the extremely brutal, vicious, barbaric and sometimes even deadly reaction by Lebanon’s super corrupt judiciary and police force.

The horror stories I hear every day from busted pot smokers and their friends and parents, make my gut wrench. We all know someone who was caught, unlawfully incarcerated and often tortured. Every step in the right direction we take, is countered by a devilish scheme by the police to circumvent it. They can’t imprison users? They trump up dealing charges for them, which is a much more severe crime. Lawyers are often in on it too, and wait to get paid handsomely along with the bribes, before getting someone out of the police station. It’s a horror story from every angle, and if you need help, there are good people who will help you, like Skoun and Legal Agenda.

Anyway, that isn’t the point of the post. The point is a recurring theme in Lebanon, especially with Joumblatt’s controversial tweet this week.

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Lebanese immediately think money, and start proclaiming that if we legalize and tax it, we’ll pay off the national debt, etc. To that I say, come on, we both know that’s not true. Here are a few arguments I overhear, and why they’re invalid:

  1. “We don’t need to allow it here, just export our production to countries like Amsterdam”Firstly, Amsterdam is not a country, it’s a city. Secondly, export of marijuana plants is still illegal. We can’t ship off something illegal here to somewhere where it isn’t. It’s just not how things work. So, please, put this absurd argument to rest.
  2. “Taxes will pay off our debt, and make Lebanon prosper”Really? In Lebanon? With one of the most corrupt institutions on Earth? Where will those taxes go? Who will actually be taxed? Look at what’s happening with our non-existent oil sector: we didn’t even break ground and already millions of dollars are unaccounted for, shell companies in Hong Kong and the whole money laundering and theft of public money mechanism has already been worked out. Plus, remember, the main pot growers are all politically backed, or even owned. Why would they tax themselves? You’re right, they wouldn’t. Plus, making it legal would drop their bottom line, after all, what’s illegal is always more expensive. So, I don’t really see this working, and if it is, it’s the small-time farmers that’ll get taxed, not the ones that matter. And assuming it does, where will the taxes go? The answer is hard to find, but a definite one is that it won’t benefit us taxpayers in any way fathomable, just like every other tax we pay for no return.

    A good example is Joumblatt’s double-standards here. He tweets pro-decriminalization, when the security apparatus entrusted with butchering and torturing pot smokers is considered loyal to him in Lebanon’s disgusting confessionally-divided security system. Now, I’m not saying he’s doing it on purpose and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he really is on our side, but perhaps he can’t micromanage the whole corrupt apparatus. But, he could at least try to use his political privilege to make them tone down on their barbarism and instead do something that helps society, you know, like fighting actual crime.

  3. “Lebanon is not ready, now is not the time”It feels like it’s never the time for anything in Lebanon for nay-sayers. To those folks, I say, pot is endemic in our society. Lebanese folks have been doing it since before Christ, and they still do. I’m not sure how not putting them in jail after beating them to a bloody pulp would “hurt” or “damage” our society, but in my humble opinion, removing the fear and hatred of the cops, and restoring some trust in the system would do our society wonders. So, you’re right, it’s not the time now, it was the time a decade ago before thousands of lives were destroyed forever for the sole purpose of getting paid bribes.

The main point I’m trying to get across, is that the point isn’t making money for the government’s leaky coffers, the point is stoping lives from getting ruined. That’s what the focus should be on, not unrealistic expectations of fortune and bliss. Let’s stop people getting violently and unlawfully detained for absolutely no good reason, and maybe then, we can consider a Colorado-like plan of legalization even for recreational use. For now, we need the cops to stop, and those encouraging them for part of the bribes, to stop as well. Khallas, enough.

Lebanon: 10th Most Inspiring City, 14th on Global Terrorism Index

It couldn’t be truer really. As observers, commentators and above all taxpayers in Lebanon, it’s often hard to figure out where we stand. We’re abysmal on so many fronts like corruption, lack of basic necessities like electricity and water and the constant threat of escalating violence. But, we’re also pretty fucking awesome. We put most other countries in the region to shame with our liberal ideals, even under threat by filth and scum like Da3esh and its sympathizers, we party harder than any other somewhat civilized people and the art, science and culture that ooze out of Beirut’s streets and underground basements deserves a special light shed on it.

Lebanon: 10th Most Inspiring City on the GOOD City Index

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The last bastion of the liberal Middle East, Beirut is where the rest of the Arab world comes to let their hair down. While there is much more to the city than drinking cocktails on the beach, the fact that one can even do that legally is an important aspect of life in Beirut. More importantly, Beirut is one of the region’s only cities where people are free to embrace secularism, gay rights, and free artistic expression. Residents of Lebanon are constantly reminded that they are living in the midst of ongoing regional and political turmoil. However, this uncertainty has done little to slow Lebanese-funded construction. Nor has it impacted infrastructure, park development, or partnerships with cities like Geneva, London, and Paris aimed at making the city a better place to live. In 2014, Beirut’s startup scene thrived: Displaced Syrian artists established new studios in the city, the arrival of Uber ameliorated the city’s notorious traffic problem, and green activists proved Horsh Park could be a place for tolerance. Clinging to its outlier status in a region of uncertainty, Beirut will continue to be a beacon of possibility.

Source

Talk about a boost of serotonin, huh? Philippa Young said it pretty accurately above, and there’s not much I’d like to add here.

Lebanon 14th on Global Terror Index

Fires burn and smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut downtown area

The Global Terror Index is a comprehensive study prepared by IEP that accounts for the direct and indirect impact of terrorism in 162 countries in terms of lives lost, injuries, property damage and the psychological after-effects of terrorism.

It is disheartening to see that we lie just behind Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and others when it comes to how deeply we’ve been affected by terrorism. Lives lost, opportunities missed, property damage, economic tolls, social unrest…

Source

Make Your Choice

Given such stark, yet such Lebanese, contrast in where our position lies among the world’s countries, it’s almost impossible to reconcile them both. Are we the 14th most devastated country by terrorism? Or are we the 10th most inspiring place to live in? We’re both in reality, but I choose the inspiring one more. Cause if I don’t, the terrorists win, and I know that sounds cliche, but if we stop advocating for women’s rights, gay rights, our right to drink and party and make art and make love, we sorta become like Da3esh’s Islamic State. We do have a role, and as the late Pope John Paul II said, “Lebanon is a message, not just a country” (or something like that), and even though me and him differ on what that means, I do agree that Beirut and Lebanon are a message, a message of hope for the rest of the region in turmoil.

We came out of a brutal 15-year Civil War and somewhat survived in one (though incoherent) piece. When cops shove a stick up a person’s ass because they suspect him of being a homosexual, there’s an uproar and backlash and we force it to stop. When we fight for women’s rights and it gets derailed by religious authorities, we force them to pass it, though partially, and keep struggling till it’s in the format we aspire to in the 21st Century. When a conservative minister wants to punish an Olympian for posing for risquee photos, we all got naked to shut him up and support one of the few heroes representing Lebanon in such events.

The list goes on and on, and even though it’s barely even scratching the surface of what needs to be done, it’s something, and we’re not giving up. We’re just rethinking our strategy, and toning down our ambitions to more achievable, pragmatic ones. No revolutions, no mass protests, just smart, patient and well-timed pressure to preserve our liberal ideals that so many have tried in vain to erase…

Shake b3aynkon ya jayyet w 2ol3at el tatarrof <3

GTA 5 for PS4 BANNED in Lebanon

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After hearing rumors that GTA V’s PS4 release was banned in Lebanon, I called the Sony stores in ABC Dbayeh and ABC Ashrafieh and got confirmation that they’re not gonna get it, because “el dawle mana3eta” (the government banned it).

GTA V is one of my favorite console games, and playing it on my PS3 was an absolute blast. Now, that doesn’t really affect us gamers, because we’ll get the game “tehreeb” (black market). But, it’s the principle that matters. We’re banning video games now too? Just a few days after a documentary about the Iranian Green Revolution was stopped from being screened at an international film festival in Beirut?

It seems that the new chief at the Censorship Bureau deceived us with OK-ing our MARCH play, but has upped the ante when it comes to banning stuff from Lebanese people. The video games thing is especially scary. We’re used to censorship of books, movies, music and websites, but video games too?

It’s like every day we take another step closer to becoming a mini Iran or Saudi Arabia…

We at MARCH are working diligently to get to the bottom of this and reverse this unspeakable act. Join us if you’re pro free speech and anti censorship! Gamers, we need you on board!

 

Ashoora in Nabatieh: One Year Later

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Last year, when I went down to Southern Lebanon to witness first hand the Ashoora commemorations in Nabatieh, it sort of awakened in me the love of exploring misunderstood rituals, people and places and sharing that experience from my personal point of view. This year, I wanted to go back, given that the sectarian tensions in the region are as high as ever and hatred and intolerance spoil so much lives in Lebanon and the region.

What It Was Like There This Year

Reading intelligence memos about plans for a “woman suicide bomber that will target Ashoora commemorations” and other unnerving intelligence leaks leading up to the 10th day of “Muharram” made this year’s trip somewhat more disconcerting. Add to that rumors that “many suicide bombers” had been caught in the days leading up to the Ashoora memorial made it feel like visiting a bomb site and hoping that a secondary bomb wasn’t ready to go off when you’re there.

The alleged heightened security measures made me go to Nabatieh a day earlier, and spend the night there at a friend’s instead of risk not getting there in the morning (traffic + security measures = hours on the road). But, security wasn’t that visibly unbelievable. Roads were blocked off, and you get quickly patted down a couple of times before getting to the town center. The men are locals, some with Hezbollah insignias, others with no noticeable uniforms or tags. I saw a few riot police there too, and Lebanese Army intelligence officers with their brown vests were walking around. But, that was it. One thing I’ve learned about security in places like Nabatieh, is that it’s not the obnoxious, loud kind our police do, but the useful one that doesn’t ruin your day or overshadow the actual event they’re supposed to be protecting.

Anyway, after making our way into the town center, we bought some croissants and juice and waited to see the processions come in from different towns surrounding Nabatieh. The first few were bloodless ones, either because it was still too early, or because the men and women of that procession decided not to practice bloodletting anymore. But, soon enough, the copper-like smell of coagulating blood creeped up, amplified by the light rain that only made the smell more overpowering. A picture can never really portray that moment, when the streets turn red and the squeamish start to cover the mouths and noses to keep up with the procession…

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The swords are ceremonial, and on any other day, one would be a bit spooked to see so many stern-faced men with machetes and swords walking around, but not on the 10th day of Muharram. At around 9, we made our way to the local Husseinieh where the actual incision is made by men with sterilized silver razor blades. A friend, WJ, had come all the way from Canada to participate in the bloodletting procession and was kind enough to let me tag along and ask him questions all day long. Two swift strikes on the top of his head by a relative later, and the blood started to stream down his face and he donned a white cloth on his torso and made his way to his old childhood friends’ procession.

As for the turnout, it was the same if not slightly less than last year, given that many locals chose to go to Beirut’s Southern Suburb instead for the main Ashoora event that HA Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah personally participated in. The mood was somber of course, given the sadness for the Hussein that surrounds the event, but it was also relaxed. The threats didn’t seem to deter anyone, nor did they make anyone more intent on being there. It was just like any other year.

Religion vs Tradition

WJ helped confirm to me that the ritual is more of a cultural tradition than a religious one. Sheikhs rarely ever venture into Nabatieh on the day, and most of them condemn the act of bloodletting. Even Hezbollah frowns upon this ritual, and encourages its members to donate blood instead of participate in this violent ritual. A couple of hours later, we met up with WJ again after a shower at his aunt’s house, and if I hadn’t seen him earlier, I wouldn’t have believed that only minutes ago, he was drenched in his own blood.

WJ and many of the young men who participate, don’t adhere to religious teachings in their every day life. Even when asked why they do this, the answer is always along the lines of “you need to do it to really understand why”. But, a part of me feels that it’s to feel you belong, wanting to go along with friends doing it and participate in it that forms a bond that would make someone come all they way from Canada, 9 years later, to reminisce the old times he used to spend with friends.

That doesn’t apply to everyone participating though, and one thing I continue to vehemently disagree with is kids and people with Down Syndrome participating in the ritual. Apparently, when parents make their kids participate in this bloody tradition, it’s to repay a “نذر”. That’s when religious people promise a divine figure to fulfill an obligation they choose, if the outcome they were looking for unfolds. For example, like when Maronite Catholics promise if their son heals from a disease, that they will “walk barefoot” to St. Charbel’s tomb from their town, or wear the Virgin Mary’s clothes for a month, etc. It’s not in the religion per se, but folks still do it.

Of course, cutting a child’s head is a lot more extreme, but the religious rationale is somewhere along those lines. Which explains why parents might do that to their kids, but, I still find it completely unacceptable. Me being ok with the idea of Ashoora is based on my belief that adults have the right to do whatever they please with their own bodies, without permission from anyone as long as it does not hurt or violate the rights of others.

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Please, Donate Blood Instead

I think dismissing this ritual as something “barbaric, backwards” and other such comments is unfair and incomplete. I also think that pretending it’s not there doesn’t make sense. It’s one of the few places on earth where this still happens, so, culturally, it’s a chance to witness firsthand something rare and unique, whether you think it’s right or not. The problem is that many non-Shiites see it as scary, and many Shiites find it embarrassing. But, when you understand the idea of bloodletting and feeling the pain and suffering the Hussein’s loved ones felt after his gruesome death, you see it as more of a show of grief and sadness, not of thirst for blood and violence.

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As an outspoken atheist, this is something I’ll never be able to relate to and believe that the recent trend of donating blood instead of it letting it flow down your head to the street, is a much more fitting way to remember the Hussein and help those in desperate need of blood. That is why, I fully encourage and support the Who Is Hussain? initiative with DSC Lebanon and hope more and more people decide to switch to donating blood instead of bloodletting on the street.

Will I go next year? I don’t think so. I feel like I’ve experienced and witnessed the Ashoora commemoration in Nabatieh to the fullest. Would I encourage folks to go see for themselves? Definitely, if you’re not squeamish. I’d like to thank the people of Nabatieh for making everyone who comes down from different parts of the world and Lebanon for the warm reception, and the amazing food at WJ’s aunt’s house!

And please, remember, at such a difficult time, when folks in places like Nabatieh or Tripoli are demonized and vilified in the media, it’s vital to remember we’re all Lebanese and that the reality on the ground is that these people are nicer and kinder than most folks in Beirut, and that prejudging them based on misunderstood traditions or as religious extremists en-bloc, is both unfair and plain wrong. Go down to Nabatieh, spend a day up in Tripoli and stop being afraid of a minority that gives a bad name to the rest. Try to understand that in Tripoli, it’s politics and economics that are screwing things up, and that in Nabatieh, it’s misunderstood traditions that are giving the rest of the population an unflattering reputation.

Tripoli: Renovations, No 3G and Heavy Hearts

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I’ve driven through Tripoli almost ever Sunday of my life. Even in recent years, since the Naher El Bared clashes when people started to whisper “don’t pass through Tripoli, it’s dangerous, go via Koura”. But, I always kept going through Tripoli, because I wanted to see for myself, or try to at least. The gauge of what’s happening for me was the hand-written signs that’d pop up every now and then. Of course, they were never really an accurate one, just like all the other signs raised on electricity poles in Lebanon (like the ones congratulating the ISF on its birthday, I mean, come on, which Lebanese in their right mind would want to do that?).

I started to get deeper into Tripoli with the infamous Beb El Tebbenneh-Jabal Mohsen clashes, when I was hired as a fixer many times and accompanied foreign journalists into the different parts of this ancient city that lies less than 10 minutes from my beloved hometown of Zgharta. If I had to choose one word to describe all those field missions, it’d be “frustration”. I was frustrated a city with so much potential and such a grand history was seemingly being forced to stay in the endless cycle of poverty, extremism and unrest.

On Saturday, I went up with Lea and Jad from MARCH to answer a call by local activist Khaled Merheb to come spend a day in Tripoli’s Old Souks that saw violent clashes with extremist militants and the Lebanese Army last week. After parking near ABC of El Tall (yes, of course there’s an ABC there, ABC’s CEO is Robert Fadel is a Tripoli MP!) we made our way on foot towards Souk El Arid, with crossroads and town squares that Jad remarked could very well be in Paris with the embellished designs and semblance of urban planning.

We found our way to the Akra restaurant where we were supposed to have lunch, and were surprised to see that Justice Minister Rifi had reserved the entire bottom floor, forcing the people coming from all over Lebanon to answer Khaled’s invitation, to sit upstairs, away from the cameras that were covering the event. What was also odd, is despite the rain, posters of Rifi were plastered everywhere in and around the restaurant, with crooked masking tape that wouldn’t hold under the rain, indicating they were fresh, and to many people’s conviction there, were deliberately placed to shift focus and give credit of this beautiful initiative, to Rifi, who many innocent Tripolitans see as part of the problem: the city’s politicians who arm, fund, protect and incite its militant elements.

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After shaking our heads in disappointment at this alleged juvenile behavior, we made our way into the old souk. The sounds of hammers, the hiss of welding guns and instructions being shouted was clear. Shop owners whose businesses were shot at, bombed out or set ablaze, were already making the necessary repairs, replacing the window fronts and clearing away the rubble. Bullet holes and shrapnel damage was hard to erase though, and despite the indomitable spirit of “rising again from the ashes”, some scars will probably stay there forever.

Walking through the tiny alleyways littered with shops reminded me of parts of Istanbul. Istanbul is a city I always compare to Beirut or Tripoli in terms of turbulent history and richness of culture and heritage. But, the folks there have preserved them a lot better than we have. Pedestrian-only areas, a tram and a somewhat constant stability. And then and there, I thought to myself, “this is even better, but we haven’t taken care of it at all…”

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We made it to Khan El Saboon, where the city’s celebrated soap artisans have their factories and shops. Lea bought a bag full of them which made the car’s smell on the ride back home exceptionally pleasant. The real gem though, was the Al Saeh Library run by Orthodox priest Ibrahim Sarrouj. This genius of a man had a collection of almost 90,000 books at one point, many irreplaceable or unique. In all languages, all types and from across the world. A personal collection that would make most pale in comparison. Sadly, multiple attempts to kill Father Sarrouj and torch his library worked at the end, and even though Father Sarrouj is alive and well, his library was torched to the ground by extremists who incited violence against Father Sarrouj because “he insulted the Prophet”. What’s ironic though, is that the library contained a collection of irreplaceable Korans that were also burned…

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But, luckily, the entire city, and the entire country joined in to help Father Sarrouj reopen the library with new books and other valuable titles people generously donated to replenish his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Today, Father Sarrouj is as bubbly and lively as always, cracking jokes and offering us books for free to read. I found one book particularly interesting, and ended up making Lea buy it for me: a comic book in Arabic about Jamal Abdulnasser…

Perhaps the best thing about the entire visit was all the new friends I made. The passion folks like Khaled, Ihab and Hayat had for their city was reinvigorating and reassuring. Hayat is a street artist that decorates and brings to life war-torn walls and buildings with her Arabic typography that often quotes a poem that is appropriate for every situation. At the door of Sarrouj’s library, she created a masterpiece that translates to: “I challenged death, and rose up from the ashes”. I’ll be doing a special piece about Hayat’s work really soon!

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Anyway, the point is, Tripoli is amazing. Its people are the friendliest and even though you can feel the war fatigue in their voices and faces, the smile overshadows that and jump starts a feeling of hope that maybe one day, and soon, the original city of the World Expo 1976 would regain its glory. All they need is for their local politicians to stop funding terrorist groups and instead, invest in economically sustainable projects the city desperately needs. Better education, jobs and security: the triad that will ensure that the last round of clashes was the last.

So, go up to Tripoli. Shop in the old souks, have lunch in one of the restaurants, have a beer in Al Mina in the evening and make sure you stock up on Tripoli sweets before you go back home.

See you again real soon Tripoli!

CN: Beirut 14th Top City in the World Ahead of San Francisco, Sydney and Chicago

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Exactly one year ago, I wrote about Beirut being named the 20th best city, ahead of cities like Paris, Barcelona and Venice. That post got shared a whopping 12 thousand times on Facebook, despite it’s somewhat wonky criteria. After all, no matter how much I love Beirut, it’s hard to justify how it can beat cities like Paris and Barcelona. It showed though, that Beirut remains one of the favorites for seasoned world travelers, and worthy of recognition for the second year in a row, with an even higher rating despite everything happening.

Beirut at 14th place was just ahead of Vienna in 15th, and other famous cities like Sydney (19), San Francisco (20), Chicago (23) and Kyoto (25).

Of course, the criterion is based on the Conde Nast’s “Readers’ Choice Awards 2014″. So, by no means are living standards, infrastructure, security, etc. anywhere nearly as good or better than most of the other cities on that list. But, it’s undeniably “boost of serotonin” worthy that despite all the crap happening, we still land a pretty sweet spot in the CN Top 25.

Here’s what the description says:

Though the Middle East’s current political climate is volatile (and, admittedly, has been for much of the last three millennia), Beirut remains a popular port of call for seasoned and in-the-know travelers. As editor David Jefferys says, “it’s simply a city that won’t die.” This immortality is buttressed by a thriving dining and shopping scene—try Tawlet, the ‘farmers’ kitchen’ of Souk el Tayeb (every day, a different regional Lebanese chef is showcased) and Artisan du Liban et d’Orient for traditional local garments and crafts. Adding to Beirut’s appeal as a top world city is the presence of numerous fabulous hotels: Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, Le Gray, and Hotel Albergo come to mind.​

Source

Train Train: Trains in Lebanon Again?

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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:

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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…

New Lebanese e-Passport with Biometric Data in 2015

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We talk about how horrible our Lebanese passports all the time. All the queues at embassies for visas, all the paperwork and fees you need to go through, and the frustration, embarrassment and hopelessness you feel if you ever get rejected a visa somewhere (which is all too often for no clear reason). It’s also super expensive, with a 200USD fee (at least) to renew it for 5 years only.

Anyway, Lebanon has been forced by the International Civil Aviation Organization to include biometric chips into Lebanese passports (based on the ICAO’s Doc 9303). These chips are embedded in the passport covers or in the middle pages, and include the following biometric date:

  • Facial recognition
  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Iris recognition

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Do I HAVE to Change It?

No. Many of your passports won’t expire for several years, but you don’t have to go change it at the beginning of the new year. But, when it does expire, or it gets filled up with visas and stamps, your new passport will be an e-Passport with the biometric chip as of the beginning of 2015. So, if you want the e-Passport version and yours is expired/expiring, take the 1-year option for 100,000 LBP instead of the 5-year one (unless you’re into the vintage passport thing and having your fingerprints and face scanned at airports every single time).

How much will it cost?

Currently, each passport costs the Lebanese government 2 USD, the expected price of a Lebanese e-Passport is going to be around 15 USD. Imagine how much we’re gonna pay for the new one, if we pay 200 USD for the current 2 USD passport… Hopefully, the prices won’t be jacked up, and I wish they’d make them more affordable, since you have to take into consideration that we pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for visas, so, it’s sorta adding insult to injury that we need to pay that much for a passport that virtually gets us nowhere aside from a handful of countries. Either that, or decrease taxes at the airport to make it more affordable to travel…

It’s important to mention that Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan, South Sudan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates already have e-Passports.

More Information: Call 1717 or Online

You can check out all the documents you need, fees, etc. at the General Security Website or call their number (which is not toll-free btw) on 1717 to ask them in person. Or just do it via LibanPost it it’s just a renewal: website or call 1577.

Sources: General Security hotline, local mokhtar and Daily Star.