Why Tadmur (Palmyra) Broke My Silence on Syria

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I haven’t shared many of this before, but I love Syria. Growing up on the outskirts of Beirut, my family and I would regularly go up to different parts of our larger neighbor to the east. I’ve made some of my fondest friends in memories in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Seeing this now 4-year-old devastating war just a couple of hour’s drive away has been heartbreaking to say the least. Sadly though, the sharp divisions it has caused and the undesirability of the main factions in it, has kept me largely tight-lipped on the matter, save for writing about the plight of Syrian refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan and how to help. But, the fall of Tadmur into the clutches of ISIS (da3esh) really struck a chord.

As a teenager, I was a massive archeology buff. I’d go to the Byblos citadel and spend most of my time in the courtyards trying to find a secret Phoenician tomb so I can open the sarcophagus and discover who lays in it. Tadmur, honestly had the most awe-inspiring ancient ruins I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s an almost completely intact entire city that dates back two millennia in the middle of the desert between Damascus and Raqqa.

The wide avenues, the perfect arches, the network of aqueducts, the pristine amphitheaters, everything. It was gorgeous, and I couldn’t stop pinching myself at how surreal it all felt. For all its epicness and massive size, virtually no one visited Tadmur. It felt like our tour group was the only thing alive in this 2000-year-old ghost city, where Queen Zenobia ruled all those centuries ago, leading an uprising against Rome and briefly expanding her kingdom to include Egypt.

Getting lost in the ruins though, was always overshadowed by the whispers of what lay underground and in dark rooms in Tadmur. Tadmur, apart from being home to one of the world’s finest UNESCO World Heritage sites, was also home to one of the Assad regime’s most notorious prisons, where they unlawfully jailed and tortured political prisoners, including Lebanese, for decades.

Even after the tours, I’d want to check my Hotmail account (yes, it was that long ago!) and the only way to do that back then, with Syria’s massively censored and restricted Internet access, was going to an underground cybercafe where they’d use proxy websites and VPNs to access something as mediocre as Hotmail or Myspace. I still remember the cybercafe I’d frequent had posters of Eminem and Linkin Park, and I’d wondered back then if the owners would get in trouble for them.

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What I’m trying to say, is that Tadmur is the perfect microcosm of the Syrian crisis for me. On the one hand, I’m absolutely horrified of what the Islamist terror groups are gonna do to it. On the other, I’m reminded of how the murderous Assad regime had used it as a location to annihilate any descent or free thought in the country. Secretly, under my breath, I always hoped in the past 4 years that no fighting will happen there. I was happy it seemed largely forgotten and that it never made the news. But, when it started to make headlines everywhere, I was genuinely devastated.

That’s not to say that this developments moved me any more than over 200,000 Syrians dead so far. But, to be honest, all my Syrian friends and acquaintances are safe in countries like the US and Lebanon, and thank goodness none of them were hurt or worse. My most frequented neighborhoods in Damascus were also largely safe, so, the gravity of the situation never really fully hit home till now.

I’m sad that we watch irreplaceable pieces of humanity’s heritage get destroyed live on Twitter and YouTube, while the world sits and watches. Killing the ISIS finance douchebag, warrants sending US commandos deep into Syrian territory. Iran sends its best military advisers to free Tikrit. No one lifts a finger to try and deter the Islamist terrorists from destroying what is not theres, or ours, but everyone’s.

Four years later, I’d be lying if anything is any clearer or more obvious. It just hurts more, especially when so many of us have gotten used to the daily accounts of massacres and atrocities. Tadmur should be a reminder to us all, that the choice is indeed a hard one: both Assad and ISIS/Nusra are horrid, vile and disgusting. They’ve all wrought havoc on the people’s of Syria and Iraq, and here in Lebanon. There is no love lost for the Assad regime after it occupied Lebanon for three dark decades, but there is also great apprehension from what might replace it, especially given how disappointing the Arab Spring has been in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Take this post as a chance to reflect a little on what is happening on our borders and further beyond them. It’s our lifetime’s biggest calamity, and we often forget that these days. It took Tadmur to remind me how dire the situation was, and I can only wish from the bottom of my heart that we will see the guns silence and a free, secular, democratic Syria rise from all of this. It’s hard to believe that though, and we have Lebanon as an example: 25 years after the civil war ended, Lebanon still is a broken, corrupt state where religious conservatives and extremists still hold way too much power and the economy is faltering under the weight of crippling debt, and an extra 1.5 million mouths to feed and backs to clothe…

Fuck Da3esh.

Where to Club in Dubai

The last time I was in Dubai, the nightlife was pretty disappointing. Between one radio trash hit and the other, you’d hear announcements about some douchebag buying a bottle of champagne, and then another, and another. Sorta like the clubs where there’s “one man shows” in Beirut. People were also always dressed to nines and had like 400 grams of makeup on their face.

This time though, I was extremely delighted to see that the scene has completely transformed, or at least stepped out from the shadows it was in last time I visited a couple years ago. Impressive international lineups, amazing resident DJs, trippy underground and open-air venues and most of all, a happy, musically literate crowd.

Here’s a list of the places I went to and recommend over the past week:

1- TRIP LAND on Wednesday

Trip Land was my first night out, and Aidin Karami was spinning. It started alright from the door, where the bouncer and hostess were very pleasant. The entrance is a jungled-up theme, with vines and trees and tie-dye decorations leading the way downstairs, where the club in the Fairmont hotel is transformed on Wednesday to a venue worthy of a psy rave.

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Unicorn masks, foam animal statues and a tent-like colorful DJ booth put the “Trip” in the Trip Land. The music was fantastic Techno, with a dark, underground venue lightened up with the well-timed moving heads and light systems at every drop. Everyone was dancing, the overall vibe was great and it was definitely an epic intro to the new Dubai clubbing scene.

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2- Deep Like Thursdayz

It was kinda given that I’d be there on Thursday, seeing how one of my favorite folks ever was spinning there: Romax, along with another good friend Raxon! It’s on a terrace in the JW Marriott Marquis in Business Bay, where I was staying the first couple of nights with Canon.

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It took a little time to get used to the heat outside, but the set was the signature blend of soulful disco music that Romax infuses into his House and Tech-House sets. Later on, Raxon and Romax started playing back to back, and I for one was extremely delighted to see this beautiful mixture of electronic talent take everyone back and forth. I mean, just look at the crowd:

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Another thing I loved is that it didn’t start very late, and by 10ish, the dancefloor was packed and dancing the night away. Deep Like is a place you want to be on a Thursday in Dubai, and it was awesome seeing so many familiar faces from Beirut! Kinda felt like it too!

3- Analog Room

Analog Room was the first club to really make the underground scene so massive in Dubai. It’s like our b018. With names like Derrick May passing through the subterranean club in Barsha, and statuses on their Facebook page that read “No dress code, Just an open mind! Francois K plays from 9 – 11pm. Don’t be late. 2 welcome drinks by absolute from 6 to 8!” how can you not adore this place before you even step inside!?

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We went there after Deep Like, and Anthea was spinning there with her large back of Techno vinyl records that had us all in awe at how that woman could make a club go crazy for hours with her minimal, but heavy and powerful Techno.

The club was nice and dark, with screens projecting unobtrusive visuals that blend in nicely with the lights and music. It was also very generous when it came to the dancefloor, and there was plenty of room for everyone there to dance without needing to push and shove.

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Thursday wrapped up pretty beautifully there, and in all honesty, Analog Room was my Goldilocks moment in Dubai: just perfect.

They also have a pretty rad website where you can tune in to listen live, or check out the sets played there by legends like Derrick May. Check it out here.

4- Blue Marlin Ibizia UAE with HECTOR

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Blue Marlin Ibiza UAE to be my kinda place. Tough door policies and VIP sections usually are a turn off for me, but that wasn’t the case at all at BMI. It’s not that I mind having sections, it’s that usually, because of these things these places turn into a platform for people to showcase their wealth and compare it with others, just staring at each other trying to look cool. That was absolutely not the case at BMI. It was more like a massive rave on the beach.

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Everyone was dancing everywhere. The music was beautiful, with my good friends Jixo and Danz kicking things off and Hector coming in a bit later (and that’s a week after BMI hosted Innervisions with DIXON and AME, yes, I’m not joking. And Art Department this week!)

The club was really cool, and big fans all around coupled with the sea breeze really helped dumb down the heat. The specially built Supersonic dancelfloor was a pleasure to dance on, with its vibrations making the sound hit you from all around, and from below, which was really nice.

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It was such a crazy party, that folks who haven’t been to the UAE started asking me on Snapchat where that party was, finding it hard to believe it was in Dubai. All in all, we had an absolute blast. My advice is come early and chill at the beach with a bottle of cold wine, and work your way up to the heavy clubbing at night then wrap it all up with a truffle burger from the stand outside its door!

This place is definitely on my permanent list when in Dubai.

5- Finest Fridays at Level 41 with Analog Room

So, we couldn’t have enough of the Analog Room therapy, and being newbie Analog Roomers, we headed out to Level 41 after BMI. Level 41 is a cool venue on the 41st floor in the Media One Hotel in Media City. Beautiful panoramic views outside of the polished, perfect towers and buildings of Dubai, and a stripped-down venue on the inside with exposed pipes and bare concrete which goes perfectly with our favorite kind of music.

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Franois K, Cosmin TRG and Ryan Eliott were on the lineup the opening night of Finest Fridays, and it was the night and place we danced hardest and longest. Nonstop, unrelenting drops that kept transforming from one act to the other while always keeping up the pace. It’s a beautiful thing when a crowd reacts to the music homogeneously, and that’s what happened the whole time we were there. Analog Room had again proved their ability to never disappoint.

It was also cool seeing all my Dubai-based tweeps!

6- Piknic Electronik Dubai

I couldn’t believe that the beloved Montreal concept had made it to the opposite site of the thermometer at first, but, there it was! I was lucky enough to catch the closing night of Piknic Electronik Dubai, and I must say, I loved it.

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It’s a grass soccer field in Sports City that becomes a veritable mini-festival, with folks armed with LED hulahoops and pois adding to the music festival feel. There’s food stands and other kinds of stands, and in the middle, a tent where the talents come out to play.

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That night, the lineup was by far the best that weekend, with Patrice Baumel and Fairmont headlining. One thing I loved though and noticed, is that there were a bunch of inflatable games towards the back. At first, I thought they were for us to go play on after a few drinks and a good set. Then, I realized what they were for. We often forget that many of us are now married and have kids, so why not have a place where the baby mamas and daddies can rave, while the kids they spam us with on Facebook and Instagram tag along and have their own kinda fun.

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All in all, it was an awesome lineup in a super chilled-out venue with a laidback crowd that was a nice wrap up to last week.

7- Secret Circle at The Basement

The fact that it was in a club called “The Basement“, was enough to get me on board. Of course, Secret Circle was also recommended by many friends who saw me last week. The club is awesome, and the music was perfect. It was Aidin Karami and Michka spinning on the decks with a full house on a Monday night. Needless to say, it helped me reimagine a world where Monday nights can be looked forward to.

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I bumped into a lot of friends there, and it was easy to tell how much people were enjoying the music because you could see them holding up their phones trying to Shazam the tracks they like while dancing. Secret Circle was quite an experience, with a gorgeous happy crowd whose soundtrack was yummy deep house and tech house.

Definitely another entry on my permanent list when in Dubai.

What I Missed

I sadly couldn’t make it to sub-culture nor to Groove on the Grass, but if you’re ever in Dubai when this happens, you need to check them out!

A Few Notes

Despite how good the scene is, there are a few things that need getting used to. First, that everything must end at 3:00AM, which is far too early. Another is that they can only be in hotels or free zones in the city. So, if there’s a cool venue somewhere, chances are doing a party there are slim. That’s why the real treasure is finding an afterparty in someone’s house or villa to continue the raving at.

Another cool thing is that there’s something every day of the week, so instead of one big weekend, you pace yourself out over the course of the week.

WIN $200 and More with Lucky to be Young!

unnamedSo, it’s all about being lucky cause we’re young, right? And what better way to celebrate that, than by telling us a funny story that happened with an older friend or family member because of a misunderstanding about something probably only young people would get. For example, I have one:

Once, an old grocery store owner thought my tattoo of a serotonin molecule structure was a “rabbit”. Then, I saw that there could sorta be a face somewhere in there, and that’s how the logo of this blog was created. She also thought I had drawn it with a felt pen.

So, Tweet or Instagram a funny photo with a small caption about what happened with someone older, or why you think you’re #LuckyToBeYoung, and the four funniest will win amazing prizes will win two $100 cash prizes, and 2 other techie prizes!

Don’t forget to hasthag #LuckyToBeYoung and mention me @GinoRaidy so I see your entries. And if you wanna make your chances of winning better, head down to ABC Ashrafieh this weekend to be part of the many competitions, entertainment and exclusive movie screenings, for free!

RSVP here!

[Winners will be announced Satruday night! Good luck!]

Keep the Cops Away From Your Money: Use Waze

Firstly, let me start by saying the new traffic law is AMAZING! Truly, it’s well-thought out and a prime example of a modern traffic law in an actual state. Sadly though, Lebanon is not a state, it’s a zoo of corruption, tribalism and sectarianism. The authorities though, must have thought for a second we’re Sweden or something, and actually passed it with its absurdly high fines and ridiculous money-generating clauses for them.

Now, to kick-off, I am in no way against responsible driving. Don’t speed, don’t drink and drive, put your seatbelts on and don’t behave like rabid beasts behind the wheel. My only concern is that those enforcing the law, are the most corrupt, and based on all our experiences, where do the police get the nerve to fine me when they’re the prime breakers of the law, everywhere all the time, and the only response to that is a simple retweet by the TMC Lebanon account, which, though cool that they’re shaming their own, is useless for me and you when we need to go pay the 7,000,000,000 LL fines and two lifetime sentences in prison.

WAZE

Waze is an awesome app I used to use when commuting in LA. It gives you realtime traffic conditions, and suggests the best route to take. It’s been so successful, that Google bought it out. However, Waze is a lot more than that, and apart from the fact it’d help us avoid the notorious traffic, it’l also help us pinpoint accidents to avoid, and most importantly, traffic police money syphoning checkpoints.

Now, remember, Waze is crowd-sourced, so, the more people use it, the better the data. If you see a checkpoint, pinpoint it on the map (as shown below) and let others know. If you’re about to start your commute, make sure you check your route for traffic, accidents and checkpoints. Just like you would text or call your friends to warn them to avoid a massive traffic jam caused by a police checkpoint intended to humiliate you, abuse you and charge you absurd amounts of money for extinguishers and triangles that ministers and MPs probably have the exclusive dealership for. Tfeh.

How to Use Waze

  1. Sign up (you can choose a weird username if you don’t want everyone to know it’s you)
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  2. Choose your username (for example: DontTakeMyMoney)
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  3. Check your route before driving there
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  4. Report something if you see it
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Again, please, this is not to encourage people to break the law. On the contrary, it’s to help ensure the cops stop breaking the law with the widespread corruption and abuse Lebanese taxpayers face. No electricity, shit internet, nose-diving economy, abysmal human rights and a completely failed political system is more than enough trouble we need to face every day. The last thing we need is more crooked cops armed with even more unchecked authority over innocent taxpayers minding their own business.

And, to make the deal a bit sweeter, if the cops fine someone with a powerful wasta or a lot of money, and can prove it to us, then maybe we’ll think about fully cooperating with this law instead of figuring out ways to try and stop the cops from bleeding us dry more than they usually do. Or, perhaps, set up a court (an actual, independent court) where you can challenge the calls that are obviously unfair and just plain bullying.

Here’s to hoping the cops stop drivers actually put themselves and others in danger, not just someone whose license plate fell off, or doesn’t have a first aid kit, or doesn’t buy an extinguisher…

PS: for the people saying we need better infrastructure first, being an asshole driver, driving drunk, going the wrong way, parking where you shouldn’t, has nothing to do with potholes and lights. So, please, don’t justify being a bad driver by blaming the infrastructure. This post is about minimizing the abuse this law will allow the cops to dish out on innocent Lebanese taxpayers, cause the bad guys will probably have a wasta that’ll exempt them from paying anything.

Download Waze for Android here, and for iOS here.

What To Do This Weekend

So, I’m so happy this series is picking up lately! And I’m glad it’s not just clubbing now (even though that will always remain the most important thing)

Friday

Factory Fridays

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This night has been steadily on the rise over the past few months, and the reason is that it’s a welcome change from the usual electronic music menu in town. It’s lighter, happier and caters for the slightly older crowd that is shifting from the overpriced glam rooftops, to the more genuine, music-centered parties. The door policy is rather a strict 24+, and the folks behind the decks are my dear friends PhilVader, Yvel K and Jad H.

RSVP here

Saturday

Lucky to be Young Weekend at ABC Ashrafieh

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If you’re between the ages of 7 and 25, you’re in store for a fun weekend at ABC Achrafieh. The “Lucky To Be Young” campaign is finally drawing to a close, and there’s $20,000 of cash and prizes up for grabs. There will also be free, exclusive movie screenings (like Fast and Furious 7) and plenty of entertainment there for the whole weekend. Also, I’ll be running a special competition for you guys here on the blog for the occasion of the revealer!

RSVP here!

Paint Up! The Rejuvenation

11067869_1099127700114352_7676734262940910157_nY’all know Paint Up! the awesome folks that make our crumbling, historic stairs into renowned masterpieces that sometimes even get international recognition! This Saturday, the guys at Paint Up are teaming with Live Love Beirut and C U NXT SAT to rejuvenate and redesign the iconic Massaad Stairs in Mar Mikhail. We’ve all spent hours sitting on those stairs, or using them to park somewhere without valet, so, come on down and help! It starts at 10:30AM till late in the afternoon, with music by our friends at C U NXT SAT too!

Entrance is free of course, RSVP here along with 1800 other people confirmed already! Can’t wait.

Sanctum Presents: REELOW, Technophile, Jay K, Jool and Moob

11127232_10155349867130447_9059151479153205881_nThis is the it-party of the weekend, and it’s happening at Sporting! Nothing says summer is almost here like a good night spent dancing with the sea breeze and Beirut’s skyline as the backdrop. The night features Reelow for the first time in the Middle East, for Sporting’s first event this season. It also features local sweetheart Technophile, Jay K, Jool and Moob.

RSVP here, and see you all there!

Sunday

Walk A Mile in Her Shoes – Watefront City

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Are you man enough to put some heels on and walk a mile in heels this Sunday? This awesome event makes it first appearance in the region at Waterfront City from 10:00AM till 2:00PM! All proceeds will go to KAFA, in support of gender equality in Lebanon. If you still haven’t registered, it’s not too late, and what the hell are you waiting for? Go to the website here, and see you all on Sunday morning!

RSVP here!

Audio Kulture presents: Still Here, Still Bleeding

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Are you ready for another awesome car-free day in Beirut? Well, this time it’s for an amazing cause. Audio Kultur and Achrafieh 2020 are coming together to close down Armenia Street (Mar Mikhael) to celebrate the vast contribution Armenian culture has had on Lebanese society and culture. Stages everywhere, lots of entertainment and most importantly, lots of happy people enjoying the street we all love, minus the annoying valets and the choking traffic. Don’t forget to donate blood with DSC Lebanon after you have some food, and before you drink some booze!

RSVP here!

7 English Names of Food You Just Know in Lebanese

Sometimes, when you’re trying to remember the name of something we eat in Lebanon in English, it’s kinda hard. Ashta, Janerek, Borghol are the worst for me, and I could never guess. I saw a post on the /r/Lebanon asking what the name of janerek is, and when I read the answer by @practo, I was like, “nice!” and thought I’d Google a few more things I always wondered about.

1- Janerek/Janarank = Sour Green Plums

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2- Ashta = Sugar Apple

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3- Foul = Broad Beans

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4- Borghol = Crushed Wheat

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5- Qronfol = Cloves

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6-  Akidene = Loquat

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7- Kezbara = Coriander

(mentioned this mainly because I know several people with allergies to this)

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What To Do This Weekend

Thursday

Beirut Jam Sessions: We Are Match – WonderGaap – PhilVader

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Beirut Jam Sessions always host intimate nights that cater for folks with a musical palate that’s a bit more demanding than the usual lineups. Tonight, at The Grand Factory, they’re getting We Are Match all the way from France, WonderGaap, an up and coming Lebanese band, and PhilVader to wrap the evening up with a DJ set.

RSVP here, and see you all there!

Friday

Hunter/Game and Ziad Ghosn for B018’s 21st Anniversary

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21 years… It’s been that long, can you imagine? I’ve been going there for the better part of a decade now, and I still can’t get enough. B018 is an icon in Lebanese clubbing, and this Friday, it’s the usual awesomeness of Ziad Ghosn, with Hunter/Game flying in from Milan to celebrate with all of us. Get your stomping shoes ready.

RSVP here

Saturday

Green Your Lunch with Beirut Green Project

Green spaces are disappearing, and we need to do something about that. This Saturday, starting 2:30PM, we’re gonna be in the park in Horsh Tabet having a picnic, so get your basket and smiles and meet us there. At 4:30PM, there’s going to be a free 90 minute yoga session too, so get your mats as well!

RSVP here and see you all there!

A Music MARCH Towards Freedom

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Huvelin and Monot streets will be pedestrian-only this weekend to celebrate USJ’s 140th anniversayr, and on Saturday night, Odyssey are hosting an event whose proceeds will go to help MARCH in the work they do. Come together in two of Beirut’s nicest streets, car-free and free entrance! The lineup includes YVEL K and ALIAS, so you know the music is gonna be awesome and vibes are going to be insane.

RSVP here

Psylienz: Do You Even Psy?

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It’s been so long that I haven’t been to a decent Psy party, so this Saturday, starting 9:00PM, there’s going to be 15 hours of that at Utopia beach. If you love Psy, or feel like trying something new: a branch of electronic music that’s different from what you listen to at club, then why not head down to the beach in Damour this Saturday?!

RSVP here

Sunday

D K M V: Into the Light with Matthew Dekay at Bar National

11119964_1600396576870712_2023141910156096201_nIt starts early, at 4:00PM and the headliner is the awesome Matthew Dekay, supported by local talents we all adore like Technophile, Codeface and Mystere. It’s on the lovely rooftop of Bar National overlooking the Jounieh Bay, and a daytime party on Sunday, which I absolutely adore but rarely see in Lebanon!

So, Sunday, finish up your family lunches and head down to Bar National for an awesome afternoon, sunset and party into the night!

RSVP here

Stop Drinking and Driving: Call A Cab

Excuses are awesome. In Lebanon, we have a handful of excuses that work for almost everything. If you look at the political realm, the two main camps in Lebanon both have extremely convenient excuses for their failure to do anything meaningful, and their prowess at being corrupt criminals. March 14 always use the excuse “Hezbollah has arms” and March 8 always use the excuse “Israel!” and now more recently “Saudi!”.

If you zoom in a little bit, to the average citizen, and it’s always “7a2 3al zo3ama” and “wayniyye el dawle?”. Both those arguments are pretty valid, because the war chieftains those same people blame (and usually worship and kiss their ass), are all horrible, all of them, and the government’s institutions are just vacuum cleaners for our tax liras.

But, that doesn’t really hold up when it comes to many things in Lebanon, such as driving. Our police are useless. In fact, they’re worse than useless, they’re a menace for our streets. Often, the biggest perpetrators of traffic crimes are traffic cops themselves, as is well documented. The new traffic law, is a joke, aimed at inflating the government’s coffers, which somehow, are always getting emptied out into the pockets of those in power.

All that though, doesn’t explain why Lebanese people drive like assholes. Lanes don’t exist. Speed limits are just artful decorations. The only reason they put the seatbelt on is because their car will keep beeping till they do, and often they just buckle it behind their back. Wrong way signs are just colorful Christmas decorations. And the list goes on and on and on. Is it the government’s fault? Sure, partly, for not properly enforcing the law. But, it’s also the people’s. If the only reason you don’t behave like an asshole is because you’re afraid of paying a fine, you’re still an asshole, and no absurd traffic law will ever fix that.

I club every single weekend. I go home every Sunday morning, and my ritual has become counting how many accidents on the way back, and what alternate routes to take when those roads get closed cause first responders take forever to open the highway, and because everyone else wants to stop and look if there’s blood and gore to tweet a photo to YASA or whatever other account that specializes in tweeting mutilated bodies of victims.

The government sucks. The law is bad. Other drivers are insane. So, what? You do nothing about it? Maybe, but that’s what we’ve been doing, and it isn’t really working. Almost a thousand people die every year from traffic related accidents and injuries. That’s more than all the explosions and clashes combined.

Would it be so hard to take a cab home? Or choose a designated driver that doesn’t get wasted and makes sure you all arrive home in one piece? The excuses for not calling a cab don’t hold up anymore. For one, you’d be not paying the fucking valet pieces of shit. For two, you wouldn’t be paying 7,000 LBP for parking in Mar Mikhael. For three, you’d spare us the posters of “lan nansak” with the worst photo of you ever taken. And lastly, you’d spare those that love you a lot of pain, and the loved ones of the people you might hurt too.

This isn’t an ad for Uber, and you don’t have to use that if you don’t want to. I do cause it’s convenient. I order it, and when the car is outside, I go out, no need for phone calls and directions. Sometimes, I take a service. Other times, the promoters do a deal with a taxi company to make sure you can come and leave the event with a responsible driver that isn’t inebriated or tired, like Uber has been doing with several promoters. And here, I want to urge promoters to train their staff to notice if someone is too drunk, and offer them a cab for free. The problem isn’t the price though, because if you consider the fuel you consume, the valet or parking you pay, it’s probably more than a basic cab fare within Beirut and not much more than going to the areas surrounding Beirut.

So, please, stop dying on the roads at night. Go home by cab.

Also, this weekend, April 17 and 18, from 10PM to 6AM, enter the promocode: NO2DRINKDRIVING and you’re Uber ride will be for just ONE dollar. No excuses. And if you wanna get 10$ off your ride at any time, use my code PRNIB, and we’ll both get 10$ off a ride.

So, Haifa Just Dropped This English Music Video

When my sister sent me the link via YouTube to a VEVO channel for Haifa Wehbe, I was like, wuuuuuuuut?! The full video on here VEVO channel seems to have disappeared though while I was writing this post. Luckily, I did find the full one again posted by someone else (embedded above).

To be very honest, I’m not a fan of Haifa’s music. I love her on Twitter, and remember seeing her around when I was younger. Of course, there’s also “Baba Fen”, which is part of our pop culture now, and it’s hard to anyone to say “Allo!” without someone replying “Baba fen?” and a third saying “hena ho, 2ollo meen”. Now, that song is basically a kid’s song, but super sexually suggestive too, in traditional Haifa style.

[EDIT: My apologies, it seems the “Baba Fen” I’m talking about isn’t Haifa’s, but Lama Chams’, and Haifa just sang it. Again, apologies, my fault!]

This track wasn’t mind-blowing to be honest, but I am impressed with the production, especially the space, Interstellar-like sequences (which I didn’t get, but still). Apparently, this was a collab with JLo (according to the YouTube description of the OP), and the description also says we should expect to hear folks like Kelly Rowland on it too.

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Her fans seem to like it, but other are bashing her and asking her to stick to Arabic. I think it’s cool she’s trying her luck out with an English music video. We often tend to forget, but folks like Haifa and Elissa are mega-stars in their own right, with millions of fans around the Arab world, so, it’s only normal for them to try to make it on the international scene too: they have the money, and the star power to.

Haifa’s new single will definitely not be on my playlist, but I still think it’s awesome that she’s come up with such a well-made video which is not only a plastic-surgery-saturated woman rubbing her body and singing with an Egyptian dialect, but just a bit more. At least it’s better than that time they all suddenly thought it was a good idea to make Trance songs a couple years back…

What did you guys think?

Zaatari Refugee Camp: 24H Power, Bridal Gowns, Zlatan and Taekwondo

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I’ve been wanting to visit the Zaatari Camp in the northern part of Jordan for 2 years now. Mostly, I wanted to see how refugee camps were doing versus the haphazard refugee policy in Lebanon. However, I also wanted to see what the refugees there felt like, more than 4 years into the conflict. Below, you will find short stories about the different refugees, families, shop keepers and aid workers I got to sit down with on that field mission with the WFP.

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Sawsan and Zlatan

Our first stop was to Sawsan’s family. Sawsan is a 12-year-old shy girl and daughter of a football coach. She adores playing football, and is quite good at it. She was selected by the WFP (UN’s World Food Programme) as one of 50 kids from around the world who were under threat of hunger because of war, natural disasters and/or poverty. These 50 names were tattooed (not permanent) all over PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s body. During a league game, Zlatan scored the first goal, and took his shirt off to show all the new names of children from around the world, urging his fans to think of them when they think of him, and the 805 million other people at risk of going hungry around the world.

Sawsan had no idea about that campaign, and I was embedded with the WFP team when we sat down with her family in their caravan decorated with whistles and stopwatches her dad uses to referee games. We opened the laptop, connected it to my infamous portable speaker, and sat silent as Sawsan and her father watched the campaign video, and Joelle translated in real-time. The look on Sawsan’s face was priceless, and even though she tried to keep her composure in front of her guests, she couldn’t hold back how happy she was, and how grateful she felt toward Zlatan, who in her words: “gave from his heart and left nothing for himself.”

Here’s the WFP campaign with Zlatan below:

Abou Khaled, The Expat Refugee

Abou Khaled is an artist and calligraphy specialist who works in Kuwait. He is originally from Daraa in Soouthern Syria. He arranged for his family to move with him to Kuwait, but the fighting was too intense for them to flee their native Daraa, and the notoriously difficult Kuwaiti residency permits for his family expired before he could get them out. Eventually, they were able to escape Daraa and seek refuge in Jordan. Sadly, he is still unable to move them to Kuwait, and so, visits them every few months in the caravans they joined together and decorated with his calligraphy and murals.

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Here, I started sensing the air of normalcy in the camp. It was like a city where a family lived, and one of its members was an expat in the Gulf, like so many Lebanese and Syrians, and comes and visits every now and then. The temporariness of the situation, suddenly didn’t seem so transient, and these caravans started to feel, and look, like home for these refugees.

Bridal Gowns Galore

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The main avenue in the 80,000 plus refugee camp is dubbed the “Champs Elysees”. On that avenue, I spotted two shops that specialize in bridal gowns and accessories. We went into one, and a young woman was already fitting her dress for her upcoming wedding. One aspect about being a refugee that people might not grasp, is why anyone would want to get married and have children in conditions that are far from ideal. The young woman, bashful, said “life needs to go on. We’re not sure when we’re going to be back in Syria. We want to, but for now, our lives need to continue, even if it’s here.”

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After we met this young, happy bride, a UNHCR rep told me that they’ve seen an increase in women seeking advice from women’s health clinics in the camp. They now feel more comfortable discussing planned parenthood and healthy pregnancies for expecting women. So, it is definitely a lot better than what I saw in the makeshift camps in the Aarsal hinterlands, where women with severe UTIs were unable to get pregnant, and were afraid their husbands would leave them because of that. So, I was happy that wasn’t the case in Zaatari, and that young moms were getting the care and advice they need to raise a child in Zaatari.

Jewelry and Franchises

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Another feature I found odd, was jewelry stores and franchised restaurant chains on the Champs. You wouldn’t expect luxury goods stores springing up in a refugee camp, but, in keeping with the spirit of that young bride, “life must go on” and the 80,000 residents in the camp can gift their newly-wed friends a piece of jewlry now without having to venture out of the camp. Again, the feeling was that the temporariness of the situation, had faded away somehow and Syrian refugees were now investing more resources and effort in their abodes and lives here, instead of just barely surviving as they wait for the guns to silence so they can go back home to rebuild what’s left of their cities and neighborhoods.

Taekwondo is quite a big thing in Zaatari

South Korea sent several teams to Zaatari to teach Taekwondo. The Korean martial art has become extremely popular at the camp, and you can see groups of young Syrians in taekwondo uniforms and yellow and blue belts tied across their waists walking around the caravans. Batoul told me that you see the younger kids more disciplined now, and instead of holding sticks and pretending they’re assault rifles during playtime in what little shade is available, they now practice their taekwondo moves. They’ve also become a lot more disciplined and punctual and given the horrendously violent clashes that used to erupt in the camp, both between the refugees themselves and attacks on aid workers, the overall atmosphere has changed dramatically for the better.

Taekwondo lessons are probably partly to thank, but that same sense of normalcy I talked about earlier, where the camp is no longer a matter of days or weeks, but maybe many months and years, is also a main reason the camp has become so docile and life is as close to a normal life as possible.

One touching story was of a Korean taekwondo instructor who fell in love with a Syrian refugee, and they ended up getting married, and he now lives with her in the camp where he continues to teach taekwondo at the academy there.

Reflecting on the Visit

Jordan has done a far better job of handling its refugee crisis than Lebanon, and life there is in some aspects better than life in Lebanon. For one, they have 24h electricity, something that somehow still isn’t a thing in 21st century Lebanon. For two, they’re a lot more optimistic about their future. Perhaps because many of them hit rock-bottom because of the conflict in Syria, and that it can only get better from there.

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The first thing I noticed, is that refugees here feel much safer. In Lebanon, it’s almost impossible to get an adult to agree to let us take a photo or record an interview. They’re always worried that the information might get into the wrong hands, and hinder their eventual return to Syria. That’s why most of the photos I publish are of kids, who don’t mind being photographed and aren’t as afraid as their parents of who might see these photos. In Zaatari, everyone was very welcoming and helpful and didn’t mind answering my questions, even when they were a bit personal. You’d feel at ease, something that took some adjusting to.

Another aspect, which is a double-edged sword, is that people feel a bit at home there now. Like the expat father who comes and visits from Kuwait, the brides lining up to get fitted for their bridal gowns, the jewelry and TV repair shops, even a fountain built in the courtyard of 4 caravans joined together to form a bigger housing complex for related families instead of just the one caravan. There was a football tournament scheduled too, with 16 teams from the camp participating in it. Now, at first glance, it’s comforting to see that the refugees have been able to assimilate to life in Zaatari. However, it also kindles fears in the hearts of host communities that the refugees might never leave, and that is a very real concern in Lebanon.

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To that, I say, there’s no place like home. Just like so many of us leave Lebanon in search of a better life, deep down, we all hope we’ll come back one day and make something of ourselves in Lebanon. That’s the sentiment you get from many refugees. They want to go home, but they’ve also taken a more pragmatic stance about their current situation, and acknowledge that life cannot pause while they wait for the situation to get better.

All in all, my visit to Zaatari camp was very eye-opening. It was a demonstration of how to properly and humanely handle the greatest refugee crisis of our lifetimes. It was also a powerful reminder of how resilient and indomitable the Syrian people are. A people that has suffered unspeakable tragedies while the world watches. It also was proof that not everyone around the world is sitting cross-armed, but that aid NGOs and individuals from places as far as Japan and Korea, are answering the plea for help above and beyond what they can or the resources allocated to them.

Here’s to hoping this will be that last year for people in Zaatari, and that the next post I write will be from a new, prosperous Syria rebuilding itself after the hell they’ve been through the past 4 years.

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I’d like to thank Joelle, Munir, Samy, Batool and everyone who helped me with this story. You guys do amazing work, the unsung heroes who restore hope in hopeless people’s hearts and find normalcy in a extremely abnormal situation.