Easing Two Country’s Tension with a Song!

Between the summer of 2009 and early 2010 Egypt and Lebanon made many headlines. Tensions were high starting in the summer of 2009 when Hezbollah members were arrested and tried in Egypt for supposed spying and terrorist attacks plotting on resorts often frequented by Israelis.

The tensions kept rising and in early 2010, at the height of the blockade on Gaza, stone-throwing demonstrators made their way to the Egyptian embassy in Beirut to voice their anger against claims that Egypt began to build a deep metal wall along its border. Reports claimed that when it is finished the wall will be 10-11km long and will extend 18 metres below the surface.

It is worth mentioning that after the Egyptian Revolution earlier this year, the Rafah Crossing Border has been reopened after pressure was placed on the interim military government in Egypt by the Egyptian people.

As art is often used to defuse emotional tension and create peace in it’s own way, this song was released in the summer of 2010. I have loved listening to this song during my stay here in Lebanon.

The song is between an Egyptian woman and a Lebanese man. They both are singing about cultural and historical monuments and places in their respective countries and at the end they both confess their love and appreciation to each other and the country’s they both come from.

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Working out = Our life is so much more fun!

This past Sunday after a 2 days of a good amount of going out and partying Beiruti-style, I was able to miraculously wake up at 7:00 a.m. and get myself to Martyr Square for to meet up with a group of folks to go hiking in the south, in Hasbaya.

On our way on the bus we stopped to take a look at Qala’at ash-Shqif Castle/Beaufort Castle, which is a historical castle from the 12th century that was used by Israelis and Hezbollah for military lookout over the past decades. There are now federal plans to renovate it and open it to the public.

Qala'at ash-Shqif Castle/Beaufort Castle is a historical castle from the 12th century that was used by Israelis and Hezbollah for military lookout

We started our  6-hour hike by walking through the narrow alleys and streets of Hasbaya, a predominantly Druze town in the South of Lebanon. Older and more traditional Druze men, often referred to as the ‘Uqqal (the Knowledgable Initiates) wear baggy black pants that are tight at the ankles.

Druze man in traditional clothing in Hasbaya

The trail overlooked large portions of the UNIFIL line (also referred to as the Blue Line), beautiful mountainous scenery and large amounts of crops and trees of all sorts of seasonal fruits. Our guide helped us pick at trees along the way to try the different seasonal fruits that were all over the trail.

Views of South Lebanon from Hasbaya

After completing our 6-hour hike we stopped at a local Restaurant/Bar in Hasbaya where we all had little snacks and refreshments after the long hike. Shortly after everyone enjoyed a short rest Nadine, the hike organizer, and Wael, the hike guide, started a small Debke party with quick lessons. I’m in love with the Debke and wish I knew all the steps better, but I’m determined to keep taking advantage of joining in on the fun anytime Debke breaks out in my presence.

Quick Debke Lesson after 10km hike

If I had to pick the highlight of the day it must have been our very last stop. We stopped in Kfar Kila‘s Fatima Gate, a border town to check out the border between Lebanon and Israel. Before getting there I didn’t really have an idea of what the border town would look like. Never in my dreams though did I imagine it to be what I saw. The border is essentially a fence with a space the size of a one-way road sandwiched by another fence on the other side. On the Lebanese side, the municipality has completely renovated the border town and built a fun and cool promenade along the fence that is decorated with various exercise machines. When I asked Nadine why that particular theme for a border town, she said “We are trying to show that we are having a great time over here on this side. We can easily see Israeli settlements from right here, which saddens us. But we’re sending a message: Life is great on this side!”

Kathy showing her active skills at the border

One of my co-workers at Al Majmoua is from  Kfar Kila and he told me that the historical urban legend on why the gate is called the Fatima is gate is because one day long ago a young woman was walking home and she was attacked by a snake. She immediately started yelling for her sister, Fatima, who quickly came to help her sister and was able to kill the snake and save here sister. No one knows how true this is, but the gate is named after a strong local woman who saved her sister.

My “I Support Gay Marriage” Sticker in Lebanon

There’s a sticker on my laptop that reads: “I Support Gay Marriage“! I obviously brought my laptop with me here to Beirut; was that a conscious decision? Not quite – this is a sticker that I have had on my laptop for a couple of years now. My friend (a straight female friend) gave it to me at work one day.

Yes, I do support gay marriage! But who talks about gay rights in the Middle East?! To many people’s surprise, Beirut actually has a fairly active and strong LGBTQ scene. There’s a vibrant gay scene community with local clubs serving both gays and lesbians, such as Bardo and Ob La Di. Also, there are some really great local activists and groups (Helem & Meem) who are doing a ton of work on the matter, but I’m not here to talk about gays rights. However, whether I choose to or not my little sticker opens up the subject with anyone who sees it.

The first time I think the first person who saw and commented on the sticker in Lebanon was a good friend of mine. He simply looked at me gave me the thumps-up and said “I do too!” I wasn’t really surprised; he’s a social liberal. It was only a few days later that a friend of his saw the sticker and said: “Hmm…I’m OK with gays, but I don’t think they should be married and have children.” When I asked him why he thought so; he simply said “It’s not natural. A child needs a mother and father.” So, I immediately came back at him with the “what-about-people-with-single-parent” argument. He smiled and said “that’s different” and we were called to join the others for lunch and the conversation simply ended.

At the office at Al Majmoua with my gay sticker

Out of all these conversations, I think comments I have received at work have been the most interesting. One of the first interactions I had with one of the IT guys involved a short, but certainly awkward exchange about my sticker. He simply looked at it, pointed and said “I support gay marriage! Hmm…that’s weird.” I immediately looked at him and said “How is that weird?” The second I reacted I knew that this was very sensitive territory to be entering in my new workplace in Beirut.

Just a few days ago, a former employee came by the office and she was sitting near my desk. She looked at my laptop, looked at me, and looked at my laptop again. Then she turned around and started talking to two male colleagues who were standing nearby “Hey! Hey! Look she supports gay marriage you two can be official now.” Her tone was extremely sarcastic! The two guys laughed it off and I certainly got some attention from other employees who were in the area.

In most of these situations I’m not doing or saying anything, other than potentially provoking thought. I’m thinking even if people think I’m crazy for believing in or supporting such a cause it is still something they see everyday when they interact with me or come say hello to me at my desk.

Times of Confusion: Pro-Assad Demonstration

I just got back from a short walk to Hamra. Something looked odd when I crossed the main road I usually walk on to get to Hamra Street. It was blocked by the Lebanese Army – no cars were allowed. As I crossed over and continued walking down the street – it became clear from far away: this was a protest!

All the commotion was too far away from me to really see or hear anything; only thing I could make up is that there were masses of people. As I got closer I started hearing bits and pieces of chants that included “Bashar”. I smiled hoping that this was Pro-Syrian Uprising / Anti-Assad protest; hoping they were saying something like “Down Down with Bashar!” As I got closer, the exact opposite of my hopes was exactly taking place. This was a full-on Pro-Assad/Pro-Syrian Regime demonstration. Protestors had signs, flags and pictures of both the current Al-Assad and the late Hafiz Al-Assad.

Car displaying Bashar Al-Assad Photo on Hamra St.

As I stood there watching in complete awe hundreds of people chanting, I caught a truck that was part of the demonstration that was displaying both the Hezbollah’s flag alongside the Syrian flag. This is particularly timely for me as I just finished reading this article about Hezbollah’s Nasrallah’s hypocritical stance with the Syrian regime during the people’s uprising. A complete 180° turn from his outspoken support for the uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain.

Fairuz in the Morning

Fairuz is a national living symbol in Lebanon which sparks Lebanese pride wherever and whenever heard. Growing up in Cairo with my mother and two sisters, I recall Fairuz playing across the house when we returned home from school. One year in the early 1990’s my mom and sisters told me that they had a dentist appointment to go to and since I had school the next morning that I was not to go with them and stay home with the babysitter – I still remember thinking they were dressed too nice for the dentist but I complied with the instructions as any 8-year old would do. Years later I came to find out that they went to see Fairuz in concert in Cairo.

I was able to see her a decade later in Los Angeles and I remember crying when she sang “Zorouni” (Translation: Visit Me, a powerful song that is sure to pull on any expatriate’s heart strings far away from their home. 

Fairuz’s short, sweet and authentically Lebanese tunes speak of everyday life: the mountains, drunken neighbors, and most importantly a unified Lebanon and sad stories of the war. I was surprised to learn that her music is for the most part strictly listened to in the morning amongst the Lebanese people while they’re getting ready to start their day. While flipping through the radio one morning on my drive to work I found several local channels playing Fairuz.

One of Fairuz’s great contributions to the music society is her son Ziad Rahbani, who I should probably write a whole separate post on.

Great NPR report on Fairuz.

Marketing the Egyptian Revolution

I decided to go on a last minute trip to Egypt to attend one of my childhood friend’s wedding. I bought my ticket on Tuesday night and flew out Wednesday morning to attend the wedding that evening.

Last time I was in Egypt was in February during the revolution and the fall of Mubarak. So, as soon as the plane landed in Cairo – I was eager to see what the country is like now that it’s been 5 months since the fall of the old regime. The first sign of post-revolution change I saw was an ad for Mobinil using the Youth Revolution to advertise its service.

Mobinil Ad: "We must raise our children to grow up like the Egyptian Youth" - Barak Obama, US President

An Ad Age Global article explores all the different ways Egyptian marketeers are using the revolution to market their products and services. Later that day, I saw an ad for butter that used the revolution in their marketing slogans. Although this could have a positive impact on responsible consumerism, since all companies are trying to focus on the positive values and characteristics of the Egyptian Revolution – I still think this could easily turn into a case of Pink Washing of the revolution.

On a more uplifting and personal note, I was so happy to be back in Cairo to attend my friends’ Menna-and-Ali’s wedding on Wednesday.

Loza, Sherif, Sakr and I at Menna & Ali's Wedding

And I was so happy to top off my quick trip to Egypt by a quick visit to the Mediterranean North Coast.

Mediterranean North Coast, Rowad

Lebanese Southern Nature

Welcome to Jezzine! A beautiful mountainous town in the South of Lebanon and where my dear friend and Lebanese guide, Edy, is from.

Last weekend we came over for the weekend with Edy’s friends, Joe and Marc, and it was wonderful. We spent Saturday evening at the local bar, Coin Rouge, and woke up the next morning to beautifully sunny day.

Gardening in Jezzine

Edy’s mother needed some help in the garden so we all jumped in to help.It was one of the first times I have gardened in a long time and I really loved it. Working with one’s hands is such a rewarding feeling. I have always thought about participating in WWOOF, but the idea of gardening all the time always scared and held me back. But now that I have given it a try – I’d love to get more into gardening and learning more about it.

This weekend Edy and I returned to Jezzine to a much needed getaway from the city. When we arrived late last night, we decided to go for a hike in the morning. We both were interested in visiting Sur (one of the very few places in Lebanon with an accessible and clean public beach) but due to the planned  The Return To Palestine March we decided that it was best to stay in Jezzine, because security was going to be really tight.

In the morning, Edy drove us about 2-3 miles away from his family’s home up the mountains. We parked the car and started hiking. The geographical diversity that one can find in Lebanon is fascinating. The mountains, the sea, the cedars, etc. We started hiking and  it was very different from the hikes I have been on in the U.S. or Europe – there were no trails, we came across shepherds with their flocks of sheep, and the grass was so high at some points it reached my waist. However, the most shocking and unique part of this hike was coming across empty shells (as in explosive shells). Jezzine was a witness to a lot of the violence during the 1982 Lebanon War because of its strategic geographical location in proximity to the Israeli border.

Old explosive shell on the hike in Jezzine

The hike was wonderful and I had never seen Za’atar before the drying and mixing process. Edy made me taste it straight from the ground and we started to pick some in a small bag he had.

Edy picking Za'atar

I would love to go back and hike in those mountains. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore this country’s amazing geography.

In Lebanese Nature

Local News: A Liberal Look at NGOs in Lebanon

البنك الدولي وUSAID وUNDP: فساد وتجميع معلومات! | الأخبار. (Arabic)

An interesting article by Al-Akhbar, Lebanese Newspaper, taking a look at non-governmental organizations’ presence in Lebanon.

Some interesting facts and figures from the article:

  • For every 550 Lebanese citizens, there’s 1 NGO
  • Between 2006-2010 hundreds of new NGOs have been registered with a whopping 884 organizations between 2008 and 2009
  • Christian religious organizations & associations are not registered with the Ministry of Interior  (in accordance to the French Mandate) – these organizations are estimated to be in the hundreds

The Apartment Hunt

Beirut is a beautiful city by the sea; however, it’s tiny, congested and extremely expensive. So, it’s easy to say that my apartment/housing hunt has been a little difficult!

Lebanon is quite expensive by Middle Eastern and Developing World standards and one of the most expensive things about living in Beirut, specifically, is lodging. Lodging in and around Hamra (the AUB and LAU neighborhood) can be as expensive as living in metropolitan cities of the US.

As I mentioned before Al Majmoua is located on Spears Street near Sanayeh. So, ideally I started looking for places (in order of preference) in Hamra, Sanyeh, Ashrafiyeh, and Gimmayze:

Hamra: the surrounding neighborhood of AUB. It’s lively and full of cafes, bars, restaurants and shops. Most people you see on the street are students and foreigners. It’s also considered to be part of the “old” West Beirut, which was a Muslim/Leftist part during the Civil War.

Beirut Map with (my) areas of interest highlighted

Sanayeh: the closest location to my office. It’s also the home of the Sanayeh Gardens/Park where most of the anti-sectarian protests and camping out has been taking place. It’s walking distance from the center of Hamra and Downtown.

Ashrafieyh: a traditionally Christian neighborhood and part of the old “East Beirut”. Mostly residential with quite a happening bar/pub area referred to as Monot.

Gimmayze: a beautiful old part of Beirut full of narrow streets and historic buildings from the French era. Historically, considered the bohemian/artistic part of town with a lively bar/pub scene. Today it has become a poshy pub and bar hopping scene.

I have pretty much toured all of these areas and searched wide and far for an apartment to rent, but after my wide and long search a San Francisco friend-of-a-friend connection is what has landed me my future home for at least the next month. I will be moving into Zico House, which I think can be best described as cultural communal house with cultural and artistic programs, artists residency and a safe space for various associations.

A list of helpful sources when looking for housing in Beirut:

Hello, I’m with Kiva!

I think for any Kiva Fellow the most exciting thing about this opportunity is to meet the borrowers. It’s the desire that we all come into this fellowship needing to satisfy: the need to see, first hand, how this whole thing from borrower in the field to loan analyst in a branch to an MFI’s headquarters to a database to an online systen to a website to a lender that lends $25.00 on Kiva…and the whole cycle begins on the ground with the borrower!

So, you can only imagine how excited I was today about my very first field visit and to add to all the excitement I wasn’t just going to go visit any territory – I was going to Sabra and Shatila (or Wikipedia) Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Sabra and Shatila are Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon that have witnessed a horrific massacre during the Lebanese Civil war at the hands of Christian Lebanese Phalangists while the camp was surrounded by the Israeli Armed Forces. During the Lebanese war, the Israeli Armed Forces was at war with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon.

Ismail, Al Majmoua Beirut Branch Loan Analyst and my wonderful guide

I arrived at Al Majmoua’s Beirut branch at 10 a.m. this morning. After spending an hour chatting and learning about the branch operations and procedures with Diana, the branch manager, I was introduced to Ismail, an Al Majmoua Loan Analyst. He was going to be my guide for the day. The plan was to go meet 2 new borrowers and check on a couple of existing Kiva borrowers. I had been carefully asked and semi-warned the day before by Nadine that I will be joining Ismail on his scooter or as the Lebanese call it “Motto”. Ismail’s “motto” is probably the easiest and most efficient way to zoom through Beirut’s crazy traffic.

First stop was a new female borrower, Nadia, who alters and tailors clothes out of her apartment on her manual sewing machine. She wants to take a loan from Al Majmoua to buy wholesale fabric. We arrived at her neighborhood in Tarik Al Jadida and were promptly invited up the narrow stairs to her apartment. She welcomed us in and started chatting with us about how she came to know of Al Majmoua. Word-of-Mouth seems to be Al Majmoua’s strongest and most effective marketing tool. Nadia’s sister-in-law is on her 3rd cycle with Al Majmoua.

Watching Ismail conduct the interview and fill out the application process was fascinating. Micro-finance core strengths is that it relies heavily on the reputation of the borrower in his/her community. Ismail was very clear about asking Nadia what amount of money she will be comfortable paying per month in order to figure out her financial standing and which loan would be best for her situation.

Most micro-finance borrowers in Lebanon have little or no financial recording system of their business. For that reason the Al Majmoua application asks the borrower many questions about their current and past financial standing, trying to loosely draw a picture of their business and their needs.

Sabra's main street

Ismail and I left Nadia’s home and continued on with our visits next stop: Sabra and Shatila. Al Majmoua offers loans to non-Lebanese citizens, any residents with legal standing are eligible for Al Majmoua’s loans. Therefore, they have a large presence in Palestinian refugee camps all over Lebanon.

In Sabra, we passed by several Kiva borrowers: a father and son Al Majmoua borrowers. An electronics shop owner, who’s been with Kiva for more than 5 years, a stationary supplies business owner, and finally we met with Abd. Abd has been with Al Majmoua for more than 9 years; he recently took out his 11th loan from Al Majmoua. He was so happy to see us and offered us snacks the minute we arrived at his falafel stand.

I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the world of micro-finance in Lebanon. Ismail, who I should probably write a whole separate blog post about, was a wonderful guide. I’m looking forward to more field visits and borrower interactions!