Blog Archives

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.

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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.

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

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!

Ahlein be Libnan!

Ahla! Ahla! Ahla!” which roughly translates to “Hello! Hello! Hello!” is the first greeting I received when I landed in the Beirut International Airport a little after midnight on Thursday from my friend Edy.

I met Edy last winter when I came to Lebanon to meet up with my best friend, Nora. Nora and Edy met while studying in Brussels a couple of years ago. And Edy moved back to Lebanon after finishing his studies. He’s from Jezzine a beautiful mountainous town in South Lebanon, but he know spends most of his time in Beirut working as a researcher and part-time professor. He’s going to be my host until I find a place in Beirut closer to my work.

My flight was delayed and I was a bit tired so we went to Edy’s apartment in Bikfaya. The next morning Edy dropped me off in Hamra, where I did some major walking and exploring of the area. I love the Hamra vibe; it’s very busy and loud. It’s a college town, being close to AUB, mixed with an artsy scene. There are little alleys and side streets filled with cafes, pubs, and restaurants. There’s also a lot of street art, which is something I’m instantly attracted to. Stenciling is very popular here and a lot of the messages right now seem to be political.

Street Art in Hamra, Beirut

Lebanon has a long history of sectarian violence and wars. And walking the streets of Beirut one cannot escape it. There are standing buildings with bullet holes all over them from the recent wars. Despite the tragic recent history and current anti-sectarian movement, the Lebanese people seem to have a resilience and a determination that is hard to miss in casual interactions.

On Friday night, Edy, some of his friends and I went to get drinks at a pub in Ashrafiyeh I visited the last time I was here called Hole in the Wall for welcoming drinks.

Welcome to Lebanon KF15, Hole in the Wall

I am certain the folks at Hole in the Wall will be seeing a lot of me this summer!

Welcome to Al Majmoua!

As I mentioned previously, I will be working as a Kiva Fellow at Al Majmoua. Today was my first day in the office! I arrived a litter after 9:00 a.m. and after attempting to find the office building myself (Lebanon lacks a proper address system this is in huge part to the Civil War and the country’s constant rebuilding efforts for the past 2-3 decades). I called Alia, the Business Development Manager and HR Manager at Al Majmoua. Alia came and picked me up from the around the corner – I was literally a 100 ft. away from the office, but had no idea.

She walked me into the office and promptly started introducing me to everyone, about 30 people in the office (I’m so happy they didn’t quiz me on names and departments). After the quick office tour, we sat down for a chat in her office. She walked me through Al Majmoua’s history, their current portfolio, the Lebanese micro-finance industry and finally we talked about ME! We talked about the Kiva projects I am going to be working on and how much time I will get to spend in the field meeting borrowers.

Al Majmoua started in 1994 as a Save the Children funded project. Three years later, it became became a locally licensed NGO serving 3000 female clients with group loans. In 2000, Al Majmoua created it’s first Individual Loan product and started serving men. And 6 years later in 2006, Al Majmoua started its non-financial services providing vocational and financial training to both borrowers and non-borrowers.

Al Majmoua’s competition in Lebanon is growing everyday and although they have a healthy market share; they have to stay innovative and client-focused to stay ahead.

Al Majmoua’s office atmosphere is a world away from what I’m used to back at the Google Campus in Mountain View. There is no gym, foosball table or most importantly free food…there’s also a strict internet browsing policy, a schedule and someone who serves everyone tea and coffee, but here there seems to be something else here as well…a family! People like Alia and Nadine have been with Al Majmoua for more than 8 or 9 years. Nadine (Al Majmoua’s Kiva Coordinator) has done everything from being Loan Analyst out on the ground, to internal auditing and now handling Kiva loans in addition to her duties as a R&D Assistant. There’s a sense of community here that is unique; people greet each other every morning and every evening. Instead of emailing or calling one another, people walk over to each other’s desks. Someone told me earlier that “Everyone in Al Majmoua behaves as if it’s their home!”

And I’m happy to hear that their home will also be mine for the next coupe of months.