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Poland…not Holland!

Yes, I have made yet another big move! This is probably one of my biggest and randomest thus far! I have moved to Warsaw, Poland.

Old Town Warsaw, which was rebuilt after the war in the 1950s replicating the former city plans.

I accepted a job with TechSoup Global as their Sr. Manager of International Partnerships, EMEA (Europe, Africa and the Middle East…and yes only Americans would come up with such acronyms that lump random parts of the world together!). The reason TechSoup caught my attention is the simple fact that it works to utilize technology for social good. TechSoup’s main focus is to provide non-profit organizations around the world with donated software (and hardware) to enable them to do accomplish their missions more efficiently. Obviously this is a big win for me – my two passions combined: technology + social good.

The reaction to me moving to Warsaw from family and friends has been less than ideal. People tend to have a very uncordial reaction to Poland. The perception is usually a cold, distant, unfriendly, harsh and the list goes on. It also didn’t help that I moved here on December 1st…the very beginning of the unbearable winter ahead of us. I’m not going to pretend like I’m not scared of the winter ahead, but I’m looking forward to the experience. Besides, I’ve already gotten a few tips about ways to face the winter, but the most interesting is the way you wear your scarf:

  • Make sure you have a warm (wool) scarf
  • Tuck in your winter coat colar
  • Wrap the scarf around your coat’s color – this guarantees maximum warmth (here are a few examples: this or this)

In the meantime, I’ll keep correcting folks “Poland…not Holland (or Portland, in some cases).

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Calling 112 in Beirut

Last night I went out to meet some friends at a local bar in Hamra. We were having a highly engaging and interesting conversation about women, feminism and sexual harassment. There were three women and 2 men. And we were discussing whether your typical sexual harraser on the streets of Beirut or Cairo is aware of the damage he’s causing. We also talked about the privilege men have. I was trying to explain to one of the male friends that a major retraining of how men and women are raised in this world needs to take place.

After an invigorating, exciting and sometimes even frustrating conversation, my friend, Edy,  gave me a ride home. We were parked in front of my house still full of after thoughts from our conversation at the bar when we started noticing a young man driving on a scooter roaming around us.

I pointed out to Edy the fact that the guy has been roaming around us and is looking a bit suspicious. Edy drove up a bit and the guy immediately got down from his scooter walked up to Edy’s window and asked him what he was doing. The guy was clearly high or intoxicated, slurring his words and unable to focus his eyes on thing. Edy calmly told him that he was dropping me off. The guy proceeded to get closer and asked Edy where he was from. Edy remained calm and told him I don’t need to tell you this. The guy looked at him and said “oh yeah than let me fuck the shit out of you!” Edy immediately backed the car up as the guy opened the door.

We drove off to a restaurant down the street that has a lot of light and Edy called 112 (the equivalent of 911), Lebanon’s police emergency response. He explained that there’s guy that’s being suspicious and violent and preventing us from going up to our house. We continued to drive away in order to loop back. While we were driving Edy and I both looked at each other and made a joke about how the police is probably not going to show up for another hour as we were saying this we saw a police car driving in the opposite direction. And by the time we looped back to my house Edy received a call. The police officer said “We came by and found no one. Are you safe? Are you seeing anyone?” Edy told them he could no longer see the guy. He thanked for their quick responsiveness and hung up.

I was in awe at the speed of responsiveness we experienced. So, when in trouble next time in Beirut give 112 a call!

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:

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!

Tales from the Holy Land: The Welcome

Step to the side, Miss:

I arrive at the airport at a little past 6pm on Thursday evening. In my backpack, I have a folder stuffed with letters – a support letter from Google stating my position at Google and why I was visiting. Along with that, my friend at the State Department sent me an official state department-issued letter for American of Arab origin. Although many told me to be too worried about entering the country, I definitely had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake, but I kept telling myself that if anything it’s going to be great story in retrospect (as my friend Tim would say). Ok, so back to Thursday evening – I get to the immigration line, I confidently walk up to the Foreigners line, and hand over my passport to the young-looking immigration officer. And this is the conversation that went on:

 

Me: Hi
Officer: Hello. Passport please.
(I hand her the passport open to the personal details page)
Officer: What’s your name?
Me: Hebatallah Gamal (dying to tell her that it is right in front of her)
Officer: Where were you born?
Me: (again thinking – it’s freakin’ right there) Cairo, Egypt.
Officer: Why are you in Israel?
Me: Business.
Officer: Where do you work?
Me: I work for Google.
Officer: in Israel?
Me: No, in California, but I’m here to visit the Tel Aviv office for some meetings.
Officer: Do you have a letter or something?
Me: Yes, sure. There you go.
Officer: Can you please wait here (and she walks off out of the booth with my passport)

I then get asked to step to the side, where I was escorted to waiting room with a TV, vending machine and handful of other foreigners, who looked like they have been waiting for a while. I immediately open my laptop and try to go online in hopes of catching anyone from the Tel Aviv office online, but who was I kidding I was sure no one would be online – it was Thursday evening (the equavilant of our Friday in the US – end of the week). Of course, internet wasn’t working and my laptop was being slow. Ten minutes later I was asked to come into an office, where another officer lady asked me to sit down at a desk across from her and her big black computer monitor. She then started asking me the exact same series of questions the first officer asked. I answered politely and was again asked to go wait in that room. Another 20 minutes later or so, a nice looking man came into the waiting room and gave a young group of 3 (2 young guys and a girl) their passports back and wished them a nice time. He then returned less than 5 minutes later and asked me to follow him. He then brought me into yet another office and started asking me the same questions, although he was a bit more detailed and definitely tried to ask me “tricky” questions, like: What do you do for Google?What’s your title? Little does he know that my freaking title at Google is a mouth-full and a little hard to forget :) What I thought was extremely funny is that at one point he said: You are not a trouble maker, are you? I don’t think you are who we’re looking for, but we have to do this to be sure!

So, I never felt more dangerous in my life, but like I said in the beginning – a story worth telling at the end.