Monday, October 25, 2010

Electricity key problem in Palestinian refugee camp

Electricity key problem in Palestinian refugee camp

By Noha El Maraghi

Beirut, Lebanon – The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Palestinian refugee camp Bourj el Barajneh is the draping of electric wires overhead, a tangled canopy that fragments the view of the sky as you walk through the small alleys. The wires -- some thick, others thin -- are connected to small electric boxes located on the corners of alleys and are accessible to anyone who walks by. Some wires are intermingled with plastic water hoses, and they all snake through the camp, disappearing occasionally into rooms and windows.

People in the camp live in half-finished apartments - slabs of grey brick and cement. Refugees get electricity for a few hours during the day. An elderly woman yells at Ahmed Mostafa, a member of the Democratic Party, as he walks by: “We haven’t had electricity since last night, tell them to fix it.” Mostafa lives in the camps and is a member of the Democratic Party, one of the factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He says there have been many casualties from exposed wires and the mixing of electricity and water. “The biggest problem with electricity is the lack of electricity, and the danger of getting it to the houses, with elementary technology,” he says.

Mostafa says that the camp gets 4,000 Kilowatt-hours and 3,000 Kilowatt-hours more is needed. The refugees pay a very small amount per month, amounts like 90,000 Lebanese Lira, which is about 60 dollars.

Mostafa says the government provides this electricity instead of UNRWA, which is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the agency set up 60 years ago to care for refugees after the 1948 war which established Israel, and left millions of Palestinians homeless. According to UNRWA it “provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, pending a solution to their plight.” This assistance does not include water or electricity. UNRWA is responsible for schools, some food and cleanliness, like trash collection. Refugees like Abu Hussein say that sometimes trash is left out, but cleaners come from UNRWA. He also says UNRWA is working on projects in the sewer system.

Abu Hussein leads us to a generator in an alley. Above the generator box is a picture of a boy who is approximately 15 years old. Abu Hussein points at the boy and says he died here from electricity. “People die from electricity all the time because it is mixed with water pipes and is exposed to everyone,” he said.

Abdallah Bouhabib, head of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon and former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, says the electricity problems are relative. “We don’t have it! Lebanese themselves don’t get electricity.”

Bouhabib says that Lebanese don’t feel responsible for Palestinian refugees because they didn’t create the problem by drawing Israel on the map; this view is not shared by all Lebanese. The Fares center’s official view is that UNRWA should be the “primary body” responsible for Palestinian refugee camps and should “initiate the development of a practical and serious rescue plan aimed at ending the ‘ghettoization’ of the camps.”

Approximately 22,000 people live in Bourj el Barajneh. Amina Hassan Banat is “over 60” and lives with her husband in the camp. They run a small kiosk with few household materials across from their home. The elderly couple has children working and being educated abroad, but like many others in the camp they still remain there with hopes of returning to their homes in Palestine. Amina says electricity is a horrible problem for refugees in the camp. “Three hours they give us electricity and 3 hours they take it, we cannot put anything in a fridge.” She says food is bought on a daily basis to be cooked that day, and anything leftover is thrown away because refrigerators are not feasible.

Most refugees in Bourj El Barajneh see the camp as a temporary stage of their lives and hope to return to their homes, despite having lived in the camp for decades. This is partly due to their segregation from the Lebanese and the limitations of rights they have in the country as refugees. Abu Hussien tells stories of when Palestinians were forced out of their homes in Palestine 60 years ago. “They were in pajamas with nothing, they were asked to go for a quick errand, but they never saw their homes again.” Despite this the attitude on the camp is that “God willing, we will return,” says Hussein.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Replacing greens with buildings: Lebanon’s decline in agriculture

By Katie Perkowski

In the countryside of the Bekaa Valley, an area known for its farmlands and escape from the city, businesses are now replacing these lands and greens, and with each year, the number of farmers and their lands are decreasing statewide.

Nicolas El-Haddad, Agricultural Research and Education Center facilities manager at the American University of Beirut, is one of these farmers watching buildings replace the lands around him.

AUB’s educational farm is located in the Bekaa Valley, about 80 kilometers from Beirut, and it is where El-Haddad lives, putting his time and work into the farm. El-Haddad is from the Bekaa region originally and has worked at AREC since 2002.

El-Haddad said agriculture in Lebanon is on the decline. He said it now seems like buildings are taking up all of the Bekaa Valley, and that they may eventually take over the entire area.

"There’s no control," he said.

For people in the Bekaa and other rural areas, farmlands and agriculture are vital to their livelihoods. According to 2006 statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture remains the principal activity in Bekaa, Akkar and south Lebanon, and it is the major employment opportunity.

El-Haddad said this is why he became a farmer.

" … I live in this region, and you can’t find other jobs," he said.

In the main building of AREC, hangs a portrait of Samuel Wheeler Edgecombe, the first dean of agriculture at AUB, and multiple "Agriculture Olympics" trophies are proudly on display in the main office. This building is one where agriculture juniors Rewa El Seblani and Peter Abrahamian have classes.

El Seblani is from the Bekaa, and she said her parents and brother encouraged her to get involved with agriculture.

El Seblani said in her family's community, every house has a family garden in its backyard.

"It’s very rewarding when you see what you get," she said.

Abrahamian said one of the problems throwing farmers onto the roads is the reliance Lebanon has on importing its goods.

The FAO price index in 2008 rose by 24 percent above 2007’s, according to the State of Agricultural Commodity Markets by the FAO in 2009. Most Arab countries import at least 50 percent of the food calories consumed, according to 2009 information from the FAO. Because of these factors, the cost of food has gone up significantly because it now costs more to import.

More and more people are leaving rural areas where farming happens and going to areas outside of Lebanon or near cities to make more money, Abrahamian said. He said it is sad to see them leave, and people in the agriculture sector are devastated.

"People look at it [agriculture] like it’s a bad thing," El Seblani said. "They look down on it."

From 1958 to 1962, Lebanon’s total population was 2,009,000, and 1,090,000 made up the rural population. In 2008, Lebanon’s total population was 4,194,000, and 546,000 people made up the rural population (13 percent of the total population), according to data from the 2010 FAO AQUASTAT.

Also according to the AQUASTAT, from 2003 to 2007, 1,505,000 made up the total economically active population, and 34,000 made up the total economically active in agriculture. This is less than 3 percent of the total economically active population.

These realities do not encourage students to stay in AUB’s agriculture major.

The department has six majors: agribusiness, agriculture, food science and management, landscape design and ecosystem management, nutrition and dietetics, and veterinary sciences.

Tharwat Haddad, student records officer in the faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences, said although the numbers of students enrolled to major in agriculture are not declining, those numbers are deceiving.

Haddad said students apply for enrollment in the Agriculture and Food Sciences department because it is easier to get into than some, and they will not stay agriculture majors for long.

Agriculture students who do not get accepted to the business school will go into agribusiness, she said.

Haddad said the agriculture major could eventually be removed if people continue this trend, and it may switch to a three-year program instead of four.

"We need agriculture students," she said. "Lots of companies are asking for agriculture, and we don’t have agriculture students."

AUB has a student body of more than 7,800, according to its website, and during the 2009-10 school year, 769 students graduated from the Agricultural and Food Sciences department, according to data supplied by the department.

El Seblani said people in Lebanon do not realize how necessary agriculture is to livelihoods.

"We have to feed people," she said.

El Seblani said the decline of interest and money in the agricultural field in Lebanon would not drive her out, like it has some.

"Of course I want to stay here," she said. "It’s my country."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Work Restrictions Eased on Palestinian Refugees, but Civil Rights Still Denied

By Christopher Robbins

On Tuesday the Lebanese parliament passed a compromise measure easing restrictions on Palestinian refugees seeking employment.

The bill eliminated the work permit fee and established a private social security fund for Palestinian workers in Lebanon. It did not give Palestinians access to the professional licensing organizations many need in order to practice their trades.

The 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s refugee camps, denied the right to work, buy land or establish businesses, have again encountered the hostility of their hosts, many of whom blame them for the country’s 16-year civil war and do not want them to settle “permanently,” despite over 60 years of residence.

Earlier, on June 15 Progressive Socialist Party MP Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze, proposed a bill extending comprehensive rights to work and to own of land to the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.

A united opposition within the Lebanese parliament frustrated the attempt to

pass the measure.

“I put forth the measure because (Prime Minister) Hariri and (Speaker of Parliament) Berri had been talking about it,” said Jumblatt. “But when it was proposed all the old devils came out.”

Jumblatt was forced to withdraw his bill as negotiations on the recently-passed measure began.

The opposition to Jumblatt’s proposal came from Lebanon’s right-wing Christian community. The Phalange, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces all voiced their disapproval at any possibility of extending civil rights to Palestinians.

“This is an issue we reject and we will not be subject to any foreign policy interference,” said MP Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun accused Israel and the United states of being behind the push to extend rights to Palestinians living in Lebanon.

Aoun and other Christian leaders in Lebanon fear that extending the right to work to Palestinians will lead to naturalization as full Lebanese citizens. This would disrupt the delicate balance of Lebanon’s confessional system of governance.

This may be because the influence of Christian parties is already waning due to decreasing birthrates among Lebanese Christians and increasing numbers of Shi’ite Muslims. The average birthrate among Palestinians worldwide is twice the average of Lebanese citizens.

Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Lebanese government set aside small enclaves of land for them, but has never extended the right to work or own property in Lebanon.

The rights of foreign workers in Lebanon mirror the rights of Lebanese workers in their country of origin. An American would be extended the same rights in Lebanon that a Lebanese person seeking employment in the USA would enjoy. Since Palestinians have no state, they have no rights to employment, to social security, and to own or rent property. As a result, Palestinians in Lebanon have little social mobility.

“Having nothing, it is very difficult to grow up in the Palestinian community (in Lebanon),” said Ahmed Mustafa, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and administrator for the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp.

According to Mustafa, Palestinians have few options when seeking work in Lebanon. The refugees are granted permission to work certain low-level jobs in construction and sanitation. Another option open to Palestinians is to work within UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for overseeing the refugee camps. Others have opened businesses within the camps, operating groceries or electrical shops.

“A Palestinian who is professionally educated cannot legally find work in Lebanon,” said Mustafa. “In the camp we have doctors and engineers selling groceries.”

Abdallah Shahadhi lives in Bourj al-Barajneh and operates a small grocery there. Before being forced to leave Palestine he was trained as a diesel mechanic. Lebanese law does not allow him to find work outside of the camp.

“I would leave (the camp) and do anything else,” Shahadhi said.

Shahadhi has sent his sons and daughters overseas for education and employment.

“My children were not allowed to work in Lebanon with Palestinian identification,” said Shahadi. His children send him money every month to make ends meet because his store does not make much money.

“It isn’t enough,” said Shahadhi. “Only the children who come here to buy ice cream make it worthwhile.”

Most Palestinian refugees are forced to live in mazes of narrow passages beset by three story tenements. In the camps, dirt and garbage line single-file wide corridors that twist and turn seemingly at random. Wires and water pipes comingle hazardously everywhere with little sense of planning or order. Until recently sewage ran open down the passageways, but now a faint acrid odor is a reminder that it seeps up from the ground during rainy months.

One can see graffiti depicting the al-Aqsa mosque and other scenes of Palestine. Caricatures of Israelis are plastered over by posters of martyrs killed in decades of conflict. From a few houses hang flags of the Fatah and Hammas factions, but most proudly fly the green, white, red and black flag of Palestine, and pictures of the late Yassir Arafat, former chairman of the PLO hang everywhere.

It is no wonder that Palestinians are eager to leave.

A glance around Lebanon this summer shows why Palestinians want to be a part of the economy. Luxury high-rise apartments are being erected throughout the city. The marina is filled with yachts. On every street one may encounter wealthy tourists from throughout the world eager to cash in on Lebanon’s tolerance towards alcohol, women and gambling.

Some Lebanese fear that there is no room for the Palestinian people within their economy.

“Lebanon is 4 million people and there are half a million Palestinians here,” said Sejaan Azzi, a member of the Phalange politburo and advisor to former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel.

“Do you think our economy has room for all of those Palestinians?”

Azzi explained that when the Lebanese government originally accepted Palestinian refugees, it envisioned them remaining for only a few weeks. The refugees still have not received the right of return to their homes.

“The international community has ceased talking about the right of return,” said Azzi. He believes that

Israel, the US and the EU want the Palestinian refugees to remain where they are. If true, the plan would remove an obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian state and ultimately peace with Israel.

“Ideally, Palestinians would be allowed to go back to Palestine,” said Azzi. “But if not, then they should ask the UN, the US or Israel for their rights. Those are the countries who put them here.”

Azzi also suggested that the Palestinians in Lebanon could seek citizenship in Egypt or Syria, two countries that have extended the right to work and own property to the Palestinians living there.

Jumblatt, the MP who proposed the legislation, doesn’t believe that any right-to-work legislation will pass and does not hold out hope that there will be a Palestinian state any time soon.

“They have been here for 63 years,” said Jumblatt, “and unless there is a Palestinian state they will continue to be here.”

In the camps the refugees continue their long wait, clinging to the distant hope of regaining their homeland and have little hope that the government will give them full civil rights.

“We do not hope for reform because the Christians are united against us,” said Shahadhi in Bourj al- Barajneh. “There is no other solution. We need to go back to Palestine.”

Ahmed Mustafa, the camp administrator, agrees.

“Palestinians want to go back to their original state,” said Mustafa. “Until we have the right to go back we need conditions to improve on the ground so we can live like human beings. We want to live in dignity.”

A Smoking Ban in Lebanon: Reality, dream or just another example of a deeper problem?

By Ashley S. Westerman

Light up. Burn. Inhale. Exhale.

This is what almost half of the people of the country of Lebanon do on a daily basis. Whether it’s cigarettes or water pipe, smoking is becoming a big health problem for the only 4 million citizens of this tiny jewel on the Mediterranean Sea.

Recently, discussion of banning smoking indoors in all public places has arisen again in parliament but the Lebanese government has developed a bad habit of flicking off progressive policy like ash in the wind.

Research Assistant at the American University of Beirut’s Department of health Behavior and Education, Dr. Rima Nakkash, estimates that 28%-35% of women in Lebanon smoke while 45%- 60% of men light up too.

According to recent research report by the AUB Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), headed up by Nakkash, cigarette smoking costs the nation about $327 million a year and Lebanon has one of the highest smoking rates per capital worldwide.

“Definitely in total, more than 50% of the Lebanese population smokes – that would be fair to say,” says Nakkash.It’s a compound problem, she says, noting that youth in the country start smoking cigarettes as young as 11-12 years old. She says that even though 80% of the people who smoke in Lebanon know it’s bad for them, they do it any way and one-third of women continue to smoke even during pregnancy.

“With such an environment, you are actually supporting the smoking and creating a social norm that it is acceptable behavior to smoke,” says Nakkash. “It’s in your face – it’s everywhere. It’s a very hard environment for people to even think about quitting.”

Nakkash is also a big supporter of the regulation of the water pipe, also known as narghile or shisha. Her studies have found 60% of 13-15 year olds have tried the narghile at least once. According to Nakkash, popular myth says smoking a water pipe is safer than smoking a cigarette because the smoke passes through water before being inhaled. However, research prepared by the TCRG has concluded the narghile to be just as addictive and full of high levels of toxic compounds as regular cigarettes. This information led to an official warning statement released by the World Health Organization on the deadly effects of smoking narghile.

“They want to a ban, narghile needs to be counted in the ban – it is counter intuitive to ban cigarettes inside [public places] and not narghile,” says Nakkash.

But what ban?

A smoking ban in Lebanon is almost non-existent, even though 3,500 -4,000 Lebanese die each year from smoke-related disease, especially lung cancer. Nakkash says that Lebanon has the weakest tobacco control policy in the Arab region, if not one of the weakest in the world.

According to the National Tobacco Control Program (NTCP), a ministerial decision or decree was passed in 1995 related to the dangers of second-hand smoke, “prohibiting smoking in places such as hospitals, infirmaries, pharmacies, theaters, public transport services, health clubs and all schools, universities and elevators.” However, the decree had no mechanisms for implementation or punishments for failure to do so. In addition, according to NTCP’s website, there are there “are no legal requirements for the testing of tobacco products by health officials, nor on reporting of cigarette constituents by tobacco manufacturers, as well as no specified limits for nicotine or tar content.”

The proposed law currently up for discussion will serve as an update to the ’95 decree, with the main objective to strengthen it by focusing on banning tobacco advertisement, including large picture warnings on packs of cigarettes and completely banning smoking in public places.

Nakkash says that Lebanon is like the United States in the ‘80s and that it may take the country 20 or 30 years to catch up with more progressive places. The United States banned tobacco advertisements on the television and radio in 1971 with the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act and most recently in June of this year, restricted tobacco companies from sponsoring sports, music and cultural events. In addition, since the Federal Cigarette labeling and Advertising Act was passed in 1985 all cigarette packages in the US must display a large, prominent warning from the Surgeon General.

She also says that Lebanon is in a great position to learn from other countries, such as what works and doesn’t work when it comes to tobacco control and even though the proposed law is currently stuck in sub-committee investigation but Nakkash is hopeful that this time the it won’t get buried beneath other legislation like it has been several times in the past.

“We want a law, but not just any law, it’s all about the details,” says Nakkash. “Awareness on its own is not enough; the law must really convince people to not take up smoking. I think we will get there eventually, it just takes time to change social norm.”

Dr. Nakkash’s research, along with the AUB (a smoke-free institution), serves as one part of the Trifecta pushing for stronger tobacco control in Lebanon. The other two facets of the full frontal assault on the country’s unchecked tobacco use are the Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI) and the Ministry of Health’s Tobacco Control Program (NTCP).

Joe Souaid is the Executive Director of the Tobacco Free Initiative, an organization established in 2000 with the objective to fight tobacco consumption in youths in order to help.

“We are here to prevent, protect and help,” says Souaid. “We want them to say that they don’t need to smoke; we are not here to tell them they cannot smoke.”

There is no other non-governmental association in all of Lebanon that specializes in the fight against tobacco among children and teenagers, says Souaid. Headquartered in Jbeil, TFI does a lot of work in schools and community centers all over the country holding yearly assemblies and workshops. Souaid says that they will work with anyone, “from CEO’s to poor people, in the Palestinian refugee camps and in the banks.” In 2008, the organization was given an award by the World Health Organization for outstanding work in the Tobacco Control Area.

However, Souaid says the country needs a national law for any of their work to be effective.

“There is no problem with our mission; we are looking to have a lot of results but if we don’t have a very good the country, we will never touch our objectives.”

Souaid says he is sure the law will help all levels of society in Lebanon, “the poor man, the rich man, everyone” but the politicians must work on it. He also claims that TFI has no opposition from any of the school or communities they work with and that they organize smoke-free nights at clubs, bars and restaurants all the time.

For now they are strictly a Lebanese organization but hope to go international some day and for Souaid, a father, protecting the next generation is top priority and TFI will never stop until there is no more smoking indoors.

“You have the right to smoke anywhere you want, but you have to respect non-smokers too; you must protect them,” says Souaid. “I have two daughters, I have to protect them, I need to help them.”

Even though Director of the Ministry of Public Health’s Tobacco Control Program, Dr. Georges Saade, echoes some of the same concerns as Dr. Nakkash and Joe Souaid, he thinks that better implementation of eventual law – not awareness – is what will help youth stay away from smoking the most. Saade has completed many research projects and published annual reports on youth usage prevalence and the affects of second-hand smoke.

He says that raising awareness does not affect usage prevalence, especially since smoking is socially accepted in Lebanon.

“We need a strong policy in schools and institutions that really work,” says Saade. “When you go and teach the students not to smoke or that smoking is hazardous for your health and the same student sees that teacher smoke during break time, the student will not buy you; they will not believe you.”

However, Saade and the TCP do understand the importance of educating the younger generation.

“We should work on our future generation. When we do this, I think implementation will be very effective. Once they understand it’s for their own safety – that second-hand smoke kills – they will tell their fellow citizens not to smoke.”

Saade was actually one of the recent driving forces behind moving Lebanon from a smoking- friendly society to a non-smoking friendly society when he wrote a tobacco control proposal to the Bloomberg Initiative.

According to, the Bloomberg Initiative – established in 2006 – is a $125 million program that offers grants to developing countries in order to implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The Initiative includes five institutions: the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the World Lung Foundation.

The initiative was extended to $250 million in 2008, the same year that Saade wrote the proposal to obtain a grant to rejuvenate the tobacco control unit within Lebanon.

Saade says the choice to support tobacco control is easy, “We have to remove the things that are harmful to our culture. If we have marijuana, we must remove it. It we have drugs that are hurting our culture, we must remove it.”

One of the biggest hurdles the NTCP faces is big-time lobbyists such as Philip Morris, the largest tobacco agent in Lebanon. Saade also says that there is little to no control over progressive policies like a smoking ban because there is no control in the government and politicians only see it through a short-term lens. In addition, says Saade, everyone is so connected in Lebanese politics that the government is like the Italian mafia.

“Our politicians are there because of families...because we are a mafia-run country. They don’t care about their people, only their connections.”

Saade says there is also much opposition from restaurant and other business owners that allow smoking in their establishments as well as the myth that a ban will hurt Lebanon’s tobacco farmers. Sadde says this is just not true.

The fear of tobacco being smuggled in from outside the country is another concern that opposes tobacco control but Saade says that this is still a stupid reason not to increase taxes. He says it would be very simple to sit down with surrounding countries, especially those with better tobacco control policies, and make an agreement to both raise taxes. Saade says that it will be much more difficult for people to purchase cigarettes when the price is finally raised to higher than $1 per pack.

Despite all of the forces against the program, Dr. Saade says he is optimistic about the policy change but implementation will be the hardest part.

“Implementing the law is a gray area. It is not easy to control the Lebanese; Lebanese do not like law and don’t like to implement law in Lebanon.”

But will it really be that difficult to enforce a non-smoking indoors policy once it’s made into an actual national law?

Andrew Toriz has been the owner of Captain’s Cabin in the Hamra area for over 13 years. A popular college hang-out, the hole-in-the-wall bar has been open since 1964 and has always allowed smoking inside. However, Toriz – a smoker himself – says that if there is a law, he will enforce it.

“I’ll have a reason to tell the people not to smoke because there is a rule now. Like before, everybody could drink but they made the law that under 18 you cannot drink so I do not let them drink in here unless they are over 18. Because it’s the law and when they pass this law for non-smoking, I will tell them no smoking.”

Toriz also says that the law will give him a reason to stop smoking too.

“I don’t smoke at home but when I come here I smoke. But sometimes it gets very smoky in here and with a law I will have a reason to also not smoke.”

He says that he doesn’t know if he is one of the few owners who want the government to pass a law but if they do, he will willingly abide.

“I hope they pass it.”

The willingness to uphold the law is not the issue, says owner of Hamra Street Café Mohamed Sourth.

“They should establish a lot of other laws we need [in Lebanon] other than not smoking inside.”

Hamra Street Café’ has only been open for five months and is one of the many coffee shops in the area that sell shisha. Sourth says that only 5% of his business depends on shisha but there are some places that depending on it for 50%-90%. He says an indoor ban will definitely hurt them since shisha is like a habit in Lebanon.

However, Sourth would like to see many other things get regulated first.

“When they can deal with the traffic, the pollution, the electricity – then okay; they should establish these before they think about regulating smoking inside or outside.”

Sourth says that he wishes these things would be regulated so the Lebanese people will appreciate the banning of smoke in doors.

“There is a big problem with the whole system; there are no regulations here,” says Sourth. “It is not a problem with Lebanese mentality; it is a problem with the entire system.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Farewell blog

By Kelsey Thomas

After the long trip home I was exhausted and tired. Before we even go out of the airport I started to miss Lebanon. To start, it took entirely too long to get out of the airport. Then I realized it was because people were actually staying in the lanes and following the traffic laws. For some reason, I miss the honking and crazy driving. Or, maybe I just miss being able to get anywhere for $1.25?
Then I arrived home. There was television, radio, taco bell, roommates, parents, movies, and my boyfriend. All of which I love. But, it was overwhelming. I could suddenly understand every conversation going on around me. It was overwhelming. I missed not having to understand all of those things. It was overwhelming to have to talk to everyone about the trip. I am so tired of eating out after doing it everyday for a month and a half. But, when I got to the grocery the only things I picked out were skim milk and bacon. I couldn't remember what else I wanted. Kroger has a lot more choices than a cafe menu.
As I get more settled in and find my routine again the deeper things still reel inside me. I worry a lot for Lebanon. I worry for Beirut. Mostly, I worry for the people we met and got to know. I worry for my family, for Adel and his family, for our friends at the cafes. Everyone we spoke to wanted peace but didn't seem to believe it was possible. What will happen to Lebanon? It is a question we cannot answer. It has been hard being home. Everyone wants to here about all the amazing fun times we had, and there were a lot. But I keep wanting to give a voice here to all the people we met there. It is hard because without being there I think it is impossible to truly feel deeply about the subject. It was such a special experience it seems mundane to come back to Lexington.
Don't get me wrong, I am so grateful to see my family and friends again. I missed my mom so much. I thought I would cry when I saw her. Instead, I cried in my car after buying foul for my grandma at the local arabic restaraunt. I cried because a palestinian family that had been living in Lebanon owned the cafe. They came to America for a better life. It made me think about all the young people that want to get out of Lebanon. It is such a shame. You wouldn't believe such a beautiful place would have such turmoil.
I miss Beirut, but it was time to go. I think I am going to miss Beirut for a long time, but I know I will go back. I'm starting a new chapter of my life here in the states. As I start this chapter I will have the personal growth from Lebanon. My everyday trials and tribulations seem pretty minute when you think that people our age have already seen 3 wars. I think Lebanon will help me keep things in perspective. I hope I can have the good nature and warmth of the people. I hope I can have the resilience of Beirut. It will help me remember that organization and bureacracy are important. It will help me remember that things are not alway what they seem. That the way we imagine things may not be how they are at all in real life.
This is a farewell blog. But, I'm not sure what I am saying goodbye too. Goodbye to Lebanon? I don't think I am doing that. Lebanon will be in my heart forever. Goodbye to the Blog? Okay. I can handle that. haha
I would like to thank Terry for this opportunity. It changed all of us for the better. I want to thank Katie, Noha, Ashley, Ralph and Chris. We were an interesting and awesome group on an interesting and awesome trip. I want to thank Adel, for everything. He is a special man with a special story. I want to thank Beirut. The city and people showed us more than I can describe. I want to thank my family. It was important to me and everyone else in our family. I want to thank UK for trusting us.
Lebanon taught me so much about myself. I never thought I would feel so connected to something with so much turmoil and confusion. Alas, I am. I am a better person for the trip. I kept a journal on the trip about everything we did. It was personal and means a lot to me. That journal will be my reminder. Thanks again Beirut and Lebanon.

Leaving Lebanon

By Noha El Maraghi
Who would have thought that such a small country could be so complicated? The issues, culture and politics of Lebanon seem too big for its size. Then again Israel is pretty small and seems to stir up enough complications for the whole world. After travelling all over Lebanon and meeting with politicians, teachers, professors, religious leaders and the average person, there is an information overload in the mind. Everyone has different points of views and they all seem to be valid. Part of what makes the country so complicated is those different opinions and religious perspectives on how the country should be run. Politically it was an amazing adventure in search of truth and why things are this way, especially when it came to the issue of Israel. It was also very helpful to have a leader like Terry who has so much experience and knowledge. At the same time his method of giving you this information is like a friend explaining something as opposed to a higher authority.
Culturally it was amazing, with so many things to do and very friendly people. Of course the Arab culture is not unfamiliar to me, but one thing that I will really miss about Lebanon is how unique they are as an Arab country. People are strong willed and as different as their beliefs are they manage to live together. Lebanon is stuck in the middle; it is a clash of different cultures and religions that forms a unique country. One thing that I went and left Lebanon confused about is this aspect: many different religions trying to take a piece of the pie in running the country. I have not studied in depth secular and non-secular government, but so far I’m leaning toward secular governments. I believe that you cannot mix religion and government because you are going to have to pick one religion to apply and chances are half the population will be another religion. To me it’s a miracle that Lebanon could maintain its government with a system divided according to religion. It was the division of religion that caused the deadly civil war. I believe religion should be your relationship with God and should not be used as a political weapon as it is used so often in today’s world.
It didn’t hit me that I left Lebanon until we arrived in Cairo where I shed a tear, but I really hope to come back very soon, because it is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in all its aspects.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A few thoughts on democratization

By Ralph Schoellhammer

When I arrived in Lebanon on the 3rd of July I was convinced that the 30 days I was going to spend in this Arab country would mainly influence my views on the Middle East. Shortly after my return, however, I figured that my experiences in the Levant were formative for my views on foreign as well as on domestic politics. The way we perceive a new environment tells us as much about the object of our observation as it does about the observer himself. All the impressions that came to me in the last four weeks were filtered by my personal array of prejudice, ignorance and simple lack of information. Some of my prejudices were weakened, others reinforced: I hasten to add that I do not think that prejudices are generally negative. They help us to arrange how we see the world around us, indeed, sometimes they are a frame that is necessary to make at least a minimal comprehension of the complexities of the world possible.
Before I came to Lebanon I thought that I have a rudimentary understanding of terms like democracy, governance and secularism. As it turned out, I only had a blurry, shadowy grasp of what those words actually mean. Lebanon, with its inefficient system of sectarianism, its lack of governance and its struggle for secularism forced me to spar with these terms and come to a better understanding. The first “epiphany” that made this clear was the revealing meeting with Monsieur Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Lebanese Druze. In a very polite conversation this influential man in Lebanese politics made two stunning comments: He first remarked that he does not see any chance for democracy in the Middle East and, on a more personal note, that he despises the West.
So why should democracy in the Middle East not be possible? Or even more important, why would someone like Mr. Jumblatt hold such a view? Despite its relative youth, the soil on which modern Lebanon exists is as much a part of modern history as Athens, Alexandria or Rome. Not without reason did the Romans build one of their largest temples in Baalbek. Europe itself, in fact, owns its very name to the daughter of a Phoenician King who was abducted by Zeus to the very continent that we call by her name to this very day. Contemplating this story, I was thinking that Greek mythology might also give us a hint why democracy has failed in the East and succeeded in the West. In Aeschylus’s tragic play, the Oresteia, he describes the dilemma faced by its protagonist Orestes: After his mother kills his father Agamemnon, he avenges his death by killing his mother, Clytemnestra, in return. Following this murder a debate takes place between the gods to decide whether and how to punish Orestes. In Aeschylus play, two sides battle for the outcome of the trial. On one side are the “old” gods, who see the murder of the mother as worse a crime than the previous murder of the husband. In the old view, mother and son are blood related, whereas Agamemnon’s murder is of less magnitude as he is not kin, but “only” the husband. The new side lead by the god Apollo, however, argues quite differently. He asserts that law is higher than blood revenge, and that the marital contract is more sacred than the status of kinship. Not the old bonds of blood decide what is just and unjust, but the letter of the law.
What Aeschylus describes in his play is nothing less than the shift from an anarchic into a civil society: Justice is no longer an interpretation of families, clans or tribes but a matter of the state. Although written in the language of mythology, this play includes the main seed for a working democracy: The idea of a social contract in which the people remove the right to speak justice from the family and the clan and grant it to the state. This was the essence of Greek civilization, the construction of a government that ruled with the consent of its subjects and not against their will. In modern times we have an inclination to interpret democracy as defined solely by holding elections. But that is only a small part of the story: the main act for a working democracy is the transfer of trust from the family to the state. Only if the people trust their state elections as such make sense, as it guarantees that even the loser of the election will accept its outcome. It was, in fact, not only Athens that realized the importance of breaking the bonds of kinship. In Sparta the children were deliberately estranged from their parents to guarantee that the loyalty of the next generation will lie with the state of Sparta and not one of its tribes.
These stories of old tell us a lot about the contemporary problems in the Middle East. In Lebanon, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and several other states this process of breaking the chains of kinship has never taken place. And there are many who do not want to see it take place. If the state in Lebanon would be strong enough, if it could gather the necessary trust of the Lebanese people that they would be willing to join a real social contract the power shift within society would be tremendous. A contract in which the government and the governed accept the rule of one law for all, of one army for one nation and to conceal religion to the private sphere. In such a scenario, what would happen to the Jumblatts, the leaders of the Phalange, or the Nasrallahs? In a non-sectarian Lebanon, these sectarian leaders would become irrelevant. So I guess that Mr. Jumblatt’s remark about the impossibility of democracy in the Middle East was not necessarily one he regrets. If the Druze replace their religious identity with a Lebanese identity, who knows if they would still need Mr. Walid Jumblatt as their main representative.
The idea that democracy will arrive sooner or later as the result of societal evolution might not be more than wishful thinking. While autocracies and dictatorships base their power on small and powerful circles like the military or the clergy, a functioning democracy has the much harder task to ensure that its subjects keep a certain degree of voluntary loyalty to it. The creation of this trust was a hard and painful historical process that culminated in the West in the creation of an entirely new social class: the “Civil Servant.” To a certain degree, the civil servant embodies the conditio sine qua non of a functioning state. Not without reason the Prussian chancellor Bismarck once said: “Without good civil servants the best laws will not be able to govern a country, with good civil servants, however, even a country with bad laws can be efficiently governed.” A good part of Germany’s raise in the 19th and early 20th century was due to the establishment of a professional class of civil servants. The same holds true for France which created a strict system of governance in the aftermath of the revolution and during the reign of Napoleon. But what was the precondition for this new way of efficient governing? Once again, it was the breaking of certain old bonds: Great Britain was the first European nation to create a legal system that guaranteed equality before the law, and this development fostered the creation of the British Empire. One of the first steps of the French revolutionaries after 1789 was to abolish legal inequalities and create a unified legal codex. After being severely defeated by the French armies in 1806 the Prussian King Frederick William III triggered a series of reforms that were considered to “strengthen the bond between the King and his people” via the transformation from “a mere subject to a citizen.” The core of these reforms? A reliable civil service and equality before the law. The ties between the land owner and the peasant were dissolved and both had to answer to the same authority under the same law. Slowly but surely the membership to a certain class or family became less and less important in legal and political matters – a development that was fundamental for the ascend of European power.
Although I think it is impossible to copy the historical experiences of one nation to another, I do think that it is possible to learn from the fate of others. Nobody expects the Arab nations to turn into Switzerland or Massachusetts within the next decades, but to assume that there is something inherent to the people of this region that they shall never be able to live in democratic states seems to be a preposterous thought. The main pity, though, is that most Arab leaders do not really want such changes. Lebanon is a good example: A weak state, torn apart by the interests of the different sects that constitute it. I do believe, however, that there would be room for change, if the right series of steps would be accomplished. It is by no means impossible to build a functioning class of civil servants to create an efficient bureaucracy and judicial system. With a growing efficiency of the state the trust of the Lebanese people in its government what also increase, possible triggering a slow process to wear out the sectarian system. It would be a mistake to think that there are easy fixes in nation building, but one has to start somewhere. The current course of donor nations to prop up the Lebanese army is, in my opinion, the wrong way. It is a dangerous misconception that the stability of a state rests on the guns of its army. The main precondition for stability is trust, and trust is mainly created by the legal system and efficient governance. This does not mean that the army could not play a substantial role in a future Lebanon. Quite the opposite: A conscript army that forces Shiites, Sunnis and Christians to spend a certain amount of time together could help to reduce animosities between the groups. The same would hold true for the creation of laws that would ease inter-confessional marriages. Those points, however, all need the one precondition I have mentioned earlier in this post: the transfer of trust from the family, clan or religious group to the state.
Whether or not this transformation is going to happen remains questionable, as right now we can observe a reverse trend in many parts of the world. In many Western jurisdictions the very idea of equality before the law is under attack, and the idea that people with different cultural backgrounds should be treated under different laws is gaining more and more attraction. In Great Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury is openly argued that the state should create Sharia courts for the country’s Muslim population. A two-tier legal system, however, does not seem to be a good recipe for social stability, and the idea itself shows how much we have lost a clear understanding of what democracy actually means. The value of a working legal system, due process and equality before the laws have become such an everyday convenience for us, that we sometimes forget the long struggle it took to get there.
Parliamentary democracy was in the end a result of a legal evolution that started with the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215 over the Bill of Rights in 1689 until it reached the form of modern democracy as it is enjoyed today by still a far too small percentage of the global population.
One of the reasons why the democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan is failing is because we have lost grip of what democracy actually means. And I am not talking about the finer nuances like whether the Belgian constitution is more democratic than the US constitution. It is the nuts and bolts of democracy that start to become more and more elusive. It is impossible to create democracy out of thin air, but the West can assist in creating the preconditions: The training of civil servants, the establishment of a working bureaucracy and an advisory role in a truly accountable judicial system. To reach a functioning democracy is dirty business, but no matter how far the Middle East is from reaching it, not to assist them in their journey would be worse choice for us all.