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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wahj Al Hagr Blog #1

By Kelsey Thomas

Family ties present fascinating dynamics. You can see relatives everyday or once a year, and they still feel like family.

But what about once in a lifetime?

Family still feels like family. Meeting my distant relatives in their small village of Wahj al Hagr was an amazing experience. It made the world feel so much smaller. I am on the other side of the world, I do not speak the language and I have never met these people in my life. Yet, I instantly felt like I was among family. I felt welcomed and loved. Family works that way, that is how family is supposed to be. Family is supposed to accept each other regardless of how different each person may be. My cousins, aunts and uncles showed love and immediate acceptance. I also found that though we may have seemed so different, we are more alike. I think sometimes in America we have trouble imagining life somewhere like Lebanon. It is hard to humanize the numbers and names we see. In the media we don't get to see the regular person. My family are a few of the people that are making every day life here relatable to us. They are a few of the faces we will see when we hear about war or conflict. They are the ones that make us feel more like the world isn't so different. They (among many others) gave me insight to what connects human beings. It is not blood, it is love of the same people.

Looking back on my family tree and talking about members of our family that we both know and love gave us an instant bond. Family is not family because they share a bloodline. Family is family because you love each other and the same people unconditonally. My cousins Rabih and Ramona could have been any 22 and 28- year- old in America. I hope that one day they can come to visit and I can give the welcome that they gave me. It was amazing to hear their admiration and love for my great-grandfather because we talk about him the same way at home. We got to talk about our family here and our family back in the States. When we get home I am going to try and call them once a month, or at least continue to talk on Facebook!

The day was bittersweet for me. I wish my grandpa could have been there with me. I know when he sees all the pictures it will be so special to him. He is such a loving and kind man, he deserves to do this one day, too. I wish my Uncle Louie had been there as well. He is so into the history and geting the story of our family. To see my great-grandfather's grave and the airport he built would mean so much to him. Lebanon has always had a special place in my heart, but being here now I know it holds an even more special place. I can't wait to share with my family back home all I learned about my family here. The one thing I will have to make clear is the love I felt. Afterall, family is family.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bringing Beirut's Lessons Home

By Katie Perkowski

Right now I’m sitting in my sorority house surrounded by a hundred chanting and bubbling girls preparing for fall recruitment. Not quite something people in Beirut can relate to. It’s been four days since I got back in the states, and I don’t really know where to begin or how to say goodbye to my amazing — for lack of a better word that would be able to encompass or describe all that I learned and experienced — month-long trip to the Middle East.

As two other girls and I got into the taxi going to the airport a few long days ago, my tear ducts immediately started flowing as I watched AUB’s campus and the Mediterranean seaside drift farther and farther away. I popped on my sunglasses to hide my eyes. The thing I had been dreading the most was coming closer the closer — saying goodbye to our driver and friend during the entire trip, Adel. After we got our luggage out of his van, we went one by one to give the traditional Lebanese goodbye — the handshake and kissing of the cheeks. I began crying and fighting back sobs as I said goodbye to him, as I said goodbye to the wonderful people of Lebanon who had been so welcoming and helpful during my entire stay in their home. Each time we went into a family’s home, they always made sure to tell us “our home is now your home,” and what’s crazy is, they actually meant it.

When I saw and talked to my family and friends for the first time since being back, it was difficult to put everything into perspective, because I knew they wouldn’t agree with or understand some of the new knowledge I’ve come back with. When I talked to my grandma on the phone for the first time she asked, “Are you OK Katie?” When I told my mom and step-dad I felt safer walking around Beirut at night than around Lexington, they laughed and didn’t take me seriously. But I know it’s important to tell about my experience anyway.

With everything I’ve learned from going on this trip, the main sense I came away with is that Lebanon and the Middle East have people filled with passion, a love for their home, and a desire to overcome the many complications of their side of the world.

American media outlets and government officials pound out negative and exaggerated stereotypes of entire populations of people in the Middle East. This is why my family and friends may roll their eyes or laugh when I tell them the truth about the people and places I saw in the last month. And this is why I will continue telling them what I know anyway.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Leaving Lebanon, Bereaving Beirut

By Christopher Robbins

The time has come for a few final thoughts. I write this on my last day in Lebanon with one hour before I leave to the airport. I am ready to wave farewell to Beirut.

 My trip showed me the joy and sorrow of the people here. This is a country of kind, happy people struck by cynicism and apprehension. As I leave I can’t help but feel elated to be going back to Kentucky and my wife, but I also look upon Lebanon and wonder if the country will look the same when I return.

Historically, Lebanon is a land in flux. Countless invasions and wars coupled with lurching demographic shifts have made this little jewel stretched between the Mediterranean and the Arab worlds a land of change.

The contemporary reasons for Lebanon’s instability have already been stated on this blog - as money pours into Lebanon from the oil-rich gulf states and the west, massive construction projects are swallowing its green space whole. As Israel and Hezbollah play Russian roulette in the south of Lebanon, the specter of a devastating war constantly looms close.

The Lebanon I bring my wife to in the future is likely to not be the Lebanon I’ve come to love.

I’ve learned quite a few things in my short month here, and have had some prior assumptions confirmed,

The media and the government in the United States cannot be trusted to speak the truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not know the exact reason for this, but speculation usually sheds light on the power of the Israeli lobby in the United States and the ownership of much of the media by Israel-friendly Jewish people. In the Palestinian camps, the Hezbollah stronghold of Balbeck, and the free-wheeling secular nightlife of Beirut the general consensus is that Israel controls a lot of what the United States does and dictates what the media says.

Most Arabs do not hate the United States or Americans. I think this should be common sense to most people, but I was given all sorts of warnings by family and friend before coming here that were completely unfounded and ridiculous. I was treated like family by most of the people I met in Lebanon. I have never met a warmer and more friendly people – they put ‘southern hospitality’ to shame.

The United States government functions efficiently and competently when compared to Lebanon. Those who argue for making government small and weak have probably never spent a month in a weak state. Despite some ridiculous bureaucracy, the US is efficient and takes good care of most of it’s citizens. Arguing for a weaker government is irrational, private enterprise can never replace the infrastructure and organization that a strong central government enables.

Lebanon is a place that cannot be learned. Since the experience is always changing and the society is fathomlessly complex, there is no one who really knows Lebanon. Even the most well traveled and educated Lebanese person who has spent their whole lives experiencing the country does not know everything about this place. A good example is asking for directions. We’ve found that Lebanese people don’t know the streets and businesses in their own neighborhoods. Sometimes even the taxi drivers get lost.

It is dangerous to make generalizations about Arabs. I’ve met and seen such a diverse cross-section of people - Christian, Druze, Sunni, Shi’ite, and secular – Syrian, Saudi, Lebanese, Palestinian, Turkish, Iranian, Greek, Spanish, German, Austrian – and most of them harbor no hatred for each other. Many Arabs from states that enforce strict standards of modesty and Islamic jurisprudence resent their government meddling in affairs that are personal and religious. Most want what we all want, to live in peace and relative freedom, to raise families and to prosper.

I look back at all of my experiences over the last month and I only wish I had done one thing differently - spend more time traveling by myself without my group. Not that I do not like the people I came here with, Terry, Ralph, Noha, Katie, Ashley and Kelsey are all wonderful and charming people with whom I have had a lot of fun. However it is difficult to meet Lebanese people when traveling with a group of Americans (and one Austrian). I was also more restricted in where I could go and what I could see because it always seemed like a few dissenters prevented me from exploring as I’d wanted to. Next time I come to Beirut it will be on my own terms and I will see a lot more.

I know that change here is inevitable as hammers meet iron and clashes erupt., but I hope that some day I will once again see the sunset over the Corniche. I hope that I will climb the steps at Byblos and marvel at the birthplace of writing. I hope to see the towering columns of the Temple of Jupiter and the arms of the cedars spread wide in a gesture of welcome. I hope to visit the monastery again perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. I hope to meet strangers in cafes and bars and leave as friends. I hope to dance all night at BO-18. I hope to have mezze so big that I need to loosen my belt and arak strong enough to make my head swim.

I hope this is all still here.

I hope to come back.

I hope Lebanon will wait for me.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Title: I'll Never Be The Same: From Istanbul to Beirut

By Ashley S. Westerman

Right now I am 40,000 feet in the air above what appears to be Austria or Germany, at least according to the television screens on the airplane. I am far and away from Beirut, with Paris France only an hour and half away. It seems crazy for me to already be “flying back in time”; as I watch the clock turn backwards with each time zone crossed I feel as though I should be starting this trip over. But, alas, all good things must come to an end.

I haven’t posted much in the last week or so because I finally came down from a homesick-high and began to really enjoy myself again in Beirut. I have been re-taking in all the sights, re-trying all the food and re-acclimating myself to the strange city in one of the tiniest countries in the world. And I have come to a conclusion, about both the Middle East and about myself – and this conclusion is that after this experience – the last 7 weeks – I will never be the same person again. Perhaps it is perfect timing in the fact that I have just graduated from college and am conveniently moving to Washington DC to start a new chapter of my life, but regardless of what lay ahead of me in the good ‘ole U.S. of A, I think this would have been a life-changing experience regardless.

Seven weeks ago, to the day exactly, I left my boyfriend and my pets in Lexington and boarded a plane for the other side of the world. I was a bit scared, yes; but I think anyone who doesn’t go into such situations just a bit frightened doesn’t realize what little he or she knows. Even with my family, the most familiar of people to me in my entire life, awaited me in Istanbul, I knew that I was still stepping into an experience of a lifetime.

And an experience of a lifetime it was.

It is difficult for me, even for as good of a creative writer as I am, for me to describe what the last 7 weeks have meant to me. From the glorious Hagia Sophia to the ancient, simple city of Byblos, I have experienced a part of the world – a part of history – that I would recommend to anyone to take the time and money to see. I feel as though I know more about many things, but not just factual things like history and current events. But I feel as though I know more about a people, a culture, a place and a religion. Even with the deep sectarian divides of Lebanon, I have come to a conclusion that I think few realize in their lives: we are all people of this world trying to get by, trying to survive.

As mentioned before, I was a bit frightened to come on this trip. I was certainly not going to be spending my time in the Western World, but this was still very much different than the third world countries I’ve seen before. This was a whole new ball park and I’d like to think I – as well as my family and classmates – successfully embraced it all with open arms. I absolutely fell in LOVE with Turkey, specifically Istanbul; I can only hope to live there one day – I really think I could. I got to experience all aspects of Beirut; both the good and the bad, the conservative and the progressive. And, yes, I definitely know what it means when people call Lebanon a “political scientist’s dream”.

I am very thankful that in both countries I got to experience one of the most basic of human needs and desires: families. In Istanbul, I spent 3 weeks with the Kirci’s; family friends from long past but the first time I had ever met them. In Beirut, I got to eat dinner with the Neyfeh’s; the family of our trip organizer, driver and all-around tour guide. It was at these tables, over these meals of borek, hummus, keba and various other delicious foreign foods, that an appreciation grew for this place and its people.

Yes, I will admit that the trips had its ups and downs – but what trip does not? I got a little homesick in Turkey for a bit after my parents lefts me and I got a little homesick again after I hit the 1-month wall. But overall, I would like to think I’ve been pretty positive about the whole experience. I would like to think of myself as a knowledge sponge, soaking up all sights, sounds, information and experiences from everyone around me for the last 7 weeks. I am glad to have done it; I only knew the facts of the area, not the nuances. Now I can say that I know the nuances very well, at least when it comes to Turkey and Lebanon. However, I know that there is still much, much more to learn for I am no Turkish, nor am I Lebanese – so how can I know what it is like to truly be there? I would like to think that this trip was the first of many steps to become more acquainted with the area and its people; the beginning of the cultivation of understanding from one person of one part of the world to another in another part of the world.

I know I will never be the same after this trip. My thoughts and outlooks on things happening around me, especially as a Journalist, have been forever changed and it’s very difficult to change ideas that one has seen with their own eyes. However, I do not intend to right all the wrongs in the world on my own. I still plan on practicing tolerance and patience, with both those who know less as well as with those who know more than me. I have realized that in this big crazy world we live in, we can only help ourselves and those who care to listen. Obviously as a journalist or a politician, one has more power in such an aspect than others but seeing as I have yet to actually BECOME a journalist and I will probably never be a politician, the most I can do is try and educate those around me about what I have learned. I feel as though this is the most effective way to bring people together under an umbrella of understanding. A tough fight, I know, but I will continue to fight the good fight until the day I die.

Lastly, I would like to point out that on this trip I have not only learned things about where I went and the people and languages I came into contact with, but I also learned a lot about myself. I reaffirmed some prior beliefs and re-evaluated, maybe even overturned others. But is this not what traveling and learning is for? I am a firm believer that when one leaves home for a period – leaves their comfort zone – they can learn more about the intricate facets of themselves because being in such situations sends you back to your instincts. And if given as much time as I have been given on this trip to think, blog and meditate, I have definitely come to some conclusions that I hope to apply immediately to my “new chapter of life”.

I have found a new center, a new core, a new way of seeing things in the world. I would like to call this my “new life order”; an order of centrality, of discipline, of peacefulness and steadiness. I have discovered within myself a new peace; a peace that I feel could only have been triggered by this trip. It’s not that I don’t want to go back to my old life, of course I do, at least some aspects of it (especially because I love my family, my boyfriend and my friends) but I have decided to do some things a little differently. I desperately needing something like this to happen for me because if not, I do not know what kind of state I would have entered into now that I am a full-fledged adult. I’m not throwing all the things that I’ve learned in my life away; no, but I am looking at them through a different glass. My only hope is now that my “new life order” will be as accepted and supported by those I love as all of my other crazy ideas.

I am happy with myself for I will never be the same.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Flower Boy

by Noha El Maraghi 

I love the Lebanese accent. It has more of a melody than other accents in Arabic. The last vowel is always prolonged and it sounds more like music. As an Arabic speaker I was looking forward to hearing the accent because I think it’s very pretty and some of the words are different. Egyptian Arabic is not the standard by any means, but almost all people in the Arab world understand it due to its popularity through the Egyptian movie and music industry. So everyone understands me perfectly and vice versa although some words are different. I've really enjoyed translating for the group, especially when it comes to Katie reading menus in the beginning. The Lebanese accent is especially pretty when coming from this little boy called Faris who I was originally going to do my story on. He's about 6 or 7 years old with the cutest face and smile. His hair is jet -black and geled back with a comb. His small stature is almost as tall as the white bucket of red roses he carries around to sell to people. What is peculiar about him is unlike other kids on the street he still seems to have innocence. He walks around Hamra district in the wee hours of the night looking freshly groomed and as he goes from restaurants to bars the girls flock to him and buy his flowers and hug him and pinch his cheeks. While guys idle by waiting for the hogger of attention to leave. We always wonder why this poor kid is not tucked into bed at 8 pm as we see a bucket of flowers float through a sea of giants compared to him. His courage as a child when he holds his ground about the price of a rose is astounding. But no one would dare to bother him because he is close buddies with the business owners who are always keeping an eye out for him. Also we’ve seen an older child around 10 years old sometime waiting for him outside restaurants and escorting him. Every time we see Faris we yell Hi Faris! He stops and talks to me in his cute accent saying confidently hi, how are you, are feeling well? With innocence and perfect composition from this child I’m overwhelmed by his cuteness and sad that he has to do this job.