Beirut’s New Venue for Writers and Artists

March 6th, 2012

Dear Friends,

If you are related to Beirut, you may submit to this new journal that we’re pumping out of AUB. We are looking for premium fiction, non-fiction, poetry, one-act plays, photography, and art and craft stills. The submissions period ends on March 15. Please spread the word!

 

Please check out the Web site for specific submissions guidelines: www.rustedradishes.com

Elissar and Another Story of an Exorbitant Rent Hike

February 12th, 2012

 

Today, Beirut’s physical history and its people’s livelihoods, the very beauty of a city – its old shops, bookstores, cafes, old, old buildings, all having been beds of so many stories of this city whose history is anything but forgotten – are being traded in for high rent. The latest victim in Hamra that I discovered, when I saw “Liquidation” on its shop window, is Elissar and Other Stories.

The family-owned shop on Abed El-Aziz Street, or “University Road,” in Hamra is filled with clothing and home artifacts designed by Lebanese owner, Elissar W. Haikal whose “other stories” are her sisters, and co-owners of the shop. I’ll just quote Timeout Beirut, who describe her unique and striking pieces as being inspired from “Istanbul and Sufi costumes and literature.” And, while “[c]rafting garments and jewellery herself, Elissar uses raw silk, brass, silver, tribal metals and vintage fabrics.” I’ve sauntered into the shop on many occasions, usually early in the afternoon on my way to work, admiring the many uncommon shapes and colors side by side: Huge Sufi-inspired jackets and sherwals hang around the periphery of the shop, handmade by Elissar herself. There are also items she’s found around the world, such as an orange pitcher and cup set from Mexico (I once got for my friend for a wedding gift) next to Moroccan tagines or tea sets from Poland. The most common shape, the Khamsa, you’ll find as silver amulets pierced into squares of olive oil soaps, dangling from handmade earrings and necklaces, or decorating the handle of a silver chalice.

The Hamsa (Khamsa: “5” in Arabic) is also called the Hand of Mariam, the Hand of Mary, and the Hand of Fatima – by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, respectively. It is a universal sign of protection. However, Haikal’s frequent use of the symbol in her pieces has less to do with its meaning and more to do with the aesthetic and Moroccan influence it had on her.

After 6 years in business, Elissar and Other Stories is closing. The landlord of the building recently broke the news: If you want to stay, your rent will increase to $50,000 per year. What was the rent, you ask? $20,000: a 150% increase. But only days after he broke this news, he sent further news through his concierge that for 89 meters-squared, he would sell the space for one million dollars – he had changed his mind about renting it out. Nadine, Elissar’s sister, was incredulous, but matter-of-fact: “There’s no rent law. He can raise it as much as he wants.” Meanwhile, a customer within earshot in the shop chimes, “I’m a landlord, and some of my tenants pay $100 per year! I can’t get rid of them.” Today we have these extremes.

 

A 5-kilometer drive away, you will find people just outside of Beirut proper who are getting 3 hours of electricity per day, paying generator fees to mafiosa-types who turn them on when they want to because they’re saving diesel while still charging their flat rates per month.  Many of these people may still pay “old rent,” ranging anywhere from $66 to $1000 per year. Until the laws are changed, the only way for landlords of old rent tenants to get paid today’s rates (not pre-civil war rates when the dollar equaled 1.5 Lebanese liras compared to today’s 1,500 Lebanese liras!) is to buy out the tenants (at least $100,000) or sell the building — because he/she cannot afford to maintain it or buy anyone out — to a detached (foreign, money-driven, or from outside the neighborhood) wealthy investor who will then proceed to buy out the tenants and, most likely, tear down the building to replace it with an equally unforgiving high rise, which will not only demand enormous rent which most people cannot afford, but also block people’s sunlight, air, and forgiving views of the sea. The recent demise of the infamous Achrafieh building is a result of a combination of this. This blog has a few conspiracy theories.


The resulting disparities in rent prices, neighborhood quality, and environment (and, ultimately, people) are not mainly because one neighborhood is impoverished and one is not, as Robert Fisk focuses on in this article.  It’s because Beirut has become a playground for capitalistic adventurism. In other words, when a building filled with families crashes to the ground, leaving 25 people dead, I don’t think that it was because they were poor and therefore couldn’t have their building repaired. I think about the influenza of greed and corruption they were victim of — in a country where the people’s health on all its levels never tips the scale when weighed against piles of new money. As one can see from the video above, in which President Michel Suleiman gives the advice that municipalities and building owners should regularly check on their buildings and repair them, the politicians are seriously detached and denying the true problems – which they are, firstly, responsible for solving.

 

Aren’t you angry? I asked Nadine.

 

She shrugs! “I’m used to it.” She describes how she had a chocolate shop just a way up the street on Abed El-Aziz where the same thing happened – that was in 2009 and the landlord increased the rent 100%; he gave her a 24-hour warning. I couldn’t believe she said “I’m used to it.” That’s what people say about the erratic electricity, the corrupt politicians, the killer-in-you-inducing traffic… That’s what people say when they’ve given up.

 

“I will never rent again,” she explains how on top of the exorbitant rent prices, one must pay the Baladiyeh 10% of the rent; and then you’ve got the generator, electricity, water, and these are all besides the expenses for the shop. Nonetheless, she did search: 45 meters-squared in Hamra goes for $45,000 per year; a shop in Achrafieh runs around $7,000 per month; and, Solidere is asking for $100,000 per month. I will repeat: $100, 000 per month. And I’m typing this from my grandmother’s village where I’ve unplugged and re-plugged the refrigerator at least 4 times today in rhythm to the switch between generator electricity versus government electricity. I’ve sat in the dark on 3 different occasions tonight when neither was “working.”

 

Where do you think this is taking Beirut?

 

“Beirut will end up restaurants and cafes… They’re ruining it. Every year is going backwards. It used to be ‘wow’. Look at Café Younes – he pays $65,000 per year next door.” She continues: “The target of the owners and landlords is the Khaleej [the Gulf]…Those people who can pay.”

 

All this to say that Elissar and Other Stories, a Lebanese-made place filled with inspired work, and others like it, are victims of not only greed and oh-so-shit government, but people’s detachment. The obvious apathy for preservation and connection to our environs is a prescient warning: the more we outsource for quick gain, the less we’ll eventually have. Since I arrived here 4.5 years ago, I’ve seen 5 independent bookstores shut down; watched chains such as Caribou Coffee, Gloria Jeans, Krispy Kreme! pop up in place of locally-owned businesses; heard too many buildings bulldozed; had plenty of friends worry about rent and where they would live if it were raised. Mazen Khaled, one of the owners of Bardo, a local pub/restaurant, recently pointed out how he and the other independently-owned businesses  on the same block have linked to one another – that their livelihoods have nurtured and supported each other, formed a strong chain of purpose and mission. This is how you create a city – and preserve it.

 

Again, I ask her, But why aren’t you angry? Don’t you want to do something about this?

 

“We can’t complain. To who? He’ll tell you, wait.”

Elissar's last day will be April 30.

 

Merry Christmas from CER!

December 23rd, 2011

Translation: "Please do not Touch"

Why you should run the Beirut Marathon

December 18th, 2011

 

I started running marathons when I moved to Lebanon. Actually, I started working out again when I moved to Lebanon. Oh, and I quit running marathons since moving to Lebanon. It’s just been a whirlwind.

 

First of all, I did not start running because I became more concerned with my health or my appearance.  It happened when a friend urged me to go down to the seafront. Oh no, I haven’t run in a while, I told her. She explained that it was fine! That the running group would meet at 6 pm by the McDonald’s on Raouche corniche and there I’d find a friendly group who would not point and laugh.

 

My first 2k ended in panting myself right out of the cluster of runners. The next time I did the full 5k, from McDonald’s to Sporting and back. And the next time I did 10 while running with a new buddy and singing “Eye of the Tiger” for the second half of the run. I was motivated – it was a rush as well as a peek into my potential. Eventually, running became about mental strength, just as much as physical.  But it also became a draw to the busy corniche with the secret conversations and the many colorful feet; the sea in all its moods; the friendly faces; the endless recounting of races and marathons and an increased familiarity with endorphins.  But none of this would have happened without the weather. I’ve never seen my breath while running in Beirut. When I think of running in a Chicago winter, my muscles instantly scream like car horns in Beirut traffic. I’m not an obssessive runner type, but I enjoy it. There’s a freedom in it, a power gained, a camaraderie that’s motivating and strengthening.

 

Last year’s marathon was a fluke for me. I decided to run it 2 weeks before the start gun. But I had been doing regular training with my group to stay fit, which included sprints and uphill running. I told my running mates – I cannot imagine running for 4 or 5 hours, sorry. And I couldn’t. It was beyond my comprehension, or desire even. Then one day someone said, If you can run 21k, you can run 42k – walk part of it if you have to. And so I melted into the hype, joined and finished in 5:06. It was awesome. There was a feeling at the 40k mark that I had never felt before, and I literally started sobbing as I ran. The Killers were blasting in my ears – I woke on the roadside/in the land of the free ride…higher and higher we’re gonna take it/ down to the wire/ we’re gonna make it out of the fire/ higher and higher… we’re gonna make it out of the fire... It was one of those rare moments when you feel that things are okay, things will be okay, and you’re okay too.

 

Then came this year’s marathon. As with anything, the second time around is clearer, there are more expectations. I couldn’t help but think back to how so many fellow runners complained last year about everything from the route’s dullness to the media coverage’s insistent superficiality and bowing to more politicians than to the real athletes who had been sweating blood for the previous months to the finish line’s congestion. These things I did not notice last year. It was all about whether I would finish and how and the highs that came along with it. This year, my high came with an extremely warm welcome as I finished 4th to last (in the entire marathon). I’m cool with that. Really.

 

According to the elite runners, this year’s marathon was supremely organized. I wonder if this is a relative assessment. Or if the view is better at the front of the line. May Khalil, the founder of the Beirut Marathon, started it in 2003, the first ever Beirut Marathon, after she was hit by a car while running the streets of Beirut, damaging her from head to toe.  She is now the one who takes the heat – and the glory – for all things marathon as well as jumps out for celeb pics each moment she can. I do have a few questions, though… What does the city gain from the marathons, in which more than 30,000 runners join (5k, 10k, 42k) from over 50 countries? It’s not like the roads are somehow better, or water fountains are available on the main corniche, or traffic has somehow changed. Yes, I am very curious about how the revenue from the Beirut marathon, which you can imagine by multiplying $40 by 30,000 and adding umpteen sponsors, including most major companies in town, benefits the city and the runners who spend so much time and energy making it happen.

 

Now that it’s been 3 weeks since the marathon, and since writing the first sentence of this post, I’ve decided I may run another marathon, but it’ll have to be in another city. Beirut gave me the spirit for running, the thrill of weaving through the corniche traffic. The lovely feeling of running down from my house toward the sea, closer and closer, until I hit the pavement and join my buddies in rhythm for the haul. Thank you Beirut for giving me this. But there is one difficult Truth: You may be able to get a Lebo into a marathon, but you sure as hell cannot get the Lebo out of the marathon…

 

Ten Reasons Everyone Should Participate in the Beirut Marathon

by Rami Rajeh

 

1. Trying to get to the starting point is just as hard as getting to the finish line. Just when you think you may have reached the starting point per the directions given to you by one of the absurdly several over-qualified* ushers, another one directs you further down the road to the next street – making you, thrice, run down a whole block to the “entrance,” only to be turned back around to the next. It’s 6:40 a.m., then 6:45 a.m., then 5 minutes to start… (You make it just as the gun goes off…)

 

2. As soon as you start, and before you even get to the one-kilometer mark, a slew of energy and Snickers bars are on offer by outstretched hands, belonging to BMA staff and volunteers. When you really need them past the 15k mark, they’re nowhere to be seen.

 

3. Past nine o’clock, after two hours of running, the path becomes accessible to cars, especially if they are driven by military or police driving officers to their Sunday hangout. Dodging honking cars becomes part of the race technique.

 

4. The majority of the people who stop to cheer you on are expat laborers caught by chance in the middle of clogged off roads. And oh, they don’t really cheer. They’re gawkers, or to put it more politely they’re even more silent than UN observers in war zones.

 

5. You come across two “Speed Bump Ahead” signs, even though there are more than twenty speed bumps. One runner adequately pointed out they put those signs up so we don’t crash into each other. Besides the speed bump signs, there are around a 100 or 150 signs warning runners of the potholes**.

 

6. Even though it is called the Beirut Marathon, only a third of it takes place in Beirut. The rest of it goes out into Beirut’s scenic suburbs: Ghoubayreh, Shiah, Bourj Hammoud, Dora, Jdeideh, Zalka and Antelias. These areas are known for their century old pinewoods and olive groves.

 

7. If you’re a female, no matter how old or young, you will be subjected to howls, whistles and one-liners that would put R. Kelly to shame by none other than the police and military spread out all along the path with cigarettes in their hands and smoke swirling from their nostrils.

 

8. Just about every policeman you come across asks you why you are “so late” and “How come you don’t cheat and turn back from here?” as opposed to going to the end of the route.

 

9. You realize only a tiny fraction of Beirut’s roads are paved. (You suspected this though.) The rest of the roads are wobbly bumpy causeways covered in what resembles asphalt. As a result, several tiny daggers pierce into your knees, heels and calves.

 

10. After 25km, you not only find most of the sponsors to have packed and gone, but the organizers are keen on implementing the rules after the marathon is over and done with and the last man, who happened to be a 70-something-year-old with a Quasimodo has crossed the finish line where you are offered a “goody” bag filled with colorful, useless commercial flyers, a bottle of water, nuts, juice, and a shirt, which if you happen to get sizes bigger than you and you ask if you could get it exchanged, mind you after the last man has crossed the finish line, you’re subjected to a power trip by the overqualified* staff. These same braniacs who couldn’t direct you to the start line, these same Einsteins who couldn’t advise the Snickers people to position themselves somewhere after the halfway point, these same bright sparks who could not prevent cars from crossing the running route, these same masterminds who fittingly made you run two hills in the last 3k, these same gifted prodigies decide to suddenly implement the “rules” on people who just ran 42-freaking-kilometers (for what?): You may not under any circumstances backtrack your steps into the finish line area, even after the marathon is over. But, but, the shirt (“I ran Beirut Marathon”) is 2 sizes too big. There aren’t any your size. Their posture, their tone, their walkie-talkies tell you that they are proud of their stance and achievement. You “give” them back the t-shirt.

 

*insert sarcastic tone

**j.k.

 

 

 

 

Uft.

November 3rd, 2011

I wish…

(a semi-quarter partial list.)

 

That when I walk through the beautiful Barouk Cedar Forest, between trees that are hundreds and thousands of years old, that I wouldn’t see an advertisement for Bank Med there.

 

That when I’ve already dodged 10 cars that unwittingly almost pulverized me in their haste to get to Uncle Deek’s or Starbucks, I wouldn’t then be crunched out of my skin during my morning walk by the barreling sound of a semi-truck horn, whose friends all laugh at my reactive catapult in the middle street.

 

That, oh, that people knew how to use stop lights. Red means stop and green… Anyway, why do we have stop lights in a country that has no law enforcement? Or where most people get their driver’s license by simply paying some whiskered, long pinky-nailed man for it? No body knows how to use the lights. When the little green person lights up, that means pedestrians have the right-of-way. It doesn’t mean T’HASHOU! (Incidentally, pedestrians don’t know how to use them either!)

 

That ‘electricity’ and ‘traffic’ weren’t daily topics. Sometimes several times a day daily topics. The electricity is here. When does the electricity cut? Tak el dejenteur. Turn on the moteur…

 

That at 7 pm, when the traffic is dying and the world is slowing, and I’m settling into my apartment for the evening, I didn’t have to hear the construction, still grunting, grinding, and hammering outside my window. Still, since it woke me up this morning, at 7.

 

That when I’m dying for chocolate and I race the 3 flights of stairs to the vending machine of Fisk Hall, that the much anticipated Kinder Bueno, when unwrapped, didn’t reveal itself as a mushy, dead victim of the heat. And that when I call the number on the vending machine – the one that says, “please call 03558808,” someone would answer.


 

That when I go into a sunglasses shop with dim lighting on Hamra Avenue, the lady who is smoking and talking on the phone would stop smoking, hang up the phone, say hello, and help me. And when she does finally end her phone call, in which she’s asking the other end, several times, why he hasn’t woken up and gone to work at 6 pm, she would be nice. Just nice.

 

That my pregnant colleague could come to the department Halloween party because smoking wasn’t allowed indoors. That just once when it matters to people, the government could pass a law and enforce it! (Oh, then maybe I wouldn’t end up smoking too.)

 

That people weren’t having a boring discussion as to why we shouldn’t vote for Jeita for a wonder of the world.  If the government doesn’t make our country ugly, why must the people feel a need to? It could be worse, guys. Yes, it’s expensive to get in, but maybe when it’s a wonder of the world, it won’t have to charge so much?

 

That I didn’t have a half-finished, shoddily built, brick red closet in my room. That I didn’t have the opportunity to name it “Close” for its close resemblance to a closet which the “carpenter” at the Bamboo House left half-constructed, disappearing with my $200 and sending his cheik uncle to collect his drills, which I still feel bitter for giving back to him. I also wish that the closet doorknob didn’t fall off this morning. (This story is to be continued in a comic strip on this blog, soon.)

 

That the white Levis that I had dyed brown a year ago weren’t bleeding onto and ruining the rest of the clothes in my washing loads. I now have many brownish-pinkish tinged clothes. Screw you! (Let me not mention the $400 BCBG dress the “dry cleaner” ruined as well: “I’ll fix it, don’t you worry…”)

 

That people who have places of service or product, speaking of which, would not lie and cheat their customers. And that they would be trained and actually know the trade under which they advertise themselves. Simple logic: I’m an English teacher, therefore I do not teach math classes. To the “carpenter”: You are a pothead and make bamboo furniture, therefore you are not qualified to construct “things” out of wood. To the dry cleaner: You have a yellow pinky nail longer than your intellectual capacity, therefore please don’t tell me you can fix my dress and pants when you can’t!

 

That the farmer’s market (Souk el Tayeb) would not move location every single week. I go to Biel and it’s not there, it’s at Beirut Souks. I go to Beirut Souks, and it’s not there, it’s at Biel. What’s with the restlessness?

 

That the marathon association in Beirut would do more for the runners instead of for the politicians who come in their brand new Nike gear on the day of the marathon and take up all the television air time running a kilo like ducks, completely disregarding the people who have spent months and hundreds of kilometers in training and who have just completed one of the most difficult feats in athletics – running 42.195 kilometers. Perhaps the association, who has raised the entry fee by 20,000 LL (from 40,000 to 60,000) should think about installing amenities for runners (and bikers, and other athletes) throughout the city – ie: running lanes, water fountains, etc. This is a major city, which holds an INTERNATIONAL marathon. What improvements have been made to this end?

 

That so many of the friends that I’ve met since moving to Beirut 4 years ago were still here. That almost every single one of them didn’t have to leave because this abundant, apathetic country cannot get its shit together!

 

 

 

If you’d like to add your own complaint, please vent here. I feel just a tad better now.

 

 

 

 

Better than Skybar

September 26th, 2011

Green teddy: "How 'bout these new earrings?" White Teddy: "They make us flyyyy!" Pink Teddy: "I wonder what those towels are for?"

Streets of a New Home

August 26th, 2011

For some of us, who have decided to uproot ourselves from one continent to another, meeting a change of norms, rules, faces, scenery, an absence of physical memory, a distance from everything you knew and made you, a meeting of the strange and starkly uncertain, a realization of your new options and the ones lost – and so much more – you find yourself wondering how would it be if you went back? What if I lived in that city, Chicago, Illinois, that great big city filled with opportunity and culture and tons of sidewalks that recall my footsteps during all those years? That city with the perfect grid of streets, the home of the first black president of the U.S., the one with all those bike paths. What if I returned to that city further south of Chicago, in the heart of Illinois, Peoria, where everyone knows my name, and who my sister, brother, mother, and father are? And what if I stayed here, stayed put in this city where I feel in love, but have less to grab for? Or does it just seem that way?

I was walking with my friend Lina, in downtown Montreal, when I wondered about the two of us, and the opportunities we sought.  We both have complete access to these two beautiful cities, Montreal and Chicago, where our families are, where jobs are not scarce, where the government will take care of you (I mean, much more than in Lebanon), where there are patch-works of green public spaces, where there is world renowned art, architecture, musicians. Where there are laws and accountability, security and small chance of war or random bombings. Where downtown is an easy mix of people, without the too-stark contrasts of social stories.

I was capturing the city in front of me, when I said to Lina, as we walked hungrily toward the Thai restaurant we were searching for, “We have access to two of the best cities in the world – why aren’t we here?” And as she replied, “Beirut is one of the best cities in the world!” I thought the same.

I believe that each person who makes Beirut her home has done so because one or both of two things – love and opportunity. It does have this slow-gripping way of bringing you closer and closer to her bosom. It begins with a thirst – for history, language, family, community, movement, politics, activism, roots, purpose. It is the latter that resonates most with me. In the U.S., I’ve always felt that I could participate in grass-roots efforts but I never felt it could make a difference. In the U.S., I can certainly fight my small battles against unfair wars, prisons, corrupt corporations or politicians. When thousands of us walked through the streets of Chicago against the war in Iraq, although I believed that shaking things up was certainly important and a seed planted, I never felt like anyone would give a shit, past those who were on the street. In fact, my generation was regularly belittled by the generation who protested on university campuses across the U.S. during Vietnam. Here we were, planning on marching, not only knowing it wouldn’t make one bit of difference in what happened in Iraq, but also with the excitement of a cat with a ball of yarn. I felt tiny. We have felt tiny. This feeling is most overwhelming when you vote. Not only does my itsy-teeny vote only partly matter with the blue and red states and all, but – with the exception of Obama – I always have felt like my choice was the “lesser of two evils.” And even he makes us wonder how we hold on to those slivers of hope and change he promised us; will he vote for a two-state solution (but I’m confused, I thought he wanted one??)? He was one that made his way deep into the heart, but he too floated right back out into that unreachable space on top of a hill where decisions are made for everyone else.

The corporations are too big, the debt too deep, the country too damn wide.

When people think about Lebanon, the first word that comes to mind is usually not “opportunity.” Allow me to say – it is never the word that comes to mind. In fact, there are approximately 15,000,000 (is that number correct?) Lebanese who live outside of Lebanon (versus approx. 4 million inside). If you took a poll, you would find that most people have left Lebanon in search of opportunity. But let me tell you, there is a certain number of us who seeks opportunity in Lebanon – often, a means to purpose.

I am not philosophizing. I just sometimes try to figure out how it is I ended up in that small little country that I was sooo lucky in my adolescent mind to have not been born in.  Today, I don’t know if I could find such a comfortable place to live still teeming with foreigners who have come to save it. It’s almost comical. That NGO and UN workers, umpteen journalists, teachers, and missionaries come to this beautiful, historic, hospitable (in most ways) and largely feeble, incapacitated, tottering place with big ideals and revolutionary wet dreams – only to find a dysfunctional government that likes its victim status and the Mediterranean Sea and snow-capped mountains that won’t stop calling. But it feels good, in some sort of sick way. As in, things are shit, there’s a mess to pick up, and so we go to work each day with the thought that ‘I have a purpose,’ ‘I am a member of a community,’ ‘I am visible’ – and there are only 10,452 kilometers squared to cover; maybe something will stick, or someone will hear me. Yet, I can still go sit by the sea or have a drink in Hamra and meet up with all the other idealists I know. When the state of the affairs of the state are not looking up, which is the yooj, we still have a sense of ‘purpose’, kept afloat with a heated discussion, a new plan, collaboration –  although our optimism may have plateaued and ‘opportunities’ seem to be far and few between – as in, what’s next?

Some of us leave for big chunks of time to other parts of the world on different voyages. But as soon as trouble sneaks up again or another country hits bulls eye in the Arab Spring, for example, our heads perk up and a feeling of pride vibrates our bones; a sense of excitement; and a rush sweeps through, over, and back out. We are thrilled that there may be another opportunity to feel a significant part of something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pencil Test

July 2nd, 2011

Hanging around Peoria has been good for gaining perspective. While so many of us leave it because it’s “boring” and “average,” and… and…, it’s funny to see how things here can be so similar to other parts of the world. What I mean is, that some of us (I, guilty), treat Peoria (P-town) like a dead-end place. Like, we’ve got better things to do… But, what I’m realizing more and more is that issues span continents and cities. So, what I find in Beirut, say, to be an “issue” that I end up complaining/musing about on this here blog, is an issue I find right back where I started, in P-town. It’s just dressed up differently.

It was a hot day. And the humidity was thick. Indoors or the pool were the only places to be. Although, the golfers were out today – but they seem to have a different set of rules for when they shouldn’t be on the course (stop only for tornadoes, floods, nuclear war). Anyway, the pool was teeming with kids, parents, teens. I was captured by the teens. Their colorful bikinis, only partly-covert flirtations, the hues of their adolescent voices. The last time I lived in P-town, I was a teen. I have little idea of what I looked and seemed like to the 30-something observer, but I’m sure, now, that I at least was loud and obnoxious. I keenly remember that I surely never thought about what the 30-something’s thought of me, if they thought of me at all. But today, on the other side of the fence, as a 30-something, I found that teens are an endlessly entertaining object of study – in this case, in front of the mirrors in the girl’s bathroom.

There were three of them posing in front of the same mirror. Their bodies were taut, tanned, and supple. They couldn’t be older than 15. And none of them could be bigger than a size 0.

“Oh my god, look at my belly!” She wore a sequined bikini top that was largely covered with her long straight chestnut hair. She pushed her abdomen “out.”

“Shut up! You are so skinny! Look at mine!” This one was equally as thin, but not as tall. She wore a yellow crocheted bikini and had strawberry blond hair. She tried to grab at her skin where her “belly” was.

I sat in the stall and strained my ears. What were they saying about “ribs”? Who was “fat”? And what about this “pencil test”? When I stepped out, I had to ask.

“What were you saying about a ‘pencil test’?”

It was the girl with the glittery bikini who answered. She combed a hand through her hair. She was suddenly not as confident as when she was explaining to her friends in the mirror.

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s this test where if you put a pencil here,” she said as she pushed her tanned feet together and pointed above her knees, “and it falls to your knees, it means that your thighs are thin.” Her thigh was as thick as one of the teen boy’s biceps I’d seen playing pool basketball. She would pass the pencil test.

One of the other girls made a half-dismissive snort, as if she was embarrassed by her friend’s explanation, even though she had just been part of the detailed mirror dissection. I thought that was confusing. As if now that it were being explained to someone older, there was a realization of its silliness? Or, maybe she couldn’t pass the test.

I was thinking: things haven’t changed much since I’d been a teen in P-town. In high school, girls were obsessed with their weight and the thinner you were, the better your body. Bulimia and anorexia made you more beautiful. Meanwhile, make-up and hair were subtle, clothes were uniform, and naturalness was more appropriate.  In Lebanon, we are regularly incredulous at the faces that have been reworked with plastic surgery or layers of make-up. You cannot count the bandaged noses on campus after Christmas break. While most Lebanese girls are thin, it doesn’t seem to be as much of an obsession – but more of a given.

As I sat by the pool, my feet splashing about, I watched the bathroom-girls play pool games in a circle of boys and girls and later run away screaming from a queen bee.

Beirut by Bike

June 1st, 2011

By Rami Rajeh

The first time I was pulled over by the poe-lice, who will hereon be referred to as the “pigs,” was when I was still in high school. There were four of us guys in a “suspicious” looking car and it was a Saturday night. The pig at the checkpoint looked at our just-prickly faces and signaled to pull over. Another pig walked up, cock-legged, and told us to get out of the car. Now, depending on which movies we had seen, we all interpreted the command differently. One friend dropped flat on the ground and put his hands over the back of his head. Another friend lifted his arms up like he was under arrest. I leant on the car like I was stretching my calves. Our reactions were unexpected and as with most pigs in this country, when faced with something out of the ordinary, tempers flared.

The pig spat:

You guys think you’re in Amreeka?!

Turned out he had been watching the same movies and shows too.

The last time I got pulled over was on the corniche. But this time it was different. I was not in a “suspicious” car full of young men. It was not a Saturday night. I wasn’t 17, but almost double that.  I was on my bike, (and wearing a helmet), cycling amongst the varied corniche crowd. It was a warm Friday, just before sunset. My mind was drifting over and beyond the breeze until this pig pops out of nowhere and sticks his palm out at me. I stopped. He “pulled me over.” I was told to hand over my identity card. It took me a few minutes to come to grips with this situation.

Was I being punked? I glanced left and right for cameras anywhere in hiding.

Instead, I found myself surrounded by a hodgepodge of other detainees. Most were around the age of my first “pull over”. There were around 20 cyclists, men and women. And none of us had any sort of identification on us. One girl immediately got on the phone to complain to someone (I presume her father). Another guy got on the phone and called up the bike rental company “Beirut by Bike.” Another two were discussing ways to flee and become fugitives at large. What movies had they been watching?

This pig was on a high. It was obvious he had never rounded so many criminals with such efficiency. He was making phone call after phone call, squealing and discussing his promotion, his new flat screen TV, his new car, his new responsibilities in his new post. It was unheard of, one pig with his sidekick single-handedly rounding up scores of criminals and offenders in a matter of minutes. Gone were the days of patrolling the streets. He could finally get that promotion and spend more time with his family. And his snickering, his snorting and his pacing about were witnessed by just about all the passers-by. Not so much because we were a sight, but because our illustrious law-enforcer had double-parked and bottle-necked traffic all the way to the McDonald’s at the other end of the corniche.

We were sorry. We were unidentified because our ID cards were left with the bike rental shop. We ignored the “’No Cycling’ signs” along the corniche as we merrily rode along. We chose to cycle on the crowded corniche where children, dogs, and men and women batted to and fro because we scorned upon the new cycling lanes set up by Beirut’s Municipality in its bid to decrease traffic and pollution and turn Beirut into an environmental haven. We turned deaf ears to the explicit warning to avoid the corniche by the “Beirut by Bike” dude, who operates just on the corniche. We were caught red-handed. We were guilty and waiting to hear our fate drop down from the pigs’ chain of command.

And there was no way out: It is pointless to bargain with the law when you have nothing to offer in cash.

Fifteen minutes later, it all made sense. We were guilty. Guilty of tarnishing the corniche’s, not to mention, Beirut’s image. How could we overlook the link between cycling and corruption? Cycling and the conditions of prisons? Cycling and the unfair labor laws? Cycling and the illegal “settlements” that were popping in and around the city’s airport? Cycling and theft? Cycling and Lebanon’s soaring public debt? Cycling and the monopolies, the duopolies, and the oligopolies? Cycling and the numerous armed militias and mercenaries? Cycling and the corrupt judiciary? Cycling and the lack of accountability? Cycling and deforestation? Cycling and power rationing? Cycling and a shrinking economy? Cycling and inflation? Cycling and everything?

The pig succeeded at rounding up the driving force behind Lebanon’s stagnation. They had caught us. Just like they had with “the terrorists,” Osama Bin Laden and Ratko Mladic, the authorities had now managed to find and detain “the cyclists.” This evil unsettling force that had previously roamed about freely, carbon-emission free, and quietly transcended all forms of traffic. They got us.

Lebanon can now breathe. Its revolution can now reap the fruits. It all converged to this: a round up of self-absorbed cyclists on the corniche in broad daylight who were only set free because the pig had ignored the law and decided to have a field day based on his “intuition,” which could find no resounding calls on the other end of his phone. It didn’t matter that a motorcyclist on the corniche crashed straight into the pig while we were being held up. He was preoccupied with the gold glinting off the spokes and reflectors of these filthy cyclists’ bikes, right there in front of his eyes. That motorcyclist hit and bounced off of him just like a ladybug.

It was the “Beirut by Bike” dude himself that showed up in person and calmly explained the laws of the corniche to the pigs on patrol: Motorcyclists were forbidden and cyclists were permitted. We were set loose knowing that the pigs in the upper crust of command did not see that it was worth it to send a vehicle to round us up, especially with no liras in our sweaty pockets. I left feeling that if you’ve done something as grave as cycle on the corniche, you’re bound to get caught because the law enforcers are alert and ready to pounce on you – when you least expect it. Just ask the ghosts of Bin Laden and Mladic.

This Sunday, June 5, Critical Mass Beirut and Green Line (Beirut), Eco Bike and Tour Sour (South), and Mina by Bike (Tripoli) will come together in honor of “World Environment Day” to ride from southern to northern Lebanon on bike. All are welcome. For more details, see their facebook page.

“This Is Not a Revolution!”: Laique Pride

May 20th, 2011

As we walked peacefully slowly toasting in the sun, just a few barrels of us, in support of civil, secular laws in Lebanon, I thought, well, we’re beating the Arab world in our protests – no one’s been  shot at yet. When I said this out loud, my friend reminded me that “This is not a revolution,” which was later echoed by the high-pitched chanting emcee: “Shebab, shebab, this is not a thawra! This is a demonstration to demand our civil rights.”

I was being cheeky (what a reality to aspire to; plus, we haven’t promoted the urgency yet…) but meanwhile, shots were being fired from across our southern border during the Nakba day march, which approximately 40,000 people attended in Lebanon alone. This marked the first time in 63 years that Palestinians were allowed at the border of Lebanon and Israel.  The reports are that ten died on Lebanese land and dozens were injured, some grievously, though the casualties were not at the hands of the Lebanese army, but of the Israeli’s, who joined the many other Arab states who have used/are using brute force against unarmed citizens in the past six revolutionary months. Of the dozens injured is one of my former students at AUB, who was shot in the back and lost a kidney and his spleen. Doctors say he may never walk again.

In the shadow of the huge event of heading to the southern border and the subsequent violence, the Laique Parade felt like just that – a parade – except with fewer people. We were told it wasn’t a revolution and it certainly didn’t feel like one. The only people who heard us were the gawking police, the lackadaisical army, the impatient cars who lay on their horns, and a few people in their undershirts who watched from their high rise balconies. Oh, and a small restaurant crowd who cheered for us – which was encouraging, actually. (Otherwise, in my humble opinion, the route was poorly chosen!).

The Laique movement is akin to the anti-sectarian movement. However, the anti-sectarian movement gained momentum early in the year and then fell flat, deciding to hold up, reevaluate and organize due to its “vagueness” and an unclear mission, and, ironically, the divisions within the movement. The key phrase that was repeatedly chanted by the organizers at the parade was “This is the solution.” If that’s not a revolutionary statement, I don’t know what is! The implication here is that the crippling sectarianism in the country is our main demise; the irony is that “the solution,” civil, secular laws, is difficult (though, surely not impossible) to reach in our divided country – and as discovered in the anti-sectarian movement, difficult to agree upon even amongst its strongest supporters.

Still, the efforts of all members and parties can go a long way. Respect to those who have not given up on change. The Laique movement began last year, before the revolutionary fever. While the anti-sectarian movement tried to ride the wave. The  two groups are different, at least in presentation. While the former demands the toppling of the sectarian system completely, the latter demands adding civil rights first. Nonetheless, the existence and support of both illustrates an obvious and true desire of people who want their civil rights to be completely separate from their religious sect – despite the political implications (imbalance in power, namely). Why should anyone have the right to tell you that you must marry, inherit, or divorce under this or that (unfair) religious law? As our emcee repeatedly chanted the infamous Lebanese question into the mic: “What sect are you from?”  she answered, “It’s none of your business!”

I wonder, though, how do these efforts turn into a revolution?

Anti-sectarian movement sit-in, Sanayeh Garden. Since February.


Here are pics from the Laique Parade, May 15.

The Emcee and the King of Laique

Walking toward downtown - a ghost-town of a route...

Workers watching the crowd of laiqu-ers

Nizar and Wael. "You dare not say you like laic..."

Not a bad idea.

Under one long flag.

This activist did not lower his arm for the entire demonstration.

Dog for civil rights.

"Marouniye" and the image of Che Guevara, together - bet you haven't seen that before.

Lunching - and cheering for Laique...

Lots of respect for bringing kids to demo's!

A march for secularism is incomplete without the Ka3ek vendor.

The mission, according to the Laique Pride Facebook page:

“All the Lebanese are equal before the law. They enjoy equal civil and political rights and are equally subjected to public charges and duties without any distinction whatever.”
(Art.7 Lebanese Constitution)

We are Lebanese citizens who wish to live in dignity and equality with other co-citizens. Armed with public and private rights and liberties warranted by the Lebanese constitution, we mobilize for a civil secular state founded on citizenship, guaranteeing the expression of the country’s diversity and securing social justice, one of the main foundations of civil peace.

We call for:

– laws respectful of human rights, public and private liberties as well as gender equality,
– a strong, impartial and independent judiciary,
– a Lebanese civil code for personal status,
– the abolition of institutional sectarianism,
– the strengthening of education on citizenship.

The Laique Pride is a movement seeking to gather the different shades of the Lebanese secular fabric. The march is a yearly meeting to make our voices heard and to put a face on our demands.

The Laique Pride encourages and supports every movement and organization working towards a more egalitarian society. It does not claim or intend to substitute secular actions underway all through the year, but rather wishes to inspire new citizen initiatives in Lebanon.