Friday, April 27, 2007

The end of Lebanon

Just saw this picture on Ur Shalim's blog:

Quite sad and hopefully not true. Lebanon has weathered heavier storms and somehow managed to survive. Yet it shows how many are viewing the current situation.

Two kidnapped found dead

What everybody feared became reality yesterday evening when news spread that the two people who were kidnapped on Monday, were found dead on Thursday. They were shot to death after possibly being tortured. When the police found the bodies, they had been dead for 48 hours already, meaning that they were killed on Tuesday.

The suspect is apparently the brother of one of the demonstrators who got killed during the riots at the Beirut Arab University on January 25. However, it’s unclear what the two victims have to do with this. They seem to have been randomly targeted for revenge…perhaps purely based on their religion since they were Sunni and the victim on Jan 25 was a Shiite.

As a precaution, the government has closed down all schools today. Officially for mourning but everybody realizes that the next few days will be critical. Tensions are already very high in Lebanon and the last thing this country needs is a clash between Sunnis and Shiites. The last time both sides clashed was on January 25 and it resulted in four people killed and numerous wounded.

Last night went remarkably well without any incident. Let’s hope it’s a sign of future calm. What might also help is that the funeral of the two will be held today right after morning prayers. No doubt the religious speakers in every mosque will call for peace and it’s difficult to imagine people leaving their respective services only to go on a rampage.

Still, if you were a family member of the suspected killer, you’d better fear for your life no matter how distant the relationship. People here are big on revenge and the fact that one death on Jan 25 is compensated by two deaths yesterday (one of them a 12 year old boy and thus fully innocent), will only fuel the flames.

Hezbollah has denounced the killings in the strongest terms and you can easily guess why: the party is becoming increasingly isolated and it really cannot afford any further break-ups with Lebanese society. If the suspect is indeed a Shiite, it would only go against Hezbollah’s interests. However, that didn't stop Hezbollah from putting up a huge billboard with the pictures of two other kidnapped people right on the border with Israel. Coincidence?

Even if the killings are a personal matter, which is what we all want to believe, this country is racing faster and faster to a point of no return. Yesterday’s events only contribute to people’s feelings of frustration with the diminishing dialogue options. The usual and repetitive politicians’ calls for peaceful solutions are met with increasing cynicism. Sooner or later, someone will somewhere decide that somehow things have got to change…

PS. People who read Sietske’s blog and know that I am Dutch too, might wonder why I didn’t write about the Queen’s birthday celebration yesterday that was organized by the Dutch embassy. Frankly, because in hindsight I feel they should have canceled it (and we should have left) upon hearing the news. Instead, the band played on.

As Sietske wrote on her blog, most Lebanese left very fast after the news broke. The Dutch, not known for their cultural sensitivity anyways, stayed behind to party. The last thing I saw when we left was the ambassador dancing the night away with the music band competing with the sound of police sirens. Somehow, that’s not a picture you want to see the next day on the social pages.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Road safety in Lebanon

Unfortunately, road safety is hardly a priority in cash-strapped Lebanon. Combined with the notion generally held by every Lebanese that he is the best driver ever in history, and you can imagine the numerous tragic accidents occurring almost daily on the roads and highways.

But now the Lebanese government has launched a campaign to bring this issue to the attention of all Formula 1 drivers. Together with Yasa, the government has put up billboard, is handing out flyers and has even set up a mini open air museum consisting of car wrecks around the Bechara Khoury square.

Yesterday, police men were handing out the below flyer:

The Arabic consists of the warning that although German cars are the best, they don’t provide protection in case of accident. The deceased car is a Mercedes no doubt.

The Yasa organization is very active in raising awareness regarding the dangers of the Lebanese (roads). It was founded by the friends of Tariq Assi who died in a car accident. And well, they got their work cut out for them. Almost every day, you read about fatal car accidents, often involving young people. The reasons for the accidents vary from speeding and alcohol to badly maintained roads or even non-lighted traffic works.

Quite a few times, I was nastily surprised by fences and what have you that were put up on the road for repairs, without any warning signs or lights Also, the quality of the roads is often substandard in Lebanon, which makes for dangerous situations in which you can easily lose control over the steering wheel.

Let’s hope the Yaza campaign will work to make the roads safer.

The Internal Security Forces are sending mass SMS'ses saying"One minute late...a whole lifetime gainedYou are responsibleRoad incidents are not accidental" (SIC)

A book baptism

Last Friday, we were invited to the launch of a poetry book written by our good friend Shahé Kazarian. As his last name already indicates, he’s Armenian. Most family names ending on ‘ian’ are likely to be Armenian. I wish more countries/cultures would have a similar system; it would really help out in identifying one’s roots. Anyway...:-)

Although the poems are written in English, the book launch was clearly inspired by Armenian traditions. The book is sponsored by Cadmus, an organization that dedicates itself to the Armenian Genocide and the proceeds of the book will be used for raising awareness of this tragedy. But don’t buy the book only for this reason, the poems itself are definitely worthwhile also.

The presentation of the book was quite interesting as it was actually baptized by a priest. Apparently, an old Armenian tradition prescribes that a new book be soaked in wine before it is released to the public. A cynic might say that this is a good way of thought control by the church, but nowadays, it has more a folkloric value.

The book is called ‘Reflections of My I’ and is a collection of Shahé’s poems throughout the years. Some were written in Canada, where Shahé has lived for many years, others were written in Lebanon. Too bad the book does not indicate year and location of each poem, which leaves you guessing, but maybe that’s for the best: why would the value of a poem change if you’d know when and where it was written?

When you read his poems, what’s perhaps most striking is the everlasting battle for truth, honesty and justice, e.g.:

My I has rebelled
Against the old
The collective,
Succumbed to the new
The individual.
(from My I Has Rebelled)


The esprit of my I
Is a rebellious youth
A raging bull
Mourning the crushed mirror,
Pained in nothingness,
Meaningless, the reality of death
(from: The Spirit of My I)

Other poems are equally though-provoking, just like good poems should be. Their daringness leaves you mystified at times and as such they provide an excellent starting point for further reflection of your own ‘I’, such as:

god created man for god
woman for man

god created woman for god
man for woman

god created androgyny for god
person for androgyny
(from Yesterday)

This poem echoes the famous Beatles line “I am he, as you are he, as you are me and we are all together” (hence the poem is named after their greatest hit?) and it makes you think about maintaining your individuality while being part of a future in which you are destined to equal god. This poem, if I understand it correctly, could easily be seen as blasphemous and as such proves the point that the baptism ritual has lost its censorship aspect.

The most daring poem can be found on page 12:
On this cool night
I have embraced
my yesterday
in the dawn of tomorrow.

I now know
who I am.
(from: On This Cool Night)

This should have been the last poem in the book: Mission accomplished!

Knowing who you are is something only very few of us would ever achieve, so it makes you wonder why the poet is making such a bold statement. Is he serious, can you really know yourself? Can you truly embrace your yesterday?

If you try to recall yourself only a few years back, you’ll find out that you have lost touch with yourself. Can you still remember your emotions, your ambitions, your dreams you had 5, 10, 15 years ago? What were your plans and expectations when you finished high school? What did you think when you got your first job?

Embracing yesterday is a daring task. Anyone who has ever kept a diary will know this all too well. In most cases, your very own diary is written by a stranger, someone you have lost touch with as time passed by.

And this is exactly the power of the poem: by putting it bluntly like this, Shahé forces you to think about yourself, your own past and about how well you know yourself.

The Hungarian writer György Konrad once wrote that a good book makes you want to put it down after every line so you can stare out of your window and ponder what you just read. I am in no way a literary critic, but reading Shahé’s poems likewise requires and deserves a lot of time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

War of words

It’s quite often rather difficult to interpret speeches from Lebanese leaders; in the sense that you really don’t have a clue whose side the speaker is on. Without much problem, you can take an Opposition speech and believe it’s from the March 14 movement.

Take a look at a recent speech given by Fadlallah, a pro-Hezbollah religious leader:

Lebanon's senior Shiite cleric said Friday that international and regional interference in Lebanon's domestic affairs would not forge peace in the country, nor would it resolve its problems. In his weekly Friday sermon from the Imam Hassanayn Mosque in Haret Hreik, Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah said that foreign countries "are exploiting internal discord to serve their projects in the region at the expense of Lebanon."

If you don’t know any better, you’d think he’s speaking out against Hezbollah’s reliance on Iran and Syria, two foreign countries that are exploiting internal discord. Further reading seems to confirm this impression:

"The Lebanese are being led into political labyrinths by a certain political group that is dependent on regional and international authorities that want to turn Lebanon into an arena…”

Now, you still could think he’s talking about Iran and Syria. The confusion is caused by the typical vagueness of speeches in Lebanon: people hardly mention names; they’d rather talk about ‘certain political groups’ or ‘foreign countries’.

Fortunately for the naive reader, Fadlallah realized his own ambiguity in time and continued:

…for US projects and European plans, especially the French ones,"

Ah! There we are!

Of course, anyone knowing Fadlallah’s position would already know he’s talking about the Wild Wild West, but still. Speeches like this reminds me a lot of the similarity between statements from Al Qaeda and George Bush: replace God with Allah and the speeches are almost identical.

UN troops at risk?

Yesterday, Hezbollah announced that if the UN would accept the Hariri Tribunal by means of a Chapter 7 resolution and thus bypassing the Lebanese government, it would interpret this move as hostile. All previously made commitments of protecting the UN troops in the south of Lebanon would be cancelled in such an event. Furthermore, a Chapter 7 resolution would create a “new reality which would be chaotic”.

Obviously, Hezbollah is using the implicit threat of their weaponry to convince the UN not to get involved in their own Tribunal. Apparently, they felt such statement was necessary after Russia, a staunch supporter of Syria and thus Hezbollah, said that Hezbollah is being shortsighted with their opposition against the Tribunal. Also, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has publicly said that the UN considers the Tribunal of utmost importance.

It remains to be seen if Hezbollah really wants to take on the UN, but it would be unwise to bet against the possibility of an attack. Most likely, Hezbollah would never claim such an attack if it was to happen, but then again, they wouldn’t have to: everyone would know regardless.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Reconciliation still far away

The Daily Star has a good article today in which they request former warlords to apologize. The answers are quite shocking in the sense that no one seems to have learned from their mistakes. Instead, the warlords (no problem to drop the ‘former’ adjective, it seems) are still going strong, very strong…way too strong even.

Look at what Jumblatt has to say:

Acknowledging that he had made "many" mistakes against innocent people during the war, Jumblatt said he was willing to apologize to the war's victims, "if they accept my apologies."

Right, sure he was wrong but hey, he estimates that no one wants to accept his apologies, why bother making them.

On to the next warlord: Samir Geagea, let’s see what he has to say about apologies:

Geagea said that the LF did not want the war to happen, "but we couldn't remain silent while Palestinians and later on Syrians violated our rights and our land."…"Those who launch wars need to apologize and not those who defend themselves and their land against assaults," Geagea said.

Oh boy, too bad the war happened (as in Rumsfeld's “stuff happens”), but the real culprits should apologize, not Geagea who never wanted war in the first place. But of course, that’s why the Lebanese Forces had around 20,000 militia members all armed to the teeth. Good thing they’re not nearly as active anymore, because it sounds like he’s willing to start “defending” Lebanon all over again.

Which brings us to that other warlord: Michel Aoun:

Fifteen years of exile led Aoun to reconsider his war experience, he said, and perform a self-evaluation of past stands.
"War was never an option; both the assailant and the victim suffer," Aoun said.
The former army general said that all the military operations he undertook during the war "were acts of self-defense, I never attacked anyone."
Aoun said the FPM had contained various attempts to spark a new war; "however," he added, "we still cherish our right for self-defense."

Now that’s what you can call a self-evaluation: Aoun was right all along and he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again in a heart beat. His comment that he never attacked anyone can only be met with a wary smile: those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fast Internet arrives in Lebanon…40 years from now

Some good news today: the minister of Telecom Marwan Hamadeh has announced that fast internet (DSL) will be launched by May 5. I remember hearing these promises ever I came Lebanon in 2001, but this time around, of course, it must be true. One small detail, though: the roll-out of DSL will happen at the amazing speed of 20-25 customers a day. There are roughly 300,000 Internet users so the last customer will be connected some 40 years from now…sigh…

Luckily, all those involved realize that this is unacceptable. The reason provided by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, however, is very peculiar: to avoid a parallel black market. Huh? What about giving the people who pay your salary a decent Internet connection? Instead, they come up with defensive reasons like a black market. Sure, that might be a problem, but not for the customers: they don’t care how they get decent Internet access.

Just how “decent” would the official DSL be, anyway? Well, the article provides some numbers. For comparison’s sake, I’ve listed the expected Lebanese prices with market prices in The Netherlands, the country with the highest penetration rate of DSL right after South Korea.

Table 1: Comparison Speed /Price Lebanon – The Netherlands

Download Speed



128 kb/s

22 USD

Free, with fixed phone line

256 kb/s

35 USD

Not Available

512 kb/s

45 USD

Not Available

1,024 kb/s

80 USD

Not Available

1,500 kb/s

Not Available

13 USD

3,000 kb/s

Not Available

40 USD

6,000 kb/s

Not Available

52 USD

8,000 kb/s

Not Available

78 USD

20,000 kb/s

Not Available

78 USD

All prices per month, Dutch prices from XS4ALL, which is part of market leader KPN.

*: Restricted up/download to roughly 1 GB a month, setup fee of 37 USD

** Unlimited up/download, free installation

For almost the same price of 80 USD, Internet access in Holland is a shocking 20 times faster than in Lebanon. Ouch! Thank God the Lebanese are so much richer than the Dutch! Also, it's quite interesting to notice that the Lebanese speeds are not even available in Holland because customers found them too slow...

Another thing. The article states that Lebanon has upgraded its bandwidth to the rest of the Internet to 1 gigabit. That sounds like a lot, but it is actually an awfully small amount: only 8,000 customers who take the cheapest subscription can be served! If customers take the more expensive packages, this number drops even more.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"We are all Hezbollah"

It’s amazing to see how the mighty have fallen. Like the US have squandered all support and sympathy they got right after 9/11, Hezbollah is now despised by most people. Remember the opening title of Le Monde the next day: “We are all Americans”? Lebanon’s newspapers could have written “We are all Hezbollah” many times after acts of heroism of the Resistance. But something went awfully wrong in Hezbollah’s PR campaign.

It’s not uncommon to learn from your adversaries and to improve upon them. Hezbollah’s occupation of downtown, e.g., is far more effective than Israel’s occupation of the Chebaa farms. Similarly, USA’s failure to read the situation in the Middle East correctly, is strikingly identical to Hezbollah’s repeated demonstrations of missing the point in Lebanon. Didn’t Hezbollah announce previously that if America would go to Lebanon, it would find another Vietnam? It looks like they don’t the yanks anymore to turn Lebanon into another quagmire.

The downfall of Hezbollah became eminent during one of Marcel Ghanem’s talk shows during the war (July 26, 2007, see here for English version or here for original Dutch article). Once the Pandora box of Hezbollah’s critics was opened, it could no longer be contained. From that moment on, people felt free to speak out against Hezbollah in the most open way possible.

The most recent reactions against Nasrallah’s speech show that Hezbollah has lost all credibility in the eyes of the pro-government politicians. Somehow, Hezbollah seems to have lost their ability to connect to the people they claim to defend. And that’s just tough: you want to help people, but people don’t want your assistance any longer.

It’s the same kind of frustration you can witness at employees of western help organizations who come to help the poor people in some forsaken part of the world. How big their surprise if they are not welcomed as heroes, and in fact the locals want them to just leave.

I’ve seen once an interview with a Dutch man who returned from some African country and even a few months later he was still fuming with anger and outspoken racism: "how dare those blacks refuse my help!". Quite shocking to see what is revealed when the layer of altruism is peeled off.

Is the same happening to Hezbollah? If so, it must be tough for its members. Imagine you are a proud fighter for the Resistance and you are willing to give your life for your ideals: never doubt the dedication of the Hezbollah soldiers. What would you do if those who you are willing to become a martyr for suddenly turn against you and ask you to stop?

Exactly, no wonder Hezbollah's dedication to keep on doing what they can do best: play soldier and damn the consequences.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hezbollah’s giving up on Lebanon?

During a speech and here on Sunday, the leader of Hezbollah, sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, seemed to be giving up on Lebanon. He has even lost interest in one of the key demands, namely a veto power in government, and now simply confines himself to stating that he prefers a stalemate. Anyone seeing kids play will easily recognize this sort of behavior: a toddler usually prefers destroying a toy to giving it to another child.

Nasrallah sees no reason to continue talking with the pro-government parties, will no longer discuss the issues of the blocking vote and is ready to accept many more months of stalemate. He wouldn’t mind early elections or a referendum, but he doesn’t really expect this to happen anytime soon.

It seems his speech was a reaction to the escalation of the March 14 movement last week by sending a petition to the UN to bypass parliament. As predicted in my previous blog, the Opposition is running out of options and for now, appears to be content with letting the stand still continue. The alternative would be civil war no less and Nasrallah, ever the gentleman, prefers the current stalemate. Good to know we don’t have to pack our bags just yet!

What a bizarre way of looking at things: why would the alternative to stalemate be civil war? Whatever happened to further dialogue or eventually accepting the fact you can’t always get what you want?

Once again it goes to show that Lebanon is not yet ready for democracy, or at least no all politicians are. Normally, a democracy has a ruling coalition and an opposition, but the Lebanese opposition wants to rule as well. This is not a new thing suddenly invented by Hezbollah for Lebanese previous governments have always included pretty much all factions.

As such, elections here hardly used to have meaning. A typical shift would be from one zaim (feudal lord) to the next, but the fundaments of power were rock solid. However, the 2005 elections changed all this with the landslide victory of anti-Syrian parties. Suddenly, the election outcome did matter and as a result the politicians are still trying to cope with this, especially those who lost.

As can be expected, the pro-government politicians (or blogs for that matter) cried foul at Nasrallah’s speech. He has broken the illusion that a solution is possible and the others don’t really appreciate his candor. It forces everybody to face reality, something most politicians don’t mind postponing.

In that sense, the speech can act as a catalyst to help forward the process, but right now that’s wishful thinking. Still, if you want to give Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt, his speech can be seen as a final call for action, to put the cat among the pigeons.

It's not easy being green

Yesterday, Brigitte and I ended a long Easter weekend with friends at the Beirut Hard Rock Café for their special offer of unlimited chicken wings and beer (or soft drinks). Once again, you couldn’t help but notice how much the Lebanese look alike in terms of latest fashion, clean hair cuts and so on. Nobody here is really out of the ordinary. As a whole, the Lebanese are anxious to fit in and will go to great length to avoid standing out.

The table next to us, however, did have a few youngsters who actually were unconventional. Two boys had wild, unkempt hairdos and were wearing Motörhead t-shirts. Also, they had the necessary tattoos. The two girls who were with them, were quite rebellious, too, with one having multiple nose, chin and lip piercings while the other had colored punk hair.

To Dutch standards, they looked quite modest. The tattoos were the stick-on tattoos and the punk hair, on closer look, turned out to be a removable hair extension...oops! Try walking around like that in Holland and people wouldn’t notice you, but yesterday, they got plenty of attention. Many other people were looking at them as if it was the first time they ever saw real-life piercings, and this could very well be the case.

They are the exception in perfection-driven Beirut and as such they deserve r.e.s.p.e.c.t. Being a rebel in Lebanon seemingly doesn’t take much, a washable tattoo does the trick, but even so hardly anyone has either the courage or desire to even try. Seeing them was a nice break from the otherwise conventionally dressed Lebanese and truly fitting to the Hard Rock Café’s motto: “Love all, serve all”.

Later during the night, the DJ got a second wind and despite various cliché music combinations (Another One Bites the Dust turning into Billy Jean…yawn), he got the crowd dancing. This provided some difficult moments for our Jimmy “Rebels without a Cause” Deans next to us: do you dance to Bon Jovi? Correct answer: no way, their music is for losers. Or what about Greased Lightning? Correct answer: way: this sucks so much it’s cool again. Amazingly, they all made the correct choices.

And that makes sense, in a way: The Lebanese can’t get rid of their obsessive desire for perfection, so even the drop-outs are being so flawlessly. I remember once seeing a Shakespeare play at AUB and you wouldn’t know you were in Lebanon: all the actors and actresses had perfected their British accent beyond imagination, very impressive.

The best part of the night occurred during the Stones' classic I Can’t Get No Satisfaction: for whatever reason people started dancing the traditional dabke: what better way to symbolize Lebanon’s conflicted position between East and West!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Roundup of Lebanese news – Short Version

As an extra service to the readers who are strapped for time, here's the short version of what happened in Lebanon:

Most politicians were busy talking to the press instead of to each other. Result: nothing has changed.

Roundup of Lebanese news – Long Version

The long version of what happened in Lebanon is mostly a matter of replacing cynicism with narcissism, in the sense that I, great blogger Riemer Brouwer, would be capable of understanding the various Lebanese politicians and even try to analyze their statements to somehow extract a pattern. And what’s more, to assume that anyone cares about it. How narcissistic, indeed!

FWIW, here it goes. The pro-government members of parliament have tried now during three consecutive Tuesdays to convince House Speaker Nabih Berri to open parliament for a session in order to discuss the UN Tribunal. More specifically, the goal of the session would be to formally vote on the law drafted by Siniora to hold the Tribunal. The opposition, however, does not recognize the current government; therefore Berri has so far refused to accept any incoming draft law from Siniora.

In an almost comedy-like setting, Berri’s office was firmly closed (apparently, even the mailbox was nailed shut) so the “postman” could not deliver the draft law, which gave Berri the opportunity to say that he never received a proposal so formally he doesn’t know about anything. It’s like a little kid who closes his eyes to make believe papa is no longer there.

In reaction, the pro-government parties have hardened their position. Hariri and others have said publicly that the Opposition will never get a blocking vote, which is their key demand. It has become clear that the cozy fireside sessions Hariri had with Berri have resulted only in widening the gap between them.

In another alarming development, the pro-government Members of Parliament have decided to write a letter to the UN asking for a so-called Chapter 7 resolution for the UN Tribunal. This would mean that the UN no longer needs the consent of Lebanon to hold the Tribunal. Instead, the UN will setup the Tribunal all by itself.

This basically implies that the government supporters are giving up on dialogue and want to bypass the political system in Lebanon. Obviously, this has triggered fierce reactions from the Opposition who accused the pro parties of exactly this. Never mind that they first were bypassing parliament by refusing to have sessions, but that didn’t stop Aoun e.g., to accuse each Member of Parliament who supported the request to the UN of high treason.

The new chairman of the UN, Ban, has given mixed messages. On the one hand, he supports the UN Tribunal and says that everything should be done to make it happen, while on the other hand he prefers that the Tribunal be accomplished via constitutional means. In other words, he is not yet ready to go the Chapter 7 route.

This is quite understandable because Hezbollah, which for now has given guarantees for the UN troops in the south of Lebanon, could easily see a Chapter 7 resolution as an aggressive act. If they would feel stripped of their sovereignty, then perhaps the UN soldiers might be considered fair game. But that’s speculation since Hezbollah has not even hinted towards anything like this.

However, the opposition has threatened to boycott the parliament sessions to elect a new president, scheduled for November this year. If they all would stay away, parliament would not reach the required quorum and could therefore not decide on the new president. This point is rather moot right now anyway since parliament is not meeting, but that didn’t stop the Opposition from making the threat.

The latest development is that Berri has asked Saudi Arabia once again to organize mediation talks. You have to admire the stamina of the Saudis for hosting yet another round of talks. The irony of it all is that these talks, with the purpose of strengthening the constitutional process, in other words, to prevent further bypassing of parliament, will be held outside of parliament.

Easter 2007 is thus not a very hopeful page in Lebanon’s history. The government is pushing to get the Tribunal accepted via the Chapter 7 option. If this succeeds, it would mean the Opposition is left with little democratic options to voice their concerns. One can only fear what other options they might consider next.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Restaurant site leaves a bad taste

In order to stimulate tourism, the ministry of Tourism and the organization of restaurant owners have set up a website dedicated to restaurants and other outlets in Lebanon. It’s a sympathetic idea because many restaurants in central Beirut are either closed or with very little customers. Too bad, though, the website is such a disaster.

Here’s some free advice on how to improve the site:
1. Include all restaurants instead of only a very small sample of less than 90 places that are currently included on the site. If you search for Armenian restaurants, e.g., you find only 1 selection, Mayriq. It’s an excellent restaurant and highly recommendable, but what about offering choice? Naharnet offers already 8 Armenian eateries so how come the Ministry can not do the same?

The lack of restaurants is even more clear when you search for a Chinese restaurant in all of Lebanon: again, only 1 choice (Jardin de Chine). How can the ministry of Tourism think that this is the way to attract tourists: who would want to go to country where you have only 1 Chinese restaurant?

Also, the search criteria can easily be improved by including the option to search on more details, like why can't you search on vegetarian restaurants?

2. Visitors can buy coupons redeemable at restaurants. This could work but not under the strict conditions currently imposed upon them. You have to buy in quantities of 4, each voucher is 25 USD and once bought, you cannot change restaurants anymore. This narrows down the potential customer base to Lebanese who plan ahead their visits to restaurants…a rather small group. Why not let the coupons be valid in any restaurant?

Furthermore, it would be a good idea to let customers decide on the amount instead of demanding them to buy at chunks of 100 USD at a time. That’s a lot of money for people to spend on food, especially in days of crisis.

3. There’s no discount! You wonder about the logic of the people behind the initiative: if you want to stimulate business you have to make your goods attractive to buy. Giving discounts is the typical approach to increase sales. Why not sell each 25$ coupon for 20$? Then, you might attract customers who feel this is a good deal.

4. Related to the previous points: why exactly should customers go through the hassle of buying limited and yet expensive coupons on the internet when it offers no benefits for them? Right now, the only selling point used on the website is to stimulate restaurants and to save jobs. That’s great and no one will disagree with these noble goals, but customers don’t need the website to help out. Instead, they can simply go to restaurants.

5. The website looks old fashioned, is hardly interactive and does not use the latest technologies, such as mash-ups for Google Maps. Why not invest in developing an overlay for Google Maps so that visitors can ‘fly over’ Lebanon and see restaurant information pop up. And no, this is not too advanced or too ambitious. Nowadays, such solutions are the minimum requirements.

6. The information per restaurant is very limited. The most important thing you want to know about a restaurant, is the menu, right? But unfortunately, this information is excluded.

You know, forget about coupons and all that. What about a site that lists the menus and prices of each restaurant in Lebanon + contact info so you can make reservation or order in? Make it easily searchable and give suggestions similar to “if you like this food, you might want to try…”, like Amazon does. That would be really useful and it might stimulate restaurant visits.

I’ve send a link to this article to the contact on the website. Let’s hope they will improve the website, because it truly is a good initiative to stimulate restaurants visits and a good website is definitely lacking in Lebanon.

UPDATE: The contact form doesn't work...sigh

Christians are fleeing…oh really?

Oh my, another panic article about Lebanon is making the rounds in Lebanese blogs. This time, it’s the Australian based Sunday Telegraph newspaper that has published a story about rising radical Islam leading to an exodus of Christians out of Lebanon.

There is no denying many people consider leaving Lebanon, but I never heard the argument of radical Islam for this. Even a Christian woman quoted in the article doesn’t use it as a reason for her desire to emigrate. Instead, she is referring to economical and political reasons and indeed, this is the most heard complaint about Lebanon: the political bickering is killing the economy and thus jobs.

But an increase of radical Islam in Lebanon? I truly doubt that’s the case. Most people blame the current instability on Syria, which is far from radical Islam. The last thing Assad wants is a bunch of radicals walking around, either in Syria or in neighboring Lebanon.

Also, Hezbollah can hardly be described as increasingly radical regarding Islamic values. Sure, they have issues with the Lebanese government which they consider to be illegal. However, their opinion is not based on a radicalization of their Islamic beliefs. Instead, it has to do with their perceived under representation. In other words, it’s a struggle for political power.

Besides the clearly misleading header of the article, let’s look at the numbers quoted by the Sunday Telegraph: since the war, more than 60,000 Maronites have left the country. It makes you wonder how the journalist came up with this number. Religion is no longer registered in one’s passport, so how can you know how many Maronites emigrated from Lebanon?

Furthermore, perhaps many of those 60,000 were simply Lebanese visitors who went home to their houses in America, Canada, Europe, Australia and so on. Given the fact that some 12 to 15 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon and only 4 million inside Lebanon, emigration statistics are notoriously difficult to assess correctly.

The second statistic mentioned is that half of the Maronites consider leaving. Sure, if you ask anyone here if he wants to leave, chances are most of the interviewed would affirm this. Yet there is a difference between dreams and actions. The Lebanese excel at thinking big, but putting their wishes into practice is often a step not taken.

Another statistic is that over 100,000 have applied for a visa to leave the country. First, you would like to see if this number is higher than usual. Lebanese love to travel and visit their family. With so many Lebanese living abroad, it’s quite common to hear people visiting their family at least once a year, if not more often. Who is to say that the 100,000 applications are exceptionally high? Without comparison to historical data, this number alone doesn’t mean anything.

And, obviously, the journalist conveniently overlooks the simple fact that a tourist visa is not the same as emigration.

The journalist nailed down one thing correctly, though: the Christians are worried about their decreasing influence. The percentage of Christians is estimated at 22%. Again, this is a number that is quite impossible to assess since the last census was held in 1932. Others estimate it significantly higher at 35%. But, let’s suppose it’s more or less true. Then yeah, sure, Christians should be worried that their privileged position will be scrutinized by other groups. Their 22% gives the Christians the exclusive right to the president, the Army Chief of Staff, half the parliament seats and various other high public functions, such as the president of the Central Bank.

The current struggle of Hezbollah for more influence can easily be understood if you look at the numbers. The Shiites, for all their numbers, hardly have significant political power, so something’s gotta give. And the Maronites have the most giving to do, were the political system to truly represent demographics in Lebanon.

Solida clarifies position on Hariri case

Solida, the organization that stands up for arbitrarily detained prisoners, has issued a clarification of its recent position, vis-à-vis the 8 detainees in the Hariri case. The mere fact that Solida associated themselves with these 8 people, resulted in many angry reactions, both in Lebanon and among the Lebanese abroad. Many, including myself, mistakenly took Solida’s position to be in favor of releasing the prisoners. This, however, was not its intention, hence the clarification.

After the press release, I’ve communicated with the president of Solida, Marie Daunay and she provided some additional information. The main concern of Solida is respecting all applicable laws and treaties. She confirmed, and this was also mentioned in the latest press release, that Solida has no problem with suspects being arrested…as long as they are informed of the charges against them and as long as the rule of law is applied.

Well, this sounds fair enough, we don’t want to have another Guantanamo Bay situation here in Lebanon. However, according to Solida, the basic rights of the prisoners were violated: the Lebanese state has so far not brought charges against them and some of the detainees are held in solitary confinement. Interesting enough, various UN treaties specifically forbid isolation; and Lebanon has signed those treaties and is bound by them.

This brings us to, perhaps, the strongest argument of Solida, namely that the prisoners could be released due to these violations of UN treaties. It’s easy to imagine lawyers arguing that the state of Lebanon has been in violation of UN rules while holding suspect to be tried in a UN court!

This could even lead to dropping the prosecution of the 8 detainees due to these infringements on UN treaties…something nobody would like. There are precedents of this happening before. According to Solida president Marie Daunay, suspects were let go because of these and similar technicalities in the UN tribunal of Sierra Leone and we all know comparable examples in regular courts.

Entering paranoid mode
What if high up in the Lebanese picking order, some apparatchiks are violating Lebanese laws and UN treaties on purpose, in order to help weaken the case against the 8 prisoners?
Remember, most of them were appointed under Syrian influence and some might have hung on to their warm feelings for Syria. Yup, it’s a stretch for sure, but can anyone comfortably say that they would be surprised if it turned out to be true? Right…

Monday, April 2, 2007

Starting date for Orange TV?

Lebanon’s TV landscape is almost a carbon copy of its political scene. Most parties have their own station. The Lebanese Forces have LBC, Hariri owns Future TV, Manar belongs to Hezbollah, NBN is allied with Nabih Berri and New TV is closely linked to the Opposition. The only one, besides Druze leader Jumblatt, who does not have his own station is Michel Aoun. At least, not yet but rest assured, he’s busy setting up Orange TV.

Despite high expectations among his followers regarding the launch date, the station is still not in the air. According to the News Director, the launch will coincide with a symbolic date and he says that most people expect it to happen on April 26, the day of Syrian withdrawal, or May 7, the day when Aoun returned to Lebanon in 2005. But, he added that no date has been set yet.

Well, as long as the date is still not decided, perhaps the most suitable launch date would be April 13, the start of the Civil War.

Time and again, Aoun is capable of dividing Lebanon. His latest contribution to the discussion is to predict that, most likely, the presidential elections will not be held as scheduled. He might very well be right, but he went on and accused the government of stealing the last elections. Huh? Did he forget that these elections were organized and tailored by the pro Syrian factions? And that despite the tactical reshaping of the borders of the various election districts, the pro Syrian parties still managed to lose?

It’s unclear why Aoun would make this statement. After all, he considers himself a candidate for the presidency and has recently agreed to swap Lahoud for support of the UN Tribunal. But now he openly speculates of Lahoud staying longer in office. This means that Aoun himself has to wait before running for president. What candidate in his right mind would be satisfied with positioning himself in the antechamber?

Well, perhaps Aoun is thinking that his chances right now are not that great, see Michael Young’s latest article, and that he can only improve his prospects by extending the term of Lahoud. If so, it would quite a destructive strategy: Let the chaos in Lebanon increase more and more until people are so desperate that he becomes an acceptable candidate once again. If this is true, then yes, April 13 would be a fitting date, indeed.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Palm Sunday in Lebanon

Today, we celebrated Palm Sunday, or Shaa’nini in Arabic. This is always an important event which is especially geared towards the little kids. Before the sermon started, the priest announced that he will keep it short and sure enough, his sermon took only 10 minutes or so. After the Holy Communion, the fun part started, namely a procession around the church, whereby the kids are carried by their fathers. Highly exciting for the kids, less so for the fathers because it’s not easy to carry 15+ kg on your neck for half an hour or so:-) The kids are dressed to the nines for this occasion, with the girls in lovely dresses and the boys in little suits.

The priest and his helpers would lead the procession and the rest of the church goers would walk behind him. The weather, however, was dreadful since it rained when we arrived to church. Too bad, because they might cancel the outside procession and replace it with a somewhat cramped tour within the church, which is not the real thing of course.

We quickly exited the car and went into church. Because of Brigitte’s pregnancy, we didn’t want to risk of being late and thus not having a seat, so we went early. In Holland, being early for church on such occasions would mean you have to show up at least 45 minutes early to guarantee a seat. The Lebanese are less punctual: we were 10 minutes early and the church was still half empty.

It is always amazing to see the lack of planning in Lebanon, which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Making reservations at restaurants, e.g., is dead simple: just call the restaurant in the afternoon to make reservations for that same night and most likely there are still tables available. Try that in Europe or America: most good restaurants are solidly booked weeks, or even months ahead of time. It’s great to have this easy access to any restaurant in Lebanon.

The downside is that people usually show up late, regardless the occasion. During the first 15 minutes in a movie theater, you have a constant flow of people arriving late. A famous example of being late was three years ago when a classical concert in Byblos was held up for more than 2 hours because the president didn’t arrive in time. Too bad for the musicians who had to wait in their tuxedos and evening gowns in temperatures still reaching above 30 degrees Celsius in the sweltering night.

In short, many people here show up late, even for church. Keeping God waiting is not a concept I was brought up with, but the average Lebanese is quite a bit more flexible. As a result, churches quite often start filling up after the service begins. Perhaps this is a symptom for Maronite / Catholic churches only, whereby the Holy Communion is considered to be the most important part. It’s not uncommon to see people pop in for the host (piece of holy bread) and then leave again.

All the while in church, we were concerned about the weather: would it be possible to have the procession outside? Yesterday, the weather girl was not very sure because the computer predicted rain, and she solemnly added that only God could make a difference.

Sure enough, when we left the church, the sky had cleared up and the sun was shining plentiful. It was actually quite warm. Last year, it was the same thing: we also went in the rain to church, only to find abundant sunshine when we left again to start the procession. And some people say that miracles no longer exist…

So there we all went with our kids on our necks, out into the sunshine. Each kid took an olive branch from baskets at the exit of the church and off we went. The fact that they use olive branches is quite fascinating, since the day is called Palm Sunday. So why not use leaves from the palm tree? I never bothered with this little detail in Holland since we don't have palm trees or olive trees over there. But in Lebanon we have both, so how come?

A quick Bible study reveals that the gospels are inconsistent on this topic. Palm Sunday is in memory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He was either riding a donkey or a colt and the crowd received him with by placing their coats and leaves on the road. Just like Jesus’ mode of transport, the Bible is unclear as to what leaves were used.

In some places, the Bible mentions people took leaves from trees along the road. This must be a reference to olive branches, which leaves you can easily remove and which can be found along the road used by Jesus: the procession took place next to the Mount of Olives in greater Jerusalem, a good hint that the people must have been using olive branches.

However, the gospel of John speaks clearly of palm leaves, which the people took off the trees…So which gospel to believe? Given the fact that the gospel of John was written much later than the other three and given the practical obstacle to remove palm leaves which are quite sturdily connected, it is most likely that John has changed the leaves from olive branches into palm leaves. Perhaps John thought it would be more fitting for King Jesus to be welcomed by large palm leaves instead of little olive branches?

Whatever the historical truth, the churches in Lebanon believe that olive branches are the most appropriate and thus use them, possibly fueled by the lack of palm trees. Olive branches have the added value of being seen as a symbol for peace. After the procession was over, we chatted a bit with friends, gave our regards to the priest and went home for a quick stop, only to continue to friends of us who invited us for Sunday lunch. The food was great, abundant and it was no surprise that the lunch lasted until 6PM. These afternoons, shared with friends, make you realize the beauty of Lebanon and its people.