Monday, July 30, 2007

Staying neutral in Lebanon...errr...right

Yesterday, one of the readers commented on my alleged neutrality and has raised questions regarding this blog’s point of view regarding the upcoming by-election in the Metn. Since her comments are thought-provoking and thoughtful (the best combination possible), here’s a relative long reply.

First of all, the reader would be absolutely right to question the neutrality of this blog. The postings here are not neutral and although I am certainly questioning some of Siniora’s decisions, this blog is located somewhere around March 12.5. In other words, the reader is fully correct in assessing that I am biased towards March 14 and this shows quite often in my postings, the majority of which are more critical vis-a-vis March 8 (mostly Aoun) than March 14.

That being said, there were plenty of entries in which this blog did raise questions towards Siniora’s policy and also questioned the bias in other media. It is interesting to note, e.g., that most of the blogs I can find are with March 14 or are cynical towards Lebanese politics altogether. It would be great to include March 8 blogs as links on the left side bar of this blog in either English or French, but somehow they’re difficult to find.

As other blogs have pointed out, these days you have to have an opinion in Lebanon. It seems that these are not the times for neutrality: you are either with March 8 or March 14. In that sense, Lebanon starts to resemble a two party state, similar to the USA. There is one huge difference, though: in America, the winner takes it all, the loser’s standing small…and the losers are OK with that. Not so in Lebanon. In a suffocating way, the Lebanese political scene does not allow the winner to take anything unless all losers agree.

And this brings me to the main reason why this blogger feels more sympathy for March 14 than with March 8. The latter group lost the elections, despite the fact that these were prepared for by the old regime and tailored as much as possible to ensure a victory of the pro-Syrian parties. However, despite all of this, the March 8 parties lost.

In a mature democracy, the losers would still continue to participate in the political process, trying to gear up for the next round of elections. Being in the opposition gives you an excellent opportunity to learn from possible mistakes you’ve made and to come out stronger. By not taking such a mature approach, the Opposition has lost much goodwill. Instead of sucking it up, the Opposition brought the country to a devastating stand-still.

Imagine the Democrats would have occupied Broadway in New York after the USA Supreme Court ruled that George Bush had indeed won the last elections! For most people, such a situation in the USA would be unimaginable, yet in Lebanon this is exactly what happened.

Some people have argued that the government should have stand down after the Opposition members of parliament and government withdrew. They typically refer to countries like Italy where the government falls every so often if they lose their basis to govern. However, the resignation of a government due to the resignation of a coalition partner typically only happens if the government would lose its majority. In Lebanon, this was not the case and Siniora was therefore not pressed to step down and to request new elections.

It’s actually quite amazing to this blogger, how little Siniora has done with the mandate of the Lebanese people. Without the Opposition to worry about (from a strict political sense), he could have pushed through many more reforms and new laws than he has done so far.

Compare this to the USA, or pretty much any other western country, where a newly elected president can use the first 100 days in office (the honeymoon period) to really make some changes in order to reflect the will of the people. Lebanon doesn’t seem to have this kind of attitude, which is one explanation for the political impasse that has hampered this country ever since its independence: election results are normally not used to enforce change.

Getting back to the upcoming Metn election. This blog feels that Aoun should not run against Amin Gemayel for various reasons, the most important one being the lack of respect for the death of his son and the division it will sow in the Christian community.

Aoun is, however, fully entitled by Lebanese law to run, and what’s more, he might win the elections depending on how much of his Christian base he still has got left, how much Michel Murr can mobilize and how much the Armenians will follow one of their leaders who made a pact with Aoun.

Although Aoun has the law on his side, many people would feel his choice to run against a father succeeding his murdered son, is not very respectful. Also, he is dividing the Christians once again. The latter part is not a democratic concern. As the commenter pointed out, why can’t the Christians have a mind of their own and be divided in two or more groups?

Well, there is no reason whatsoever to deny anyone in Lebanon a choice. Yet, I can’t help but feeling that the Metn are used as the location for another round of a proxy war between Syria and the west. It’s interesting that the Beirut elections go pretty much uncontested. Sure, there is a contester, but he won’t stand a chance and the Opposition is not going to put up a fight out of fear of another round of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, something Iran and Syria don’t want.

Instead, the Opposition has chosen the Metn as its battlefield at the expense of the Christians and finding a willing tool in Aoun. Clashes among Christians is not considered a problem apparently for either him or the rest of the Opposition. In a country like Lebanon where religion is still very much important and mostly defines one’s identity, such strives are unnecessary and harmful. Throughout Lebanese history, Christians (or rather the Maronites, somehow the Orthodox are more at ease in a predominantly Muslim region) have felt threatened by their Muslim surroundings, a feeling which has only increased over the years with their numbers dwindling compared to the increase of Sunnis and Shiites.

The last thing the Christian community needs is a useless division. Why not have Amin Gemayel have the seat of his son? Again, there are no legal laws that can stop Aoun from running against Gemayel, but to claim that Aoun is defending democracy by contesting the Metn seat is taking it to the other end of the argument.

Normally, a country doesn’t organize elections in case an MP dies. The seat simply goes to the party that assigns a successor. It’s a mystery to me why Lebanon has the legal requirement to organize by-elections when tradition requires the seat to be uncontested in case of tragedy. Aoun has made it painfully clear that it’s high time to change this law.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Twin boys!!

With the country gearing up for the Battle of the Metn, Brigitte and I have other priorities. On Friday, she delivered from healthy twin boys!!!!! Please welcome Marc Assad and Andrew Rik Charbel to this world!!! Mom and kids are fine and we expect to leave the hospital early next week.

Although they're not identical, they sure look similar. See pics below:

Photo 1: The twins in the nursery, about two hours after being born

Photo 2: Proud mum Brigitte with Marc and Andrew

Photo 3: Marc...err...Andrew....err...i give up :-)

Photo 4: This must be Andrew

Photo 5: hey Janine, say hello to your new brother

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bye bye Shaker Al-'Absi

According to the Daily Star, the Lebanese army has found sewage tunnels that were used as exit routes for the militants holed up in Nahr al-Bared. Now let's see if Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker Al-'Absi will live to fight another day. And let's wait for the conspiracy theories that will flame up after the Lebanese army realizes he has escaped.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Surprise Scenario

The French language newspaper L’Orient-le Jour published a handy article yesterday in which various scenarios were mentioned as to what the future can bring according to sources close to March 8. There are a total of 6 possible developments , ranging from unlikely to highly unlikely, but that’s just how things are now in Lebanon.

Scenario 1:
A unity government is being installed prior to the presidential elections. The government would have as task to pave the way for electing a president who can unite the country. This is the favorite option of the Opposition, however, it’s highly unlikely the government will accept this scenario.

Scenario 2:
A unity government will not be installed because all parties will agree on the presidential candidate before the elections, hence removing the need for such government. This scenario is also highly unlikely due to the persistence with which the Opposition has demanded that first a unity government should be formed before a president can be elected. Still, if all parties would agree on a neutral candidate, it might just work.

Only two problems would be to find a candidate who is truly neutral in the eyes of both March 14 and March 8 and to overcome the objections of the patriarch who feels that a compromise candidate will weaken the presidential function and thus the power of the Maronites.

Scenario 3:
If the previous scenario doesn’t result in a strong enough compromise candidate (heh, talk about a contradiction), another option would be to elect a president for only 2 years. In this scenario, the president would have a specific function to revamp the election law and to ensure the next elections will be acceptable to all parties. This option is also not very likely due to the fact that a president for two years only will weaken the presidential function too much in the eyes of the Christians.

Scenario 4:
The fourth scenario is loosely based on the first and second: forming a transitional unity government under leadership of army commander Michel Suleiman. He is seen by many as neutral since he has been going against orders from president Lahoud, which makes him acceptable to the March 14. As well, he has allowed the tents occupying Downtown since December 1, which gave him credit among March 8. Only problem is that Suleiman himself has ruled out this option: he will not be available for the presidential seat. Then again, holding your cards close to your chest is trait shared by most candidates.

Scenario 5:
The fifth scenario is to form a parallel government in case the previous options don’t work. This scenario seems to have lost its momentum, especially since president Lahoud has not undertaken any visible action to start appointing ministers for this shadow government. Earlier, he had mentioned July 15 as the deadline: if by then no solution would have been reached, he would start forming the parallel government. However, July 15 came and passed without any concrete action of Lahoud.

Scenario 6:
The Surprise Scenario! Like a magician pulls rabbits out of his head, there is talk that Lahoud is working on a surprise scenario. Nobody really knows the details, but rumors have it that the circle around Lahoud is planning a way out of the current stalemate. Details are scarce, but sources close to Lahoud have said their scenario would obey all Lebanese laws, including the Constitution, and would satisfy both March 8 and March 14.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Qartaba welcomes Amin Gemayel

After having the great event of our priest being ordained a Monseigneur, Qartaba was again bustling with activity to welcome Amin Gemayel to town. He came here to open a local center of the Kataeb party and was also invited to lunch by former MP Fares Soueid.

Now, this blog always prides itself in being independent and transparent. However, a small disclaimer is in order since Brigitte and I are good friends of the Soueids. As such, we were invited to his house for lunch and were given the honor to sit at a table next to Sheikh Amin's table, his son Samy and the other Gemayels. So much for being an independent blogger”, but hey, the food was great and the company even better:-)

Photo 1: The scouts of Qartaba are practising for receiving Sheikh Amin Gemayel

Photo 2: A huge turnout in Qartaba for the arrival of the former president of Lebanon

The Gemayel family is often called the Kennedy’s of Lebanon, meaning that death and murder are no stranger to the Gemayel’s. The latest murder was Pierre Gemayel, an up-and-coming politician who was killed only recently, most likely because he was seen as too threatening because of his rising star. In a very strange and bizarre way, perhaps the best way to look at this is to see it as a hell of a compliment.

His father has announced this weekend that he will run in the by-elections to succeed his son. Very sad to realize that time has been turned upside down.

According to an earlier rumor, the brother of Pierre, Sheikh Samy, was going to run, but his father has prevented this. Most people seemed to be strangely relieved at this news: if they kill Sheikh Amin, it’s better to have at least one son left alive. Imagine to be faced with such decisions…it would make most people drop out of politics as soon as they can.

The Gemayel’s, however, are stronger than most and here they were in Qartaba, fully supported by their wives and kids. Amin Gemayel gave an emotional speech in which he stressed that his candidacy is not by choice but the result of a brutal murder and that a father should never have to succeed his son.

After that, Fares Soueid also gave a speech and said that the by-elections are not for the Metn alone, but for all of Lebanon. It will be a chance to demonstrate that the Lebanese choose life over death, freedom over domination and independence over slavery.

Put like this, it might turn out to be a good thing for the Kataeb that Michel Aoun’s party is also running in the Metn. More and more, Aoun seems to be in self-destructing mode and he doesn’t shy away from low-blows and mud smearing campaign. For instance, his calling Amin Gemayel the ‘inheritor’ is insulting, especially since it was the killing of Amin’s son that forced him into running again.

Also, the fact alone that he is contesting a seat that became available through tragedy, is something new to the Lebanese political scene. Normally, these seats go uncontested, like what happened with the seat of Gebran Tueni.

Finally, many consider Aoun once again as a divider of the Christian community and for what purpose? So his party can win a seat in an election he considers illegal? Why would he want to participate in illegal activities?

Still, it will be interesting to see how the elections will go. Aoun is taking a big risk with this as he could easily lose with humiliating numbers. If that happens, this will reduce his chances for becoming president even further. He should have taken the high road and have not contested the Metn seat: out of respect for his opponents and to preserve the Christian community.

Qartaba once again has a scoop

The quaint little village of Qartaba had yet another first-ever this weekend: the married priest Naoum was ordained as a Monseigneur. This made him the first ever married priest to reach this high level. Obviously, it was a big event and the whole town was present in church to witness it.

Or rather, around the church since there were many more people attending the service than there were seats available. No worry, the organization has put plenty of chairs outside the church and no one had to miss a word thanks to loudspeakers

The service was held by the archbishop of Jbeil and was followed by a small video presentation that captured the highlights of Monseigneur Naoum’s life. All his life, he has been the town’s priest so many people know him very well. Yet, there were some details new to most of us. The most remarkable factoid was that he was already speed-dating before it even existed.

Due to his family moving to South America, the young student Naoum had to get married so his future wife could take care of the household. No problem: he was introduced to ten potential wives in as many days and got married on the 11th day! And, like a fairy-tale, they lived happily ever since. It only goes to show that love at first sight does exist and speed dating can work.

He is the third Monseigneur from Qartaba and the first ever priest who is married. Unique to the Catholic Church, the Maronite church allows married men to become priest. Typically, they are town priests and do not rise much in the church as the higher positions are reserved for the ‘career priests’ who are not married. It is therefore even more of a reason for all of Qartaba to be proud of the success of one of her sons.

30% price increase of bread

Anyone buying bread this morning was in for a surprise: overnight, the price of bread has increased with roughly 30 percent. That is, the price is the same, but the quantity has dropped with roughly one third. Starting Thursday, the “bread makers” will go on full strike, so get it while you can.

The reason is a government plan to up the official price of bread, which is heavily subsidized. The international prices of grains have increased rapidly, partly due to the environmentalists's demand for "green" bio-fuel. In order words, thanks to the Gorists (people who believe Al Gore's call to save the planet), the government felt it was necessary to adjust the Lebanese bread prices otherwise the subsidies would spin out of control.

This was not to the liking of the bread makers, so as per Lebanese Logic™ they upped the price far above the governmental increase. Clearly, this will anger the public, but hey, the bread makers are companies without faces while the government is highly visible. The former group must be guessing that the lion share of the blame will fall on Siniora. Especially now: since the hike in fuel prices last week people already have plenty to complain about.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oh boy, another red line!

Ever since dialogue died in Lebanon the latest fashion of politicians has become to draw red lines which cannot be crossed. Hezbollah drew a red line regarding Nahr al Bared, only to be outdone by Samir Geagea who drew two red lines. It’s almost like an auction: “Going once…do I hear three lines?…going twice…”

Remember the last red line that was drawn by Hezbollah’s leader sayyed Nasrallah? He told the government not to enter the Palestinian camp of Nahr al Bared. Interesting enough, the army under leadership of Syrian-appointed general Michel Suleiman, did not listen to Nasrallah. So much for his chances of becoming the next president, but at least Suleiman stood up for his country and tried to save it from terrorist attacks by Muslim fundamentalists.

The conclusion should reasonably be that red lines don’t really work too well. Sure, they result in a nice sound byte of a leader who comes across as strong, but if no one listens then what’s the point? Given this rather humiliating experience of Nasrallah, one would expect that other politicians would think twice before using the same concept of red lines.

Well…yeah…right…assuming brains in political circles is already quite a feat in well developed countries, let alone in Lebanon. I once read that the only thing that distinguishes humans from animals is not our intelligence, but our stupidity. That theory seems to hold up nicely in this country.

So yesterday we had Samir Geagea, the leader of the once banned Lebanese Forces, who declared not one, but two red lines. The first red line is that the government should not take over presidential powers in case the elections for the next president are cancelled.

The second red line is that the next president should be a strong person and not as weak as the presidents during the last 15 years, a reference to the presidencies of Emile Lahoud and Elias Hrawi, the latter started his job in 1989. None of the Christian leaders attended Hrawi’s funeral on July 7, 2006; no wonder Geagea doesn’t think highly of him.

Given Geagea’s second red line, you would think he’d come up with a strong presidential candidate. Unfortunately, he is exquisitely vague about it, saying that he could name a candidate maybe tomorrow or maybe 5 minutes before the deadline expires. Where did we hear this kind of statements before? Right, kindergarten!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Memorial for fallen Lebanese soldiers

For some strange reason, the Army has decided to cancel the Army Day on August 1. Now, more than ever, would be a good time to honor the army especially since so many soldiers have lost their lives in the line of duty. Luckily, there’s always Qartaba to save the day.

The main church in Qartaba, the Mar Elias Church, held a memorial service this Sunday to pay homage to all the fallen soldiers. So far, 97 have been killed during the Nahr al Bared siege and still the fighting continues. So it was high time to honor the army.

It was a beautiful service with many people attending. All the four security services in Lebanon sent their representatives and the army has sent their marching band. After the service was over, they played the hymn for the fallen soldier, followed by laud applause from the public. Even for a Dutch man like me, it was a moment to be proud of the army.

Interesting enough, there was no TV coverage. Perhaps the army wanted it to be a low key event. Also, the former MP from Qartaba, Fares Soueid was not present during the service. No wonder perhaps since he barely escaped an attack on his life by people wearing soldier uniforms during the January demonstration.

From what I have seen of the Lebanese army, it looks as if they are restoring their credibility fast. After being passive pretty much ever since Lebanon became independent, the last two years were a complete watershed. Not only did they regain control over most of the country, they also engaged Islam fundamentalists in the Nahr el Bared camp.

Sure, one can argue not to trust the army given their history and given the fact that most, if not all, senior management was appointed under Syrian tutelage. Yet, most people have little problem adapting to new realities and change loyalties quickly. Consider the former East bloc, e.g.: most of the die-hard communists simply threw away their believes overnight and embraced democracy and capitalism without much problems.

Who’s to say the Lebanese army cannot equally adapt to the post-Syria era? Looking at the intensity with which they have engaged the Syrian proxy Fatah al-Islam, it seems they are doing fine, just fine.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The art of advertising in Lebanon

Most tourists come to Lebanon for the excellent food, the lovely climate and the ever astonishing combination of beaches and mountains. Yet, although they’re impossible to miss, there’s an often overlooked Unique Selling Point to add to Lebanon’s treasures: commercial billboards!

Anywhere you go, you can see the huge billboards advertising all sorts of things. Most of them are just plain annoying eyesores, but some of them have this inimitable quality of sucking so much they become cool again. Below is a small collection of such billboards that you can find along the roads in Lebanon these days.

The first one is to sell white horses: simply slap a half naked model on top of it and off you go…oh wait, that’s how you promote Ferraris. So what to make of the below picture? I reckon some clever Lebanese marketing bureau thought it could also work with horses:

Photo 1: White horse for sale

In order to appreciate the next billboards, you have to know that a few months ago, a huge discussion broke out in Holland over a billboard that was deemed too sexy and degrading of women, see below:

Photo 2: This picture caused public outcry in The Netherlands

*shrug*, what’s the big deal here, most Lebanese would say since they see worse every day. Holland, the only country that has a union for prostitutes, is apparently more conservative than the Arab country Lebanon. Heh, how’s that for public perception?

Photo 3,4,5: The smaller the lingerie, the bigger the picture

While the above billboards are still somewhat tasty, things can always get worse…much worse. Just take a look at the below billboards. No clue what the intended message is, but all you see is how good you can spread your legs in Exo or Oxygene jeans. Makes you wonder which decent woman ever wants to buy them.

Photo 6,7: A new low: "Spread them, while keeping your pants on"

A really good commercial takes a cliché and turns it upside down to give you something to laugh about. A really bad commercial takes a cliché and leaves it untouched. Like, vegetarians are some kind of hippy-ish folks who are stuck in the 60s. Nah, no way a company would make a commercial based on this cliché, that’d be too stupid, right?!

Photo 8: But of course: only hippies are vegetarians

As a final note, here is a billboard that is actually quite funny and has all the characteristics to make it one of the best advertisements at the moment. It’s from Almaza and addresses the actual political situation. The word ‘chair’ in Arabic can be an actual chair but is also used for the presidential chair and is thus referring to the upcoming presidential elections in Lebanon.

Photo 9: "All eyes are on the chair this summer"

Thursday, July 12, 2007

New shiite party: Lebanese Option

The Daily Star reports today that a new Shiite party has been launched, the Lebanese Option Gathering, or LOG for short. Purpose of the party is to offer an alternative for those who don't like Hezbollah or Amal.

The founder is Ahmad al-Assad, the son of the famous Shiite politician Kamel al-Assad, who was Parliament speaker four times and got sacked after the May 17 peace treaty with Israel. The son of a politician who enters politics himself...even with a supposedly fresh wind, politics remains a family affair in Lebanon, some things never change.

But irony aside, let's see if the party gets any votes. There must be room for a third Shiite party, especially since the two existing ones hardly differ from each other. LOG is pro March 14 although they also criticize their track record regarding security issues.

Other than that, their program consists of the usual clichés. Their website is...well...err, strange, to say the least with the latest news covering life on mars and the Thai premier. The name of the party is also a bit unclear: the Daily Star informs us that it is the Lebanese Option Group, while the party's website mention only 'Lebanese Option' as the party name in English. Must be some translation gone wrong?

Also, the fact that membership is limited to Shiites only, is an ominous sign not to expect to much change when it comes to shaking up the sectarian based political system. But, let's give them the benefit of the doubt for now. Which is easy for me to do, but what really counts is how many Shiites will do the same.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The shadow government according to NOW

The NOW Lebanon website has published a possible line-up of the shadow government, see their article. Here's the list of candidates:

Fouad Makhzoumi, Prime Minister
Abdul Rahim Mrad, Minister of Defense
Nasser Qandil, Minister of Information
Talal Arslan, Minister of Social Affairs
Suleiman Franjieh, Minister of the Interior
Najah Wakim, Minister of Economics and Finance
Michel Samaha, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Reassuringly enough, they consider the chance of this government actually taking place to be quite low at the moment. Let's hope they're right.

Questions nobody seems to ask

Just a few questions this time that keep on going through my mind the last few days. Answers are left as an exercise for the reader:-)

  • Why are people reacting so surprised and almost angry when the Maronite Church is defending the rights of Christians in Lebanon?
  • Why are people upset when the Maronite Church claims that much land is bought by foreigners, which is in line with Jumblatt's statements in January this year?
  • Why would Syria want to hand over the car that was possibly used in the assassination of Pierre Gemayel? Do people really think Syria would like to incriminate itself?
  • What was really found at one of the offices of Aoun's party, bombs or firecrackers? And what does this discrepancy tell you about the quality of local press?
  • What other questions were also not asked by me?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Coup d'Etat after July 15?

According to this, this and this article, Syria has advised all its citizens to leave Lebanon before July 15. The articles and its reader's comments mention that Syria is planning to close the borders mid July, possibly in response to a UN meeting regarding installing experts to monitor the Syria-Lebanon border.

Now, if it's only the closing of the borders...but what if they want their citizens out of harm's way? And what harm would that be? In any case, July 15 and on would be a good day for increased vigilance, whatever that may be.

Just to give an idea about what might happen on or around July 15, the Memri article writes that president Lahoud apparently has given instructions to the Opposition to start a second government and to take over the ministries if nothing has changed after July 15. This was reported almost a month ago on June 18 in the Al Akhbar newspaper. Strange that I don't remember reading about this in other blogs.

The March 14 newspaper Al Mustaqbal is expecting that the south of Lebanon will follow the second government, while the Al Akhbar newspaper also expects that the north and large parts of Mount Lebanon will break with Siniora's rule.

Tip for readers:

repeat a thousand times to reduce anxiety:
"must be a rumor...must be a rumor...must be a rumor..."

The Perfect Bride

Anyone who would like to understand how the Lebanese always excel in vague doublespeak and procedural fogginess should watch the latest TV show on LBC: The Perfect Bride. The purpose of the show is simple: to find the perfect bride. The rest of the show, however, is ambiguous beyond compare.

As far as anyone can understand the concept, it would be to have mothers selecting the perfect bride for their sons in a Big Brother setting: all sons plus their mothers and the potential brides are locked up in a house with cameras everywhere. Too bad this is the Middle East, so the boys are separate from the girls with a huge wall through which the boys and girls can talk with each other. Anyway, to rule out the chance of steamy premarital activities even further, remember we still have the mothers-in-law to keep things in check:-)

Through a completely unfathomable selecting process, candidates are eliminated every week, hopefully leading to a dream marriage at the end of the season. It’s a nice, as in ‘seriously tasteless’, concept alright and it could easily work. However, the basic element of a competition is to have candidates wanting to win. But strangely enough, none of them seem to take the show serious.

For instance, the show has a segment during which one candidate can ask questions to another candidate of choice. Now, you would think this is intended to get to know your future partner a bit better, right?

Think again: One of the girls (A) was actually asking another girl (B) why she always hangs out with girl C, while she always told A how much she hated C. So now girl B had to defend herself against accusations of not being loyal. For a moment I thought “What a cool show, they also allow lesbian couples in”, but alas, it was just typical girl bickering. Clearly, girl A should have used her time to ask questions to the guys she likes the most. Then again, why would this be so important since she can also chat with them through the wall…sigh…

Other segments are equally illogical. Like, a potential couple has to do the matching test by answering questions about each other without the other hearing the answer. If both of them give the same answer, they score points. Sounds like a competition kinda thing, until you realize that nothing is being done with the scores. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you get zilch points or the maximum score.

What is also interesting to realize is that the guys stay in the house with their mothers all throughout the show, which lasts a whole season. How can they ever get so much time off from work, assuming they have a job? Or would they be in between jobs?

Also, would you really want to marry into a family where the mother, and/or the other family members, has no problems with being away from her husband and other kids for a couple months? Sounds rather dysfunctional if you ask me.

More and more during the show a nagging question appears in the back of your mind: “Why on earth am I watching this?” Watching this show gives you the eerie feeling of déjà vu because it resembles so much a random parliamentary session, politicians discussing the interpretation of the presidential election law or an interview with Michel Aoun [1].

The best illustration of this is the “competition” in the middle of the show whereby the men have to execute a certain task. The “winner” can take a girl of his choice out for a date. However, the way they show you the race is so utterly senseless that you have no idea who won: there’s not even the effort by LBC to show a dramatic race whereby you can see who’s in the lead and who is running up. Winning, losing, it really doesn’t matter, not in Lebanon. Indeed, you could be watching parliamentary elections!

The whole show radiates uselessness, packed up in a nice setting with lots of dance and semi decent artists, like Masari and the usual suspect Haifa. Of course, having a useless TV show is nothing new, pretty much all TV shows share this quality. So why does this one stick out? It must be the total disrespect for the viewer, whom according to LBC no doubt, must be either below 5 or reassuringly senile to enjoy the program.

Only thing is, we WILL be watching it again coming Friday…hrm…

[1]: For those readers who feel I always pick on Michel Aoun, the reason is nothing personal. It’s just that he is such an easy target. Take his statements this weekend after meeting with the patriarch. First, he states that he fully abides by democratic rules and that’s why he is running for president. Fair enough, so far he makes perfect sense: in a democracy anyone can run.

But then he continues: if he will not become president, he will block the elections altogether. Huh? This would mean that he would already know the outcome of the elections before they take place, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to boycott them. Now how democratic is that, exactly?

As the reader can see, it’s statements like these that are just too good to pass up for any blogger:-)

Monday, July 9, 2007

Modern Times in a Lebanese village

Now that it’s summer, we try to spend as many weekends as possible in our mountain house in lovely Qartaba. It’s a typical Lebanese mountain village, where time seems to stand still. Yet, there is one thing even Qartaba can’t prevent from entering: the dish.

Because of its isolated location in the middle of steep mountains, there is no cable in Qartaba so all the habitants can receive are the stations that broadcast via the air. With a bit of luck, you can get 3 or 4 stations, including the ever boring national station Tele-Liban. The solution is obvious: install a satellite dish and enjoy hundreds of stations in the comfort of your home.

Photo 1: People throw away the old antennas and install brand new satellite dishes

Sure, this is old news for most non-village people in Lebanon, but well, things take a bit more time in Qartaba. Yet, with time passing, people are increasingly replacing their old antennas with shiny new dishes. Much to the dismay of certain villagers who believe that with the dish, not only modernity enters, but also all the negative elements that come with it…like a suicide.

A few weeks ago, a young teenager killed himself. As is usually the case, there weren’t any obvious reasons for his action. One thing was quickly pointed out, though: not long before the tragic event, the family had installed a dish. People started putting one and one together and sure enough, the dish must have been the reason: all the trash that is being broadcasted must have driven the young chap into suicide.

“Instead of watching wholesome Lebanese TV, like musicals from the 50s on Tele Liban, the youth of Qartaba spends the evenings with watching endless porn, all freely available via the dish”, one of the priests even complained. As always, such warnings have the opposite effect and now everybody wants to have a dish! The local dish reseller has recently opened a bigger store and is working pretty much day and night to install dishes and receivers.

Photo 2: An increasingly common sight in small Lebanese villages: more dishes than you can count

Qartaba survived the arrival of the radio, the TV and the internet without many problems. Surely, it will absorb the dish equally smoothly. Yet, it’s always interesting to see how people react to new technology and the challenges it offers.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Making sense of the Daily Star...sigh

Just for fun and partly triggered by Harald's blog who did a review of English newspapers in the Arab world, here's a step-by-step walk-through of an article in the Daily Star today, with my comments in red:

BEIRUT: The Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) said Tuesday that the public debt in Lebanon reached $41.3 billion in the first five months of 2007, warning that most economic indicators were on the negative side in the month of May. "Most economic indicators fell to alarming levels in May of 2007 due to the current political crisis and the unfolding security development," ABL said in report issued by the association.

But ABL noted that unlike the rest of the sectors, banks in general saw a growth in customer deposits and loans to clients.

What does this sentence mean? How can you compare deposits and loans with other sectors that don't have these type of products?

It added that the balance of payments recorded a surplus of $261 million in May alone.

Imports of goods in May reached $984 million compared to $830 million in April and $940 million in March of 2007.

Exports also fell to $214 million in May 2007 compared to $219 million April and $206 million in $206 million in March of this year. Total government spending reached over LL1 trillion in May compared to LL897 billion in revenues, bringing the budget deficit to over LL100 billion.

"Exports also fell". How come, 'also', imports increased, right? Shouldn't it read "Exports, however, fell to ..." Anyway, the numbers don't add up, at least not if they're meant to support the $261 million surplus.

And what's up with switching between $ and LL. Up until now, all numbers were in USD, now the writer introduces figures in Lebanese pounds. Is it really so much effort to convert those numbers into USD? It sure would help the reader. LL 100 billion is roughly $66 million, which by the way, is NOT the budget deficit, but the increase of the budget deficit throughout May 2007. Clarifying this would also have helped the reader.

The association noticed that government revenues in the first five months of this year were higher than those of 2006.

It added that revenues rose to LL3.019 trillion in the first five months of 2007 compared from LL2.774 trillion in the same period of 2006.

"Revenues from the value added tax was one the main reason behind the jump in total government revenues in the first five months of the year," ABL said.

But the association said that increased spending in the first five months have caused the deficit to increase.

Total government spending in the first five moths of 2007 jumped to LL4.121 trillion from LL3.356 trillion in the same period of 2006.

"Moths", they don't use a spelling checker at the newspaper?

This caused the budget deficit to reach 22.8 percent of spending in the reporting period.

uhm, let's do the math. The budget deficit is 4.121 minus 3.019 = 1.102. As a percentage of the spending (4.121), this would be 26.7%

ABL said the public debt in the month of May alone reached $41.3 billion compared to $41.2 billion in April and $40.4 billion March 2007.

"This means that the public debt is rising by more than $100 million a month," ABL said.

However, the banking sector had a totally different picture.

Great, a different view, let's have it

There is growing concern that the public debt may no longer be sustainable in the near future if the government failed to implement the reforms that would rid the country from its chronic debt crisis. is this a "totally different picture"? Public debt is rising with more than $100 million a month and the banking sector concludes this could jeopardize repayment of this debt. Seems like a logical conclusion to me, fully in line with the numbers.

ABL estimated total assets up to May at more than $77 billion.

A strange final sentence of an already weird article. What does the writer mean by 'total assets' and how can the reader assign any significane to the number of $77 billion. Is that a lot? Is it actually not so much? Has it increased/decreased, etc..

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Promotion of the Army

Since a week or so, Lebanon has been flooded with huge billboards promoting the army, see pics below. It's a private initiative by the Abou Merhi Group and it wants to "cash in" on the recent spike in popularity the army is enjoying.

The Lebanese army's image has always been an interesting one, at least that's my impression. It seldom interferes and has preferred to stay neutral ever since the independence of Lebanon. You would think that such attitude would be criticized because of being passive, or worse coward behavior.

Sure, this has happened by various groups over time, but the general feeling seems to be much more positive. People here take pride in their army, especially because it has always been neutral and above the usual political bickering. The reputation of the army is that it's a highly professional, non-corrupt organization. You can mess with the police but don't even think of kidding with the army. Most people would start yelling at a police officer if he wants to give a ticket, but when a soldier tells something, they listen.

That's also an explanation for the huge support now for the army. What has always been an untouchable organization, is suddenly being attacked by a group of mostly foreigners. To most Lebanese, it is quite a shock to see their beloved army being under fire for no apparent reason. After all, what has the army to do with American's stand towards the Muslim world?

There's even a video out now promoting the army. It was shot in Hamra and, unique, it has real soldiers playing their roles. The Daily Star mentioned that the army normally doesn't lend itself for these sort of activities, but exceptionally has agreed to participate.

There are a total of three pics (as far as I know), here they are:

"It's all up to you"

"God is with you,
We are all with you"

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Little men with big powers

After blogging pretty much non stop about the political life in Lebanon, the reader can now expect a bit more variation. Sure, most of our daily lives are ruled by the current mess in the country, but there’s still plenty more to write about. Like, enjoying a nice, relaxing day at the beach.

Well, think again. Anything that could, however remotely so, be a relaxing experience is bound to be ruined in this country. You see it in the big events, you can also see it in the little events. I’m not a psychologist or sociologist or whatever “ist” one would need to explain it, but there must be something in the water that affects most if not all Lebanese.

Take this Saturday. We have a beach house, or chalet, as the Lebanese say. Interesting enough, I always associated the word ‘chalet’ with a little Swiss mountain house, but no, in Lebanon a beach house is called chalet and a mountain house is called, well, a mountain house. Same thing with the word ‘boulevard’: Dutch people (and others?) associate this with a road that is along the seaside in a city. The Lebanese, however, call this the Corniche and a boulevard simply means a road. No problem, after a while you get used to it.

Anyway, all the beach houses have one parking spot above ground. Some owners have also bought a parking space in an underground parking. This parking is usually rather empty because quite a few people rent a chalet for the summer and have thus no underground parking spot.

This Saturday, we were with two cars, so what would be more logic than to park both cars in the underground parking? Sure, we only have 1 dedicated spot, but since there are so many other spots available, what’s the harm of parking the second car in an empty spot?

Oops, that simple act made us into people who break the rules. As by magic, within 30 minutes one of the guards came to us to ask if we could please remove the second car because the owner of the spot in which I just had parked happened to need his spot. Honest to God, I have never, ever, seen a car in that spot. That’s one fully deserted, never used spot. In fact, it’s a spot to feel sorry for: nobody wants to park there.

Needless to say, there was never an owner who wanted to park, it was a supposedly polite way of telling us HOW THE #%$@ DARE YOU USE TWO SPOTS IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE!!

So there we were, lying on the beach, ready for a relaxing Saturday afternoon, a nice time to forget about our worries…until this concierge came to give us a hard time. And how he enjoyed it: he, little man, had found a stick to beat the dotorra (that’s Brigitte, if you’re a doctor or Ph.D they call you doctor or dottora for women) and her foreign husband with. I’m pretty sure we made his day..or perhaps his whole month.

He was fully in his rights of course: we were not adhering to the rules. But for a country where rules are hard to come by, a basic ‘give a little, take a little’ approach is equally hard to find. As said at the start of this article, others would be able to explain this sort of attitude and extrapolate this mini-event to the much larger events that currently take place. It would be interesting to see how much the attitude of this concierge is somehow also present in the various political leaders.