When Lebanese People Cannot Afford Hospitals

Hospitals have a way of desensitizing you. They overwhelm you so much that shutting off that part of you that is forced to care all the time is the only way possible at coping. And no, I’m not talking about medicine.

There’s a lot to be said about the state of healthcare in Lebanon. I’ve seen some aspects of it. The numbers behind it are all over the place. But no matter how those numbers are shuffled, you are left with almost 1 million or so Lebanese, in a best case scenario, that are not covered in any way or another and are forced to withstand the pressure of Lebanon’s increasingly costly medicine on their own.

Many crumble under that pressure and figure that dying is simply better than getting overwhelmed with debts or simply getting a hospital’s door slammed in your face.

There are a lot of stories to tell. They happen at a lot of the country’s hospitals. I’ve heard of a well-known hospital that wouldn’t take in a 2 month old patient because his parents couldn’t afford to pay down the required deposit for his surgery. I’ve seen old people who have no one left and nothing left to pay for the simplest of blood tests. I’ve seen exorbitant prices for surgeries, some of them possibly warranted given their complexity, that cannot be afforded by 99% of the Lebanese population.

Perhaps Lebanese hospitals focus on the business part of their affairs much more than they should. But are they to blame? They need to run their facilities, pay their employees and still make enough profit to constantly improve their brand of medicine seeing as Lebanese medicine is so specified that not having the latest it-machine at your facility means you’ve fallen behind the times. The people who can pay simply hospital-shop and go to the one with the newest toy, newest hotshot doctor….

Should they provide such highly costly services for free and then not be able to run themselves anymore?

A lot of patients cannot afford healthcare in Lebanon. Insurance companies make sure to screw you whenever they can. The Lebanese ministry of health has a limited budget that is allocated in an even more limited way and benefits mostly those who know someone who knows the minister more than those who actually need something. Many of the people who can afford insurance, for instance, simply do not buy it because they have good enough connections not to pay while those who cannot afford insurance rot at hospital doors.
The national social security fund is not really national and hospitals find themselves in financial problems because of it more often than not and decide to relegate patients who present with that form of coverage into the “we don’t have a place for you bin.”

What does a Lebanese person have to do to receive one of his fundamental human rights? I guess they can just die in a state that couldn’t care less. Many of you probably don’t give this a second thought but it’s time you do. If you can afford insurance, go and buy one as soon as you can. If you can get enrolled in the National Social Security Fund, make sure you do so as well. If you can find any possible means of coverage for you and your loved ones, seek it. There’s no better investment.

After all, we live in a place that is so behind the times that talk about universal healthcare is light years from becoming mainstream enough and where our grandparents’ fate is to get people to feel sorry enough for them to raise money for them to do their blood tests.

I wish I could tell all the stories that I have to tell. Maybe someday.

How The New 50,000 Summarizes Lebanon

20131115-184534.jpgCome on people, is there anything more suitable than that 50,000 to describe the state of Lebanon lately? If anything, we should look at this positively: it might be the first time ever that those in charge of running things are aware of how dismal they have made things to be, even if only with a representative bill. And they have decided to describe things. Here’s an attempt to explain what went on with their brains.

All Those Festivities:

I really don’t know what’s special about the number 70 for it to warrant an honorary bill. Why not 71? Even better, why not 69? I’m positive that number means much more to so many Lebanese than simply 70. Zeros are so overrated if you ask me. Yet again, our currency has so many of them.

I guess we have always been a country to celebrate whenever we had the opportunity. Oh, look – can we turn this into a festivity? Sure, why not, let’s do it!

Identity Crisis:

One look at that bill and the entirety of our Lebanese existence is summarized in front of you with the monetary version of our infamous “hi, kifak, ca va.” Arabic, French and even a word of English thrown in there by mistake is the perfect summary of how this country is: lost in translation, unaware of what it wants to be or what it is.

Let’s stick to our frenchiness would say the people who only know the ca va to every kifak. Except we barely know how to speak French lately as is evident by that hilariously shameful typo on the bill. Side note, is there any other country with a typo on their bills, regardless of what that typo is?

No, let’s move on to English man. That is where the future is. Never. We are Arabs. Mutliple personality disorder, perhaps? Who cares, it’s unique.

Inefficiency:

Let’s leave the fact that the new 50,000 will still be big enough for you to use as a picnic mattress. Shouldn’t they resize all our money into something that fits in normal wallets before redesigning the bills at every possible opportunity?

Anyway, I’d hate to think our bills can get less efficient than they are. There are just so many zeros there and they’re as useless as they come. That 50,000 bill is so inefficient that it cannot afford you a burger at Roadster’s anymore.

Inefficient… I like it.

Blame others:

Our central bank head decided to blame the British company that printed the bill for the fiasco. Typical, I guess. Let’s always blame others for our mistake, as long as it makes us feel better about ourselves and about the messes we keep finding ourselves in. We get into a war, we blame some mysterious entity. Our economy goes to the trash, we blame some other mysterious entity. Our 50,000 gets a tasteless makeover? Let’s blame the company that printed it, not the Lebanese who must have overseen the design (or lack thereof) process, the Lebanese who did not notice the mistakes and the people with a horrendous taste who OK’ed it.

Intact Joie de Vivre:

But no worries, ladies and gentlemen, our Joie de Vivre is still well-represented in that bill. Our love of life, love for drinks and parties and getting high is well defined within those mutliple colors that fill that monetary canvas. Pretty nifty, eh?

Lebanon, summarized:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t but notice that Lebanon has been on a downward spiral lately. Culture is dying, sometimes at the hands of the ministry of culture. Fundamentalism is rising across the board. The country is losing whatever it has of itself with each passing day. Looking at all of that, our new bill cannot but stand and shout that infamous line: shou we2fet 3laye?

Our country is the gift that keeps on giving. Can you imagine living somewhere where life was boring? What would we blog about? When it comes to that 50,000 bill I have to ask: why not use it as our national flag instead?

Are We Seriously Getting Another Mall in Dbayyeh?

Future waterfront city beirut

Waterfront City is breaking ground. Parks are being built. New complexes have their plans set in motion. Previous projects are being continued.

That mass of “new” land bordering the Dbayyeh highway will turn into a whole new town in the coming few years, apartment buildings and all. Great news for Lebanon’s real estate market, definitely. Sad news for those who take the marine road to escape the insurmountable traffic during their commute.

Waterfront City is also getting its bonafide mall with City Centre, whose first branch opened up next to Beirut recently, beginning its constructions plans as per Gino’s Blog.

Of course, such a project wouldn’t be happening hadn’t malls been possibly the only thing, apart from restaurants, taking off in the country lately. They get business. People like to go to them. They open up and cater to the demand. Al Futtaim’s earlier Beirut City Centre, despite it being almost a carbon copy of an Emirati mall, is taking off well. Or at least that’s what the constant crowds in it suggest.

The question to ask, though, is when’s the time to say enough is enough, that malls taking off isn’t the only argument behind them springing up whenever, wherever, sporadically and without any form of organization and regulation?

Dbayyeh has reached a point that can be called: extreme mall saturation. Just look at that place. Next to future Dbayyeh City Centre, you can find LeMall, ABC Dbayyeh and Blueberry Square, which is basically a big food court. There’s also a huge Spinneys next to them. And they all exist in an area which is quite tiny. Stretching the scope just one bit reveals yet another huge mall, at one point Lebanon’s biggest.

All of these malls share access through the same highway. They serve a city and its suburbs which already have enough malls, clearly another example of the economic centralization the country has and which I’ve previously written about here.

With the advent of Waterfront City and all the new tenants that will inhabit it, as well as the “attractions” that will be available there, the bottleneck effect of the Lebanese infrastructure, especially when it comes to the Dbayyeh area, will become even tighter.  Waterfront City may be advertised as a futuristic approach to what Lebanon can offer, and perhaps it is, but – like much of those “futuristic” areas – the non-futirstic parts often have a reality to face. That reality is that of unbelievable traffic in and out of Beirut and I’m sure no studies will be done about how to work with the traffic that another addition to that area will bring. It’s a reality of poor infrastructure to support such projects – looking at a turned off ABC due to the electricity cut is proof enough. It’s a reality of shops that are closing down because they are being spread way too thin in a country whose economical situation isn’t that efficient. And this reality is the one at the top of my head.

The fact that malls take off in Lebanon is no longer a good enough argument to have them pop up so often in an area that is so restricted. Of course malls are going to take off it they’re the only thing being built to provide people with what they might need. Of course they will take off if all the country’s decent and new cinemas are in them. Of course they will take off if all new restaurants are opening in them. Of course they will take off when their advent kills all the other options that you can do.

People will take in what is given to them – why don’t investments in the country turn into elements that are more sustainable such as technology, industry, education, healthcare? Oh never mind – those are not as cool as a brand new flashy mall with an American food chain moving in next door.

We are slowly but surely morphing the Lebanese lifestyle into something that is pure khaleeji. Perhaps it’s high time we stop making fun of their habits because we won’t be much different soon enough. I’m not an anti-mall person. But we’re at a point where some contractor who gets the chance to do so will actually turn the area in Dbayyeh between ABC and LeMall into another mall while the entire country North of that is as dead as a brick.

I played a little game with my colleagues and friends today. I told them a new City Centre was being built and asked them to guess the area. They named Tripoli, Saida, Beirut, Batroun, Jbeil. When I told them it’s Dbayyeh, the unanimous response was: are they freaking kidding me?

I guess that’s that.

 

Lebanon, Now RefugeeStan: Enough With The Humanity Talk?

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

I was going from my hometown to Batroun a while back when I saw two hitchhikers asking for a ride. I’m not the type to worry about such things – transportation between my hometown and Batroun, if you don’t have a car, happens through that method. So I picked them up and off to Batroun we went.

They were both men. The one sitting in the back was very quiet. The one sitting in front was pretty chatty. We were talking in Lebanese. I would have never thought there was anything odd about his dialect until I asked him where he was from and he replied: Homs.

He was worried about his reply so I tried to defuse the tension by saying that I visited his city back when it actually existed and it’s a nice place. The Syrian man, however, felt it was adamant to tell me that they were both Christians who want nothing to do with the war in Syria and who think everyone is at fault.

As I dropped them both off and went about to finish my errands, I started thinking: how bad must it have been for that Syrian for him to decide that telling random people that he was Christian whilst giving them the most diplomatic version of any person’s stance over what’s going in Syria is what everyone wanted to hear? I figured he must have gone to hell and back with him being Syrian in Lebanon lately. And I felt terribly sorry for him back then.

I’ve spoken about the issue of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees before. They’ve become so many that they turned into a source of jokes, though those have also become extremely redundant as well.  However, the issue of those refugees has never really been tackled. Municipalities and some Lebanese ministers spew racist speech that only works to boost their popular basis. The government is as comatose as it has ever been. I guess they’re more worried about the potential ramifications of Ania Lisewska’s sexual escapades. Moreover, the entire rhetoric has been about how we simply couldn’t humanely stop those refugees from seeking help here while acknowledging that the problem was slipping out of control.

The question today is the following: is it the time to draw the humanitarian line on the issue of Lebanon’s refugees as our country quickly but surely turns into some form of refugeeland for the troubled people of the region?

Recent economic studies have revealed the following data about the Syrian refugee situation in the country:

  • Our GDP will decrease by 2.85% per year between 2012 and 2014,
  • Our debt will increase by $2.6 billion,
  • Unemployment will double,
  • By 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in the country would equal about 40% of the country’s pre-Syrian war population,
  • Lebanon’s cumulative loss because of the refugee crisis will be approximately $7.5 billion,
  • More than half of students enrolling at our public schools will be Syrian refugees,
  • More than 40% of primary healthcare visits are of Syrian refugees,
  • Another 170,000 Lebanese will be pushed into poverty because of the immediate ramifications of the refugee crisis. By definition, that is living under $4 per day.

Our refugee problems are not only Syrian. We keep forgetting about Palestinians because their problem is more universally acknowledged, but they have their share of woes that they are bringing on our communities:

  • The number of Palestinian refugees in the country has increased by 16% lately, according to UNRWA,
  • Lebanon already has over 400,000 Palestinian refugees residing in it,
  • Most of those refugees live in refugee camps,
  • Those camps are outside state control and have a self-security system going on,
  • Their self-security system has caused security trouble with Lebanese for a long time, the most recent of which is the altercation with Hezbollah.

Lebanon, the smallest of Syria’s neighbors, is taking the biggest load because:

  1. Many of us believe that the problems of those refugees are not as severe as the numbers say they are,
  2. Many Lebanese refuse to address the issue of the refugees due to political reasons or because they see no problem in those refugees being here,
  3. Some Lebanese parties had decided once upon a time that there was nothing happening in Syria and that those people are here for tourism, while parties on the other side of the spectrum stood by as they waited for ways to use those “tourists” politically,
  4. Our country is simply not capable, neither financially nor logistically nor influentially, of handling such a load – but is the solution simply letting the load pile up while we stand idly looking around?

Most Lebanese were more worried about the situation of the refugees with the most recent rainstorm to hit the country than of other Lebanese who are living in similar, if not worse, conditions. During a recent session with Medecins Sans Frontières, I asked: how does the living situation of people in Bab el Tebbaneh, Jabal Mohsen or Akkar compare to what you’ve seen of Syrian refugees? The spokesperson answered: it’s worse.

But their effect on our lives, even though many refuse to see it, is not only related to the way they live.

For the Lebanese who don’t need to seek out an apartment for rent, the housing market is the same it has always been. But renting fees have risen sharply over the past year or so. Even shabby apartments in my hometown, which many would say are not that well-equipped, are going for rates that might rival Beirut due to the extremely high demand imposed by the refugees. If one can’t pay, they get kicked out and the other refugee on the waiting list takes his place. Lebanese people, living off our country’s dismal salaries, have to abide with landlord demands that come out of the blue and blindside them into eviction. A friend of mine will soon leave her Achrafieh apartment because her landlord decided, just as the new school year was starting, to ask for a rent increase. Lebanese are anything but lousy traders.

Another friend of mine lost his job recently. He never figured he’d still be out of a job almost 5 months later  - he worked in architecture. How rare could those jobs be in the country? It turns out the job market has also drastically changed since he last tried his luck in it. His former job was taken by a well-qualified Syrian who’s getting paid half his salary. Can that Syrian complain? Of course not. Employers now prefer to hire Syrians over Lebanese because they’ll do a similar job for much, much less salaries. How are we supposed to compete with that? Is it plausible for a Lebanese with an engineering degree to accept a $900 per month salary in order to say they’re not unemployed?

You’d think that with this influx of people into the country, business would somehow either stay the same or improve. Well, guess again. Even though goods prices have not drastically increased lately, as they somehow find their way to do whenever something happens in Lebanon, the growingly terrible security situation in Lebanon is deterring people from doing what Lebanese do best: joie de vivre and all. A well known Lebanese restaurant has witnessed a 20% decrease of business per year, over the past two years with this number reaching 40% at some of its branches. Weekend walks around some of Lebanon’s bar streets reveal a drastically different scene from the one that was present a while back: how many times have you seen Gemmayzé near-empty on a Friday night? Many food chains around the country are closing due to the recent instability: Hard Rock, Krispy Kreme, etc…. And I’m sure common sense dictates that smaller businesses are taking it harder. At one point, I’d have said the refugees had nothing to do with this. But the aforementioned World Bank study seems to indicate that they are playing a major role in the stagnation this country has reached, harsh as that realization might be.

What To Do With All Those Refugees?

I’m not turning into a Gebran Bassil-esque character who bashes the refugees one day, calls to get them kicked out of the country, but would have no problem bringing in the people from Maaloula just because they’re Christian and can be milked politically over here. I don’t think what municipalities are doing is acceptable in the context with which it’s being carried out but they are legally free to do whatever they want. What I can do regarding those regulations is not vote for the people who enforced them come next election time, which in my hometown should be soon. But what we also cannot do – and Angelina Jolie would certainly not approve – is stand by while the country is over-run.

How are we supposed to deal with the refugees? Well, for starters regulations that ban any Lebanese employer from hiring them in select jobs where our country has a surplus of people who are willing to work but can’t find the opportunity to should be enforced. Instead of municipalities settling for curfews on the foreigners they don’t like, they should start up regulations that lead to the organization of the refugees in their jurisdiction instead of limiting their liberties. Instead of panicking about an increasing number of refugees in the country, we should enforce regulations on how many refugees we can accept through border regulation. Instead of letting the refugees roam around the country, sleeping under bridges and whatnot, we should set up refugee camps in the Bekaa that can agglomerate them somewhere where their basic necessities can be addressed.

The humanitarian thing to do is not to make it harder for our parents to get by, it’s not to leave ourselves without jobs and it’s not to get our businesses out of business. The humanitarian thing to do is not to call for humanity just because it pleases our conscience while the country burns and we sit by blindly, not seeing the effect of our humanitarian action-less actions. It’s difficult sure. They don’t want to be here, definitely. But it’s time we think about the country that we want to have for ourselves because, by the looks of it, nobody cares about us.

 

Comparing Beirut To Dubai

An American writer for the Huffington Post wrote an article today titled: “Thank you, Beirut. Your Friend, Dubai” in which she basically paralleled the rise of Dubai to the gradual decline and possible near-demise (never ever?) of Beirut.

The writer’s opinion of the Lebanese capital was favorable – even favorable of the go-to Lebanese scarecrow for Americans Hezbollah, trying to explain its popularity among many Lebanese and the reason for its increasing political strength.

In typical fashion, Lebanese across the internet have been sharing the article fervently. It’s about Lebanon. It’s about Beirut. It’s by a very prominent publication. Click, click away.

However, the question I want to ask is the following: is comparing and contrasting Beirut to Dubai warranted?

I, for one, think drawing similarities between the two cities is comparing apples to oranges for the following reasons:

1) Beirut was never made out of money. When you talk about Beirut, you don’t talk about an economical hub for a region or a city made entirely because they discovered oil beneath its soils. You talk about a city which made itself by itself and who, when the factors leading to its prosperity are affected, undoes itself by itself.

2) Beirut has never had poured into it the same amount of money going into Dubai daily. The Lebanese economy – even in its heyday – has never been as strong as the Emirati economy is (or was if we’re accounting for the recession). Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have oil. We won’t see any benefits from that oil until 2018 at the most optimistic expectations (link) and I’m sure the economy driving Beirut won’t be nowhere near comparable to that of Dubai anytime soon.

3) Beirut and Dubai have two entirely different experiences to give their visitors. The joke goes “I’ve never been to Dubai but I’ve been to Zaytounay Bay.” Many moguls are sure trying to turn Beirut into a new Dubai. But I believe their attempts will end up futile. They can build as much malls as they want and spend copious amounts of money into flashy projects that pale in comparison to any developments in more developed countries. They can build the fanciest hotels and the most hedonic of night clubs. But the fact of the matter remains, and it shows in the point the article’s author tried to make: Dubai is for show and Beirut is for heart, however tacky that might be. Can you compare both?

4) By comparing Beirut to Dubai, the comparison can be extended to the countries holding the two cities. Is the “Lebanon” experience of tourism compared to the “UAE” experience? I highly doubt it.

5) The governing bodies behind Beirut and Dubai are highly different. On one hand, you have an iron-first ruling with a twist of enough liberalism not to step on bigger political toes. On the other hand, you have a state barely keeping it politically together as everyone fights for a piece of the Lebanese cake.

Beirut is a city with woes. There’s political instability at every turn. Civil strife can erupt at any moment. The city is that of 18 sects trying to live together while working for their communitarian benefits, some of which are mutually exclusive with those of others. But don’t you think that for a city as chaotic, with a serious lack of infrastructure and urban design, to be compared to Dubai at every point is poignant enough to tell which city has more promise? And If Dubai’s oil reserves ran out tomorrow and its economy started going down the drain and the expats in it decided their futures better be spent elsewhere, would it still be the mega-brilliant city everyone makes it out to be today?

The Lebanon-Israel Battle We’re Losing

We have oil… we will strengthen our army.

We have oil… we will upgrade our transportation system.

We have oil… we will have universal healthcare, retirement systems, etc…

Our highway is flooded with pictures from Lebanon’s ministry of energy to “celebrate” the presence of copious amounts of natural gas and oil under Lebanese waters. Of course, any talk about potential economic benefits for such wealth is still purely theoretical because we won’t know the extent of our reserves until we start digging.

The best and most optimistic estimates as to when Lebanon starts capitalizing on its natural reserves is 2017-2018. Such estimates assume the following:

  1. A smooth security situation,
  2. No bureaucratic hassle that would pose delays,
  3. A decent political environment with no dead-locks on the matter
  4. International cooperation with the upcoming venture,
  5. No drastic governmental changes that could affect the bidding process which is essential in early stages.

I don’t know about you but those 2017-2018 hopes are looking to be more and more far-fetched to me. The government already collapsed. We need to wait on a new one to form in order to proceed with the bidding on whoever’s going to get drilling rights in our waters. That’s not to mention any near-certain precipitations of the Syrian war over here or, as usual, political blocks that lead to a handful of laws being passed in any parliament’s given lifetime or even the sectarian calculations that have to go in with every single oil-related decision. You can call that the “Orthodox Oil Law.”

These oil reserves were discovered back in 2009 across three countries in the region: Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel. I don’t know about Cyprus – they might be too busy with their credit problems at the moment – but when it comes to Lebanon and Israel, we are at the losing end of this economic battle in our ongoing conflict with our most hated enemy.

From 2009 till 2013, we managed to ratify one law and form a committee regarding the oil matter. The committee took a long time to be formed because we had to find the proper sectarian balance. The law took an almost equally long time as well to be ratified by parliament.

Meanwhile, our neighbor to the South had started drilling and as of March 31st, 2013 has actually started storing the natural gas being extracted in its quest to reach energy independence. It has already started making billions off its reserves with deals surpassing $20 billion.

Many seem to disregard the fact that there are more aspects to our conflict with Israel than military gains or losses here and there. The economical aspect of the conflict, which is one of the main motives behind certain Israeli policies, is more dangerous and far more reaching.

The economic aspect of these natural reserves isn’t restricted to who gets there first. As of now, Lebanon doesn’t have a strategy to how our oil money will be used: are we going to use it to lessen the national debt? Are we going to use it for some much-needed developments that go beyond Beirut? How will we use the fund that will be set up for profits from these sources?

Our politicians believe it’s too early to discuss such things. We, as a nation, never plan ahead. We rarely try to build towards the future as opposed to things that bring profit here and now because it’s always too early for us to plan. Instead of forming a road-map to clearly illustrate how the benefits from Lebanon’s natural resources will be used, we go by the common Lebanese saying “bass neje 3laya, mensalle 3laya.” (We’ll see once we get there) .The problem is that we will eventually “neje 3laya” and history has taught us that dead-ends is all we’ll manage to build.

Instead of being one of the more pressing matters facing this country, Lebanon’s oil reserves have been dropped down to something second-rate. Our political class is keeping its head firmly stuck in sand, with hopes of a better future years from now, ignoring how an economically-growing Israel with clear plans for its development and sustainability will negatively affect any Lebanese attempt at growth of an economy that is in dire need of any form of extra income it can find.

But doesn’t that train look absolutely beautiful on those billboards?

The Tripoli You Don’t Get To See

I can go to Beirut today and take my camera with me. I can go to Hay el Sellom and take as many pictures, film as much footage as my heart pleases and broadcast them online with one tag only: THIS. IS. BEIRUT.

Am I doing Beirut a disservice in the process? Perhaps so. Is my portrayal of Beirut’s poorest neighborhood as representative of the entire city accurate? Perhaps not.

But isn’t that exactly what Lebanese media and people are doing to this Northern city?

I went to a cafe the other day named “Ahwak Ben Tafesh.” I can safely say it’s probably my favorite cafe in all of Lebanon. Starbucks and other generic places, move over. The place had charm and served the best carrot cake I ever had, which was actually homemade. As I sat there, observing the people walking in and out, I saw some of the most gorgeous women wearing tight jeans and revealing shirts, guys talking about going out to a pub somewhere with their girlfriends, a couple holding hands with the guy’s hand on his girlfriend’s thigh.

But most importantly, people we chatting and laughing and making plans. Just like normal Lebanese youth do everywhere else.

Then I went to the bathroom at Ahwak and saw this:

Ahwak Ben Tafesh Tripoli Lebanon

A stone’s throw away from Ahwak is a restaurant called La Plaka. I have yet to try out things beyond the salad part of its menu – blame the diet – but that place served one of the best chicken caesar (don’t worry, I made some sauce-modifications) that I ever had. The place was spacious with very nice interior decorations – huge armchairs, flat screen TVs everywhere, chandeliers dropping down from the ceiling – and better yet, they actually abide by the smoking ban.

All of what La Plaka offered me came at a cost of… 10,000LL. Yes, for the entire salad that normally costs double that much at any Beiruti place. Then I remembered a similar incidence in Gemmayzé when I ordered a salad that comprised of only lettuce and cucumber sticks and ended up paying about $20.

On the same street as La Plaka is a newly opened burger shop called Ten Burger which is trying to bring the Classic Burger Joint experience to Tripoli. Their burgers are excellent. They also come with french fries and coleslaw. And a soft drink. All for less than $10.

Tripoli is also famous for “Le Palais” or as we all like to call it “Al Hallab,” which offers the best Arabian sweets you can find probably anywhere. You can ask for a tour of the place’s kitchens where you see how they make all the delicious food you end up gorging on later. I witnessed how they do the famous “7lewet l jeben,” got to taste their self-made ice cream and gateaux. The place is beautiful and extremely distinctive. If you thought you are getting the “Hallab” experience by visiting some of the franchises in Beirut or Jounieh, you thought terribly wrong.

But Tripoli isn’t only about food. I go there very often. My best friend is from there. I go to class about five minutes away from that city. My father buys some supplies for his shop from Bab el Tebbane. A lot of our paperwork has to go through some offices there. Throughout my visits to that city, even during the now-distant times when I had a one pound golden Cross dangling from my neck, I never felt threatened or not at ease – even last December when Tripoli was, at least to most Lebanese, a war zone.

A couple of days ago, I got invited to an impromptu birthday party for my friend’s nieces. I was the only “outsider” there. The place was filled with family members. It took me five seconds to feel at home due to the overwhelming hospitality I received. It’s not just typical Lebanese hospitality – it’s people who are genuinely happy to have you there and take care of you and even wish you happy Easter.

In fact, most of my friends who are from Tripoli are not the people Lebanese media wants you to think they are. They are kind and friendly and great. Some of them are quite religious. Others are not. You know, exactly like Lebanese people everywhere else.

Is Tripoli in its best days? I don’t think so. Was it more lively, more upbeat, more receptive and less cautious a few years back? Definitely. Is it hurting because of the mass exodus of the Christians from it? Definitely – but they’re not leaving because of the city’s Muslims. They are leaving because of the dismal economic prospects.

For a city that houses some of Lebanon’s wealthiest people, it sure doesn’t show. The explanation is simple. Those wealthy people all have political aspirations but no foresight. They spend their money getting votes by giving food to needy people instead of investing that money in projects that would bring outside business to the city and help the people buy their own food. But that wouldn’t benefit them electorally.

Tripoli barely sees any development. There are no “Sama Tripoli” or “Le Mall Tripoli” projects that go on here. The second largest city of Lebanon has next to no investments coming into it and it’s not all because of the current security situation. This has been going on for years now. After all, as I had said before, Lebanon’s centralization isn’t only bureaucratic, it’s also economical. No other area outside Beirut is supposed to get the money Beirut and its suburbs get and this shows the most in big cities that need such money the most.

Tripoli is changing and not for the better. Anyone who tells you the opposite is bluffing. But that’s the case everywhere in this country. After all, extremism is a separate state of mind – no pun. However, this city isn’t the big bad monster that many have come to believe it is. It’s a place that’s trying its best given the hand it is dealt. It’s probably time we give it some slack.