Kollouna Watani’s Joumana Haddad & Paula Yacoubian Are Now Parliament Members

Update: Somehow, since the writing of this post Joumana Haddad ended up losing. No comment.

On a more than depressing electoral day, a glimmer of hope that started two years ago with Beirut Madinati in Beirut –  1 translated into both Joumana Haddad and Paula Yacoubian becoming parliament members tonight, the first two ever civil society candidates to enter Lebanese parliament.

Joumana Haddad’s win for the minorities seat also makes her the first openly atheist member of Lebanese parliament, and possibly the entire Middle East, where atheism is still considered a crime in many countries.

The win of Kollouna Watani in Beirut – 1 comes at the heel of very poor turn out almost uniformly throughout the country. In fact, depressingly enough, the win of Kollouna Watani is because turnout in Beirut – 1 was the poorest in the entire country, a shame when you take in consideration that the last time we voted was 2009.

Both Joumana and Paula deserve their win. They worked tremendously over the past several months to raise their profile, scream for the change they want, and they did not take any vote for granted as many political parties seem to have done.

Change for the country started in Achrafieh, even if on the overall this election leaves me with a tinge of disappointment.

What I discovered today, after voting for Kollouna Watani last week in North 3, and then having all the Civil Society lists not even make the count on TVs because they were thrown into irrelevant is that 1) we live in a bubble, and 2) I don’t think our fellow Lebanese really want the change that we want this country to have.

To be sitting in front of my computer thousands of miles away and be utterly flabbergasted at how people just didn’t care was mind-boggling. Why was I, the Lebanese who already left, more interested in how things went than those who stayed? This sense of apathy, this mind-numbness that we’ve all exhibited is just sad, and it’s quite literally across the board, across all parties, across all regions.

And yet, I was proud of my hometown giving nearly as many votes for Layal Bou Moussa as they did to the Kataeb candidate, and proud that my candidate was the top candidate on the Kollouna Watani list in North 3. Those 90 votes in Ebrine are worth hundreds in my eyes.

Today, the Lebanese people are tired everyone and everything, that’s what these elections have shown. From the poor performance of El 3ahd’s lists, to even the performance of civil society lists outside of Beirut 1. Today showed that even our pleas for change were not enough for most of the Lebanese population to go and do something about it.

Some had their reasons, I bet. But others just sank in the complacency of thinking things will always be the same. This abhorrent freak of an electoral law, whose sole purpose it seems is to have Gebran Bassil become a representative for Batroun, didn’t help either. For the record, #NotMyNeyeb.

Instead, we settle for cheering for the least of evils. We go back to basics, but I did what I can.

A bunch of good people made it to parliament today, as well. Of those, I mention Ziad Hawat – the former Mayor of Jbeil who turned his city into a top Lebanese destination. I also mention Antoine Habchi whose victory in Baalbak-Hermel was truly the other highlight of these elections. A lot of women made it to parliament today as well, other than Paula and Joumana. The list includes Sethrida, Bahia el Hariri, and Inaya Ezzedine in the South. Hopefully even more female candidates will end up as winners once the tally is done.

On the other hand, Jamil el Sayyed who was the right hand of Syria’s occupation of the country, and whose real place is in jail, also gained a parliament seat thanks to the Shiite duo whose electoral performances truly strengthened the nature of the thoughts they’re perpetuating in the country. Their “either you’re with us or you’re a traitor” mantra, their “it’s your religious duty to vote for us” slogans are cancerous.

Another thing that today showed is that, when you try to have “modern” laws the least you can do is provide a modern voting experience. Everyone was complaining about how slow the process was, something I had spoken about last week here:

And yet, despite that no measures were made to make sure that people didn’t stand in lines for hours to cast a vote. We needed more booths at each polling place, the process has to be streamlined, and more importantly the law had to be explained to the average voter much more efficiency. But then again, it’s been nearly 8 hours that they’ve closed the polls and we don’t even have results yet.

Setting aside the romance, today Lebanon’s civil society has managed to get only about 20-30,000 votes across the entire country. This is not enough. And I frankly don’t know where to go from here. Perhaps the work of Joumana and Paula will get people to wake up to what they should be demanding of traditional parties, which puts more pressure on them.

Or perhaps we’re just too far gone as people, too entrenched in our ways to really learn that this candidate who’s providing us with a job today only does so because their policies deprived us of jobs for years, or that this candidate giving us food or money today is doing that because they made sure we were poor and starving leading up to that point.

Today, I’m proud of the choice I made. I don’t regret it at all, even if it’s going to be taken out of their equations, thrown into a bin never to be looked at again. And I hope that me going beyond my traditional party lines is proof that we can all do it if we believe that we deserve the changed country that befits us.

Tousbi7oun 3ala watan. Or not.

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The Lebanese Beaches To Go To Or Avoid This Summer Based On Their Pollution Level

The National Centre for Marine Sciences, based in Batroun, has been doing a study over the past several months about the quality of the water at several Lebanese beach areas, from the tip of the North to Naqoura in the South.

As such, they’ve come up with the following infographic about which beaches to go to and which ones to avoid this summer:

State of Lebanon's beaches

 

As expected, the best beaches in the country are in the Batroun area in the North and the Tyr/Naqoura area in the South, which has the country’s cleanest shores.

This means that it is our responsibility as Lebanese to avoid the beaches in areas marked as severely polluted, for the better health of ourselves and our loved ones. Polluted water may not have immediate effects from one swim, but recurrent exposures are bound to have detrimental effects on our well-being.

As such, the resorts in areas affected by high pollution rates should take it upon them to clean up their water if they still want people to pay the horrifying amounts of money they charge for entry. And if not, then we have entire areas in the North and South where many free beaches exist and where the water is as pristine as it is clean.

 

North Lebanon Will NOT Be Turned Into Beirut’s Garbage Dump

In a stroke of pure “magic,” our politicians have “solved” the country’s garbage crisis. In the beginning there was Sukleen and the Nehmeh dump. Now, we have Sukleen again – yes, seriously – and the Nehmeh dump, in Beirut’s proximity, has been moved to a place that’s more than a hundred kilometers away from Beirut.

In a stroke of utter “genius,” the Lebanese government has decided that the Northern caza of Akkar will now be where the people of Beirut and its suburbs dump their garbage. In case you had your doubts before, be certain now: Lebanon does not have its areas equal. There’s Beirut and Mount Lebanon, a beacon of hope and love to the masses and the tourists and where all the money flows, and there are the peripheries, notably North Lebanon, where the only thing fitting is to give its people those other regions’ trash.

Sukleen will also be handling garbage again at the price of about $160/ton, that’s more than what they used to get paid before, and about 4 times the normal amount that any decent country in the world pays to handle garbage.

Akkar – The Real Tragedy:

Here’s how the situation is in Akkar today:

  • There are villages that got electricity for the FIRST time in 2013 (link).
  • There are villages that do NOT have road access yet. I remind you this is 2015.
  • The caza does NOT have any decent hospital in it. Its people have to make the trip to Tripoli to begin getting decent medical coverage, and a lot of them have to make the trip even further south to Beirut in order not to die.
  • The caza does NOT have any decent schools and universities. Its people have to make the trip to Tripoli as well or move to Beirut for better opportunities.
  • Akkar is the country’s poorest area on record, only paralleled in poverty by Tripoli’s Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen areas. The numbers are astronomical: 40% of the population is considered poor and more than 18% live below the extreme poverty line.
  • The “best” way for the people of Akkar to make a living is for its men to risk their lives volunteering in the army; hence, calling Akkar “the basin of the army.”

Why don’t you hear about any of this? Well, I’ve tried to highlight how horrendous the condition in my region (the North) is on many occasions, but when it’s that *far* for the people of Beirut, as is anything north of the Madfoun checkpoint, nobody cares.

Another aspect of why you don’t hear about this is because no one, even Akkar’s politicians, care. The only time they do give a rat’s ass is come election time, in order to give the starving population a loaf of bread, a few sandwiches and a couple hundred bucks to sustain them through the coming four years (or seven).

Well, now we have another reason to give Akkar a second glance, so let’s spin this positively: Lebanon’s politicians have FINALLY remembered Akkar other than at the time of elections. Hurray!

How so? Well, our government and politicians want to turn areas of Akkar into the garbage dump for Beirut and its Greater Area’s garbage. Obviously, because they say no other region in the country can work, but it’s because the people there are so poor they can’t fight the decision of the government to kill them before their own eyes.

The details of the Akkar deal are as follows:

Ahmad el Hariri met several weeks ago with Tarek El Marhebi, the son of former MP Talal el Marhebi, who agreed to give him a land of around 1.4 million squared meters, to which was added another property culminating in about 2 million squared meters of area, in order to create a garbage dump to solve Beirut’s garbage problem, in an area is called Srar.

The Ministry of Environmental Affairs then studied the land and came to the conclusion that the type of soil used was NOT compatible with that required to do a dump, risking the toxins of the garbage infiltrating down to the underground water, which supplies the many villages of the caza since the government has NOT supplied the area with water as it is.

The Future Movement figures involved the aforementioned deal “denied” such claims a few weeks back. Today, with the news of such a dump being closer to reality than anyone expended, the claims they denied are not only true, they’re becoming a reality.

How is the government trying to buy the silence of the people in Akkar in order to effectively kill them with the waste of a region that is more than a hundred kilometers away? 100 million USD will be used to fund select developmental projects in the caza over the course of the next three years, money that is Akkar’s right and for which it does NOT have to reciprocate with receiving Beirut’s garbage. And to make things worse, the area will probably never going to see that development anyway.

This is governance 001 for the Lebanese system that doesn’t seem to care for an area unless it’s called Beirut and Friends:

  1. No, it’s not acceptable to silence the people of that area with money that you haven’t used for years to give them their rightful development, money that is rightfully theirs,
  2. No, it’s not acceptable to risk the health and lives of hundreds of thousands of people because you’re worried about the image that having your capital drown in garbage gives to the world,
  3. No, it’s not acceptable to risk the greenest region in the country’s environment because you’re too bloody corrupt to come up with a solution that limits your monetary return,
  4. No, it’s not acceptable and will not be accepted that Akkar ends up as Beirut’s garbage dump.

Akkar Isn’t The Only Northern Entity To Get Screwed:

If you thought Akkar was alone in getting screwed, you thought wrong. The entire North is under threat of being turned into Beirut’s waste disposal zone. Batroun’s areas of Hamat and Rasenhash have received a few shipments of garbage trucks from Beirut already. For reference, the area has your very lovable picturesque Nourieh convent.

Kefraya, in the Koura caza, also received a few garbage shipments, as did the city of Amioun before its people blocked roads and protested.

Tripoli is also having a true environmental disaster as it keeps getting shipments of Jounieh’s garbage, which are polluting its sea, soil and air. In the meantime, Jounieh’s mayor is bragging his city is the first to clear its garbage mess. How despicable.

North Pride:

I’m a son of the North. Batroun is my home. Koura is my home. Tripoli is my home. Akkar is my home. This is my land, and I will not have my land ruined, tarnished, maimed and irrevocably damaged just because I exist in a system that thinks I’m worthless for not having “Mount Lebanon” or “Beirut” stamped across my ID.

I’m a son of the North. My region is the country’s most forgotten, most ignored, most ridiculed and most stereotyped. My region is the country’s least developed and least considered (except when it’s for garbage it seems).

I’m a son of the North, and I will not have my home be filled with the garbage of those who not only couldn’t care less about it, but who will very likely not give a rat’s ass about where their garbage is heading the moment they don’t see it on their streets anymore.

I’m a son of the North and I say this: “Kell wa7ad yemsa7 kha*a b ido.” 

Lebanon To Have Its Very Own High-Tech “Silicon Valley” Soon?

Batroun hollywood sign

Back in 2012, I wrote about an economical boom coming my home district Batroun’s way (link). It promised great things for the caza and North Lebanon. Now, more than 2 years later, that project is going through the bureaucratic motions of Lebanese governance on its (hopeful) way for fulfillment.

A parliamentary committee consisting of MPs Ibrahim Kanaan (Metn), Nadim el Jesr (Tripoli), Hekmat Dib (Baabda), Jean Ogassapian (Beirut), Neamtalah Abi Nasr (Keserwan), along with a representative of the Minister of Economy Alain Hakim, is studying the law required in order to make the zone a reality.

The zone will be spread over an area of 200,000 m², donated by the Maronite Church in Batroun. The project was championed mainly two years ago by the Maronite League (الرابطة المارونية).

The purpose of the Maronite League behind the project is to improve the economy of that region in order to prevent its people from moving to Beirut and its youth from emigrating. Certainly, even if unknowingly by the League, such a project’s benefits will not be exclusive to the people of Batroun or Maronites for that matter. Let’s hope they don’t mind.

The feasibility study of Batroun’s economic zone indicates that there’s a possibility to generate over 5000 jobs. The companies that will operate in said area won’t be those of heavy industries akin to the ones present in nearby Shekka or Selaata; they will be high-tech industries similar to the ones operating in California’s Silicon Valley, which is where many Lebanese youth today are heading as career choices.

In order to bring in such high-caliber investors, the law that is being studied by parliament will give investors and their companies many advantages:

  1. The zone will not be run by the Lebanese government, but by a separate appointed committee whose members are, in theory, not chosen based on sectarian distribution but on qualifications,
  2. They will have their products exempt from custom fees, which would make their prices competitive,
  3. They will have their mode of business not constricted by Lebanese bureaucracy, which means they won’t have to face months of legal paperwork to finish anything that’s remotely crucial for business,
  4. Permits will be issued by the committee in charge of the zone and would therefore be more easily obtained,
  5. Taxes will be reduced on companies to make their business more profitable.

As is always the case in Lebanon, there’s big fat “HOWEVER” lurking in the background. It is not all awesome news. Is it ever?

Tripoli's "Tall" Area

Tripoli’s “Tall” Area

Batroun’s Silicon Valley-like area isn’t Lebanon’s first to be suggested. Back in 2004, late PM Rafic Hariri came up with an idea for a similar zone in Tripoli, and in August 2008 Lebanese parliament actually passed the law required to set such a zone in action. This is a copy of the law (link) if you’re interested.

For the first time in years, Tripoli – and North Lebanon – were to have major development coming their way. Keep in mind that in 2008, Tripoli was not the war-torn city you all love to criticize today. It was, at the very least, much stabler than Beirut.

In numbers, Tripoli’s zone was more impressive than Batroun’s. Its area was to be spread on 1,000,000 m² of reclaimed land facing the city’s port, of which 350,000 m² has already been done.

At poverty rates ranging between 57 and 63%, Tripoli would have witnessed a tangible and drastic improvement in its economical state as well as the living standards of its people. The study of the area indicated the possibility of generating more than 6000 jobs.

Couple that with Batroun’s numbers and North Lebanon, the country’s poorest and most forgotten mouhafazats, gets more than 11,000 new jobs for its market.When has it ever had such development take place? Never.

Soon enough, the situation in Tripoli decompensated miserably into what things are today. The situation in the country as well wasn’t better. Tripoli was Lebanon’s battleground for the subsequent years. However, those two broad headlines weren’t the only reasons why Tripoli’s zone came to a standstill. Our government couldn’t appoint the committee that would oversee the project. As such, that massive economical development has been sitting on shelves for the past 7 years.

Why wasn’t our government able to appoint the required committee? Because they haven’t found the appropriately backed people of appropriate sectarian backgrounds. Even getting decent jobs to the poor and unemployed in this country is a matter of religious calculations.

Today, here’s what’s at stake. The country can remain as it is, with our youth leaving the country and ending up on best end-of-year lists (link) for doing things abroad that they could have done here. The status quo can remain. Excuses such as “Tripoli is too unstable” and “Batroun is too far” can be used to kill such projects in order to keep all the money flowing to Beirut and Mount Lebanon because only those matter. Tripoli can be kept poor, Batroun can be kept underdeveloped and North Lebanon can also easily be kept needy. The people can be kept jobless and uneducated. Let them stay hungry, let them stay foolish, let them forever remain prone to political manipulation.

Or, infrastructure-issues notwithstanding, we can realize that such projects are a solution, not a symptom, and that it’s high time to realize that Lebanon is 10452 km², not only confined to Beirut, and that sectarian balances are second-rate when it comes to being part of a 20 trillion dollars economy (this is the number in zeros for magnitude: 20,000,000,000,000). Let’s hope those in charge realize the latter, and don’t succumb to the former.

 

Racism, Bigotry and Anarchy: How My Hometown Is Breeding ISIS

Welcome to Ebrine

The sign says: welcome to Ebrine. Huddled on a bunch of hills east of Batroun, my hometown is considered as one of the area’s largest. It is Maronite by excellence. The sign could have also said welcome to Maronistan and you’d still be within realms of accuracy.

Growing up, I never truly fit there but I liked it nonetheless. It was peaceful, serene, had amazing scenery and, at the time, I thought it provided everything that I needed. Little did I know that a whole spectrum existed beyond the realms of those 7 hills, 2000 voters and dozen Churches.

My hometown has also lately become a hub where Syrian refugees and workers have aggregated in substantial numbers, or at least as substantial a number can be to tick off the brains of townsfolk that I had thought were kind. I was wrong.

The argument went: “if those Syrians got slingshots, they’d be able to overtake us.” Yes, 500 Syrians with slingshots overtaking a town of about 4000 people. Because that made a whole lot of sense. So some people in my hometown, without a municipality due to political bickering, decided to devise an ingenious idea: set up guard duty, whereby men whose ages range from prepubescent to senile made sure those Syrians were kept in line, whatever it took.

Those guards were self appointed, related to whoever felt it was his moral duty to protect the holy Christians of Ebrine from the fictive threat of Daesh looming among those dark Arab faces coming in from that desert to the East. Their duties were also entirely dependent on whatever they felt like doing. They circulated fliers, forcing shops to put them on their storefronts, to make sure that order is kept: you have to make sure the Syrians renting at your places are registered. You are not to hire Syrians to do work around the town. You are not to let those Syrians do anything that any normal human being is supposed to be able to do, because they are not worthy.

Day X of guarding. A Syrian woman goes into labor in my hometown. It takes her husband an hour between calling this or that to be able to get his wife out of their apartment, into a car and in to the nearest hospital so she can deliver her child. One more Syrian to protect those God-fearing Christians from. What a tragedy.

Day Y of guarding. A male Syrian worker is kept up by his employer at work beyond the 8PM curfew time for Syrians that the guards of my hometown set up for them. He complains about it because of how worried he was at the impeding hell he’d have to go through at the hands of those guards, manifesting primarily by a lovely town policeman who has been around as far as I can remember, bolstered by a support from the Frangieh household, that has seen him pull through a bunch of corruption scandals and still maintain his position. When that worker reached his home, he had the phone number of his employer at the ready, as the latter had told him to do, to ask the guards to call him. Our town’s policeman looked at that Syrian for a minute and told him: say this to your employer, slapping him across the face so hard he was left with a bruise over his left eye for the following week.

Day Z of guarding. Another male Syrian arrived from Syria to join his family at the very welcoming town of Ebrine. That young Syrian, aged in the early 20s, didn’t know of the rules that some random self-appointed people at that town had set up. So at 9PM, on the second day of him being in Lebanon, he decided to leave his house and visit a shop at the town renowned for opening late in order to purchase groceries. He was spotted by our town’s policeman. Why are you here was not even asked. Are you not aware of the rules was not even thrown out in the air. The next thing you know, that policeman was hitting that young Syrian like his entire existence depended on it. A few minutes later, he was joined by 5 or 6 other young men from Ebrine, with all their built up testosterone, and they let that young man have it. It wasn’t until his father showed up, and saw his son being tossed around from one macho to the next that they stopped. My son isn’t aware of your rules, he told them. He’s only been here for two days, he pleaded. What a shame.

I presume a bunch of thank yous are in order:

THANK YOU to those guards who found it’s their Jesus-given right to protect the townspeople against the nonexistent dangers of Daesh at the heart of Maronistan. I’ve never felt safer, or at ease at Ebrine as I do now. 1984 is alive and well. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

THANK YOU to the Qa’em Makam of Batroun for turning a blind eye to the practices of those guards and the arbitrary rules they’re setting up for everyone and the sheer immaturity with which they are governing a town that has no actual governing body. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

THANK YOU to my hometown’s policeman, roaming around with that SUV on which “Baladiyyat Ebrine” is plastered across. I am eternally grateful to those muscles you used to beat up unknowing Syrians whose only fault was them being Syrians renting at the premises of someone you didn’t like. I am eternally grateful to you being the man that you are because if it hadn’t been for that, none of us would be safe and sound. None. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

THANK YOU to the Frangieh household which has stuck with that policeman through thick and thin. Pistachio goes a long way round this town. Corruption? Who cares. Madness? Nobody gives a shit. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

THANK YOU to the people of Ebrine who haven’t spoken up against the guards roaming their streets, who believe their presence is absolutely normal, who think those duties are actually protecting them and who have forgotten how it is to live under duress, under an all-seeing eye monitoring your every move. What goes around comes around, indeed. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

THANK YOU to the Lebanese government, in all its facets, for turning a blind eye to the rising self-governance taking place across the Lebanese republic. Extending the mandate of parliament is definitely more important. Bravo, bravo. Applause everyone.

Some people, like those guards and that policeman, deserve Daesh. So, in frank Lebanese let me tell them: tfeh.

Ghadi, An Upcoming Lebanese Movie

A friend of mine just sent my way the trailer for an upcoming Lebanese movie called Ghadi, written by Lebanese comedian George Khabbaz:

I found the trailer to be interesting and it looks like this movie will be different from other Lebanese movies we’ve had to endure. Of course, many of us say this about every Lebanese movie so here’s hoping our eternal optimism doesn’t turn out foolish this time around.

However, this is already awesome for being shot in Batroun. I’m biased like that.

The movie, according to their Facebook page, is a social comedy about the struggles of a Lebanese family. George Khabbaz’s previous works in such a theme were very witty. The movie is directed by Amin Dora. It will be out in theaters on September 26th.

How Corruption in Lebanon Remains

My hometown, Ebrine, and the Batroun region overall, have been “plagued” over the past few months with an ambitious developmental project to establish a sewage and water pipe network. The former pipes are supposed to connect houses to treatment facilities, the first of their kind in the country. The latter pipes are supposed to increase and make water distribution more efficient across the region.

To that effect, relevant governmental bodies hired contractors. To say the contractor chosen for the project has been doing a crappy job would be the understatement of the year. Take a look at these pictures (link) to know what we’re going through.

Coupled with the lack of competence is a serious lack of efficiency and waste of resources. They finish a section of a road, wait a couple of months to actually lay down some asphalt, make us enjoy the patches for a week or two and then dig it again because they remembered they need to lay down some other pipes. And repeat asphalt-less process.

The question that I asked repeatedly was the following: how did our government accept to hire someone as incompetent as that contractor  to do a project as ambitious as the one at hand?

But the contractor in question is but one example of what happens around this country to perpetuate the entrenched corruption in governance. How they do that is fairly simple.

Take a look at this very interesting report by Executive Magazine (link) about Lebanon’s debt, now around $60 billion. The most interesting part to me in that report, which confirmed what I had previously heard about these contracting jobs, is the following:

Most public debt is held by Lebanese individuals and institutions. While approximately 20 percent is held by foreign governments and multilateral institutions, nearly 80 percent is held by bond and note holders.

The contractor handling the project in my region is one of those people. Our government owes him so much money that they cannot not give him the projects he asks for and pay him money to “execute” them. The execution plan – at least in my hometown and region – went in the following way:

  1. Make sure you get the project from the government.
  2. Get paid a huge amount some of which the government may not be able to pay and increase the debt loop.
  3. Find a cheaper contractor who’s willing to do the job for a fraction of the money. In our case, a little investigation revealed the project wasn’t done by the contractor mentioned previously but by a Syrian contractor who got hired to do the job.
  4. Give that subcontractor a ridiculously low amount of money.
  5. Sit back and relax and try to watch as politicians try to save face.

Those Lebanese individuals to whom the state is indebted with approximately $45 billion keep our governments hostage to their power: if they want certain projects, they get them. If they want certain policies passed, the policies will pass. If they want anything to happen, it will happen. And the merry goes round in other regions, in different ways and forms.

So next time you feel like investing copious amounts of money in this country, invest them in making the government owe you money.