No Netanyahu, Israel Isn’t The Only Middle Eastern Place Where Christians Can Celebrate Christmas

In his increasingly childish bitchfit against the international political establishment that saw his country’s transgressions through settlements on Palestinian land finally made illegal with a UN resolution banning Israel – yeah, right – from building more of them, the Israeli PM is lashing out at his country’s closest ally and the reason Israel has been off the hook in everything it’s done for years, the United States.

As part of a rant aimed at US Secretary of State John Kerry whose tone was very moderate towards the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, with him recognizing the plight of Palestinians and their refugees, the land grab they’ve been victim of, among other things, Netanyahu figured it best to remind Kerry, and by extension of his buzz words that you know will circle Fox News for months to come, other Americans and Westerners who see Israel as the only worthy beacon of civilization in the Middle East that – and I quote:

“Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians can celebrate Christmas.”

In the grand scheme of things, such statements are utterly meaningless, mostly because they’re pure bullshit. But as we’ve seen bullshit can actually get equal bullshit elected. The danger in letting such statements go by unchallenged is that they play right into the rhetoric that Israel and its allies want to put forward: It is the only country in the Middle East that’s, for all matters and purposes, worth anything, everyone else be damned.

It’s precisely not challenging such statements in the past that has turned Israel from the apartheid state existing on occupied territory, turning a blind eye towards all rules of war, ignoring many of the UN resolutions in which it is part, among other things, to this “liberal,” “religiously free” beacon of “hope” in the Middle East that is only “defending” itself against those “Arabs” who just don’t get it. All of this to the backdrop of Christian-centric, Israel-loving, everything and everyone else-hating Trump coming in 3 weeks.

So Netanyahu, and those that seem to believe him, how about you come sit on last year’s Byblos tree? I’m pretty sure it will bring your lot quite the pleasure.

jbeil-byblos-christmas-tree-2015

This year’s tree can work fine too:

byblos-jbeil-christmas-tree-2016

Or how about you come see this year’s tree in Tripoli? In case you didn’t know, that’s *whispers* Muslim territory.

tripoli-christmas-village-1

How about checking out the tree in Downtown Beirut?

beirut-downtown-tree-2016

Pic via @livelovebeirut.

Or the many other ways through which Beirut celebrated Christmas? (Pictures via LiveLoveBeirut).

 

Or how about the tree in my own house where my family gathered for Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas lunch, opened presents and then had some of its members go to midnight mass?

lebanon-christmas-decoration-2016-2

Or those pesky Christmas decorations in all our malls?

I also don’t see Israel on that Huffington Post list of notable Christmas trees from around the world but Lebanon has TWO entries there, as does the West Bank. Weird, huh?

I find it odd that the country that sells itself as being the world’s only Jewish state and gets away with it because anyone who tries to challenge that notion is deemed anti-Semitic has the audacity to claim it’s a defender of Christian rights when Christians in Israel are, similarly to Muslims, inherently second class citizens due to the fact they’re not, you know, Jewish. Just an FYI to Netanyahu and his friends, the president in Lebanon is Christian and I, a Lebanese who happens to be Christian (on paper), have the absolute freedom to practice my religion if I want to without worrying about checkpoints, armies oppressing me, a state that deems my religion second-rate, among other things.

And if you thought that Lebanon was a special case, let me remind you that it was less than a week ago that Israeli rabbis had a problem with Christmas decorations at a local mall. Or does that not affect the way Christians celebrate Christmas?

Conversely, when that “scandal” was going down, I was visiting the Jordanian city Aqaba, from which I could see Eilat. The city was Christmas ready with decorations at its hotels and streets, even though its Christian population is minor.

aqaba-christmas-decoration

The fact of the matter is that the best Christmas in the Middle East isn’t in Lebanon or in Jordan, but where it all began: Bethlehem. And even that isn’t in Israel either.

Tea, meet kettle.

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Sorry Jbeil, Lebanon’s Best Christmas Tree Is In Tripoli This Year

At a time when Christmas decorations have become yet another opportunity for Lebanese locales to compete among each other, spending tens of thousands (if not more) of dollars for momentary decorations instead of more needed development.

But I digress. Jbeil, whose Christmas decorations have become a yearly landmark, wouldn’t be too pleased to find out that its (lackluster?) tree this year, which faced stiff competition from the one in Zgharta, is being bested by a very unlikely competitor for the coveted title of Lebanon’s best.

In Tripoli’s unfinished Rachid Karameh expo, a modern-art Christmas tree, inspired by one of Oscar Niemeyer’s landmarks in the expo, merging Ramadan Lanterns with Christmas decorations was unveiled yesterday, to show that the holidays in the country are better celebrated together and that we, as a country, are stronger in being together. This comes from a city that is trying to pick up the pieces from the mayhem it was forced into as a result of years of systematic neglect during which its people were killed, its infrastructure crumbled and its reputation took a beating.

But Tripoli is trying to change all that. Next to its Christmas tree, at 25 meters of height, is an entire Christmas village akin to the one you can go to in Beirut at Train Station. The place is full of local shops trying to sell you goods. I’ve been to that of Beirut yesterday and the one in Tripoli is quite different: the prices are cheaper, it’s more organized and it’s way cleaner. You won’t see people chainsmoking their way indoors up North.

The Christmas village imported the widely popular “Souk el Akel” to Tripoli as well. While the concept of a food market has escaped our Lebanese-ness with the fact that such places should be affordable, with the joke going laban with cucumbers there costing you around $20, this is not the case in Tripoli. The marketplace is half composed of local Tripoli restaurants, and they’re super cheap. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the local moghrabiye.

All of this, including access to the usually closed Rachid Karameh expo, a gorgeous place, costs just 5000LL. The money goes to help thousands of needy children this Christmas season as well as to buy gifts for 2,000 orphans around the city.

The Christmas village will also be hosting a slew of stars in concert this year, as well as Brazilian football player Roberto Carlos who will be there on December 20th:

roberto-carlos-tripoli

So I suggest all of you make the trip up North for the next few days (the village runs until December 22nd) and check out how Tripoli is trying to reclaim its spot on the Lebanese landscape.

Lebanon’s Arguileh Militia

Soon after I blogged about how the Beiruti restaurant Enab, situated in Gemmayze, was violating the smoking ban despite stickers announcing the place as a non-smoking restaurant (link with pictures), IndyAct Lebanon decided to take matters in their own hands after a growing number of complaints regarding that particular restaurant were met unanswered by our tourism police.

As I said, it’s obvious there’s an under-the-table deal somewhere that benefits off our lungs. Anything for that extra money.

IndyAct decided to use their office space, which is ideally situated next to Enab, in order to set up a huge banner announcing to people who frequent Gemmayze that the restaurant nearby is violating the law and that it is not, in fact, a smoke free place as it advertises. The people of IndyAct were surprised to find their premises violated soon after by employees of Enab who took down the poster. Apparently they wanted to break the law in peace.

And it has all been documented on video:

Soon after the incident, IndyACT procured an official permit from the municipality of Beirut to set up the poster that Enab’s employees forcibly removed. Let’s hope those employees don’t break yet another law by removing the poster.

Enab Gemmayze Smoking Ban

 

It is said apathy is the weakest point in applying the law. It is our duty as Lebanese to make sure our law is enforced, people constantly said. But I have to ask: what’s the point?

When restaurants such as Enab break the law so flagrantly and have no problem breaking it even more to cover up the initial violation fully knowing they won’t face any repercussions whatsoever, what’s the point?

The more I call that magical 1735 number, the less cooperation I find from the tourism police whose job, paid for by my taxes, is to ensure such laws are enforced. The smoking ban is dead, despite some politicians wanting you to believe otherwise.

The amount of restaurants violating the law today is way too big to count. There isn’t a restaurant in Jbeil or Batroun or Tripoli – the places I spend most of my time in, apart from very few select places like Crepaway, which is actually observing the law. And they don’t even care about it. When you ask them about the smoking ban they reply: “that little thing? No, there isn’t such a thing over here. Do you want an arguileh, sir?”

 

The solution that I have found suits me best is to reward those few restaurants that are actually observing the law by frequenting them more often. On the other hand, I have decided that when I visit a restaurant that turns out to be violating the law, I will simply leave making sure they know all the smoke in the air is the reason for my departure. They want to make money off arguileh? Well, it won’t be my money they’ll be taking.

While our minister of tourism panics over the decreasing number of tourists visiting our beautiful country and sets up promotions to boost the sector, I have to wonder: how can you expect those people who come from much more organized countries to visit a place where even arguile has its own mini-militia?

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I will personally never visit Enab, Jbeil’s Feniqia (link) or any restaurant that violates the ban for that matter again. I invite you to do the same.

 

Lebanese Restaurants Not Following The Smoking Ban: Feniqia, Jbeil

I was taking my Australian cousins out to dinner today and I decided to have them try out Feniqia in Jbeil. One of my cousins, who has been visiting Lebanon more or less frequently lately, complained about the place having too much shisha and smoke. So I gleefully told her about the smoking ban and how a decent place like Feniqia was surely abiding by it.

As we neared the place, we saw a man smoking a shisha. But we was immediately next to a window so I thought that maybe that was their policy – you get to smoke if you’re close to an open window as long as you blow your fumes outside.

Then, as we had our dinner, a couple sat next to us. The guy held out his pack of Marlboro and lit a cigarette. So I told him that it’s forbidden to smoke here. He replied: really? So I told him: Yes, haven’t you heard of the new law?

He said that he was aware of the law but that he saw many people smoking shisha. So he called the restaurant manager to make sure. The manager came over and I asked him: isn’t your place abiding by the non-smoking law?

His reply? Of course and without a doubt not.

He said so with pride and left. The guy’s date ordered her shisha and she started smoking as well. So I decided to try and call the number to which you can report such incidences. After much searching, someone on twitter let me know that the number you need to call to report restaurants not abiding by the smoking law is 1214 – the hotline of the ministry of health.

I called that number 3 times. It got disconnected almost immediately. They must be sleeping – such a hot hotline, right?

As for Feniqia, I don’t expect it to follow the law anytime soon. Not even when winter rolls around and it can’t leave its windows open for aeration. And being a regular, I haven’t seen them undergo modifications of the place to bring it up to par with the regulations. And for proof’s sake, here are a few pictures.

Update:

The numbers that you need to call to report restaurants are either 112 or 1735. Call the numbers when you’re at the restaurant not the following day.