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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Wadi Rum: One of Arabia’s Most Gorgeous Places, And A Must Visit For Lebanese Who Like Adventure

As far as other Arabs are concerned, Lebanon is considered to be the greenest of the region’s countries, and despite rampant deforestation and grossly non-environmentally friendly governmental policies, this is actually the case for our little country. Our biggest asset in bringing people to visit us from the region isn’t, therefore, only our “joie de vivre,” nightlife and awesome food, but the fact that we offer them eco-tourism that their countries can’t match. Alas, Lebanon tends to take its tourism for granted.

I was recently in Jordan for a few days during which I had the chance to see some of the country’s main touristic attractions, including their 7 wonders of the world site Petra, and the place that stuck in my head to this very day and the place that I would want to visit again as soon as I can and recommend that everyone do so: Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is not unfamiliar with many of you. You’ve actually seen it plenty of times before but didn’t know it was the case. It’s featured heavily in the latest Star Wars movie “Rogue One.” It was the filming site of Best Picture nominee “The Martian.” It was also where parts of the second Transformers movie, Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.

Simply put, Hollywood and Westerners know Wadi Rum exists and flock to it in droves. For other Arabs and Lebanese, however, the place remains near-fictive. When I mentioned that I’d love to visit the place a few months ago, the reply I got was: “what’s there to see in the desert?”

The answer is: quite a lot.

The reputation that we, as Lebanese, have when it comes to our tourism style is that we’re not adventurous. We want good food, nightlife and shopping. To me, that reputation is horrific. I asked many travel agencies about that reputation and all of them corroborated it: this is what they sell. I guess this doesn’t apply to a newer generation of Lebanese, and many of this blog’s readers, but I daresay it’s high time to change that.

  • How To Get To Wadi Rum:

A new travel path between Beirut and Jordan was launched last week, offering direct flights between Beirut and Aqaba for $212 round trip. This path is better than Beirut – Amman because Aqaba is much closer to Wadi Rum than Amman (70km versus 300km).

Once you get to Aqaba, it’s quite easy to rent a car. Your Lebanese driver’s license actually works, or you can have an international driver’s license done to be on the safe side. Oil prices in Jordan are much cheaper than their counterpart back home and car rental prices are super cheap too.

  • What To Do In Wadi Rum:

The Wadi Rum reserve is huge. It’s around 700km2. I daresay there’s no way that anyone can do the whole thing in one stay unless they stay there for a couple of weeks, and that’s not ideal because it’s a physically demanding visit.

Gorgeous scenery: While we, as Lebanese, completely disregard the jewels we have interspersed in our country and don’t bother in their upkeep, the Jordanians have done the total opposite with Wadi Rum: it is a natural reserve that is so clean, so neatly kept and so beautiful. Wadi Rum is the total opposite of the kind of eco-tourism that we can offer in Lebanon: it’s a desert, filled with gorgeous sand dunes, high limestone mountains, sitting on one of Arabia’s biggest aquifers, and is as authentic as a desert experience can be. Your instagram posts will be ace, trust me.

Safari rides: Forget safaris in Dubai. I went on a 4×4 truck ride across the area and this is the real deal. You sit in the back of the pickup truck, and a skilled driver takes you around gorgeous scenery that will leave you dumbfounded. Refer to pictures below.

Bedouin life: Wadi Rum is also home to many Bedouin tribes that still live there. Those tribes will open their arms to you and host you for lunch or dinner. Their cooking style is very interesting in that, to save up on wood, they bury their cooking pots in the sand with the burning embers and let the meat and vegetables slowly cook. I had the pleasure to sit with a Bedouin tribal chief who told us stories of life in the desert, played a little on his rababa and invited us to share a meal with him.

Camel Riding: Western countries also stereotype our countries as the places were camels are the go-to mode of transportation. They’d be disappointed, I suppose, to find out that the first time I’ve ever ridden a camel was in Wadi Rum.

Hiking: I didn’t have the chance to do a lot of hiking at Wadi Rum but there are trails all around the place that vary based on difficulty that those who like hiking will find to be exquisite. My fair share of rock climbing and hiking that I did there was unforgettable, although my legs would probably ask for a break before I do that again.

Sunsets: There’s something to say about the beauty of sunsets and desert sunsets have their own taste that I’m super glad I got to experience. I was able to sit atop one a high rock with a view, look over at a huge landscape in front of me as it turned into hues of gold and orange.

Star Gazing: After the sun set, I was treated to one of the most beautiful starry skies I’ve ever seen. Entire constellations spread in front of you. Just lie there, and enjoy the gorgeous view.

  • Where To Stay:

You don’t need to go back to the city in order to enjoy Wadi Rum for more than a day. The place has many camping sites interspersed here and there, with prices for the night being around $20.

Why It’s a Must Visit:

I can’t begin to tell you how amazing the place is. I spent an entire day there – from 8AM till around 10PM – and left feeling disheartened because I wanted to spend more time and see more places. Apart from it being historic with it being one of the places that Lawrence of Arabia spent a lot of time and its rocks having many ancient inscriptions on them, Wadi Rum offers you quite an experience that Lebanon doesn’t have and I daresay other Arab countries of the region can’t match. It’s unfortunate that this jewel in the Middle East is discovered and used quite often by Hollywood and Europeans but not by the locals or those from neighboring countries like us. It’s cheap, quite accessible with no visa requirements for entry for Lebanese, and you’ll go back to Lebanon with many a chance to tell wonderful stories of your desert excursions. Go there!

Mashrou’ Leila Getting Banned In Jordan Is The Ultimate Validation Of Their Art

Mashrou' Leila - Jordan

Lebanon’s most prominent indie band Mashrou’ Leila, who were embarking on a tour to promote their most recent and exquisite album Ebn El Leil, had a concert planned for April 29th at Amman, Jordan’s Roman Hippodrome.

Today, only a few days prior to the concert, they were informed that their concert was canceled for, as “official” reasons cite “[their] performance would have been at odds with what the Ministry of Tourism viewed as the “authenticity” of the site.” In other, more hidden words, the Jordanian authorities view Mashrou’ Leila’s progressive message, by Arab standards at least, as an agenda they don’t want to advance on their territories. Obviously, that scary message is one of sexual equality transcending genders and orientations. How frightening.

Mashrou’ Leila issued a lengthy statement on their Facebook page which you can check here (link), of which I quote the following:

We denounce the systemic prosecution of voices of political dissent.
We denounce the systemic prosecution of advocates of sexual and religious freedom.
We denounce the censorship of artists anywhere in the world.
We apologize for having thus far failed at creating a cultural environment that allows our children to speak their minds. We believe whole-heartedly that we have only ever acted with the intention of making our world a more equal, and just place, even if “only through song.” We pledge to our audience that we will continue to place the integrity of our art as our foremost priority, and to never succumb to the pressure to compromise our message, or to waive our freedom to speak. We promise to continue to write out of love, and with the desire to spread love. We will fight, as we have always done, for our right to freely play our music and speak our mind.

The ironic thing is that Mashrou’ Leila had been allowed to perform in Jordan, at that specific site, before. Their Jordanian concerts serve as a vehicle for their fans in that country to watch them perform and, more importantly, for many Palestinians to make their way into Jordan in order to attend those concerts.

Not only have Mashrou’ Leila been stopped from holding this particular concert, but they’ve been banned from performing in all of Jordan at all times.

Of course, for the feisty Lebanese who will proclaim Jordan as a backwards-thinking land because of this, please remember how Zouk Mikhayel had a problem with Mashrou’ Leila performing there only two years ago simply because their lead singer Hamed Sinno was openly gay. Leila getting banned in Jordan is not a reflection of Jordan, but about the collective Arab culture that favors oppression over acceptance.

I have to wonder though, how is this reflective of a country whose king and queen proclaim to be champions of modernity and progression in a regressing region?

 

It’s a shame that Jordanian and Palestinian concert goers won’t get to watch the awesome Mashrou’ Leila in concert. I’m terribly sorry that Arab governments are so scared of music imbued with messages that challenge what they know, in a way that they can’t really fight because, ultimately, progression is inevitable whether it takes a year, ten or a hundred.

In being banned from ever performing in Jordan, Mashrou’ Leila are not just winners. They are triumphant.

In being banned, they’ve reached the echelons of those entities in the Arab world that challenge the status quo so profoundly with what they do that they’re shaking governments, systems and belief foundations to their core.

In being banned, Mashrou’ Leila have proven that their music is not just an assortment of notes strung together to construct a catchy phrase, but rather a message for Arab youth to rise above what they know, what they’ve been brought up to believe and accept that diversity in the heart of their own culture is to be embraced not feared. Today, Mashrou’ Leila are victorious because their message of no fear is causing governments to be afraid.

Mashrou’ Leila’s music will not be silenced if their concert is stopped. In them being forced to be silent, they’re louder than ever, and their music will gain more audiences than they’ve dreamed possible. Today, they are victorious. Today, they should be proud of the walls they’ve broken and of the boundaries they will break with every note they sing.

How Lebanon Absolutely Failed When ISIS Killed Our Soldiers

August 2nd, 2014. It has been such a long time. That was at a time when the Lebanese army was fighting ISIS at our north-eastern border with Syria. Nowadays, we call it “The Battle of Arsal.” And on that day, ISIS took hostage several of our army members.

Subsequently, our government became a little irritated. Here was another “mess” they had to deal with. It was nothing major. They weren’t obviously going to try their best as long as the status quo remained the same; that status quo being the soldiers remain alive and the fragile “truce” with ISIS remains in place.

On August 28th, Ali Al-Sayyed was beheaded, becoming the first public Lebanese victim of ISIS. His video did not cause the outrage – even in Lebanon – that the death of James Foley caused. Nowadays, if you drop the name Ali Al-Sayyed in a casual conversation, few would remember him. But he existed, and he left behind a pregnant wife, who gave birth to his son a few days ago, and a daughter called Rahaf.

This is Ali:

Ali al-Sayyed

Ali was one of the brave men who fought against the Islamists in Nahr el Bared in 2007.  When he was killed, our government responded with statements and empty promises. They were considering their options. This beheading was a clear attempt to “cause civil strife.”

Meanwhile, the parents of those soldiers were closing off highways to the dismay of many. Traffic! Ugh. Then when they moved their protests from the Tripoli highway in North Lebanon to Beirut for more relevance, they found themselves being hosed down to clear roads as they chanted for our government to do something – anything – for their sons.

Their protests increased. It was no longer just a matter of a fragile status quo that allowed our government to continue its summer vacation. However, as things usually go in Lebanon, a couple of days after the murder of Ali Al-Sayyed, the news cycle diverted to other issues.

On September 5th, as the hostage’s families caused more “unrest” in the country, as they became angrier and promised escalations, our minister of social affairs Rachid Derbas made the following statement:

“Protesters in Qalamounaccused the government of being too strict and demanded negotiations while others asked for a military solution and accused the Cabinet of cowardice. This was a scary scene…. What’s with the families of the captured soldiers threatening [to incite] a civil war while their sons are still safe?”

Naturally, even the people in our government had forgotten that it had only been 7 days at the time that a public beheading of one of those sons had taken place. What made it even more ironic is the fact that the following day, on September 6th, ISIS released the beheading video of another Lebanese soldier: Abbas Medlej. He was 20.

Abbas Medlej

How did our government respond?

Well, for starters, our PM Tammam Salam gave a speech, straight out a Paulo Coelho book:

“We are not in a weak position. We have several options. There are various elements of strength in our hands…. Lebanon will not be defeated. Those terrorists will definitely be defeated.”

And then, because as we all know Lebanon is a country of utmost respect for civilities and the law, our minister of Interior Affairs Nouad el Machnouk promised to “speed up” the trials of Islamists in Roumieh. He also went to Qatar to see what can be done.

Then, almost 2 weeks later, on September 19th, ISIS executed another soldier named Mohammad Hamieh.

Mohammad Hamieh

Then we forgot about all of this for more than 2 months.

On December 5th, 2014, ISIS released a video in which they showed the execution of a fourth Lebanese soldier named Ali Al-Bazzal. They shot him in the head. A few days later, Ali’s grief-stricken father also passed away.

This is Ali:

Ali Al-Bazzal

And then nothing.

Now let’s contrast this with what happened in Jordan yesterday.

Moaz al-Kasasbeh was a pilot who was captured by the terrorists on December 24th after his F-16 jet crashed near the ISIS stronghold city Raqqa in Northern Syria. Yesterday, a video surfaced showing ISIS’ new style of assassinations: they burned Moaz alive.

It was reported that he had been killed as early as January 3rd, but the terrorist organization still negotiated with the Jordanian government to secure the release of a woman named Sajida al-Rishawi, who had taken part in a 2005 suicide bomb attack in Amman.

Following the news of his death, Jordan’s king Abdullah cut his visit to the United States short and vowed “punishment and revenge” for Moaz’s death. A few hours later, the country had executed Sajida Al-Rishawi as well as another Islamist called Ziad al-Karbouli, before announcing that they would increase their role in the coalition against ISIS.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Jordan managed to highlight the gravity of the murder of their son Moaz Al-Kasasbeh so well that every single international outlet has been addressing the murder at length. The whole rhetoric of “oh, his death isn’t as important because he’s not Western” was rendered invalid.

Moaz al-KASasbeh

Jordan’s TV stations put black ribbons on their screens along with Moaz’s picture. The death of just one of their soldiers sent their country into a frenzy to make sure they hold their own, that it doesn’t happen again and that they would be sure to respond aggressively to put ISIS in place.

By being the only Arab country to respond to ISIS, Jordan has proven that they won’t be yet another pussy-nation in the region to be trampled on by those terrorists.

I can’t say the same for the place we call our country.

6 months and 4 soldiers killed later, how did we make international news? Because of a selfie and a pornstar.

6 months and 4 soldiers killed later, instead of giving the parents of those soldiers a second thought, instead of telling them that we would “increase our role against ISIS,” we hosed them down with water, told them they are wrong to demand justice for their children.

6 months and 4 soldiers killed later, the country never mourned the soldiers who died, whose death was turned into entertainment for the sadists; our media never really bothered and we never cared.

Ali Al-Sayyed, Abbas Medlej, Ali Al-Bazzal and Mohammad Hamieh are four men who were not just killed because of their government’s failure, but who had to die over and over again by that same government failing to stand up against those that murdered them, by failing to make sure that their death translates to anything relevant, by making sure their beheading ends up as a non-event, another filler report in our evening news.

This is a disgrace.

May Ali, Abbas, Ali, Mohammad and Moaz rest in peace.

A Bank in Jordan Fires A Christian Woman… For Refusing To Wear a Veil

I’m sick of articles shared by Lebanese “activists” that tell us how neighboring countries, such as Jordan, have more “freedom” than Lebanon. You tell them it’s not true, they ask for an example outside your basic Lebanese pride.

Well, here’s one for you. A Jordanian Christian woman was fired from her work not because she was incompetent, not because she wasn’t good at what she did but because she refused to wear a veil.

The woman, named Vivianne Salameh, was asked to hear a headscarf which goes with the uniform the bank, Jordan Dubai Islamic Bank, enforced for female employees earlier this year. Five other Christian female workers had already caved in. She refused to wear the veil. The headscarf doesn’t conform with her principles, she said.

The uniform the bank imposed on female employees wasn’t even registered at the trade and industry ministry, which means their initial uniform, despite them being “Islamic,” didn’t impose a headscarf.

Following the bank’s logic, it should be allowed for other companies to fire women who wear the veil. Right? Aren’t they breaking uniform? But other companies don’t do so because there is a very simple thing that seems to have eluded this bank: the concept of freedom of religion.

Muslim women are free to wear the veil, they are also free not to. Christian women are not supposed to wear a veil, according to their religion. Forcing them to is violating their freedom.

But how would a bank that’s straight out of the dark ages know that?

It’s a sad day when refusing to wear a piece of clothes means your source of living gets cut. I praise Vivianne Salameh for standing up to her faith. She’s exactly the type of people these retarded banks need.

Censorship in Lebanon: Not Exemplary in the Middle East?

The Samir Kassir Foundation recently shared this study that they conducted regarding various forms of censorship in the region. It’s an  interesting read. You can get the PDF here.

What’s interesting to note about the study is that cases of censorship in Lebanon are not among the region’s best. But fear not, it’s not the state that’s actually doing all the censorship.

In Lebanon, two phenomena raised concerns among defenders of liberty. First, the physical assaults on journalists by non-state actors, whether members of political parties, demonstrators, or a new category of activists commonly called “the inhabitants” (Al-Ahali) of some delicate regions. All sides of the Lebanese political spectrum were responsible for such acts.

In fact, in the facts & figures part of the study, a graph showing attacks on journalists in each country of the study had the following results:

The low number in Syria is not to be interpreted positively, as the study conductors noted. The attacks, when they’ve taken place, were brutal, as others graphs of the study show: Syria has the highest rate of violence against intellectuals and journalists.

What’s interesting about the results, however, is that 51 out of 55 attacks on journalists in Lebanon weren’t carried out by State authorities, but by non-state entities. Examples given are: Hariri supporters attacking journalists on the “Sunni Day of Anger” when Hariri’s government was toppled, as well as Hezbollah forces attacking journalists investigating their transgressions in Lassa and other villages in South Lebanon.

Another interesting fact to note is that the sector most affected by censorship in Lebanon was cinema with more than 10 movies being banned from being screened in Lebanon. Officials justified the decisions as a necessary precaution to preserve Lebanon’s relation with Syria and Iran and our civil peace. I think they were referring to the abysmal Beirut Hotel in one of those points.

For the non-state bans in Lebanon, one is regarding the LMFAO concert ban which happened due to some groups protesting the band’s anti-Christian feel in their song’s video. MEA has banned the newspaper Al Akhbar from being distributed on its flights. And last but not least, the infamous incident to hide Steven Spielberg’s name off the “Tintin” movie poster.

All in all, while Syria takes the cake when it comes to fighting liberties, the situation in Lebanon is not exactly peachy according to this study. Honestly, I didn’t think we had this bad compared to neighboring countries, which leads me to my conclusion.

What I think is a grave flaw in the conduction of this study is that such events in neighboring countries do not make headline news as they do over here, making our numbers seem inflated compared to them. Most of the transgressions that happen in them might be hidden or kept under the radar, making the situation seem much better than it is.

Either way, I’d take the results of this study with a grain of salt. While it is always an interesting read, I don’t think it’s correct nor is it a representative comparison between the countries of the region. Perhaps a look at the numbers of countries known for championing freedom is a clearer comparison. At least you’d know that being skeptical regarding their numbers is unfounded.