This Is North Lebanon That Our Governments Don’t Give A Shit About

A couple days ago, MTV Lebanon posted a controversial Christian-arousing report about how Lebanon’s Christian areas do not get funds for public works that its Muslim areas get, especially its Shiite ones. They threw around numbers for Baalbak and Hermel and compared them with the total of Batroun and Bsharre, called it a day and did what MTV does best: be more melodramatic about Christians in Lebanon than the Pope and the Patriarch will ever be combined.

Keep that report in mind (link).

Yesterday, Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourismreleased a beautiful video to promote tourism in the country called “Rise Above Lebanon” filmed using a drone over several Lebanese territories. I sat there through those 5 minutes, marveling at the perfect-angled footage of the place we call home.

And then the video was over before showing almost any footage of the place I call home, the North of the country.

What you got instead was a scene where some kid was playing happily in Nejmeh Square when people are NOT even allowed to Nejmeh Square anymore. A good part of the drone footage was also reserved for Zaitunay Bay. Because why not? #LiveLoveBeirutiCapitalism.

I enjoyed the video. Some of the footage shown is beautiful, diluting away the little big things that drive us mad about this country. Still, I didn’t know if it was my I-love-to-nag gene kicking, so I decided to test out the waters by voicing my thoughts about the North’s omission publicly. Many agreed. I was not being a paranoid northern regionalist holding out a pitchfork fighting for the land beyond the Madfoun.

It was then that I decided to go back and look at the data presented by MTV’s article to try and come to a different conclusion than the sectarian one they reached: what if you took those numbers and just added them up by mohafazat? What picture would it show then about how our government likes to spend our tax money?

These are the numbers grouped by Mohafazat. Amounts are in billion lira:

North:

  • Tripoli: 1.1
  • Bsharre: 0.1.
  • Batroun: 1.6.
  • Zgharta: 2.2.
  • Koura: 1.2.
  • Akkar: 3.3.
  • Menieh + Denniyeh: 2.4.

Total: 11.9. Per caza: 1.7.

South:

  • Sour: 5.
  • Jezzine: 0.35.
  • Saida: 5.

Total: 10.35. Per caza: 3.45.

Nabatiyeh:

  • Marjeaayoun: 4.2.
  • Bent Jbeil: 4.9.
  • Nabatiyeh: 7.1.
  • Hasbaya: 0.2.

Total: 16.4. Per caza: 4.1.

Mt. Lebanon:

  • Jbeil: 2.6
  • Baabda: 2.2.
  • Metn: 3.5.
  • Keserwen: 3.
  • Aley: 3.4.
  • Chouf: 3.7.

Total: 18.4. Per caza: 3.07.

Beqaa:

  • Baalbak: 12.8.
  • West beqaa: 3.4.
  • Rashaya: 1.5.
  • Zahleh: 5.4.
  • Hermel: 3.9.

Total: 27. Per caza: 5.4.

If you merge Nabatiyeh and the South mohafazats together, becoming an area that is more similar to North Lebanon when it comes to surface area and population, North Lebanon becomes the area receiving the least amount of investment from our governments, and it still applies when you adjust the amount per capita or per surface area.

Bsharre, the land that gave us the Cedars and Gebran and is the heart of Christianity in Lebanon for our Christian zealots, got less money in 2015 than what Issam Fares paid for his daughter’s wedding, or what our politicians spend on their lavish vacations in Mykonos or elsewhere.

And, clearly, we can’t make it for more than 20 seconds in a video to promote tourism in the country. I guess our governments think there’s nothing there to offer and there’s no point to put any effort. Is that way they wanted to turn Akkar into Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s garbage dump?

People in other areas nag about their infrastructure being subpar. Some areas in the North don’t have infrastructure to begin with. Some areas in Akkar don’t have road access yet and have only received electricity from our government recently. Do you know how they were going to sell Akkar’s garbage dump to the Akkaris? By giving them a highway.

Poverty rates in Tripoli and Akkar are among the country’s highest at around 50%. That’s basically half of the population in two of the country’s most populous areas living in conditions that everyone else in the country cannot even remotely begin to imagine. It’s not like extremism and poverty are linked in any way. It’s not like poverty can be tackled by investing in those people’s future. I guess they don’t deserve a second glance either.

This reality extends to the rest of the North. It seems the poorest Mohafaza in the country doesn’t need the attention. People in North Lebanon are embarking to Europe on boats, similarly to the Syrian refugees, to escape their horrid reality back home. Ponder on that thought for a moment.

There’s not much I can do to get our governments to care about our country’s areas that need it the most. It feels like beating a dead horse every time the topic is brought up. But know that every time you perpetuate the media they diffuse that ignores those areas, you’re also helping in maintaining the status quo, even if in a simple tourism video.

But I can show you what you’re missing on.

 

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0.3% of Lebanese Own 50% of Lebanon

Lebanon isn’t a country where population studies are omnipresent. However, given the data that the country has, Credit Suisse, in their yearly report on Global Wealth, has managed to paint a picture on how things in this country actually are.

The report dates back to October 2014, and frankly I am surprised that these numbers did not cause a stir and were not discussed. The report, at 160 pages, can be found here. Perhaps no one noticed the info, so here they are:

At an estimated population of 4.37 million, Lebanon’s wealth is estimated at $91 billion. That actually constitutes 0% of global wealth. How anticlimactic.

When it comes to the Middle East, and despite the reputation we get of being oil-rich, things are similar: Saudi Arabia has an estimated wealth of $653 billion, which ends up as roughly 0.2% of global wealth. Qatar, and all our shoukrans, has $200 billion, which is 0.1% of global wealth. The UAE is at $461 billion, and 0.2%. Meanwhile, Israel has an estimated wealth of $843 billion, translating to 0.3% of global wealth.

All of these numbers look flimsy compared to the United States’ $83708 billion, constituting 31.6% of world wealth.

Keep in mind that – with the exception of Israel and the United States – Credit Suisse considers the data for Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries to be poor in quality. However, I highly doubt that any estimations are overly erroneous in any way or that the margin of error they are admitting to will change the findings considerably.

But this isn’t the story. We all know the country has money. Recent leaks out of Switzerland placed the country at #11 in total customers at their banks and #12 in total deposits within the few months whose data was actually leaked. We’re 10452 km2. That’s a lot (link).

The story is in how that money is actually divided on the 4.3 million Lebanese living here.

Out of all those $91 billion, 0.3% or approximately 8000 people of the estimated workforce according the study own about half (48% to be exact), which is approximately $44.6 billion. Meanwhile, 99.7% of Lebanese own slightly more than half at $46.4 billion.

To put those numbers in perspective, Credit Suisse employed a criteria called the Gini score. The score, according to Wikipedia, is essentially a “measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income distribution of a nation’s residents, and is the most commonly used measure of inequality.”

Lebanon’s Gini score is 85.6. a score of 85.6 places Lebanon 6th worldwide in terms of wealth inequality behind Ukraine, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Seychelles and Russia.

The story doesn’t end here. Even among those 0.3%, there are disparities. That 0.3% basically any Lebanese who has an estimated wealth above $1million. But who actually owns most of the country? The answer is two families: The Hariri and the Miqatis.

Forbes Lebanese Billionaires Miqati Hariri

According to the Forbes latest list of billionaires, there are 6 Lebanese on the list whose ranking ranges from 530 worldwide to 1478. Two of those 6 are the Miqati brothers. The other 4 are the Hariri brothers, including former PM Saad Hariri. Their cumulative wealth is estimated, according to Forbes, at $12.6 billion. This is 30% of the total wealth owned by those 0.3% of Lebanese – except it’s owned by just 6 men.

This isn’t to say that the Hariris and Miqatis do not deserve their wealth. The Miqatis started and ran a telecom empire. The Hariris started and ran a major contracting company in Saudi Arabia. Good for them.

The problem with these numbers is the other side that they portray. About two thirds of the Lebanese population (64.6%) have an estimated wealth of less than $10,000. Such numbers indicate massive poverty in the country, and yet I was unable to find substantial studies apart from one that was recently done by the UN about Tripoli.

In numbers, (link) the UN found that 57% of Tripoli’s families struggle to reach an acceptable standard of living, while 26% are considered extremely deprived. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that things are similar in other regions beyond Beirut.

To the background of this massive poverty is the 0.3% who owns 50% of the country’s wealth, and those 0.3% happen to include most (if not all) of our politicians. Aoun is in it. Geagea is in it. Our MPs and ministers are probably part of those 8000 people too. There are no estimates of the wealths of Lebanese politicians if their last name isn’t Hariri or Miqati, but one assumes they are not middle class folk who are going by paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, it only makes sense that money brings influence, and then influence brings power. A politician’s job in Lebanon isn’t only to legislate but to “provide” for the voters. This is how democracy works here.

The problem with those 0.3% (not all of them obviously) being those running the country is that the country’s policies over the years have not served to close the gap or make those 64.6% with little to no wealth slightly better off. The Gini coefficient clearly shows as much. The country’s policies have not aimed at improving education, providing economic opportunities (for instance, a 1 million m2 zone in Tripoli to bring in international technology has been on hold over sectarian causes for the past 6 years) or making living standards better. Those 0.3% do not get how things are for the 64.6%, the people they’re in contact with once every 4 years for that pre-electoral paycheck. And honestly, there’s no reason for them to get it. And yet our MPs and ministers wanted to increase their salaries?

Meanwhile, the Lebanese population who happens to be of the third that has wealth above $10,000 is pre-occupied with selfies, porn stars, bananas and Kardashian-like reality TV shows because those are what matters.

Zaatar W Zeit’s Act of Kindness

I was walking around Beirut the other day, in neighborhoods I hadn’t been to in a long time, only to find streets that have drastically changed. The most poignant moment of my walk was when I saw an old woman, sitting by the corner of the road crying. She had her mattress next to her. She had nowhere to go. The walk up to that woman was full of people like her. Things are getting tougher and there’s nothing to make them easier.

As a rule of thumb, it can be said that Lebanese restaurants are very disassociated with the general security of the country. As things get tougher, their prices get higher. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard of stories like the one below. But it is one of those rare instances that take you a few minutes to believe. 

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 1.46.06 PM

Of course, Zaatar w Zeit didn’t advertise this. It was simply an act of kindness on behalf of their branch in question. We all barraged Zaatar w Zeit for not serving alcohol at one of their branches this past year. It only felt fitting to highlight an act of kindness on their behalf towards those who are less fortunate in the midst of this non-festive holiday season.

Great job Zaatar w Zeit. Hopefully other restaurants follow suit in trying to make things easier for those who are overwhelmed by the harsh conditions of life in Lebanon.

 

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.

R.I.P Maamoun Khaled Mohammad: Dead Because a Lebanese Hospital Refused to Admit Him For Money

In the ongoing bickering between the ministry of finance and the ministry of health, who pays the price?  The poor citizens of Lebanon who can’t afford not being helped do. And they pay their share extravagantly.

Maamon Khaled Mohammad is a baby boy, younger than 2 years old, who died yesterday as Al Shifa’ hospital in Tripoli, North Lebanon refused to admit him. His parents didn’t have money. They were one of many Lebanese families who relied on the help of the ministry of health in order to seek hospitalization.

It is illegal for a hospital to refuse care for a critically-ill patient in Lebanon, regardless of money. But this isn’t the country where legalities matter.

This baby boy is the victim of a decree that the minister of finance Mohammad Safadi did not sign. He is the first of many victims to come if the current situation between the aforementioned ministries continues. But don’t mind the people who are dying, we have a retarded electoral law to ratify and minority MPs to increase and security situations to fix.

North Lebanon is the poorest region in the country with a poverty rate of over 52%. Many of those families don’t have money for food, let alone for our expensive hospitals. What will those families do now? The answer is quite simple: die.

Rest in peace Maamoun Khaled Mohammad.

The Sleepless Nights of Lebanon’s Tripoli

If you go by the geography they teach at Lebanese schools, you are taught that Tripoli is the second biggest city of Lebanon and the capital of its Northern governorate.

The geography they taught us at school also enumerated the numerous economic riches that Tripoli boasted: its port, its proximity to the border, etc….

The civics course they gave us at school tells us about the numerous touristic advantages of the city of Tripoli: its castle, its old souks….

The sociology they taught us at school mentioned how Tripoli has one of Lebanon’s poorest regions on its outskirts. It’s mentioned only fleetingly, like something we can’t wait to bury under a pile of blissful ignorance as if it’ll make everything okay.

If you look at the latest events taking place in the country, you’d think our Northern border is not at “Al 3arida” but at Balamand. You’d think those Lebanese people of Tripoli have been annexed to the Syrian war. You’d think that this Lebanese city that many find too easy to hate is no longer Lebanese – just a burden that we can’t wait to get rid of. Let’s return it to pre-1920 days when it wasn’t part of our favorite part of Lebanon, Mount Lebanon.

My friends in Tripoli haven’t been sleeping lately. But you’re not hearing about that. You’re not hearing about the explosions going off at any moment, the bullets piercing through the silent December nights. You’re not hearing about the people dying, the children getting shot.

You’re not hearing about the people like you and me cowering away at a corner of their house all night in fear that one of those stray bullets might do them in.

It seems as if our Lebanese media has washed its hands from Tripoli. That city is just not worth the coverage – it’s a “been there done that” type of things. They’ve covered similar incidences there before. What’s the use of covering them now? It might go well with their policy of “let’s show only the good side of Lebanon for the world in order to save the Christmas tourist season.”

Our politicians couldn’t care less as well – as long as they get their share of votes next year. This city, which has one prime minister, four ministers and a bunch of MPs, has no one to speak on its behalf. It only has people who preach about what should take place as they sit in gilded seats somewhere far, far away.

“We condone the presence of arms in the city.” You often hear say. And what will your condemnation really do, mr. politician, while you’re the one secretly buying your people weapons in order to fuel the struggle that you know will bring you loads of returns in a few months’ time?

I am not from Tripoli. But Tripoli is one of my favorite cities in this God-forsaken country. It saddens me to see ignorants portray my friends as a bunch of Islamists who deserve whatever’s happening to their home. It saddens me to have people panic beyond their minds how I had to drop off a friend in Tripoli around midnight a couple of days ago. It saddens me that with each passing day, Tripoli is stripped from the identity of a city where Muslims and Christians lived side by side for years and is portrayed as a place where the next Islamists Emirate will start from.

When it comes to Tripoli, the majority of Lebanese have one thing to say: “On n’est pas concerné.”

What We Know So Far About J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy”

This year’s most anticipated book release drops this Thursday. The project has been under tight wraps from the moment it was announced, reminiscent of the supreme amount of secrecy surrounding J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter releases. Don’t you miss those?

The Casual Vacancy is 512 pages thick. The idea of it was conceived on a plane where Rowling thought “local elections” and the idea wrote itself out. She says it was the sort of idea that hits you and you know it will work. It was the same with Harry Potter.

The title was initially “Responsible.” But when Rowling stumbled on a newspaper with the words “casual vacancy” in it, she immediately knew that it fit her story better. She has been writing the book since Harry Potter was done and considered publishing it under a pseudonym but she figured it would be much braver if she published it under her own name.

And it is her name alone that’s causing this book to be a success even before it is released.

The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of a parish councillor in the village of Pagford. Barry, the councillor, had grown up on the Fields, a nearby estate that’s drenched in poverty, with which other citizens of Pagford, notably the middle class, have lost patience. If they can fill Barry’s seat with one more councillor sympathetic to their disgust, they’ll secure a majority vote to relinquish responsibility for the Fields and hand it over to a neighboring council.

The battle for the seat starts. And it’s not a simple election as one can conceive, it is the story of a town at war. Pupils at war with their teachers, sons and daughters with their parents, the rich with the poor…. It is the battle of different classes. The chairman assumes the seat will go to his son, against whom are a cold GP and a deputy headmaster with ambivalence towards his son, a self-possessed adolescent whose subversion takes the form of telling the truth.

The Fields’ most notorious family is the Weedons.

Terri Weedon is a prostitute, junkie and a victim of abuse. She is struggling to stay clean to stop social services from taking her three-year-old son away from her. But it is her daughter, Krystal, who will take up the mantle of being the mother. But the death of Barry, the only adult whom Krystal considered as a friend, leaves her alone and struggling in the poverty that she lives in.

Anonymous messages will then start appearing on the parish’s website, exposing the laundry of the people living there and the town sinks into paranoia and tragedy.

The novel is written from multiple perspectives. So it invites the reader to delve into the head of different characters. Some journalists who were offered the chance to read the book said that this differing perspective made them think the book was closer to a comedy until it really sank in and they were hit by the severity and tragedy of it all as they delved into the Weedon’s minds.

The book is about the middle class of Britain. It is a representation of what J.K. Rowling says a “phenomenally snobby society.” And she has laid it bare. It is the story of heroin addiction, teen sexuality and economical problems. So it is as an adult book as it can get without it being Fifty Shades of Grey. The book is so unlike Harry Potter, in fact, that even the language used is one that would definitely shock any Rowling fan.

Some quotes from the book are as follows:

  • “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.”
  • [A lustful boy sits on a bus] “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.”
  • And there’s a reference to a girl’s “miraculously unguarded vagina.”

The Casual Vacancy has already sold more than one million copies in pre-orders and will be the year’s top selling new release. I will review it as soon as I finish reading it upon its release this Thursday. But I have high expectations.

(Sources: 1 and 2)