Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Living in Lubnaan

After spending two weeks in Lebanon (Lubnaan in Arabic) I start to feel more and more at home here. Which is strange in many ways, and natural in many others. It's strange, because I was just started to feel at home in the US. So after arriving in Beirut I felt far away from home (the US) while I was actually closer to my hometown (Beerze, the Netherlands). It was also strange to know that I would be so far away from my girlfriend for two and a half months, and still I am looking forward to leaving Lebanon to see her again. The language is also hard to deal with. Of course, Arabic is already difficult enough as it is, but I have even more difficulties with spoken Arabic (because I didn't study that the past year - as any university student I studied modern standard arabic, what nobody speeks). And anytime I try to speak Arabic, I get stuck, frustrated and switch to English or French, what most people speak fluently anyway.
Nevertheless, I feel comfortable here now. Many people and many factors contribute to this. I share a nice appartment with steady electricity (a rarity in Lebanon) and wireless internet that works most of the time with a French girl and an Italian guy who are both great people. We speak French most of the time, that beautifull language that I was already starting to forget, and we have a great balcony where we have drinks and narguile (I'm smoking one there right now actually). The neighborhood is nice and relatively quiet, and there's always something to do in Beirut. I'm meeting tons of new, interesting people who all seem equally hospitable and friendly, who take me to salsa-clubs, nice, local restaurants, the beach, other towns and cities and bars and parties. And Lebanon outside of Beirut is just incredible. There are beautifull mountains everywhere, a long shoreline with the Medditeranean see, nice small villages.
I had the opportunity to get to know some of that beautiful countryside when I went hiking in Mount Sannine, north-east of Beirut, where I finally saw that natural beauty that I heard of so much before I came here and that I have missed most of my life in the Netherlands, where we lack anything that resembles a mountain. In the winter, Sannine turns into a ski-resort flooded by tourists from the whole Middle East, and even under the burning summer-sun some snow remains on the tops of the mountain-ridge. I've also visited Tyre, a harbor-town in the south of Lebanon with an ancient roman hippodrome, and I went to a beach north of Beirut. Actually, there aren't that many sand-beaches in Lebanon, so when people 'go to the beach', they actually go to a place at the sea owned by a hotel where you can just sit next to the sea, order food, swim and get a sunburn. Yesterday I went to a small town 'in the mountains' - when people go out of Beirut, they always 'go to the mountains' - where the brother of a friend of mine owns a pattiserie. On Saturday I will go to an even smaller village next to it which is actually his hometown to meet his parents. Seeing this rural side of Lebanon made me really appreciate the country, because Beirut is in fact not really a beautifull city. From the mountains, behind a thick layer of smog, you can see both the Medditeranean and a sea of boring, concrete buildings that have to be restored or completely rebuilt every time a war has been going on here. So it's understandable they can't afford exquisite architectural tours de forces, but it doesn't make the city the nicest place to live. Luckily, the mountains are never much further than an hour by car away. So I can imagine myself staying here for eight more weeks, trying to enjoy as many of the great things this country has to offer as possible.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Lebanese Elections and European Fortification

As most of you who have been reading this blog might know, Lebanon just elected a new parliament. First of all, I have to admit that I don't know much about Lebanese politics, so don't expect an in-depth analysis of the competing parties and the impact of the results. However, I was very curious about the whole process. How do people experience elections in Lebanon, where a stable democracy has not been around for much more than two decades, and where politics, religion, violence and foreign intereference has historically been an unseparable all-in package.
The streets had been dominated by the elections already long in advance. Huge billboards tried to convince voters to support certain parties. There was the red poster of Nadim Gemayel, leader of a right-wing (some say fascist) Christian Phalange party, mainly visible in Achrafiye, the district where he ran for office. The poster says: Solid, today and tomorrow. In the Christian neighborhood where I live, the Lebanese Forces are most popular, with their leader Samir Geagea. Their logo of the Lebanese cedar tree in a red circle is visible everywhere. This Christian party originated from Bashir's Phalange, but has now risen to more prominance. A few blocks from where I live is a mainly Shia (muslim) neighborhood, where the Amal and Hizbollah parties find much support. Hizbollah (the Party of God)'s poster - here in front of a devestated house that hasn't been restored after Israel's bombardments in 1996 or 2006 - has the crossed words Occupation, Aggression and something I can't read, and in large green letters Lebanon (they mainly want to end the Israeli occupation and aggression, that still continues in some parts of the south).

Before elections day on June 7th, everybody was wondering what would come. When I left office on Friday the 5th, everybody who left expressed their wishes to see everybody alife and well again on Tuesday (Monday was a holiday because the results of the elections would probably prevent a normal return to day-to-day activities anyway). So we didn't know what to expect. Would there be clashes, would there be heavy fighting, would it be peacefull?
Eventually, it all went relatively smoothly. There where some incidents in the South, in Tripoli and in Zahle, but nothing dramatic. In short, nobody was killed, something nobody expected, I think. What did make these elections different from what I had experienced in other countries where the frequent public expressions of party-affiliation. A group of young supporters of Amal (Hope) and Hizbullah, wich originated from Amal, where riding around on their scooters carrying flags of their parties and of Lebanon. The same ritual was performed by Christian supporters of Forces of Lebanon and other parties, but with cars in stead of motopeds. In fact, each party had their own honking-signal, so there was a lot of noise in the streets if a group of supporters passed.

Apart from such demostrations of support there was not much going on, though. Most shops were closed, there where not many people on the streets and the blocks around the polling stations were heavily guarded, so I didn't even try to get nearby. Local party offices blasted their campaign-music from big loudspeakers and the honking signals echoed in the empty streets, but otherwise the neighborhood was quiet and empty.
Once the first results came out, around 12:30 at night, it seemed like fighting had broken loose. Heavy blasts where ignited right next to our appartment (or so it seemed), but luckily those where just fireworks to celebrate the victory of the Christian parties. The previous majority, united in the "March 14" movement had maintained their power. Anyway, the winners of the elections would have to cooperate with the oppositions to form a government of national unity (which has been in place for about a decade now), so there would not be much change anyway.

So much for the Lebanese elections. As a Dutch citizen who very much feels affiliated with other European countries, I can't let the European elections pass by unnoticed. I was very surprised (and disturbed) to read that, according to the dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad "European voters voted for mainly (center) right-wing parties. Parties that have chosen for more market in Europe in the past few years." As opposed to more socialists parties, who advocate more restrictions of the free market. So, the market was the central theme of the elections, according to the NRC? If only that was true. I think Le Monde is closer to the truth when it asserts that "in this environment of distress, the voter becomes defensive and returns to the national framework and votes for the conservatives of his country." This is especially visible in the Netherlands, where the young Party for Freedom turned out as the second biggest party after the Christian Democrats. While this party advocates "more room for entrepreneurs" and "less bureaucracy", it is obsessively trying to limit the freedoms of Islamic residents of the Netherlands. That has nothing to do with free market, but more with a xenophobic tendency to try to keep the Netherlands as Dutch as possible (whatever that might be and for whatever reason). In the meantime, the PVV forgets that the Netherlands could only become the wealthy country it is today by adopting, exploiting and inviting (influences from) other cultures througout its history. I won't bother you with the details, I pretty sure that everybody knows that the tulip is actually a Turkish flower, the Indonesian occupation and slave trade laid the foundations of the Dutch so-called "golden century" and that "guest-laborers" provided a crucial workforce during the build-up after WWII. What I think is more interesting is the contrast between Lebanon and Europe, and in particular in the Netherlands. The Dutch have done away with their "collumnized" (verzuilde) society decades ago, so that now catholics, protestants, laborers and owners of capital go to the same schools, watch the same television channels and play in the same soccer teams. Now it seems that Europe is getting collumnized along christian-muslim and local-immigrant lines. In Lebanon, on the other hand, the passed elections have finally showed that power can be divided and shared in a non-violent way, with many christian, muslim and other parties expressing their support for this national unity. Maybe we should take their example and realize that different religions have to cooperate, because we will have to live together and deal with each other's differences. We can't force immigrants to abandon their culture or religion, and contrary to what Geert Wilders wants us to be afraid of, the Netherlands will never become an Islamic state. So should we appreciate and learn from our differences, or be afraid of it and try to suppress it?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Fancy bars and Filthy blocks

After four days in Beirut, I start to understand why they call this city "the Paris of the Middle East". People act as if they are in Paris, wearing fancy clothes, driving in expensive cars, go to fancy bars and speaking french (on occasion). This might not be all that typical of Paris (many people in Paris don't act this way, and many people in other cities do), but I guess it corresponds to people's image of Paris - maybe the British or American gave Beirut this name, or even the Beirutis themselve.
Something normally not directly related to Paris, but present there as much as in Beirut (I think), is a large contrast between rich and poor. But maybe it's a bit more visible in Lebanon. Porches drive next to old, run-down Lada's, large bank-offices tower above dirty appartments and shoe-cleaners try to find customers in front of fashion-shops. Differences between adjacent neighborhoods are equilly striking. Walking through Beirut for about an hour, I came across the nicely restored and clean (touristic) center, a muslim neighborhood with dirty streets and small shops, the coastline with bars for tourists and Hamra with its entertainment and expats.
But Beirut is not Paris - indeed, it is still a Middle Eastern city. So while it contains many of Paris' features, there is more. Of course there is the Arabic on the street signs, Islam with its mosques and narguile with its water-pipes, but what strikes me mosts are the signs of conflict. Between domestic militias, between Israel and Lebanon, between Syria and Israel etc. Many buildings are currenlty being rebuilt or are still inhabitable after the Israelian bombings of 2006. Many walls are damaged by bullets and bombs. Guards and soldiers are keeping an eye on the streets at every corner (at least, in the richer neighborhoods). The upcoming elections of June 7 don't make the situation more secure.
Nevertheless, it seems to be going well compared to Lebanon's history of violence: after the numerous religious, ethnic and social groups realized they could never win because each one of them is too small to subdue all others, they decided to form a government of national unity. That has kept the situation relatively stable for the last decade or so, as long as foreign powers don't decide to intervene.
The upcoming elections are equally expected to lead to a new government of national unity, with a larger representation of the opposition parties. This should keep all parties satisfied enough to prevent any large outbursts of violence. To keep the risks limited, all of Lebanon will close down from Saturday until Monday. Until then I'm still walking through the streets jammed with cars, taxi's honking to attract my attention, bored soldiers keeping guard and gigantic advertisements for candidates in the parliamentary election.
All the while I'm trying to get a better insight in the 'Arabic' aspects of Beirut, but that's not as easy as I thought. The first few days here I stayed with a fellow student from George Washington University who is studying at the American University of Beirut for a semester. He lives with three other American students and mainly hangs out with foreigners. I must say that this made the transition relatively easy, but I did't come to Lebanon to feel as if I was in the US. I was also looking for 'local bars' that didn't try to be fancy and (in my eyes) western, but it seems that they are hard to find. In fact, a Lebanese-American colleague told me that Lebanese like the fancy bars and western entertainment, so it might be un-Lebanese if I would just go to small tea-houses and smoke narguile.
It seems to be equally un-Lebanese if I speak Arabic. Of course I studied 'formal' Arabic in Washington, so here people tell me I should learn Lebanese Arabic. The difference is substantial, but Lebanese are perfectly able to understand the formal version. For me, however, it is hard to make the transition, especially because I don't know exactly what is the same and what is different. So I probably end up saying less than I could say, because I think it's different in Lebanese. To make it even more difficult, everybody speaks back in English. In fact, I probably wouldn't understand if they didn't, but this way it's hard to ever learn. So I just keep asking my colleages how to say things, I keep listening to their conversations (not understanding it) and hope that one day I'll be able to speak Lebanese. Unfortunately that has to be one of the mere 75 days that I'm here.