Saturday, July 25, 2009

The streets of Beirut

In the streets of Beirut, lives unfold real-life before your eyes.
In the streets of Beirut, political parties ask for attention with billboards covering entire buildings. Flags express the prominance of the Lebanese Forces or Hezbollah in Christian or Muslim areas.
In the streets of Beirut, images of muslim saints or Islamic leaders, statues of Hail Mary and images of Jezus Christ remind the habitants of the religion in their neighborhood on every corner.
The streets of Beirut are always under construction, repairing damage sustained during one of the many wars or blocking traffic for months or years to create a new road or intersection.
In the streets of Beirut, cars, scooters and pedestrians compete for their part of the road in the chaotic traffic haphazardly directed by traffic-lights and police officers, emitting dark clouds of exhaust that cover the city in a grey mist.
In the streets of Beirut, taxi-drivers are always looking for passengers, honking at every pedestrian they see.
In the streets of Beirut, street peddlers sell food, drinks and all kinds of things. Kids and youngsters are walking along the cars in traffic jams under the sun offering chewing gum, goldfish or sunscreens for behind the windshields of SUV's trying to squeeze through the crowded streets. Kaak (a kind of bread), coffee and fruit sellers push their carts and announce their presence with their voice or by hitting two pieces of metal against each other.
In the streets of Beirut, old men play backgammon in front of coffee-shops and grocery-store owners doze off at their door waiting for customers. Kebab, falafel and menoushi-shops attract crowds of customers during lunchtime and anywhere between 8 and 2 at night, quickly filling scores of thin breads with vegetables and meat or fried chick-peas, or baking fresh bread with thyme/lemon spread.
In the streets of Beirut, minarets of the mosques play the call for prayer five times a day, filling the Islamic neighborhoods with sacred singing.
In the streets of Beirut, those who can't or don't want to drink beer in the fancy bars and clubs gather on the corner, sitting on scooters, streetcurbs and fences, smoking arguile, playing music and chatting.
The streets of Beirut are filled with loud explosions and flashes of light, especially at night in residential areas, where kids and youth entertain themselves with all kinds of fireworks.
In the streets of Beirut, soldiers sit on plastic chairs or armored vehicles keeping a watchful eye with their rifle resting on their lap.
The streets of Beirut are always alive, with noise, smells and sights that excite or tire ears and eyes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The people and the cedars

Last weekend I visited the beautiful Qadisha-valley with its numerous monastries, chapels and churches on Saturday. On Sunday I climbed Lebanon's highest mountain: Qornet es-Sawda. This weekend I went to the Baalbeck festival on Saturday to see a performance of the dance-group Caracalla featuring the famous Lebanese singers Assi Hellani and Hoda Haddad. The musical was about a Lebanese village where two tribes were competing for power. More important though was the story about a young girl (Hoda Haddad) and her lover (Assi Hellani) who had to prevent the marriage between the girl and the son of a snobbish lord in order to be together. Only to avoid the influence of this lord the two tribes decided to work together in the interest of Lebanon. It was a great performance of dancers, singers, actors and technicians in the midst of the magnificant ruins of Baalbeck, and brought together many aspects of Lebanese culture and history. Of course the Roman influence was evident from the temples, while the tribal society was part of the story-line. The choreagraphy was heavily influenced by the music- and danceform dabke, while the french influence was reflected in the character of the snobbish lord who used pas mal the french language.
But one of the most striking characteristics of Lebanon is, in my eyes, the factionalist society. While the two competing tribes in the play ended up cooperating in the name of Lebanon, in real life the public interest is not widely promoted in a joint effort. While the major part of the habitants of Baalbeck are muslim and support Hezbollah or Amal, most people in the audience of the prestiguous festival were (richer) christians supporting parties like the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement (for a discussion of the different political parties, see an earlier post on this blog). While these parties might cooperate in parliament, there is very little raprochement between the different parts of the population.
I was also thinking about this when I walked back from the top of the Qornet as-Sawda to the vilalge Bcharre, exactly a week ago now. At the foot of the mountain, there is a small grove of cedar trees there. The cedar being the national symbol of Lebanon, the trees attracted large groups of domestic and international tourists whereever they are still growing. Unfortunately, the use of the trees for numerous goals going back as early as antiquity has left only a few groves with trees in Lebanon. The trees were so highly valued that they were exported for use in the construction of the temple of Solomon in Jeruzalem and sacrophagi in Egypt. Now, they are meticulously taken care of and only used for the production of souvenirs. So this symbol of Lebanon, the image and the country that is supposed to unite all the different groups that live within its borders, is almost extinct and can only exist under 24/7 protection. Like the peace in Lebanon seems to be possible only because there are scores of soldiers and checkpoints in the streets and on the highways.
In the bus back from the play in Baalbeck, I was wondering what the middle-aged christian ladies would think of the fate of the Palestinian girl next to me, and how it is possible that the descendants of the refugies of Palestine are still denied Lebanese citizenship. The Lebanese are planting new cedar trees now, but it will take decades, or centuries rather, before these trees will mature and become a natural part of the Lebanese landscape. If they are nurtured and taken care of well enough.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Developing The Group

Of course elections and sightseeing in Lebanon are important, but in the end I came here to work for the microfinance organization Al Majmoua. It was a challenge to get there on the first day I was in Lebanon. It is located in a commercial district, not far from Hamra where I was staying at that time, but it was just off the main avenue and surrounded by dilapidated residential buildings and a construction site. Luckily I ran into a cab-driver who knew where it was, so I was brought right to the front-door.
While I had to get used to it in the beginning - as with any new job - I'm getting more and more the hang of it. It is great to get hands-on experience in that much talked about tool to 'fight poverty', popularized by Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank.
Al Majmoua - 'The group' in Arabic - was initially set up by Safe the Children and only provided group loans to women. Now, 15 years later, the organization is independent and provides mainly loans to (male) individuals. As one of the first microfinance organizations, Al Majmoua has been able to become the biggest micro-loan provider. However, nowadays more and more competition appears in Lebanon, so the organization has to keep an eye on ways to increase efficiency and lower cost to provide loans for competitive prices.
And that is where I come in. I am supposed to perform an Activity-Based Cost analysis, what basically means that I have to measure how much time each activity related to issuing and servicing loans takes, convert that into a monetary value and that way calculate the exact cost of different loan products. So the first few weeks I spent finding out how loans are exactly issued, followed by extensive field-visits to see how much time it takes to fill out an application, sign contracts, follow up on overdue payments etc. Next to an excuse to see more of Lebanon, this research showed me how microfinance really works. The importance of the personal contacts of the loan analysts (the foot-soldiers of microfinance) became evident, as well as the difficulty to make significant efficiency gains in the chaotic working environment of hundreds of different clients spread out over the area under a certain loan analysts' responsiblity.
So that is what I'll be working on for the next few weeks, I guess: finding out how Al Majmoua can decrease costs, increase income and offer cheaper and more loans to those who need (and want) them the most. It's a priviledge to do this work, and I hope I can make a useful contribution to the organization.