sábado, 28 de junio de 2014

Good bye Beirut

I was in front of the Olayan School of Business at AUB, overlooking the Mediterranean, and I had just finished lunch.The breeze was warm and there was a huge yellow cat stretching next to my table and enjoying the sun. Women were strolling on the Corniche chatting, one veiled and dressed fully in black, the other one wearing a Micky Mouse shirt that fell off one of her shoulders.Young people on the AUB beach were jumping into the sea. Fishermen smoked and chatted while patiently waiting for the catch of the day.

I told myself:  "I am really going to miss Beirut."

I found out about 8 weeks ago that I am leaving Beirut. For good.

This was a long overdue move at work, something that I knew had to come at some point.The news came and I felt a wave of euphoria and excitement wash over my entire being. A new adventure for this Mexican!

But a few hours later, an eerie silence took place instead. And the following days the sentence "this might be the last time that I... (fill the blank)" started popping in my head, every time I saw a friend, or visited a restaurant, a shop or a building.

Good byes are always difficult.

So I got into the "getting things done" mode. I packed and booked flights for my upcoming trip. I found a new temporary home for my husband, my cat and I. I cleaned up the apartment and my office and sold my car. I scheduled good bye dinners and meetings. I've been eating at any chance I get Manoushe, Knefe and loads of Mezze.

The reality is that I have been unwilling to ponder upon what this all means. How do you say good bye to a place you called home for 4 years? And especially, how do you say goodbye to Lebanon? Beautiful Lebanon?

I decided to do things I had never done and meant to. So the other day I took the Teleferique off Jounieh and visited Harissa (Can you believe that in 4 years, I had never been??).

Source: http://www.lebanonbynet.com/

In Harissa, there is a statue of our Lady of Lebanon, overlooking the country. It was built in 1908, and some people say that during the Lebanese Civil War the statue turned to look towards Beirut when the city was under siege. That is why it is facing South and not towards the sea.

When I was on top of the hill, with the statue next to me, I was amazed once more by the beauty of this country, with its gorgeous mountains and coastline. I looked around me and I saw men, women and children from all backgrounds walking around and having a peaceful time on a Sunday morning.

I looked up and saw the Lady's peaceful and benevolent face looking back down at me. I closed my eyes and everything that Lebanon has meant to me, the wonderful, the scary, the love and the hate, the bombs and the beauty, all hit me at once. And I asked her "Please take care of this country beautiful Lady. Please take care of my friends".

I will miss you Lebanon. 

May you be peaceful. 

May you be safe.

Shoukran kteer. Bishoufkon qariban inshallah. 

And thank you to all the readers who followed me in this wonderful adventure! 

lunes, 5 de mayo de 2014

Lebanese visitors

G. is a young professional that I hired as a consultant a few months back in my office. She is highly educated, ambitious and very talented. She works hard and delivers good quality results.

S. is a talented and cheerful musician that I meet every week for violin practice. Besides the fact that she has the patience of a saint, she truly is a great teacher. She studied with a Russian professor, and has an opening to continue her studies in Germany starting this summer.

What do these two young women have in common? They are both from Syria.

G. visits her family in Damascus a couple of times a year, especially for weddings. She drives there from Beirut (just for a couple of hours, really) and says that besides the checkpoints, the drive is actually not that bad. She tells me with a melancholic air in her eyes that there are fewer and fewer places in her city left to visit. She tells me that she had a successful business back home and shows me her portfolio. When I confess that I never visited Damascus, her eyes widen and she exclaims, "The old Souk in Damascus is the most beautiful place in the world!”

S. was not her usual cheerful self the other day during class. When I asked her what was going on, she told me the German embassy had not been giving appointments for visas for months. Weeks later, she announced that she didn't get her a visa and hence would have to decline her attendance to the German music school. She asked me if I knew anyone who needed a secretary.

In conversations, they both have told me about their friends, cousins and other young people who are not as lucky as they are. They tell me about the countless times that after a job interview, a talented young professional is told "We don't hire Syrians here".

It is sobering to realize that when their country is at war and they have left everything behind, these young people have to deal with the stigma of being Syrian on top of it all. And they will probably face it for their entire lives. 

I know these two young women will prevail no matter what life throws at them. However, I wonder how many of their dreams, hopes, plans and projects have been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.

No matter what people say, no one will ever convince me that anyone gained anything from this war. If young people lost, so did everyone else. 

miércoles, 2 de abril de 2014

Lebanon's nonevents

This morning I woke up, brushed my teeth and went to work. Normal day.

However, by 10 am I had received four e-mails from security services, followed by text messages, followed by me looking at the news, followed by me calling my husband to prevent him about a protest here, closed street there, army presence here, checkpoint there... Downtown was full of trucks with young armed soldiers wearing their "I mean business" look.

My morning went by.

I went out to grab a bite with my colleagues around 1 pm and all streets in downtown were still closed. We had to walk around for four blocks in order to find an opening in the barbed wire wall that the security forces had put up in the morning.  My colleagues and other pedestrians were merrily chatting and walking on the deserted streets, while taking selfies and joking about how wonderful it would be if the streets remained car-free.

When we came back an hour later, a group of 10 soldiers and maintenance workers were pulling back meters and meters of barbed wire into a very ingenious three-pronged contraption on the back of a truck that kept the barbed wire neatly stored. It was like a scene after a parade of some sorts, with that eerie silence that follows a loud event, only interrupted by the swoosh of brooms sweeping the dirty street floors.

But this had been no parade, of course. Judging by the many meters of barbed wire, the authorities had feared the worst and were really preparing for the worse case scenario.

I arrived back to my office, and it really dawned on me. None of all those things that we were worrying about, notified about, warned about, briefed about and informed about happened.  What did happen in reality was that people took the streets of Beirut this morning because Parliament was voting on a law that would entitle a public entity's contractors with benefits and a more stable employment status. Judging by what I read in the news, the outcome was positive. Then everyone went home.

What happened in my mind was the effect of the series of e-mails, text messages, soldiers, guns in the street and meters and meters of barbed wire.

Was all that really necessary? Aren't we all overreacting?

I spent my entire day fearing for something really, really serious to happen. And then my day went by, uneventful. I arrived home, exhausted. Being paranoid is really tiring.

jueves, 20 de febrero de 2014

Counting Lebanese Blessings

 Another bomb. Another heart breaking news piece. Another pang of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Another sleepless night with my cat. In situations like this, the only think I can do is to count my blessings. 

So that is what I did last night. 

And while doing it, I started counting my Lebanese blessings as well. These are the people who inspire me incredibly, the ones that you seldom here about in the news.

The news only portray the bad stuff... These days, it is important to focus on the good.

Therefore, I present to you my list of Lebanese blessing (in no particular order):

The folks from Animals Lebanon. They work day in and day out, rescuing abandoned, beaten and abused animals. They take them in, heal them, love them, and find them homes, sometimes abroad. They do this with very little money and pretty much zero government support. Just because they care.

The folks at Souk El Tayeb. They bring together local producers and consumers, and they also have this awesome restaurant called Tawlet with the most amazing Lebanese food. They offer cooking classes, raise awareness about the importance of eating local and give jobs to Syrian refugees. My heart goes to them.

The young people from Onomatopeia, a new music hub/music school/gig central that just opened in Ashrafieh. This quirky place, filled with talent is an amazing space to go have a coffee and listen to good music (and maybe play some). The owners are young people with a huge heart and amazing vision who built the place from the concept to the handmade furniture. They have created a unique and very needed musical haven in this crazy city.

My people from Toastmasters Lebanon. These is a group of young professionals, from all confessional backgrounds, who come together every week to practice public speaking, support each other, develop leadership skills and have fun. I only wish people in Lebanon could be as accepting, honest and open-minded as these young professionals. Every time you go to a meeting, you feel energized and can't help smiling. And where you come from or what you believe in is never an issue to be part of this group.

Mahmoud the fruit vendor (no link unfortnatelly). He has the best customer service I have ever seen. He works 14-hour days, every day of the week. And he is always smiling. Every time I come to see him, he calls me a princess and gives me an extra lemon. There is no coincidence that despite all the small convenience stores that open around the block, people keep coming back to Mahmoud.

So this is my Lebanon. The one I like to live in. The one I like to talk about. You can call me a naïve or a silly optimist, I dont care.

Id much rather focus my attention on my Lebanese blessings. 

sábado, 25 de enero de 2014

Lebanese Trash

When I was little, my parents used to take the family on amazing road-trips. We would pack our bags, and set off to an unknown and exciting destination. Depending on the direction we went, we would inevitably pass the enormous dumpsters that surrounded some parts of Mexico City back in the 1980s.
We would joke about the horrible smell and hope to pass the piles of trash as soon as possible. Even then, at a very young age, I knew there was something really wrong about just dumping stuff on the land like that.

Years later, I witnessed a similar trash travesti somewehere else. I was visiting Saida in the south of Lebanon over a weekend, and I stumbled upon the most gigantic mountain of trash I had ever seen.

According to the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment, Lebanon generates about 1.5 million tones of trash every year.  From all this waste, only 17% gets recycled or composted.  51% of this waste goes to landfills, better known as dumps.  But this is not the only problem…  40% of Lebanon’s garbage, that is over 32,000 tons, ends up in illegal and non-regulated dumps every year.

This is about 88 tons of waste in the open air, every day.

Some attribute the problem of Solid Waste Management (SWM) to a much bigger issue, which is political indecision. In a 2011 report published by UNDP and the Ministry of the Enviroment, the problem of Solid Waste Management is linked to a lack of long term vision and political commitment and concensus. The Lebanese Goverment has been relying on and "Emergency Plan for Solid Waste Management" for the Beirut/Mount Lebanon area that has been in effect since 1997 (that is a loooong emergency).  This plan effectively gives the Sukkar Engineering Group (a.k.a Sukleen) the monopoly to collect, treat, and landfill solid waste from an area serving about 2 million people (364 towns and municipalities). Leaving the controversies linked to Sukleen's system costs, and effectiveness of sorting and composting plants aside, we can say that effectively, little has been done to manage trash in a sustainable and effective way in Lebanon.

Recently, citizens decided to block the entrance to Sukleen trucks to one of the landfills. The reason behind this blockade is that citizens and NGOs have started protesting against the effects the Naameh landfill is having on their living conditions and overall quality of life. They are demanding the goverment to find an alternative to the landfill and for the stipulations of the landfill contract to be enforced (i.e. burry waste, limits to the types of waste allowed, restriction on quantities...). In fact, the Naameh landfill opened in 1997 and was set to operate for six years. The date came and went, and the landfill exceeded its capacity and height a long time ago.

Confrontations between the protesters and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces have taken place and Sukleen has stopped picking up trash, which resulted in small mountains of waste quickly accumulating in the streets of many cities.

Now it turns out that after all these years, I get to have my own mountain of trash in the corner of my street. Here's a photo of the pile (accumulated in only a few days). Even street cats are starting to avoid it.

domingo, 12 de enero de 2014

Lebanese Precautions

Let's face it: welcoming 2014 with a bomb was not exactly starting the year on a positive note.

And this means naturally that security is tighter everywhere in Lebanon. It means that when you enter the supermarket parking lot, your hood, trunk and car bottom will be checked. It means that when you step into an official building, you will go through the metal detector or have a security guard swipe next to your bag that little thing that looks like a cricket paddle that beeps (sorry, I don't know the exact technical name). It means that when you go to the mall, it feels like you are about to board an international flight (empty your pockets, put your things in a little tray, etc.). So if you go to the movies, get there 2 hours in advance...

It also means you get text messages on your phone asking you to avoid this and that area, telling you to step away from balconies, advising you to avoid unecesary movements (does that include the dance floor?), and informing you through lenghty descriptions of every single incident that happened in the country. We can't travel North, we can't travel South, we can't go East, and West, well, it's the sea.
So, it seems like the only safe place left in Lebanon is my couch with my cat (under a blanket, because it's freezing... ahem, for Lebanon's standards).

I get it, I get, we need to be careful, vigilant and on guard.

But honestly, there are some security measures that I just don't get... Such as the tank in front of the mall.

Are we really expecting a full military operation there?

And what's up with the security personel and their little antenas to detect bombs in parking lots?
Source: ABC News

Come on guys, even I (not exactly a security expert) know that those don't work! It's even on Wikipedia!

In a tense environment like the one we are living in Lebanon, it is important to remain vigilant. But we shouldn't live in a state of total paranoia. The best thing one can do is to stay alert. And if everything else fails, I will follow my Dad's words of wisdom (applicable to any situation, including dates): "If something doens't feel right honey, you just run in the opposite direction".

PS: Little musical bonus if you think you are paranoid...

domingo, 17 de noviembre de 2013

Lebanese Hair

Hair salons are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. I mean, in a 2 block radius from my apartment, there are 6 of them. In any other context, this would be a perfect example of market saturation. How can all these businesses stay open or be possibly making money? Where are the clients coming from?

You don't have to be a sharp observer to notice that hair is a big thing in Lebanon. I personally had never seen hairdos like the ones I have seen in Beirut. Big curls, hair extensions, highlights, low lights, wigs... you see it all. And the sophistication, intricacy and complexity of some Lebanese hairdos make the most elaborate styles from other parts of the world look like mere poney tails.

But I didn't understand the extent of the perfect hair culture until one morning at the office. It was about 9 am, and I was rushing through the door when I noticed that my Lebanese colleague was looking particularly polished that day.When I commented on her new look, she just brushed it off by saying "Oh, I just went to the salon this morning".
"What time did you go?" I asked, intrigued. She proceeded to explain that she whatsapps her stylist whenever and he will come to the salon next to her house, rain or shine, and as early as needed.

I thought this was a bit extreme... In my world, you need an on demand stylist if you are in the show business or the President. But after doing a little survey among my Lebanese friends, I corroborated to my surprise that going to the hair salon before work is not only a pretty common practice but also considered completely normal. Apparently, for little more than 10 dollars, you can get a hairdo whenever you want and spend the rest of your day having a fabulous hair day.

Once, I arrived to a meeting and a female colleague asked me with a tone of excitement "Who did your hair?"
I looked at her a little confused. She was certainly not implying that my Mum still does my hair or something like that and she was looking at me with a big smile (which in my mind meant she was not being mean).
I hesitantly replied "Hum... me." (I had a braid).
"Whaaat?"she said impressed. " Where did you learn to do that?"
I kept staring at her not knowing what to say. She then explained to me that in Lebanon, there are places where you can go get your hair done by really famous people, and then you can tell others that "so and so" did your hair. Like a brand name for your hair. Lebanese sophistication at its prime.

On another note, I have found in Lebanon that for the most part, hair salons are run and operated by men. In Mexico, there are some men in hair salons, but I would say 9 times out of 10 hair salons are run by women. And to make it more interesting, here in Lebanon, I have gotten my hair done by men who wouldn't fit the stereotype in my mind of what a "stylist" looks like (i.e. purple highlights, tight leather pants, open shirts with waxed chests, plucked eye brows, etc.). As a matter of fact, the last person who did my hair was a 30 year old man with a 3 day unshaved beard, button down shirt, jeans and Converse, who left to watch the soccer match in a little TV as soon as he was done with my hair.

There is no doubt that hair salons play a key role in Lebanon's day to day life, and I got to experience that firsthand. I was walking around Byblos (North of Beirut), with some time in my hands and I decided to go to a little salon, and ask for a "brushing" (a blow dry). Instantly, I was immersed in the neighborhood's life. In the few Arabic words I picked, I learned about who was getting married that evening, got offered some food and coffee, received expert advice on a wide variety of products, and got asked about every single detail of my life (including the reasons why I don't have blond highlights- which is a very bad thing here). The people in the salon seemed all like they knew each other very well,  like family.

And I understood that the hair salon is much more than just a place where you get a hair done. It is a place where you socialize, get beautified and connected, get special attention, and catch up on the latest and greatest neighborhood gossip. When things are tense and stressful, there is no better place than the hair salon.

No wonder why there are so many of them.