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Jun 25, 2011

Out of Sight, Out of Mind? When The City Becomes One Big Prison..

Wake up… sniff in a fusion of humidity, pollution and coffee vapor, step out the house and grapple with traffic on your way to your job, class, subhiyyeh, or ultra-chic  gym.

Its an average day but somewhere in the distance a human being is screaming out in agony. Starved over night, his skin is developing a strange mutation of a rash, barely got any sleep as his bed is a cell shared with nine other inmates, half of them criminals, and the other half in limbo, waiting for a trial that is late for months and years.

As you park your car and stroll down the road to your office, he is being dragged into the interrogation room. As you check your emails and skim through today's headlines, he is being pushed over on a desk, a hose wavering behind him admonishingly. You think of what you will order for lunch, he is hoping the hose will bruise his inner thigh this time…perhaps the doctor will see it… perhaps it will be reported…maybe he will be saved from the brutality the third time round. Chicken or salad? Salad..must keep those thighs in shape for the beach this weekend.

The everyday familiarity of such things as coffee and traffic are never associated with something as remote as an inmate being tortured by a police officer. We go about our days, unconcerned with what goes on behind prison doors. Our lack of concern is not because we simply don't care..but its because we're untouched by it…and as long as our immediate lives are not impacted by this crime…let the criminals get what the system gives them.  

The murderers..the rapists..the drug addicts…the homosexuals…the terrorists and the illegal foreign workers … unwanted urban waste… to be disposed of. We pile our garbage on the outskirts of our city…out of sight… the mountain gets bigger…the stench thicker…and it collapses…our waste comes back to bite us, temporary solutions only bring temporary comfort. (Pardon my ugly comparison between people and garbage..but you get the point) . Roumieh, Lebanon's central prison erupted in April this year, and has been in flames since then. Inmates rebelled against the abhorrent prison conditions and chaos overtook the system. What goes on in Roumieh never meant anything to us…till the terror started to spill out beyond its walls.

We may sweep streets clean, pay municipality taxes, respect parking regulations, plant flowers on balconies and honor security forces for keeping our streets safe… but behind our bridges, beneath our pavements and in those invisible corners…spaces of terror coexist with our city in a problematic way. With an estimated 700 cases detected over the past 2 years… torture is a standard procedure in our prisons and detention centers…and these spaces are as much a part of our city as anything else.

As I've mentioned in previous posts about the city.. all things, people, and places are woven together through invisible strings that hold powerful social and cultural meanings. As remote as we may think it is, torture prevails around the corner and although we may be untouched by it physically…its resonance travels through the social web cast over our city.  

Societies are made up of families…immediate and extended…torturers and torture victims have children…and their children could be your child's classmate. The torture victim released from prison with the psychological after-effects will impact his/her family…who will in turn impact society.

It could be any of us… you could be trying out marijuana for the first time thinking it is common and perhaps just a misdemeanor…the next thing you know you could be in Hobeich at the mercy of a fist or even a hose…aiming at your inner thighs as you're crouched over an interrogation desk. If you don't believe me, consult the numbers…60.24% of a surveyed sample of 400 Lebanese citizens believe that police abuse their authority in police stations. If you live anywhere near the American University of Beirut, you have surely heard the anonymous screams erupting from the underground of Hobeich detention center, sometime between 2 and 3 a.m. Ever wonder why Hobeich was remodelled recently? 

For the above reasons, local human rights NGO, ALEF, has chosen for its 2011 anti-torture campaign an interesting association between the "common" and the "remote".The campaign juxtaposes the  "usual", the "common", and the "ordinary", with the unspeakable and unimaginable crimes of torture.

Launched on June 23, the campaign adopted the slogan "azebak mesh reha" and circulated it on billboards nation-wide. The objective is not to preach, convince, or spark overnight change….the idea is to infuse into this common Lebanese phrase a permanent connotation. Is torture really a pleasure?

Azebak Raha is a common Lebanese saying that means "it is a pleasure to be tortured by you". When someone does a favor for you in Lebanon one way of saying thank you is to say "azabnek"..or "we tortured you", and in line with the typical Lebanese courtesy, the appropriate response would be "Azebak Raha". 

It may be harmless to joke around about torturing your boss or your pain in the ass colleague;  easy to say "all gays should be tortured to death"…or "those terrorists are just getting what they deserve"… but a thought is the first step towards action, and if you were to actually witness  physical mutilation or psychological torment, I don't think you would be laughing.  

In the subtext of everyday communication, you can discover the prevalent social and moral values of a society. Language creates culture, and so this campaign has played on language in a way that gets us to actually think through things we usually take for granted.

Jun 5, 2011

I Wish I Can See A Butterfly In Hamra

"They beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made the statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern,"

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Wolf

Although cement has replaced your greenery, and a thousand leaves have shed with no replacement, leaving bare branches blackened by car pipe's fume of ignorance..

Happy World Environment Day Beirut.

Switch off your lights and recycle your Nestle bottles and hope for the best...

In the meantime...


Saturday 4 June 2011

Jun 3, 2011

Diverging Threads

For this post, the plan was to find Intabli (as promised in Silence is the Most Powerful Scream Part II), and write about it. I did find Intabli, and although my intention here was to boast my discovery, I got distracted, and ended up contemplating how volatile our connections are to each other and to our city.

What got me thinking about this was a video that bloggers in Lebanon are working on whereby people are invited to submit videos or sound clips of their favorite places in Beirut. I wanted to contribute, but couldn't think of a single place I felt a definite sentimental connection to. My thoughts would instantly race to a rural scenario overlooking the city with the smell of pine trees and dust, somewhere in my distant childhood. At least, thats the only static image I can label and present with no complications..

But with the tourism season around the corner, here's what I can offer... 

Some days the city feels like a web of threads. Chords scattered haphazardly in my immediate space weave a suffocating net, from which I often yearn to break free. Other days, I am content in my connection to people and places through countless invisible threads, overlapping in patterned spirals that cast a web of meaning over my city. Through my safety net,  I forge personal in-roads on a map that I share with two million other people.

Thinking back six years ago to when Beirut to me was a discordant collection of unfamiliar places, I often try to trace how it is that the city in my mind became a whole. How I began to associate places in a mental map on which I define myself as a resident of Beirut,  rather than a resident of Labban Street, off of Sadat, in Manara.  

Like a new kid in school, your first sight of Beirut will be a messy anonymous crowd. With each day, a new face comes to stand out from the crowd and gradually routine is transformed into subjective meaning, which you may or may not share with the people around you. 

In Beirut though , not even the road I take everyday to work is permanent. Destruction brings down historic buildings, and construction spurs new sites and visuals, that eventually become old as the 'newer' new sets in. One day you could be ma'a el ser, the next day you can get in trouble for the road has become a one-way street.

If you are a Beirut resident, how many times have you thought twice about stopping at a red light that suddenly appeared overnight, feeling that it could be some kind of unofficial trial period? Have you ever walked down the street holding a parking ticket, and had a stranger offer to pay it for you at libanpost, because he is heading that way anyway? In a traffic jam, the most predictable state of being one can find themselves in, have you ever seen a white range rover climb a set of wheels onto the side walk, and whiz past you slantedly to make it home an hour before you do?

All I can say is that if you are coming to Beirut to trace the invisible threads flung over the city into a uniform and coherent pattern… consider an alternative option because that’s one thing you'll never be able to do here. In Beirut, when you leave your house in the morning, rest assured that the day ahead of you will be anything but identical to the day before. The dichotomous struggle between you and the city is what will make living in Beirut an addictive thrill, and its also what will drive you to pack your bags and get out within a year or two, depending on how perseverant you are. 

May 26, 2011

Some More Thoughts on Tourism's Blind Eye

Being a tourist for me was always one of the worst forms of self-inflicted "exclusion". Why would I go somewhere to purposely feel like an outsider? How much can you really know about a place when looking at it from an "outsider's perspective"? And how honest can a tour be, when its based on the premises that you are an ignorant outsider and you will believe anything you're told? 
I also hate being a tourist from a social standpoint… what on God's green earth can be worse than visiting a developing country, riddled with social inequalities and poverty, and stay at a five-star resort, secluded from the local communities in a way that deliberately shields you from the painful realities of their country?
I'll tell you what can be worse than 5-star isolation… visiting this country with the sole purpose of touring its slums and impoverished cities. Yes, there is such a thing and its called "slum tourism"; some people deliberatly target world-famous impoverished areas such as the favelas of Rio di Janeiro, Mumbai, and Cairo to see the images, previously trasmitted through BBC and CNN, physically, live! A lot of the celebrities we love often use 'slum tourism' as a publicity stunt. Of course they don't call it that. And to be fair,  maybe these people don't travel the world's slums just to "take a look"; it could be that they'll join a community cleaning project here, do some research there, and perhaps adopt a native baby on the way out.. but regardless, the very idea that human suffering is being put on a pedestal for onlookers to tour is truly repulsive. And on a side note, we all know that the only reason anyone would decide to "Save Africa" over the summer is because this person is affluent enough to seek a "life-changing" experience that will help them appreciate their empty lives back home a lot better. Side-note over.
Personally I haven't heard of any slum tourism activity in and around Beirut. But then again maybe some of the foreign exchange students at AUB can correct me on that one. I have, however, heard of another form of alternative tourism happening in Lebanon: war tourism.    
War tourism is a term the media uses to describe the idea of recreational travel to war zones for purposes of sightseeing and superficial voyeurism. (
Here's an example of war tourism in Lebanon, brought to you by our second unofficial army:  

Normally, artefacts and relics that are placed in museums for display are objects that are obsolete and no longer in use. Hence, the idea of putting them 'away',  for preservation and display of their scientific and/or cultural value as heritage, a thing of the past. In light of the current reality of the resistance however, this museum feels more like a show of military might than a cultural attraction.
With or without national consensus, the reality is that a portion of the Lebanese population up until the year 2000 were living under a foreign occupation; today they have war stunts and spoils to offer to flocking tourists, rather than fusion restaurants and seaside promenades. Now the question is, is this portion of the population entitled to touristic representation, and if so to what extent are they granted their right to this entitlement? Are we going to acknowledge this face of Lebanon and include it in the Ministry of Tourism's "welcome aboard" videos?

Tourism's Blind Eye

Away from the global flock of tourists that seasonally spill into cities with wide-eyed gaping fascination..Far from the khaki shorts, walk-generated sun burns, disposable cameras, and obnoxious white buses… I want to discuss alternative tourism, the way that Beirut in Between sees it.
Alternative tourism is a trend that has developed as a result of the negative effects that the tourism industry has had on local cultures and communities, especially in developing countries. The global tourism industry is quite huge as you may already know, and with the amount of inter-cultural and cross-border exchange it generates on a daily basis, it is quite surprising that racism and cultural stereotyping still exist.
The tourism industry, however, has a dark side. 'Third world' countries seeking to establish long term development plans were encouraged over the decades by global financing giants and development aid programs to develop their tourism industries as a valuable source of national income and job generation. And so, hungry governments borrowed more and more money and channelled this money towards building the needed infrastructure to host tourists and foreign investors. From resorts, to malls, to hotels and financial districts, development started to look more like building the perfect urban paradise for foreign visitors, at the expense of local residents and rural areas.
 Locals were slowly being pushed out to the peripheries of the capital; local business owners started to time their annual income generation according to season, and the nation located outside the borders of the tourist-attracting capital came to be forgotten and neglected. This is the case in Lebanon and many developing countries. As a post-conflict transitional country, Lebanon had to even go the extra mile and bury its deep-seated social ills as far as possible from the public view in order to re-emerge after 15 years of barbarity as the Switzerland of the Middle East.
So in light of this… Beirut in Between, and many others before it, have joined the train of alternative tourism, to reject an uneven path of development and to say that a healthy, fair, and equitable Lebanon is way more attractive than the Pigeon rock, way more satisfying than the Baklawa, and a lot more enriching than the Solidere financial district.
There are people out there who choose their tourism destination for reasons other than the fact that they're "foreign" and "exotic". In history, there have been travellers that have toured the world for purposes other than colonization and religious preaching…these are the travelers that tour for alternative reasons, and they are as profitable as any other.
These are the kind of people that would rather converse with a native than read the Lonely Planet. These people seek to know how the annual tourism to the pyramids has been affected by the Egyptian revolution; why Rome has no Starbucks and who designed Mumbai millionaires' extravagant city homes. They want to know how immigrants in Montreal preserve their cultures through their living spaces and why Georgians are averse to Russian culinary influences.
In Beirut, the stereotypical labels that the Ministry of Tourism perpetuates through its promotional Middle East Airlines "welcome aboard" videos are the crust of a land that stirs and boils internally, in ebbs and flows of peace and war, hospitality and hostility, spirituality and profanity.. sense and madness.
Usually, it is the tourist who comes to the city to see it and be told about it. In Beirut, it is the tourist's perspective that shapes the local identity. Traditional tourism and the government's post-war policy has served to highlight certain aspects of city life, at the expense of others, and has gone so far as to influence our own perception and representation of ourselves and our city. Whereas the tourist is meant to see the city through us, we have come to see the city through the tourist.
We and the tourists are looking at a still image of ourselves… but not at ourselves. Borrowing Edward Said's words, this form of touristic representation (like Orientalism) "shares with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time..". Lebanon, the Switzerland of the Middle East, is just that… a population census that was never redone after 1932, a country carved out of green cedar mountains, Levantine ports that have distinguised its inhabitants, a people that love life and like to live it big. At least that’s what you see when you choose to turn a blind eye to everything in between..

Some interesting examples of alternative tourism from around the world:
·         Palestine:
·         Lebanon:

May 15, 2011

Silence is the Most Powerful Scream- Part II

Some things, through their very existence, denote an absence.  Have you ever noticed that the line delineating presence from absence is rather thin? And that there are some things in life that you hold on to just to remind you of a certain loss?
What got me thinking about the "Aschrott Brunen" was a personal experience I had a couple of months ago. The experience involved both a fountain, and an uncomfortable duality of presence vs. absence.  The fountain is called the Intabli Fountain…ever heard of it? Didn't think so…
This fountain is small, marbled, and sad. Its water flows humbly, with no competing vitality to mute its echo. It lies in the midst of what is meant to be a reconstruction of the old souks of Beirut, but is instead a hollow replica, just like the Aschrott Brunen.
Two friends and I headed down to Beirut Souks in downtown to grab a coffee and catch up. We chose to sit at Bali Balima, a modern boutique café and restaurant located near the Intabli fountain. Chatting over capuccinos, a comment or two were exchanged about the ambiance of the Souk (as it is still somewhat of a new outing destination for Beirut locals), a compliment here and a criticism there, we paid the (over-priced) bill and headed home. There was no trace of history, and no catalyst for memorialization in that spot we sat in.

The sounds of water pouring into the fountain were hollow, echoing eerily against simple, polished, and modern clean walls. Connecting to this sad excuse of a fountain from all four sides were quasi-empty pathways, aligned with high-end brands and bored saleswoman puffing cigarettes and screening incoming shoppers for ostensible evidence of their social class and purchasing capacity.
Sitting there, I didn't know we were in Ajami Square, and the name 'Souk Ayyas' inscribed on the wall sign meant nothing to me.

I didn't know that the space that surrounded me was one of the first organized souks in Beirut. That empty walk-way behind me was the first street in the Souks to have had a roof built over it, now it is the only one that doesn’t.
In 1877 the Ayyas brothers bought the Souk, renovated it to be one of the most well maintained open markets, attracting clothes and textile sellers and buyers. Thats why it is called Souk Ayyas, in case you were wondering.
The fountain in the middle was apparently bigger and was known by Beirut locals as the spot where the Intabli store sold  traditional Lebanese refreshments and desserts. 
I can only imagine what was in place of the silence back when Beirut souks were authentic. Rather than the capuccino vapor,  scents of shawarma spices emitting from the nearby Ajami restaurant would have travelled my way across the square. Rather than capuccinos, tired shoppers would be sipping on jallab and contemplating the choice of either mhalabiyye or sahlab.
Souk Ayyass 1970 (Old Beirut) 
Not that I would have traded my capuccino for a sahlab, but those capuccino sips were certainly not guilt-free. In its very denial of its past, the new and shiny Intabli fountain and surrounding spaces, evoked in my mind an uncomfortable contradiction. In my interaction with that space, my resistance and contestation revived an absent memory, that I knew nothing of.
What I do know is that I would have enjoyed my capuccino much more had I not been so captivated with the need to know where the old Intabli fountain went… So for the sake of future outings to Beirut Souks, the hunt for reclamation of the past continues… I will get back with a Part III as soon as I find out.