January 25, 2015

Inspire Change

Yesterday I was skiing on the peaks of Mzaar (2,456 meters)

You live in a beautiful country,” a Dutch friend remarked as she saw my latest snow pictures online. Indeed. I do. Yesterday I was skiing on the peaks of Mzaar. Today I hiked around the mountain in the sun. Some of my friends are whatsapping their beach day pictures in Byblos. A beautiful country.

Today I hiked around it (The Mzaar Peak is right under the 'm' of 'meters)

There isn’t much pride in it, though. I was recently with a group of kids in a workshop, and the subject of nationality came up. They all claimed to be non-Lebanese. Quite a few were American, one Australian, a French child, a German child, a few were from the Gulf. But every child was actually Lebanese. With two Lebanese parents. Maybe not born, but most definitely raised in Lebanon for the past 4 to 5 years, if not longer. They had Lebanese names, Lebanese grandparents, Lebanese roots, spoke Lebanese and adhered to the Lebanese culture. Yet not one single child identified itself as being Lebanese. The only one who did identify himself as being from his own country, was a Syrian child. He was Syrian, and proud of it.
The reservoirs are filling up
If I have a Chinese passport, would that make me Chinese?” I asked the children. No, they agreed. That would not make me Chinese. But it isn’t good to be Lebanese, they explained. Lebanon is a ‘bad country’, to use their words. And we are talking about children from the upper regions of society, so for them, life here really isn’t that bad.

View on the Mediterranean Sea (where people were sitting on the beach), . . .
Is there a future for them in Lebanon? Probably not for many, unless they inherit the family’s business, or their parents’ fortune.  Or both. The rest will have to go abroad in order to make a decent living. But does that make it a bad country? No. An unfortunate situation maybe. But a situation that begs for change. However, it is obviously not a change they feel responsible for. And I often hear that. “What difference will it make?” they say. “The same people always run this place. It’s not in our hands. “
. . .  while we hike in the snow.
It is a very fatalistic view on life.
Now if life were like that in Holland, with only 1,550 hours of sunlight (versus some 2,500 in Lebanon), icy winter conditions, rules,  regulations and taxes up to the wazoo, and maybe 30 days of beach weather if you’re lucky, yes, I can understand you wouldn’t care. But we’ve got everything you’d need; from beaches to ski-resorts. You live by the sea, you’ve got a fantastic culture, great food, we’re pretty self-sufficient as far as fruits and vegetables go, a good family network. Isn’t that worth fighting for?
Yet, when 8 soldiers die, and 22 get injured in cross-border skirmishes, we pay as much attention to it as to the death of a 90-something Saudi king. So apparently not.

And yes, I hear you. In order to get to a country with equal chances and social equity, taxes would have to be substantially higher than they currently are in Lebanon. But children are not inspired by their parents to instill change. Parents have given up, and tell their children not to bother either, because indeed, those asking for a change most likely will get blown up. Ghandi was able to inspire change in the Indians for some 18 years before he got assassinated. Our heroes (have we had any?) tend to have a shorter shelf life.  
Possibilities for an ice-skating rink?

I confess, I am guilty too: I have sent my son outside to study because I know that he will not be able to raise his own family here from a salary of a $2,000 a month (If he’s lucky). But I believe we are wrong. We need to built a generation that believes in change and making a difference. Just not sure how to go about it.
Any ideas?

January 23, 2015

A Delineated Horizon

A delineated horizon

The horizon is delineated: the difference between sky and sea is easily visible due to a dark line or a different color. It may not mean much to you; a delineated horizon. I am reminded of the many Friday evenings I spent with friends after work at the Hard Rock Café. We had some fierce conversations there, interesting ones too.
Fishing boats on shore
For instance, that one conversation about how John F. Kennedy Jr, crashed his plane into the sea because the horizon was not delineated. Sea merged into sky, and so he did not know whether he was flying up or down. ‘Spatial disorientation’ they call it. It was down.
The many conversations we had on religion, sects, politics and ‘your guy’ and ‘my guy.’ About the slipper guy, colleagues, and the interesting stories that were shared by those that would join us. We had waiters sit with us, discussing their research project at university, and if they’d go for their masters abroad, what university should they go to. The waiters knew our ‘the usual’. The triple sec Marguerita in a 16 ounce glass on the rocks, the nachos with everything on the side except for the cheese, the burger that had to be grilled down to hockey puck consistency.
Beautiful sea water colors
We’d talk shop, and laugh and complain, and plan a road trip on Route 66, but better hurry, before we;d need walkers. We’d discuss the troubles of taking care of an elderly mother from a distance, the sale of a house in Baghdad and the search for one in Canada, childhood memories, and shared stories. We laughed a lot.
The Corniche

The Hard Rock is gone and so are many of that group. Yet every time I see a delineated horizon, which is usually after a storm, I am reminded of the many Friday evenings we spent after work at the Hard Rock Café.
4 children contemplating life
"Ooops, mom left!"

January 20, 2015

Skiing with a Troubled Conscience


I could tell you that skiing in Lebanon is absolutely fantastic. That you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon (although with the current traffic that is very unlikely, and besides, why the rush?). That the ski slopes are just 55 kilometers away from Beirut, and that Feraya has 42 slopes (I got this from the web site, but I think you need a lot of imagination to come up with 42 slopes), and lots of other positive things, but the truth  is that I ski with a troubled conscience.
It’s a f***ed up world; while on one side of the country people are stuck (from the perspective of a Dutch outsider, so if you do not read Dutch, it won’t help you much) in unheated tents without proper clothing, running water, or fuel for the heaters, on the other side they pay $66 to spend a day up on the slopes of Faraya. And that’s only your lift ticket.
It isn’t fair and it isn’t correct, and I try and reason my way out of by saying that I donate money and clothes to refugees, but somehow it doesn’t sit well, since there’s the realization that if I were willing to forego many of my luxuries (my skiing, my gas guzzling-SUV, my 3G, my imported coffee, the dog food for 3 dogs, the 3 TV’s, to name just a few), and everybody else here would be doing the same, these refugees would be a whole lot better off. 


On the other hand, there’s also the realization that the Dutch community has increased quite a bit this past year; most of them aid workers, many of whom make more money than I do. And then if you know that some of them do not reside in cheap apartments in the suburbs, and come with kids, who all need to be schooled, and I can tell you that public schools are not an option here, than you wonder if all that money given by people in Holland could maybe be spent a little more efficiently.
 However, you cannot hire aid workers on the conditions that they’d be single, without kids, and willing to live like many Lebanese do, without 24-hour electricity. I mean, they could hire them on those conditions, but I doubt you get many takers for the job.
There’s two sides to everything. If you are lucky. Probably more. Besides, the infra-structure that they are building up, and the aid they are providing is better than nothing. It’s just that there’s so much to be done, there’s not enough of anything, you don’t know where to start and the end is not in sight. Not by a long shot. It seems Lebanon is the country with the highest density of refugees. We’ve got over a million refugees on a population of four million. That doesn’t bode well for our future. We can’t handle our own problems, and the last time we had a serious influx of refugees (the Palestinians); the power balance shifted so significantly that it ended up being a reason (one of many, I might ass) to fight over.
Come to think of it, only the Armenian refugees fared reasonably well, but they got passports, and they’ve been here since 1915, so we’ve forgotten about the hardships they went through.
And so we ski, but with troubled conscience. Not that my troubled conscience is of any help to the Syrian refugees.

January 17, 2015


It seems that Holland experienced its warmest year ever in 2014. We (as in Lebanese) felt that one too: it was the one winter ever without snow. I don’t remember any winters without snow in Lebanon, except that one.

There was this one winter though, when someone I know had planned a ski-event up in Feraya. He had hired a bunch of Austrian stunt skiers that were going to perform all kinds of awesome stuff on the slope. Free-style skiing was THE thing in those days. This event was supposedly going to attract all kinds of people to come up and spend their money in Feraya. Now he had to front the money for getting and lodging that Austrian ski team, but  - according to his calculations – he was going to make four times as much from the sponsors - which he had all lined up – and so that was okay.
And then it didn’t snow. He got all worried. 7 days before they’d arrive, and no snow. 6 days before they’d arrive, and no snow. 5 days before they’d arrive, and no snow. And he got all worried and depressed.
And then it started to snow. And it snowed. And snowed. And snowed. And snowed some more. And it just didn’t stop snowing. The Austrian ski team did eventually get here. By that time, the snow had pretty much reached the top of the ski lift pylons in some places. Skiing was not an option.

January 15, 2015


Love the rain. For now. Not much else to add to that.
Bliss Street

Bliss Street

Jeanne d'Arc Street

Hamra Street

Hamra Street

Kalaa Street (also known as Caracas)

Someone in a rain coat

January 11, 2015

On Snow and the Decline of Civilizations

This place is so beautiful!

Walking to Hammana

Lebanese love snow as much as I do, judging from the 15 kilometer long traffic jam going up the mountain this Sunday. I bet half of Lebanon was stuck on that road between Araya and Bhamdoun. That’s a damn long jam, just to touch the snow! I - for once - was in the right lane: the one going down. I had my snow fix, with the help of the Minister of Education, whom extended my holidays until tomorrow.


Almost down, I sort of got stuck as well, because the up going traffic decided to take the lanes of the down going traffic as well. They needed the road, and so screw the rest. There’s something about that, this lack of empathy with others when it concerns traffic. We are empathic (yes, that word is correct) with others at times. And so we moved from #JesuisCharlie to #JusticforYves in a matter of days. I wonder if the assailant is going to get away with this one. If he’s connected to someone in the parliament or the government, my guess is probably yes. (some) People get away with the weirdest stuff in this place. It is sad when this is a given.
I have a thing for snow-covered evergreen trees, as you may have noticed

This house looks more like a fortress than a mansion. How people amass this kind of money is  mystery to me.

If you know your history, then you’ll know that every civilization experiences a time of growth and wealth, as well as a moment where the inevitable decline sets in. You can interchange the word ‘civilization’ for ‘empire’; it’s pretty much the same thing, because the ruling civilization behaves (like) an empire. When you look at civilizations in this part of the world, the descent of one civilization initiates a time for the rising of a new one. I learned in school, for instance, that the distant Egyptian history shows very distinct periods of civilization, which are separated by times of intermediate periods, often marked by chaos and lawlessness.  

View towards the sea (not sure if you can see it though)
My snow angel

Historians can – in retrospect – sometimes pinpoint the exact catalyst that announced the impending doom, but is not always clear when something ended and a new thing started. When, for instance, exactly the Middle Ages in Europe ended and the Renaissance started is unclear.
Right now we’re living in a period where Western civilization is obviously ruling much of the world, not to everyone’s liking, that is clear. I was talking with someone the other day who claimed this civilization has reached its peak. Or actually, it reached its peak some 20 years ago, and decline is imminent. “Don’t you see it around you?” he said. We won’t notice it has experienced its peak time until much later, when decline is already well underway. And then this morning I read someone’s blog who claimed the exact same thing. Things like that get you thinking.
Dusk (the other village obviously has electricity: we don't :(

The recent confrontations in France are not really related to religion, I think, but it’s rather a clash of cultures. Infusing a culture with another culture usually is a good thing, if it happens at a rate when both cultures get the chance to ‘absorb’ one another. Yet the rate at which cultural diffusion is taking place these days, makes it apparently very difficult for both cultures to ‘stomach’ one another, hence the outbreaks of violence and its backlashes. “Je suis Charlie” seems to be the result of a clash of cultures, or civilizations, yet it seems to be that in this case both civilizations are in decline, and I am curious to see what will appear as the new and ruling one. I doubt I will see the rise of that one; maybe my children will. #JusticeforYves  is not really about a clash of civilizations, but if someone gets away with murder because they are related to ‘the forces that be’, that’s a sign of decline. Corruption in general is.
It will last my time, this civilization. It’s an odd thought though, the realization that my children are living in a world where things, such as getting a diploma, getting a job and making a living for oneself, have become so much more complicated. They will be affected by global warming, lack of resources and the pollution of the existing ones, unlike us. On the other hand, they may not have to deal with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer or Ebola. I am not trying to say anything here, or preach impending doom. I just need a text to add to these pictures. I had my snow fix for the year, as you can see. I am surprised you made it all to the end of this post. You obviously have more stamina than I do.

January 07, 2015

Snow! :)

Walking the dog, at 960 meters

I am a snow person. Snow makes me nostalgic. So while Beirut got pummeled by wind and drenched in rain and hail, I made my way up the mountain in order to wake up in a Winter Wonderland. Elevation in Lebanon varies between 3,000 meters (The Cedars up north, with the highest mountain, Qurnat as Sawda peaking at 3,088m) to 0 meters at coastal level, and snow was predicted at 1,000 meters.

Mission accomplished, I can say. I got snow! Solid snow at 960 meters, but it seems there’s snow, albeit slushy, as low as 600 meters, and more to come at even lower altitudes. 
My daughter’s school was cancelled, much to her disappointment (not). It’s not that kids in Beirut cannot make it to school, but it is the ones in the mountains that will have difficulties reaching their destinations, and so the Ministry of Education just gives everyone a break. My daughter, however, hates snow with the same vengeance as I love it.   So when I went out to walk the dogs (I actually walked only one, the other one sank so deep she had to be carried), she stayed on the couch in front of the fire place.

There’s something magical about being the trail breaker; the first one to walk in a piece of new snow. The snow is still on the branches, and everything is clean and beautiful and quiet. The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.  
This is the kind of weather that I would have to wake up to some winters and bike through for 7 kilometers while it was snowing, in order to get to school. My brother is currently riding a bike somewhere in Siberia, at temperatures of -35C. 
Trail breaking; there's just been one before me. A dog I think.

There’s a downside to all of this of course, and even though it does not affect me directly, it is something to think about. We’ve got over a million Syrian refugees in country, and although quite a few managed to organize themselves temporary housing, there must be hundreds of thousands that did not have the means to do so. And they are sheltered in unfinished houses (that means no electricity and no permanent windows; they have to make do with plastic in front of the openings to keep the cold and rain out) or, for the really unlucky ones, in make-shift tents.  No electricity, and if they’re lucky they’ll have an old fashioned pot-bellied stove (although that’s not old fashioned here) but only if they’re able to pay for the diesel fuel to heat the thing up. As these camps are not official and unorganized, there’s no pavement in between tents, which means that they’ve got muddy slush up to their necks.

There are a lot of initiatives going around to gather clothes, blankets and food, but if you do not have a washing machine in your tent, nor a heater, then all your new blankets and clothes will eventually end up being wet, dirty and muddy, with little respite. They need a space where they have access to a washing machines and dryers. That would also require access to running water and electricity. It would provide hot showers too. Something to think about. 

Happy blogger (looking slightly dorky with my Abu Riad hat)

January 06, 2015

Hidden Gems

Downtown Beirut. No, really. This bit used to be sea. The old quay wall on your right.
Some more hidden gems for you, this time right in the middle of Beirut.
We’ve got a storm coming up, they say, so people are staying in. The fishermen of the little harbor along the Corniche have pulled their boats out; that usually is a sure sign that this is a strong storm. Nobody knows the weather like fishermen.
The fact that is it the Armenian Christmas today also helps for empty streets. If you need to something in town today, I’d say today is the day. I like this town empty.

The old sea wall (seen from the former sea side), the sky-line of East-Beirut, and the navy shipyard in front of it.
On the right the storm breakers, waiting to be placed. This path used to be sea.

We went for a morning dog hike in downtown Beirut, but not the downtown Beirut you probably know. It’s a secluded spot, a hike along the old coast line of Beirut. Lebanese like their cars, and many of these spots in Beirut are only known to those that walk; the runners, the dog owners , the Syrian construction workers and the Sukleen guys.  I would almost suggest you all got out of your cars and discover Beirut on foot, but I kind of like to keep these hidden gems to myself.

The pavement of the old boulevard (sea was on the right side, now it's the Biel area)

We walked along the old ‘Rue du Port’ and then along the ancient quay that separated the sea from the old port (look at block 129.2 & 218.5 of this map of 1936). These days the part on the left is what used to be known as the Normandy landfill, while the old port is now taken by the navy. The new map shows the landfill. It’s almost rural in some parts, funny to think that this was all a garbage dump once. Rows upon rows of storm breakers are still waiting to be used for the extension of the harbor, but I am afraid that project is on hold indefinitely.

port on your right

Besides the storm breakers made of cement, there is some other interesting building material lying around. Downtown Beirut is built on top of previous settlements, most notably the bit from the Roman civilization. The Romans came late into the game, some 2000 years ago (63 BC), but they loved to built: Walls, roads, theaters, temples and public bath houses were erected all over the place, using stone from local sand stone quarries, or granite imported from Egypt.  
It was sunny this morning! (Jan. 6, 2015)
Some of it was lost to spoliation (an early form of recycling, where people used building materials from old buildings for new structures), some got destroyed in earth quakes (the one of 551 apparently was a pretty big one) , or destroyed during conflicts. What remains, ended up under layers of following civilizations. With the rebuilding (or revamping) of downtown Beirut, some of it was uncovered, some was built over, and some was just, well, what to do with it? It is piled up, waiting for a day when something can be done with it.

Wouldn't mind having this in my back yard. If I had one.

In other places there are heaps and heaps of basalt cobblestones, that came from the old cobblestone streets in downtown Beirut. Good to see that bit didn’t end in the landfill. I never quite understood why we do not use more cobblestones in Beirut. It helps significantly in drainage during rains storms (such as the one now), you do not need to repave the entire road for road works, you just take them out and place them back in again afterwards, and it looks better too.

But as I was saying, plenty of hidden gems in Beirut.