May 31, 2007

It's Getting Hot in Here, Just Take off . . . .

The Warden messages from the Canadian and American embassy are arriving more frequent now (Warden messages are messages from embassies to warn their nationals of (imminent) danger that may befall upon them).

I even received one from the Brits this morning. They all basically state the same. ‘Avoid going downtown’, ‘Leave Tripoli’, ‘Do not frequent popular places’, Do not venture near Palestinian camps’, ‘Stay away from manifestations’, ‘Adopt a defensive posture at all times ‘etc etc’. These all add up to previously issued messages about not going down south, and staying clear of the southern suburbs. If this goes on much longer, and I would heed all messages, I’d end up barricaded inside my house.

I am afraid I have sinned in all cases these past ten days, (except for that last one, which came from the Brits). Adopt a defensive posture? What is that supposed to mean? Well, I am the proud owner of an AK 47 now. Nahh, just joking.

But I did have a nice conversation with a ‘boy from the hood’, who gave me some quotes. He advised me to stay away from silly handguns. They’ll make your handbag hang funny. Bigger is better. AK47’s used to go for as little as $50. But ever since the war (last summers war, that is), which did not exactly enhance the relation between the various sects, prices have hiked up. People are in the market again for some fire power.
He could get me a nice one – not brand new of course – for a mere $525. With bullets. I wouldn’t know how to shoot one, and I know of no shooting ranges to practice. This was no problem, he said, he could teach me as well. I politely declined. It is nice to know, however.

Because we are looking at another hot ten days coming. The UN voted a ‘yeah’ for the tribunal. We had candlelit roads (I kid you not) in my part of Beirut in celebration. But now we get an extra 10 days, like a bit of a bonus, to figure out if we are going to run this show ourselves, or whether we’ll let the ‘international community’ do this. It will probably the understatement of this year that these are going to be an interesting ten days.

The Dutch however, are not sending any ‘warden’ messages out yet. They did send us a checklist some years ago - I do not remember the occasion - of things to pack when on the run from danger. We (the Dutch living in Lebanon, which for the most part are ‘old-timers’, who could probably teach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a trick or two about shelter life and evacuation) made such relentless fun of that list, because the items that were mentioned were beyond the ridiculous. That I think they’ll wait a while before bringing that on themselves again. I don’t even remember what was on the list. Marijke (Dutch friend) will probably know.

We (the Dutch) were evacuated by plane, BTW. Not me though, I happened to be 'out' already. I remember this older Dutch couple, who have been living in Beirut forever, and who decided to stay. Every Dutch newspaper wanted their story, and the man said: “They have excellent medical care here in Beirut, thank you very much.”
Now that’s the spirit!
PS. A colleague just told me her daughter was attending a Ziad Rahbani concert yesterday night, when someone in the same row as she was seated, received a phone call. “No,” gasped the girl in horror, and the entire row looked at her. The daughter asked the girl next to her to ask the girl next to that girl to ask the girl (5 seats removed) with the phone whether anything had blown up. Then another phone rang, and suddenly in several places text messages beeped their arrival. Within 2 minutes, everyone was on the phone, and nobody even noticed there was a performer on stage.
It was a false alarm, though. Nothing happened last night.

May 30, 2007

UN Resolution 1757; International Tribunal

Beirut & NY - The U.S. called for a U.N. vote Wednesday to unilaterally establish an international tribunal to prosecute suspects in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, despite opposition from Russia, China and other Security Council members.

The draft resolution would create a tribunal outside Lebanon with a majority of international judges and an international prosecutor under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which deals with threats to international peace and can be militarily enforced.

In order to be adopted, the resolution needs at least nine "yes" votes in the 15-member council and no veto by a permanent member - the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France.
The effective day of implementing the resolution is June 10, to give time to the Lebanese parliament to meet and ratify it.

The Resolution number is expected to be 1757, unless there is a last minute change in schedule at the Security Council and another resolution is voted on prior to this one.
Sources: AP, Ya Libnan

May 28, 2007

Call 1515 for a Miracle!

My landline was broken. For those unfamiliar with the terminology ‘landline’; a landline is your home connection, versus your mobile phone which is obviously not connected to your house, but to your phone. Am I still clear?

Anyway, the landline had not been functioning for quite some time. It didn’t bother me, nor hubbie, since we never use the landline. But it is our housekeeper’s lifeline with the outside world; the ‘nanny network’. She was not one bit pleased with this development, and so I went to the phone company.

You wonder why I didn’t just call? Well, I don’t have a phonebook either. I remember that the phone company did hand out one some years ago, when they sort of reorganized their affairs after the civil war, but it’s been lost forever. Besides, most names in the French phone book (there is one in Arabic of course as well) have been phonetically translated from Arabic, and the translations vary. In my family there are four people with a landline, and they are under four different last names, which are all spelled similar, but slightly different. So in order to find someone in the phone book, you’d need to go over a number of spelling possibilities. Besides, everybody in Beirut has a mobile.
There are Yellow Pages too, but the one I have is in Arabic. And so I did not have the number of the phone company. Anyway, to the phone company I went.

You have to call 1515,” the man behind the little window said.
I tried 1515, right in front of him, on my mobile phone.
No, no,” he said impatiently, “not with that phone. With a landline!”
But my landline is not working.
This instilled little confidence; to have to report a broken landline connection through a landline connection only.

This meant I’d have to use a public phone, but then you’d need a phone card, and I had no intention of buying a 5,000 pound phone card for a 500 pound telephone conversation that – I was sure – was not going to amount to anything anyway.
Luckily there are plenty of grocery stores and mini-markets where the owner will let you call for just a 500 pound fee.

And so to the grocery store I went, and dialed 1515.
I got a machine on the line. Since I missed the first message ('Press one if you want to listen to this message in English’), I had to listen to all other 8 menu choices, before I got back to 1.
I pressed 1.
Then there were another 9 choices, from account information to ADSL subscription (yes, we do have it now!). I pressed 1 again, for reporting an ‘irregularity’ (if I understood the machine quite right. I wasn’t sure).
I had to punch in my home number.
I did.
Then the machine asked me for a number where they could reach me in case they’d need to.
I did that as well.
This was followed by a ticket number which I had to write down for reference in case the problem was not taken care of. By the time I found a pen, the machine was done reciting.
Finally the machine said something like “Thank you for calling xxxxx, your problem will be resolved in (inserted voice) 0 days.”
I assumed that my trip to the both the phone company and the neighborhood mini-market had been fruitless. This is nothing new. Now I would have to get hold of a ‘fixer’, who’d come and fix the problem.

When I got home however, the housekeeper said triumphantly; “Madam, the phone is working again!”

This must be the second miracle, after the Immaculate Conception some 2,000 years ago, in the Middle East.
This place is definitely going somewhere!

May 27, 2007

Who is Franklin Lamb?

It’s Franklin Lamb suddenly all over the place. The man is right now inside the Palestinian camp Nahr el-Bared. While all of us journalists are sort of hovering on the outskirts of the camp, this man actually went inside. Or at least that is what he writes.
Franklin Lamb

I ran into this man down south in September of last year. He was touring the south, like me, checking out the cluster bomb issue, and the extensive bombing damage of the Israeli war. He gave me his card. ‘Americans for a Just Peace in the Middle East it read. I remember thinking he was probably some type of bible wacko. You have them here; people that somehow see the light and come to the Middle East on a one-man-peace-mission-from-god. I ditched the card, but for some reason I remembered the name.

Well, he has surfaced again, and this time inside the Nahr el-Bared camp up north. No, he’s not a Fatah Islam member :) He is writing. He wrote an earlier article for Counterpunch (who’s behind the fighting in the north) on the situation in Nahr el-Bared, and he is currently writing from the inside.

Trouble in this part of the world is that you have to be very careful with people like this. As much as he could be genuine, he could be a massive fraud as well. If he is genuine, he’s pretty good.
The problem is, I cannot get much background on him. I googled him, but there is no information other than that he just released a book (The Price We Pay: A Quarter Century of Israel's Use of American Weapons in Lebanon) and another book (Hezbollah: a Brief Guide for Beginners) is supposed to come out soon.
He does somehow seem to be related with an organization called If Americans Knew. (He was working for them when I ran into him) The mission of this particular organization is to ‘to inform and educate the American public on issues of major significance that are unreported, underreported, or misreported in the American media.’ That is a noble enough mission, I must say. Most reporters that work for an extensive time in the Middle East do seem to get exasperated by the Israelis, and all lean to the Palestinian side after a while. Let's rephrase that; they do not buy the Israeli side anymore.
There is a Dutch reporter, Joris Luyendijk, who recently published a very interesting book on his problems with reporting the Middle East. (They’re Almost Like Real People, it’s called). It’s in Dutch only for the moment.

Both organizations (Americans for a Just Peace in the Middle East and If Americans Knew) are looking at the conflict from the Palestinian side, and I doubt that the pro-Israel organizations in the States are very pleased with these people.

As I said, you have to be careful in this part of the world with the information you get. There is always AT LEAST two sides to it, and most probably more. And you've got to be careful where it is coming from. The line between information and propaganda is sometimes almost impossible to detect. For someone who seems to be so well-informed, and courageous to go into the camp right now, he does not seem to have published a whole lot in newspapers.

Franklin Lamb is like a Jack-in-the-Box. Where did he so suddenly come from? His case is the same as with all these obscure radical groups that appear out of the blue; ‘who’s his paymaster?” He could be one of those – what we call here – Hezbollah groupies. Hezbollah seems to like the man alright; they even posted one if his articles on their web site. They may have done this without his knowledge though.

And then again, he could be for real. And if he’s for real, he’s real good.
Update: Sorry, but no more commenting allowed on this particular post. Mr. Lamb - probably unbeknown to him - has created a little controversy though. It turned out that Lamb's name opened a can of worms that was a bit too much for some people who had nothing to do with the issue, yet did get mentioned. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

May 26, 2007

In Which the Plot Thickens

You’ve got to read this, very interesting; it is an interview with this Shaker el-Absi guy (head of Fatah Islam) in March of this year.
Don’t tell me the Lebanese did not see this one coming! I have no idea who this Pierre Tristam is (this link comes from his blog), but it seems everybody in Lebanon’s intellgigence knew Shaker el-Absi was in the camp. They know the camps are fertile grounds for breeding religious intolerance, and they knew he was in touch with al-Qaida.
Now what more do you need to know in order to understand you had it coming your way?

Hat tip to Jeha’s Nail for the image and the link.
This Pierre Tristam had another interesting link, a New York Times newspaper article from 1973 about fighting between Palestinian factions and the Lebanese Army. It seems the circle is round.

May 25, 2007

Trip to Nahr el-Bared

Lebanese commandos waiting on the outskirts of the Nahr el-Bared (Cold River) Camp

I spent the day around Nahr el-Bared and in Beddawi, two Palestinian camps in the northern part of Lebanon. Nahr el-Bared is currently in the news because Fatah Islam members are hauled up inside, and the Lebanese army is trying to ‘extract’ them. Wonderful word, this ‘extraction. I don’t see how they are going to do any ‘extraction’. Most of these commandoes have so much gear on their back that they are going to get stuck the moment they’ve got to haul ass through those narrow alley ways. Besides, they do not know their way through this maze anyway, while the bad guys do. Now the army is waiting for night vision goggles from the Americans to be flown in. Much good is that going to do you in this labyrinth.
Luckily Fatah Islam has helped them a little by announcing that they will fight until death; this will make things a little easier.

The population in the Beddawi camp has gone up from 16,000 to over 30,000 in less than 3 days.

Nahr el Bared and Bedawi are the two poorest Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The north is the most underdeveloped region of this country anyway, and the camps have been under Syrian ‘protection’ forever. The Syrians did not like the PLO very much, and the feeling was mutual, so the PLO and related organizations never poured much funds into these camps either. Results is over 50,000 Palestinians (between 30 to 40,000 in Nahr el Bared and between 16 to 18,000 in Beddawi) live in poverty. I won't say abject poverty, but there are quite a few 'special hardship' cases there. Half of the Nahr el-Bared has moved into the Beddawi camp since the fighting started, making a difficult living environment pretty much unbearable. Let’s hope it’s just for a short while.

You cannot get into Nahr el-Bared anymore. Or at least, not the usual route. The army won’t let you. I must say, I didn’t have the urge, as sniper fire and gun fire were heard sporadically. It was ‘quiet’, the soldiers said. It was during Friday prayer, and some Palestinians were joking it was because they had gone off to Friday prayer.

I was going to go with a Dutchmen, Theo, and I had decided I would title this blog post ‘Travels with Theo’, because traveling with Theo is always a lot of fun. But then Theo got himself arrested last night over god knows what, and so it was to be ‘travels without Theo.’
I went with a fierce druze instead, and we had an interesting talk about the efficiency of an army. Or soldiers, to be more exact.

His theory is that the more hardship citizens have to deal with, the better their soldiers fight. In order to be a good fighter, you must have absolutely nothing to lose. You must not fear death, and in order not to fear death, you must not have a whole lot to look out for in life. Misery and poverty makes good fighting men, he said. The Americans in Iraq do not stand a great deal of chance. They may be better equipped, but they cry over fallen comrades. “Not a good sign,” according to my travel companion. The Israelis (‘first generation’) used to be fierce fighters, he said, but the current generation is more interested in girlfriends and clubbing in Tel Aviv. “They’re softening up, and so they lose.”

Even this cow has gone 'soft', prefering grilled chicken (it reads 'farouche' on the box, which means 'grilled chicken') over grass.

How do the Lebanese soldiers stand in all this? Pretty good, according to him. Granted, nightlife is quite tempting here, and the women gorgeous. But on the other hand, the current soldiers grew up amidst guns, mortar fire, long periods of shelling and shelter life, and so this hardened them quite a bit. “They stand a chance, especially if you get them mad. They do tend to get erratic though. But still, better erratic than afraid.”

Against Fatah Islam as well? Well, that was a bit of a dilemma. It seems that these Fatah guys are basically the remnants of that army that Osama Bin Laden organized a long time ago in Afghanistan against the Russian (at the cost of the Americans, I might add, and in more ways than one). Now that Afghanistan is over, and they were kicked out of Saudi Arabia as well during the first Gulf War, they’ve been roaming the battlefields a bit. Some have since surfaces in Chechnya, others have ended up in Iraq. And now it seems that Syria has engaged themselves some of these religious ‘guns-for-hire’.

My guess is that this is not a Palestininan child but one of the Bedouin tribes that also live here. I saw it crawling though a garbage pile outside the Bedawi camp.

And these men have been in the fighting game forever now. Most of them probably thought they’d never make it this long anyway. But according to the soldiers and Palestinians of Nahr el-Bared I spoke to, a lot of them are young guys; late teens, early twenties, with an occasional older guy. They spoke Arabic with a ‘strange‘ accent. ‘Strange’ of course is a mater of perspective. So where do you pick up all these young guns, if both sides agreed that they were neither Lebanese nor Palestinian?

Anyway, story appeared here.

May 24, 2007

Rife with Rumour

This town is rife with rumor. The tension is tremendous. It would be exhilarating (it is exhilarating) if it weren’t so sad. If you believe everything you hear, this town is about to erupt in one gigantic battlefield. They said they found a bomb in the school next door to me. All 600 shrieking girls had to be evacuated onto the city streets, in between traffic and soldiers. It turned out to be false alarm. And it is rumbling down south in Ain el-Heloue as well.

My friend, who gave me such a ‘helpful’ analysis the other day, stopped by to adjust her prediction.
“Okay, so I was wrong. It wasn’t Hamra, it was us (she is druze). Now we all have had our turn (she’s talking about the 3 bombs the past 4 nights). The christians on Sunday, the sunni muslims on Monday and us (the druze) on Wednesday. So now the only once left are the shia. They are getting the next bomb. You wanna bet?"

I read here that ‘Most Lebanese go to work, and return home immediately. Friends, the other day, came over to my place. They said, "We'll go out after the bomb." There has not yet been more than one attack on the same night.

It is funny how well we adapt. Tomorrow I need to go to Nahr el Bared for a story. The army entered the camp today. If all goes well, the battle should be over by tomorrow. But nothing ever goes well in this place.

May 23, 2007


I had to do a story in Shatila today.

Going to the camps is always a tremendously humbling experience. For those not familiar with the Palestinian camps; Shatila is a camp which is situated right in between other West-Beirut neighborhoods. Shatila is also well-known for a 1982 massacre.

Shatila was never intended to be a camp, and it was never intended to house over 10,000 people. But there they live, and they do not have any other place to go to, so they really live on top of each other. There is no sign that says “Welcome to Shatila’, there is no fence or gate to indicate you have entered. It is one very poor neighborhood blending into another. One is filled with poor Lebanese, the next one with poor Palestinians. And even those blend.

Bourj Barajneh, 1983

There are some differences. Lebanese police and army do not enter the camps. I’m not sure whether they do not have the right, or whether they have come to an understanding with the Palestinian authorities not do so. But whatever is the case, they do not enter. Another difference is that their Lebanese counterparts are free to go and work wherever they want, whereas the Palestinians are prohibited, in order to protect the Lebanese job market, from a large number of employment. This result in half of the Palestinians having no work whereas the other half does menial and/or cheap labor.

They have little hope for a different future, as the majority of them possess Palestinian papers which cannot function as travel documents. Most of them have lived in squalor like this since 1948. As said before, this creates a situation that is less than desirable.
The vegetable market right outside the camp.

There are some roads in Shatila that will allow cars to pass through, but the majority of the infrastructure consists of narrow alleyways, crooked, like a labyrinth. It is dim, because sunlight does not reach that deep, and the wind does not blow here either. There is a stale smell of humans, refuse and food. Most of the alleyways are less than a meter wide. On both sides iron doors in the wall give access to dark rooms, where people sit on white plastic garden chairs and sleep on mattresses on the floor. I am not making this up, I’ve just come from there. You feel like in a time machine; like you are walking through a medieval town. The Middle Ages revisited. They wouldn’t be able to produce a more authentic set in Hollywood than this one.

I cannot understand how people can live like this; year in and year out. I sometimes wonder how I would feel and think and reason about the world, and this region in particular, if I were to live there for a year, in between the inhabitants of the camp. Would I become a suicide bomber? I think I could be. There really isn’t much else to do with your life anyway.

And while I sit here on my balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in my two-hundred something square meter apartment, I realize that every time I come out of the camps, I am a little different.

Story can be read here here (in Dutch).

In the meantime, there is an interesting web site on the Palestinian exodus.

Update: The two bottom Pictures of Shatila were posted by Reuters yesterday(scroll to the bottom)

May 22, 2007

New Ring Tones; Incominggggggg!

The guy of the mobile phone shop around the corner of my house beckons me into his place.
Come, check this out,” he whispers, as he gestures that I should lower my head closer to his.
“Listen to this, and watch what happens,” and he holds his mobile phone close to my ear.

pheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeewww’ whistles the phone sharply. A lady passing by looks anxiously behind her.

That’s a new ring tone, just got it in. It is the sound of an RPG. You know. Boom boom? Sounds just like the real one, doesn’t’ it? This one is outgoing. I’ve got the incoming rocket too. Sounds a bit better. Here,” and he pushes the button again.

It sounds real enough. It gives me a prickly feeling along my spine, and two men passing by actually look into the sky before they spot my mobile man with his phone.

The mobile phone guys shows a grin from ear to ear.
What you think? The incoming is better, no? You want it?”
Just what I need for my frayed nerves; the sound of an incoming rocket propelled grenade every time someone calls me.

What Are Friends For?

A friend is analyzing the current situation.

“You should really sleep with the windows open tonight, you know. And is your bed near the window? I would move it if I were you. Because you see, there is a pattern. First they put a bomb in Ashrafiya, and then yesterday near Verdun. This morning they found one in Mansourieh, so tonight it’s Hamra’s turn (my neighborhood). Around 10 o’clock. You wait and see.”

Thanks. You just made my day.

Bomb II

In retrospect, visiting the Beirut Garden Show may have been a better choice than say for instance the Verdun Shopping District after last night’s bomb. That’s the second one in 2 days. Another blogger called it new meaning for the expression: “shop till you drop.” The Syrians seem to be widely blamed for this one. Who knows? You guess is as good as mine. It could be a dissatisfied customer with some left-over civil war era explosives over in the attic.
Brace yourself, this promises to be a rough ride.

May 21, 2007

Turmoil and Tranquility

A balloon salesman at the Beirut Garden Show demonstrates how to
'walk the dog' against the backdrop of the Beirut Race Track.

While the Lebanese armed forces are still engaged in full-scale battles with a number (some say no more than 200) of broom-bearded radicals in the north of Lebanon, and the eastern part of Beirut gets shaken (but not stirred) last night by a 15 kilogram car bomb near a major shopping center (remember the shoe story?), I went to the Beirut Garden Show. Garden show? Well yes, because life goes on. (I know that if I write one more nice thing about Lebanon, some people are going to vomit).

A soldier, waiting on top of his tank, while eating 'bizr' (pumkin seeds).

Because even when this place is in turmoil, there’s always a place where you can find tranquility. There are a great number of Lebanese who – over the years – have developed a sort of ‘ostrich syndrome’. Instead of getting all upset and nervous, they steadfastly ignore the entire situation and pretend as if nothing unusual is happening.
Last summer, while the southern suburbs of Beirut got bombed to smithereens, many Lebanese took cover in Feraya, an up-scale ski-resort some 45 miles above Beirut, and partied as if the country was not at war. “Well, you could hear the Israeli planes going over,” explained one lady I interviewed, “very annoying.” It is gardenia season in Lebanon. They grow like weed, and people string 'em on a rope and sell them to wating commuters at traffic intersections. Usually at 1,000 for 1, but today they were selling them for 'tlate be alf' (3 voor 1,000 pounds)

It is similar to the chamber orchestra on board the Titanic that kept playing while the ship went down. Mind you, we believe that the ship isn’t sinking, we’re just experiencing a bit of rough weather. Of course, this is seen from the inside. Please advise us if you have other information.

When you watch the news, you get the impression that the entire country is at war. This is quite inaccurate, as all those that have been in a war zone will know. A bomb may explode, but 3 blocks down the road, you probably won’t even notice it. An old man in Beirut, waiting, watching the traffic pas by.

There isn’t much else to do anyway. While the fighting continues, and bombs may (or may not) explode in your part of town, there isn’t much you can do. You cannot really plan ahead, as you need to have an idea what the future is going to bring in order to do some planning. All you can do it wait. And wait is what we do best here in Beirut. We've become experts at it.

And so it is best to just ignore it, in order to make life bearable. After all, no sane person can live in similar circumstances for over 2 years if they were going to get all worked up over each and every fight. This may explain the overall insanity of Lebanese.

And so the garden show, which is held annually on the grounds of the Beirut Race Track went ahead as planned. It was a bit of a bland affaire; people right now are obviously not in the mood to buy new balcony furniture or replant their garden (who’s got gardens in this town?).
And while you are pondering over the mysteries of Lebanese life, go figure this one out; which one came first; the lamppost or the awning?

May 20, 2007

Tripoli; Hotbed for Fundamentalists

Army on the move
Just, and I mean just, as I was going to sit down and watch TV, I got a call from my editor to do 500 words on the ‘Tripoli issue’. The moment he said it, I knew something must have happened, because this morning, as I made my way up to Feraya, there was this absolute massive troop movement of the Lebanese Army. Tanks, jeeps, trucks, APC’s and even Humvees (Yes, the Lebanese army are the proud owners of a contingent of Hummers!), the colon must have been going on from downtown Beirut all the way up to Dbayeh, and then I lost sight of them. My instinct was to follow them, but I had two kids in the car, a dog in the back, and the army was moving excruciating slowly, so I dropped it.

When coming back from the mountains, I passed two major army checkpoints on the highway. Can you imagine this in Holland? The army just blocks of the highway, and checks every single car. They pulled out mainly the ‘shebab’ as we call them, the young boys, and let me pass. Two kids and a fleecy dog are not much of a security risk.
Later in the evening, while driving through town, I again passed army checkpoints, and soldiers were asking men to step out of the vehicle and searched them.
For a while I thought that maybe the army was doing a ‘visibility campaign’. Or training the new recruits in ‘how to set up a roadblock in 5 seconds.’ But then again, this is Lebanon, and it couldn’t be something that banal.

It does not come as a surprise really. Last week, while organizing my desk, I came upon some old, unused stories (i.e. stories written but not published) and one of them mentioned (on al-Qaida and Lebanon) that ex-minister Fatfat warned (this was way back in February of last year) that the situation in and around the Palestinian camp in Tripoli was a potential hotbed for fundamentalist terrorist organizations that were looking for a place to settle down. And Nizar Hamzeh, a political scientist interested in sunni groups, also mentioned than that this area was home to numerous radical religious groups who were all looking for a paymaster. It seems they found them. The place is poor, underdevelopped, nobody seems to be in charge, the border with Syria is 10 kilometers away, the Lebanese authorities do not have the right to enter the camps, and there isn't much else to do with your life anyway.

Well, I did my 500 words. Article can be read here. (in Dutch)

Faraya Falls

I had to ask a local farmer permission to cross his land (Tfadal, Madam), and then crawl under a fence, but there it was; a beautiful waterfall. The Feraya Falls.
Farmers built terraces all over the mountains . Apples and pears are a popular crop in this region. There are some other pretty interesting things to see in this neighborhood. A natural stone bridge, a 2,000 year old Roman temple and a massive amount of fossils.
More than a hundred million years ago, Lebanon used to be a tropical sea, before tectonic movement lifted the Arabian plate, and we’ve got plenty of marine fossils here. Near Feraya we have bivalves and gastropods (of mediocre quality, according to a geologist friend), but if you go further north, you have the famous ‘Fish Beds'. They rank in the top twenty or thirty localities in the world.

If geology and Lebanon interest you, check out this article on the geological history of Lebanon. (More here on paleo-geological maps, and geology of Lebanon)

May 19, 2007


Summer is now definitely on the way. It’s good to know that some things still move, because politics has come to a grinding halt. There is absolutely no movement detectable between the two sides; they have dug in so deep we can no longer see them. The term ‘stand-off’ is appropriate. ‘Siege’ might be even a better word. In the Crusader days, some sieges lasted for months. Or even years. King Guy of Jerusalem laid siege to Acre for three years, until they capitulated in 1191.
We’ve been going on since December; that’s a good 5 months now, so we still got ways to go. And so it is good to know that, even though everything else has come to a stand-still, summer is moving along.

Today's was a fund-raising BBQ; shish-kebab, kafta and lahme mishwe by the meter.

Summer is prime-time for weekend-barbeques, big lunches, and gatherings with friends and families around tables laden with food. If you accept all invitations, you’re booked solid every Saturday and Sunday all the way until the end of September. Lebanese love to wine and dine, but what they like even better is to invite their friends, family, acquaintances, neighbors, family of friends who happen to be in town, foreigners they met on the street last week and their friends, coworkers, people they happened to run into that week, and whoever happens to drop in, to join them at the lunch table. Nothing is as good as throwing a party.

In summer the focus is usually the lunch table, in winter time these gatherings seem more centered around on dinner time. And Lebanese dinner time is not the Dutch 6 o’clock sharp thing. Guests might show up at 8. Those are the early birds. More likely that by 9 it gets a little crowded, and by 10 you’re company is complete. By the time dinner is on the table, you are looking at 10:30, 11 o’clock, and you are not home before 1:30, 2 o’clock.

I remember one time, many years ago, In Holland, when I happened to be with my brother in the car, and he mentioned that he was invited for dinner at a colleague’s house. “Come along,” and so I did. I will never forget the face of the man’s wife as she opened the door, and said, “Oh dear, now I have to go buy an extra chicken schnitzel, and the shops are closed. Now what?” She actually said that.

This would be inconceivable for Lebanese. There is always enough food. You prepare more than you are actually going to eat. What is someone drops by? You don’t even ask if he joins in for dinner, you automatically assume he will, and will get really upset if, just before dinner time, he’s about to take off. (Another reason why we should send some Dutch over for some lessons in life) Today's was a fund-raising BBQ; a real lemonade stand.

I hear from foreigners that are send to Lebanon by their company, and live here for two or three years, that they are absolutely stunned by the demands of their social night life. In the beginning they are simply amazed by all this friendliness, and they happily accept each and every invitation. But pretty soon they get to understand that you cannot get up and go to work at 8:00 in the morning if you barely made it to your bed the night before at 3 o’clock after a marathon session of food intake. An Italian friend of ours mentioned that doing the dinner circuit was almost a more demanding job than his regular day job. Not to mention the access weight he acquired along the way.
In the end he had to narrow it down to three invitations a week only, and no more alcohol.

You may think that this is only an issue with the more affluent crowd in Beirut, but that is not the case. I’ve joined in more lunches than I can count down south, while on assignment for the newspaper. Every time you walk through a village, looking for cluster bombs, uprooted poppy harvests, confiscated dope and the likes, there is the smell of chicken, while someone is fanning – in a vast cloud of smoke - the barbeque with a little piece of cardboard. And the first things they say when they see you is “Fad-dal”. I’m not sure what the exact meaning of the word is, but they say ‘please, you are welcome, you must come in and sit down, and join us’. And it is not just being polite. They mean it.

And cotton-candy for the kids

And that is what summer is about in this place; weekend-barbeques, big lunches, and gatherings with friends and families around tables laden with food. Last summer the Israelis screwed us royally out of our summer. Let's keep our fingers crossed for the coming one.

May 15, 2007

MuhajaBabes (or; wearing the veil the right way)

Every now and then the 'scarf-debate’ flares up in Holland. It annoys the Dutch to no extent that muslims in the society are separating themselves from the mainstream Dutch with a scarf. Or even worse; a burqa or a facial veil. The Dutch are inventing all kinds of intricate rules and regulations to avoid having to face the veiled ladies in public.

The right way

It’s not just a Dutch issue though; this is an ongoing discussion in other European countries as well, with England and France at the forefront. And it’s always this debate about what the Quran exactly stipulates and how rigid some people interpret this. I must say, wearing a black facial veil while teaching pre-school or elementary children is really pushing it bit. On the other hand, wearing a veil to school shouldn’t be an issue, especially if you otherwise partake in school life and activities just as any other student would.

I daresay that this scarf issue would not have been a problem at all if it had been the Lebanese ladies introducing the veil to Holland.
Because the Lebanese have perfected the art of wearing a veil; they do it with pizzazz.

I call them ‘muhajababes’. (Muhajabe means veiled, or wearing the veil, and ‘babe’ speak for itself.)

Originally (or at least that is my understanding) the veil is supposed to draw away the attention to the attractive features of a woman. Which results in a rather drab affair. This is (usually) the case in Holland.

The majority of the Lebanese female muslims that do go veiled however (and the number differs from region to region), think that this part is open to interpretation, because they are having none of that. They make sure that veil and flare go together. They have perfected the art of wearing a veil with style, and made it into a fashionable item. And the result is in some cases absolutely stunning.

It must be said; no one can wear a veil the way the Lebanese ladies can.

Real muhajababes are in total control. They go around town on a quad (saw one last Sunday on the Corniche. Pink scarf, I am not making this up), can be found on the ski slope and run marathons in a jiffy. (all personally observed).
I have to say – and you may disagree with me – that in general shia (chador wearers excluded) carry it with a little more style than the sunni do. Can you tell the difference? Not always, but I’ve noticed that the tugging of the scarf into the collar is more of a sunni feature. (More on veil variations from the BBC. Go to ‘veil variations’ in the side bar and click on ‘veil styles).

Ladies like the ‘muhajababes’ would have taken over Dutch society by storm. Instead, we’re stuck (in Holland) with the dull Turkish and Moroccan interpretation of the ‘hijab’ (veil).

I suggest we start an exchange program (the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs, I am sure, will pay for his); send some Dutch muslims to Lebanon, to show them how you can turn the veil into an article of clothing you just cannot leave home without (together with your Dior sunglasses and your Prada handbag), and send a contingent of Lebanese ladies to show Dutch society how it is really done. I bet ya; this whole scarf debate would be over in a New-York minute. Now how’s that for integration?

They have muhajababes in Iran as well. Check out these ladies (photographer: Newsha Tavakolian)
(Faces have been blurred to respect the privacy of the ladies that were photographed)

May 13, 2007

Before and After

This was the view (of Beirut, taken from the North) this morning,
and this was the view on Friday afternoon. Pretty dramatic, huh?

May 12, 2007

Street Scenes of Beirut

Saturday afternoon in Beirut. These girls were doing their homework on the sidewalk while waiting for the school bus.
Many Lebanese students also go to school on Saturday. It is half a day. All schools are closed on Sundays. The Hezbollah schools close on Friday and Sunday; so much for a two day weekend.

May 11, 2007

The Arab Connection

The sky turned absolutely yellow yesterday afternoon. It is an eerie sight, very unusual, and disconcerting. The sun disappeared, but the sky turned very bright, and quite unnatural. Friends that are more familiar with the weather in other parts of this region glanced up and announced ‘sandstorm’.
Beirut seen (or unseen) from Debaye; blocked by the Sahara sand in the atmosphere.

We are not actually getting a sandstorm here in Beirut; we’re too far away from the deserts in Saudi and Egypt. But every now and then the sand of the Sahara does get caught up in the upper regions of the atmosphere, and lands in Beirut. Everything is then covered by a fine layer of yellow powder. This usually happens one day after I have washed my car.
Egyptian Sahara sand in Beirut. Mind you, last week we had a cloud of Libyan mosquitoes annoying us (I kid you not). I find it quite exotic; this foreign desert sand from the Sahara. It is a reminder (for me) that we are surrounded by all these exotic and foreign places.

When I was young, and growing up in Holland, the only time I’d ever see foreigners was during the summer holiday. We’d drive to France, and on the way you’d see cars with French license plates, and Belgian, or German. Part of the ‘exotic-ness’ of a holiday was the spotting of foreign license plates. You might see an occasional Brit, or someone from Spain, but that was about it. Of course this is all many years ago.

The sky over Beirut

Here in Beirut, the exotic license plates are from the Arab countries. Syrian and Jordanian plates are relatively common, and you may see an occasional Gulf Arab or Saudi plate. But even here, certain plates are rare. I’ve never seen an Iraqi plate, for instance, or a car from Turkey.

Every time I see a foreign license plate however, I am reminded of how connected everything and everyone seems to be with the rest of the Arab world. One of the big differences between Europe and the Arab World is that in the Arab world the traffic between the countries seems to be much more intensive. People move from country to country without giving it much thought. It may be because the language barrier is much lower; Arabic – although not exactly the same dialect – is spoken all over the Arab world.
Religion is a common denominator as well. But marriages between different Arab nationalities is rather common, much more so than in Europe. Lebanese have aunts and uncles in Dubai or Jordan, cousins in Qatar, fathers from Saudi Arabia, and mothers from Palestine or Iran. It seems like they are constantly on the move. It does give this place a very ‘worldly’ feel. It flows over into politics (unfortunately). The entire region is connected, and if there is a major development in one country, you know there will be fall-out in other parts of the region.

So when they have a major sandstorm in Egypt, we get the sand as well.

This is the result of the Egyptian desert sand after it comes down in Beirut with a little bit of rain. The window washers at work on a glass ceiling covering a court yard of a hotel in Hamra.

May 10, 2007

Filling Holes

I took this picture about a week ago, didn’t know what to do with it. It did not fit with my collections of Beirut doors and windows, but it was too nice to throw away.
It’s very typical of the culture here though, I though, as I parked under this ‘filled-up hole’ again this morning. This is Lebanon. We never really fix things permanently in this place. We rather patch up, fill up holes.
From a distance it looks like a uniform wall, but a closer look reveals holes. Holes from the civil war, patched up, painted over. Holes from remainders of former constructions, now long gone. Bits and pieces of projects that were started but never finished. And that’s us. We are a society full of holes. And instead of breaking down the wall and rebuilding it all new, we prefer to plug the holes. Patch it up, paint it over.
And now I can post the pictures. And this is as philosophical as I will ever get. Enough of it already.

May 09, 2007

Mobile Phone Art

Because a friend of mine has been nagging that I do not post fast enough, here’s a post for her (Yes Hadile, you).

One of my favorites; A lady holding a baby (on the left) .
I'm in the picture too; art of art.

As not much is happening these days, both in my life and on the surface of this society (underneath it’s Tornado Alert), I went to the opening of Bassam Lahoud’s Mobile Art Exhibition. Bassam is an LAU (Lebanese American University) professor and photographer who got out his mobile phone (0.7 mega pixels, which is nothing) one day and started taking pictures of the people around him. Although the resolution is pathetic, the colors are nice, and the motion/movement is interesting. He calls it Mobile Art.

Mind you, he is not the first one to play with the idea; art with your mobile phone. Sites such as Flickr have entire photo pools on this type of art. He (Bassam Lahoud) however does put an interesting ‘spin on twisted’ as one visitor put it. Most images were purposely moved.
Beirut must have the highest density of mobile phones in the world, I feel. (And mobile phone etiquette is lost on people here.)

The exhibition in the Goethe Institute runs till the end of the month.

Art is there to inspire, I think he mentioned at some point. And inspired I was. Here's my mobile phone art, while walking back from the exhibition.

May 05, 2007

Souq el Tayeb

An ‘off-the-beaten-track post’ this morning. They call it the Souq el-Tayeb, which I translate as the ‘Market of the tasty things’, or ‘good things’, but they (the organization) call it a Farmer’s Market. It is the only market (as in the Dutch ‘markt’) that I know of in Lebanon.
The baker
It isn’t very big, probably because their prices are not competitive in the ‘market sense’ of the word. They are actually a little above the regular supermarket prices, but that is because they offer home-grown products only, and most of it is either organic, comes from small family businesses, or both. Some of the things, like the brown bread, you cannot find anywhere but here.
The imker selling his honey. He brought in a display case with real bees too.
He had some cedar honey; nice stuff

The only exception (as far as above the market price goes) were the roses; Lebanese roses, and for 1,000 pounds a piece only. That is definitely well below the price in the flower shops here, and they were absolutely beautiful.
The flower lady

If you live in Lebanon, I’d say check out their web site, and drop by on a Saturday morning in Saifi Village (that is downtown). It’s well worth it. The atmosphere is very relaxed, and today the high school band of the American School here in town played as well, so there was music too.

The ACS High School Band

Lebanon in general is a reasonably relaxed society, but whenever you get to popular events or places where there is a lot of crowd, one of the main purpose of many people becomes ‘to be seen’. And to ‘be seen’ means you’ve got to come dressed up, with all your paraphernalia in full force. This often results in a rather constipated ambiance, with push-up bras, stiletto heels, lots of flashy jewelry, and razor sharp fingernails. It’s an interesting phenomena to observe, but not on a Saturday morning at 10 o’clock. None if this (yet) at the Souk el-Tayeb however.

They have several 'sages' too,which bakes a special type of bread.