Author Archives: Youssef

About Youssef

I don’t drink, don’t smoke and don’t swear in Arabic. Don’t you wish your man was more like me? Now look down, look back up. I’m in the US... in Lebanon... in Morocco, I’m on a donkey... back in Lebanon... now in Chile... back in Lebanon again: catch me if you can! I’ve experienced wars in Lebanon, electricity cuts and slow Internet connections. I’ve also experienced 24/7 electricity, 1Gbps Internet connections and a villa with a pool. Yet I still prefer Lebanon and will always come back to it. When I walk the streets of Beirut, it’s a calm and cool journey and my hope is to bring you along for the ride towards a different perspective. And when I’m not trying to convince people shit ain’t that bad in Lebanon, I pretend to be the Co-Founder and CTO of Jogabo (http://jogabo.com), I’ve been know to bend computers to my will!

Want to work (legally) as a freelancer in Lebanon?

For starters, you will need to get your tax identification number to avoid a 7.5% fee on your earnings (if the company you are working for takes their accounting seriously). Yes, you do have options to do things under the table (this is Lebanon after all!), but if you are serious about being able to grow your services into a full-fledged business (like me), you will need to do things the right way.

I recently went to get my tax identification number so that I can start doing some contract work in my field of Web Development and Agile Consulting. I worked as a consultant for 3 years in the US as part of a small consultancy called OpenSource Connections, before starting work on Jogabo (you can take a look at my past experiences here). But now that I am in Lebanon, I am starting to give workshops (eg. Best Practices Workshop) and trying to get some consulting work done.

So, as a freelancer or contractor what do you have to do to be able to bill for your work, legally? I asked a couple of friends who are in the same field as I am to get an idea what I’m up against. These two friends are people who have already gone through the process themselves. So theoretically they should have valid and valuable information.

Friend number 1 had done this outside of Beirut, since that’s where his residence is, so when I asked him he said the following:

  1. Go to the Ministry of Finance office in DT
  2. Take take a copy of your ID
  3. Take a copy of your diploma
  4. Take a “tasemo7″ signed by your father saying he gives you permission to use the apartment he is renting as your location of work. And that this could not get us in trouble with the landlord and that we would not be evicted (important, since we still have an old lease)
  5. Fill 2 forms they will give you there, it will only cost you LL2,000 the cost of a stamp

Friend number 2 had done this in order to become part of the Engineering Syndicate in Lebanon, he told me the following:

  1. Go the Ministry of Finance office next to Jiser el Naher, after Mat7af, next to el 3adliyeh (Ministry of Justice), the one in DT is actually the office of the minister. According to your profession, they will tell you what to paperwork you need

So I called my father asking him to prepare the paper for the lease. He objected saying that this would cause us big trouble with the landlord and that he would ask a Moukhtar (local notary) friend of ours about this. My dad then called back saying he had talked to another friend who works at the Ministry of Finance and that he got the required documents.

I decided to have my father come with me, just in case we were asked about some paperwork related to the lease or whatnot, he’d be there ready to answer. We gathered all paperwork we thought we might need, according to 3 different sources. Of course, the third source had told us that we had to go the ministry’s offices on Bechara El Khoury (neither one of the other locations I was told about by my friends). Here’s what I had with me:

  1. My ID and a photocopy
  2. My father’s ID and a photocopy
  3. A photocopy of my diploma notarized by a notary public in Virginia (where I got my diploma)
  4. A photocopy of my diploma notarized by a notary public, signed by the Virginia Commonwealth and the Ministry of Interior of the US government
  5. A recent lease agreement in my father’s name, with a photocopy
  6. A signed “tasemo7″, nautorized by the Moukhtar
  7. Myself and my father

We were taking no prisoners :P

We get there. Again, the offices on Bechara El Khoury, before Sodeco, the building on the island separating the two ways going to and coming from the Downtown. Go up to the first floor. Enter the first office on the right. “Saba7o”, “Ahla”. “Mishein el ra2em el meleh”, “eh hon, tfaddal”. Great! We were in the right spot. That’s achievement number 1. We get our turn, we ask what we need to do. The guy asks me immediately: are you an Engineer (“Mhandis”), or a Doctor? Limited choices, right? My father immediately answers “Engineer,” proudly, before I get to give my answer. The guy immediately said that I have to be part of the Syndicate of Engineers to apply for the my tax number. Now, my dad gave the correct answer, but not the appropriate answer. See, I do have a computer engineering degree. Except that my 4 year degree from the US, no matter how much more advanced it might be, is still only a 4 year degree and does not qualify me to be part of the syndicate, since their requirements are a 5 year degree (because that’s how long it takes at the Lebanese University). So I cut in and said that I want to work as a Web Developer, not as an Engineer. That seemed to solve everything.

So, we asked again, what do we need? He got 2 forms for us: the M10 and the M11. Told us that we need to fill them out. Have a copy of my ID. Then he asked what’s our living situation, do we own or rent and is the rent old or new. When we said we rent and it’s an old rent, he told us that all we need is a copy of the receipt of a recent tax payment on the rental and a copy of the rental agreement. That was it! BUT… that was the one thing we didn’t bring! Oh, the irony!

M10 form

M10 form

M11 form

M11 form

No problem. We filled out the forms. Went back home. Got the proper paper. Came back. Gave it to the guy who we talked to. He circled some things, signed the papers and told us to go have the papers signed by another guy in the same office. That person then looked over the papers, circled something else, signed them and then told us to go to the window outside the office and give them the paperwork. We went there, gave the women the paperwork, she typed the data into her computer and then passed the papers to the guy sitting next to her. I just did a simple slide to the right (now clap your hands!), that guy also signed some things, filed something in this HUGE book he had in front of him, gave us a paper which was the equivalent of a receipt saying the paperwork was filed and told us to come back in 2 days for pick up.

Application Receipt

Application Receipt

Typical Lebanese procedures. You ask 3 different people what needs to be done, you get 3 different answers. In fact, when we got there, we saw signs all over the wall saying that a “tasemo7″ will not be accepted for a lease, only from the owner of the apartment. At that point we thought we were screwed. But even one of the employees was on the phone talking to her boss asking about this policy to check. Of course I did try to look for information on the ministry’s website but it had no relevant information. Your best bet is always to go there, put on a good smile with a nice “saba7o”, maybe even wear bright colors (I was wearing an orange UVA hoodie) and hope the person you’re dealing with had his chill pill :)

But in case you were wondering, and you want to be a web development freelancer, here’s what I had to have:

  1. A copy of my ID
  2. A copy of the lease
  3. A copy of a recent tax receipt on the payment of the lease
  4. Forms M10 and M11 (very basic, name and address and signature) that you get from there

Four business days later (they said two, but I gave them a grace period), I went back to same place for the pickup. I brought the application receipt they had given me on the first day, a copy of my ID and a 1,000L.L. stamp, and I received my company registration certificate:

Company Registration Certificate

Company Registration Certificate

That’s it! It seems like a complicated process, it may deter many from even trying, yet it’s very simple and straight forward. Surprising for a bureaucratic country like Lebanon, right?

BONUS 1: the process is the same if you’re a business consultant (or marketing, or designer, etc)
BONUS 2: if you own the house or apartment, you only need a copy of the deed, even if it’s owned by one of your parents, and you do not need an authorization paper (“tasemo7″)

N.B.: bring all orignal documents with you for authenticity verification purposes (you’ll only submit the copy though)

As for foreigners, my understanding is that for you to work in Lebanon, you have to have a work permit and that work permit has to be sponsored by your employer. But for freelancing gigs, you will be forced to take the 7.5% deduction since you will not be paying taxes in Lebanon, instead you’ll be paying your taxes back in your home country.

- Youssef

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What do you know about your family name?

In Lebanon, your family name goes beyond identification. There’s usually history hidden behind a family name, that unfortunately most of us lose track of, or which fails to get passed down from generation to generation. And in some cases, it’s your grandmother’s maiden name (like in my case) that comes with an interesting story to tell.

I come from a mixed faith marriage, most people who know me know this about me already. (One of the first things you learn about people when you meet them in Lebanon is what faith they are). For most of my life, that was it; the story ended there. And that kind of attitude also translated into school where I never really cared about history because to me it was all about a bunch of names that I didn’t relate to anyway.

Come to find that my great grandfather (maternal side) was a Sheikh and a Shi’a scholar who establish one of the first printing presses in south Lebanon. He also founded Al-Irfan (a monthly review), opposed the French mandate, and was a reformist who fought for the rights of the underprivileged, including women’s rights. (There’s even a small Wikipedia article about him)

Had I known all of this from the beginning, I might have paid more attention in history class.

Now why am I sharing this? The other day, I walked into one of the bookshops just off Hamra main street. The bookshop had vintage publications on display and one of them was a copy of a 1962 edition of Al-Irfan..the publication my  great grandfather founded.

Al-Irfan (1962 Publication)

Al-Irfan (1962 Publication)

Al-Irfan, (the name comes from the Arabic word for knowledge) is

an Arabic-language monthly “Scientific, Historical, Literary and Sociological Review” that brought the world to the Shi’a community in Lebanon and farther afield to Iraq and Iran, and debated issues of concern to Shi’a and Arabs. The magazine was printed in Beirut for the first two years. In 1910 El-Zein commissioned his own printing press in Sidon where Al-Irfan was printed until the 1960s. The magazine was published 10 times a year until the death of the founder’s son, Nizar Al-Zein, in 1981. Afterwards, it was published quarterly until 1987 and then from 1992–1996.

(source)

What I know of the history of the magazine is limited. What I know of the man behind the magazine – my great grandfather – is just as limited. What I do know is that the Zein house in Saida was where people came to have coffee and to discuss social affairs (that era’s version of a cafe) and that it fostered open mindedness, solidarity, and tolerance. Pretty impressive for that era: 1910 – 1960.

The interesting part is the way I found out about all of this. It wasn’t through the usual way where one of my parents (or grandparents) sat me down and told me about our family history. No, I found this out during one of the many random conversations I had with my aunt’s American husband in Virginia, probably sometime during either Thanksgiving or Xmas dinner, during my university days in the US. Afterwards, it took me many emails to try to get the information out of my mother or either one of her siblings. All I got was the little bit of information you see in the Wikipedia article, which was written by one of my mom’s cousins during her PhD years at AUB, and which was stored in film and was hard to recover. Unfortunately, there is no one I can ask who can clarify some of this information for me. Those with first hand information have since passed away, or aren’t able to communicate what they know. So, all of this to say, if you still have a grandparent who’s alive, have a heart to heart with them, you never know what you will find out about yourself..your history.

Lebanon’s history isn’t necessarily bright, but it is nice to know that that some parts of our culture is maintained, especially when we have been thought leaders and pioneers on some issues in the region and the rest of the world.

Other oldies

Other oldies

“If you don’t know [your family’s] history, then you don’t know anything” – Michael Crichton

– Youssef

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Be the change you wish to see in the world

I told my co-founders and our interim board members to f*&k off (a big deal for an entrepreneur who poured everything into his startup for the past year), P. quit her job (a secure and well paying job), A. and M. risked being fired by spending work hours doing something else other than their work, Z. stacked up a phone bill of around a $1,000, and W. shifted the entire focus of his consultancy towards a non profitable project. These stories span the entire group of VOLUNTEERS that come from varied backgrounds (including different countries) who worked around the clock for days on end to bring to Lebanon an event of a different caliber.

TEDxBeirut, unlike other events, wasn’t about the speakers and the big names featured on the program. The theme for TEDxBeirut 2011 was “From Limitation to Inspiration.” What people outside of the TEDxBeirut organizing team didn’t realize is that the theme wasn’t as much a theme for the talks, as much as it was a theme for the journey the team went through. TEDx events (x = independently organized TED event) are special no matter where they are held in the world but in a country like Lebanon, organizing such an event comes with its own set of difficulties. Unless you are a well known group or company backed by some good contacts, getting past the paperwork alone is an overreaching goal. When Patsy thought out loud about organizing a TEDx event in Beirut, she was merely expressing a wish (maybe some event company would make it happen). Little did she know that she was going to be the one spearheading the effort to see her dream go from idea to reality. And this is why I say it was an event of a different caliber. It wasn’t the major players and usual suspects who were behind the event,  but it was, according to many attendee testimonials, one of the best organized and professional events that people in Beirut have ever experienced.

TEDxBeirut Team Members Hard at Work

TEDxBeirut Team Members Hard at Work

Now why am I talking about an event that’s more than 3 months old? I promise you it will all come together at the end of this post. Bare with me as I take you through parts of the journey that will explain to you why if we ever talk about Lebanon I might say something along the lines of “I live in a different Lebanon than you do!”

What I experienced during the days leading up to TEDxBeirut was only a fraction of what some people went through before I had joined. But I got the opportunity on many occasions to sit back and take a distant view of the behavior of the team members. It’s important to mention the HUGE differences on all levels between the people involved. The interests, skills, personalities, backgrounds, education, all of it was different. A typical Lebanese blend, “makhlouta” as we say in Arabic (or mixed nuts would be the direct translation). But the situation was atypical. There was a common goal. No really, there was. The entire team was working on a single goal, with no personal interest at all. We were all volunteers. None of us was gaining anything from participating in this effort on a personal level. I saw people work their ass off, to put together a one day event in Lebanon, knowing that with the Lebanese mentality all they were going to get in return were complaints and criticism because the Lebanese are never pleased. It didn’t matter, we were doing something that we cared about, that we wanted to see happen and if others wanted to be part of it that would be great. Keep in mind, when Patsy started organizing the event, she meant it to be for about a hundred or so people, then bumped it up to 300, and bumped it up again to 800 to eventually get an 800 seated audience and about 200 other people sitting on the stairs in the theater or watching the stream in a different room (not to mention those who tuned in for the live stream on the web)!! Exposure, recognition, TV spots or seats in the parliament were never the objective.

Patsy, the Fearless Leader

Patsy, the Fearless Leader

I urge you to take a moment and let that last paragraph sink in. It might not impress you at first, you might think it’s weak, your reaction might be #meh. But take a moment to put it in perspective. We are talking about a “do it yourself” mentality coupled with a “do it FOR yourself, f*&k everyone else” attitude. I am an entrepreneur, I don’t mean to keep mentioning it just for the sake of rubbing it in, there’s a mindset at the root of it that’s important to understand. So much goes into planning an event to this caliber. It takes certain personality traits but also education and culture to foster such a mentality, which is not the case for most people in the world (especially Lebanese people). And not only is it not part of our upbringing, it’s also discouraged in favor of ‘secure’ jobs as most times we are taught that those who do such things are different, geniuses, basically not us. With TEDxBeirut, the group of individuals who participated broke that mold. They showed that ideas belong to everyone and the execution is as possible for the common person as it is for the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

But it doesn’t stop just there and just for the TEDxBeirut team members. The event created a platform and an opportunity for other members of the community to follow suit. Donner Sang Compter (Give Blood/Without Counting, a play on words) is an initiative to promote blood donations in Lebanon in an organized and continuous manner and raise awareness about the importance of contributing. The story behind DSC is a very moving and inspirational one, and TEDxBeirut gave its founder Yorgui Teyrouz the opportunity to spread the word but also access to a network of people who are doers.

Yorgui During his Speech at TEDxBeirut

Yorgui During his Talk at TEDxBeirut

This same network of people were very important to Joanna Choukeir who wanted to get an ambitious project rolling called Imagination Studio:

“The impact that TEDxBeirut had on this idea was inspirational! Straight after the talk, a queue of imaginers wanted to help bring the idea to life. At home my inbox was already loaded with signups, and the twitter and Facebook accounts with mentions and messages.”

The Lebanese community is a very capable group of people who unfortunately have been dormant and passive for many years. But all it takes is one person to get the ball rolling and action starts happening: “Together, we moved from one idea – Imagination Studio – to 22 brilliant ideas that can be actioned right now, right here, with the support of voluntary teams!”

Imagination Studio happened, and that wasn’t the end of things. An open call for volunteers took place for people to contribute in their own way and using their own expertise to solving a problem. After the call for ‘imaginers’ Joanna compiled a list of people interested in contributing along with the actionable ideas that need to be implemented. The effort is still in its beginnings. I am sure many of the skeptics out there who are used to bringing down others who are pushing for change will say that nothing will come out of Imagination Studio. There might be plenty of obstacles and many discouraging days, but what TEDxBeirut has shown a group of us is that the only obstacle between us and change is ourselves and our own doubt. Everything else can and will be overcome.

Imagination Studio Fun

Imagination Studio Fun

source

The TEDx movement is hard to explain, and hard to explain in terms of impact, or for the business people out there in therms of ROI. But it does have the IT factor that you do experience once you take part. No wonder there’s a book being written about it by an author who’s traveled to a dozen or so countries in 2011 and attended about 30 TEDx events and will attend double that number in 2012.

At the moment, the efforts might be on a small scale. But we have a blueprint for social change that can be the example and inspiration for others. One pretty well kept secret, which I’m sharing with you right now, is TEDxSKE. TEDxSKE is a weekly gathering where a bunch of us (not just TEDxBeirut team members) get together to watch TED and TED like talks (TEDxSKE is run by Patsy who is licensed by TED which is a requirement to run TEDx events, but any group can get together and do the same without using the TED name although the license is not hard to get). TEDxSKE was the precursor to TEDxBeirut and has grown since then. The activity changes from one week to the other, usually around a certain theme. It is not limited to TED talks alone, it could be any idea worth sharing. Of course, the evening doesn’t stop at the video/talk level. The highlight of these gatherings is usually the discussions or activities (games) that we participate in, in between talks. And the result varies from one person to the other. I can not claim to know the effect that TEDxSKE has on each and every one of us, not even on myself. As this is an on going thing, a process of growth for all of us. But I can tell you that I see the change in the others and they see it in themselves as well. Some of us are trying to find out who we are, why we are on this planet and what we are supposed to be doing. Others are looking to affect change. And some are, for the first time ever, getting exposed to alternate points of view. SKEers are discovering aspects of their own personalities that they did not know about themselves, broadening their horizon and challenging their beliefs. And trust me, this is not poetry or empty talk. This is paraphrased directly from the participants themselves. TEDxSKE is a collective of passionate and motivated people who are a support system for each other. Many of whom are or will be important pillars in the social entrepreneurship change in Lebanon in the coming years.

SKEers Participating in an Activity

SKEers Participating in an Activity

source

It might be a tad bit early to talk about results and accomplishments, but it is not too late nor too early to talk about inspiration or even a different kind of movement in a country that has not adopted the Tunisian or Egyptian model of the Arab Spring. So when you drive around Beirut (or walk like me) and you think about the potholes, the traffic and the corruption that Lebanon represents to you, remember that there is a Lebanon, which you are more than welcomed to be part of, where DSC and Imagination Studio are not just ideas and where Thursdays are for the spoken poetry and arts club (yes, such a thing exists, stay tuned for more details). It’s another kind of Lebanon which promotes action over wishful thinking, local change over change of country of residency. Just remember, be the change you want to see in the world.

What Inspires You?

What Inspires You?

source

–Youssef

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Stand up against sexual violence in Lebanon

Let’s call things as they are. Lebanese society, as it is..is currently condoning acts of slavery. I am not talking about foreign workers in Lebanon (although that’s a whole separate issue on it’s own). What I’m talking about is women..Lebanese women..who are being forced into the sex trade, sex trafficking, forced prostitution, or simply (but worst of all)..slavery.

When a country operates on archaic laws that allow young girls (of ages as young as 12 and 13) to be ‘given away‘ to middle aged men for ‘marriage‘, there is no way to describe this phenomenon other than with the term SLAVERY. Not only is the girl forced into a marriage without her consent, the man (husband) is also protected BY LAW if he wishes to force himself on her in any way he pleases, including sexually. And whatever actions aren’t protected by the law, are kept under wraps by Lebanese society and its desire to maintain a certain image, at all costs.

Instead of confronting the situation in order to correct this disgusting behavior, Lebanese society turns a blind eye.. (“Lebanon is the greatest country on Earth! You can go to the beach and go skiing in the same day!“) What does this mean? This means that marital rape is legal. Let’s be clear about this. The fact that you are married to another person does by no means give you ‘carte blanche’ to do whatever you please to them. Some wedding vows might including the clause “fulfilling marital duties“, but that only signifies that each party involved in the marriage has the right and responsibility to carry out said duties, not, by any means, does it give license to any of the parties to force the other to comply. If a woman refuses to sexually please her husband, such vows give permission to END THE MARRIAGE, NOT TO ENGAGE IN MARITAL RAPE!

Why You Should Stand Against Sexual Violence

Why You Should Stand Against Sexual Violence

Unfortunately, it does not end here. A Lebanese woman, if she ever gets raped, will not only be met with silence (and shame) by society,..but in some cases, she will then be forced into marriage to her rapist (If she isn’t already married to him)! (You know, since when a woman loses her virginity she becomes ‘damaged goods’ unless she marries the person she lost her virginity to!) Even the proposal of marriage by the rapist can reduce the possible sentence to a year, and marriage would acquit him completely. (How this happens..how parents of young women allow this to happen,,is beyond me. But there are those that will do whatever necessary not to tarnish their name/reputation. Even if it means giving their daughter away to a rapist).

As Lebanese people, we have a moral duty have to do something about this. The first step is always awareness. As you can imagine, We need to raise our voice in support of our mothers and sisters. Let them know we are by their side. Show that no reputation or societal image is going to prevent us from showing things for what they are. Join the march to fight rape on January 14th 2012 at 12pm in front of the Ministry of Interior near Sanayeh.

The march is being hosted by Nasawiya, a feminist collective comprised of women and men who are working together to challenge all forms of gender oppression in Lebanon and the Arab world. For more information about the march please visit the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/283385688373672/.

I will be there, will you?

-Youssef

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