Category Archives: life in Lebanon

Cafe Younes saves the day..

One of things I miss most about Beirut definitely has to be the cafe culture..especially now that I’m living in Trinidad – where it doesn’t really exist. In Trinidad, it’s almost always “leh we go buss a lime” as they say in Trini slang. Which, loosely translated, means “let’s go hangout.” Thing is though, “lime” or “hangouts” in Trinidad almost always take place in the presence of alcohol. This is not to say that I don’t like alcohol (it’s quite the opposite actually)..but there is a time and place for everything you know? And sometimes, a cappuccino with a double shot of espresso and a pastry is exactly what the doctor ordered.

When I lived in Beirut, I spent many a Saturday going from cafe, to cafe, to cafe, to cafe in Hamra. From Bread Republic, to Younes, to Prague, to Gruen..and sometimes we would hit the Costas, the Caribous, and the Starbucks as well. I guess it helps that I’m a certified coffee addict and think there are few things better than enjoying a coffee and a chat with the people I care about most.

that's me!

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I was reminded of this last night while I was going through a few of my draft posts, and chanced upon these photos I took at Cafe Younes in Sodeco some 10 months ago. DAMN..10 months ago already? I remember it like it was yesterday. My friend had taken me there after we spent the better part of the morning trying to get my passport back from the emn el 3am  (The General Security Office) – to no avail of course. Immigration in Lebanon seems to have a fascination with foreign passports – especially American – and likes to hold on to them for extended periods of time (or maybe that was just my experience? yeah..maybe). That’s a story for another time..

Anyway..I guess he could see I was visibly upset..and as most of my friends know, coffee always helps to fix that. :) I remember being so taken by the ‘vintage’ (is that the right word for it) design pieces they had throughout the cafe..even though it’s not nearly as intimate as the Cafe Younes & Cafe Younes Gourmet in Hamra (the one in Sodeco is in the middle of a shopping center after all)..which I also frequented.

Cafe Younes Hamra

Cafe Younes in Hamra

Cafe Younes Gourmet

Cafe Younes Gourmet in Hamra

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..i just remember how that day, it was just what I needed to remind me why I loved living in Beirut..despite all of the trials and tribulations she put me through on a daily basis! A delicious cup of coffee+beautiful design = smile on Dani’s face. It was always about the small things with me and my Beirut.

Cafe Younis

Cafe Younes Sodeco

Cafe Younis

Signage at Cafe Younes

Cafe Younis

My favorite piece

It was only after perusing Cafe Younes’ Facebook Page that I learned that the above piece was modeled off of one of their posters from the 1950’s.

Cafe Younes Beirut

Lovely..

some more photos..

Cafe Younis

some dude at Cafe Younes

Cafe Younis

more signage at Cafe Younes

I dunno…just felt like sharing this for some reason.. ;) hope you enjoyed!!

A little more about Cafe Younes taken from their website:

Café Younes was established in 1935, in Bab- Edriss, Beirut’s Downtown district. It was first founded by Amin Younes who had just returned to Lebanon after spending 40 years in coffee plantations in Brazil. The company was the first roaster and coffee place in Lebanon and it started to import raw coffee from South America and Africa, roast it and sell it as retail and wholesale bulks. Three generations later and after soon-to-be 75 coffee years, Café Younes (now installed in Hamra, Beirut) is still selectively purchasing, professionally roasting and affectingly grinding great coffees.

The history of Café Younes is embodied by Abou Anwar, its roaster, who came to work for the elder Amin 52 years ago at age 16 and is still in charge of all roasting. When the first generation Amin Younes returned from Brazil in the mid-1930s, he set up the first roaster in downtown Beirut. He imported Brazilian beans, as well as the more traditional Yemenis and Ethiopians, roasted them by hand, and brewed up the local style of coffee, which is commonly called Turkish coffee today: coffee ground powder-fine and brewed in a long-handled ibrik pot, sweetened and poured into tiny cups.

When Amin’s son Souheil took over the business in 1960, he opened a second location in Hamra and brought back an espresso machine from Italy, installing it on the street so passers-by could see the Italian-style coffee being made. Within days, they were lining up to try it. He bought a 30kg Probat for roasting, which is still going strong today. He imported Kenyan AA and roasted it very dark, even for espresso—innovative for 1960.

In 1996, Amin Younes took the business over from his father, focused on increasing coffee varieties and put a coffee beverage menu into operation. In 2008, he opened Café Younes Gourmet, a modern style coffee house.

Cheers!

-Dani

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The foreigners’ guide to moving to Beirut, part 3

Ok..so, so far we’ve discussed what to pack in Part 1,,,and finding an apartment, driving/taking taxis in Part 2..

In Part 3 we will be tackling cell phones (more in depth as I covered it briefly in Part 1) & the internet, how to pay bills, health insurance, and going to the doctor/pharmacy.

Let’s get started, shall we?

I’m going to require a lot of help from Youssef on this one as I recognize that a lot of what I knew of these specific topics 1. has either changed since I left or 2. is completely inaccurate and misleading! So, again I’m thankful to have Youssef to kind of set the record straight.  The good thing is though, that most ‘neighborhoods’ in Beirut are pretty self-sufficient; meaning you won’t need to go too far outside of where you are living to access most of the above (cellphone stores, cafes with internet, pharmacies..).

Beirut, Lebanon

So you want to move to Beirut huh? You crazy person you..

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Cell phones

Danielle’s take:

After spending the better part of an hour ranting and raving about my cell phone woes, Youssef kindly point out that most of my experiences ‘were probably unique to you‘ and ‘whoever was guiding you obviously wasn’t aware that there is an easier way to do things.

Oh. Right..

Well,..umm I guess for my part of this section I’ll just reiterate what I wrote in Part 1 about cellphones. Essentially you can use the phone you use in your  home country as long as it’s unlocked. There are options to get your phone unlocked in Lebanon, as well as to buy phones (I came with an iPhone but ended up buying a blackberry for between $75-$100)..so essentially what you do is up to you. I will tell you that cell phone rates are kinda sorta completely ridiculous in Lebanon. Call your top 5 contacts for free? Free nights and weekends? Roll over minutes? HA! Non-existent. So, if you’re one of those who likes to have loooong drawn out conversations about that Lebanese guy you met in poli-sci..you will have to have your conversations over BBM or Whatsapp.. If you’re planning on staying in Beirut for an extended period of time I really recommend that you go with a postpaid line rather than a pre-paid line. For some reason (I was under the impression that it was really difficult for foreigners to get a postpaid line) I used a pre-paid line for a year a half..and take if from me it was a royal pain in the a**. So..yeah, go with a postpaid if you have the choice. (If you end up going with pre-paid there are cellphone stores and corner stores everywhere, so it will never be too hard to fine a recharge card).

Ok, I’ll let Youssef take it over from here.

cellphones Beirut

If you're really cool, you can even buy a cell phone number that has the numbers 69 in it. Trust me, you won't be the first one.

Youssef’s take:

Oh the days of free nights and weekends and the 3000 roll over minutes accumulated along the years!!! If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to worry about how much credit you have left on your cellphone or how long it will last you, etc, you’re better off getting a postpaid line. Unlike the US, Europe, and the majority of the world, postpaid accounts do not require a long term contract. That’s because contracts do not come with offers for the handset. The nice thing about it is that you are not bound to a long term contract and are free to cancel it at any time. You are also not boxed in with a limited number of phones that you can choose from. On the other hand, you have to pay full price for a phone you want to buy which is subsidized in the long term contract with carriers like AT&T and Verizon. (so you’re best bet would be to bring your phone from home).

So how does a postpaid line work? To get one you have to provide the following to one of the two carriers that monopolize the market:

MTC:

  • Copy of an ID.
  • $100 cash deposit or Bank Direct Debit
  • Completed and signed mtc touch contract

Alfa:
For the Lebanese Resident:

  • ID or Civil record or Valid passport or Military Service Card or Army Reserve Card or Military Specimen number 2.
  • Proof of Residence (Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor not older than 3 months, or Water, PSTN or electricity bill issued in your name, or a house lease contract, house property deed in your name)
  • Deposit: $100 deposit when migrating the line from prepaid to postpaid and $50 when purchasing a new postpaid line

For the Foreign Resident:

  • Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card or Residence Permit
  • Deposit of $100 in case of line migration or $50 Deposit in case of new postpaid line.
  • Proof of Residence or Letter of guarantee or deposit of $250 per line or Residence Certificate stamped by the mayor or Water, PSTN or electricity bill * issued in the name of the customer or House lease contract, house property deed.
  • N.B: If you have a residence permit, there will be no need for any Proof of Residence or its equivalent.
  • Payment method automatic direct debit at the bank is obligatory.

For the Foreign Non-Resident:

  • Valid Passport or Personal Identity Card
  • Deposit: 250$ (deposit or as a letter of guarantee) per line
  • Payment method is obligatory through automatic direct debit at the bank

You can get the full details here for mtc and here for Alfa.

Alfa MTC

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mtc seems to have the least demanding requirements. It’s very easy to get this setup. My advice is to go directly to the mtc or Alfa offices and get all of the paperwork done there. This way you avoid any extra charges a reseller would charge you, or any confusion and obstacles.

Cellphone plans/rates are all set by the government and the Ministry of Telecommunications, so it’s futile to shop for better prices between the two carriers. The only difference you might find is in the service. That is both the customer service and line service. Depending on the location, one carrier might have a stronger signal than the other and better service. I personally have had a line with mtc and so far I have had very little problems with it. Everyone experiences dropped calls, but that’s for people who actually make phone calls on their phone :P

Which brings us to the next part about cell phones. A ‘major’ update in service has been made recently in terms of the wireless Internet service/data plans on cellphones. Thanks to the efforts of the people behind @Ontornet, a good portion of the country is now receiving 3G service coverage. Some are even luckier  and get 3.9G (That is of course in theory. In practice some might still be stuck on EDGE if they get connected at all). The prices have also dropped tremendously. Here’s a table of the prices which are the same for both mtc and alfa:

3G Packages

mtc and alfa 3G packages

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for more info go here for mtc and here for alfa

Because the per minute rates are so high, my suggestion is to get the 3G service on your smart phone and use Whatsapp to communicate with your friends. I’ve had long stretches of time where I haven’t made or received a phone call – almost everything can and is done through Whatsapp. And with its emergence and popularity, this app has made the BBM service unnecessary and people are slowly moving away from the Blackberry and more into the iPhone and Android market.

Getting a line is really not that complicated, whether prepaid or postpaid. With both you have to be mindful of your consumption, but with gchat, skype and Whatsapp you can cut the BS talk on the phone and just use voice calls for the necessities/emergencies. Do like the house maids do, talk with your friends from balcony to balcony if it’s something that has to be said and can’t be typed :P

Internet

Danielle’s take:

I had to take a break before coming to this one..stressssss!! before I start, I have to input a few Maya Zankoul comics to give those of you who dont know, a sense of what you’ll be dealing with.

Ok,,so yeah..now that that’s over. The internet had to be one of my bigger pet peeves (there were many, yet I still loved it) while living in Leb. Again, maybe my experience was unique to me..maybe it wasn’t.. but essentially the apartment where I lived didn’t have a land line, and the landlady wasn’t interested in putting one in, so my roommate and I each had to get our own portable wireless internet devices (we soon realized that we couldn’t share one) to use while we were at home. I wrote a post about this little device, called Mobi..here.

Internet in Lebanon

Remember when I said that Lebanon has one of the highest telecommunications rates in the world? Well,,that goes for Internet rates as well..except Lebanon also has one of the worst (if not the worst) internet connections in the world as well (oh the joy!). Internet woes occupied wayyy too much of my time (and money) while I was in Leb. Whether at work or at home, it seemed like every day was a constant mission just to get basic things done online. There would be days at work (and I worked at a digital agency mind you) where the internet would cut for hours!! And at home, I just felt restricted ..not a good way to feel when you work in digital media and have a blog which you like to keep updated! Streaming video? Uploading/Downloading pictures? Having 5/6 pages open and loading at once? Not an option..I mean, not if you want your “bandwidth” to last an entire month. Ahh..which takes me to prices. $45 – $50 dollars gets you internet for a month with a service like Mobi (i believe they have another one called Wise), but..that also comes with a very limited bandwidth..so..if you get busy streaming video, and uploading and downloading a bunch of pictures, it’s very easy to run through your bandwidth in a week (trust me, I’ve done it.)..so that you end up spending over $100 on sh**ty internet service per month!

You can buy a USB mobi dongle thingy at electronic stores (like Radio Shack in Hamra). You can buy ‘internet cards’ at the aforementioned stores as well as at electronic repair/supply stores around town. They aren’t as prevalent as cell phone stores, but you will be able to find them with a little searching. My advice to you is to always keep an eye on your bandwidth limits (when you DL the software that comes with the dongle, this should be easy) so that you never find yourself with no internet..something i’ve done way too much. Or just go to cafes around your neighborhood as most offer free Wifi, or Wifi for a small fee..still, you won’t be able to download/upload/stream as much as you are accustom to..so get used to it. You’re better off buying series from nabilnet.net than streaming from Hulu.

Internet cafe Beirut

If you aren't interested in going to a cafe to access wifi, and don't have internet at home, you can also choose from a number of internet cafes that shouldn't be too hard to find. And at about $1.25 per hour, it's not a bad bet. Just be prepared to be amongst a number of sweaty teenage boys playing Call of Duty or something.

Youssef’s take:

The cap on the internet usage in Lebanon is something that creates lots and lots of stress within the Lebanese community, but guess what? There’s actually unlimited nights in this case! If you use mobi, you get unlimited downloads between midnight and 8am, and if you’re on IDM it’s between 23:00pm and 07:00am. Isn’t that great news? Maybe for all the insomniacs in Lebanon; and if you’re not an insomniac, you just might turn into one.

You can find prices here, here, and here.

The major internet providers in the country (Ogero, IDM, Cyberia) give you DSL which requires having a landline hooked up at your apartment. if everyone cooperates, the process is simple. But you’re likely to either have a stickler for a landlord (like Danielle did), live outside the reach of Ogero’s cables, or have one mafia or the other who is monopolizing communications in your area. I mean, isn’t hassling foreigners over the basics of day to day life the best way to demonstrate how Lebanon is one of the most hospitable countries in the world, whose economy is based primarily on toursim? Of course it is! In this case, you have the mobi option. A portable USB dongle that gets you internet through the wireless networks. In fact, mtc and alfa now offer this service as well through their 3G networks. But this was the option you were going for anyway, you’re new in town, always on the move, meeting people at cafes, and not sitting at your apartment skyping with your mom back home, right?

For mobi’s packages and prices, check their website.

Speaking of cafes, free WiFi is more or less available at every cafe in the country. In fact, believe it or not, free WiFi can also be found at Lebanon’s public parks and with, on average, 300 sunny days a year, why not spend your weekend in the park with your laptop? For a list of public parks, checkout +961’s post.

Paying bills

Danielle’s take:

I was fortunate in that I didn’t really have many bills to speak of while I was in Leb. I never ended up getting a credit card, mainly because I didn’t have a residency visa 1, nor did I have any credit in Lebanon 2.. so that’s that. I just applied for a checking account while I was there – which is pretty standard so I didn’t really feel the need to go into depth about it.. Now when it came to electricity and water,..the caretaker (“natour” as the Lebanese call it) would come to my apartment every month, show me my bill (or leave it at my door if I wasn’t there), and I would just give him the amount in cash so he could take care of it  (pretty informal – I know, but we never had a problem with our electricity shutting of..so yeah I love this about Leb). My roommate explained to me that if we didn’t have the money on time to give it to the caretaker, we would have to go the water and electrical companies ourselves, and THAT’S where it gets complicated. So, in the year and a half that I was in Beirut this is how I paid my bills..I never wanted to find out what it was like to pay them myself so I made sure that I always had the money on time. I’m not sure if this system is standard in Leb, so we’ll see what Youssef has to say…

électricité du liban

The half lit sign at Electricite du Liban - Lebanon's national electricity provider. Did we mention that you will most like be experiencing daily power cuts since Electricite du Liban cannot power the whole country at the same time so they do so in intervals? Yeah..I think we did in part 1 - but we'll probably go into a bit more about 'why that is so' later on in this series.

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Youssef’s take:

There aren’t that many bills to account for usually. For the postpaid cell lines, you can either have an automatic bank draft that takes care of it automatically or pay your bill monthly (usually either on the 1st or the 15th of the month) at any OMT or Money Gram store (they’re everywhere and easy to spot). The internet bill is payed at the LibanPost if you’re with Ogero, or prepaid cards if you’re on mobi or Wise or any of the other providers. As for utilities, a bill collector usually comes to your house to collect the money. It is possible to ask the collector to actually come at a later time to collect the money, so for example if you are not at home when the electricity bill collector comes, he’ll leave you a small green piece of paper with the amount you owe and the day he’ll come back. Like Danielle said, it’s very common to have the building caretaker (every building has one) take care of the bills for you, just don’t forget to leave him a nice tip during xmas/ramadan.

For the most part, cash is the common method for recurring bill payments in the country. Some services give you the bank draft option (eg. cell phone carriers, which might actually be enforced if you’re a foreigner) and some also use credit cards. But you might have problems paying with a foreign credit card, for example mtc does not accept foreign credit cards if you want to pay your postpaid bill online. There’s an abundance of ATMs, especially on a street like Hamra, so you do not have to worry about getting your hands on some cash, same goes for money exchange booths who also sell mtc and alfa recharge cards.

Health Insurance & Going to the Doctor/Pharmacy

Danielle’s take:

Health insurance is yet another thing I lived without during my time in Beirut. (No car, no health insurance, no credit card, prepaid phone and internet, electricity cuts for 3 hours a day amongst other things..yeah..talk about building character) I guess I figured that if anything serious happened I always had health insurance in the States..and being young and invincible, what could possibly happen right? And from what I know about health insurance in Lebanon (through work at least) or in general, it’s not at all like it is in the states, where you pay a co-pay of let’s say.. 20% of what the actual cost of the visit is,,and they cover things like annual physicals, etc etc. In Lebanon, insurance covers things like hospitalization and death (again, I may be mistaken here). The good news is, doctors visits are relatively reasonable. A doctor’s visit well generally run you around $50 – $75 dollars. (Always be prepared to pay cash when you go to the doctor..in my experience some of them only accept cash).

going to the doctor in Beirut

Who knows what exactly constitutes as an "extended visit" and "special consultation"..but this is an example of some of the prices you will see when you go to the doctor. Divide the amounts by 1.5 to get the US rate. So.. 100,000 LL = around $66 US

Again, coming from the States (where you’re advised to show up 15-20 minutes early just to fill in 15-20 pages of paperwork)..going to the doctor in Beirut was a very different experience. It’s very informal (shockingly so actually) – they don’t even ask you for your ID to verify your identity – which i thought was strange in the case that you fall unconscious and they want to access your medical records? Or in the case that you’re using a false identity?  ..and from what I remember, patient privacy doesn’t exist all that much either (maybe this is just the American in me talking,,maybe we have a skewed sense of what patient privacy actually means). I remember going to pay for my visit one time, and the receptionist screaming out to the doctor “What did she get done? What do I have to charge for?” I mean, really?

This informality definitely extends over into the pharmacy as well. I wrote a very detailed post about what I think about pharmacies in Beirut, and about a few personal experiences I had..so I suggest you read it just so you know what to expect.

pharmacies in Beirut

pharmacy in Beirut..nice assets..

pharmacies in Beirut

typical pharmacy in Beirut

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In a nutshell, if you’re coming from the States, there are a few things you will need to get used to:

  • the things you are accustom to being over the counter, are actually behind the counter
  • many pharmacists are dressed in plain clothes, and tend to not be very discrete when discussing your personal business (inside voices anyone?)
  • Lebanese people don’t seem to understand the meaning of personal space, and will stand up right next to you or almost on top of you while you are trying to speak with a pharmacist.
  • you will end up using many generic brands, as well as brands from Europe that are cheaper but work just as well (even so I recommend that you research the brands to make sure it is in fact what you need, as there have been incidences of pharmacists prescribing the wrong things..i think this is mainly due to miscommunication..and obviously things/medications might not have the same names as they do in the place you’re from)

Youssef’s take:

Yup, pharmacies in Lebanon are not the over glorified candy stores like CVS or Walgreens found in the US. In most pharmacies (except maybe in Hamra) you can only get medication – no shampoo, beauty products, etc etc. The key to a successful visit to the pharmacy is the same as a visit to any other place in Lebanon: be friendly, initiate small talk with the person you’re dealing with, and you’ll be well taken care of. Now, I’m not a female who doesn’t feel like broadcasting when her feminine cycle is due, nor am I a person who cares much for privacy. So although I have not experienced the annoyances Danielle mentioned, I know the Lebanese mentality and way of handling things, and that kind of behavior is typical and is bound to cause awkward moments for those who aren’t used to it. On the other hand, there are plenty of female run pharmacies who tend to be a bit more discrete and mindful of a girl’s need for privacy.

As for insurance and Dr’s visits, there are options available for you obviously. If you are working for an employer with the proper legal paperwork, your employer is legally bound to enroll you in a health plan. If your work is under the table like many foreigners I know, then you’ll have to resort to getting your own insurance. I am personally enrolled in “Sm@rtcare” by United Medical Group. My contract was done through Bank Audi, but their offer is limited to Lebanese nationals only. I did ask them about a plan for foreigners and Bank Audi said they do not provide one, but the provider they use does. That is one option, and I know a few other options exist as well. You do not have to go through your stay without medical coverage. Depending on what plan you get, some cover doctor visits, some cover medications, others cover ER visits, and any combination of the mentioned services. I believe, I may be wrong about this, an insurance plan that covers hospitalization and lab work would cost you less than $2,000/year (that’s what my 60 year old father pays, who’s considered at high risk to be hospitalized). But in most cases, you will have to pay upfront and then get reimbursed at a later point. Although, since a sizable portion of the population is not covered by insurance, many private practices cater to these cases and give reasonable prices for the visits, and labs like Dr’s Laboratories near Bliss St also provide reasonably priced lab tests. Some things are cheap enough that you might find it more convenient to just pay the bill cash and not worry about filing a claim.

So there you go! part 3! Probably not as interesting/exciting as the other two before it, (and as usual, long as hell) but information anyone moving to Beirut needs to know.

Hope this helps!

If anyone has anything to add, please do leave it in the comments! Again, think about how we could making people’s lives just a little bit easier! ;) They’ll have enough on their hands when they get to Beirut.

Cheers!

-Dani and 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

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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

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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?

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–Youssef

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Tomorrow We Will See – a documentary

Tomorrow We Will See offers a window into Lebanon’s flourishing creative culture through the perspective of ten Lebanese artists. In their own artistic ways, they have overcome decades of social and political instability and the uncertainties of what tomorrow may bring.

A common trait that unites the artists is their talent of using art as a tool for transcending sectarian divisions and encouraging freedom of thought.

A rock band’s thought-provoking lyrics, a poet’s description of time shrinking, an architect’s experimental manipulation of space, a novelist’s language of the female body, and a painter’s reflections on his choice of colors, reveal the process by which the featured artists transform ideas, sketches, spaces into vibrant and dynamic works of art.”

I can’t wait till this documentary comes out.

Watching the trailer brought tears to my eyes..something about it just tugged at my heart.

I looked up the filmmaker..and was interested to find that, “Soraya Umewaka is of Japanese-Lebanese descent, born in Tokyo; a graduate of Comparative Politics from Princeton University (2006) and a Noh actress (traditional Japanese theatre) who has performed at the National Noh Theatre since the age of 3. Through a lifetime of Noh training, she has attuned her observations of the nuances, symbolism and subtleties of expression found in the arts. Her cross-cultural documentaries are intimate personal portraits that unravel tales of the quest for happiness despite the pressure of various hardships, the uncertainties of tomorrow and a wide spectrum of socially constructed borders. Soraya’s works highlight the resilience and dignity of the human spirit in the face of adversity.”

Filmmaker Soraya Umewaka

Filmmaker Soraya Umewaka

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I can’t wait to see your film Soraya.

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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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Shit White Girls Say..to Arab Girls

“Look! I can read Arabic!….FALAFEL.”

Bahahhaha..

Just had to share this…

Happy Wednesday!

(Thanks for posting this on FB Ivy!)

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