Adonis Diaries

Archive for June 6th, 2015

Degrees of freedom

Does a college degree confer the ability to choose, to open the door to find a way to matter?

Three years ago I gave this TEDx talk about the future of education.

And the students who graduated from college this month each have an average of $35,000 in debt.

For many people, this debt is debilitating. Instead of opening doors, it slams them shut.

Talented teachers and passionate students are the victims of an industrialized educational system, one that cares a great deal about standardized tests and famous brand-name institutions.

It’s time to ask why.

And to keep asking why until we figure out what school is actually for.

The education system continues to head in one direction, but each day, more of those it proclaims it seeks to serve (students, parents, taxpayers) are realizing that the system ought to be doing something quite different.

And differently.

Mapping streets: Beirut-style

It’s Saturday afternoon in Beirut and the streets are unusually crowded.

A street art event has invited people to one of the city’s old stairways, and a girl at the bottom of the stairs is giving directions over the phone: “You know that small corner shop with the sleeping dog outside? That’s it, I’m here.”

She hangs up her phone, sits down and waits beside an old golden retriever that is, indeed, asleep in the sun.

Her simple directions, a short reference to a neighbourhood shop, is apparently more than sufficient.

Try to locate any place in the Lebanese capital and this is typically what you will hear: details and places, not the names of streets or their numbers.

Whether visiting a friend for the first time or trying to find someone’s office, the best bet is always to find landmarks, not official addresses – they may exist, but probably won’t be of much help anyway, because no one really uses them.

The landmarks, meanwhile, can be of all kinds – from visually imposing buildings such as the war-scarred Holiday Inn or Kahraba Lubnan (the electricity company with a sign that’s never entirely lit up), to popular shops and eateries – less random than the stairway dog, but in equally strategic locations.

What’s more, some of these favourite landmarks may have long ago ceased to exist, surviving only as points of reference, such as the old Medina theatre (not to be confused with the new Medina theatre, alive and well but located 20 minutes away).

A few years ago, a Lebanese design firm even introduced the idea of grading the city’s landmarks from A-D, with the latter indicating “dead” or “may be removed at any point”, for things like trees or posters.

'That small corner shop with the sleeping dog outside' in Beirut.

‘That small corner shop with the sleeping dog outside.’ Photograph: Karim Mostafa

For newcomers and occasional visitors, of course, such references can mean very little.

When he moved to Beirut in 2005, Bahi Ghubril – a Lebanese brought up in London – realised he wasn’t able to go anywhere without getting lost.

“So I decided to start mapping the streets. I have mapped things since I was a kid – from playgrounds to processes I’ve worked on. Modern Beirut had not been mapped since the 1970s and, most importantly, the local points of reference had never been marked.”

Ghubril went around each neighbourhood in the city systematically, from Dahiyeh in the south to Dbaye on the eastern coast.

His first stop, he says, was always the municipal office collecting taxes and fees from local businesses, since they would know the names of all landmarks.

Beirut bus map

Zawarib’s map of Beirut’s informal buses

“Then I continued, asking shopkeepers and people sitting on chairs on the pavements. Ten years later, imagine how many conversations have fed into the data we have.”

Ghubril’s wayfinding mission soon turned into Zawarib, a company taking its name from the Arabic word for narrow alleyways. It has grown to publish all kinds of atlases and maps – including coverage of Beirut’s NGOs and its informal bus network.

“That data was already available from the ministry of transportation, but they never thought it would be useful,” Ghubril explains. “We mapped the buses – but then, of course, you have to find out exactly where to catch them.”

To know that, you must do what people in Beirut already do – ask their way around.

Urban dwellers all over the world do the same; indeed, Google Maps took the idea of adding landmarks to maps from its team in India, where winding and unpredictable roads, informal neighbourhoods and a sprawling, makeshift economy make cities highly communicative places.

“I know that many Indian tourists prefer to travel abroad in groups for this reason,” says Mumbai resident Preethi Pinto. “They’re used to finding their way by interacting with others, so when they encounter a country that doesn’t offer that interaction, it’s hard.”

Yatin Pandya, an architect from Ahmedabad, agrees the notion of location in Indian cities is highly social and visual, relying on memory and experience.

“Addresses are very particular, with detailed references and directions like ‘nearby’, ‘opposite’ and ‘in between’, because roads often have no signs.” Instead they tend to take creative, often literal, names like “The Road with the Oak Tree”.

Beirut does the same, says Ghubril. “There’s a street here officially named Baalbek Street, but everyone calls it Commodore Street because of the Commodore Cinema, which doesn’t exist any more – but the Commodore Hotel does, and that helps a bit!”

Beirut green guide

The Beirut green guide – helping people to see their urban surroundings differently

In fact, this way of navigating may be more logical than it first seems.

Research says that when we need to orientate ourselves, we first locate landmarks. They tend to be located at crucial navigation points: a turn around a corner, the crossing of different roads.

We then connect the landmarks to each other, creating routes to lead us the right way.

Humans function differently: those with a better sense of direction tend to choose the shortest path, even if it’s winding and unfamiliar; others with lower orientation capacity prefer straight roads through open areas.

Maps, when functioning well, become an extension of our knowledge. They can also invite us to see our urban surroundings differently – like the map of Beirut’s scarce green spaces, for example, or the one where tanks and barbed wire visualise the increasing securitisation of private and public areas.

Children in marginalised parts of Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad have made “social maps”, marking things such as missing trash bins and the lack of toilets.

Sarah Essbai, an urban planner who has worked in the medinas, the old quarters of Arab cities, says that informal and crowded urban places may seem disordered but often are not.

“It’s about learning how a city works. There’s usually a very clear order; you just have to understand it. In the medinas there’s a hierarchy between commercial and residential streets, and plazas take their names from the activity that goes on there. Once you know this, navigation is not hard.”

In Beirut that same Saturday afternoon, with new people gathered on the stairs (now painted in bright colours), another person picks up the phone to make a call.

She asks the person on the other end: “You know that big dog that always sleeps on the pavement …?”

Orange says it plans to terminate contract with brand partner in Israel

French telecoms giant has been under pressure to end relationship with Partner over services to Israeli settlements regarded as illegal under international law

Speaking at a news conference in Cairo, Stephane Richard says his company intends to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel as soon as possible
Speaking at a news conference in Cairo, Stephane Richard says his company intends to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel as soon as possible. Photograph: Thomas Hartwell/AP

The French telecoms giant Orange has indicated that it intends to terminate its relationship with the Israeli company that licenses its brand in the country

And would end the relationship “tomorrow” if it could.

The comments – made by the company’s CEO, Stephane Richard – have emerged amid a sharp push back by the Israeli government against growing calls for an international boycott of Israel over its continuing occupation of Palestinian territories.

They were angrily condemned by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who called on the French government to “distance itself publicly from the miserable statement and the miserable action of a company that is partially owned by the government of France.”

Although Orange only licenses its name to the Israeli company Partner, the threat – if carried through – will be seen as a major success for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which has been campaigning on the issue in both France and Egypt.

Orange, in which the French government has a quarter stake, has been under pressure in France as well as in Egypt to terminate its relationship with Partner over its supply of services to Israeli settlements regarded as illegal under international law.

Last month Orange was accused of flouting the French foreign ministry’s own guidelines on investing in Israel by the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development.

In a report published in May the group claimed that Partner had built more than 100 telecommunication antennas on confiscated Palestinian land, as well as operating four shops in Israeli settlements.

Speaking at a news conference in Cairo to lay out plans for the years ahead in Egypt, Richard said that his company intended to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel as soon as possible, but that the move would take time.

“I am ready to abandon this tomorrow morning but the point is that I want to secure the legal risk for the company. I want to terminate this, once again, but I don’t want to expose Orange to a level of risk and of penalties that could be really sizeable for the company,” he said.

Richard said his company’s stance on the matter was the result of its sensitivity to Arab countries.

“I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt … We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries.”

He added that the brand fees from the contract with Partner were low compared to the size of Orange, saying that “the interest for us is certainly not a financial interest”.

“If you take those amounts on one side and on the other side the time that we spend to explain this, to try to find a solution and the consequences that we have to manage here but also in France, believe me it’s a very bad deal,” he added.

At the news conference, Richard explained that the use of the Orange brand name in Israel dated back to the 1990s, under a contract inherited by the group when France Telecom acquired Orange.

Recent negotiations have put Orange in a position where it can terminate the contract in the future, but at the moment the legal framework was not favourable, he said. Partner is Israel’s second biggest mobile company.

Partner said in response that it regrets Richard’s comments.

“We wish to highlight that Partner Communications is an Israeli company owned by Saban Capital Group, which is owned by Haim Saban, and not by France Telecom (Orange). The company is holding the Orange brand name since 1998, and the only connection between us and France Telecom is the brand name.”

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, wrote to Richard asking for clarification.

“I must admit to have been taken aback by these reports which do not become a responsible global company such as Orange,” she wrote. “I am confident that these reports do not reflect the intent of your company. I therefore urge you to clarify the matter as soon as possible.”

Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, also attacked Richard for the comments, and called on state-run France Telecom, which owns a majority stake in Orange, to distance itself from the comments.

“This is hypocrisy of the highest order,” he said in a statement. “I don’t remember him having a problem making money here and profiting from Israeli citizens. The state of Israel is an island of sanity in this difficult neighbourhood and we certainly won’t accept lessons in morality from someone so self-righteous and detached.”

The row over Richard’s comments came as the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, pointedly remarked that the threats to boycott Israel were being driven, in part, by a lack of peace negotiations.

“The problem is that now there are no negotiations,” Shapiro told Israel Radio.

“In the past when there were negotiations, that was the most effective tool to tell other countries, perhaps private companies as well, not to impose sanctions because that would upset efforts to reach a solution.”




June 2015

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