Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Karim Mostafa

#‎YouStink‬ ‪#‎DemandDignity: Lebanese overwhelmed by the stench: Politically and garbage mountains

 A fitting autopsy by an honest eyewitness
Lebanon is an incredible country teetering on the edge of utter dysfunction

(You don’t need to be Lebanese to understand this country, no more than you need to be German to understand German philosophy.

If anything, it’s an advantage to witness Lebanon without local bias)

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin's photo.
Ahmed Shihab-Eldin's photo.
Ahmed Shihab-Eldin's photo.
'Photo by:'
'Photo by Karim Mostafa (@TheKarimPhoto)'

Lebanon has been without a president for more than 460 days. It has absorbed almost 2 million Syrian refugees (Half its population).

For decades it has suffered widespread power outages. And last year, the very members of parliament tasked with tackling these problems extended their own terms until 2017, continuing to ignore calls for elections and real representation.

In September, when the mandate of the commander-in-chief expired, the minister of defense unilaterally extended the term by a year.

Instead of appointing a new chief — as is too often the case in Lebanon — another band-aid was slapped on, procrastinating a problem, instead of solving it.

But Lebanon, like many of the protesters in the streets this weekend, is still bleeding.

When thousands took to the streets this weekend to protest these indignities and raise their grievances, the government — infamous for failing to act — ironically, overreacted.

Riot police and soldiers deployed by the commander in chief used tear gas, bullets and batons on protesters, injuring dozens. Only adding to the irony, despite Lebanon’s widespread water shortages, police also used water cannons to disperse the protesters.

But there is reason for hope.  (We are bound to hope as Gramsci said)

The public, which has become rightfully and notoriously apathetic to the cycle of government paralysis, political bickering and factional infighting, has reached a breaking point.

The stench of garbage piling up on the streets of the capital during this unusually hot summer seems to have awakened even the most disinterested of citizens to the growing reality that Lebanon growing problems are not only an unsustainable tragedy, but may soon be an insurmountable one.

The joix de vivre attitude that many Beirutis have come to live by, boast about, and rely on to distract themselves from the unnecessary obstacles of daily life is increasingly threatened by the fact that the problems are no longer out of sight and out of mind. Instead, like the trash piling up on the streets, they are not only visible, but now impossible to ignore.

And sadly, the solutions so far, are as make-shift as ever. Some residents are burning the trash, municipalities are hiding it in tucked away corners and burying it in empty yards and far too many hoping the problem will – one day in the not so distant future – solve itself.

A people continue to gather in the streets, demanding the government resign, others are taking to Facebook and Twitter asking whether the protests and government’s heavy-handed response will inevitably result in a fate similar to that of Syria, Libya, Iraq or Yemen — a failed state. But the more pertinent, more fundamental question is whether there is a state that exists in order for it to fail.

Others bicker about which political parties have the so-called “right to protest”, when the real question is why the people, Lebanon’s citizenry — as individuals — are robbed of the right to protest.

This is one of the country’s fundamental problems.

People here love to argue, to complain (even expats – and in some cases especially expats). But all too often the very basis of these arguments are founded under a false premise built around entrenched political and sectarian affiliations (and the perceptions that come with them), instead of the realities on the ground that perpetuate these all too often inherited perspectives.

Admittedly, I don’t live in Lebanon. So I realize that it is easy for me to say this, but it remains true: all of this energy and time serves only as a distraction.

A sobering reality is now too obvious to ignore: The political elite, while still seemingly somewhat in control, have proved themselves to be completely incompetent. Not once, not twice, but relentlessly. (I call it an extension of ruling of the militia leaders of Nabih Berry and Jumblat)

Still, the argument will continue to be made that Lebanon, despite all the internal and external challenges it faces, has remained relatively secure precisely because of the ruling elite and unique, if somewhat dysfunctional sectarian power-sharing system.

They’ll say the regional climate and neighboring circumstances make it too fragile a time to challenge the status quo. Sure, the politicians are corrupt. Sure, they don’t solve problems. They’ll say, look at Egypt, there security trumps freedom.

Security trumps dignity. Security trumps humanity. But that argument is as corrupt as the leaders themselves.

Mocking the absurdity of Lebanon’s politicians and complaining about corruption has become a national past time. But if we are to learn from the lesson of Egypt’s revolution, we should ask what would happen if the new generation was able to organize to become the politicians, all while challenging them in the street simultaneously?

It is impossible to know what will come of this moment in Lebanon’s history. It is impossible to tell whether this is the beginning of a revolution or another blip in the ongoing post civil-war devolution.

Because when Lebanon is in the news, the focus is always on its role as a survivor — and it is true.

It has “survived” the Arab uprising.

It has survived the enduring war in Syria, and the refugees straining its economy.

It is surviving the Islamic State and the threat it poses to its security.

Lebanon is undoubtedly surviving, against the odds. But what if, instead of surviving, Lebanon started thriving again? (Lebanon will  constantly be under the survival status until the power of the militia leaders is eliminated)

Admittedly, I’m not Lebanese. But like many people who spend a lot of time in the country, for as much as I complain about certain things when I’m there, I happen to be in love with Lebanon. I also happen to be a dreamer.

And I know enough young Lebanese dreamers to still hold on to the belief that this could be a pivotal moment of transformation, without feeling completely naive in this convictions. From my limited, though intimate experience with Lebanon, I’ve learned that the paradox of life here is that it can be everything and nothing all at once: as depressing as it is enchanting, as resilient as it is resigned.

On Sunday, Lebanon’s prime minister made a promise — that members of the security forces will be held accountable for the violence against protesters.

Yet, while protesters languish in jail cells, nothing has happened to the security forces that attacked them.

Of course, much like the disappointment that we’ve all felt from a lover’s broken promises, Lebanon’s leaders have left us all in despair too many times. Put simply, the government here is all talk, a bit of torque, but no action.

So while it may be true that you can’t choose who you love. What you can choose is how to react to their disappointments.

You can keep asking them to change, or you can change yourself, and in doing so, change your circumstances.

As Ambassador Fletcher reminded us with his parting words:

“I believe you can defy the history, the geography, even the politics. You can build the country you deserve. Maybe even move from importing problems to exporting solutions. The transition from the civil war generation lies ahead, and will be tough. You can’t just party and pray over the cracks.

But you can make it, if you have an idea of Lebanon to believe in. You need to be stronger than the forces pulling you apart. Fight for the idea of Lebanon, not over it.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. ‫#‏طلعت_ريحتكم‬ ‪#‎YouStink‬ ‪#‎DemandDignity

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 …?”




June 2023

Blog Stats

  • 1,522,301 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 770 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: