Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thinking about TEFKAS, the entity formerly known as Syria

The date is October 20, 2025. It’s precisely ten years after Russian president Vladimir Putin met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Moscow, thus bringing the man many wanted to send to hell in from the political cold.

Syria is divided into two main parts, one being a Russian satellite state along the line running from Damascus to Homs to Latakia (and south of it), the other one being the Syrian province of the Islamic State. There are some pockets of territory left - notably around Aleppo and Idlib - where American special forces, Iranian Al Quds forces, Hezbollah fighters and the Nusra Front still battle violently, in changing configurations. The International Crisis Group calls them “the lost kids of the post 9/11 era”.

In international political and military circles, the land between Deraa in the south, Aleppo in the north, Tartus in the west and Al-Bukamal in the east is referred to as TEFKAS, the entity formerly known as Syria. What began with a campaign of air strikes in 2015 gradually developed into Russia creating a sizeable footprint in the Middle East, fully controlling the southern half of TEFKAS.

The Russian part of TEFKAS is officially called Putinistan. The country is recognized by 154 nations and has been elected to the UN security council one month ago. Putinistan has replaced Israel as the number one destination for Russians willing to emigrate. Implementing a policy coordinated with the Islamic State, Putinistan president Vladimir Putin particularly encourages Muslims to leave Russia and move to the Middle East. A census in 2023 showed that the Muslim population in Russia has dropped to 8%, with a trend towards 5%; Moscow is almost Muslim-free. In polls, Putin’s approval rates are again soaring.

Residing in Damascus, Vladimir Putin governs a country of relative stability and prosperity. Former Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is holding the same office in Moscow, with Dmitry Medvedev as his ever loyal prime minister and shadow president.

In a huge demographic shift TEFKAS and Europe have swapped large parts of their populations in the past decade. Traffickers are working in both directions. In many European countries extreme right parties now have a share of over 50% of the voters. Marine Le Pen is the French president, Angela Merkel is history. Le Pen regularly telephones Putin and Assad to get their advice on how to best deal with the unruly Syrian minority in France.

Being hesitant for a long time, Asma al-Assad finally decided to stay in Damascus and not move to Moscow with her former husband. „I am an Arab girl,“ she said in an interview with Vogue last month, „I want to be with the power. My hair feels stronger this way.“ For Vladimir Putin it is his third marriage, having been divorced from Lyudmila in 2014 and from Alina Kabayeva seven years later.

In Moscow, Bashar al-Assad assumes all the duties of a Russian president. He regularly orders the downing of civilian planes over Eastern Ukraine and meets US ambassador Edward Snowden twice per week for lunch.

The partition of TEFKAS must be called definitive. The Islamic State became the 214th member of FIFA, the international football federation, at the beginning of 2024 and has qualified for the 2026 football world cup to be played in Gibraltar. After having served as the honorary ambassador of the 2022 FIFA world cup in Qatar, Pep Guardiola started coaching the Islamic State’s football national team two years ago. However last week Guardiola resigned from the job. In an interview with Spiegel Online, Guardiola cited the impossibility to field a competitive team in 2026 as the reason for his resignation. In yet another misinterpretation of tradition and history, the Islamic State’s football association had recently introduced a custom copied from the ancient Maya culture in southern Mexico in its national championship whereby the winning team’s captain would be ritually beheaded after the game. 

swapping posts: Assad, Putin

In a strategy modeled after Qatar it is through sport that the Islamic State tries to promote itself internationally in a positive way. The antic monuments in Palmyra were completely razed to make way for the newest F1 racetrack which will see its first Islamic State Grand Prix next month. Dubbed „The Hijra“, the course was built with money from Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and other traditional Arab F1 venues. F1 president Bernie Ecclestone who tested the track in a white Toyota Landcruiser last week said in a press conference that he is excited to be back in the desert and announced the arrival of yet another Arabic Grand Prix. Ecclestone refused to talk about details but rumors have it that Petra in TEFKAJ - the entity formerly known as Jordan - is the chosen location.

The visual arts have always been an important part of the Islamic State’s mise-en-scène. Palmyra’s new Baalshamin CineComplex will host the country’s first film festival next month, the result of a strategic partnership with the city of Hollywood. The opening night will see the premiere of „Qasem of Persia“, a biopic dramatizing life and particularly death of the famed commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was the failed architect of the so called Shia Crescent, aiming to connect Tehran with Beirut. In the movie, Soleimani is played by George Clooney. Other stars include Christoph Waltz as Ayatollah Khamenei and Miley Cyrus who plays Soleimani’s social media manager. The Persian rugs that seemingly enabled Soleimani to appear in different places at the same time were provided by IKEA.

For the United Nations „Syria as we knew it“ has officially ceased to exist. Today the UN closed its files on Syria after a five years waiting period during which nobody claimed the remnants of the former Ottoman, French and Assad colony. For UN Secretary General Mark Zuckerberg, who was posting the closing ceremony online, the fate of the Syrian state falls in line with other historical trash such as Iraq and Libya: online by colonialism, offline by tribalism, sectarianism and interventionism. In a symbolic gesture Zuckerberg unliked the maps of all three former states and moved the files to an electronic coffin at

Two weeks ago, in a district court in Manhattan, Iran filed a law suit against Russia (the Russia of both Putin and Assad) and the Islamic State for usurping control over former Syria (TEFKAS). Iran claims that its extensive engagement in Syria that started in 2012 was actually meant to make it the 35th province of Iran. It says that it was particularly betrayed by Bashar al-Assad who, after initially following Iran’s plan in order to save his regime, abruptly sold Syria to Russia in 2015 to help him loosening the Iranian chokehold. In a parallel lawsuit, the widows of IRGC and Hezbollah fighters and commanders who were killed while fighting unsuccessfully in Syria filed for compensatory damages. From Ryadh, the King of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, reiterated his pledge to cover all the expenses resulting from any legal actions against the Islamic State. 

Former US president Barrack Obama tours the world to promote his memoirs that were published in September of 2025. In last Tuesday’s „The Tonight Show starring Justin Bieber“ Obama recalled how in 2015, in a series of phones calls, he and Vladimir Putin had negotiated the division of the Middle East, replacing the outdated Sykes-Picot line with the very similar Obama-Putin line. Cornered by Bieber, Obama regretted that the United States were not able to hold their part of the territory - nowadays TEFKAI, the entity formerly known as Iraq - while Putin is sitting comfortably in Damascus. Obama blamed outgoing US president Donald Trump for the failure. „Using drones would have been more effective than building walls,“ Obama said. 

In a rather surprising visit, the president of International World Class Golf Holidays, Eldrick Woods, is going to meet Putinistan president Vladimir Putin today. Woods will pitch a proposal to build two first rate golf resorts in the cities of Homs and Hama. According to Woods, asked by reporters when leaving Damascus airport, the terrain in Homs and Hama is naturally suited for golf since much of the landscaping was already done by Assad’s barrel bombs between 2011 and 2017. 

In a Damascus suburb a person thought to be a moderate opposition figure has been recorded last Friday by a surveillance camera mounted on the roof of a MAGNIT supermarket. While hitherto perceived to be a Western fantasy, these images may well be proof that the moderate opposition actually existed in Syria before TEFKAS became a reality. The man in question was only seen for a few seconds in the background, the picture was blurred and he was wearing a yellow sweater. The Oslo Nobel Peace Prize committee is now actively searching for this person. If found, the man can expect to win the Peace Nobel Prize in 2026, Oslo Chairman Jens Stoltenberg, the former NATO Secretary General, said.

In academic news over the weekend, the Georgetown University in Washington DC has announced the establishment of a Chair in Geopolitical Calculations. The chair will be fully funded by the Unites States’ Department of State and the Iranian Supreme Leader. Students will be able to obtain a Master of Arts in Syrian Miscalculations. As stated by the university lectures will be held by Presidents Putin and Assad, former US president Barrack Obama and the Emperor of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Former Hezbollah chairman Hassan Nasrallah and retired Islamic State Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will speak to the students via Skype from their bunker in South Beirut and their ranch near Dallas TX, respectively.

Back in the Middle East, Lebanon keeps being buried under garbage. General Michel Aoun (90) still upholds his claim to the Lebanese presidency. He is expected to travel to Damascus next week.

This post was first published by Your Middle East online media, here

Monday, November 9, 2015

Empowered through education: a word with a Saudi feminist

When it comes to Saudi Arabia and the role of women is this country’s society, for some the glass is half-empty, for others it is half full. While some deplore that Saudi Arabia only ranks 130th out of 142 countries in the World Economics Forum’s ‚Global Gender Gap Report 2014‘, others highlight that Saudi Arabia was named one of the most improved countries in that same report. 
For Aisha Bint Abdullah (an alias), Saudi Arabia has rapidly developed socially and culturally in the last 10 to 20 years. „Although from the outside it seems that nothing has changed,“ Aisha told me via email, „I can tell you that there have been many changes that have influenced the role of women in Saudi society in a positive way.“
Aisha lives in Jeddah with her husband and three children. She grew up in cultures (both Western and Middle Eastern) outside of Saudi Arabia for a significant part of her childhood and adolescent life which makes her a so called third culture kid (TCK). Aisha works in the field of education as a lecturer and is currently finishing a PhD in Europe. She considers herself a feminist. In Aisha’s definition this means that women should be given the opportunity to achieve their full potential and contribute to society. 
I was able to interview Aisha Bint Abdullah extensively about Saudi Arabia in the year 2015 from a woman’s perspective. 
What is the role of women in Saudi Arabia’s society? How does the Saudi society, or Saudi men, expect Saudi women to contribute to society? 
Firstly, I think it is better to understand that we cannot, and should not, view Saudi women as a collective in that they all share the same social role within society. Saudi women, like any women around the world, have different social identities and roles and contribute differently to their respective society.
Also, when you ask about the Saudi society and then you add ‚Saudi men‘, it seems to indicate that you think that Saudi men are in control of the social roles of women. Again, I feel it is unfair to group Saudi men together in that manner. From my perspective, it would be more rewarding if we free ourselves from the notion of Saudi men vs. Saudi women. 
50 years ago, women were expected to stay at home and take care of family while men were expected to work and provide for the family. However, much has changed nowadays, and this is due to many reasons which could be traced to the economic growth and social change of Saudi Arabia. 
Uninformed Westerners often know only two things about women in Saudi Arabia: they are neither allowed to drive a car nor to do sports. How do you react to this simplification of women’s lives in Saudi Arabia?
To be honest this is the case with informed and uniformed Westerners, mostly because most do not really want to know much about Saudi life. They are more comfortable in believing that their Western way of life is better and superior to any non-Western life.
First of all, it is not true that women are not allowed to do sports in Saudi Arabia. Consider Sarah Attar who participated in the London 2012 Olympics. There are women only gyms around the country. There are sports in private schools. The only place where women are not allowed to do sports are Saudi public schools. State universities, on the other hand, encourage sports for women. 
As for driving, yes we are not allowed to drive, but this does not mean that we are not allowed to leave our house and participate in social life. I take my kids to school every morning, go to work, and pick up kids from school. I take them to their drama, football and Zumba classes on the weekends. I meet up with friends in restaurants and cafés. I attend different social and academic events. In other words, I engage in similar social activities that any woman in the West or other parts of the world engages in, the only difference is that I have a driver to take me to these places.
Mind you, there are many Saudi women who prefer this, as they believe it is a more privileged lifestyle. Women’s driving in Saudi Arabia is more about the right to ‚choose‘ than it is about the right to ‚drive‘.
What is the biggest misconception Westerners usually have about women and their lives in Saudi Arabia?
Basically, I believe that misconceptions stems from Westerners not accepting other ways of life. In other words, they believe that women in Saudi Arabia are restricted and unable to participate in social life.
However, this view assumes and in many ways accepts Saudi women as weak and feeble creatures. The fact is that women in Saudi Arabia understand the different social systems to which they belong to, and their understanding and knowledge allows them to navigate through the many challenges and obstacles that might face them. Women are active members of Saudi society, actively working to make Saudi Arabia better, not only for women, but for all members of society.
Why is women driving cars such a disputed and sensitive issue in Saudi Arabia? 
I think a better question would be why the focus is so much on women’s driving. A few years ago, women were denied health care without consent from their male guardians, now this is no longer the case. Also, women were not allowed employment without the consent of the male guardian, now they are free to work without consent. Yet these two major triumphs for women’s rights have gone unnoticed by the Western media.
I agree that the issue of driving is important; however, we also need to acknowledge other contributions that women were able to achieve. 
it's about the right to "choose": Saudi women
A statement by a Saudi woman that I have read: Saudi men lack „respect - above all respect“ towards women. What is your experience? 
I have been raised by a man who gave me the same love, attention and respect as he did to his sons. My three brothers also have treated me with love and respect. I am also married to a wonderful man, who treats me and our daughters with love and respect.
Generally, I do not hold the man vs. woman view that many others do. I believe that both men and women in my country are forced to conform to certain sociocultural categories. However, there are a growing number of men in Saudi Arabia that are strong activists for women’s rights. Some would even consider the late king Abdullah as one of them, based on his many pro-women royal decrees. 
It is said in Robert Lacey’s book „Inside the Kingdom“ that Lesbianism is „not hard to find“ in Saudi Arabia. Because women can only get from other women what they don’t get from Saudi men: tenderness, sharing, trust, honesty, support, respect. Can you comment on this?
I have read this book and I have to say that it is a highly biased view of Saudi life. To say that lesbianism correlates with the lack of tenderness from men is highly inaccurate and quite foolish. I am sure any Western lesbian would be offended by such assumptions. 
Someone said that „social conservatism“ is the glue that holds the Saudi Kingdom together“. Yet ‚social conservatism‘ very often has a negative impact on women, in any society.
It depends on your definition of conservatism. Unfortunately, there is an underlying assumption that conservatism in Saudi is related to extremism, meaning that both come from the same school of thought which views women in a demeaning manner. However, this is not accurate.
I believe that the glue that is holding the kingdom together is Islam. It is the basis of all the sociocultural elements in our society. Saudis are very protective of their religion, regardless of their level of conservativeness. In many ways, it is what defines us as a nation, especially since it is in these lands that Islam came to existence. 
What is the influence of the internet and social media on Saudi women in particular? How has it changed their social interactions?
The significance of the internet and social media, as I see it, is in the fact that women are able to voice their own opinions and share their own personal experiences with the world.
Moreover for women, it is not the rather uncomplicated contact with men on social media that is significant; it is the contact with other women around the world who share the same struggles of sexism and oppression and the ways to overcome these challenges. 
In Western eyes Saudi Arabia comes across as a very rigid society where it is all about appearances and ‚face‘. Is there an underground scene in Saudi Arabia where young Saudi men and women party, dance, drink alcohol and have fun together? 
It is not ‚appearances and face‘. As I have mentioned previously, Saudis take Islam and Islamic values very seriously considering the historical and geographical significance. Any society has an ‚underground’ scene that is created as some form of rebellion.
However, what is more exciting now is the feminist scene, or rather movement, that is by no means underground. Although facing severe criticism, many Saudi feminists are voicing their opinions through social media and social gatherings to raise awareness and promote social justice. However, like feminism around the world, there are different perspectives on feminist thought in Saudi Arabia. There are different feminist activists who take different approaches to feminism in Saudi Arabia. Souad Al-Shammari is part of the Saudi liberal movement, and on the other hand you have a more Islamic feminist perspective like that of Aziza Al-Yousef. There are also activists who do not necessary identify as ‚feminist‘ as they believe it is a word too immersed in Western thought, but nonetheless, are strong activists for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. For example, Dr Samia Al-Amoudi has been a strong advocate for women’s health rights in Saudi Arabia. 
As a woman: do you prefer living in Saudi Arabia or in the West?
That is a very complicated question. Even though life in Saudi might be challenging for women, I feel a sense of excitement and hope (thanks largely the pro-women political and social changes during the reign of King Abdullah and to the current feminist movement). As a practicing Muslim woman (who is visibly identified as a practicing Muslim woman thanks to my Hijab) life in Europe and the US is very difficult due the wave of Islamophobia which is not only tolerated but also passive-aggressively encouraged by governments.
As for the challenges for women in Saudi Arabia, I think they differ depending on what each woman would find difficult. For me, I find the idea that an adult educated women like myself needs permission from a male guardian for some basic aspects of my life, humiliating. I have to say though that my male guardian, my husband, has never objected or even considered to object to anything I would like to do; it is the idea that I officially need his consent that bothers me. This is because I understand that even though I am fortunate enough to not have any problems with my guardian, such is not the case with many Saudi women. 
However, to answer your question, at this time of my life, I would prefer to live in Saudi Arabia. 
How do you want to contribute personally to the development of the Saudi society and state? 
Education!!! I believe in education for women, I believe that education empowers women, and I am very pleased with the great advancement for women’s education In Saudi Arabia and I wish to be part of that.
This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Searching for the leader sperm in Lebanon

Lebanese probably have the funniest humor in the world. Is there anything these guys can take seriously? Maybe they should get serious this time. Amidst all their joking and partying the Lebanese have come to a point where „rien ne va plus“. Everybody is sitting on a razor’s edge. Stress levels are skyrocketing and anxiety has become the nation’s characteristic disease. 

The dysfunctionality of the Lebanese state and its political system was made obvious for all when trash wasn’t discharged anymore in mid July but started to pile up in Beirut and elsewhere in the country instead. Two months into the crisis and there is no end in sight. Lebanon stinks and many people have had it. Out of the garbage the ‚You Stink‘ movement was born, protesting against the mafia-like families that are governing Lebanon.

The ‚You Stink‘ campaign called for several rounds of protests in Beirut so far. After the demonstrations everybody talked about the police brutality and the many funny slogans that the crowd was carrying. „Politicians are like sperm,“ a hilariously phrased poster read, „one in a million turns out to be a human being.“ The poster was carried by Racha Dernaika, as I soon found out, a young woman from Tripoli. Racha is 26 years old, she is a Ph.D. student living in France and if all goes well, she will have her doctor’s degree in cancer biology at the end of this month. 

"...a human being": Racha Dernaika

„How did you come up with this slogan?“, I asked Racha when I talked to her on Viber. „How dare you brought it to Martyrs’ Square on August 29?“

„The sperm slogan was actually not my invention,“ Racha admitted. „I wanted to bring something concise, something classy to the protests. It had to be right to the point, hitting at the main goal of the protests without offending anyone.“

Before going to the protests Racha googled for days, searching for „political humor“ until she struck gold. At first, her parents were not comfortable with the sperm slogan and didn’t want her to go to Beirut with it. But Racha is a scientist and there are no taboos in science. The argument was convincing and soon thereafter Racha’s photo went viral.

„The slogan talked to me a lot, particularly as a biologist,“ Racha said. „In biology we have many sperms and it is the leader sperm that will fertilize the egg and create a human being. In Lebanon we are lacking real leaders who go to the streets, listen to the people and find good solutions. A leader sperm, creating a human being, assures the continuity of the human race. A Lebanese leader inseminating the population will assure that Lebanon will survive and continue to exist.“

Lebanese humor is the humor of free spirited people. It always has graphic metaphors. The humor is inspired by the Lebanese’s daily lives and aims at turning misery into sweet misery. Not everyone gets Lebanese humor though, as Racha has realized while living in France. For the outsider it can be too direct and too crude. 

Very often fun in Lebanon stays just that: fun. The Lebanese have a tendency to joke about a problem and working around it instead of solving the problem. Not Racha. „My aim is to promote an independent, secular Lebanon. A Lebanon with socio-economic justice. A Lebanon free of the corruption of the sectarian system.“ She is dead serious and passionate about this.

„I went to the ‚You Stink‘ protests,“ Racha told me, „because I have one goal: I want the Lebanese to believe that change is possible. I want them to understand that you, as a Lebanese citizen, can actually do something.“

„There is that saying,“ she went on, „they didn’t know it is impossible, so they did it. Lebanese have stopped to believe. They must learn again that nothing is impossible.“

Racha’s grievances towards Lebanon are many. They are shared by a great number of Lebanese I have talked to over the years. Lebanese must fight for basic human rights every day. In many Lebanese households drinking water is not available. The electricity is on and off. Lebanese pay for the tap water and they pay for the mineral water that they need because the tap water is not drinkable. They pay for the electricity and they pay for the generator to jump in when Electricité du Liban, Lebanon’s national power supplier, goes dark for several hours per day.

„We always pay twice in Lebanon!“, Racha complained. 

However the worst that is happening to Lebanon today is the constant brain drain. The brain drain will eventually kill Lebanon. Lebanese are bright people and many of them live successfully abroad, excelling in business or in science. They cannot do this at home. The Lebanese system doesn’t allow for it, suffocating many good ideas and initiatives. 

„I didn’t leave Lebanon immediately after I got my master’s degree,“ Racha said. „I worked in a hospital until I realized that there wasn’t any possibility for me to grow within this society.“ 

Lebanese politicians are failing to grasp the consequences of the system they have established and continue to nurture. They are bound to rule over a country where the heartbeat of the youth will be absent. „It’s a shame,“ my interlocutor told me, „our parents pay a lot to get us educated. A bachelor degree from the American University of Beirut costs approximately $40’000.-. And then we have to leave the country and pursue our careers abroad and we don’t pay anything back to the country.“

What the Lebanese want is peace. Racha grew up in a country where peace doesn’t exist and war never ends. In 1989, the year of her birth, the Lebanese civil war was on its last legs. Since 2011 there is a war raging in neighboring Syria that is affecting Lebanon a great deal. And in between there were wars with Israel, assassinations of journalists and of a prime minister, suicide bombings in Beirut and constant fights between the neighborhoods of Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabel Mohsen in Tripoli.

The challenges of the ‚You Stink‘ movement are huge. Essentially, the group confronts an entire political, sectarian and economical system, not just an authoritarian ruler or a regime, like in other Arab countries. A system where the Lebanese people are also a part of and responsible for. A system where private interests always trump the public interest. How to do this? How to battle yourself?

„The ‚You Stink‘ people love Lebanon,“ Racha told me. „They are here for the purpose of saving the country.“ The movement unites well educated citizens who have read books and have traveled abroad. „Is ‚You Stink‘ an expat movement, not representative of the Lebanese living in the country itself?“, I asked Racha. „That would be unfair to say,“, she replied. „I’d rather say that ‚You Stink‘ has used the social media in a very positive way to draw the attention of the Lebanese people abroad to the fact that their country is on the brink of the cliffs.“

How much staying power the movement has is an open question. Will the movement be able to exert pressure on the political elite? What if the politicians keep hiding behind barricades and ignore the calls from the street? There is no figure outside the political establishment to whom the movement can turn to like Alexis Tsipras in Greece. No one in Lebanon can be trusted and no one wants to burn his fingers. 

For a revolution to be successful the middle class must be the driver. In Lebanon there is only a small chunk of middle class left and most of them live abroad. Some of them are affiliated with parties or sects - and therefore no „material“ for ‚You Stink‘. 

What remains to be mobilized to make it a true people’s movement are the poor and the rich. A recent survey showed that Tripoli is the poorest city of any city around the Mediterranean sea. A good percentage of the Tripolitans live below the minimal wage. 

„These people are not ready for a change,“ Racha explained. „They are afraid to lose their lifeline.“ And indeed, poor people in Lebanon have a vital dependency on political or sectarian leaders. They pay for their schools, they cover their hospital fees and they get them a job. In turn these bondsmen vote for their masters. „I will make you poor to make you submissive,“ Racha commented. For the rich, Lebanon just works fine.

In order to endure the ‚You Stink‘ movement needs a quick win real soon. The people of Lebanon have to realize that the movement is functioning and is set to become a success story. No one will bet on a limping horse. For the campaign’s survival generating a snowball effect is key. 

So far ‚You Stink‘ hasn’t delivered any tangible result. The garbage is still in the streets - even though a vague plan to end the garbage crisis has been adopted - and the ministers continue to occupy their offices. Worse even, the movement has been divided into different sub-movements with competing goals

„As a protester, the strategy of the ‚You Stink‘ movement is not clear to me,“ Racha told me. „I think that we have to stick to our first priority which is to have the garbage problem solved.“ After that plans are murky. The failures of the Lebanese system were identified but the solutions are not. Humorous slogans alone don’t propel a change. Ordinary Lebanese keep intending to leave their incurable country rather than fixing it.

Certainly the first ‚You Stink‘ protests have driven the message to the palaces that something is rotten in the state of Lebanon and people know it. „We must raise our voices,“ Racha said. „We must make the government know that we are not asleep, that we are aware of the problems. We must tell the government that we exist!“

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, Eleonor Roosevelt, American First Lady, diplomat and human rights activist, once famously said. „So why shouldn’t we dream of this little heaven on earth that is Lebanon?“, Racha asked me, rhetorically, before we hung up. „We cannot lose hope just yet. We cannot abandon the country of Khalil Gebran and Amin Maalouf.“

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media, here

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A ray of hope in Lebanon's dark age of garbage

First rule for Lebanese: don’t expect anything from your government. The garbage crisis that surfaced in Lebanon in July of 2015, with nobody taking care of discharging the vast amount of waste that is produced daily in this throw-away society, led to huge piles of garbage bags that jammed the streets of Beirut and elsewhere in the country. The dysfunctionality of the Lebanese state and its political system was made obvious for all.

For anything to work in Lebanon, the initiative of the private sector is key. And thus: meet Arabsalim, the ecological capital of Lebanon. Arabsalim, a bustling village of around 8’400 habitants in the south of Lebanon, is known as a platform for the Israeli - Lebanese conflict since 1978. However, the village was also recently named in LBC Blogs as one of three Lebanese towns that have developed solutions to successfully manage the ever-growing amount of solid waste.

At the heart of Arabsalim’s waste management lies Zainab Moqalled, a former Arabic teacher at the high school in nearby Nabatieh. The ever energetic Mrs. Moqalled is 79 years old and received her PhD in Arabic language five years ago, at the age of 74. In 1995, when Arabsalim was still under Israeli occupation, she anticipated the future challenges of garbage, believing that only by sorting and recycling its waste the community could be saved from the chaotic disposal of trash - burning and burying it in landfills - that is still the rule in Lebanon today.

Mrs. Muqalled began by sorting her own trash in her own backyard and later invited a group of women from Arabsalim to introduce them to her idea. These women were excited about the concept and immediately started to sort waste themselves. „Zainab Moqalled is a pioneer in our country,“ Dareen Farhat, an Arabsalim resident with whom I communicated via email told me, „she proved that in spite of occupation, constant bombardments and governmental neglect, it is possible to overcome all obstacles when there is a strong belief and the will to protect our nature.“

The start wasn’t easy. The pioneer ecologists from Arabsalim divided the village into sectors, with each woman being responsible for one sector. They would make periodic visits to their sectors, meeting the housewives, explaining the process of waste sorting and encouraging them to commit to this new approach.

pioneer of waste management: Zainab Moqalled

In 1998, Nidaa Al Ard (‚Call of the Earth‘) was founded. By establishing a NGO the women of Arabsalim wanted to put their efforts in waste management on a more solid ground. The NGO soon received donations from the UN, the Italian embassy and Germany, and a modest support from the local municipality. „But when things got rough,“ Dareen Farhat told me, herself an active member of Nidaa Al Ard, „Dr. Zainab would pay from her own money to back up the NGO until new donations would flow in.“ Today, Nidaa Al Ard members pay $40 per year. However, ‚Call of the Earth‘ also helps to dispose the garbage of non-paying locals.

The members of the NGO often participate in training courses and workshops to improve their performance. In March of 2015, a delegation of Arabsalim visited the Netherlands to learn from this country’s experience with trash management. The trip was financed by EYH (Expand Your Horizon), a USAID-funded project which aims to build technical and professional capacity of Lebanese organizations and their employees to play a more effective role in their communities.

For the participants the visit to the Netherlands was an eye opener. But their trip was also somewhat sobering: to achieve what the Dutch did needs the total and sincere collaboration of the government and the civil society all together. „And that is precisely what we are lacking in Lebanon,“ Dareen Farhat told me. 

Like in all other villages in Lebanon, everything in Arabsalim is controlled by politicians. You either belong to a certain party or you will be neglected. The central government in Beirut sometimes prevents aid to reach the municipalities and this affects the municipalities’ ability to develop projects. Corruption is widespread in all of the Lebanese ministries. As an example, Nidaa Al Ard received a donation from the European Union that would send a machine worth thousands of dollars to grind plastic to Arabsalim. The machine never reached the village - it had mysteriously vanished -, only the catalogue. Luckily a smart mechanic from Arabsalim was able to reconstruct the machine by copying from the catalogue.

For a game changing project to be successful, direct interaction with the people is a key factor. In the beginning, the NGO used to call for public meetings in the mosque or the school playground to get the message of ecological waste treatment to the people of Arabsalim. Till today members of the NGO accompany the trash collecting employee on his way from house to house. „Any village can do what we did,“ Dareen Farhat said, „but it takes determination and patience when it comes to dealing with people.“ Some of them need constant appreciation, some of them think that they are doing the NGO a favor when sorting their waste. The members of Nidaa Al Ard never miss an opportunity to thank the people for their help.

Nidaa Al Ard’s work stops at the step where its members interact with people, convince them to sort their waste and gather the garbage in the NGO’s sorting center to be taken to recycling factories afterwards. ‚Call of the Earth‘ has solutions for many types of waste. If they face problems, as for batteries for instance, they keep that specific waste in the center until a solution is found.

Arabsalim: recycle here!

The ecological awareness of Arabsalim’s residents is not limited to solid waste only. In 2011 a project for a solar power system was announced which aimed to save electricity and reduce pollution in this southern Lebanese village. Four years later, the project can be called a success, Ahmad Noureddine, the engineer in charge, told me. 500 units have been installed so far, most of them subsidized by the municipality in order to boost the project and minimize the financial contributions of individuals in this economically underprivileged area. Solar energy is mainly used to heat water, with considerable savings on the „traditional“ electricity bill.

Another pilot project in the making aims to provide Nidaa Al Ard with composting containers to implement best practices for organic waste. Again, the participation of the residents of Arabsalim is a must as the containers will be installed in different households throughout the village. Nidaa Al Ard will be responsible for collecting the composted garbage and sell it to farmers as natural pesticides with very low prices. Currently the project is waiting for the green light; to finance the project a 40’000$ goal is set on a crowdfunding platform.

„I think that calling Arabsalim ‚Lebanon’s ecological capital‘ would be exaggerated,“ Dareen Farhat told me. „There are many obstacles that we faced and still face in our attempt to bring our idea of solid waste management to the entire village and to raise the awareness of all residents of Arabsalim.“ In recent years a new obstacle has emerged for Nidaa Al Ard. Displaced people from the war in Syria have brought the population of Arabsalim to a level that makes it almost impossible for the NGO to deal with.
„A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation,“ Gustavo Petro, the mayor of Bogotà, once said. Or where people from all layers of society make an effort to deal smarter with the garbage they generate and to preserve nature, I might add. A society where women take care of progress when men fail to deliver. For this, Arabsalim is both a model and a success story.

This post was published by Your Middle East online media, here

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dana Hotel and the soul of the Lebanese south

„Settled by my forebears,“ Pulitzer prize winning reporter Anthony Shadid wrote in his book ‚House of Stone‘, „Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence, a gateway - to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. This was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered.“

On my day in Marjayoun, in Lebanon’s blue zone, south of the Litani river, nothing felt particularly cosmopolitan about it. There were more than a dozen tables ready for breakfast in the Dana Hotel, but only two of them were occupied. From the loudspeakers, old Fairuz songs in instrumental versions were playing over to where I was sitting. 

After breakfast, I met brothers Fouad and Najib Hamra, founders and owners of the Dana Hotel. Fouad and Najib were both born in Africa, in the Ivory Coast, from Lebanese parents. Their family moved back to Marjayoun and later the brothers studied mechanical engineering in the United States. While „things were bad“ in Lebanon they worked successfully in the Gulf and made some money there. 

„We didn’t want to just sit on the money“, the brothers told me, „we wanted to do something meaningful with it and invest it in the Marjayoun area.“ The Hamra brothers, self-made entrepreneurs in the best of Lebanese tradition, came back to the south of Lebanon, opened a variety of small businesses and finally built the Dana Hotel, their „affair of the heart“. 

„The idea for the hotel came in 1986,“ said Najib Hamra, lighting a cigarette after asking me if I would allow him to smoke. „At this time there was no real hotel, no resort, no recreational facility around here. Fouad and I wanted to expose the people of Marjayoun to new things.“

The Dana Hotel opened at Christmas of 1990, at a time when the south of Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. In Marjayoun, UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was busy trying to keep some kind of an order. UNIFIL’s original mandate, established in 1978, was to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. When this didn’t happen, UNIFIL’s role was reduced to humanitarian assistance. For the Dana Hotel, their presence was nevertheless a blessing. To this day the flag of Norway, head of the UNIFIL contingent at that time, flies at the entrance of the hotel.

While being stationed in Marjayoun, the Norwegians were able to win hearts and minds - so often evoked, but rarely achieved - of the local people. Quite naturally the rapture was mutual. Some Norwegians have married into families of the region, some keep contact through Facebook, some even have learned how to speak Arabic like a Southerner. Once every year a group from Norway comes back to the Dana Hotel to celebrate the good times they had when meeting the people of South Lebanon.

In the year 2000, after the Israelis finally withdrew from Lebanon, civilians started to flock back to the area. „The whole area was in shambles during the Israeli occupation,“ Najib Hamra said. But now people started to construct new houses or began to repair the damaged houses of their ancestors. 

„People need a place to belong to,“ the Hamra brothers told me. „For some this is Marjayoun and this area in southeastern Lebanon. After the Israelis had left, people had the chance to again belong to their region.“

the tapestry of an older Middle East: Dana Hotel

Many people don’t live in the area permanently; they live in Beirut and have made their houses in the south their second residences, for weekends or for longer periods during summertime. In winter there can be snow in Marjayoun and the area - as well as the Dana Hotel - is all but dead. 

To reach the land south of the Litani, foreigners need a permit from the Lebanese army. This is a big burden for the Dana Hotel. „It holds people back from visiting us and has a negative impact on the area as a whole,“ Fouad Hamra said. Some potential visitors just don’t feel like dealing with Lebanese bureaucracy in order to get the pass. 

Notwithstanding the hassle with the permits Dana Hotel has guests from all over the world. Only the Lebanese are mostly absent. For Najib Hamra southern Lebanon is the safest area in the world, but the Lebanese are nonetheless afraid to travel to the south. They rather stick to the tracks they know, in the traffic jams between Beirut and Jounieh. „It’s in their heads,“ Najib said.

Strolling through Marjayoun and nearby Ebl Saqi in the glaring light of a summer midday, I immediately understood Najib Hamra’s argument. The area is not only safe, but also peaceful. The tapestry of an older Middle East, as Anthony Shadid described it, is very much alive. Christians, Druzes and Shias live side by side, door by door. This land full of beauty has lots of substance and potential; its people are as soft spoken and hospitable as their houses are rock solid.

This is a place where the Chief of Police also drives the ambulance.

Besides welcoming and accommodating its guests, the Dana Hotel is also an enterprise to create jobs in a region with very poor economic opportunities. The hotel has 65 employees in summer and ten during the winter season. It also provides outside catering and organizes weddings for up to a thousand people. And since the brothers are always expanding - building new rooms, or a huge pool area for guests of the hotel and locals alike, or bungalows - Dana Hotel is an important source of income for the local construction business as well. 

„What are the effects of the war in Syria on your business?“, I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra.

„They are huge,“ said Najib, who lives in Abu Dhabi, but comes back to Marjayoun once every month. „Before the war, Arabs from the Gulf were sometimes driving their cars through Syria to Lebanon to spend time in the Dana Hotel. Of course this in not possible anymore. If the Gulf Arabs still come to Lebanon at all they fly to Beirut and stay there.“

With the state of Israel only a few kilometers away and its borders closed, with Beirut buried under trash, and living next to the ongoing war in Syria, the region sometimes feels like caught in a trap. The gateway has become a cul-de-sac.

„Israel is really affecting us a lot,“ Najib Hamra said. „And it has become almost like a rule that every year between June 10 and 15 Israel conducts some kind of operation to mess up the summer business in the south of Lebanon.“

„However,“ Fouad Hamra interrupted, „we don’t want to talk about politics.“

Like most successful ventures in Lebanon, the Dana Hotel is the fruit of efforts by private individuals. Lebanon is not a particularly business-friendly country. Fouad and Najib Hamra didn’t have any kind of support from the state when planning and developing the Dana Hotel. „Only now, when everything is working, politicians want to participate,“ Najib Hamra said. 

„How do you make money with the Dana Hotel,“ I wanted to know from the brothers, „in such a geopolitically challenged environment?“

„Actually we don’t,“ they said, and both of them were smiling. „The hotel is our fun area“.

And where do you see the hotel in 2030?“, I asked Fouad and Najib Hamra before we finished our conversation. Fouad was both pessimistic and enthusiastic. „I hope for a better future for this region,“ he said, „but I am not sure. As for the hotel, we will always strive to grow and improve.“

Against all odds, the Hamra brothers and the people of South Lebanon keep going. Because this is their character. Because this is their home.

This post was first published in Your Middle East online media, here

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Iraq's Arab nightmare

„The land you know as Iraq is history.“ Falah Mustafa Bakir, the unofficial foreign minister of Kurdish Iraq, was very frank when he talked to a German journalist in May of this year. „There will be no going back to a situation before the summer of 2014.“

What had happened in Iraq in the summer of 2014 was the Islamic State (IS) taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. One year later, the IS controls a territory that stretches from outside Damascus to the suburbs of Baghdad. Admittedly the land of IS is mostly desert, but so is Saudi Arabia. The land we know as Iraq is eaten up from the inside and the outside and the Islamic State is one of the scavengers.

After the devastating six days war of 1967 and the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Iraq was the Arab and the Arabs’ dream; a country that was supposed to be the new beacon of Arab prosperity and power. Egypt and Syria had been crushed and humiliated by Israel’s military might. Now all hopes laid on Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. 

„What did 1967 do to the Arab world?“, I asked Bouchra Belguellil, a young researcher associated with l’Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe (IPSE) in Paris.

„In 1967,“ Belguellil said, „the military defeat against Israel was not only about material and territorial losses. It was also the defeat of a project that had intended to reunite the Arab world, to restructure their economic production base and to regain sovereignty over a region that had lived under an imperialistic yoke for a long time.“ 

Israel’s triumph was a shock for the entire Arab world. It led to a widespread auto-flagellation, asking for the reasons for such a failure. „The result was an Arab mind set that was isolationist and increasingly confined around small ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities,“ said Belguellil.

Iraq tried hard and for some time it seemed to fulfill the hopes of the Arab world. Saddam Hussein believed in a revolution that mostly focused on a development through education, investing in a health care system and strengthening the industrial capabilities. After the Iraq - Iran war of the 1980s and the first Gulf war of 1991, his revolution was all but dead. 

„The State of Iraq was a failed construction from its beginning in 1920,“ said Shakhawan, a doctor of Kurdish origin whom I had met to talk about Iraq. „The Kurds didn’t want to belong to Iraq and in the end, 18% of the population ruled over the other 82%. Such a state could never work.“

On a day of positive thinking, one might be willing to concede that the US, through invading Iraq in 2003, tried to push the country towards becoming a modern democratic state. Why did the Americans fail? To begin with, Iraq is a very complex country with a heavy historical baggage that prevents the establishment of a common national conception. Iraqis are not Iraqis but Arabs, Kurds, Muslim, Christian, Yazidis, and members of tribe A or clan B first. The loyalty to a central state is very low.

The main conflict in Iraq, overshadowing all other conflicts, is the ages old enmity between the Sunnis and the Shia. The conflict is like a sleeper cell: dormant for long periods of time but always ready to be activated. The Arab Sunnis are clearly a destabilizing factor for any political system in Iraq. They represent a minority in constant fear of being marginalized. Their numerical inferiority was one of the reasons why the Sunni dominated Baath party of Iraq resorted to an iron fist to rule over the majority Shia and the non-cooperative Kurds between 1963 and 2003.

As if sectarian or ethnic tensions were not enough, Iraq is also markedly fragmented by its tribal structure. To survive, tribes must follow rigorous rules and enforce a strict codex of values that render a central government far away in Baghdad irrelevant. 

These days Sunni tribes within the triangle Fallujah - al Qaim - Mosul openly cooperate with the Islamic State. They have submitted themselves to the law of the strongest and act as the sword of the IS when fighting the Iraqi army and the Shia militias. „The tribes carefully calculate their allegiances,“ said Bouchra Belguellil, „measuring possible benefits and potential losses. They also take into account the material and financial gains when working with the IS instead of Baghdad.“

In principle, things in Iraq should be different. On October 15, 2005, Iraqis made a step forward and voted in favor of a new constitution. The constitution was crafted based on the idea of a ‚consensus democracy‘; it’s a good paper, promoting a multi party system, a balance of power between legislation and the executive branch, and a two chamber configuration of the new Iraqi parliament to better represent the people and the different regions of Iraq.

„Did the Iraqis know what it meant when they said yes to the new constitution?“, I asked Shakhawan. „Did they understand that they were saying yes to pluralism and to the concept of an Iraqi state?“

„In a society without a political culture, primarily based on tribalism, the result of any vote must be questioned,“ he replied. „I’m not sure if the Iraqis understood the ideas behind this new constitution.“

„However,“ Shakhawan went on, „important parts of the new constitution haven’t been implemented until today. There is still no second chamber in parliament and there wasn’t a vote on the status of Kirkuk - Arab or Kurdish? - as it is written in the constitution. Iraq had needed a figure like Mandela, able to forgive and capable of unifying the country. Instead we got Maliki who definitely destroyed what hadn’t been destroyed before.“

a society without a political culture: Iraq

Iraq’s agony is a painful reality. So why not accept this reality and admit that the plan of an Iraq under one roof has failed? Why having Iraq go through an excruciating family therapy instead of helping it to get a clean divorce?

„Holding on to the status quo is totally normal,“ said Bouchra Belguellil. „The stakeholders of Iraq are in denial and are not ready to accept the collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which determined today’s border between Syria and Iraq.“

The Islamic State on the other hand is flourishing on Sykes-Picot and the line that had been arbitrarily drawn into the sand almost hundred years ago. The IS thrives on this bi-locality that allows them to duplicate and to give the impression that they are many and omnipresent. „Outside of this borderland, the IS cannot survive,“ Belguellil told me.

Shakhawan saw other reasons why Iraq can’t split up. „What to do with Baghdad where most people live, Sunnis and Shia alike?“, he said. „What to do with the Sunni regions in central and Western Iraq which consist of 90% desert? These regions don’t have natural resources like the Kurds have and the Shia in the south of Iraq have. An independent Sunni state is just not viable.“

Bouchra Belguellil didn’t entirely agree. „The Islamic State will not go away without the independence or at least the autonomy of the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq,“ she said. „This will be the price for peace.“

What is the Arab dream in 2015? What is the Arabs’ dream in 2015? Are there any dreams left at all between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf? Hardly. Young Arabs today don’t believe in the dreams of their parents anymore. The ideas of pan-Arabism and a proud Arab region are dead, identities are defined more and more in local terms; they have morphed into the petty notion of a local nationalism. 

The ‚Arab spring‘ in 2011 was a last flash in the pan. Young people nowadays are disenchanted and their only dream is to live in peace and have a decent job. They don’t expect anything meaningful coming from ‚their‘ state.

„In this region there is an enormous confusion between the concept of state and bureaucracy,“ said Bouchra Belguellil when we finished our conversation. „There were never real states, providing services and security as states are supposed to do, but very often stifling bureaucracies. People have given up on their capitals.“ And not only in Iraq!

Shakhawan couldn’t offer a more optimistic outlook. „In Iraq there isn’t any trust, only mistrust among its population,“ he said. The lack of trust between and within the different communities is indeed the biggest challenge for the future of Iraq. Today, the Kurds are fighting against the Islamic State and the Shia are doing the same. And tomorrow? „In the end, the Shia militias are a much bigger threat for the Kurds than the Islamic State,“ said Shakhawan.

„So is Iraq really history?“, I asked him.

„There need to be a separation from religion and the state,“ he concluded. „Only then, maybe, an Iraqi state could function. The Iraqis need enlightenment. Like in France before the revolution: the people didn’t know what were their rights and their duties. They didn’t know that ‚without you the king cannot rule and cannot be king‘. The Iraqis still need to learn this.“

Maybe then an Arab dream wouldn’t end in a nightmare.

This post was first published by Your Middle East online media, here

For more about Iraq, please read my two previous posts, "Saddam Revisited" and "It's atheism or die for Iraq".