The Situation is Bad

I went to withdraw $700 from the ATM and the machine was out of cash once again. Banks are not allowing transfers to outside the country, so my company can’t pay our suppliers in the US, and thus we can’t process orders. One customer order has been stuck for 2 weeks with FedEx because the Ministry of Telecommunications, which has to approve the package, has been closed with no indication as to when it will re-open. We won’t be able to make payroll next month because our investors pulled out, saying that they’re struggling to save their own businesses which are choking under the bank closures and absence of cash. And yet, it seems like it’s about to get much worse.

Two weeks ago, the protests in the street claimed a victory when Prime Minister Hariri resigned. We held our breaths as we waited for a new corruption-free government to form and get us out of this mess. My feelings are turning to dread as I realize why a new government hasn’t formed yet: it’s locked in an epic battle between regional forces, with the US and international community on one side, and Hezbollah and Iran on the other. The latter has made it clear that they’re willing to fight to the bitter end, with Nasrallah boasting that they can continue to make payroll even in the event of Lebanon’s complete economic and security collapse. This doesn’t bode well for Lebanon.

The only way Lebanon can survive is with investment from the international community, which is conditional on Hezbollah being outside of the government. Hezbollah is willing to go down with this ship and they have half the country behind them. The international community is willing to let the ship go down and take Hezbollah with it. All signs point to the ship going down. In the best case, it’s an economic collapse. In the worst case, it’s a civil war.

My company and livelihood are on this fast-sinking ship. It’s starting to seem pertinent to consider my evacuation plans. If my business doesn’t get another investment and has to shut down, I’ll try finding some other way to pay the bills, but if the bullets start flying, I hope that I can make it to the airport before it shuts down.

I have no regrets, even if I find myself escaping on a plane. It’s been an incredible journey so far. I hope that I can continue this journey and that it doesn’t come to a premature end.

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It’s Worth It

We got our flags and we got into the Uber to take us to the protest site. The driver joked that he wished the country would never get fixed because he was making money driving protesters around. I joked back that we’ll keep protesting even after fixing the country just for him. He laughed and joked as he drove us to the police barricades where we got out and walked into the crowd.

It resembled a festival more than an angry protest. We waved our colorful flags as we chanted several of many funny and creative chants. Several times we’d start laughing at the chant or somebody’s sign. The creativity and artistry of the Lebanese people are inspiring.

The crowd was big and a beautiful sense of solidarity and empowerment enveloped us all. Smiling faces were everywhere and all around us. Spirits were high and hopeful that we are changing this country for the better. Then, the person on the megaphone said that we’re all going to march through Gemmayze to Riad el Solh, and we set off.

As we passed between the cars, chanting and singing, the drivers who were now stuck were honking in solidarity, taking pictures, waving flags out the windows, beaming smiles back at us, and raising victory signs for us. People of all ages came out on the balconies and flashed victory signs for us with huge smiles. At one point, somebody threw rice onto us, an enormous gesture of gratitude. I felt like a hero walking down the street. I felt incredibly grateful to be living in this moment, happy to belong to this community, proud to be a citizen of this country, and lucky to be alive.

I remember that at one point in the past, I wondered if I should “take the plunge” and move to Lebanon. I wondered if I would regret my decision to risk my career to find myself out there. It’s days like this when I have no regrets. I wouldn’t give this up for the world. I feel bad for everyone who’s “stuck” at a job they hate, in a life they don’t enjoy, paralyzed by fear, and missing out on life’s extraordinary moments. I hope they find the strength to take the leap and walk in the streets so people can celebrate them and they can celebrate themselves.

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Corruption demystified

One of the reasons I came to Lebanon is that I wanted to understand how corruption works. It is widely known which Lebanese politicians are corrupt. Why do some citizens still openly support them? You can find posters of the corrupt politicians around the city and their supporters openly flying their party flags and voicing their loyalty. Then, during the last elections, the people voted the corrupt politicians back into power. Why did they do that?

Nobody acts against their own self-interest. This is a fact. It follows then that supporters of corruption are acting in their own self-interest. At first, I didn’t see it, but then it became apparent. They all benefit in some way from the existing system. Some of them are directly involved and are given positions of power by the corrupt system, many more down the line are given jobs and benefit financially by the ones above them, and more still are given protection and a sense of identity and belonging. Job opportunities are scarce in Lebanon, poverty is high and it’s difficult to make a living, so those who manage to find a steady income, even from a corrupt system, decide to accept it rather than face starvation. Those who go farther and fully embrace it, such as printing large posters of the corrupt leaders and attaching their names to it, gain favor and improve their position. It’s not too different from a typical illegal street gang. You either become part of the system or you move away, in other words leaving the country.

Thus, Lebanon has been divided along sectarian lines, each headed by a corrupt politician. They control power and distribute favors and jobs. Much of the public funds are funneled into the pockets of the members, which is detrimental to the country as a whole and the economy is consequently in tatters, which increases the dependency of the people on the corrupt system and its jobs. Secretly, everyone knows the system is corrupt, but challenging it risks losing favor with those in the system and losing the few crumbs that they are getting to scrape by. It’s a system that sustains itself because all members are benefiting from it and thus have a vested interest in it surviving.

Why doesn’t someone else hold the corrupt politician accountable? In other words, if corruption creeps into one organization, why doesn’t another one call it out, like the FBI prosecutes the White House in the US? The reason is that they trade favors. The different politicians don’t challenge each other because they are all corrupt and each wants to maintain their respective position. There were turf wars in the past, but the system reached a state of equilibrium and now each group is happy with their share and they don’t want to upset the balance out of fear of losing what they already have. As in the US, Lebanon has an independent judiciary which is supposed to be prosecuting corruption, but now enjoys its own corruption and thus is interested in maintaining the status quo. It’s an entire ecosystem that, once it comes into existence, is hard to disrupt. Even the politicians at the top, if pressured to make reforms, find it difficult because they’ve built an entire support network below them and allies across from them that depend on their corruption.

For years, this was the state of affairs, with the country deteriorating constantly until it became clear that it is on the verge of total economic collapse. Suddenly, even the crumbs that people are getting from corrupt system stopped being enough, and on October 17, the popular street erupted in mass protests against the entire system of corruption across all sects. The people have realized that the country’s salvation is in eliminating all corruption and its politicians. This movement has restored hope for millions across the country, including me. I can’t spend enough time on the streets in the hope that we finally rid this country of the thugs that rule it and we take our rightful place among the great countries of this world.

Also, as I watch the United States from afar, I am concerned about the corruption which Donald Trump has brought into the White House. You can see it spreading as good people resign and are replaced by others who are willing to be complicit in corruption as long as it benefits them personally. So far, there are those within the Justice Department and Congress that are calling it out. I hope that they can snuff it out along with Donald Trump before it spreads any more. The most dangerous threat to any country, even more than a foreign enemy, is internal corruption.

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Everything Stops

For the past 5 days, the country has been paralyzed by street closures and protests. Our office has been closed because our employees can’t get to it. It wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway because our local delivery partners aren’t operating and the order rate has dropped by 90%. It’s obvious that the local population isn’t in the mood for buying while the country is going through a revolt.

I’ve gone down to the protests every day of the week. I try to work in the mornings but I can only work for an hour or two before I have to turn on the news and see what’s happening. I admit that what’s happening in Lebanon right now is bigger than my company.

I still don’t know what’s going to happen. It would be a shame if everything I worked for and the company that I’ve built so far ends like this. The country could go back to normal tomorrow or this can get worse and last for months. Nobody can tell. However, what I do know is that the banks have been closed for 5 days and we can’t get our money out to pay our suppliers. The banks aren’t even depositing payments from the few customers that are still placing orders. We stopped all our marketing campaigns because there’s no point in attracting customers that you can’t serve. We’re probably losing customers every day because there’s nobody answering the phones. I hope that the friendly message I left on the website makes them feel better.

I understand now why businesses don’t set up in Lebanon and why people tell me it’s crazy that we’re trying to build a business here. It can all go up in smoke at any time without notice. That said, the few that do survive get to enjoy a relatively competition-free market. I hope that we survive. I hope that the revolution gives birth to a new country where corruption dies and businesses thrive.

Instead of thinking about the new feature I’m going to create for our customers, I’m busy thinking of how we’re going to survive through next week and pay our suppliers. And in the few hours, I’ll be going back to the streets with my oversized Lebanese flag.

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Company Vision Meets Revolution

Yesterday, the board at the company I started met and we talked about our vision and hopes and dreams for all the wonderful things we’ll accomplish in the next year and a half in Lebanon. Today, I woke up today energetic and excited about going to the office and found out that protestors are closing roads around the city and we are forced to close our office.

Not to be thwarted, I decided to work from home because I have a task that’s critical for the future of the company, but watching the news and seeing a mass uprising and people burning fires in the streets didn’t exactly put me in the right mindset for software development. It’s hard enough trying to start a business, but trying to do it when there’s a revolution going on outside and the country destabilizing? Is what I’m doing even useful? People aren’t thinking about buying right now because they have bigger things on their minds, like overthrowing the corrupt government that’s been robbing and sabotaging Lebanon to the point of near collapse. I want to go out and support the cause, while at the same time I have a responsibility to keep the company running. We provide jobs and our employees depend on us and I’m trying my best not to let them down.

Sometimes this entire struggle seems hopeless and the thought of leaving Lebanon is very appealing, but I still believe that I’m here for a reason. I don’t know how this is going to end but I’m willing to stick around and find out. Good luck to us all, especially the brave citizens out there today.

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The Apartment

It was one year ago when I went to the head of the building’s HOA to complain about the parking situation. My parents’ building where I was living was suffering from water shortages, electric outages, excessive noise, lack of parking spaces, and a litany of other problems. That same day, I decided to move out even though I believed that this is simply the nature of living in Beirut and I didn’t think I’d find anything radically different. I created this wish list of my dream apartment:

  • Small payment in advance (1 month, 3 months, or 6 months).
  • Size (lots of space).
  • New construction (pretty-looking).
  • Parking (2 spaces, covered, gated, and spaces for visitors).
  • Electricity (at most 3 hours of government cuts a day).
  • Back-up generator (15 amps at least).
  • Water (clean and always available).
  • Air conditioning (preferably central instead of units).
  • Laundry in the unit.
  • Quiet (no street noises, no mosques, no generators).
  • Trustworthy concierge.
  • Good HOA.
  • Access to highway.
  • Nice view.
  • Appliances.
  • Closets.

I set a budget of $1,000 – $1,500/month and focused my search on Badaro and Achrafieh. I also saw places in Mar Elias because it’s close to the office but they were all disappointing. I saw one apartment in St George Towers in Achrafieh for $1,600. I liked that building because it came close but I didn’t love the apartment so I decided to pass. I wanted a place that I loved. After all the suffering that I had endured, I deserved at least that.

I called an agent about an apartment in Badaro and she told me that it’s not available but she can show me another one and I agreed. I followed her car as she took a turn off the highway into a secluded part that I had never known existed. There are trees here?! As we pulled up to the building, my first feeling was that I was no longer in Lebanon. I wasn’t expecting anything as organized and beautiful. Each parking space even had its own plaque with the apartment name on it hanging from the ceiling! The block and apartment numbers were artistically spray-painted on the walls! The elevator was new! The security was uniformed and professional!

We stepped into the apartment and it was even better than the outside. As a loft, the ceiling was two stories high and there were beautiful grey stone stairs with white metal railings leading up to the bedroom. The floor was some kind of laminate. The window was floor-to-ceiling. It even had a balcony. It was gorgeous. I was instantly in love with it.

We stepped outside on the balcony to talk about the details. The apartment overlooked an open area of trees and I could hear actual crickets. No blaring car horns or motorcycles. I couldn’t help feeling like I was in Europe or anywhere but Beirut. I wanted to blurt out, “I’ll take it!” but I felt that I had to do my due diligence so I asked, “how many amps of electricity does the building have and is the water from Beirut?” The tenant looked at me incredulously and dismissively said, “Bro, here you’re not in Lebanon.” He had said the magic words. My tough exterior that went there to drive a hard bargain came crashing down. I asked, “so I can turn on the A/C and the water heater at the same time?” He replied, “you can turn on all the A/Cs at the same time.” It turned out that the apartment had 2 central A/C units and one individual A/C unit in the bedroom. It had heaters for the winter. It had closets. It had covered parking spaces. It had visitor parking spaces. It was new construction by world-famous architect Bernard Khoury. I was in apartment heaven. They asked for $1,500/month.

I said that I’d think about it and get back to them, just to be sure that I wasn’t rushing into things, but the suspense was killing me. I lay in bed all night in fear that I would lose it. I went to work the next day and I couldn’t think about anything else. The agent called me to tell me that she was showing it to someone else so I immediately blurted out, “I’LL TAKE IT!”

It’s been a year that I’ve been living in that building and I’m grateful for it every day. I had no idea that moving 10 minutes away could change my lifestyle and my life so dramatically. Maybe it’s because I was used to the US where (as far as I know) two apartments that are 10 minutes apart won’t be so different that one would have electricity and water and the other wouldn’t. It has opened up my eyes to the disparity in living conditions among the Lebanese people. It comes back to the poor economy where $1,500/ month is far beyond what most people can afford. Unfortunately, now it’s getting worse as the Lebanese pound is losing value (now at 1,600 LL to the US dollar) and people are taking to the streets.

Times are tough in Lebanon. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have a great job and my dream apartment. I only wish that all Lebanese could be so lucky. It might not look like it’s possible, but I believe in the power of the people and in their ability to change their governments and leadership. In the meantime, I needed to make this change to survive.

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Paying the price for change

I was just at the Lebanese Independent Film Festival in Beirut where Lucien Bourjeily, a well-known local activist and artist, told the festival attendees that one small way to fight against censorship is to publicize it. He told the festival’s director, Gauthier Raad, that he could issue a short press statement about a Swedish film, 3 Stolen Cameras, that was banned from the festival by Lebanon’s censorship board because it talks about Western Sahara, a topic that Morocco dislikes so much that it pressured Lebanon to censor.

Raad bravely admitted that he had in fact done the opposite: he had sent out a tweet thanking the censorship board. He explained that he was grateful for having 99% of the festival’s films approved, with the Swedish film being the only one banned, and that he wanted to stay in the board’s good graces for future events. Putting out a press release would be picking a fight with one governmental entity that has the power to destroy everything that he’s trying to build. He had decided to accept 99% and not make a big deal out of a measly 1%.

When I was living in the US, I had watched Lebanon from afar and continuously wondered why everyday Lebanese citizens let the government get away with blatant corruption and abuses. It had seemed to me so easy that people could simply stand up and demand their rights. What was the reason they didn’t? Today, the answer was in front of me as clear as day. It was so simple and made so much sense that I felt that I understood why every repressed community across history endured their situation for so long and why change comes at a slow, though steady, pace.

Whenever you stand up to challenge the status quo, you attract the attention of those who benefit from it and who will try to persuade you to fall back in line by making your life difficult. They are usually in positions of power and can hit you where it hurts most: your professional career or means of making a living. They use very subtle and clever ways which in most cases are even legal. Consider it a form of peer pressure. You will know that standing up is “the right thing to do” and is good for your community, but you will waver on whether it is worth living a more difficult life, especially in places like Lebanon where life is already difficult enough. If you decide to stand up anyway and take on the challenge, I congratulate you because you are one of the few brave agents of change who bring us all hope. If you take the easy way out by continuing to blend in and playing by the broken rules, you are among the vast majority who are patiently waiting for others to change things for them.

Every day, we are all faced with small decisions to either pay a personal price to challenge the status quo or do nothing to maintain it. What most people don’t realize is the staggering cost that they pay every day by maintaining the status quo. It’s the price that Lebanon pays every day it is not the prosperous country that it deserves to be. We can all be in a much better place.

Change is happening right now and every day by ordinary people who are paying personal prices to stand up for change. You can keep waiting or you can bring prosperity to yourself sooner by joining them. The next time you doubt whether you should say something, I hope you do. In either case, please support Lebanese independent filmmakers, who are working against all odds to break the silence, at the very least by watching their movies and going to festivals.

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