Political Activism: Stay Positive

An older gentleman told me that he didn’t support the recent civil society movement because he saw them hold up a poster of Nasrallah accusing him of corruption. He said that he’s not a member of any party, including Hezbollah, but he’s with “the resistance” because it protects him from Israel. He supports diversity in the Parliament and is supportive of Sabaa’s candidates Jumana Haddad and Paula Yacoubian and wished there were more of them because they’re doing a good job fighting corruption.

This reinforced my believe that a political movement should focus on a positive message. Its goal is to bring people together, not to alienate them. The new party should be a party that is for everyone and make members of other parties feel included and wanted. Too often I see the new parties hold rallies to attack the other parties and alienate their members. It’s better to focus on the positive.

We have a shared common goal to build a prosperous Lebanon without sectarianism where all Lebanese are united and equal under the law. Whichever party can instill this hope will be victorious.

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The Tale of the Parking Lot

The building where I’m living has 18 apartments and a measly 16 parking spaces. To make matters worse, several tenants park multiple cars. One is known to have 4 cars. There is no assigned parking so everyone is left to their own devices. It’s easy then to imagine that every inch of the lot is crammed and often the cars are blocking each other, sometimes 2 cars deep. It’s a frustrating sight for someone who comes home after a long day of work and is looking for some peace and quiet. There is no street parking outside the building so it takes about 15 minutes of driving around cramped neighborhood streets to find somewhere else to stash the car, hoping to find it again in the morning with no scratches.

One day I found a sign that read “Reserved Parking for 2nd Floor East” over one of the spaces. It seems that tenants are starting to take matters into their own hands and a general solution must be found before it descends into a land grab.

I rang the doorbell of the head of the HOA of our building and brought up the topic. He said that the city regulations stipulate that each building must have enough parking before it’s built but somebody must have been bribed. Also, usually each apartment deed includes a parking space but that’s not the case for us. Officially and on paper, our parking lot is a common area just like the elevator and stairs, so every space belongs to everyone at the same time. We can’t paint lines and give out numbers because there isn’t enough room. We can build another floor of parking but it would cost $2,000 per tenant which is far beyond their means. They had raised heaven and hell when the HOA asked them to pay $200 to build a well to fix their water issues. It’s a poor neighborhood.

He agreed with me that nobody should be putting up signs and reserving spaces, but he’s going to let the 2nd floor person deal with the wrath of the tenants instead of facing the issue as the head of HOA. When I suggested that we call for a meeting and discuss it collectively, he said that he wants to call a meeting to resign because he’s stick of his thankless job. He then vehemently railed for about 30-minutes about the water well being dry and tenants calling him about water outages and tenants not paying money that they owe. I urged him not to resign because I’m not ready to run for HOA and my gut tells me that we won’t find other willing candidates who want to be called at 2 AM about a water or electric outage.

Once again, it seems we’re suffering from a problem (parking) that’s a result of a bigger problem (building code violation) that’s the result of a bigger problem (government corruption). The HOA should be calling regular meetings to discuss problems. Any problem can be solved if we work together and it starts at the lowest levels.

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Why did you move back to Lebanon?

If were living abroad and moved back to Lebanon, it’s inevitable that the first question you will get asked is, “Why did you move to Lebanon?” It’s for a good reason.

Living in Lebanon means sacrificing. You’re sacrificing your health by ingesting pollution in the air and water and risking car accidents and unsafe streets. You’re sacrificing comfort by not having constant electricity and clean water and Internet access. You’re sacrificing your career by settling for a lower-paying job with little growth prospects. Why would you sacrifice so much? That is essentially what the question is asking.

You’re sacrificing so much willingly because you’re getting something else in return that’s more important to you. It could be romance, family, friends, community, adventure, nationalistic duty, or a humanitarian mission. Whatever it is, it must mean a great deal to you because the sacrifice is so great. This tells a lot about you by revealing you priorities in life and, in turn, your value system, which is the essence of your character. So in order to get to know you, the single best question to ask is, “why did you move back to Lebanon?”

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Building castles on sand

One thing that had continuously mystified me was why businesses in Lebanon don’t offer professional services. They’re always coming up with excuses and doing things badly. Now that I have my own business, I’m starting to discover that you always depend on other people and services and when those aren’t professional, you end up being unprofessional, too. Basically, the problems start with lack of basic infrastructure and permeate all levels of the chain and go all the way to the end, reaching the customer.

Examples:

  • I can’t provide reliable data about delivery times because LibanPost isn’t reliable.
  • I can’t provide reliable data about restricted items or costs because the Lebanese port authority and customs are corrupt and can’t provide that data.
  • The contractor who’s coming to fix something at my apartment can’t come on time because there isn’t a dependable public transportation system.
  • The same contractor can’t finish his job on time because there is no electricity.

The list goes on and on. Basically, we’re all here building on sand. It’s really difficult building a business this way. I hope that we can find innovative solutions to these problems and give our customers an extraordinary experience that they haven’t been able to get here in Lebanon before. I hope that we can turn these problems into opportunities.

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Steps in the right direction

It’s easy to judge Lebanon harshly when comparing it to other countries, but when comparing it to itself we’re able to see some improvements.

I remember a couple of years ago when there were virtually no traffic lights and the handful of traffic lights that existed were summarily ignored. Some roads had traffic lanes but were also completely ignored. Contrast this with today where most intersections have traffic lights and they are respected by traffic. I also see cars drive within their lanes most of the time.

There are also a few recycling initiatives that have been started in Beirut recently, including Live Love Recycle, Recycle Beirut and Recycle Lebanon. They come to your place to pick up your recycling. Some of them do it for free and some charge a fee. I used one service that came and took my recycling for $10.

There are other signs of improvement here are there:

  • Civil society political parties.
  • Technology start-ups and business.
  • Government mandate for power generators to use electricity meters.

Lebanon has had a long and rough history and we’ve fallen behind. Yes, we’re in terrible shape compared to other countries and it’s easy to dismiss incremental improvements as insignificant. But small improvements add up over time and it’s the only way to get to where we want to be. What’s important is that we don’t get discouraged. If we keep working hard and moving forward we will get there.

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Keep Calm and Be a Good Citizen

It’s a whirlwind being in Lebanon, starting my own business, being surrounded by family and friends, and trying to understand a new (for me) country and people.

These are some of the questions on my mind:

  • Companies operate without a website or being on Google Maps and or accepting online payments or using an address system. I presumed that one company would show up and build a 21st-century business and blow the competition out of the water. Why hasn’t that happened yet?
  • Citizens recognize that the country’s politicians are corrupt and continuously vote them back into office, citing excuses like lack of alternatives, election fraud, and national security. I presumed that the potential of a better country would outweigh these excuses and people would overwhelmingly vote for change. Why hasn’t that happened yet?

It’s frustrating not knowing the answers to those questions. It’s frustrating seeing problems every day that don’t get solved. However, I knew about all these before I decided to life here. I accepted it as a personal challenge to live my life according to my own convictions: to recycle, to vote, to be a good citizen.

I’m under no illusion that I will fix the country or make any (significant) difference. I choose to do good deeds not because I’m responsible for anyone, but because I owe it to myself.

People here test me every day by acting with disregard for themselves and everyone around them. It makes me consider acting maliciously with the justification that they deserve anything that happens to them because they already do it to themselves. I understand these feelings which lead to apathy, anger and hate in the majority of people.

Being human, I have those feelings of anger but having self-awareness I choose not to act on them. I chose to be a good person because that’s how I feel good about myself and nothing else matters.

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Fighting the odds

The mood in the country is pretty much that of despair. There’s talk of an economic crisis on the horizon and devaluing the national currency, the Lebanese pound (or Lira). Housing prices are at an all-time low and the general opinion is that they’ll get lower. The Syrian crisis doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, nor do the political parties seem to be on the verge of cooperating and fighting the government corruption that is eating the country alive.

Yet, here I am with my buddies working on an e-commerce company. I guess you can say that we’re really stubborn, delusional or incredibly optimistic for trying to sell things in the middle of an economic depression. Then again, people are always buying things so why not do it online? Well, I can think of a few reasons, such as not having credit cards and not wanting to pay for delivery, but my endless optimism says that we can solve that.

At the very least, it has been terribly exciting and we’re enjoying ourselves quite a bit. It’s been about 9 months since we started working together and 4 months since we started the business. We aren’t making a lot of money but we’re enjoying it more than any job we’ve had before. Maybe it’s because we’re our own bosses and we dream to change the way business is done in Lebanon, to create job opportunities, to live a fulfilled life close to our family and friends, and make a positive contribution to a country that needs it the most.

We’ve gotten good feedback so far about our business and we’ve had a trickle of customs so there’s some hope yet. Good luck to us.

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