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If I were in Beirut right now, I’d probably be hearing the sound of Israeli jets as they bank up the Mediterranean after dropping bombs on Gaza and then perhaps make a pass across the Lebanese coast to intimidate any resistance from across the border. But this week I’m in Texas, where the skies are blue, the tortillas are hot and no one seems to have a clue about what is going on in the Middle East. 
Since I’ve been here visiting friends and family, I haven’t overheard a single conversation about the pummeling of Gaza’s urban neighborhoods (with US made bombs); I haven’t seen a single story on an airport television about the killing of over 150 Palestinians this week– and I’ve been in many US airports recently. Yet signs of the Arab world are everywhere. 
From convenience stores:

To food trucks:

To a major supermarket chain:

To salad bars:

Maybe one day American concern for the Middle East will extend beyond Hookah and Tabouli to include human rights and responsibility. 

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John F Kennedy Airport New York Daily News/Jesse Ward
“We need to ask you a few more questions. Come this way sir,” the buzz cut-sporting customs agent said firmly, as he led me away from the other passengers. Of course I know the drill. I have been profiled at airports all around the world for the past 20 years since my teenage days.
“I always get the VIP treatment,” I said in jest, as I followed him. 
“It has nothing to do with the country you came from?” he asked sarcastically.
Me: “Should it?”
Pause.
Me: “Do you know major US cities are more dangerous than Beirut? Do you know 5 times more people get murdered in Chicago than where I came from?
Agent: “Well, we enforce the law there too.”
Me: “Do you profile all passengers coming from Chicago?”
He didn’t reply as he walked me into a room called “CBP Admissibility Review Area.” 
Agent: Place your bag here (points to doorway) and take a seat over there. 
I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my bag unattended at the open doorway to baggage claim, so I moved it about half a foot away from the door so I could keep in eye on it. 
Agent. Don’t move your bag sir! Leave it there!
So I took my seat in the waiting area– among the fellow dark-skinned people– as I have so many times before. Arabs and South Asians usually occupy this space. Rarely do you see a white person here.
A few minutes later, I was summoned by another agent at a desk. I was asked a series of questions starting with the classic: How long have you been abroad? This one is never easy to answer for people who actually live abroad or spend a lot of time moving around. So I gave him a brief summary of my life story. The years I lived in different cities in the US and in Beirut, how they overlapped, etc. For fun, I threw in which universities I went to in towns small and large and what years I graduated and attended those schools. 
Then more questions. What do you do? Who do you work for? Have you been to Syria or Iran by any chance? Have you been in the military? Have been in any military (add look of suspicion for emphasis). 
Does this guy really think I am James Bond??
I mean what position is he in to “review” my “admissibility” as a US citizen? Should I have showed him my family lineage papers. That my grandfather was in the Navy during Pearl Harbor? Or that my grandmother traces her family back to a relative who fought with George Washington in the revolutionary war?
After being released and as I was waiting for my bag, I asked an African-American customs agent walking out of the room. “How many white people go in there,” I said half-joking.
Agent: A lot surprisingly.  
Me: I don’t mean skin color, but also ethnicity. 
Agent: Oh you should see when flights come from Latin America. There’s a lot of Jose’s in there.
Look, I just saw a white person go in there. That’s one white person out of four. That’s a pretty good ratio.
Me: Sounds a bit lop-sided to me. 
Agent: I got to get back to work, good luck!
***
Of course my routine 20 minute experience is nothing compared to 2-3 hours regularly faced by Americans who share the same name with those “on a list” like Huffpost journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who recently wrote about his chronic and abusive experiences in the ‘brown people room.’ 
Still I think all profiling should be documented. Are Americans who traveled to the Middle East really more dangerous than those living in the United States? I think this is a valid question considering the exponentially higher gang violence and murder rate in most major US cities when compared to cities in the Middle East. 

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The word entrepreneur has become ubiquitous in talk about the future of Arab business. Some have even claimed a quiet economic revolution is at our feet, running in parallel to the political uprisings across the region. But who is making money in the young Arab tech industry? Who has access to the ‘eco-system’ and what potential is there to bridge the digital divide, empower communities and help meet the demand of some 100 million jobs that the region desperately needs? From Riyadh to Amman, I set out to find some answers in the following magazine piece, published in the May issue of Aramco World.  
With no streetlights and its row of abandoned late-Ottoman-era buildings, the Beirut neighborhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq seems to live up to its Arabic name, “the dark ditch.” It is home to some of the city’s poorest residents, many displaced by war, squatting for decades in crumbling, shell-pierced dwellings.
But on a recent evening in March, the Khandaq was lit up with a bright white party tent. Valets lined up outside and Arabic beats pulsated from within. Inside, amid a cacophony of excited conversations, a hip young Lebanese band remixed traditional melodies while Beirut’s finest restaurants served up steaks imported from Australia, gourmet Black Angus burgers and artisan cold-press juices. The attendees were smartly dressed in “dotcom casual”—suits open to ironic T-shirts, Converse sneakers and jeans—many still wearing bright yellow lanyards branded “ArabNet.”
Aramex founder and ceo Fadi Ghandour has emerged as a key investor in the region’s growing technology sector, having helped launch several major startups and venture-capital funds. He serves as chairman of leading regional tech news site wamda.com, and he is now partnering with the United Nations to fund 200 “microbusinesses” in his native Jordan.
Aramex founder and ceo Fadi Ghandour has emerged as a key investor in the region’s growing technology sector, having helped launch several major startups and venture-capital funds. He serves as chairman of leading regional tech news site wamda.com, and he is now partnering with the United Nations to fund 200 “microbusinesses” in his native Jordan.
The three-day conference, now in its fifth year, is one of the largest gatherings of the Middle East’s budding startup industry, and tonight’s dinner was one of the many afterparties where the region’s future business leaders get to network and capitalize on a regional e-commerce market that will be worth $15 billion by 2015, according to estimates by PayPal.
If all goes according to plan, much of the shrapnel-scarred Khandaq area will be transformed too, into the Beirut Digital District, a 10-year initiative to build some 10 high-rises that planners hope will house the new industry just a few blocks from the luxury glass-and-steel residential towers now going up in downtown Beirut. Subsidized Wi-Fi and fiber optic cables are expected to flow freely throughout the area, which aims to rival similar new regional facilities like Oasis500 in Jordan or Flat6Labs in Egypt, which have been hosting, training and investing in hundreds of tech-based startups, buoyed by millions of dollars in new venture capital funds that are cropping up across the region.
Hours before the party, a scale model of the Digital District was on display at ArabNet, held in a sprawling banquet hall in Beirut’s newest Hilton hotel. With the backdrop of a 14-meter (45′) electronic display, dozens of young, aspiring entrepreneurs from across the Arab world took to the stage to deliver two-minute “Ideathon” pitches with infomercial-like zeal to the crowd of some 600 it professionals. More-established ceos were also on hand, speaking at panels covering everything from social-media marketing to venture-capital opportunities to forging links with Silicon Valley. There was a brief discussion of Bitcoin, as well as corporate social responsibility, better known by its industry buzzword, csr.
“Why do csr?” asked twenty-something digital-media strategist Ralf Aoun as he paced the stage with a headset microphone. “It’s good for business, good for pr and good for karma!”
But what about regional turmoil, asked moderator and industry veteran Mike Butcher, who was making his third visit to ArabNet as editor of TechCrunch, one of the world’s most popular technology news sites. He put the question also to co-panelist Stephanie Holden, formerly of Priceline and Walt Disney and now the head of Saudi-owned television giant mbc’s investment arm, mbc Ventures. Touting her firm’s investments in nine Arab startups, she said regional entrepreneurs faced more of a threat from government bureaucracy than armed violence. Butcher himself had come to a similar—if blunter—conclusion the previous evening at another off-ArabNet event.
“Amid everything going on, you guys are still kicking ass,” he said to cheers from an audience that had gathered at Coworking 961, yet another technology incubator space in Beirut. Butcher had been one of the judges at a pitching contest at the space, which occupies the guesthouse of a 19th-century palace. Under its castle-like turrets, the representatives of young Lebanese firms had presented their ideas on a projection screen in the garden, a rare patch of lush greenery in the exhaust-choked city.
Known for sealing the biggest Middle East tech deal to date, Samih Toukan cofounded the first major Arabic-language Internet provider, Maktoob.com, which sold in 2009 for some $175 million. More recently, his investment firm has acquired Souq.com, the region’s largest online retailer. 
Known for sealing the biggest Middle East tech deal to date, Samih Toukan cofounded the first major Arabic-language Internet provider, Maktoob.com, which sold in 2009 for some $175 million. More recently, his investment firm has acquired Souq.com, the region’s largest online retailer.
The winners that evening were the developers behind Roadie Tuner, a handheld piece of hardware that tunes guitars and other stringed instruments. It was born out of the frustration faced by 27-year-old engineer Bassam Jalgha while tuning his ‘ud, or Arab lute. In 2009, Jalgha had entered and won the mbc reality-tv show for innovators, “Stars of Science,” walking away with a check for $300,000 from the Qatar Foundation. He would later team up with friend, fellow engineer and flute player Hassane Slaibi and launch a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that netted nearly $180,000—three times their stated target. Jalgha has since traveled to China to oversee the first batch of production, and he expects Roadie Tuner to hit stores sometime this summer.
“I don’t think you guys need any help from us,” said Butcher after awarding the duo tickets and a table at the 2014 TechCrunch Disrupt event in New York City. “Awesome job.”
Taking second prize at the challenge was Ki, a plug-in usb security device that reads a user’s fingerprint with both security algorithms and biometrics developed in Beirut. “That seems like overkill,” said one of the judges. “Why not buy the technology from the us?” “What guarantees that the nsa hasn’t tampered with it?” rejoined the twenty-something developer, to laughs from the crowd. The judges also rewarded Jihad Kawas, who was pitching an app that connects buyers and sellers of used items within close proximity. This wasn’t Kawas’s first app, and he is 17.
Of course, many of Lebanon’s most successful developers no longer need to pitch at such events.
Twenty-six-year-old Hind Hobeika has already raised over $1 million in investment capital for her hardware innovation, Instabeat, which had just won a 2014 design and engineering award at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The product is the first waterproof, goggles-mounted heart-rate monitor, which allows swimmers to hone their workouts and also track their performance after a swim. Hobeika, a former varsity swimmer and engineering student at the American University of Beirut, saw the need for such a device when she couldn’t find it in stores. After more than two years of development and nine prototypes, production is scheduled to begin this summer, and Hobeika is negotiating distribution deals in the US and Australia.
Still other products have already gone to market, many in the form of mobile apps. Perhaps the most successful of these has been Poo, a virtual pet users can feed, stroke, buy gifts for and watch grow. Created by 24-year-old Paul Salameh, the application has proven viral. In press interviews, Salameh has claimed up to 300,000 downloads per day, with Poo having reached the number-one spot in the kids’ games category at app stores in more than 65 countries. Revenues will likely soar with in-app purchases to feed and dress your Poo, available from $1 to $11. YouTube videos celebrating the game in various languages have seen millions of views while Poo’s Facebook page has garnered more than five million likes.
But runaway success stories like this are still somewhat rare in the region, where the tech industry is still understandably finding its feet after barely a decade of existence. And developments in Lebanon, as one of the Arab world’s smallest countries, amount to just a fraction of the region’s newest industry.
Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodeling part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main goal is collaboration,” he says.
Ahmed Alfi returned to Cairo in 2006 and in 2011 launched one of the region’s best-known incubator spaces, Flat6Labs. He is now remodeling part of the former campus of the American University of Cairo to become Egypt’s largest technology park. “Everyone knows my main goal is collaboration,” he says.
There have been few opportunities in the Arab tech industry like that which was seized by Jordanian Samih Toukan. After completing his mba in London, Toukan went on to work as an IT consultant for AndersenConsulting in Amman, but sensing demand, he left the job in the mid-1990’s to start his own business. Toukan had made a proposal to one of his former Andersen clients, fellow Jordanian Fadi Ghandour, ceo of Aramex, the region’s largest courier service. Internet penetration was still nascent in the region, and very little of it was in Arabic. The solution seems obvious today: Create Arabic content and an email server for its readers. And by the late 1990’s Toukan did just that by launching Maktoob.com.
As a first market entrant, the site exploded from 100,000 users in 2000 to 10 million by 2005. Yahoo bought the company in 2008 for $175 million. It was the kind of “exit” or sell-off that gave impetus to the regional industry.
“Before that exit, the industry was nonexistent. Maktoob was a turning point,” says Toukan from his new offices in Dubai. “It was the beginning of the industry. After that exit we saw an acceleration of ideas and investment.”
Toukan, Ghandour and a handful of others have grown into major drivers of that trend. The proceeds from the Maktoob deal helped Toukan launch Jabbar Internet Group, which has invested in products like Hobeika’s Instabeat as well as Souq.com, an online retailer akin to amazon.com in the us. With a thousand employees, Toukan says Souq.com already generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, but he will not disclose exactly how much. In March, South African media giant Naspers invested $75 million for a 36 percent stake in the firm, after having put $40 million into Souq.com in 2012.
“Give us three years and you will see a company bigger than Maktoob,” Toukan says. “This could be a much bigger exit. I think the industry is beginning to materialize,” he says.
Flat6Labs ceo Ramez Mohamed has overseen the company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from $10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs received 10-15 percent ownership.
Flat6Labs ceo Ramez Mohamed has overseen the company’s incubation of 36 startups with loans from $10,000 to $15,000, in exchange for which Flat6Labs received 10-15 percent ownership.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian monarchy is placing bets on similar success stories beginning with the launch, shortly after Toukan’s watershed sell-off, of Oasis500. Established in 2010 with the backing of King Abdullah, Oasis was given a mandate to mentor, invest and help launch 500 regional startups over six years.
With its colorful wall murals, futuristic furniture and even an adult slide that spirals through a large atrium, the Oasis building in Amman is every bit the dotcom space one would expect. In addition to providing coaching and co-working office space for young firms, Oasis has a $6 million fund from which it invests up to $30,000 in startups in exchange for a 10 to 20 percent ownership stake.
So far, Oasis has invested in 70 startups and trained an additional 1500 entrepreneurs through its monthly “bootcamp” workshops, according to the investment manager Salwa Katkhuda. One of its first successful exits has been the online sports retailer Run2sport, which sold a majority of its stock for $2.5 million to Toukan’s Souq.com. Another Jordanian startup, online-payment gateway Madfoo3atCom, raised more than $500,000 from private investors. Both deals took place in 2012 and Katkhuda says Oasis is now expanding into the United Arab Emirates (uae) and Saudi Arabia.
“We are at the very beginning of an entrepreneurial era in the region, but it will take a long time for the market to mature,” she says. “The early players have a huge advantage and opportunity by being the first risk-takers.”
Trominent among those early risk-takers is Ahmed Alfi, who after nearly two decades as a media and technology investor in Los Angeles returned in 2006 to his native Egypt to launch one of the region’s first venture capital funds. In 2011, he opened Flat6Labs, which offers services for startups similar to those offered by Oasis500. So far it has graduated 36 companies, and it offers facilities and loans from $10,000 to $15,000 in exchange for 10 to 15 percent ownership.
“There’s quite a few breakthroughs that will happen this year,” Alfi says from Cairo, where he is busy giving a tour of the facility. “A lot of companies are on the cusp.”
Among the Flat6Labs success stories is Instabug, an application that helps developers find and report programming bugs through physically shaking a mobile device. Developed by a pair of Egyptian 22-year-olds, the app won a $50,000 MIT business competition award and is now celebrating over 1.7 million downloads. Meanwhile, 1Sheeld, a device that can help automate objects and appliances, won the audience-choice award at last year’s TechCrunch Europe Disrupt event. The product was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal of $10,000 within hours, raising a total of $85,000. Then there is Kngine, which Alfi says is similar to Apple’s automated voice assistant, Siri.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat, that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat (below, right), that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
Swimmer and engineer Hind Hobeika, 26, invented high-tech swim goggles, called Instabeat, that allow swimmers to track their heart rates throughout each workout.
“We are finally getting outside firms interested,” he says, naming Samsung Ventures and Vodafone Ventures as parties negotiating potential deals.
Following on the success of Flat6Labs, Alfi is now expanding. He is building Egypt’s largest technology park by converting nearly an entire city block of buildings that were formerly used by the American University of Cairo. Known as “Greek Campus”—which comes from its original use as schools for Greek expatriates—Flat6Labs has already attracted 20 companies that have moved into one building, while four more buildings are planned to open this summer with the goal of attracting hundreds of companies and creating some 3000 jobs. Alfi says the word is getting around quickly.
“People were coming up to us when we were moving in, as we were doing construction. Eighty percent of the companies I had never heard of before. These are not even people who knew me,” he says excitedly. “These are people who wanted to be part of the community.”
The idea is to create a campus environment, where innovation and talent can spread quickly, which has been a major challenge for the Arab tech industry.  “Everybody knows my main goal is collaboration, and collaboration will accelerate the development of the tech sector,” Alfi says. “Networking is one of the major missing components. If you are building something and you meet somebody who has already made subcomponents, you can collaborate. Networking is an educational tool to learn what other people are doing. Networking helps create teams faster to attack problems faster.”
But once teams are built, regional entrepreneurs, particularly in a place like Cairo, face the additional challenge of turning profits in a region with generally high unemployment, low per-capita incomes and low levels of disposable income. In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, fewer than 10 percent of the population have bank accounts, and among the entire Arab world population of 350 million, fewer than 10 percent own credit cards.
Not surprisingly, many tech firms are looking to the Arabian Peninsula, where salaries are higher and growing consumer markets are more lucrative.
Plans by Jordan’s Oasis500 to expand into both the uae and Saudi Arabia this year will enable it to “serve a much larger market,” according to investment manager Katkhuda. ArabNet has also begun targeting the Gulf with new annual conferences in both Dubai and Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Flat6Labs has already graduated six firms from its recently established accelerator program in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and it has five firms enrolled in a new cycle.  Flat6Labs Director Ramez Mohamed is bullish on the Gulf region. “Our main focus will be in the Gulf over the next year,” he says, disclosing plans to open yet another accelerator program in the uae as well as a branch in North Africa.
“Our perceptions about the Saudi market were wrong,” he admits. “We thought they wouldn’t be able to start successful companies or lack passion or qualifications, but these were all proven false. When we went there, we found entrepreneurs very eager to succeed and they had something really presentable on demonstration day.”
Alfi concurs. “Saudi youth are coming up with good ideas, more importantly, a desire to succeed,” the Flat6Labs chief says.
Indeed, Saudi talent has gone internationally viral with the success of media startups like Telfaz11, which produced a satirical spoof of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” late last year that earned 11 million YouTube views. It has also produced dozens more high-production-value videos, animations and short films, with many on the site garnering up to three million views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers for its webisodes.
30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together hundreds of it professionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
30-year-old Yale graduate Omar Christidis is the founder and director of five-year-old, Beirut-based ArabNet, which has brought together hundreds of it professionals, venture-capital investors and young entrepreneurs in conferences and events across the region.
Prominent Saudi investor Rachid Al Balla says he is proud of young Saudi creatives and the “geek societies” that have emerged, such as Riyadh Geeks, Jiddah Geeks and Banat [Girl] Geeks. The challenge, he says, is to harness and mature their skills to help build an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Some of the groups have up to 2000 members, he explains, but they often lack the grassroots organizing or funding to meet and create networking opportunities to form a more solid community. “There is no venue large enough for them to meet,” he explains. “They are free organizations.” 
While governments in the region are spending billions on transportation infrastructure such as railways and financial cities, Al Balla argues that many of these projects target established business that can afford high rents, and thus they are not often suited for young entrepreneurs. He suggests a need for more community spaces, perhaps subsidized by sponsorships.
Al Balla says too often there is skittishness about spending and waste and a fear that government programs will overlap.
“When you invest billions, there will be waste and repetition, but that’s okay,” he notes. “In Korea, for example, you’ll find hundreds of programs competing with each other for the same objective. Over-irrigating is less risky than under-irrigating.”
Another challenge is the high salaries paid in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which he says may create a disincentive for young professionals to take risks: “If you are making $10,000 per month, why would you work for a startup and leave at 10 o’clock at night, when you can leave in the early afternoon?”
“I don’t think there is lack of liquidity,” he says. “There are trillions of dollars. There’s a lack of maturity among investors, entrepreneurs, regulators. What needs to be done is to create an ecosystem.”
It’s high time, he asserts, for regional telecom companies that are already making billions to invest in the sector. “If an ecosystem does not mature fast enough, it’s going to be given to international companies who will set up shop here.”
For Ahmed Zahran, the future of economic growth is “off the grid” in the swaths of the Middle East not served by national electricity networks. In 2011 he cofounded KarmSolar, which is building one of the world’s largest solar-powered water pumps and aims to bring renewable energy to desert farming and tourism across the Sinai Peninsula.
For Ahmed Zahran, the future of economic growth is “off the grid” in the swaths of the Middle East not served by national electricity networks. In 2011 he cofounded KarmSolar, which is building one of the world’s largest solar-powered water pumps and aims to bring renewable energy to desert farming and tourism across the Sinai Peninsula.
From his offices in the heart of Dubai’s new financial district, Toukan looks down at the rows of towers that line the city’s main thoroughfare, Shaikh Zayed Road. Though there are no exact figures, he estimates the current value of the Arab tech industry to be worth the equivalent of a couple of the $100-$200 million skyscrapers below.
“If only one percent of what is spent on real estate would go into technology investments,” he laments. “Investors are used to traditional investments. Tech is new to them. We need to prove it. Over the last 10 to 15 years, I have done a lot of convincing. I can see things changing. In the beginning people didn’t believe at all in what we were doing, but when they start hearing about things like WhatsApp being sold for $19 billion, I mean this all helps,” he exclaims with a laugh.
Though there are new funds coming online, such as Saudi telecom-giant stc’s launch of a $50-million fund to invest in small- and medium-sized businesses, Toukan says this is not enough. “We should be talking about billions not millions.”
Alfi says the pool of major investors, known in industry-speak as “angel investors,” needs to broaden: “The people of my generation—myself, Fadi Ghandour, Samih Toukan—these people are not that many. If there were a few hundred of us, the sector would move a lot faster. So now Fadi funds 50 companies, I fund 50 companies, but if there were hundreds of us it would be fantastic. Hopefully in the next 10 to 15 years, the new generation of entrepreneurs will be playing our role but for a much broader sector.”
Another challenge cited by Toukan, Al Balla and other investors is the difficulty of mobilizing talent in the region with the complications of visas procedures, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
On the other end of the spectrum, while poorer countries like Lebanon may be more desirable and accessible destinations, they are beset by massive infrastructure challenges.
Despite the buzz over Beirut’s new Digital District, Internet connections in the country remain among the world’s slowest. The government has promised to deliver discounted fiber optics to such facilities as Berytech, an incubator and one of the first tenants in the district. Berytech has a $6 million fund to invest in startups, and it accelerates three firms per year. But so far the facility has obtained just 12 megabits per second of bandwidth that it must share among dozens of tenants, resulting in individual speeds that hark back to late 1990’s dial-up era. And yet the costs of even this minimal service are staggering.
“We pay $12,000 per month for 12 megabits,” exclaims Berytech Director Nicolas Rouhana. “How am I supposed to help entrepreneurs if I pay that much?”
Meanwhile, the poverty of crumbling neighborhoods like Khandaq al-Ghamiq—visible from the windows of Berytech and the Digital District—is an aching reminder of the deeper challenges of job creation, both in Lebanon and across the region, where the World Bank estimates 100 million jobs will be needed in the coming decade to absorb new workers.
As suggested by the title of his 2013 book, Startup Rising, writer and investor Christopher Schroeder argues that the new generation of Mideast entrepreneurs is poised to have a sweeping impact on the region and its economic future.
“Technology offers an irreversible level of transparency, connectivity and inexpensive access to capital markets unprecedented only five years ago,” he writes.
Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
Early tenant in Beirut’s newly established Digital District, Nicolas Rouhana is director of Berytech, which has a $6 million fund to invest in startups.
The product of a year of traveling throughout the region, Schroeder’s book is a catalog of the dozens of startup successes across the Arab world. He makes frequent reference to the potential of the region’s youth population of 100 million under the age of 15, and Internet and smartphone penetration growing at double-digit rates in many countries.  Convinced of the industry’s future, Schroeder now sits on the boards of both Oasis500 and Wamda, a Beirut-based tech-news agency and organizer of entrepreneurial workshops from Casablanca to Doha.
“The youth, well-educated and unleashed, are really an asset.  Entrepreneurship generally, and tech availability specifically, offer us tools and capabilities not even on the table to discuss five years ago,” he wrote in an email.
Yet at the same time, it’s hard to deny that a great number of the industry’s young stars come from privileged backgrounds or have attended prestigious universities, often in the West, and that they are generally comfortable in English. In fact nearly every session and speaker at ArabNet in Beirut spoke entirely in English, despite the fact that 80 percent of the Arab population speaks only Arabic, according to the United Nations 2005 Human Development Report.
And entrance into the industry is not cheap. A single desk at facilities like Oasis500 or Berytech rents for a starting price of $300 to $350 per month, which is about the same as a discounted youth entrance fee to a three-day ArabNet conference. This may not seem expensive in the West, but these numbers are roughly equivalent to or greater than the average monthly salaries in much of the Middle East.
In response, organizations like ArabNet and Oasis500 say they offer scholarships and massive discounts to financially challenged individuals with compelling applications.
“There are a lot of ways to get in if you can’t afford the fees,” says Omar Christidis, ArabNet founder and director. The 30-year-old Yale graduate notes that all who participate in the Ideathon pitching session receive free event access.
“In theory, most of the opportunities are open to anyone regardless of class,” he explains over a choppy Beirut Skype connection. “Now does education play a role in filling out the application form? Yes.”
Saudi national Joumana Al Jabri cofounded Beirut-based Visualizing Impact, which produces data and graphic-based storytelling to map out Middle East social and political challenges not covered in depth by news media. “There’s a lot of talent in the region and it’s not being utilized in areas that need it most,” she says. “Our ambition is to create a precedent that can both address pressing issues and engage highly creative people in data-science technology and design.”
Saudi national Joumana Al Jabri cofounded Beirut-based Visualizing Impact, which produces data and graphic-based storytelling to map out Middle East social and political challenges not covered in depth by news media. “There’s a lot of talent in the region and it’s not being utilized in areas that need it most,” she says. “Our ambition is to create a precedent that can both address pressing issues and engage highly creative people in data-science technology and design.”
And Christidis acknowledges that many of the region’s youth may not have the luxury of experimenting with entrepreneurial ideas due to commitments to earn a living. “If you are a breadwinner for your parents, you may be less likely to take the risk,” he adds, while cautioning that these same digital divides characterize most world tech markets. “Is entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley catered to those with little means?”
Industry veteran and Aramex ceo Fadi Ghandour says he too is aware of the divide, and he touts a new partnership with the United Nations Development Program to help fund 200 microbusinesses in Jordan. The initiative, which Ghandour says will also be extended to Lebanon, is offered through Ruwwad, a youth empowerment and volunteering organization that he also chairs.
“The Internet abolishes divides, and it is an equalizer and has brought down the cost of innovation and doing business substantially,” he says. “So the divide exists, but that does not worry me as much as red tape, access to capital and building the infrastructure for enabling people and businesses to transact online.”
Indeed, those worries may also endanger the Arab world’s ability to retain the precious talent it has built. For example, young hardware developers like Hobeika of Instabeat are weighing options for future locations.
 “I think we will have a lot of trouble scaling in the future when we want to create more than one product,” she says. “We’ve been looking into relocating, places in Europe, in the us. We are definitely exploring. You want to hire senior people and high-level expertise.”
Sitting in a Beirut café, Bassam Jalgha, the creator of Roadie Tuner, is also torn, facing his next trip to China to oversee the first production cycle.  “I want to give hope to people, to tell them it is possible, that we are doing it, even if the situation is bad, that you can still do it.” But as car bombs continue to go off in Beirut, he has been considering spending more time in China, and he is learning Chinese. “I like it,” he says wistfully. “The sad part about being here is nothing is getting better. I came back after six months in China and now it’s worse.”

Startups for Refugee Relief

By the end of 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is predicted to reach two million, equivalent to a nearly 50 percent increase in Lebanon’s population. With many refugees living in tents across the country, technology has empowered several grassroots aid efforts. Inspired by the Syrian families peddling goods on the streets near her university in Beirut, college student Tanya Khalil cofounded the “I am not a Tourist” initiative. Using a highly publicized Facebook page and partnering with relief groups, she organized a clothing drive that in a single day filled more than 25 trucks with winter clothing and bedding.
Rainboots for Syrian Children, spearheaded by furniture designer Hala Habib, mobilized dozens of young volunteers to provide waterproof footwear for refugee children living in muddy campsites. With an online gateway that allows donors to purchase a pair of boots for $5, to date the initiative has delivered more than 10,000 boots to refugee children across Lebanon.
And time is of the essence. Governments and institutions that constrain investment or opportunities now are making “terrible choices” that may affect generations, author Schroeder argues. “Technology moves so fast,” he says. “If a country falls behind, it is hard to catch up. They will lose their best talent.”
But Ghandour remains confident for the longer term: “I understand the risk very well, and I know the rewards. Profits are important, but this industry needs to be built and nurtured, and investors and entrepreneurs have to be very patient before pushing to see profits. Like all business or startups, everything takes time to build.”
Ghandour’s team at Wamda is now raising a $75 million fund to support entrepreneurs, a more than tenfold increase on Wamda’s previous $7 million fund launched just three years ago.
“The trends in all areas look good. Green shoots everywhere. We just have to keep pushing and pushing and continue believing and investing,” says Ghandour. ”Pathfinders are people that are going to take the biggest risks. They are the most courageous and most committed. Their work will be rewarded. History tells us that all the time.”
Habib Battah Habib Battah (habib.battah@gmail.com and @habib_b) is a Beirut-based investigative journalist, filmmaker and author of the blog www.beirutreport.com. He is also a regular contributor to Al Jazeera, bbcWorld and The Daily Star newspaper. He is a two-time recipient of the Samir Kassir Press Freedom Award.
David Degner Cairo-based freelance photojournalist David Degner (degner@gmail.com) is represented by Getty Reportage. He studied philosophy and photojournalism at Western Kentucky University. 
This article appeared on page 22 of the print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Instabug as having raised funds on Kickstarter, when it was the fellow Egyptian app 1Sheeld that raised over $85,000 on the crowd-funding site. 

    5

    So by now you have heard that “The Daily Beast” has rated Lebanon the worst place in the world to visit. Of course that’s ironic because it was just last year that Conde Nast, which probably has a lot more experience in travel journalism than the Beast, rated Lebanon as one of the best places to visit worldwide, just above Paris.

    Of course The Beast offers no specific criteria or firsthand information on which the countries were judged, eroding any credibility this list may have.

    Sure Lebanon is expensive, but a lot cheaper than Europe and similar if not cheaper than a lot of US cities. So why the 0/10 rating on costs? In fact some hotels have recently slashed prices here by up to 50 percent.

    But what concerns me most is the safety rating at 2/3. Yes there has been terrorism in Lebanon, explosions and car bombs. Last year terrorist attacks claimed 102 lives; this year so far terrorist attacks have claimed 34 lives.

    The numbers seem high but compare these to the crime rates in major US cities. Over 15 US cities have  murder rates higher than 100. In New York at 419 murders, over four times more people were killed than in Lebanese terrorism. In Chicago, there were 500 murders or five times as many–and Chicago has a little over half the population of Lebanon. In Los Angeles, which is also smaller than Lebanon, nearly 300 murders; in Houston 200 murders; and the list goes on including Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Detroit, Indianapolis and even Baltimore, just 40 miles outside the US capital with 219 murders and barely a quarter the population of Lebanon.

    Yes these cities are not the ‘best to visit’ list either but they are also not among the worst and certainly do not get anywhere near the amount of coverage on CNN, The New York Times or State Department warnings as Beirut.

    What about the other countries on the “worst” list: Iran and Jordan. Seriously? Those countries have almost zero crime compared to the United States, Europe or South America.

    Finally let’s look at some of the “Best” countries. Mexico at number 6 with a rating of 1/3 in terms of safety. Really? Only 100,000 people have been killed since 2006 in drug wars. Don’t get me wrong I love Mexico and I have family from there. I love New York too. And yes Beirut is getting more dangerous. But I’m tired of the disproportionate media attention.

    If anything, Lebanon is becoming just as dangerous as any major US city, but you would never know that from reading The Daily Beast, State Department reports and major US newspapers and television outlets that spend way more time covering violence in exotic places than what is happening just a few miles or blocks away from their corporate offices.

    UPDATE 3/15/14

    The Daily Beast has now removed the article.  

    Published in the January issue of Al Jazeera Digital Magazine, available on iTunes.

    Words and photos by Habib Battah
     
    A waiter surveys a row of empty tables beneath the Place D’Etoile clock tower seen on so many postcards of Beirut. Once a gritty, bustling hub of the city, the square was sandblasted and transformed into a posh cafe district in the early 1990s after the ravages of the Lebanese war. Tonight, hundreds of glasses and plates are laid on fine place mats, but there is barely a single customer in sight.
    “You will be lucky if your restaurant gets two tables per night,” says 26-year-old Rami. “If you get three or four, you are king of the street.”
     
    He is among a dozen wait staff dressed in starched shirts and vests standing around, waiting for things to pick up. They say they’ve watched some 13 restaurants shut down over the last year and more closings are scheduled, leaving only a handful of establishments still lit up on the once crowded strip. Beyond the clocktower circle, the slowdown is more grim. Entire surrounding blocks are empty, with hundreds of vacant, dusty glass storefronts lining the pristine cobble stone streets.
     
    Fifty-one-year-old Lina manages one of the few boutiques still open, but with an average of one sale per day, she spends much of her time drinking coffee on the curbside.

    And yet rents in the redeveloped old city, rebranded after the civil war as Beirut Central District, are among the highest in the country. Some establishments reportedly pay up to $150,000 per year in rent alone.      
     
    Downtown Beirut was bustling with hooka cafes before the conflict in Syria, catering mainly to wealthy tourists from the Arab Gulf countries. Now waitstaff stand around, fearing the loss of their jobs.
     
     
    Before the Syrian war began, Beirut Central District– which spans about two square kilometers–had become a tourist magnet, attracting hordes of wealthy visitors from neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia during summer. But many of those countries have since imposed stiff travel bans on Lebanon, where there is intense hostility toward Gulf states for funding the war next door, particularly among the many pro-regime parties in the bitterly divided country.   
     
    “They think Lebanon is a terrorist country,” Rami, the waiter, says. So now he is looking for jobs in other parts of the capital that are still thriving despite the conflict and subsequent fall in tourism. And that, perhaps, underscores a deeper problem with the redevelopment of downtown Beirut: the commonly held belief among locals that the once vibrant old city was reconstructed, not to be used by the Lebanese residents, but as a spectacle to attract foreigners.     
     
    “This area was built for Khaleejiyi,” Rami says, using the colloquial term for Gulf Arabs. “It’s not for me and you. It won’t come back. Everything that goes away, doesn’t come back.”
     
    ‘An island for the rich’
     
    Lebanese economist and former finance minister Georges Corm is not surprised by the disparity between the performance of the central district, which occupies a surface area of less than one percent of the capital, and the rest of Beirut.
     
    “I said from the beginning this project is going to create an island instead of the reconstitution of the social and architectural fabric,” he explained from his office overlooking the cranes at work near downtown.
     
    “This was a place where all of the social classes would mix. It was the biggest symbol of coexistence in Lebanon. Now it’s a kind of no man’s land for rich people.”
     
    How old Beirut evolved into a luxury district few Lebanese could afford is rooted in an enormous real estate privatization process that began in the early 1990s spearheaded by the late prime minister Rafik Hariri.
     
    Hariri, a billionaire developer, took office in 1992 after a power-sharing agreement to end the Lebanese civil war was signed in Saudi Arabia, where he had amassed much of his wealth in the construction industry and enjoyed close ties to the royal family. Hariri had eyed the Beirut reconstruction process as early as the 1980s and had commissioned a private firm to develop plans to rebuild the city center well before coming to office. It has even been suggested his construction firm, Saudi Oger, undertook demolition works in the 1980s to lay the groundwork for the planned reconstruction.
     
    Over a dozen restaurants have closed on the main strip in the central district this year and dozens more store fronts on side streets remain unoccupied.
     
     
    In fact in 1990, two years before Hariri came to power, the head of Hariri’s Saudi Oger was appointed to lead Lebanon’s state reconstruction agency, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). Once in office, Hariri established Solidere as the lead developer, a private firm traded on the Beirut stock market, in which he would become the largest shareholder. Meanwhile, through a decree signed by his government, the rights of thousands of Beirut tenants and landowners were ceded to Solidere, in exchange for shares, valued by government committees. The decree was signed by then finance minister Fouad Siniora who had previously headed banks owned by Hariri.
     
    Attorney Mohammed Mugraby, who has represented some 50 property rights owners in suits against Solidere, says his clients were denied the right to challenge the company’s actions and claims judges were paid by Solidere through the CDR to issue share appraisals, which were exponentially undervalued.  
     
    “Solidere is an unprecedented violation of the Lebanese constitution and rule of law,” Mugraby says. “Legally it does not exist. Solidere is nothing but an arm of the Hariri establishment.”
     
    Despite multiple requests for comment, Solidere’s press office and representatives could not be reached for an interview. The company has often argued that an expedited private management structure was the most feasible approach to the reconstruction process at the end of the war.
     
    An image of rebirth
     
    Marked by rows of gutted, bullet-riddled buildings, open sewers and vegetation growing through the streets, the old city center had become an eyesore that interfered with the image of rebirth Hariri had hoped to sell investors during his post-war reign. The Lebanese economy and  institutions had been crippled by 15 years of savage shelling and the lure of multi-million dollar contracts and the promise of renewed business flowing into the capital was undoubtedly a powerful motivator for widespread acceptance of the sweeping changes proposed by the prime minister.
     
    In the 1990s, Solidere told its story in the form of ubiquitous television commercials with time lapse footage of individual buildings slowly restored to their former glory by workers on scaffolding. It published coffee table books featuring large glossy artist impressions of what the city would look like, with vignettes on the offices and marina designs Solidere would borrow from places like Barcelona, Monte Carlo and New York City.
     
    Excluded from this narrative was the razing of entire historic neighborhoods such as Zeitouni, Wadi Abou Jamil, Safi, the Souks and the whole of Martyr’s Square, save for its namesake statue.
     
    There are more pigeons than customers on an average day in the city center. Critics say the scheme to rebuild old Beirut created a Disneyland effect, replacing the once gritty streets that drew a mix of social class with an island for the wealthy, divorced from the rest of the city.
     
     
    Among the hundreds of destroyed buildings were “the last Ottoman and medieval remains in Beirut” wrote American University of Beirut professor Nabil Beyhum in the Journal The Beirut Review in 1992. Much of the damage had been done through unapproved demolitions in the 1980s and early 1990s, bringing down  “some of the capital’s most significant buildings and structures,” wrote UCLA professor Saree Makdisi in the journal, Critical Inquiry, in 1997.
     
    To increase Solidere’s surface area, relatively undamaged buildings were collapsed through the use of excess dynamite, according to Makdisi.
     
    Seventy-five-year-old Mugraby is also a rights owner himself and says four shops owned by his late father in the vaunted Souks of Beirut were demolished in mid-1983– not by militias but by bulldozers belonging to Hairi’s Saudi Oger.
     
    Mugraby and others say they have been punished for opposing Solidere. He claims the company launched an illegal attempt to disbar him and was even jailed for three weeks following his allegations of corrupt payments to Lebanese judges. Mugraby says it has taken a decade to clear his name: “I became so busy defending myself, I had little time left to fight these guys.”
     
    Company or country?
     
    Fadi Al Khoury, the owner of  Beirut’s oldest and most storied hotel, says Solidere has consistently denied him the right to rebuild. Opened in 1929, the St. Georges had been featured in countless films, books and postcards of the city, famed for its water skiing matches, yachting club and James Bond-like guest list. But today Solidere has landfilled the hotel’s beach access to build its own marina and the St. Georges is now better known for the giant “Stop Solidere” canvas that covers its still bullet riddled facade.
     
    Al Khoury says his refusal to sell the property to Solidere has resulted in him being repeated denied work permits over the last 19 years through the company’s vast influence on city officials.
     
    “They are more powerful than the government,” he says from his home in the hills above the capital, which he admits to now rarely visiting. “Having one company bigger than the country can disrupt the rights of the people.”
     
    With rows of empty buildings, it is unclear how many shops remain vacant in Beirut’s central district. Unable to afford the high cost of maintenance imposed by Solidere, most original tenants have been forced to surrender their properties in exchange for shares in the company
     
     
    Solidere is by far Lebanon’s largest company. According to its website, the firm’s current real estate and financial assets are close to $10 billion, which is nearly one quarter of the country’s entire GDP.
     
    Even for the few whose properties were spared by the bulldozers, Solidere has made the price of holding on very high.
     
    The Ahliah School, one of the city’s oldest, had managed to stay open during the worst days of the civil war, but was still forced to pay Solidere some $350,000 to continue operating once the fighting ended, the chairman of the school’s board, Nadim Cortas, explains. Solidere had claimed the fee would cover “infrastructure costs” such as road and plumbing work in the Central District, and was calculated as a percentage of a property value.
     
    Solidere would also claim rights over the schools “sky” space. Before the war, Cortas said he had been granted a right to build several additional floors to expand the campus, which has been hosting students since 1875. But now even if the school needs to build an extra room, Cortas says that space must be purchased at market value from Solidere. And because the neighborhood has been transformed into one of luxury towers at the costs of millions of dollars per apartment, the value of land has risen exponentially to thousands of dollars per square meter.
     
    Meanwhile Cortas says Solidere also demolished the Ahliah school’s annex elementary building– which remained intact during the war and was recently renovated– to make way for a parking lot (though it had promised to transform the space into a garden.) In exchange, Ahliah received shares in the company, which he says are worth hardly a fifth of the property’s current value.
     
    Still the chairman of the board says he has “mended bridges” with the developer. He touts Ahliah, a non-profit institution, as one of the few schools in the Beirut to have maintained a non-sectarian curriculum with a mixed student body, including some 30 percent of students supported by financial aid. He said the school had recently achieved the coveted New England certification and is keen to move beyond the challenges of the past.
     
    Indeed many property owners are reluctant to speak critically about Solidere. The company maintains a say over all approvals and sets very strict building standards, often forcing owners to purchase high cost imported materials.
     
    “Everything we need to fix requires permission,” said one property owner on the condition of anonymity. “If I need a new door, they will choose the most expensive paint. If we need to replace a window, they make us buy cedarwood because they say the original windows were cedarwood. So we have to import the windows from the USA.
     
    “If you make a fuss, next time you ask for permission to renovate, they will keep your request in their drawers for six months.”
     
    When a property owner fails to comply with Solidere’s strict building codes, the owner is forced to vacate and accept shares in the company. And because central Beirut had not been a luxury district, it would be hard to imagine most residents and small business owners could afford lavish furnishings, particularly after 15 years of harrowing conflict.
     
    But, in other cases, more coercive means may have allegedly been deployed. Mugraby produces a court indictment in the case of 11 persons killed during a demolition in February 1996 because, he says, a family refused to move.
     
    Had Solidere offered comment, one assumes they would have denied responsibility for much of the above. Of course accidents happen on construction sites and the notion that change will always be difficult for some parties to accept is a mantra of developers everywhere.
     
    A ‘manicured’ city
     
    “Any big organization undertaking a task this large is really going to upset people along the way,” says Karim Makarem, managing director of Ramco, a Beirut-based real estate consultancy.  
     
    Each night the tables are set and the televisions are turned on in the hopes of luring customers. Staff say they would be lucky to fill two to three tables per night.
     
     
    Makarem blames the current slowdown in the central district on the lack of tourism and says added security measures have made the area difficult to access, even for locals. With the country’s parliament and the prime minister’s offices close to the Etoile square, streets are often cordoned off due to protests.
     
    “It’s extremely uninviting,” he says. “The BCD [Beirut Central District] has suffered more than any other area because of the political situation, yet in my opinion, it has the best future.”
     
    Despite the high rents, Makarem is confident that there exists a market of wealthy Lebanese living abroad, particularly in newly built Gulf cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to fill the gap.
     
    “A lot of these people want the benefits of living in a manicured part of town. Once you’ve been living in that type of sanitary environment, it is very difficult to live in the mess that is the rest of Beirut.”
     
    Because Solidere leveled much of the old city, it was able to install new cabling, sewers, power sub stations and sidewalks. Whereas in the rest of the capital–which is roughly 20 times larger than Solidere– much of this infrastructure had collapsed during the years of war. Power lines are haphazardly strung, street flooding is common and sidewalks are broken or missing.
     
    “There are a lot of positives,” says Makerm of Solidere’s urban planning. “It’s the only place you can walk downtown. I’m very optimistic,” he adds. “The minute you get these tourists and expats in the country, I think they will appreciate what the BCD has to offer.”
     
    Changing history
     
    Yet critics also question what the Central District has offered the local population. In a country with an average monthly income of around $1,000, most Lebanese struggle to find somewhere to eat or shop within their price range.
     
    For years, Solidere has promised to build parks, museums and cultural spaces. Much touted projects include an archaeological exhibit, dubbed The Garden of Forgiveness, a city museum to be built beneath Martyr’s Square and a lush central park–all announced to much fanfare over a decade ago. Yet today these sites remain vacant, with little indication about completion dates and barely a mention on Solidere’s sleek, recently revamped website.
     
    Despite the lack of business, cafe owners are faced with some of the highest rental prices in Beirut. If the lack of tourism continues, the few remaining outlets are expected to close.
     
     
    Meanwhile, well over a dozen hotel, office and residential towers have gone up over the same period. And in 2007, Solidere had announced plans to create Solidere International, which would help develop multi-billion dollar residential projects in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Solidere’s general manager announced that the company had amassed over $700 million in cash, with an annual income of $50 million–this in addition to land and real estate assets worth over $8 billion.  
     
    “With all the profit that has been made, you don’t have one cultural project in a city– that in the worst of times– had theatres and performances,” says architect Mona Hallak.
     
    Hallak is among several activists and academics who have long argued that any project to rebuild the city center should aim to bring original residents back in an effort to stimulate post-war reconciliation over a profit-making enterprise. But she has lowered expectations considerably.
     
    “Just give me one building, that would have shut me up,” Hallak says, rolling off a list of promised cultural centers that never materialized. Hallak has spearheaded the Beit Beirut museum, which will be housed in a shrapnel-pierced apartment block that had become the most-feared sniper’s nest on the line dividing East and West Beirut during the civil war. Hallak spent over a decade of her life fighting to save the arcaded 1930s-era building, which lies just outside of the Solidere area, and was four days away from demolition in the late 1990s, she says. But the slightly graying activist is exasperated by the battle for the BCD.
     
    “I think we deserve Solidere. The people of Beirut don’t understand that it was the biggest rip-off–a real estate company taking over a downtown. I mean, it’s crazy. It changed the whole history and identity of the city. For me, Solidere is a question of erasing the memory of Beirut.”
     
    Still visions of old Beirut live on.
     
    At his wood-paneled law office in Hamra, a few miles from the city center, Attorney Mugraby leans back in his chair when asked about his final days in the old city. It was 1976. The civil war had gone on for about a year but there was a lull in the fighting. The militias had withdrawn and the barricades were removed. Crowds of shopkeepers and residents had returned to check on their properties. There was a large impromptu gathering at Martyrs square. Even strangers embraced, asking about friends and families. Mugraby pauses and turns away.
     
    “It was touching, I tell you,” he says, voice cracking. A slight tremble runs over his lips and wrinkled face. For a brief moment, his eyes fog up.  
    “It’s difficult for me to discuss.”

      0
      That’s Fabienne Blineau, French parliamentarian and wife of Lebanese MP Simon Abi Ramia (below)

      The two appeared on “Talk of the Town” an MTV Lebanon show featuring politicians and TV personalities. 
      While watching the program I was thinking Lebanon is one of the few places where such a marriage could work. While French MPs are probably expected to show up for work everyday– or at least every week– Lebanese MPs spend much of their time at home or traveling the world, with Parliament often closed for months or years. Of course Lebanese MPs still get paid a full salary, which is exorbitantly higher than MPs in most other countries, relatively speaking.
      Thus not only do Lebanese legislators have plenty of time to spend with family, they also have plenty of money to spend. So why not subtract the amount of money earned by a Lebanese MP from the days of work missed per year when parliament is closed? That might be a great incentive to get government back in session. 
      Of course the host of “Talk of the Town” didn’t dare entertain such queries or pose even the obvious question of comparing parliamentary work in France with Lebanon. She simply had the two answer silly questions about their favorite foods and music, even sing some songs. And really that’s what Lebanese television does best: make MPs look like great, family folks despite the utter failures and rampant corruption of government policies or lack thereof. 

        0

        So everyone is talking about the latest EU designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and I just got a call from UK-based channel Arise News for a comment. “How will this affect Lebanon,” they eagerly asked me.

        I told them this is the latest in a series of designations Lebanon has faced over the years. Last year, a Lebanese bank was designated as a “primary money laundering concern” by the US government, a designation that led to pressure on the entire Lebanese banking system.

        Numerous other designations have affected Lebanese tourism, most recently by Gulf countries, designating Lebanon as too dangerous to visit.

        The US government had banned travel to Lebanon for over a decade, and has also listed Lebanon’s Al Manar channel as a specially-desiganted terrorist television entity in 2006. Of course all this designating never stopped the US from doing businesses in Lebanon, where it maintains a massive embassy, a wide-array of development programs and frequent commentary from the US ambassador in Beirut who is often seen on Lebanese TV–including Al Manar– meeting and exchanging smiles with Lebanese officials.

        It’s a funny term, this word designation. Who designates and who gets designated?

        Considering the US military’s rich history of orchestrating coups, arming miltias and leading invasions that have killed or maimed tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocents (in South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East) it’s a wonder how few states have designated the USA as a very dangerous entity capable of far more than designations.

        0

        As is typically the case when big acts come to Lebanon, Lana Del Rey’s performance experienced sound problems and her voice was barely audible at times.

        Despite the the $60 price tag for the cheapest standing tickets, she performed–if we can call it that– for about an hour with no encore and very little set-up.

        Many felt she was spaced out most of the time–in fact I didn’t hear the word Lebanon or Byblos uttered once–so I’m not entirely sure she knew where she was.

        Here’s what I did hear:

        At one point she made reference to the “electricity” and “mysticism” or “mystique” “in the air.”

        She spoke one more time toward the end of the show saying:

        “It feels so fucking sexy and amazing here.”

        Of course Ray is probably on a plane right now to her next show, so perhaps we can’t expect these performers to know much about the countries they visit. I found the same to be true of Flo Rida, when I briefly interviewed him for MTV a couple of years back–though he did at least make note of the location during his gig.

        All this is good business for Lebanese promoters who can charge exorbitant entrance fees while investing relatively little in the technical set-up or band travel arrangements, as the stars often show up alone or with only a handful of musicians. The result often sounds more like celebrity Karaoke than a live performance of studio tracks.

        There are definitely exceptions to this, such great recent Beirut shows put on by Sting and Snoop Dogg who brought entire bands with them. But more often than not, going to a concert in Lebanon often feels like getting a very downsized experience for a very upscale price.

         

          2
          While watching these guys flying through the air at the latest car-free day in Beirut, I asked myself:
          Would these stunts be as great without the beautiful heritage buildings in the background?
          There are so many great things about hosting a car-free day in Beirut, as done yesterday by Discover Mar Mikhael
          For one, it allows you to stop and look up at the old buildings, which you can never really do when you are in a car, either zipping around or stuck in traffic: 

          Mar Mikhael is full of heritage buildings, on both sides of the main road and throughout the alleys. Appreciating them at events like this might make it harder for the government and private corporations to tear them down, which they are trying desperately to do.

           What’s also great about this event is that–in addition to rollerblading– it encourages other anti-polluting forms of travel:

          As well as street artists and street performers, which are banned in other parts of town:

          Even the police showed some interest:

          The car-free day also made possible open-air street markets or souks, most of which have been wiped out of the capital by developers.

          There were even free beverages:

          Easy there, cowboy:

          These kind of events have happened before but they don’t get much coverage in both local and Western press, at least nowhere near as much as politicians’ speeches or random acts of violence. And yet positive events can be just as significant–if not more so– impacting the thousands of people who participate in them in lasting, subtle ways. 
          I salute the organizers for creating an inclusive and affordable outing, which is unfortunately becoming rare in Beirut. Let’s hope more of these events can be held in other parts of the city and country.