Monday, January 16, 2012

Sometimes It Takes A Disaster To Know Just How Bankrupt A Nation Is

We’ve all heard it countless times, how unique Lebanon is. The bride of the Orient they call it. Switzerland of the Middle East is another exclusive label Lebanon has enjoyed for a long time. The capital Beirut is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world. Lately it’s been featured as a nightlife oasis, setting a new standard in luxury, glitz and fun.

You watch Lebanese television and you’re awed by the bling, glitter and high fashion. The latest technologies are on display along with beautiful, heavily made-up, sometimes half-naked anchors. The media employ any method to woo a small audience that must endure all sorts of political agendas anywhere they turn. Lebanese channels hold talent competitions that are total imitations of the west, reality shows that carry just as much gossip and time waste, and an unhealthy daily dose of politicians and pundits who make the rounds to point fingers, place blame, give excuses and talk about anything but Lebanon’s real problems.

If you watch Lebanese TV stations or go out on the town in Lebanon, you’d think yourself in one of the most elite countries in the world. But if you follow some of these party animals home or if you check a few streets down from the glitzy bar,
restaurant or café, where you found them, you’ll be hit by a different reality about Lebanon and its people.

When an already condemned building collapsed in a residential neighborhood over the weekend, all masks crumbled along with the building. The fake façade the Lebanese (politicians, leaders and citizens) usually put on was trapped along with dozens of bodies under the rubble. Only the truth was shining in our faces and Lebanon stood naked in the light.

This is what I learned by watching the heartbreaking images in the aftermath of the tragedy:

Lebanon does not enforce a building code to ensure only safe homes are inhabited and the condemned ones are torn down.

Lebanon does not have any emergency plan to respond to disasters. Nor does it have an infrastructure to support organizations that can be activated when disaster strikes to assist in search and rescue operations or re-locating and rehabilitating survivors.

The Lebanese civil defense and the Red Cross do not have the necessary equipment to manage a decent search and rescue operation. Some of the search was conducted with bare hands and many victims died under the rubble because they could not be reached in time.

Lebanese media have become masters at shouting matches but have no experience or a code of ethics in handling breaking news pertaining to an internal tragedy that has nothing to do with their usual discussion topics involving Syria, Israel, Iran,
the U.S. and others.

Most Lebanese still react to tragedy as curious observers and cynics without any sense of duty towards their fellow citizens. The result is a lot of lip service, silly complaints, empty assumptions and unhelpful noise that spreads around without
sincere actions to compliment the expressed sorrow.

If this tragedy showed the moral bankruptcy of the Lebanese government, the impotence of the Lebanese media and the lack of a well-equipped search and rescue bodies, it did expose the helpful and sometimes heroic nature of the ordinary compassionate citizen. One effort to highlight is led by a man known to many on the social network Twitter as @Monajem. Feeling compelled to act and help the survivors of the tragedy of those who found themselves homeless in one fateful second, as a concerned citizen started a volunteering list and a Facebook page. He is asking people to sign up with anything they can help with or donate.

I hope his efforts bear fruit as I hope that the people in power can learn something from this simple individual gesture that carries the potential of making a real difference.


Keep the conversation going...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thirty Five years of war and the Lebanese managed their own disasters on their own. The majority of casualties were citizens who had nothing to do with the war, yet, they bore losses and pains without counseling or aid.
This is what Lebanese governments are used and this is what the citizens expect from their governements! The problem is that each government takes over starts blaming its predecessor back to the first government of independence. Too much talks, little work and vigilence. Now they are talking of safety check ups on building. The fear is that the body that will run the surveys end up as a collaborator with Owners of old buildings to disqualify those buildings in order to benefit from real estate boom in Lebanon. The threat will be under the slogan leave now before you die under the rubble tomorrow. When it comes to business, all crooked ways are possible in Lebanon starting at the top layer.

January 16, 2012 at 12:10 PM  
Anonymous Liliane said...

"Most Lebanese still react to tragedy as curious observers and cynics without any sense of duty towards their fellow citizens. The result is a lot of lip service, silly complaints, empty assumptions and unhelpful noise that spreads around without
sincere actions to compliment the expressed sorrow."


January 16, 2012 at 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is not just old buildings!!!
Where is the code for all the new buildings and who's enforcing. They are mostly built for fast turnover.
Inspections should involve an INTERNATIONAL team who's totally independent from the Lebanese public and private sectors and who can certify each and every building - OLD & NEW - at owner's expense. I seriously mean that. It's more important than the STL since it affects the lives of Millions.
Cut the crap, time to end this fiasco and give the citizens the protection and safety they need.

January 16, 2012 at 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Octavia in the end, only the Lebanese people themselves can be blamed for their own country's predicament. It is the Lebanese who their feudal political families in power. It is the Lebanese who are their religion the basis for their political bias. It is the Lebanese who put their religion ahead of their country. It is the Lebanese who ally with foreigners to fight their own countrymen. In response to this or any other event, the man on the street will mimic his sectarian leader in apportioning blame and will not contribute an iota of intelligent civil debate. The Lebanese are happy to have a bankrupt corrupt country, as long as they can blame it on the other side.

January 16, 2012 at 5:22 PM  
Blogger Octavia Nasr said...

Thank you for your comments.. I think we need to move from blame to action ASAP.. People have the power, they just have to care enough to employ it and effect change!

January 16, 2012 at 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To briefly respond to your sentiment, I'd like to just say that Lebanon's strength lies in its rich agro-based culture and heritage, and its people (both domestic and in the diaspora) who show a high level of adaptation to other systems. However they are not very adept at conceiving/implementing their own systems. Contemporary Lebanese society has not adapted well to the technology and information age in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries exccept through the now tired practices of "polished media imitations with an oriental flair" used strictly for mass domestic and international consumption. This only gets you so far before it shows its lack of substance and ugly moral standards.
In mini-catastrophes such as this event you referred to, people are forced to lose for the moment their insulation/isolation from their real identity and revert to their roots of communal effort and initiative to deal with events that other systems deal with in a more adequate/effective manner. War, forest fires, building collapses, etc... It can be argued that the last social systems successfully implemented date back to the days of the French Mandate in Lebanon. At one point, contemporary Lebanon must lose this superficial luster, rediscover its roots, and re-interface with today's knowledge based age as knowledge is the premium of the twenty-first century, and contemporary Lebanon will need builders who share a social vision that builds a society built on both its rich oriental/agricultural history and its human talent.
My feeling is that the solution will come from the rich diaspora that understands the organization and importance of systems/building of the 21st century as well as the uniquely rich background of its communal oriental social roots. As I write this, I am listening to Wadi3 Al-Safi singing "Al-Mijana/Abou Il-Zilouf." We all long to help Lebanon adapt to this age without losing its identity--wherever in the world we are. I call it our unique "Abou ilzilouf complex." By the way, I am a Biotechnologist and Corporate Executive, and my nickname is "Executive Fille7." I come from a Village (even though I've spent less than a quarter of my life there). Somehow we are all in the same boat and we share a common backgroud and vision going forward. And I look to this expatriate cadre to carry the mantle for Lebanon going forward. From one perspective, Lebanese are among the best equipped culturally to deal with today's Global Village. However, we just have to know what our real assets are--it starts with an understanding and appreciation for our roots. True nation building will go from there.

January 17, 2012 at 1:12 AM  
Anonymous Liliane said...

Anonymous (Jan 17, 1:12 AM). I hope you see my reply. I see and understand your logic, but can't help but wonder why you focused the most that the roots of our problem is Abou ilzilouf complex? Don't you think it's more aligned with corruption, connections, non-ethical, lack of empathy behavior present among the employees that work for the government (from the smallest, to the biggest?)

January 18, 2012 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Octavia Nasr said...

I think "Executive Fille7"'s point referes to the Lebanese abroad more so than those in Lebanon. I see and feel that too but I totally agree with Liliane, the biggest obstacle in the face of any change is the un-ethical behavior of officials that many Lebanese have grown accustomed to. I have great hope for the young Lebanese (anyone younger than me) who are smart, tech-savvy, world oriented and oh so CLEAN and wanting to clean up the mess of so many years of corruption. I lend them my support because I believe in them making the change and I stand available for advice, guidance and unlimited support until they change Lebanon for the better!

I too hope she reads the follow-ups and both of you should listen to "Shi Fashel" by Zad Rahbani. This play never ceases to amaze me entertain me and teach me about myself and my country of origin!!! If you already know it, listen to it again with this conversation in mind!! We can all use a good laugh right about now :D

January 18, 2012 at 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Liliane and Octavia, I was recently in discussions with a Syrian friend (social, not political) when he made the statement that Lebanon "had become more like the West." I told him that I felt that to be a wrong comparison: Lebanon socially is more like Nigeria and the rest of Africa, not the West. Now this can be taken in many different interpretations, but I think you understand the nuance behind my statement. All those countries (and the West on a bigger order (MNC's anyone?? From Enron to Lehman Bros.) have that low level to high level bureaucratic corruption (not to be mistaken with bureaucratic ineptitude as in Western Europe and Canada). In business, we call it OPM ("Other Peoples' Money)." But the modern day ethics are blurred. I think that with the fragmentation of societies and community environments globally, a major component of the social fabric beautifully embodied by the Arabic word "akhle'" has become lacking. On a sociological level, due to the fluidity of modern-day society (globally), this concept has become fragmented due to a breakdown of social order--again, globally. It's just manifested on a different level in different societies with different levels of social development. So my argument really being that the level of corruption that Lebanon faces today is no different than what you see in most of the rest of the world--regretfully. Even acceptance of this is both different and similar--depending where in the world you are--with the overriding Lebanese theme being the feudal order the country lives in today.

January 19, 2012 at 8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Octavia, if I may add on to my earlier points, I believe that the context of "abroad" and "domestic" is a geographical context, that though used often when describing the make-up of contemporary Lebanon, extends to the diaspora, be it to describe the behaviour of a good portion of Lebanese/Lebanese North Americans/Lebanese Europeans/Lebanese South American, etc.. Excuse me for the heavy use of cultural stereotypes, but I think that they are valid. That said, to link both your points, I've always found it astounding how "Lebanese" (no matter where) fall into this category that you mentioned Liliane (lack of empathy, civility, etc...). The examples are so many and the basis of so many jokes, but one of my most simple examples is a plane trip to Lebanon (North America=>Europe=>Beirut). Often, airlines have people traveling in groups. So, at the North American boarding gate-- relative civility and orderliness. At the European gate, of all the boarding gates, the one to Beirut is remarkably unique in its rampant disorganization, disarray, elbowing, etc. By the time a flight offloads in Beirut, you have something between disarray and mayhem, even before the plane pulls up to the gate from the taxi-way. This long winded example is a microcosm of the state of disarray, disorganization, and overall dysfunction as you mentioned in your piece Octavia. This is not restricted to just social institutions--it is a malaise that has stricken all of contemporary Lebanese society.
I believe that education is key, and not just the number of Harvard degrees on the wall, but also grass roots parenting and getting back in touch with the roots that our parents instilled in us--no matter where we are. I believe that there is a richness in this that does not have many parallels. That said, I don't believe "in going back in time and reliving the past," but I do believe in looking to the past/tradition/history to reconnect to an innate goodness that was present in that agro-society I referred to earlier. I think that in that reflection, we will find many answers that will help tomorrow's nation builders in Lebanon crystalize a vision for Lebanon/Lebanese society/Lebanese culture going forward. I am an optimist, but I do believe that there is a lack of proper focus. I feel that everyone is rushing to emulate what's outside without understanding the "ethos" of what's there leaving the system in a state of disrepair.

January 20, 2012 at 2:08 AM  

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