The year 2011 started with a bang. Literally. The very first post in Beirut Spring in 2011 was about the new year eve’s explosion in Alexandria Egypt. At the time we didn’t realize it, but that explosion set the tone for a year that turned out to be explosive and tumultuous in many ways.
The Arab spring and the turmoil in Lebanese politics dominated the 1,210 posts in this blog in 2011. But this year also witnessed other stories and off-beat, quirky little Lebanese memes that helped shape the year in their own way.
In this end-of-year post, you will find a recollection of these stories and hopefully you’ll remember the debates, laughs and anger they generated. This is a subjective list. It speaks more to this blogger’s interests than to the general Lebanese Zeitgeist. That said, I hope you all find it useful, delightful and worth sharing.
Without further Ado, I present you the list and wish a happy new year to you all!
Last year, we started noticing a problem: Lebanon had one of the worst internet connections in the world. But in 2011, it went even more downhill and became the absolute worse. It dawned on us that our government was woefully ill equipped to deal with the matter and that Lebanon is getting behind in many cool technologies. The internet was so slow that I found it very difficult to blog when I visited Lebanon.
The online (and offline) activists began taking matters in their own hands. Movements like Ontornet and Flip the Switch were born and the Lebanese stakeholders started having conversations about the internet in Lebanon. The world noticed, and international media started writing about Lebanon’s “painfully slow” internet connection.
The loud complaining and constant activism started paying off, as the Lebanese gradually began getting a more decent connection. But many remain unconvinced, as the faster connection that was announced with much pomp and fanfare took ages to improve and many hurdles came along the way.
How the world sees Lebanon, and how we see ourselves
As the summer of 2011 approached, many of us started noticing that there’s an unusual amount of foreign articles and TV reports on why “Beirut is Back”. So much so in fact that Angie wrote a post to serve as a template to save them time and trouble. We then realized that all these infomercials somehow included references to specific fancy new Beirut hotels and we made a connection.
We enjoyed talking about how international celebrities and comedians saw Lebanon, how foreign bloggers analyzed our habits. We got angry when we noticed that they’re giving too much importance to things like the Beirut nightlife, or that some of them didn’t like our country, or when writers fell too deep into stereotyping.
But then we turned our gaze inward, into how Lebanon promoted itself to the outside world. We discovered an old Lebanese tradition of promoting Lebanon using scantly clad women, a tradition that survived very well. We discussed tv ads that were made to promote our little piece of heaven. We talked about how women are used to sell our country, about beauty pageants and plastic surgery. We then naturally sidetracked into talking about the state of advertising in Lebanon and about the lovable (and not so lovable) characters Lebanese ads spawned.
Racism and the abuse of foreign workers
The Lebanese awareness of the abuse of foreign domestic workers started in 2010. But 2011 was the year in which the issue really took off. Things got so bad we started having billboards telling us to treat workers well. The Philippines started arresting people who wanted to work in Lebanon. There were even studies on the sexuality of maids in Lebanon and how they are treated by their madames. Generally, the matter started garnering significant international exposure and became a real embarrassment.
The Lebanese fought back against such abuses. Activists wrote songs condemning their treatment and the government began implementing some imperfect programs to protect the worker’s rights. Still, the matter of racism in Lebanon remains far from solved, as it lingers on in parts of the media and some municipalities.
The “revolution against sectarianism”
I was hesitating to include this story in the list because it could be thought of as a political story. But I made an exception because of the amount of energy that was spent debating the issue on this blog.
At the height of the Arab spring, a group of Lebanese men and women decided that Lebanon’s revolution will be against the sectarian order ruling the country. It was an admirable and catchy idea, and indeed the demonstrations kept getting bigger and bigger. But I always got the feeling that something was wrong with their approach, and I kept writing post after post to elaborate my ideas. It is no use rehashing the arguments I and many other people made (if you’re really interested, you can click on the links), but the movement ended up divided and conquered by the very forces it was railing against, and eventually it fizzled away.
Guinness world records and voting for Jeita
I didn’t invent the term “international celebrity syndrome”, but it adequately describes an almost pathological Lebanese need for recognition in the world. This manifested itself in a relentless drive to collect Guinness world records for bizarre and questionable achievements.
But the biggest manifestation of this was in the “vote for Jeita” frenzy that gripped Lebanon for several weeks. So much campaigning took place and so much public money was spent that the online activists took part of a backlash.
Bloggers resented the relentless pressure to vote. Some said the competition was a scam and that the campaign to promote voting was a ripoff. Some wondered about the misplaced set of politicians’ priorities.
In the end Jeita lost, and this helped many to become more accepting of the arguments against the competition.
Social media hits the Lebanese mainstream
One reason why the Lebanese were so upset with the slow internet is because it was interfering with their new habit of enjoying Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks. Twitter proved to be surprisingly popular in Lebanon, but Facebook had its fans too. Actually Facebook was so popular that it had to be banned from parliament because it was distracting our dear MPs.
People began suing each other because of Facebook content. The Prime Minister expressed his wish to create a “hi-tech ministry”. Officials started learning about bloggers and decided to regulate their work, which created a storm online that caused them to backtrack.
But the Lebanese really took note when politicians started using Twitter. After a long public absence, Ex Prime Minister and opposition leader Saad Hariri chose Twitter to be his medium to talk to the Lebanese. This created a stampede of mainstream journalists jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, despite the challenges some of them had understanding the medium.
To welcome Twitter newcomers, I published a guide of suggested Lebanese people to follow that many of you found very useful.
For some reason, 2011 was a year where a lot of censorship happened in Lebanon. There was self censorship in websites that belong to both sides of the Lebanese political divide. There was a prestigious international photojournalism exhibit that was cancelled, a Lebanese singer was jailed because of a song about the president. Iranian movies, Lebanese movies, even posters of movies were censored.
The censorship sometimes was so flagrant and bizzarre that the Lebanese fought back and won. It lead to research about how censorship in Lebanon works and who really is to blame. But this remains an uphill battle, as censorship remains acceptable in many Lebanese quarters.
Thanks to heroic efforts by activists, the issue of women rights took center stage in the Lebanese consciousness in 2011. We learned that women in Lebanon face two main challenges: A legal system that treats them like second class citizens, and a society that views them as sexual objects. The prevalence of rape and harassment was the consequence of such an environment.
Some of the advocacy paid off and the lady activists started getting recognition and real returns on their efforts. One Lebanese party even elected a woman as its leader. But the arrival of the all-male Mikati cabinet came as a huge symbolic setback for the ladies’ cause and portended legislation that is grossly unfair to the Lebanese fair sex.
The fight against smoking
There had been some grumblings about the prevalence of smoking in public places in Lebanon, but serious things began happening in 2011. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) banned smoking on its premises and said it will stop accepting cigarette ads. The parliament started debating an anti smoking law and a public discussion that involved all stake holders was launched.
Protecting Beirut’s heritage
2011 had a fair amount of rumors and warnings of historical and cultural buildings that were about to be taken down to be replaced by commercial establishments. We agonized over the fate of the Glass café in Gemmayze, we discussed the fate of the Egg-shaped building and questioned the frenzy over the shutting down of Theatre de Beyrouth. We had great discussions about effective online advocacy for heritage conservation.
Bonus little memes
The evil valet parking dudes:
Because parking in Beirut is so stressful and because of TV reports that the valet parking guys are spying on us, it was inevitable that the Valet-Parking people became so reviled across the blogosphere in 2011.
Websites that were hacked:
Many websites were hacked in 2011. Hezbollah hacked the Future Movement‘s sites, The Saudis hacked Wi2am Wahhab’s site, The Syrians hacked the website of the Beirut Bar association and the homepage of Harvard University, Some Syrian regime websites were hacked and we learned that the notorious Anonymous community of hackers has set its eyes on Assad .
Even yours truly wasn’t spared.
Apps, Ecommerce and New Looks:
As smartphones became more common, we started learning about Lebanese apps that are fun, quirky and successful. Lebanon’s mainstream media got into the apps business , and so did some Arab revolutions. Blog posts about iPhone advice became common and people started caring about Steve Jobs.
News websites redesigned their online presence: The Daily Star, Naharnet and Annahar all sported new looks. Annahar even gave a facelift to its actual newspaper and Al-Akhbar introduced an English edition.
In 2011, I implored the Lebanese to face the fact that the French language in Lebanon is dying. I also looked at the coming of age of Arabic , the real one and the online variety. I also shared why I chose English to be the language in which I blog