Digitize Those Books

It is a crime against culture, against heritage and against the future to keep rare books away from scanners.

sa2eh-library-nath-hThe Al-Sa2eh Library after being restored (Photo by Nath Halawani)

It was a heart warming sight: Tripoli’s civil society rushing to take part in salvaging and restoring what remained of the historic Al-Sa2eh library. It was also encouraging to see the politicians promising to restore it to its former self. But after the dust settles on the immediate need to undo the fire, we need to have another conversation about books and  their value to the Lebanese.

Future Proofing

I’m not very familiar with the business model of Al-Sa2eh Library or about whether Father Srouj had a business model at all (as opposed to doing a public service). But what I do know is that if that library, and for that matter any library in Lebanon, contains truly rare books, books that offer value to society and that only exist in a form that is vulnerable to fire, water, sabotage and rotting, it would be a great disservice to future generations not to have digital copies of those books that are widely distributed, redundant, searchable, sortable and publicly accessible. Look at Norway, it has recently digitized all of its books and made them free to read online.

There was a subtle underlying emotion in the Al-Sa2eh library affair that I personally find unsettling but that is still relatively widespread in Lebanon: An almost fetish-like fixation on the physicality of books: Their smell, their texture and their visual brilliance. That is fine in the same way that it’s fine to use books as decorative items in your home, but the true value of books is in the knowledge (and entertainment) that these books provide, regardless of what technology was used to convey it (ink on dead trees or bits and pixels).

It’s Easier Than you Think

As we have seen, Tripoli has no shortage of civil society volunteers. It also has no shortage of philanthropist politicians who want to be seen as sponsors of culture. Also, Lebanon has no shortage of Ministers who want to appear cool by supporting such initiatives (Cough! –Sehnaoui– Cough!). It can be done guys, it only needs a small push. Granted it’s not as sexy as a watching a bunch of people restoring an old library hand-in-hand, but it will be much more useful for future generations.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

The Age of the Muslim Civil War

The Shiaa-Sunni war is only a small part of a larger dynamic

muslim-civil-war

When analysts and observers talk about what’s going on in the region, they like to refer to a large narrative that is shaping war and peace in our neighborhood. The ‘big’ story today is that there is a cold war between Saudi Arabia (Sunnis) on one side, and Iran (Shias) on the other. Since this is a proxy war the fighting takes place in “stages” like Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. This, consequently is creating the post-Arab-Spring mayhem that we see everyday in the news.

True but Incomplete

A grand narrative has its benefits. It generally simplifies a complex issue and strips away the superfluous details, making it easy for readers to wrap their heads around otherwise difficult-to-understand situations in far away places. But it can also be dangerous, especially when people start seeing all the conflicts from that prism, causing them to ignore other dynamics that are equally consequential.

I was thinking about this today when I learned that an old Library run by a Christian man was burned down in Tripoli, Lebanon (my city). When that happened, two dynamics immediately took shape on Facebook and Twitter: “Moderate Sunnis” from Tripoli started to forcefully denounce this cowardly act against books and our “Christian Brothers” and planning a demonstration in support of Father Srouj. The other dynamic is that those same “Moderate Sunnis” were being accused by the other Lebanese camp (the supporters of Hezbollah), of getting in bed with and turning a blind eye to the kind of people (extremist Sunnis) who harass Christians and burn down their libraries.

This is when it hit me: Hezbollah’s allies were seeing this through the Shiaa-Vs-Sunni prism, but what happened in Tripoli, a city with a large majority of Sunni Muslims, has nothing to do with the Sunni-Shiaa war. It was a classic case of what I call “Egypt-Syndrome”, where Sunni Moderates (Liberals in Egypt-speak) are confronting Muslim extremists over the maltreatment of Christian compatriots. (In fact General Ashraf Rifi’s pronouncements against the “terrorists” who burned the library is awfully reminiscent of the posture of Egypt’s General Sisi). The Sunni-Sunni conflict is in turn a part of a larger trend in the region, from Turkey to Morocco, where Sunnis are fighting Sunnis over how exactly a modern society should conform to a strict interpretation of the Koran in managing its affairs.

The chart I put together (above), while not comprehensive, attempts to show the geographical breadth of the Muslim-Muslim conflict in all parts of the MENA region. The reason why these conflicts started doesn’t matter (take your pick: Arab Spring removing oppressors and giving a space for conflicts to rise, Zionist Meddling, Western Imperialism, whatever suits your fancy). But what is indisputable is that we have entered the age of the Muslim Civil war.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

The Death of Two Mohammeds

Two Different people, one common destiny…

two-mohameds

One, the one who was targeted, was a middle-aged economist. A former minister and World Bank official. His thinning hair almost reached his shoulders, but when he wore a suit, he tamed it with a healthy amount of hair gel and framed it with stylish binoculars. People close to him described him as brilliant, approachable, cool and open-minded. And he certainly looked the role.

The other, the bystander, was a young teenager. He had the too-cool-for-school look, with his red hoodie, his acne-covering stubble and his street cred selfies with the other boys. His biggest worry at that moment was probably which instagram filter he was going to use, or whether his secret crush in school would dig the careless way in which he was staring at the camera.

The bomb, in typically crude bluntness, didn’t care about how different these people were. It killed them both with equal viciousness and left them both bleeding and lifeless on the formerly-glitzy streets of this part of the capital. They were both named Mohammed, and perhaps a bit of tortured symbolism can be extracted from that. You know, like for example how silly the notion is that the Middle East is in turmoil because Muslims are savage terrorists who can’t live in modern times.

There are many ways in which yesterday’s incident can be analyzed, explained and contextualized. Politics, power struggles and regional wars can certainly account for the big picture. But I worry that we are becoming a bit too desensitized, that we are quickly forgetting about individuals like Mohammad Chaar and Mohammad Chatah whose lives, in all their eventfulness, richness and splendor, get trampled over so casually by this monstrous insanity.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

Temporary Reduction of Hezbollah Enrichment

hezbollah-funeral

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Dahieh, a Hezbollah communications task force is working hard to solve a prickly problem: Where should the party of God officially place blame for the assassination of Hassane Laqees, a man whose profile in the party is so high that the news of his death took the first spot on the BBC’s international news website?

For starters, Hezbollah must point a finger. It doesn’t do the whole ‘we will wait for our official investigations to end before blaming anyone’ line. Theirs is traditionally a choice between a whipping boy and complete silence. But today their options look particularly bad; the death of Hassane Laqees has already done irreversible harm to the party.

The Usual suspects

Blaming Israel or Saudi Arabia, a few weeks after the dual explosions in Dahieh that targeted the Iranian embassy and killed scores of innocent people, would be a morale-sapping admission of failure by the party which until recently derived a good deal of its power from its reputation of infallibility and its ability to protect its own. Two hits in a row awkwardly change the conversation from “bad luck” to “dangerous incompetence.”

Another snag is defining the nature of the enemy. Are we talking about crazy bearded Sunni ideologues who blow up themselves indiscriminately, whose very irrationality is cause for rallying the Shiaas around Hezbollah? Or are we talking about a precise, professional opponent who can carry out sophisticated assassinations of senior operatives in their strongholds?

The Not-So-Usual suspect

What we won’t be hearing for sure however is the possibility that Hassane Laqees’s head was a token of goodwill from the Iranians to the Americans as part of their latest deal. The secret talks are still ongoing after all. Killing such a high official in Hezbollah’s military arm could have been the Hezbollah equivalent of reducing Uranium enrichment to 5%.

Through this assassinations the Iranians would have dangled to the Americans the tantalizing prospect of Sayyed Nasrallah’s head as part of a future final deal, giving even more strength to the Iranian negotiating hand and giving more reasons for the Americans to concede regional influence and respect to the Persian behemoth..

The spinners have their work cut out for them..

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

Pride of Country

One of the little things that makes Lebanon hard to love

independence-day

All this morning I was haunted by this photo. On the face of it, this is a normal Lebanese school girl, happily waving her flag on Independence Day. She’s probably proud that she memorized the entire national anthem, the fruit of a mild process of indoctrination that all kids go through in Lebanon as they grow up in this country.

She probably sings happily: “سهلنا والجبل، منبت للرجال” (Our mountains and fields, birthplace of men), blissfully unaware of how literally that phrase is implemented in the land of men and Cedars. This girl, who lived and will grow up in Lebanon, whose first language is Lebanese, possibly with a regional accent, who takes a 3arous labneh to school, who plays with Lebanese kids and eats lebanese treats and sings Lebanese jingles. This girl will never get a Lebanese nationality and is a foreigner in her own country because only her mother is Lebanese. When she’s 18, she will need a visa –to be renewed every year– to live where she had lived her entire live. In theory, she could even be deported.

This gross unfairness becomes almost comical if you look at the Lebanese landscape today, with Syrian refugees making almost the quarter of the entire population. It’s almost funny to remember that the stated reason for this misogynistic law is to preserve Lebanon’s “fragile demographic balance”, where for some reason women who marry foreign men put more water in the Lebanese wine than men who marry foreign women.

This photo is also an allegory for love of country. If that girl knew what was waiting for her, she would have thrown that flag in the faces of her teachers and spat on their shoes. Instead, her mom wanted her to hold that flag and to sing the national anthem, a perfect symbol for hope in a country that is maddeningly difficult to love.

Happy National Day to you all..

Update: Imagine if that girl grows up and writes an article about her issue? Turns out you don’t have to imagine; Lama Miri wrote exactly such an article

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

What Politicians Can and Can't Do About Tripoli

Politicians can’t do anything to change the situation in Tripoli, but that’s not why the people are complaining.

tripolilb_haytham_kabbara
–Tripoli at Night, photo by Haytham Kabbara

Every time someone complains on Facebook or on Twitter that Lebanese Politicians are doing nothing for Tripoli, I feel a mixture of emotions. On one hand, I find it absurd that people are asking politicians to fix a situation they are completely powerless to fix. Saying politicians should do something about the war in Tripoli is as absurd as saying that politicians should do something about the war in Syria. The situation is too complex to be “fixed”; all politicians can do at the moment is to back one horse or the other, warlords on the streets answer to higher forces than some powerless man in a suit.

Even the Army is powerless; as I’ve argued before, the army would lose a lot if it deployed an “Iron Fist” policy:

Both sides in the conflict in Tripoli are complaining that the army is too lenient on the other side, but imagine how worse it would be if the army is seen as siding with one side at the expense of the other. It would then face two dangers: A collapse of moral authority and dissent within the army

Another part of me however believes that the complainers are right. Despite the above, the politicians are not excused in their inaction. They are not doing the right thing by completely staying out of this (or worse, charming us with pointless platitudes in pointless public statements). There is one big step they could take that can make the situation a bit better for the city’s dwellers.

Why the people are angry and the one thing politicians can do about it

At the risk of sounding like psycho-babble, the real anger in Tripoli is not because the politicians aren’t doing anything to solve the situation, it’s because they don’t really understand what’s going on. The average Trabelsy is angry because he feels that the politicians aren’t really understanding how bad things are. The most poignant critique I have seen again and again is that Tripoli is not treated as if it were a part of Lebanon.

The one thing politicians can do to show that they really care is to make a grand gesture and move to Tripoli. Baabda, Ain el Tineh and the Seraille are quite far from the action. As I’ve experienced personally, it’s one thing to read on the news about bombs and shootings and missiles, and it’s quite another to actually live the action, stay awake at night and worry that the next missile may find its way into your child’s window.

Mr. President, Mr. (acting) Prime Minister, Mr. Speaker, Mr. politician who likes to make hollow statements on TV. Move to Tripoli, listen with your own ear to what’s going on. See what it really feels to be there. After that, we’ll start believing in whatever actions you decide to take regarding the situation.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

In Praise of Security Theater

Most security measures taken in Lebanese public places don’t actually work, but they’re important nonetheless.


Spinneys Tripoli stopped allowing cars from parking right in front of it in the wake of the two explosions

A fearless Lebanese journalist finally conducted an experiment I’ve been long speculating about: What if someone tried to drive a car that is full of explosives past security measures the government and large companies are implementing? Those antenna things were long discredited, and surely those little changes here and there can’t change much in the lethality of a potential attack by terrorists bent on causing mayhem. Sure enough, Radwan Mortada’s report was damning: Many of the measures taken don’t work in the least in detecting explosives, and the security experts who implemented them probably know that. Why are they still around? Why is this scam lasting so long?

Security Theater

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Security expert Bruce Schneier’s has coined the term security theater to describe measures that are taken by authorities to give the people a false sense of security. Some measures (like increasing clear buffer areas in Spinneys) actually work, but most of what is being done today by  malls and government agencies in Lebanon is security theatre. But is that really a bad thing? Our immediate reaction once we learn about the ineffectiveness of security measures is to cry foul and play the blaming game. But if we set our emotions aside and consider the facts, we will understand why the perception of security is almost as important as security itself.

First, two central and important facts:

  • Despite how scary they are and how much people are talking about them, the odds of you dying of terrorist attacks are very, very low. You are much more likely to be killed in a car accident than in an explosion at your local mall.
  • There is no security system that is air-tight. There are no measures that can 100% stop a determined man from killing a large amount of people

Once you really understand the facts above, and understand populations’ tendency for unconstructive panic, you’ll understand why security theater is important for people to be able to live normal lives. People who believe that security is being taken care of –even if it’s an illusion– will behave more rationally and more in line with their actual odds of being hurt by terrorist attacks. Even Scheiner himself, the man who invented the term “security theater”, came around to seeing its value: “delivering the perception of improved security may be a practical job requirement [for security professionals]” he admitted.

Wherever you look in Lebanon, you see security theater. Sometimes you don’t even recognize that it’s security theatre. The day after the explosions in Tripoli, many army tanks roamed the streets of the capital of the north and made a thundering background noise heard all across the place. The tanks were not meant to increase security (how can rolling tanks discover booby-trapped cars?), but they  achieved their objective perfectly: They soothed the frayed nerves of scared and wary citizens.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

Celebrating "Greater Lebanon"

Why “Greater Lebanon” would be a much better national holiday than “Independence Day”

Lebanese flag hoisted near the site of one of Tripoli's explosions

Lebanese flag hoisted near the site of one of Tripoli’s explosions

Yesterday, MP Bahia al Hariri made what many saw as a remarkable gesture: She “gave back” her salary as an MP for the last years to the people. We had a little twitter chat about this, I think it’s admirable and arguably the right thing to do, but it has all the grace of a rich co-worker standing in the middle of an office and declaring that she will give back her salary to the company and work for free, to the silent resentment of her less well-off colleagues who actually need their salaries.

But I digress. It is the backdrop of Ms. Hariri’s munificence, the “ceremony on the anniversary of the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920″, which really caught my attention. Forget for a moment how much of a mouthful it sounds; with some work, this could serve as a great alternative to Independence day as Lebanon’s main national holiday.

I have written before on why the concept of “independence” is silly in this day and age, but I also argued that the Lebanese still need a day to celebrate their country and raise their flag. The more I think about this “Greater Lebanon” day, the more appropriate I find it to be Lebanon’s big national holiday.

A better national Holiday

Conceptually, the establishment of Greater Lebanon, a moment in history where the Lebanese came together to build a country that is larger than their sects and tribes, is more worthy of celebration than Independence day, which can be thought of as an act of temporarily combining our forces to reject a “foreign” occupier, only to get back at each other’s throats once they’re gone.

“Greater Lebanon” can be seen as a process that requires constant improvement, constant striving and hard work to reach a more perfect union, as the Americans would say. “Independence” was something that happened some time ago that we either take for granted or dispute. It is about a state of affair that stopped existing, a negative, as opposed to a situation we need to celebrate, build on and improve each year, an aspirational positive.

Greater Lebanon is even a more practical holiday, which in its own way is symbolic. The Greater Lebanon declaration happened in the Summer, as opposed to the often stormy days when we celebrate Independence day. Summer is the season where most Lebanese come back from the diaspora to visit their motherland. Celebrating a national holiday in the summer assures that many Lebanese who live abroad (a majority of the Lebanese) can celebrate inside their country.

Summer is also the season when most Lebanese get married, which is fitting if we think of Greater Lebanon as a marriage of our country’s many parts.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

An Ode to Curtains

If I were to pick a hero following the horrendous events of Tripoli on Friday, events that touched me and my family personally, I would without doubt choose the item responsible for the most lives saved on that fateful day: The humble curtain.

Curtains saved my own life; The explosion was strong enough to violently break windows and send large, frightening glass shrapnels hurtling toward certain kills if it weren’t for that most mundane of household objects, when curtains magically transformed into safety nets and stopped those hideous sharp edges from reaching eyes, necks and other body parts. Here’s where I was sitting:

That story was repeated again and again. Curtains protected my wife who was breastfeeding my 5-day old baby near the window. They saved my 4-year-old son who was looking on with wonder as his mother fed his little sister. They protected my inlaws, my friends, our neighborhood barber, our local grocer and most of my neighbors who now owe their lives to pieces of cloth that, much like the victims of the explosions, became unwilling martyrs of that madness that is sweeping Lebanon.

I mourn the many lives lost on that day, but they would have been much more numerous if it weren’t for curtains. If I was asked about the single most important advice to give people who are fearing explosions, my answer would be straightforward: If you don’t have curtains in your home, install some immediately and try to keep them down as much as possible. Hopefully you will never need them, but if you do, your loved ones will thank you.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

Facebook as a Country

Why a CEO president is not the solution

I was reading with interest Liliane’s blog post where she imagines a utopia in which Lebanon was being run by a CEO. Liliane, who works in a multinational corporation, wrote: “If such a multi-national company serving more than 1 billion monthly active users can operate successfully [..] then there is hope for a country with 4 million to do the same”

She elaborates:

If I want to see my Lebanon function properly, we need a good CEO whose sole purpose is to see this country grow, its people work together for a better Lebanon [..] We need a good CEO who hires ministers that are competent and qualified, who in turn hire competent and qualified people for their ministries

The CEO president is a common dream for many. On the surface it sounds like a an enlightened aspiration, but on closer inspection, the CEO president is not very different from the “benevolent dictator” or “ruthless military ruler” fantasies. These are all utopias where a leader not only knows what the best interest of a country is, but is absolutely empowered and uninterrupted in his execution of his vision (for some reason, he’s always a “he”).

The dream of heroic figureheads, whether visionary (Dubai-style benevolent dictator), powerful (General Sisi of Egypt) or data-driven (Zukerberg), promises to bring lebanon things it sorely needs: Discipline, common purpose and efficiency. These heroes look down on politics as “messy” and “chaotic” nuisances. They also have no patience for the toll politics extract on efficiency and achieving goals. This appeals to many people who just want to get on with life, but it is misguided.

Countries are not one-man-shows

The problem with a CEO president is the same as with other benevolent dictators: Countries are messy things with messy forces at play. They have no clear objectives like companies (grow and make profits) and they are not rigid hierarchal structures like armies. They are living, growing things with contradictory forces that simply cannot be whipped into shape without huge losses to personal liberties and diversity. Politics are messy because people’s relationships with each other are messy.

The best thing political leadership can achieve is to nudge and coax people into working together for a prosperous future that can be accepted by a majority of the population. Sometimes the process is ugly and involves compromises that many will find tasteless. But this is the price we pay for dynamic societies and liberty. A benevolent dictator can quickly lose patience with human rights activists or other “irritations” that distract from achieving whatever goal the dear leader deems crucial.

If Facebook was a country

Mark Zukerberg woke up with a headache this morning. The Data Liberty Resistance (DLR) faction in Facebook, which represents about 35% of the employees and is seen as sympathetic to Google, is threatening to shut down Facebook’s servers if its demands of replacing PHP with Python as the main programming language in Facebook are not met. The DLR had found a strategic ally in the General movement for Facebook Change (GMFC), representing almost 15% of Facebook’s employees and led by a megalomaniac who wants to replace Zukerberg as CEO. Employees whisper that Yahoo! is secretly funding the GMFC insurgency.

Zukerberg would have done something about it, but his allies at the Future of Facebook Fraternity (FFF), representing almost 35% of the employees, are encouraged by their sponsors at Microsoft to compromise with the DLR. They are proposing the .Net framework as a “no victor, no vanquished” solution that would make everyone better off. The GMFC meanwhile is smelling a rat and are threatenning to turn off the electricity on the Facebook servers if the DLR and the FFF worked out a deal behind its back.

Zukerberg will have to find a compromise and convince all the factions that if the servers are shut the future of Facebook will be in danger. If only, he thought wistfully, there was such a thing as a CEO President.

Update: Thank you to Beirut Spring readers Karim and Oussama for sharing these relevant articles with us:


Personal Note: In case you’re wondering where I have been, I am busy welcoming a new member of my family: A healthy baby girl that is one lovely bundle of joy…

→ Respond to this post On Twitter