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.

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.

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..

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

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.

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.

Apology as a political tool

Sooner or later, Lebanese politicians will learn the lesson politicians everywhere have learned: That sometimes a public apology is the least bad option.

Nadim Gemayel

Nadim Gemayel, Lebanon’s young and soft-spoken MP (ex-MP some say), is by no means the only politician in Lebanon surrounded by heavy handed security brutes who take a bit too much pleasure in throwing their weight around to “protect” their employers. In fact one can make a case that it is impossible in Lebanon to find security personel that are at once tough, loyal and well behaved. One can also argue that with the high-risk nature of the job in a country with so many political assassinations, personal security is not exactly the domain of the thoughtful and the sensitive.

But sheikh Nadim and his security entourage found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time, provoking and antagonising a civil movement that has a strong online presence and a wide reach among Lebanon’s civil society. He then proceeded to gauchely spin what happened in order to portray himself as a victim, only to be smacked with online video footage that exposes his lies. Bloggers and political opponents pounced immediately.

You can’t always shape the message

Nassawyia, a feminist collective, is hardly the only group that was bullied by the security personel of a politician, but so far, they have proven to be the loudest and most harmful to his public image. But Mr. Gemayel refused to do the one sensible thing that would have taken the wind out of that entire PR snowball: To apologize and to throw his security team under the bus.

There is a cultural aspect in our region where an apology is perceived as a form of weakness, but politicians and business leaders in all democratic nations have learned to apologize, not because they’re nice people –far from it– but because it is in their own self interests. The problem with letting a situation like this fester is that things can quickly get out of control. What began as a small altercation between his guards and a group of activists suddenly turned into an uncontrollable mess that touched his own reputation and allowed free riders to pile on with their own political biases about his family and political history. This stopped being about the obnoxious security personel and became about how Gemayel is a “rotten liar” and a “fascist”. To make this uglier, some hacks decided to defend Mr. Gemayel by demonising Nassawyia through chauvinistic and comically foolish arguments that are completely unrelated to his guards’ misdemeanour.

Do Mr. Gemayel’s defenders make valid points? Perhaps. Maybe Nassawiya wouldn’t have dared attacked Hezbollah MPs in the same way. Maybe Mr. Gemayel was scapegoated for the sins of others. Maybe the country does indeed have more serious issues to think about. But Gemayel could have nipped this whole thing in the bud if he immediately showed some contrition and at least promised to investigate the matter. He would have scored some brownie points with voters, and if he were a skilled and experienced politician, he would have co-opted the feminist cause and made it his own and turned this crisis into an opportunity. Even his enemies would then find themselves at a loss at how to attack him.

Hopefully, Lebanese politicians will start learning that in the age of Youtube, a sincere apology can sometimes be their best weapon.

For Lebanese Sunnis, Support for the Army but no Hero Worship

Public expressions of support and a pragmatic acceptance of the important role the army plays, but suspicion lingers.


– Some see flawed heroes –

To witness the public expressions of support for the army on Lebanese TV, billboards and blogs, you’d be excused to believe that everybody is taking part of the collective festival of idolatry sweeping the country and that only terrorists and cold-hearted fanatics disagree with the sentiment. But there is one group that supports the army without being terribly excited about over-the-top expressions of unconditional support.

Some explaining to do

The general attitudes of average Sunnis is that the army has every right to respond forcefully to criminals and soldier-slayers like Ahmad al Assir, and that every dead soldier is a terrible loss for Lebanon. But there is a very real and disconcerting sense that the army is only expressing its lethal force on Sunni militias and criminals, while turning a blind eye to Shiaa criminals and coordinating with their militias.

Where are the plain-faced killers of Hashem Salman? Where is the man accused of planning to kill Butros Harb? Where are the four people indicted by the international Tribunal for killing Hariri? What with Nasrallah’s blatant confession of fighting in Syria? All questions that are constantly being asked by Sunnis, with dark mutterings of army complicity. Facebook and twitter are drowned in photos and footage of the Lebanese army sitting idly as Hezbollah gunmen with yellow armed bands handle “security”.

To put it plainly, the support of the Sunni community for the army is guarded and conditional. Guarded because they understand that the army, despite their suspicions, is the only institution left that has a semblance of state control and unity, and conditional because they are waiting to see what the Army is planning to do with Hezbollah’s armed security zones in Sunni areas.

The pragmatic and right thing to do is to support the Lebanese army. All the heavyweight Sunni politicians have been driving home that message relentlessly (to the extent you wonder why they feel compelled to repeat it again and again). For now, most of the population understand this and are very aware of its importance.

But they will pass on the hero worship.

Not a Revolution

Lebanon’s tomato movement is a refreshing expression of revulsion, but it is not about to turn into a popular revolution.


Photo by Habib Battah
There is no denying the righteousness of their cause. An ineffectual parliament extending its own mandate is a telling symbol of everything that is wrong with our Lebanese state and its institutions. Law enforcement whose members hit demonstrators while casually standing by as militias brandish machine guns and roam about freely is another.

This is why the sight of ordinary citizens expressing their distate so publicly and forcefully should bring to us nothing but admiration. It is no wonder that many people are joining their ranks, as this is a truly noble cause.

But a popular revolution, one that will change the system, it is not.

It is becoming a recurring theme in this blog, but every time I read these wild expectations online about how “the system” is going to be overthrown because thousands of activists decided to express anger on the streets, I get amused until I find out that they’re serious in their hopes.

A slap on the wrist

The scope of this movement should be clear: Get the MPs to repeal their decision to extend their mandate. Try to convince the MPs who are in theory against the extension to back their words with action (resignation). If you do that, your movement would be judged a success by the population at large. If you started a public debate about the role of MPs and their accountability to citizens, it will also be judged a success.

But please don’t be naive and believe that this is a popular revolution for changing the system in Lebanon. Don’t be so intoxicated by the crowds that you forget the tens of thousands who decided that watching Arab Idol was a better use of their time than hunkering down with you in Riad el Solh. Because if you do, like many before you, you will be disappointed.

True revolutions, the kind that make significant changes in power equations, look nothing like what activists do in Lebanon online and on its streets. Men, women and the elderly from all walks of life join in. The action takes place in all cities, towns and hamlets. Traders close their shops and join in, children and teachers leave school and join in. They are sweeping in a way only those who have been through one can know. This is what happened in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This is what could happen (but still doubtful) in Brazil. But the closest we got to that in Lebanon was March 14, 2005 (and that only achieved the withdrawal of the Syrian army).

Changing the system

The purpose of this post (and the ones before it) is not to discourage action or drive young revolutionaries to despair, but to invite them to channel this dynamism into long term thinking, focus and sustainable action. There is nothing wrong with forming political parties, developing political messages, recruiting members and having long-term plans about governing the country. In fact it’s easier and cheaper than ever before with social media and the internet.

Magical thinking about revolutions that will somehow make everything better is just pie in the sky in countries where people usually vote to choose their representatives.

The "Iron Fist" is Always an Admission of Failure

Despite the tragedy of fallen soldiers, calls for the Lebanese army to be more hawkish should be ignored

With each tragedy that befalls the Lebanese army when soldiers are killed, we start hearing voices calling for the army to be more forceful, angry and lethal. Politicians start promising an “iron fist” and bloggers start writing about bombing towns with airplanes. I hope with the bottom of my heart that the army is wiser than to listen to those calls.

Authority

One of the reasons the “Iron fist” theory is so popular in Lebanon is that people believe that our country has a serious problem with lack of authority. People casually flout the law and act with no discipline. There is a wide yearning for a “savior” that would “impose” the law and trample on Lebanese libertarian instincts to establish “order”.

The problem is that people are confusing moral authority (which is lacking in Lebanon) with the authority of fear and power. A heavy-handed army that is violent and indiscriminate can win temporary stability through fear, but it will sow the seeds of resentment that will eventually grow into a much bigger problem than the one the army was trying to stomp in the first place (The Syrian city of Hama is a cautionary tale in that department).

Heavy handed military violence, no-matter how justified (terrorism, danger..etc), always comes at the expense of moral authority. It is true with the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, the American attack on Iraq, The Syrian attack on Homs and yes, the Lebanese army’s attack on the Naher el bared camp a few years ago.

Wisdom

The Lebanese army has so far proven to be wise. It understands that it has more moral authority than any other player in Lebanon, and it knows better than to squander it. 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 (as many people seem to forget that the army is made up of Lebanese people, including their divisions)

So what is the alternative? How can the army establish order and get the criminals?

What we need, for Ersal and for Tripoli, is for the army to cooperate with the locals to impose limited curfews and conduct targeted and well-planned operations that isolate those who are doing the killing, the incitement and the shooting. Think “Boston police smoking out the marathon terrorists”, not “Bashar el Assad bombing the hell out of terrorists and their mothers”.

That would be a sign of maturity and a proper understanding of authority. Using indiscriminate power means that you failed.