Archive | June, 2010

Nationality and the Palestinians

8 Jun

Looking over my story about Samira Soueidan, I realized I left out some vital information about why the Justice Ministry would appeal such a case. Do they not like Egyptians? Do they not like widowers?
Those who’ve followed my reporting on the issue will know that the appeal is actually more or less framed around the idea of the 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees being resettled in Lebanon.
Lebanon has always been paranoid that Palestinian refugees will be granted Lebanese citizenship and resettle here, upsetting the demographic balance in this hysterically confessional country. The argument put forward by officials in public is that they don’t want the Palestinians to relinquish their right to return to the country they were expelled from. (This is coincidentally one of the main reasons Lebanon also does not grant the Palestinians the right to work in most professions).
But scrutinize the issue and you will find this policy is nothing but lies. Christian Palestinians were granted Lebanese citizenship a long time ago, simply because they would bolster Christian numbers. So it has nothing to do with the rights of Palestinians to return to their occupied country and everything to do with sectarianism. By granting Soueidan the right to nationality, the Justice Ministry saw a dangerous precedent being set that could pave the way for all stateless children and husbands to demand their right to citizenship.
It’s especially difficult to comprehend the logic behind Lebanon’s sexist nationality laws when looking at the facts on the ground: According to a UNDP-funded study, only 2% of all Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese are married to Palestinians. This shows the law for what it is:deeply flawed and only existing to serve the patriarchal sectarian system.

Rich old widows and manipulative foreign men

3 Jun
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NGO hits out at General Security over nationality laws
By Dalila Mahdawi and Carol Rizk
Daily Star staff
Friday, May 21, 2010

BEIRUT: A Lebanese non-governmental organization (NGO) lashed out on Thursday at recent comments by the director of General Security, Wafiq Jezzini, accusing him of “humiliating” racism and sexism.

The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) also asked the Lebanese government to clarify what progress had been made in enacting a decree granting free of charge residency permits with up to three years validity to the non-Lebanese husbands and children of Lebanese women.

The decree, proposed by Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, was approved by Cabinet on April 21, but has not yet come into effect, leading human rights activists to suspect it was being delayed on purpose.

Last week, Jezzini told the Cabinet Baroud’s decree contravened Lebanon’s labor laws and accused non-Lebanese husbands of Lebanese women of entering the country illegally and marrying much older “rich widows” to financially exploit them.

Jezzini, whose remarks were published by Al-Akhbar newspaper on May 14, also claimed that granting complementary residency permits to the non-Lebanese husbands and children of Lebanese women would lead to “social problems.”

Lebanese law permits men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but bars women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same. Deprived of state protection and recognition, those without citizenship live in a precarious legal vacuum and cannot benefit from state education or health care, work in the formal economy or vote.

Non-Lebanese husbands and children must apply for costly residency permits on an annual basis or face imprisonment and deportation.

“Giving complementary residency permits would encourage these people to enter Lebanon on the pretext of tourism or work and then not leave,” Jezzini said. “They marry Lebanese women to benefit from the provided facilities and nothing more, and this can lead to social problems and hurt society and the economy.”

He added: “[General Security] has mentioned in previous correspondences that … Lebanon has become a target country for immigrants. This flow is either legal or clandestine … [and] has led to a relatively large number of foreigners living illegally in Lebanon, many of whom – notably Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians – marry Lebanese women and have children even if they are already married in their native country.

“They do not take age differences into consideration and sometimes marry rich widows because they are looking for a refuge or a way out.”

Roula Masri, gender program coordinator at CRTD.A, said Jezzini’s tone was “humiliating” and “totally offensive.” Jezzini was suggesting that foreign men come to Lebanon to find “old and unmarried women,” she told The Daily Star. The security official also suggested that Baroud’s decree “would give working class men the right to come and marry women who have passed the suitable marriage age and to exploit them,” Masri said.

CRTD.A asked the government to elucidate what progress it had made toward ratifying Baroud’s law. “It’s been a month since the endorsement so it’s unusual that it’s not yet passed into effect,” Masri said, adding that most laws only need two or three weeks to enter into force.

The NGO also issued a statement responding to Jezzini, saying his comments were “offensive to Lebanese women, their husbands, and to the working class.”

It added: “The head of General Security should not have generalized but should rather have focused on determining clear and transparent standards. He should also not have interfered in the personal affairs of the right of Lebanese women to choose their husbands.”

Jezzini’s comments were especially offensive as “dozens of families live in constant fear of being deported,” CRTD.A said. According to Masri, the Iraqi husband of a Lebanese woman was deported on Sunday even though his papers were in order.

Inside the mind of a Lebanese politician

3 Jun

In all countries of the world, politicians are meant to serve their constituents. In Lebanon, politicians (except a minor handful) serve themselves and then, if they have enough energy to spare, their religious community. Samira Soueidan, a Lebanese mother of four, apparently committed a crime when she married an Egyptian man. Her husband is now dead but she continues to pay for this crime- the Lebanese government does not recognize women’s right to pass on citizenship and so her children are stateless. They have never been to Egypt and do not have nor wish for Egyptian citizenship. They are Lebanese to everyone except the State.

Samira wanted recognition her children are Lebanese, and so she went to the courts. The first court said yes, her children should be granted citizenship. Then the Justice Minister decided to appeal.  I repeat, the Justice Minister. He wins, Samira’s children and by extension all Lebanese women lose. The irony is too much to bear.

If you want to read more about the case, here it is:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BEIRUT: A landmark ruling which granted citizenship to the children of a Lebanese mother was overturned by an appeals court Tuesday in a move that has left human rights activists reeling.

Samira Soueidan filed a lawsuit five years ago demanding her four children be granted citizenship rights following the death of her Egyptian husband. Lebanese law permits men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but bars women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same.

Leaving the courthouse in Jdidet al-Metn, Soueidan said she had “lost the battle but not the fight” and vowed to take her case to the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s highest appeals court. “I’m not going to stop here,” she said, adding that her children had been born and raised in Lebanon and should be viewed as Lebanese.

In a breakthrough ruling last July, Judges John al-Azzi, Rana Habka and Lamis Kazma ruled in favor of granting Soueidan’s two sons and two daughters citizenship. The judges said their decision was based on the fact there was no law prohibiting a Lebanese mother from passing on her nationality to her children after the death of her husband. They also noted that aspects of Lebanon’s nationality law were “obscure” and that current legislation favored foreign women over their Lebanese counterparts.

The verdict was applauded by civil society organizations and suggested a breakthrough for thousands of other families suffering because of the sexist legislation. Ironically, however, it was appealed by Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar.

The Court of Cassation, presided over by Judge Mary al-Maouchi and two other women consultants, accepted Najjar’s appeal and overturned Azzi’s ruling, saying it contravened Articles 3 and 537 of Lebanon’s Civil Law code and the nationality law. “Judicial courts are not concerned with granting nationality rights [in cases where it was not granted at birth] as this is a right only enjoyed by the president,” stated the 17-page ruling, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Star. Soueidan will have to pay all the legal fees incurred in the case.

Representatives from the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action [CRTD.A], a Lebanese non-governmental organization that has been supporting Soueidan in her fight, said they were disappointed but “unsurprised” by the legal setback. “The approach of the Lebanese government since Azzi’s ruling has not been encouraging,” said Roula Masri, CRTD.A gender program coordinator.

She claimed the judge had been subject to harassment and “humiliation” from leading officials in the Justice Ministry.

Azzi was also reportedly unofficially banned from talking to journalists, who were required to submit interview requests to the Justice Ministry. A request submitted by The Daily Star several months ago was never answered.

There are around 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese in Lebanon, according to a study by the UN Development Program. Around 80,000 children and husbands are potentially made stateless by the current legislation.

Deprived of state protection and recognition, those without citizenship live in a precarious legal vacuum and cannot benefit from state education or health care, work in the formal economy or vote. They are vulnerable to arbitrary detention, have difficulty accessing the legal system and live under constant fear of deportation.

Lebanon’s nationality law was formulated in 1925, at a time when Beirut was under French mandatory rule. “It’s about time to amend such an outdated law,” Masri said. That the law continues to be applied flies in the face of “claims that we live in a democratic country that can compete in the international arena.”

A 1994 amendment of the nationality law gave the child of a Lebanese mother and foreign father the right to obtain citizenship. But in order for it to be granted, the child must marry a Lebanese citizen and live continuously in Lebanon for at least five years, including one year after marriage.

Tuesday’s ruling, together with the discriminatory nationality legislation, contradicts Article 7 of the Lebanese Constitution, which guarantees men and women equality before the law, Masri said. “The only way women can win their rights is by amending the current nationality law,” she said, adding that CRTD.A would respond to Soueidan’s defeat with a major public event. Masri also decried the fact that Soueidan’s hopes for nationality rights were thwarted by women judges. “It’s a pity to find women not supporting other women’s rights.”

Combatting a memory for forgetfulness

3 Jun

Sodeco’s war-weary Barakat building to be renovated
Structure to house public memorial to civil conflict
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, June 02, 2010

(NOTE: Pictures of how the building looks now and how it will be transformed will be posted shortly. Sorry for the delay)

BEIRUT: For years, architect Mona Hallak lugged a beautiful antique floor tile around Beirut, eager to show it to anyone who would spare her a few minutes of their time.

She had pinched the tile from a war-ravaged building in Beirut’s Sodeco Square that she’d lost her heart to in the 1990s.

Even in its decrepit state today, it’s not hard to see how it captivated her. The architecture of the Barakat building, an imposing yellow structure straddling Independence Avenue and the Damascus Road, is one of a kind in Lebanon.

Built by two different architects in the 1920s and 1930s, the Barakat building mixes elements of Art Deco with sweeping Islamic arches, stain glass windows and oriental balustrades. Although it is impossible to tell from outside, the four-story building actually consists of two distinct structures unified by freestanding balcony columns. “The building symbolized the whole of Beirut,” says Hallak. “It symbolized how divided the country was and how it was camouflaged as being united.”

When sectarian tensions spilled over into Civil War in 1975, the Barakat building was one of the conflict’s many casualties. It was taken over as a militia headquarters, with snipers taking advantage of commanding views from every room in the building to kill those on the streets below in relative safety.

The fighters added their own layer of architecture to the structure – concrete buttresses to fortify the walls and ceilings, sand bags, and lots of graffiti. Within a few years, the Barakat building, once a sign of liberalism, progressive thinking and cross-cultural dialogue, had been transformed into a pock-marked symbol of bitter hatred, division and ruthless killing.

When the war ended, the Barakat family hoped to cash in on the post-war construction craze and sold the building to a development company. It would have been demolished if one day in 1997, Hallak, who was passing through the area, hadn’t looked up at the building’s façade and noticed the iron railings from the balconies were missing. Hallak rushed inside to find workers preparing for demolition. “The tiles were piled in a corner ready to go and the destruction permit was hanging on the wall,” she recalls. “I never thought this building would go down … I went crazy.”

Slipping one of the tiles into her handbag, Hallak hurried to her office, rallied her colleagues and began a concerted media campaign to preserve the building.

The architect visited officials from the Culture Ministry, the governor of Beirut and foreign ambassadors hoping to find a sympathetic ear. She would pull out the filched tile and tell her audience, “this is the tile- imagine how beautiful the house is!”

After years of tireless campaigning and with the support of the Italian and French embassies, Hallak finally achieved what many had thought was impossible. Beirut Municipality revoked the demolition order and in 2003 expropriated the building.

The war-weary structure is now being renovated and converted into Beit Beirut, a museum of memory, war and contemporary history. Prime Minister Saad Hariri inaugurated the project in early April and actual restoration and construction is due to begin in October at an estimated cost of $10 million.

Its restoration and modernization is being carried out by architect Youssef Haidar, with technical assistance from the Municipality of Paris.

Once opened, Beit Beirut will be the closest thing Lebanon has to a public war memorial. Traces of the war like the fighter-built fortified walls will be preserved and incorporated as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. “When you are there you feel the futility of war,” says Hallak. “It is exactly what a war memorial should be.”

Although Beit Beirut will chiefly be a museum, it will be “much more” than that, says Haidar. He hopes the building will help the Lebanese confront and reconcile their painful past.

The revamped Barakat building will connect to a new edifice built on an adjacent lot through a large spiral staircase, with both structures boasting state-of-the-art solar power systems. Just as the Lebanese themselves should be, says Haidar, the building will look firmly into the future while paying tribute to its past. “We are dealing with the building as if it is a war wounded that is starting to heal again,” says Haidar. “These traces cannot be erased, they are like scars.”

The museum will have an auditorium for lectures and workshops for young people on issues relating to memory, history and war- issues Haidar says have not been addressed at all in Lebanon.

“We went from amnesty to amnesia,” he says. “It’s important that at Beit Beirut, we can make a start in order to be able to say ‘never again.’”

Hallak envisions Beit Beirut as a living museum where visitors can interact and contribute to building up knowledge about their city. She’s put forth a proposal to have a “Beirut for Everybody” section on the ground floor, where locals can bring in and exhibit anything from their grandmother’s traditional Beiruti recipes to old cinema tickets. “We want to create a relationship between the city and the museum,” she says.

In addition to a permanent installation of personal items collected from the building, Beit Beirut will also host rotating exhibitions by artists, architects and urban planners on themes relating to the war, public space and contemporary history.

“It will be a place that will teach Beirutis to love their city,” says Hallak. “We don’t love our city because we don’t know it.”

Haidar and Hallak also hope the success of the project will encourage municipalities across Lebanon to preserve other traditional buildings as Beit Beiruts.

“There are other buildings that can be worked in this way,” Haidar says. “We don’t want to just reduce the idea to this one building.”

Although pleased with the renovations, Hallak has one minor criticism: she wishes a large ficus tree outside the Barakat building hadn’t been chopped back.

Only a few feet tall when the war broke out in 1975, the tree had grown several stories high by the 1990s.

“The tree was the memory of the war,” says Hallak. “That would have been the most romantic way to remember the war – with life.”