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From Our Own Correspondent

27 Nov

You can listen to me talking about Lebanon’s architectural heritage and transformation, on the BBC’s From our Own Correspondent program last week. You can also read it (unedited) below:

Dalila Mahdawi in Beirut

They wake me up early every morning without fail. The construction workers in the lot behind my house bang away at steel, shift concrete blocks and yell instructions at one another. Workers on the other side of the street soon join in, busying themselves with the demolition of a building.

Beirut has for so long been synonymous with conflict and destruction.  But now it’s a city in rapid transition, changing into a modern and sleek metropolis. In almost every neighborhood, the sound of building or demolition is constant, ringing out as regularly as a heartbeat.

Lebanon is well versed in destruction – a fifteen year civil war ending in 1990 saw hundreds of thousands die or disappear.  Many buildings became sniper towers and battle grounds between warring militias. A war with Israel in 2006 also saw large swathes of the country reduced to rubble.

The conflicts have left behind a vast number of shambolic buildings in need of demolition or renovation.  But they have also provided an unprecedented opportunity for construction companies and investors to transform the country’s very character.

The current stability has encouraged previously cautious investors, as well as expatriate Lebanese hoping to reconnect with their country, to put up big money for real estate projects. It seems demand for housing has never been higher, and so the pock-marked or low-rise buildings are torn down … and the fancy apartments are bought up even before they are built.

But in the frenzied rush to reconstruct, many structures of architectural interest or historical importance are also falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. Fifty years ago, the Beirut skyline was made up of low-rise apartment blocks and picturesque stone houses.  Those have quickly given way to impersonal glass and concrete tower blocks.

On my street alone, a total of seven buildings have disappeared in recent years, including some real treasures – a 1950s art deco apartment building and two smaller houses that were at least a couple of centuries old. Soon, only the older residents will remember what this area used to look like.

Not everyone in Lebanon is quietly accepting the architectural transformation of their country.

Nestled in the lush Chouf Mountains, the charming village of Deir Al-Qamar, with its 17th and 18th century stone houses is proof that modernization and architectural heritage can find common ground.

The village boasts some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, including a mosque from 1493, winding stepped alleys, the palace of a former Ottoman governor, a restored merchants inn, and a 16th century emir’s palace. The local municipality hopes to preserve the area’s architecture by stipulating that today’s house builders must use traditional limestone brick, and red tiles for the roofs.

Meanwhile, a synagogue in downtown Beirut badly damaged by Israeli shelling is being refurbished after receiving donations both from Lebanese Jews and the international community. It is one of only a few remaining Jewish sites left in the country.

A few activists have also drawn attention to the need to preserve buildings associated with the Civil War. If all signs of war are erased, it makes it all that much easier to repeat the violence, the activists argue. One of these passionate people is architect Mona Hallak, who is largely behind the saving of one of Beirut’s true architectural delights.

The Barakat Building, a magnificent four story Art Nouveau apartment block built in the 1920s, was transformed into a militia headquarters during the civil war because of its strategically important location on the front line between divided East and West Beirut. Every floor had large, stained-glass windows offering views of the streets below, allowing snipers to pick off their targets with relative ease. The building was pulverized by rocket fire, grenades and bullets.

Today the land on which the Barakat Building sits is prime real estate worth millions. Its owners had decided to tear it down and sell it to developers. But Hallak’s efforts meant it was saved at the last minute, even as workers had already begun tearing up the marble tiles and removing intricate iron railings.

With the help of a few like-minded friends, she launched a petition and newspaper campaign demanding the building be preserved. Eventually the demolition permit was rescinded and in 2002 the city government took charge of the gutted structure. The Barakat Building is now set to become Beirut’s first museum of municipal history.

Still standing in spite of all its glaring wounds, and almost in defiance of the glass tower blocks popping up all around it, the Barakat Building offers people here some reassurance … the actions of a dedicated few architecture lovers don’t always go unnoticed. (C) of the BBC and Dalila Mahdawi

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Last remaining glass-blowers in Lebanon struggle to keep business alive

21 Nov

Khalifeh business hit hard as new highway curbs traffic along old costal road
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Glass at the Khalifeh shop in Sarafand


SARAFAND: During the hey-day of the Phoenician civilization, the trading post of ancient Serepta would have had a thriving artisan community with glass makers, potters and timber merchant selling their wares to sea-farers. Today Serepta is better known as Sarafand – a sleepy run-down village in southern Lebanon with pot-holed roads where no one seems to loiter too long.

The potters and glass blowers have long gone, with mechanics and kebab vendors taking their place. Lebanon’s once thriving glass trade hasn’t completely died out, however. One family is determinedly keeping the ancient tradition alive, albeit with considerable difficulty.

The Khalifeh family has been blowing glass for about 40 years, selling their goods in a local shop or to wholesalers. In happier times, says shop manager Nisrine Khalifeh, her grandfather taught apprentices the painstaking trade and employed several dozen locals.

The family had a thriving business, helped along by exposure at international craft fairs and friendly tour guides who would bring generous-spending Beirutis to the shop.

Today, Nisrine’s father Hussein runs the business but the locals aren’t interested in working with glass. “No one likes to do it because it’s so hard,” Nisrine says with a sigh. “Many people have asked to learn but then they can’t handle the heat.” She points to her father, who at 55 years old looks more like 85.

His face has been leathered and shoulders hunched by years sweating it out in front of the oven, designing and shaping glass in 140 degree heat. The future of Lebanon’s glass-blowing heritage now rests in the hands of Hussein, Nisrine and seven other family members.

The dearth of trained glass blowers has been accompanied by decreasing sales at the Khalifeh’s shop in Sarafand. Despite the undeniable appeal of the shop’s colorful interior, with its rainbow of ornate standing candle holders, hanging decorations, water jugs and vases, hardly anyone ever visits.

When the southern coastal highway opened a few years ago, business at the Khalifeh shop, which is situated on the old coastal road, was hard hit.

Now, says Nisrine, the only people that come to the shop are foreign clients who might not have visited in a few years or soldiers from UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL looking for presents to take home. “When the autostrade was closed a few months ago and people had to travel on the coastal road, a lot of people came in and bought things,” she says. With only the most motivated clients bothering to make the journey, the Khalifeh family’s glass products are one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets.

Ever-rising fuel costs are also taking a toll. Because of the exorbitant prices, the Khalifehs only turn on the ovens for big orders to highbrow boutiques in Beirut who then sell the glass products for double or triple the original price.

The oven costs $500 each day to run and takes 24 hours to reach 1,500 degrees, the temperature where glass finally turns to liquid. “Sometimes we stop for two or three months because there’s no work,” Nisrine says. When The Daily Star visited, the ovens had been off for some time.

The ovens themselves are also expensive to keep, as they can only be used twice before the intense heat turns the bricks to sand.

Apart from the high fuel consumption, the Khalifeh’s glass production is environmentally sound, using only recycled glass. Behind the shop, rusty bath tubs and old oil vats groan under the weight of shattered beer and wine bottles, mirrors and windows.

The road ahead looks discouraging for Lebanon’s last remaining glass blowers. Assistance from the government has not been forthcoming, though the Khalifeh’s say they don’t expect help. If mounting costs and falling demand finally force the family to close shop for good, Nisrine doesn’t know what her brothers will do: they left school when they were 12 to learn the trade. “My brothers only know glass-blowing. There’s no work for them except this.”

Women worked to death in Lebanon

11 Nov

Dalila Mahdawi guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 November 2009 21.00 GMT
They mop floors, take out the rubbish, walk the dog, buy groceries and care for the children, the elderly or disabled. Many a well-to-do and lower middle class Lebanese family relies on migrant domestic workers to take care of their household, but when it comes to providing for these women, not all return the favour.

Migrant domestic workers – women who work as live-in or freelance housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – form a vital presence in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, where women’s increased participation in the workforce has not been accompanied by state-backed social or childcare services.

There are thought to be about 200,000 women, mostly from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, in Lebanon alone. But although they are becoming an intrinsic part of the country’s social fabric, their contribution is often overlooked. While many Lebanese people are careful to ensure their housekeepers are well treated, a significant number abuse them. In extreme cases, migrant domestic workers are killed or kill themselves.

The spate of suicides has become so bad in recent weeks it prompted Lebanese blogger Wissam to launch the grimly named Ethiopian Suicides blog. The website is dedicated to monitoring media reports on the deaths of foreign migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I have a dream,” Wissam says. “That migrant domestic workers will be treated humanely in Lebanon and will stop trying to commit or commit[ting] suicide.”

In the last three weeks alone, Wissam notes, four Ethiopian women have died. Lebanese police say the deaths of Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, Saneet Mariam, 30, Matente Kebede Zeditu, 26, Tezeta Yalmiya, 26 were probably suicides. But as human rights activists here will testify, the truth about what happened to them may never be known because police usually only take into account the employer’s testimony. Migrants who survive abuse or suicide attempts are not usually provided with a translator, meaning their version of events often does not get registered with officials.

Sadly, violations against such workers occur throughout the region and in some cases the women end up in slave-like conditions.

Reflecting the concern of sender countries for the wellbeing of their citizens, Ethiopia and the Philippines have placed bans on working in Lebanon and Jordan, but this has not stemmed the flow of illegal migrants smuggled in through third countries. Without the necessary work papers and embassy support, migrant women become even more vulnerable to human rights abuses.

One reason the women are driven to the edge is that, in Lebanon at least, they are not given protection under the country’s labour law. Such exclusion means that those who withhold salaries, confiscate passports, confine their employees to the house or otherwise abuse them, can literally get away with murder. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that five months after parliamentary elections, a Lebanese government is only now being formed.

The campaign to grant migrant domestic workers greater rights in the region has been led by Human Rights Watch. This summer, it contacted Lebanese beach resorts and found that 17 out of 27 private facilities practised some form of discrimination against such women by prohibiting them from swimming in the pool or even the Mediterranean sea.

A study conducted by the organisation last year found that more than one migrant domestic worker was dying in Lebanon each week – mostly from suspected suicide or by falling off a balcony while trying to escape abusive employers. The numbers sent ripples throughout the rights community and resulted in far more sustained local media coverage on the issue of domestic migrant workers. Judging by Wissam’s recent statistics, however, this does not appear to have persuaded the authorities to take sufficient measures to protect their rights.

The embassies of countries that supply migrant workers have a duty to protect their citizens. They could start by offering amnesty and assistance to all illegal workers, increasing their legal protection capabilities and properly informing women at home of their rights and responsibilities while working abroad. Many countries, such as Nepal or Madagascar, which are sending women to the Middle East in increasing numbers, would do well to increase their diplomatic representation from consular level to embassies.

Many migrant workers come to the Middle East seeking a better life for the families they left behind. The Lebanese themselves have a long history of migration and hardship, and should know first-hand the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country. Just as many Lebanese abroad work hard with the hopes of eventually returning home, the Lebanese should ensure that these women get to go back to their countries – alive and well, not in body bags.

NOTE: Since this article was published, the death toll of migrant workers women has risen to eight, according to Human Rights Watch.

Zina’s take on Lebanon

8 Oct

Cartoon from Zina's Ups and Downs blog

The last part roughly translates as: To hell with this country! (though it says this through the sexist phrase that makes reference to your sister’s vagina.) Lebanon is smaller than the US state of Connecticut but 24/7  access to electricity and water remains problematic. Many people who can afford it buy personal generators and end up having to pay two electricity bills each month. Illustration from the blog, Zina’s Up and Downs

Lebanese beach resort discrimination policies uncovered

25 Aug
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: If you’re a migrant domestic worker or dark-skinned tourist, it’s more than likely you’ll run into difficulty trying to enter one of Lebanon’s pool or beach resorts. This is the sad conclusion reached by international advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), and confirmed by countless individuals who’ve experienced such racism first hand. 

“Last summer we blind-called resorts to see if there were any restrictions on [the entry or use of facilities by] migrant domestic workers,” Nadim Houry, Senior Researcher at HRW’s Beirut office, told The Daily Star. “We initially called pretending to be a Lebanese family enquiring” about entrance fees and regulations. The results: out of 27 resorts called, 17 said they practiced some form of discrimination against migrants, Houry said. 

Many resorts that do let in migrant workers only do so on if the women are accompanying their employers. Even then, the women are either not allowed to sit in the public area or swim in the pool or sea. Resorts contacted by The Daily Star justified such discrimination by saying they did not wish to upset other guests or that migrants paid less or no entrance fee. As no discrimination law exists in Lebanon, the resorts aren’t doing anything illegal. But their rules conjure up images of Apartheid South Africa or of racial segregation in the United States. “This is clear racism in its most basic element,” Houry said. 

Sylvie, not her real name, is a black Cuban-American who worked for a large international organization in Lebanon. She said she was stunned by the racism she encountered and recalled a story of two black colleagues who were barred entry at a resort because of their color. “If you’re dark-skinned, don’t come to Beirut presuming to find the diversity-friendly cosmopolitanism that the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ moniker seems to imply,” she said. 

Lebanon is home to roughly 200,000 migrant domestic workers, although this figure does not include those who enter the country illegally or Syrian and Egyptian day laborers. Many of these women, who are from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal, work as live-in “maids” for employers who respect their rights, but a sizeable number experience violations of their human rights. 

Their problems are compounded by the fact they receive no protection under Lebanese labor laws, leaving them with little access to the justice system. As such, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off, or for employers that physically or psychologically abuse them.  A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked over 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off. 

A similar survey by the NGO Caritas Lebanon in 2005 found 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their domestic worker employees, placing limitations on their freedom of movement. Many workers are also denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries. 
Thus while racist restrictions on migrants at Lebanon’s beach resorts is not the most pressing difficulty faced by these women, as Houry admits, it is symbolic of their predicament. “It’s a very telling problem … a manifestation of the deep-seated racism against migrant workers” in Lebanon, he said. 

 Some commentators have pointed out that the discrimination upheld by some Lebanese according to their perceived views of a person’s socio-economic background. “I think it is different when the women domestic workers … go into these facilities as friends of Lebanese people, [as] opposed to on their own or as workers with a family,” said Zoe Ozveren on a Facebook group set up to support migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. “I personally have been called an Ethiopian girl because of my skin color and treated rudely by a few people, but as soon as they see me with my Lebanese or American friends, the attitude is completely different.” 

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, Director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “I bet if the maid was Swedish or Italian there would be no problem letting her in the swimming pool and in restaurants and at the hairdresser’s, etc,” she said. 

To better inform migrant domestic workers of their rights and responsibilities, the Lebanese government recently introduced an information booklet and a standardized contract available in the women’s native languages, as well as English, French and Arabic, that is also signed by the employer. While the contract grants workers the right to a weekly day off, it has its shortcomings: it does not mention the women’s right to enjoy their day off outside of their employer’s home and does not enforce penalties for agencies or employers who breach the contract. And while Lebanon is party to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it has yet to sign the 2003 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. 

Eradicating racism in Lebanon will not be achieved overnight, but as Houry noted, it must come to an end if the country wants to attract tourists of all backgrounds. “These discriminatory practices are a stain on Lebanon’s efforts to promote itself and its beaches as a welcoming and tolerant place,” he said, urging the Lebanese government to take measures against racism and to formulate an anti-discrimination law.

Lebanese women have an alternative to plastic surgery

20 Aug
Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star Staff
August 20, 2009
BEIRUT: How many Lebanese women have you seen today with plastic surgery or who look like they’ve spent several hours preening? With Lebanon having acquired something of a reputation abroad for its predilection for surgery, the answer is likely to be several. Tired of being subjected to pressures of physical appearance, one Lebanese woman has launched a campaign in order to celebrate authentic, diverse beauty – the kind she argues is rapidly being lost to “look alike” surgeries that are often styled on the features of a select few celebrities and models. 

ANADiva (Arabic for “I’m a diva”) is the brainchild of 26-year-old Gwen Bou Jaoude. As part of the campaign, she has launched a social networking site where members can discuss representations of beauty, and a competition to create the campaign’s character. The website is one of the first Lebanese initiatives to demonstrate that other means of self-expression exist for women, Bou Jaoude said. “This online community proves that there are still members of the public who are against this metamorphosing of our society.” 

The campaign will conclude with an alternative fashion show that celebrates real women’s bodies in all their shapes and sizes. Lebanese cartoonist Stavro Jabra and Nienke Klunder, a Dutch-American photographer who works with the themes of body image and self-expression, have already signed up to collaborate on the campaign, as has web developing company Star Point Star, who offered to design the website. 

 “Everyone has a different opinion of beauty,” Bou Jaoude said, adding she hoped the ANADiva campaign will improve Lebanese women’s perceptions of themselves, celebrate individuality, and encourage critical thinking about mainstream standards of beauty. “The public should be given an alternative” to the one currently toted by the mainstream media and advertisers, she added. “They brainwash you [about how you should look] without you even realizing.” 

 Bou Jaoude’s efforts come at a time of growing debate within the fashion and cosmetics sectors about beauty. Dove, a leading beauty products company, has launched its own “Real Beauty” campaign and fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle are now actively trying to use more black and Asian models in an effort to show the beauty industry does not only view white women as attractive. 

One of the reasons Bou Jaoude decided to launch the campaign was she felt the Lebanese, through surgery, were losing their cultural identity and becoming carbon copies of their European and North American counterparts. Lebanese women should embrace their looks, Jaoude said. “Variety is healthy within a society.” 

Cosmetic surgery and the cosmetic industry are lucrative trades – according to the International Herald Tribune, in 2007 alone, the two were estimated to be worth around $14 billion in sales globally. More and more women, though also men, are opting for surgery, swelling the industry’s coffer’s by an additional $1 billion each year. 

In a questionnaire conducted by ANADiva of 65 Lebanese women between the age of 21 and 38, 46 said they would go under the knife in order to “look sexy.” With billboards, television adverts and pop stars offering a narrow, airbrushed image of beauty, “women are striving to look like an ideal that doesn’t exist, an ideal that has been digitally created,” Bou Jaoude said. She cited statistics showing that the average individual comes across 600-625 images of women that have been digitally enhanced. Bombarded with images of perfection from a young age, Bou Jaoude said it wasn’t surprising so many Lebanese women contemplated plastic surgery. 

As the ANAdiva campaign states, “The average person currently faces the pressure of upholding certain “body commandments”: women are expected to be thin, tall, toned and glamorous. In particular, Lebanese women are feeling compelled to meet such “commandments” at any cost, creating ‘look alike’ females.” 

Out of the seven women questioned by The Daily Star, only one said they would describe themselves as “beautiful,” and three said they had already had or were seriously considering plastic surgery. Five of the women said they knew people who were on diets or had eating disorders. 

Yasmine, who underwent cosmetic surgery earlier this year, said social pressure to look good was a contributing factor in her decision. “You see all these pictures of gorgeous women and even if you know you’ll never look like that, you often end up trying to live up to those images,” she said, adding she spent around $150 each month on beauty products, facials and hairdressing. “You have to match the standard if you want to attract a man.” 
“People are getting a certain image of how women should look,” Bou Jaoude said. “It’s about time someone does something about” countering it. The competition’s deadline is August 25, 2009. To enter, vist: http://www.anadiva.com

Arabs must Compel States into Action

18 Aug

By Dalila Mahdawi

Beirut – A new report released on 22 July 2009 sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has blamed environmental, political, economic and social problems, together with the Middle East’s vulnerability to external occupation or military intervention, for hindering development in the Arab world.

While its conclusion is admittedly nothing novel, the “Arab Human Development Report 2009: Challenges to Human Security in the Arab Countries” has reinvigorated an important debate on who shoulders responsibility for the Arab world’s development and security, or rather, lack of it. The report, written by more than 100 independent and respected Arab intellectuals, suggests Arab governments have failed in their duty to provide their citizens with the security needed to foster strong economies and states.

Lebanon is a key example of an Arab country where the state is virtually ineffectual. Burgeoning civil society and politicised religious groups, as well as the private sector, have emerged from this vacuum to offer services that would normally be provided by the government.

Lebanon’s Hizbullah is one such example, which explains its enormous popularity. It was, after all, Hizbullah—not the ill-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces—that drove Israel to end its occupation of the South in 2000, and it is Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state, that today provides healthcare, political representation, housing and other social services to its marginalised Shia constituency.

If Arab nations want to curtail the popular support currently afforded the region’s numerous political-Islam and sub-state organisations, they must show that their governments can be relied upon to provide basic services, that state institutions can represent and that the army can protect.

Employment is one especially critical area where Arab governments must act to ensure the security of their people. According to the report, a staggering 60 per cent of the Arab world is under 25 years of age. In the year 2005/6 some 30 per cent of young Arabs were unemployed, compared to a world rate of 14 per cent. Unemployment and economic hardship drives the Arab world’s best brains abroad, and pushes others into informal, insecure jobs or into the clutches of radicalisation. Young Arabs must often settle for jobs for which they are overqualified and badly paid.

One reason for the region’s embarrassing unemployment rate is the stagnation of the Arab economy. According to statistics given in the report, there has been hardly any economic growth in the region since 1980: “World Bank data show that real GDP per capita … grew by a mere 6.4 percent over the entire 24 year period from 1980 to 2004”, a woeful figure that doesn’t even correspond to 0.5 per cent annually.

Arab states must engage with such growing sectors as information technology, Islamic banking and responsible tourism to identify job creation opportunities if they wish to secure sustainable growth and provide economic opportunities to their citizens. The richer oil-producing Arab nations could further support the regional economy by investing in Arab stock markets, cultural projects or other long-term endeavours closer to home. With the UN estimating Arab countries will “need about 51 million new jobs by 2020”, no time can be lost in implementing such measures.

While the contributions of Arab non-governmental groups toward reform must be commended and even strengthened, reform is a responsibility that must be taken up primarily by the state. Non-governmental organisations have laid the groundwork for the region’s fight against gender discrimination, climate change, and political and judicial impunity. Arab states must now build upon that foundation.

Not only must the governments of the Arab world assume their responsibilities, Arab citizens must hold their leaders to account. In Lebanon, a minute country with a population of around 4.5 million, people are not even ensured reliable supplies of electricity or running water 24 hours a day. Hopefully, the dire facts presented in this UNDP report will spark the necessary outrage of Arab citizens to compel their governments into action. Continuing silence over the region’s shortcomings is tantamount to an endorsement of the status quo.

Ultimately, however, the security of Arabs depends on lasting Middle East peace. So long as the livelihoods of millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, Yemenis and others are threatened by occupation or conflict, political, economic and social reform will be of little immediate significance to Arabs.

* Dalila Mahdawi is a journalist at The Daily Star, Lebanon’s only English-language daily newspaper. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).