Lebanon

Clubhouse: Why This Social Platform Scares Arab Regimes

Glittering virtual lounges are popping up, inviting people to participate, solely by audio, in debates on all subjects. And, in the Middle East, the powers that be disapprove of the elites' infatuation with a trendy new app.

RIYADH — A month ago, the up-and-coming app Clubhouse took the Middle East by storm. In just a few days, the latest gem from Silicon Valley had already earned its place in the crowded market of Arab social networks. Since this audio chat platform only runs on iOS for the moment, its use is restricted to iPhone owners, i.e. the relatively wealthy classes.

But in these circles, especially in Egypt and among the ultra-connected youth of the wealthy Gulf States, followers for this new app started to grow rapidly. By mid-February, Clubhouse was the most downloaded social media app in the Saudi Arabian App Store.

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Lebanese Diaspora Extends To Africa, Easing Crisis Back Home

Funds sent back by emigrants to Africa are helping residents in Zrariyeh, about 75 kilometers south of Beirut, survive Lebanon's full-blown economic crisis.

ZRARIYEH — As a glowing dusk gives way to darkness, this southern Lebanese village succumbs to a kind of drowsiness when the COVID-19 curfew begins. Indeed, activity during the day is already moving at a slower pace as a result of the multiple crises that are shaking the country.

But the inhabitants of this Shiite town, where most make a living from trade or construction, say they are closing ranks in the face of the economic and financial collapse. "We live from day to day. But in Zrariyeh, solidarity is at its best," says Mohamed Fakih, a young pharmacy employee. "Here, for example, chronically ill patients who cannot afford to pay for their treatment are taken care of by benefactors."

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A New Lampedusa? Lebanese Risking Lives To Migrate By Sea

Lebanese have long emigrated to Europe and elsewhere. But not like during this crisis: on clandestine boats, in a perilous trip toward the island of Cyprus.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Afaf Abdel Hamid climbs the damp-ridden stairs leading to her small family apartment in the Qobbé neighborhood of Tripoli, the coastal city in northern Lebanon. Hamid has been consumed by anguish since her son Mohamad went missing at sea. "I want someone to bring him back to me, dead or alive," she says, bursting into tears.

The 27-year-old took off secretly, on Sept. 7, from the coast north of Tripoli. The idea was to reach Cyprus. But the boat, chartered by traffickers and with about 40 other people on board, lost its way. And when a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) boat finally came to its rescue, in mid-September, the young Lebanese man was no longer on board.

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Will Beirut Bring About A Global Shift In Storage Safety?

PARIS — Last week's explosion at a port warehouse in Beirut, which killed at least 200 and caused a minimum of $5 billion in damage, should serve as a sobering wake-up call for countries that have equally (or more) dangerous chemical reserves. Beyond the human toll and material consequences, the catastrophic event has also triggered political consequences, with Lebanon's prime minister and his government announcing their resignation amid widespread protests.

Lebanon, as some have pointed out, was a nation already on its knees. The blast and the ensuing investigation into potential negligence and corruption merely served as a catalyst in a society on the brink of collapse.

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Lebanon
Benjamin Barthe

Beirut Blast: Mayhem In A Nation Already On Its Knees

Tuesday's deadly explosion couldn't have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is also struggling with high inflation, the collapse of its currency and a new wave of coronavirus infections.

BEIRUT — Lebanon had already been teetering on the edge of an abyss. It's now fallen in. That, at least, is the overwhelming sense here in Beirut following the gigantic detonation that devastated the city on Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The explosion, which killed at least 78 people and was felt kilometers away in all directions, comes in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. The national currency is in free fall, the middle class is disintegrating and state institutions are adrift. And the enormous mushroom cloud of black smoke that appeared at about 6 p.m. yesterday, above the city's port, is the sad symbol of that systematic implosion. It signals the collapse of a model that was supposed to allow Lebanon to rebuild after its 15-year civil war (1975-1990) but instead took it in the opposite direction.

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Lebanon
Amélie Mouton and Mourad Kamel

Black Lives Matter In The Arab World: Fighting A Multidimensional Racism

In Arab countries, the death of George Floyd has reignited the debate about racism against Blacks, a discrimination that worsens as it descends the social ladder.

Maryam Abu Khaled certainly did not expect to become one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Middle East. And yet, in less than a week, this young Palestinian actress has become the voice of citizens in Arab countries who face supposedly "good-natured" racism because they have black skin. "I'm told that racism in the United States has nothing to do with racism in the Arab world. That at least here, we don't kill people," she says in a viral video with over two million views on Instagram.

"Do you realize that what you say with love can ruin a person's mental health and destroy their confidence?" Khaled asks. She remembers the moment she heard a mother tell her child not to stay in the sun "so that they don't burn and look like Maryam" and the time a father explained to his son, "if some people are Black, it's because their families have left them in the oven." She urges people who say such things to stop. "It's not too late. We can teach the new generation what is right and wrong."

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Lebanon
Mariam Kirollos

When A Subterranean Theater Emerges In Beirut

BEIRUT — Located in the heart of Beirut's vibrant Hamra Street, an area that served as a hub for intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, Metro al-Madina is an independent theater company and cabaret. The theater was founded in 2012 by Hisham Jaber & co. from the rubble of an abandoned theater with aspirations of reviving Hamra's once-thriving theater scene. According to Jaber, the venue was formerly used by Lebanon's General Security Directorate to assess films for censorship before they could be screened. Since then, it has fully emerged as "a stage where all kinds of scenic arts can flourish," as Metro al-Madina's mission says.

Productions at the theater range from cabaret shows to plays and orchestra. The venue also serves as safe-keeper of tarab, a difficult-to-translate concept in Arabic that refers to the emotional effect of traditional Arab music. Jaber jokes that the idea of having some of Lebanon's best musicians, "the Gods of the Lebanese scene," as he calls them, dressed in costume onstage reviving an era long gone was once viewed as a wild idea.

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Lebanon
Victoria Yan

Building Beit Beirut, A History Museum In A City That Tries To Forget

A determined architect continues to pursue her dream of opening a civil war museum in Beirut, where people are still rattled by the bloody events of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.

BEIRUT Mona Hallak, 26, landed on the tarmac of the Beirut International Airport in 1994, four years after the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, and headed straight to the center of the capital.

Downtown Beirut was once a glitzy hot spot for the city's cosmopolitan elite, but the central area fell victim to the conflict that erupted between Lebanon's Muslim, Christian and Druze communities. And upon returning in the mid-90s, the young Lebanese architect found that the country's national post-war reconstruction process had already begun and was threatening to raze the downtown's history to the ground. Many of the buildings she knew before the war had already been buried beneath rubble or had been flattened by bulldozers.

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Lebanon
Maja Janmyr

Resettlement Or Return? Limbo For Syrian Refugees In Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon appears to be mobilizing for the mass return of Syrian refugees, disregarding warnings that conditions in their home country are not conducive to voluntary returns in safety and dignity.

Last week, ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections, Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to help secure the return of refugees. After the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) stated that it was not involved in last month's return of around 500 Syrians from Lebanon due to conditions in Syria, the UNHCR's representative to Lebanon, Mireille Girard, was summoned by the foreign ministry and asked not to issue any further statements on refugee return.

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Lebanon
Sibylle Rizk

Lebanon, Why The Crisis Is Only Just Beginning

-Analysis-

BEIRUT — Since its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been exposed to the vicissitudes of the Middle East's complicated geopolitics, from the creation of Israel, which led to a massive influx of Palestinian refugees on Lebanese soil, to the recent war in Syria, not to mention Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

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Lebanon

Lebanon, Palace Intrigue And Risks Of The Next Proxy War

-Analysis-

Lebanon can be seen as a microcosm for the entire Middle East: intractable sectarian conflict, economic potential, terrorist threats and a labyrinthine web of competing national interests. These days, it seems, the small nation of just over six million inhabitants risks again becoming the live theater for the region to play out its many rivalries with the next proxy war.

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Lebanon
Giacomo Tognini

The Latest Anti-Immigrant Party On The Rise ... In Lebanon

The Lebanese 'Party of Hope' calls for the immediate expulsion of more than one million Syrian refugees.

ZOUK MOSBEH — Dozens of supporters turned out recently in this coastal town north of Beirut to inaugurate a new political party, the Lebanese Party of Hope, which advocates the expulsion of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon.

The Beirut-based daily L'Orient-Le Jour reports that the question of what will happen to the refugees once the Syrian civil war draws to a close is a deeply divisive topic in Lebanese politics. Some parties are pushing for a voluntary repatriation led by the refugees themselves, while others prefer the involvement of security forces.

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Lebanon
Chloe Domat

In Lebanon, Syrian Refugees Run Out Of Space To Bury Their Dead

In Lebanon, the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, a cemetery for Syrian refugees is running out of burial plots.

DARAYA — In the valley below the Lebanese village of Daraya lies a cemetery for Syrians. Large oak trees surround the graveyard, which smells of the herbal balm usually spread over the dead before funerals. Many of the graves are planted with fresh flowers.

At the end of a line of graves sits Abu Abdo, the man in charge of the cemetery. Abdo is not a refugee. He left Syria in 1993 to work as a plumber in neighboring Lebanon. He was well settled into his new life when war started back home. It seemed a distant tragedy — until he lost one of his own relatives in 2014.

"My aunt's husband died here in Lebanon. He was a refugee. For several days we couldn't find a spot to bury him," he says. "The corpse started to smell. It was very difficult." This is when Abdo came up with the idea of opening a cemetery especially for Syrians.

Abu Abdo receives requests for burials on WhatsApp.

With the help of a group of friends and a local NGO, he gathered enough money to buy a 16,145 square-ft (1,500 square-meter) piece of land in Daraya, the village where he lives, and opened the cemetery in January 2016. He has since buried 250 adults and more than 100 children — nearly all Syrian refugees from across Lebanon.

Syrians find out about Abdo's cemetery by word of mouth. Initially, he opened a Facebook page to advertise the graveyard, but he says the page was closed at the behest of Lebanese authorities. Now Abu Abdo receives requests for burials on WhatsApp. As the refugee crisis in Lebanon drags on, his business has grown. Funeral fees start at $150.

"I bury three to four people a week. I have about 100 spots left, then I need to get new land or bury people on top of each other," he says.

The initiative has attracted criticism from local villagers. "Whenever I buy a loaf of bread or a kilo of meat, people say it's money from the dead," says Abdo. "But I'm not making a profit."

The local NGO supporting the cemetery says international support has also been lacking. "The land needed special rehabilitation and construction. We were promised help from numerous international organizations, but none came through," says Ghassan Shehade, executive director of the Social Association in Chehim. "We only depend on the goodwill of our local donors and on our volunteers."

Fields and smugglers

More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. Many of their deaths go unrecorded, but local NGOs estimate that about 10,000 die in Lebanon each year. The vast majority of them are Sunni Muslims, whose faith prohibits cremation. In a country roughly one-third of the size of Belgium, burial space has become a pressing issue.

At the beginning of the crisis, in 2011, Syrians were buried in local cemeteries alongside the Lebanese border, but land rapidly filled up and prices rose.

Today, fees for a tomb in a Lebanese cemetery start at around $400. In cities, this price multiplies by 10, and in Beirut it can reach $10,000. This is a fee most Syrian refugees cannot afford, as few of them are able to work, and years of exile have depleted their savings. Many families are forced to bury their loved ones wherever they can.

This is what happened to 22-year-old Azzam, from Homs, when his month-old baby died last year. The family, who live in a derelict Pepsi factory on the outskirts of Sidon in southern Lebanon, could not afford medication for their firstborn child.

"The cemetery asked for $400 to take my son. I didn't have the money, so I was forced to bury him in the field," he says. "I waited until it got dark so that nobody would see me. I could have been in real trouble." It is illegal to bury someone outside an official cemetery in Lebanon.

Other refugees have resorted to sending bodies back to Syria, even though the roads aren't safe and the smugglers rarely trustworthy.

When Rajaa*, a 37-year-old refugee from the Syrian province of Idlib, lost her brother two years ago, she tried to send his body back to Damascus.

The body was lost. We don't know where it is.

"I paid a smuggler $400. He took my brother's corpse and disappeared. I called him many times, but his phone was switched off," she said. "That was it. The body was lost. We don't know where it is. Did they feed it to the dogs? Did they dump it somewhere? Did wild animals eat it? We don't know."

The right to a burial

Under the Geneva conventions, refugees have the right to be buried in individual graves and according to their religion's rituals. Yet burial space is an issue for refugees across the world, ranging from the South Sudanese in Uganda to refugees in Calais in France trying to reach the UK.

On Mediterranean coasts, new cemeteries have opened for the large number of refugees who die at sea. On the Greek island of Lesbos, a Muslim graveyard was created near the pre-existing Christian graveyard, and burial spaces for refugees have also been set aside in Italy, in Lampedusa and Tarsia.

But nowhere, perhaps, is it more difficult to allocate land for the displaced dead than in tiny Lebanon, which hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Building more cemeteries

Adding to the challenges is the legal complexity of opening new cemeteries in Lebanon. "There is no legal or regulatory document governing the issue of cemeteries in general," says Lebanese law professor Bechara Karam. "One must compile different laws and decrees that contain a few articles on the subject."

Karima Houjair, project manager at Dar el Fatwa —the body responsible for Sunni waqf (religious property) in Lebanon — says, "Anybody can buy a piece of land and turn it into a cemetery, but before doing so he has to donate it to the waqf authorities of the municipality."

A few months ago, the site reached its maximum capacity.

In the northern region of Akkar, Nasr Alzhouri, a 58-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, also tried to help his community to part with their loved ones in a dignified manner.

He raised $40,000 from private donors to buy a 27,000 square-ft (2,500 square-meter) piece of land near the Syrian border. He then donated it to Dar el Fatwa, and the cemetery opened in March 2017. It is now home to about 20 graves for Syrian refugees.

Another Syrian cemetery was opened by local organizations in Al Faour, in the Bekaa region, where an estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees live in harsh conditions. A few months ago, the site reached its maximum capacity of 450 graves, but the groups have a new project underway.

"We are currently working on an initiative to establish a cemetery that can accommodate 800 graves within a 37,700 square-ft (3,500 square-meter) plot of land, in central Bekaa," says Haytham Taimey, founder of the Development and Regeneration Association, an NGO helping Syrian families to find sites in local graveyards.

In their efforts to bury refugees who die in exile, these Syrian volunteers and local NGOs face not only countless legal challenges, but also the lack of interest from international donors.

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Lebanon
John Kluge and Lev Plaves

Crowdfunding As A Financial Gateway For Refugees

ALEY — Mohammad left his home on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013, gripped with a mix of guilt and anxiety. Though he was fleeing violence that is still ongoing in his hometown of Jobar, the 39-year-old father of four worried about how he would provide for his family.

He had lived his whole life in the historic neighborhood that hems the walls of old Damascus, where he owned a thriving business — a workshop that pressed aluminum. But when the conflict broke out in 2011, he watched his enterprise shutter and his community unravel. Two years into the war, he made the decision, overnight, to leave his homeland in search of safety and stability in Lebanon.

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Lebanon
Carla Haddad Mardini*

A Lebanese Recipe For Intra-Islamic Reconciliation

A project in Tripoli, Lebanon's second biggest city gives women from the rival Alawite and Sunni communities a chance to work together.

TRIPOLI — Breathing shallowly, our eyes scan the facades of buildings riddled with bullets and gutted by shells and mortar. Broken window panes and electric cords as far as the eye can see reinforce the sensation of chaos and desolation. This is Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.

The Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, in the outskirts of Tripoli, are fraught with tensions between two communities: One is Alawite, a Shia minority to which the Syrian president Bachar al-Assad belongs; the other Sunni, which supports the opposition in neighboring Syria. These tensions often boiled over into armed violence during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and, more recently, during the height of the Syrian conflict. The dividing line between the two communities, in fact, is a street called Syria.

The goal of the visit is to meet a group of Alawite and Sunni women who have managed to do the impossible: calm the antagonism and historic animosity between the two communities; ease minds and build bridges; plant the seeds, perhaps, of reconciliation. All this by using a powerful medium — cooking.

We enter a building that seems to have been miraculously spared from the violence. A young Lebanese woman welcomes us. She works for a local NGO supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and directs a simple project, the goal of which is to provide materials and a neutral and protected space so that women from the two communities to meet, cook and exchange.

The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.

Arriving in the kitchen area, the smell of Lebanese dishes prepared with the utmost care makes our mouths water. Six women make chicken sandwiches with spices. The hygiene is impeccable. They put their hearts into the task. Their kitchen had been so successful that the project participants were able to enlarge the business by accepting only large orders. The day of our visit, they are busy completing an order of several hundred sandwiches for an orphanage in a neighboring village.

Financial Independence

The women explain to us that they were trained in cooking, and that they acquired skills that have henceforth given them financial independence. They are proud to be able to meet the needs of their families. Wafa Hazouri, 51, fell into a depression when battles were raging in her neighborhood. Her husband, a taxi driver, was almost unable to work. Their only source of income was on the verge of drying up.

"Working in this kitchen doesn't just allow me to pay the bills," she says. "It also brings me out of isolation and depression. My kids are really happy for me."

Cooking for an NGO in Beirut — Photo: Dan Snyder/ZUMA

The building is located on the front line between the two communities and has two entrances, one on each side allowing women to enter safely. We are told that since the project has existed, when fighting flares, this building is always spared. The fighters respect this as a neutral space, one that is set apart from the historical tensions.

Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh were systematically forgotten in the development effort — even after the civil war. As such, the communities living there have failed to escape the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and a lack of opportunities.

The kitchen project is important in that regard not just as a link between rival communities, but as a model, perhaps, for constructing a sustainable economy in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The ingredients of success? A modest investment and a unifying concept that overcomes division and mobilizes talent.

"Doing this work allowed me to recover my dignity," one of the women tells us. A beautiful message of resilience for future generations.

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Lebanon
Eugénie Bastié

Direct Cash, Is This The Future Of Humanitarian Aid?

Experiments among Syrian refugees in Lebanon are testing the best way to help those in need.

BEKAA VALLEY — Across this stretch of eastern Lebanon, some 360,000 Syrian refugees have been living in muddy informal settlements scattered across villages. Whether crammed into flats or stuffed into tents, they are part of the one million Syrians who now live in Lebanon.

Although they registered with the UN Refugee Agency when they arrived, they are not recognized by authorities in Lebanon, which hasn't signed the Geneva Conventions. These refugees don't have the right to work though some of them do so illegally. To survive, they rely on humanitarian aid. World Food Program coupons allow them to buy $27 worth of food per person every month in certified shops. The UN Refugee Agency gives them $40 of fuel for heating.

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