The multiple faces of Lebanon and the ice cream lesson
Gianluca Solera - 23/05/2017
Lebanon has different faces. Not only those of the Maronite Christians of the Mount Lebanon towns, the Sunnis of Old Tripoli, or the Shia communities of the Southern coastal harbours. There is not only a cultural or religious multiple spectrum of identities in the country of cedars. There is also something related to the new geography of capitalism and urban development. The splendour showed off in Beirut through hyper-expensive cars, newly built apartment towers and elegant restaurants becomes growingly shocking the more you penetrate the country eastward. Beirut is nowadays a free zone of global Capital interconnected with many Lebanese communities abroad. If you have money and the right friends in politics, you have free hands. The best material evidence of this opulence, besides the commodities I have mentioned above, is the relentless urban sprawl and apparently irrational land estate development running around the capital city and along the coastline. Buildings are growing at an unexpected pace; and it cannot be simply explained as a response to local demand, nor to the demand for property investments from emigrated Lebanese holding a Brazilian or a European passport, nor from rich Gulf citizens dreaming of a villa in a nearby land of pleasures. Such a phenomenon can only be explained if there is other money flowing in the circle, probably to be laundered. Then, once you get inside rural Lebanon, or you reach the North or vast portions of the Beqaa’ Valley, you will find family-run farms, old peasants or local garages as in any periphery of the Arab world. This new divide is about global economy crystallized in sophisticated urban settlements, and the rest of the land surviving of its own resources, which are the more and more impoverished by climate change, on one side, and devastating quarries or dumping sites serving those urban settlements, on the other side.
Lebanon, if we forget for a moment (it is not easy, though) its mythical natural beauty and amazing cultural heritage, could be seen as one of the best examples of where the world is heading to, formal democracies based on solid business networks functioning on the condition that the rule of law is flimsy.
During my recent travel in the country, I heard the story of a photographer almost beaten to death for taking pics of an enormous quarry serving a cement factory, which has been opened on the mountains surrounding Chtoura, the city you pass by when you descend toward the Beqaa’, coming from Beirut. Seemingly, that plant has been opened without any concern for environment and landscape conservation. The infrastructure, so I was told, belongs to a powerful governmental character, and the country does not have any framework law for environmental protection and nature conservation: so the game is easy. If you then consider that the justice system is permeable to political networks, then the game gets too easy. The consequence of that? Just a figure: Out of 470 km of trails in mountain or rural areas connecting the whole country from North to South - a masterpiece of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association (LMTA)’s work - in the last ten years around one hundred km have been lost due to wild development.
The civil society tries to do what the State is failing to do
This organization is unique in its kind. Born as a kind of local Alpine Club of trekking lovers, it has evolved into an environmental group promoting economic alternatives to that wild development made of quarries, road construction, illegal hunting, waste dumping, water pumping, deforestation and apartment blocks. Every year, it brings the more and more Lebanese to walk along the trail they have blazed, to make them aware of their heritage. Through the Lebanese diaspora, LMTA has been able to connect with other groups around the world, such as the Canadian Bruce Trail Network, and seal twinning agreements with similar initiatives, not only to bring «responsible tourists» to Lebanon, but also to exchange information on how to counter the gradual spoiling of environment and excessive urbanization. It is a challenging endeavor, which has been taking a new speed with a recently EU-funded project - «Conservation and Development of Economic Opportunities on the Lebanon Mountain Trail» - carried out together with two Italian bodies, COSPE NGO and the Italian association for responsible tourism (AITR). «The project is not only about the restoration of a large trail section and the promotion of sustainable economic initiatives along it. It is very political, it aims at bringing local councils, politicians and economic operators together to agree on sustainable planning policies», explains to me during a working meeting Martine Btaich, the president of the organization. The civil society tries to do what the State is failing to do. Local farmers along the trail are encouraged to find their own way through the Lebanese food market. It is not easy, Beirut is packed with fine supermarkets, where almost no attention is paid to where the food is coming from and who has processed it. Souk at-Tayyeb is the very first farmers market in the country. Established 2004, it seems to be the only initiative to promote a virtuous circle between local quality farmers and urban consumers, which breaks the large commercial retail network and offer a safe space to Lebanese farmers, who are still preserving sustainable farming practices and taking care of rural landscape. End of April, I had the opportunity to walk on the famous trail between Jezzine and Rashaiya, visiting the Lebanese countryside stretching along the Chouf region, passing the ridge of Mount Lebanon range and descending the Beqaa’s Valley until the feet of Mount Hermon. The richness of biodiversity, landscapes, culinary arts, tales and heritage is absolutely amazing. Walking nearby Kawkaba village, we literally stumbled upon the foundations of an ancient town (Roman one, according to a Lebanese archeologist in the group), covered by wild grass and oaks, and which has never been excavated. I had just to bow my back to find, between dry leaves, acorns and stones, the handle of an ancient jar. Nearby, tombs carved in the rock with a technique commonly followed already five thousand years ago. Before reaching the mountain ridge dividing the Mediterranean side from the Beqaa’s, after having left the town of Jazzine, we met an old peasant collecting wild herbs to make traditional plates. One of these herbs is named Misshy, and tastes like a fleshy salad leave with an aftertaste of fennel. Another is the ʿAqoub, the soft core of the wild thistle. From Jouret el-Hajar peak, you can see the holy shrine of Prophet Job, a place attracting Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslim, and Christian pilgrims. A spot of miraculous reconciliations between traditions and peoples in front of the human experience of despair and hope. Job is the prophet of endurance, a wealthy man who remained steadfast to God despite all family and illness afflictions and property losses he went through during his life, who never lost faith despite the devil’s attempts to turn him against God. Sabr Ayoub!, «Job’s patience!», would say a Lebanese to wish endurance, courage and patience to someone.
With the same level of intensity, you bring home a sense of urgency, after having seen around the country how far desertification and urbanization are disfiguring the slopes of the hills. In summer 2015, the You Stink! movement invaded Beirut’s streets protesting against the failure of politicians in addressing the waste crisis hitting the country. The crisis, caused by the closure of the Beirut and Mount Lebanon region waste dump in Naameh, exposed the lack of vision and interest for public affairs of the local political class. On the occupied streets, a Lebanese lady has mentioned to me, you could hear the chants of the Arab Spring, such as: «The people wants to topple the regime!». Then came Beirut Madinati («Beirut is my town»), a new political movement made of cadres, activists, and independent professionals who wanted to get rid of the politics à la libanaise, where nothing changes, the same powerful families run the country, and corruption feeds all establishments united, in the name of preserving the balance between ethnical and religious communities. Beirut Madinati ran at the last Beirut municipal elections, in May 2016, and lost against a list of traditional political forces, obtaining however 40% of the valid votes. «During the last municipal elections, I was running back and forth, contacting all my friends in Beirut to ask to back Beirut Madinati, despite that I was not registered as a voter in the capital city», explains Zeynab Jeambey, LMTA project manager. «It was not enough». Many social activists were putting their hope in it. It was a clear-cut platform to address ten issues of common concern: (1) sustainable mobility, (2) greenery and public space upgrade, (3) affordable housing, (4) integrated waste management, (5) natural and built heritage protection, (6) community spaces and services, (7) fair and people-related socio-economic development, (8) environmental sustainability, (9) health and safety and (10) transparent municipal governance. «Wait a minute; it will probably go like with what happened in Spain with Los Indignados. Podemos, the party which took inspiration from that social movement, emerged only in 2014, three years after the uprising», I reply abruptly and confidently to Zeynab. «Oh, here it is, you are teaching us how things should be done. We are right when we are saying: Kul al-Haq ‘alaa at-Tulyān!, “It is the fault of Italians!”», she enunciates laughing. I had heard about this popular say, but never understood which historical episode has inspired it. I will investigate and let you know another day.
A country of refugees
I was mentioning about the different faces of Lebanon. The Syrian civil war has pushed out of Syria many people, and many of them are currently living in Lebanon, bringing back the memories of the Palestinians fleeing the Zionist forces in 1948. UNCHR has registered more than a million Syrian people having taken shelter in Lebanon, but many sources estimate that the effective number of Syrian refugees and displaced in the country of cedars reaches 1,5 million people. There is therefore the Lebanon of the new camps, located mainly along the northern and eastern borders and in the Beqaa’, while many are also trying to make their life reaching Beirut and living in precarious conditions. At Beirut’s traffic lights, you see nowadays many Syrian women and children begging, or you can notice young boys looking for stuff in garbage bins. What is peculiar is that real «poverty districts» are emerging in the country, where marginal Syrian and Lebanese communities fuse together under the banner of vulnerability. Many of the most vulnerable communities in Lebanon are concentrated in specific pockets of the country: the majority of deprived Lebanese (67%) and persons displaced from Syria (87%) live in the country’s 251 most vulnerable cadasters, out of a total of 1,653 cadasters. Each of these communities has however its own distinctive needs. Vulnerable Lebanese households face a decrease in income, which leaves them increasingly unable to meet basic needs, including food and/or healthcare. Displaced Syrian households are suffering the impact of protracted displacement and are sinking deeper into debt and negative coping mechanisms, as they struggle to meet their families’ needs; and Palestinian Refugees face multi-generational poverty and a lack of access to decent work opportunities. After six years of Syrian civil war, poverty levels are high and the long-term resilience of the country’s defenseless communities is eroding as they run out of savings and struggle to access income. On the other hand, obtaining civil documentation in Lebanon has become difficult and costly for many displaced Syrians, and issues related to legal status further compound their vulnerability. «Since 2014, obtaining a visa has become more complicated and cost around 200 € / person, an amount not everybody can afford», tells me a French employee at UNHCR. Furthermore, Syrians can only work in specific sectors (seasonal jobs, garbage collection and recycling, agriculture, construction), and other activities are banned. Some shops which had been opened by Syrians have been recently closed by the Lebanese authorities, fearing that this kind of entrepreneurship competes with the Lebanese economy. «Here in Lebanon, there have not been protests and violent signals of intolerance against Syrian displaced and refugees», adds the French employee. «What you hear is ritual complaints about the risk that they steal jobs to Lebanese nationals». This is why the Lebanese Government has taken a tougher stance on Syrians. UNHCR data about the poverty districts seem proving, however, that in certain regional areas the risk of deterioration of social and economic conditions affects unconditionally both Lebanese and Syrians at an accelerating pace. Some Lebanese is even renting plots of his farmland to Syrians for planting their tents: it is a survival strategy. Again, a country with different faces.
«What are your most urgent needs with respect to Syrian escapees in Lebanon?», I ask Fadi Hallisso, the general manager of Basmeh & Zeitooneh Relief and Development, a major non-profit organization working with refugees and established in 2012. «We need to work on education, job opportunities and social services for Syrians. This is what they mostly need right now», he explains to me, in front of a long café au lait. Fadi is a big and robust young man, and his organization has grown extraordinarily in a few years, trying to respond to the challenges of a fluctuating situation on the ground. Today, they employ more than one hundred full-time staff members; they have opened seven community centers in Lebanon, run twelve programmes, and have started to operate in Jordan and Turkey as well. They even organize Seen. Discover the Unknown (taking place right now in Beirut), a festival to celebrate artistic talents from different communities, including Syrians and Palestinians in the camps.
It is a Sunday morning, Beirut is unusually calm, the café we are sitting in on Badaro street as well. When Fadi mentions the political activities they are running, he seems lowering further his voice. For them, the rightness of the uprising against Damascus’ regime is not a matter of controversy. In the liberated areas, they train locals on civic engagement and public affairs management. Where people have set up autonomous councils, they have found themselves in the necessity of practicing community development and management even without earlier experience of that. That is where Fadi’s network can help. They are building democracy by trial and error.
Tarek Awwad’s Syrian Eyes is instead focusing on human dignity in the camps. Born 2013 as a volunteer youth group, rapidly established itself as a credible partner for international donors for its reliability and creativity. «Everything started so spontaneously», tells Tarek. «By helping people in meeting their existential needs». Syrian Eyes launched a Facebook campaign to collect cloths for refugees, and helped them to learn and make upcycling, meaning shaping useful things out of trivial garbage. Then, they received the support of the German-Syrian donor Jasmin Hilfe, and their positive impact in camps grew. Today, the group manages even three community centers, and it has opened clinics, school classes, vegetable gardens and bakeries in the Lebanon based camps. Their source of motivation was the eyes of those kids. One of their most interesting activities has been «Art is my identity», a series of multi-media art workshops producing visual reflections on self-identity by Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon. Each participant was asked to write and paint over a projection of his or her portrait taken by a facilitator. The final product served as a document on self-identity of Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon.
Amin Maalouf is right
Tarek’s tale reminded me about another important issue, identity. Refugees personify the meaning of the times we are living in. Not only that. They are those who are humanly bringing the peoples of the Mediterranean closer, make ruptures and rearrangements possible, and help better understanding the scope of the changes underway in the region. They make feel lighter the burden of those who begin to head South or East in search of work, as the Portuguese who settle down in Angola, or the Greeks who move to Turkey. Day after day, these human contaminations become cultural and give rise to new social practices. They bring together, in other words, pieces of an identity that is nurtured by many, and that Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf qualifies as «a new concept of identity – which sometimes I feel like defining as a Mediterranean conception of identity – less tribal, less exclusive, less limited, less a prisoner of the selecting myths, more open to the others and to the realities of the future world».
Back to the trail: when we are approaching Rashaiya, an elegant town located on the top of a hill facing Mount Hermon, George, one of the senior Lebanese walkers, is provoking me by questioning a fundamental element of our national heritage, and therefore our identity: gelato, ice cream. «Years ago, Mr. Carpigiani [the king of industrial gelato machines], visited Lebanon. I brought him around. When we approached the peaks of Mount Lebanon, he asked me to stop because he wanted to take a picture of fresh snow», George tells. «I asked him: “Why are you so interesting in photographing snow?” And Mr. Carpigiani replied: “Because I am aware where ice cream was born”». I could not understand. Well, the story is very simple. Damascus Umayyad dynasty was sourcing fresh snow from Mount Hermon and other nearby peaks to prepare fruity ice cream. Everything started by mixing syrup, flower essence and ice, then even fresh fruits, already among Persians. Later on, apparently, Arabs defined the modern recipe of ice cream by introducing milk and sugar as primary ingredient. By the 10th century, ice cream made of milk, cream, flavored rosewater, dried fruits and nuts was used over entire Arab lands, especially in Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. I am half Venetian. We have been always taught that ice cream was born on Venetian Alps, nearby Belluno, and became a universal dessert through Belluno’s ice cream makers who crossed the Alps and migrated to America. My grandfather, who was running a hotel on the lake of Garda, was making ice cream home, crushing ice and milk together with energy. «Arabs were naming ice cream Sharbat», our George adds; suddenly I realize that Sorbetto and Sharbat are the same word (by the way, the root of this word is present in such Indo-European languages as Greek and Persian for example)! Food can definitely help isolating the preachers of hate. We should therefore read more history books and learn what lies behind many of our lifestyle ingredients.
Milk, Sikhs and values
Contemporary Lebanon is a laboratory where these realities of tomorrow’s world are overlapping and materializing within a small territory. Looking around, we should be scared of what lies ahead: economic insecurity, political violence, social inequalities or the defacement of ecosystems. In such a context, the continuous process of redefining your own identity in line with Maalouf’s inspiring concepts is not only a morally motivated duty; it is, first of all, a survival strategy. Even at the Beirut based Adyan Foundation, one of the most important centers for inter-religious and intercultural understanding in the Middle East, they have learnt it. Priest Fadi Daoud, Adyan Foundation’s chairman (Adyān means «religions» in Arabic) puts it gently: «Learning to live in diversity helps us creating solutions and defusing existing and potential conflicts». I am fascinated by the new platform in Arabic they have launched, Ta’addudiya, which is addressed to all Middle Eastern youth, and besides sharing analyses and research on the regional material and immaterial heritage and social, religious and policy-oriented values, it promotes critical thinking and a narrative inspired by real life stories, aimed at preventing extremisms. I learnt about Adyan Foundation’s work a few weeks before an Italian court’s verdict, which has made many questioning the judges’ reasoning behind it. I am talking about the rejection by the Italian Court of Appeal, on May 15, 2017, of a petition submitted by a Sikh Indian man living in Mantua’s countryside, the county where I also grew up. Sikh Indians are those nowadays who are milking our cows. Wrote the Latin poet Virgil in one of his masterpieces, The Eclogues, evoking his native Mantuan lands:
«... and your cows browse clover,
and swell their udders.»
There is no parmesan cheese, nor cappuccino possible any more without the previous work of a Sikh. Basically, the Court has rejected the Mantuan Sikh’s request to be able to circulate around with the Kirpan, an 18 cm long curved knife a Sikh wears inserted in a belt. This knife is the religious symbol of the virtue of resisting to Evil. A symbol of peace, not a weapon, therefore. The ruling of the Court of Appeal states: «It is not acceptable that the attachment to your own values, although legitimate can be according to the laws of the country of origin, brings to consciously violating the values of the hosting society». Public security, say the Italian judges, is a primary collective good in our culture; the Sikh knife must be seen as a weapon, and it cannot therefore be exhibited. They also add that multicultural societies «cannot lead to the shaping of cultural archipelagos who can be conflicting, depending on the ethnicities who form them». Many Italian political forces have welcomed the verdict. I am doubtful about the court’s arguments. In my view, democracy is not about adhering to values; it is about respecting laws. Values inspire the normative framework of a country, but a democracy should not be asking someone to assimilate the cultural values of a nation. A democracy should require that all its citizens, whether indigenous citizens or citizens with another origin, respect the laws of the country. A born Sikh Indian and Italian citizen should be punished not for a matter of values, but for a matter of crimes. You should be punished because you have breached carry permit rules or are abusing other people, not because your symbols refer to non-indigenous values. Cultural patterns are dynamic processes, and they contribute to refresh and redefine our own identities. In my view, you should be able to follow your traditions, provided that you do not harm others’ freedom of following their own traditions, and that you do not commit crimes. The law should preserve this principle. What Lebanon has been experiencing during years and decays, is a continuous process of redefinition of «being a Lebanese» seeking unity in diversity. Lebanon’s problem today is the weak rule of law and the social injustices, not «the shaping of conflicting cultural archipelagos». My perception is that this is the challenge of many other countries, including mine. I do not know if this is another good lesson for us, after the gelato’s one, but I am sure it deserves caution, wisdom and another view of national identities.
For sure, I do not want to give up on my parmesan, nor on my cappuccinos!
Zagreb / Toruń, 20 May 2017.
- See: http://www.soukeltayeb.com/
- Source: http://beirutmadinati.com/program/
- Source: UNCHR, Syrian Regional Refugee Response, updated 16 December 2016.
- See: UNHCR, Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020, January 2017.
- Amin Maalouf, «The Challenges of Interculturality in the Mediterranean», in J.Maila, M.-À.Roque (edit.), Els reptes de la interculturalitat a la Mediterrània, IeMED, Barcelona, 2000.
- See www.taadudiya.com .
- So says shepherd Lycidas in the 9th Eclogue. Translated by A. S. Kline, Poetry in Translation, 2011.
- See VV AA, «Migranti, sentenza sui doveri», Corriere della Sera, 16 May 2017.