Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The joys of guest posting


I was invited to put together a guest post for a site I came across recently. It’s an American political blog and regularly invites guests to contribute. So, I posted about the funding issues the LAF is having with Congress and why that’s not good for the US of A. You can see the full post here.

Now, there are certainly points that you can take issue with, but I’d happily defend the content.

However, posting on the site reminded me that there are some real nutjobs out there, as can be seen from this comment:

Look my friend, we both know all who surround Israel (save Jordan as you rightly say) what Her Dead, and truth be told, in a savage way. They will not be happy till no Israeli is alive and well anywhere. The hatred can be seen, felt. One does not use their own children to blow up Israeli women and children from political disagreements. Terroist attacks are “holy” and celebrated by the vast majority of Shi’a. You know this. Not IF, but WHEN is the question regarding the Next War on Israel. The only thing stopping them is fear of defeat. All are jockying, ALL are hoping and planning. Jeruselum is a huge stone around the neck of the world, and her neighbors will not rest until She is Muslim.

It’s nice to be set straight.

Did I know I’d get this? Yes. Did it amuse me (in a very dark way) anyway? Absolutely.

-
Apologies for the lack of posts, lots of work of late. I hope to be back on track.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

This time it’s personal…


Last night there were clashes between the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects (Ahbash) and Hizballah. The reports are very confused, but apparently the Ahbash attacked a group from Hizballah, resulting in four deaths in Bourj Abi Haidar.

The Lebanese Army moved in and contained the fighting. By the end it had escalated to what some media sources are referring to “medium calibre” weaponry. While “medium calibre” is a description that is wide, wide open, a friend of ours who lives nearby claimed there were RPGs going off on a regular basis.

The groups released a statement claiming that the matter was personal and that it spiraled out of control and held discussions with the Lebanese Army after the Army had moved into the area.

A Few Points:
1.      How does one define a “personal matter”? This escalated into the use of rocket propelled grenades in the streets.
2.      What role, exactly, do the security services play, including the Lebanese Army and police, if not to engage people fighting in the streets of the capital? – The impression I got was that they didn’t act proactively.
3.      Why was it not reported, at the time, to the extent that it deserved?

Sayed Nasrallah was on TV talking about a range of issues when all this was happening. One was that it was vital that all responsible parties work together to create a stable state. The irony is, hopefully, not lost.

The Army does not appear to have engaged in combat. This is, presumably, out of fear of repercussions. How can one create a “stable” state if the security apparatus is afraid of the citizenry?

The obvious answer to this is the fear of civil war. Fine, I understand that. The flipside is, there’s absolutely no accountability when a group decides to go out and kill someone.

Some commentators are claiming that the event stole Sayed Nasrallah’s thunder. However, that wasn’t my impression. Flicking around the channels last night, there was a either, a., a live broadcast of Sayed Sayed Nasrallah’s speech, or., b., regular programming – including a performance by Nancy Ajram. All my information came from the Internet. Did I miss something?

The whole situation, re. Hizballah’s statements on the STL and the general unease created by the situation hints that this clash was more than a personal matter. However, the one plus point is that the two groups do not appear to wish the affair to escalate. Why else claim that it was personal matter?


Monday, 23 August 2010

On attractions…


I’ve had any number of conversations with people recently about Lebanon, tourism, marketing of the country and the sights (and sites) to be seen here.

I’m a great fan of antiquity. I’ve seen the various Greek sites, Roman ruins, Druidic remains and Phoenician sites. Dotted all over the place, I’ve gone out of my way to visit important historical locales in any number of different countries.

And yet, there’s one right on our doorstep that isn’t given enough press around the world.

Baalbek.

 Wait, don't tell me, I know where
they are...

Baalbek is about as good as it gets. Phoenician, Greek and Roman ruins. Inscriptions from historical figures. It’s all there.

Yet … it’s not marketed. Nobody knows about the place. When I first went home on holiday during my first stint in Beirut, I always encouraged (and still do) people to visit Lebanon. The answer’s always, “Why?”

Well, there’s Baalbek. It’s as impressive as the Athenian Acropolis, it’s older, too. There’s Byblos, the oldest inhabited place on the planet (OK, there are a lot of places that claim the same, but sod it, I’m biased). There’s Tyre: The site where Alexander the Great built a great big frickin’ causeway into the sea, literally leaving his mark on the world not to mention one of the largest hippodromes in the world. There’s the excavations in Downtown (a fully uncovered Roman bath complex for God’s sake). There’s Crusader castles, Ottoman palaces, ancient mosques and churches. Lebanon also claims the village in which Jesus turned water into wine. Saint George (England’s patron saint) was said to have fought the dragon here. Whatever your bent on history, it’s all here.

People tend to go quiet at that point. “Oh. Right. I didn’t know that.”

I’ve found getting around Lebanon’s, undeniably, violent past is comparatively easy. People tend to believe a long term expat.

That Lebanon’s ancient past is ignored amid the slew of marketing that generally aims at the “East meets West, Party Capital” bumpf is criminal. Yes, Beirut is a great party town. Yes, you should come and let your hair down. But there’s more to Lebanon than vodka shots, rooftop bars and exposed flesh.
 Lebanon's other famous columns...

That’s the wrong demographic to be targeting. People who are interested in coming to Beirut, and let’s face it, they might get out of the city for a day or two at most, aren’t spending significant amounts of cash. They’re young, they’re staying in hostels, and their cash goes into the sink holes that are Gemmayzeh/Monot/Hamra.

Lebanon should be pushing her ancient roots.

But, as this country is wont to do, the focus is all on the future. I understand why. But there’s a huge opportunity being missed.

My Lebanese friends often say that Baalbek (in particular) is known. They point to concerts held there. The whole country knows. People come home from the Gulf.

 That's it! The columns!
They were part of Mika's set! (SQUEAL!)

Well… yeah… Lebanese know about Baalbek. But then, Lebanese always knew about Baalbek. These same Lebanese don’t go there very often. It’s the ajnabee you need to get to Baalbek.

If you don’t, there’ll be no money to maintain the damn place over the long run. It’s already neglected. Case in point: Whenever my folks come to Lebanon (about twice a year) we always hit up Baalbek (among other places). The second time we went, the guide greeted my father and clearly remembered him, recounting a particular anecdote my father had told him the previous trip. … A guide … remembering a single tourist from six months previously….

Visiting the castle at Byblos I had to go find the kiosk guy in order to buy a ticket. At Beiteddine they had to go and find the tickets. At the hippodrome there were no tickets to be found. The guy didn’t know how much to charge. We had to get out our Lonely Planet (back in the day when Lebanon had its own edition) to show him how much the guidebook said was the going rate….

Urrggghhhh….

Not good. Not good.

 Lonely Planet editors: Not the
most politically sensitive...

Pop Quiz (Answer without resorting to Google)
Why is Nahr al Keleb (Dog River) named as it is?

Answers on a postcard, the winner gets a special prize.

-

This particular rant was brought to you by Chateaus Kouroum and Kefraya.

While taking a tour of Kefraya’s vineyard this weekend, we were told that the Lebanon had been the site of winemaking since Phoenician times. This was met with cries of incredulity from others on the tour. Hence the diatribe. Once the bulging vein on my forehead had receded I decided to blog… sorry, rant, on this issue.

Disclaimer: This is not a reflection on either Chateaus Kefraya or Kouroum. Though, the former is pretty pretentious.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Your money and your life


I was just at the bank. All went well, a routine stop.

However, while I there I suffered a traumatic flashback to previous Lebanese banking experiences. The banks here are notoriously awful, everyone has a story to tell, but I’ve had what I think are more than my fair share.

I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve worked within the banking sector in the UK, for a small private bank.

Where do I start…?

Ok, firstly I couldn’t open a bank account when I first arrived as my work permit hadn’t been issued. Fine. However, the work permit took around a year to be issued. My wife and I ended up opening a joint bank account, not a problem.

Once the account had been opened HSBC (yes, naming and shaming) couldn’t seem to issue ATM cards that worked. Seriously, in the C21st this is still a problem. So, they’d issue a card, it wouldn’t work, we’d take it in to exchange it. We’d then be told that it would take two weeks to get another one. What? Yep. Cards come from the UAE. Awesome. Ok, not a problem. These things happen. Three times in succession? Three times? For the mathematically challenged, that’s one-and-a-half months! Their answer? “What’s the problem? Come in to the bank.” Thanks.

A debit card ... or so I'm told

About a year later HSBC arbitrarily closed the account. Apparently, HSBC customers had to maintain a certain level of cash in the account. It was a current account. You know, the type people use on a day-to-day basis. You know, the one that pays virtually no interest. The one that makes no sense to actually keep your money in long term? Bizarre. Of course, we kept the credit card. Naturally.

So, we shifted to Lebanese Canadian.

HSBC evidently weren’t happy about this. Three or four times since, upon using an HSBC ATM, the machine has stolen our cash. Seriously. Pop the card in, whack in your PIN, enter the amount. Machine sits there flickering. Card gets spat back out. “Transaction not completed, contact your issuing bank.” Hmmmm…. So, you go to another ATM and get a statement. Turns out that darling HSBC has, in fact, withdrawn the money from your account. Yes, we got the money back, but it took about a month each time.

"Honey, you don't have a piece of paper and a pen
by any chance?"
Anyway, Lebanese Canadian must be better than HSBC, right? Well, no. They’re on par. In terms of customer service they’re pretty appalling, just like the lot from Hong Kong.

Just like everyone else in the country we were affected by the ATM fraud of last year. A recap: Some guy was copying the details of ATM cards that were used in certain ATMs. Happens all the time, but not in Lebanon apparently. The response? Cancel cards that might have been affected. That’s fine. But, firstly, they didn’t tell anyone where the problem was occurring, so you couldn’t avoid it. Secondly, they didn’t contact us to tell us they were doing it. Thirdly, it took two weeks to get a new ATM card again. Twice.

Other than that … well, standing orders didn’t work for a while. Paying the Lebanese Canadian credit card from our Lebanese Canadian account? Can’t do it automatically, apparently. You can set up the standing order to make the payment. They just won’t carry it out. So, you get a nasty phone call saying, “You haven’t paid your credit card charges this month.” “Really? Because I told you to transfer the required cash every month.” “What?” “Did you check?” “Uhhhh….”, “Ok, check, phone me back and apologise.” They eventually got it right.*

Oh, and their Online Banking doesn’t work well. But that’s ok … for administrative reasons they’re working with HSBC now …. Great.

Well, all this is funny with hindsight. However, we must be grateful that Lebanon wasn’t hit by the financial crisis. Lebanese banks are forced to hold a large percentage of their cash reserves both with themselves and the central bank.

Now, if they’d just let me get at my money, that’d be perfect.

*I’m not normally so unpleasant to people normally. But enough was enough.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

United colours of Benetton


Following on from my post about funding, I saw something interesting last night, or rather I saw it again.


While out in Monot for Iftar there were people, kids, burning various objects in the street. I think it was about the electricity situation. Regardless, the Army were out in force.

Driving past a group of soldiers I noticed something.

They had Hummers from America, British Land Rovers and what I believe are Russian / Soviet-era APCs.*

*Edit: Thanks to Tiddles (see the comment) I can confirm that they are some sort of BTR varient. My military geekery remains intact ... and kind of, vaguely, on the ball... I think.*

 Hummers, not just for ganstas

 Land Rovers, mustache not required

Russian BTRs … because you know that 
eight wheels are better than four

The tribulations of being at the whim of so many sponsors down the years. The logistics of it all must beggar belief.

Here’s hoping for a time when the Lebanese Army is given the support it so richly deserves. It is a fine institution that deserves better.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Speed


I was just sent this via a friend in Korea:

 Korean Internet - Faster than Usain Bolt on speed...

After compressing it by a factor of 10, I’m showing it to you.

Yes, that’s download speeds of 61.18 MB/s (for 40 USD a month). 

I've got 512k at 50 USD a month... but it's OK, it doubles at night.

I’m crying into my coffee here.

Beirut Nights


There’s recently been a rash of articles labeling Beirut as the top holiday destination in the world. According to this, 100 per cent, totally authoritative site, which is in no way associated with Jameson's Whiskey, Beirut’s got two bars in the top 100, and they’ve somehow forgotten Sky Bar.

I thought I’d offer up a little additional comment… one that Lebanese will see as run of the mill, no doubt.

I went out for dinner last night at Le Grey, a sophisticated, modern hotel in Beirut’s Downtown, aimed at the refined, wealthy international traveler (I slipped in while the doorman was parking one of the hotel’s Audis). Following dinner, I walked down in what I know as Lower Downtown (Lina’s, Paul, etc.) for ice cream at that high-end Italian joint.

Le Grey's Infinity Pool... fancy and not, normally
for the likes of me

After sating myself on whiskey, dead cow, ice cream and coffee I headed back home. A wonderful night was had.

The clock was inching toward midnight, millimeter by excruciating millimeter.

No sooner had the key turned in the lock than the power went out. I can’t describe the sound, beyond saying that it’s something like a heavy stack of newspapers being dropped on the pavement. There’s a solid “thump” to it, but “thump” doesn’t do it justice. It’s a sound that anyone who’s lived in Lebanon soon becomes intimately familiar.

The standard crescendo of UPSes went off, a veritable Christmas-like twinkling of little red and green lights flickered as appliances turned off as the apartment reverberated with beeps and pings.

A UPS - A cheap alternative to David Guetta

Bastard. You utter bastard.

There I was looking forward to a quiet night’s sleep.

No sooner had I locked the door, stood on the cat, and fumbled around for ten minutes before finding my trusty dynamo torch, than the power came on. It was a miracle. I ran to the bedroom fired up the A/C, turned off all the lights that I’d inadvertently turned on while making sure they were, in fact, turned off and proceeded to take my lenses out.

Then, after a teasing two or three minutes of bliss, the lights went out again.

So, there I was, one contact lens on my finger, scrabbling in the pitch black for my trusty dynamo torch. Got it. Now, winding it, trying not to lose my contact and avoiding the cat, who by this time was walking between my legs, was a challenge that my Johnnie Walker-marinated brain just about proved equal to. It was a near thing though.

All done, I headed to bed. Where, due to there being no wind last night, I lay in a stupor staring at the ceiling as a fine layer of sweat slowly appeared.

I got about two hours sleep.

Beirut Nights.

They never mention the government-enforced Midnight Curfew in the brochure, do they?

Beirut. I love you. But you drive me to distraction.


Monday, 16 August 2010

How the other half lives...


While the Lebanese government is forced to open a bank account and accept donations to fund their armed forces, the Israelis have just signed the biggest arms deal in the history of the state.

As I mentioned before, there’s some hope that the US block on funding for the LAF will be lifted, however, some cynics are reporting a timely propaganda boost for the beleaguered Lebanese military.

Whenever the issue of US aid to Israel and Lebanon comes up, the skeptic in me always thinks of the US money that pays for the Israeli bombs that destroy infrastructure that, quite often, organizations like USAID has paid for.

It’s enough to give you a headache.


Thursday, 12 August 2010

The cost of guns and on whom to use them


Much has been made of the recent blocking of funding for the Lebanese Army by a group of US congressmen following the recent clash with Israel.

It’s a congressional election year at the moment and, as such, it’ll be difficult for anyone to lift the block, for fear of upsetting influential interest groups in the US. If / when it is lifted, it’ll happen early next year.

The money they’re talking about hasn’t yet been spent, but it has been allocated. So, it doesn’t appear that funding will dry up immediately. However, it’s cause for concern.

The gist of the argument is as follows: The Lebanese Army shot at the IDF. Israel is our ally. Therefore, we shouldn’t fund the LAF.

 It's all about the Benjamins

Now, that makes sense, on a very, very basic level.

However, it also gives the lie to US policy.

US funding revolves around giving the Lebanese a means by which to enhance the sovereignty of the state. At least that’s the view they’re pushing.

However … the one of the main uses of the armed forces of any country is to deter aggression and to defend their borders. Which is exactly what the LAF did. Ok, it seems as if the LAF made a mistake when it opened fire, but cutting off aid is the wrong approach. All it will do is weaken the LAF, making a mockery of past efforts to empower it.

But then the question of US motives comes into play.

Clearly, if the US doesn’t want the LAF to fight Israel (a state with whom Lebanon is at war), who do they want them to fight? … The obvious answer is internal actors, or Syria.

A clash with Syria is off the table and internal actors means Hizballah.

A clash between the LAF and Hizballah, though highly unlikely to occur, would be the first step toward civil war.

Further, given that the clash doesn’t occur, the potential absence of the US opens the door to others. Iran stepping in would merely result in the swapping of one patron for another. While large sectors of Lebanon would possibly applaud this, it surely would mark a significant downturn in Lebanon’s relations with the West.

Is Lebanon at a crossroads? Yes. However, I think it’s clear that the US will do all it can to resolve this. It’s most definitely in their interests to provide some form of internal balance to Hizballah. But then the niggling questions as to their true goals remain.

Lebanon is in the unfortunate position of having to be a client of one side of the great divide, the question is, who do they run with, and what will it mean?


--
Thanks for all the kind comments I’ve received recently by way of Sudan, Australia, Hong Kong, the UAE, the US and Lebanon. As I’ve said before, for me blogging is a form of expression and an excuse to indulge in pseudo-political commentary.  While writing these entries is rewarding enough, it’s the response from readers that makes it particularly interesting for me and, I presume, the majority of bloggers. In any case, thank you for your support. I would greatly appreciate it if you’d pass on a link to anyone you think might be interested.



Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Free TV … and UAV imagery…


A good friend of mine, in the midst of a rant regarding Nasrallah’s speech the other night, pointed out that it’s probably quite easy to intercept the video transmitted from the drones. Primarily by using this piece of software.

Ah the Internet… what a marvelous invention. I think. Maybe.

Thanks fella.

I'm not endorsing the interception of television signals, nor the pirating of legit channels.

But ... I'm sure it's all tightly regulated here, right....?

No, no, it's all perfectly legal, I swear...
 

Anticlimax


So, I watched Nasrallah’s speech last night, along with most of Lebanon. I also read the regular updates here and here.

I must say, after all the anticipation, I was left somewhat deflated. The hype had suggested that there was evidence that Israel had killed Hariri.

There was no such clear evidence. 
This is what, in a nutshell, Nasrallah said:

1.      Israel has the capability to kill people through clandestine means
2.      Israel has done this before
3.      Numerous Israeli spies have been arrested recently, they specialised in the following areas: Surveillance, information gathering, logistics and the smuggling of people over the border.

1 and 2 are clearly true. 3? It certainly seems to be true. – But there’s nothing new here.

There was use of video of Israeli UAVs flying over Beirut. The video followed two routes taken in the past by Hariri’s motorcade. He highlighted how they seemed to linger above corners and sharp turns in the road, where the convoy would slow down.

There was also video of confessions by the alleged spies. The only mention of Hariri was from a man employed to watch his residence.

Nasrallah appeared to have backtracked and stated time and time again that this was not an open and shut case. He claimed that this was a “war of public opinion” and that it was odd that, given there was an official investigation, that the Israelis weren’t suspects.

My thoughts:

1.      This seems to be a clear step backward from earlier claims of proof
2.      Everything was circumstantial
3.      There was only one agent linked, in any way, to Hariri
4.      Nasrallah has refused to hand over copies of the videos to the international tribunal, saying he will hand it to an independent Lebanese body. As a result, the video cannot be verified or studied Israel undoubtedly conducts UAV surveillance of Beirut, to believe otherwise would be na├»ve. However, given that the video cannot be analyzed, it is impossible to say how representative the footage is. It was clearly edited (and set to music) by Hizballah for this press conference. How much editing has occurred?
5.      Nasrallah openly spoke of the war “of public opinion”. It seems that his only objective here was to cast serious doubt on the Tribunal

Following the speech journalists asked Nasrallah questions. The overall atmosphere could be summed up in the following questions: “Who are you trying to convince?” The journalists were clearly confused as to how he expected them and, by extension, the general population to respond.

To his credit, Nasrallah didn’t duck the issue. He claimed that he was aware the “evidence” was circumstantial and that he was aiming to sway public opinion. Finally, he added that an independent investigation was needed.

After all the build-up I can’t help but feel that it fell a little flat. There was no compelling evidence. Sure, there’s certainly a case for investigating possible Israeli involvement, however, it’s far from clear. Nasrallah was asked why he didn’t show the video from the UAVs earlier, he claimed technical difficulties had prevented him from doing so.

I can’t help but feel that Nasrallah has made a mistake in his handling of this. The Lebanese were, depending on their political persuasion, awaiting clear evidence of Israeli involvement, or a pack of lies. They got neither.

However, then you recall Nasrallah’s statement: He claimed that he was aware the “evidence” was circumstantial and that he was aiming to sway public opinion.

This wasn’t about proof. It was about blowing the Tribunal out of the water. Mission accomplished. There will be enough doubt, and assumptions of Israeli involvement, among the Lebanese to achieve that.

However, the cost, in terms of his credibility outside of his constituency, might prove to be high.

There have been mixed responses, both in Lebanon and abroad, with some arguing that he had some degree of success, other claiming it fell flat.

Regardless, I think this snippet from Al Jazeera sums the situation up nicely:

Nasrallah unveils 'Hariri proof'
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has tried to implicate Israel in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Note the quote marks in the title, note the use of the word “tried” in the text.

The tribunal might be dead, but Nasrallah didn’t come off looking all that convincing.