Lebanon Must Reinvent Itself

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The Lebanese passport is not the best one to have. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my country. Yes, I am proud. Proud of being able to ‘ski and swim on the same day’, proud of our hummus, proud of our multi-lingual upbringing, proud of the Lebanese success stories on the international scene keeping in mind Lebanon is a tiny-teeny country, proud of our family values, of our strong educational institutions, of our sophisticated banking system, of our ability to (kind of) cohabitate when we are 18 officially recognized religious groups, proud of our ability to survive (and somehow forget) a painful – and recurrent – history, of our persistence to make it happen on our land despite all odds, of the fun in our clubs… Being Lebanese has however a lot of downsides. Holding the Lebanese passport is one of many.

I was 22 when I first realized how precarious my living in London was. I graduated – in the midst of the subprime crisis – with distinction, from a top ranked London university, with an LLM in Commercial Law, ready to kick-start my career, to join an international corporation, when I realized a small – but malicious – detail: I had no legal right to stay further. To convince a potential employer I was worth the fight was another story. Why me? A Lebanese girl, kind of unsure, kind of hesitant, with a perfect French? – maybe – but an English…that could be worked on. Why me when the economy was suffering, when the unemployment rate was rising by the day, when there were plenty of young, ambitious, qualified British people out there, seeking a job, with equal and sometimes better qualifications? ‘Your English is not sizzling’ was one of the causes of rejections I got. ‘You are not tough enough to survive this environment’, was another. And the list goes on. The situation was hopeless. I packed my bags and my dreams, ready to return to my home country to the joy of my parents. But I prayed. Oh my god did I pray (like the song). Until, finally, six months later, a bank sponsored my visa and I was offered the chance to stay. Woop Woop Yippee.

My visa issues did not end here. My friends always planned a last-minute weekend getaway. I was never able to go. I needed to plan in advance, book an appointment with the relevant embassy, gather the documents (insurance papers, bank statements -current, original, NOT printed online statements, two recent photographs, flight booking, hotel booking, copy of the passport, original renewed passport, letter from my employer, take a day off, queue, sit for hours in a dirty, smelly, noisy embassy waiting area, deprived from my phone and bag (for security reasons- because I look like a TERRORIST!) and sit. And wait. And panic.

It gets worse. When I got married last year – that is to a British citizen – I had to obtain a spouse visa to be allowed to live and work in the UK. I applied from Beirut whilst my husband was in London. The process took, in total, 7 months. We spent the first 7 months of our married life separated, my relationship and career both on hold. I will spare you the details but allow me to pinpoint it was a question of documents not presented in the ‘required format’.

What really makes me upset is that Lebanon has put itself – and as a result its people – in this situation. I do not like the fact our French and British friends for example do not need a pre-approved visa to enter our country but we need one to enter theirs. Of course, we do not have the luxury to complicate their visits. We need their visits. We need that rare, occasional, exceptional, God-sent visit of a European who heard of Sky Bar and decided to be ‘adventurous’ and check it out.

Lebanon must change the conditions of its people. We should be allowed to travel freely. Lebanon must enhance the value of its official document. Its stature amongst the international players depends on how much power it has. One way it can do so is by holding on – tightly- to their object of desire

The equation can change, if Lebanon’s energy reserves are confirmed, on the condition that they are managed and administrated in an efficient, transparent, honest manner. Recent explorations indicated the strong likelihood of large amounts of gas in our waters. Spectrum Geo estimates the deposit at about 25 tcf. Discoveries in neighboring countries also encourage that fact. Lebanon has been trying to catch up, well behind in the race for gas. It has appointed its Petroleum Administration Authority and approved the Decree on the Pre-qualification of Companies to participate in the Petroleum Activities Licensing Round. Over 100 companies have so far requested application documents in the pre-qualifying bid round.

Lebanon should take advantage of the considerable amount of international interest in its potential hydrocarbons to improve its conditions. The example of neighboring debt-crippled Cyprus proves my point. It has not hesitated in using the potential revenues from future gas discoveries as a bargaining power in an attempt to obtain a loan from the EU/IMF or Russia. Rumor also has it that even Russian Gazprom has offered to bail out the Bank of Cyprus in return for exclusive control of the gas reserves off the coast of the island.

Energy means power. Lebanon must use what it potentially – and most likely has – to its advantage. It must employ all its efforts to wisely and strategically reinvent Lebanon’s existence in the international arena. Energy diplomacy, regionally and internationally, is key. Lebanon should get itself together and set its standards high now that for the first time, we stand the chance to be… PICKY!

©

Karen Ayat

ayat_karen@hotmail.com

I also tweet @karenayat

The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.

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2 Comments

Filed under Ambition, Dream, Family, freedom, Goodbyes, growing up, Lebanon, Life, London, struggle, Work

2 responses to “Lebanon Must Reinvent Itself

  1. How ironic is it that what makes you proud of being Lebanese, seems to be nothing short of what makes me ashamed. My shame does not merely come from the fact I sometimes believe I was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, but also from the fact that people around me seems to suffer from denial and a pathological need to lie to themselves.

    In case you really do still believe that one is able to ‘ski and swim on the same day’, I’d like to invite you for a drive from Beirut to Jounieh on a Monday afternoon. In fact, let me make it easier: try crossing Hamra street instead.
    As far as the hummus is concerned, we may have mastered the art of making the (allegedly) best tasting hummus in the world, but the dish is not nor has ever been ours to begin with. It may be more accurate to claim it is Egyptian, since the first mention of Hummus Bi Tehini goes back to 13th century cookbooks, published in Cairo. It is more likely that the dish is actually Arab/Mediterranean in nature since some references to it can be traced back to the crusades and if my memory serves me right, Lebanon did not even exist at the time.
    Oh and yes, I know that it is not clear whether we are Arabs or Phoenicians or something else, but I’m pretty sure that since we were invaded so many times, we’re probably a mix of “everything”, so to speak.

    Our multilingual upbringing is indeed, astonishing. So astonishing in fact, that very few of us are actually capable of properly speaking and writing in what is supposed to be our native tongue. Why? If our values are so strong, our patriotism exemplary and our determination historical, then why on earth do we pride ourselves of our English blogs (no offense), our “French-educated” children and the fact that we are Armenian first? Doesn’t that show, at the very least, the absence of an identity? Or worse: a Lebanese Delusion?
    However, you are right when you talk about the Lebanese success stories on the international scene. Yet what is really interesting is why we had to go abroad in the first place, and why we still dream of greener pastures on the other side of the borders, beyond the local mousetrap our country has become. Perhaps Mr. Anthony Touma,who is competing in the French format of The Voice, said it all clearly during his first interview but in case there is any confusion, then you may want to check out a recent article in the economist titled “A tale of two traders” (http://www.economist.com/news/business/21573584-business-people-lebanon-fare-better-abroad-home-tale-two-traders).

    What about our “highly sophisticated banking system”? I find it quite amusing that you would chose such an adjective to describe a rigid dinosaur, that is nothing but the end-result of a conspiracy executed by a handful of individuals who took the country hostage by artificially inflating its once powerful currency. I won’t trouble you with the citizenships of the bank owners or the origins and nature of most of the deposits or even the redundant infractions that are occurring on a daily basis in almost every bank, but I am sure you have a clear picture already.

    Sure, we have 18 recognized religious groups (sects actually) that live in the same geography. The fact that they all hate each other’s guts and live off of loath somehow seems to indicate to me that things are not exactly dandy in this part of the world. And yet, we still rise again and again, like the phoenix, right? You eloquently called it the “ability to survive”. Allow me to refer to it as “numbness” as I do not wish to borrow Freud’s denial definition.

    You are right about one thing though: the Lebanese passport is not the best one to have. In fact, in the region we are fourth…from last. Even Mauritania, Djibouti and Soudan are better off than we are (http://www.jadaoun.com/5695/lebanon-remains-at-the-bottom-of-visa-free-travel-index/) but it doesn’t matter: at least we have the world’s largest Tabbouleh plate!

  2. Dear ‘Regular Dude Posing as Himself’,

    Thank you for your comment.

    First of all, I would like to pinpoint the fact I intentionally wrote ‘ski and swim on the same day’ between inverted commas to highlight a cliché. I was born and lived most of my life in Lebanon in a house 20 minutes away from Faraya- so no explanations needed. Humor. Heard of it? However, I have to admit… it has happened on one or two occasions that it would have been technically possible to swim and ski on the same day – weather permitting. From Faraya to Jounieh, it takes 30 minutes on weekdays. I have personally never tried skiing in Hamra. Perhaps you have?

    About hummus: The origins of hummus are not the point of the article.

    Yes, I do have a blog mostly written in French. I have some posts in English. I write poems in Arabic. I write the words that cross my mind. It does not make me ashamed of my roots. Why English? Why French? Perhaps to reach a larger audience. Maybe because I like the way it sounds. I am learning Spanish at the moment. Does it make me ashamed of my roots? I studied law mostly in Arabic and have no difficulty reading it, writing it, understanding it. I don’t know who you hang out with, but you certainly must not make assumptions.

    Why we went abroad in the first place? I don’t know about you, but personally, I want to live everywhere. I want to travel as much as I can. I want to make a place my home, then drop it. Then leave it. Then go on and flirt with another. I want to discover, taste different foods, adapt to different environments, I want to see what it’s like to live in Africa, I want to learn professionalism from the British, I want to learn punctuality from the French and politeness from the Asians. Does it mean I betrayed my country?

    Recognized political groups is a perfectly sound terminology. ‘Sects’ is actually incorrect in this context.

    You might be right about the banking system. I have to admit you brought up interesting points.

    However, I am afraid you did not capture the essence of my article. You seem stuck in the introduction… You seem focused on what matters the least in my text, those few sentences carefully put to lead you to the core of my subject. My article is about gas. It is about energy diplomacy. It is about the – naive – idea that in an ideal world Lebanon could use its offshore reserves to achieve energy security and enhance its conditions on the international arena.

    Again, thank you for reading my blog.

    All best,

    Karen.

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