Lebanon

Impressions of Lebanon: the infrastructure, immigration, poor Bekka, Britain always gets you in the end

Lebanese cars, whew, oil and other stories

Despite just having spent 6 weeks there, the makeup of Lebanon remains a mystery to me. Ostensibly it has no natural resources, though according to one taxi driver, a recent report claimed there were 20 million cars in the country, despite it being the size of London, with a populace of around 5 million. The majority of these cars are huge, ”gas guzzlers” and there are makes, that you would never see in Britain. Don’t walk in the Lebanese Mountains on a Sunday afternoon, where towns, like Beit Mery are so full of boy and girl racers, its scary. Beit Mery is an easy drive from the capital though and its so pretty, with phenomenal views of the Beirut coast-line.

There are murmurings, that the oil in the Mediterranean sea, just off Lebanon’s coastline, is to be mined at last, with Lebanon sharing the spoils. During my visit, the ‘New York Times’ reported a warning by US officials to the Lebanese government, that they should not borrow too heavily on the strength of the pending revenue. At least one man I met doubted, that the revenue would materialise, because of the success of shale mining in the US. I informed him, that the US might well be over producing shale oil, to the point of stockpiling, due to a shortage of markets.

Since deals were done decades ago, between the PLO and BP, for the mining rights, excavation is on the cards. The PLO do not exist now, Hamas is deposed for the most part and Syria destroyed, so I guess all is in place. This may result in a free for all, between the West, the Israelis, the Egyptians and the Lebanese, as they seek new deals, with the mining companies; or it might not happen. Remember the Poles are an easier alternative, regardless of the NATO chess game in action at both territories.

Is the genny working?

Besides the over-presence of big cars, Lebanon suffers power cuts on a regular basis, 3 hours a day in the capital and for varying amounts of time in the regions. I spent the weekend in Saidon, where the power cuts lasted for a considerable amount of time. In Balbek, there was a cut, that lasted about half an hour but this was unusual and in Sur, there were no power cuts, during my visit. I discovered everyone had a generator, so presumably it is the efficiency of this, that dictates the length of the cuts. People complained about, how they were expected to pay to the grid and buy their own generator.

Don’t drink the water

Another bone of contention is the drinking water, or lack of it, as it is undrinkable, in all regions, seemingly. In the hot weather, in Beirut, it is salty, you can taste it on your toothbrush but as soon as it rains, the saltiness disappears, though the water remains undrinkable. Don’t get me wrong, bottled water is not too expensive but buying it must be a constant irritant to the Lebanese people. I met a German man, who was working on an irrigation project, I think, in Bekka Valley. He had worked in Syria and left in 1999, I complimented him on the condition of the water there, as I drunk it, wherever I visited, in 2005. There weren’t any power cuts there either, whatever your criticisms the Syrian government did spend money on the infra-structure.

Admittedly, this is a prejudiced report, or at least in relation to Syria but I love Syria and everything Syrian, it is so different to Lebanon, probably, because of its socialist roots. Unlike in Syria, the education system in Lebanon is mostly private, unless people are so poor, they are forced to send their children to state school, where the education is said to be sub-standard. The universities are mostly private, a prime example is the American university of Beirut, which is very expensive, apparently.

Oh my ”F” ing god

I have no idea, what the standard of education is like but the students in Hamra, walk around, speaking English in very loud American accents. The internet cafes, house young men, who frequently use the ”F” word, in relation to god, when they are playing war games. This is doubly paradoxical, as they wouldn’t dream of saying this in their own language and of course, a couple of hours drive away, there are two separate combat zones, one in Tripoli and one in Bekka. The Americans, withdrew funding, from one of its research colleges in Bekka, just before I left, this resulted in an uproar by the students. Well done America, loadings further economic stress onto Bekka.

The Lebanon state university is virtually free but requires very high marks for entry. This means only a few young people can attend.

Slaves and other migrants?, the workers eat the weeds

Given the gap between Lebanon’s rich and poor, the employment of servants, from other countries, notably Ethiopia and the Philippines, is still a shock. It put me in mind of the Amirates, which have much oil and small populations. In October, the English ambassador visited Lebanon, apparently to represent the rights of domestic workers. I wouldn’t like to guess what the real reason for the visit was.

Mayday, last year, the Lebanese communist party and trade union movement organised marches in defence of low paid migrants. I’m not informed enough to call the working conditions of domestic servants, slavery and I believe the term apartheid applies only to citizens but racism in Lebanon is rife. Needless to say it is a status symbol to employ a domestic servant.

Migrant workers are also used to undercut both wages and holidays, as they are paid less for the same job. The government plans to end economic migrancy soon, so perhaps the under-cutting of wages will be curtailed. As most economic migrants are from Syria, I feel this is a western initiative rather, than an actual Lebanese one; we’ll see. Many Syrians are employed in Lebanon already and the Syrian economy is clobbered, so restrictions on economic migrancy would be devastating.

One person described, how he came from a family of tailors in Haleb, Syria and how their business is in ruins, thanks to the conflict. All manner of working people in Syria and Lebanon are suffering the economic consequences of the conflict, it’s not simply about the killing, or the fear of being killed.

Tourism in Bekka

I mentioned Bekka Valley previously, the warnings on western government web sites, have completely stopped the tourist industry in parts of the valley, particularly, where the majority of the population are Shia and are said to favour President Assad. I mentioned the government warnings to friends in Balbek and they weren’t really aware, that this was the case. They told me the Russians still visit but hardly any Europeans or Americans. The majority of Bekka Valley is really safe and the warnings are ludicrous. I believe the intention is to ruin the economy in that region.

I’ve gone on enough in this entry and want to post something now as it has been ages

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