Lebanese excel at the extreme

Purveyor of extreme right-wing sludge, Lebanon's own Joseph Farah.

We Lebanese love extremes; hell, the most famous triviality about our country – that you can ski and swim in the same day – implies our extreme geography.

In fact, we love extremes in every aspect of our lives, from politics – we haven’t had a government in months – to plastic surgery – have you seen some of the freak shows walking around ABC mall lately?

So is it any surprise that our exports are also extreme?

Today the news/culture website Salon posted an article about the editor of extremist American website WorldNetDaily, one Joseph Farah, an American of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry. The site, which is so glaringly conservative it has even come under fire from Republicans, regularly posts blaring falsehoods about Democratic politicians and their “agendas,” and simply brushes criticism under the carpet without admitting its “mistakes.”   

Farah confessed to the author of Salon’s piece that he posts misinformation, and then proceeded to call him a “punk” and a “worm.”

My question is, what is it about Lebanese Americans and extremist ideology? First Brigitte Gabriel  and now this guy. I guess it’s just a case of: You can take the Lebanese out of Lebanon, but you can’t take the Lebanon out of the Lebanese.


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Lardy Lebanese make the news

You won't find any tabbouleh on Roadster's menu - unless it's slathered in "cocktail sauce"

I happily stumbled upon an article in today’s New York Times Magazine about what Mediterraneans really eat. Hint: it looks very little like the Mediterranean Diet lauded by Western health experts.

The article’s author, Beirut-based writer Annia Ciezadlo, evoked the calorie-laden Western fare available at the hugely-popular Lebanese restaurant chain Roadster to exemplify locals’ disregard for their ancestral, heart-healthy cuisine.

Yes, Roadster is always packed, yes, Lebanese people eat out a lot, and yes, the generation now growing up is also growing out – of their elastic-waist parachute pants.

In fact, this kind of pants expansion is happening all over the Mediterranean, according to Ciezadlo. Spaniards, Greeks and Italians are all fatter than their co-continentals to the north.

I’ve long noticed the, er, portliness of Lebanese kids. People of my generation and older were thinner as kids (but are not necessarily now) because there wasn’t so much cheap, fatty fair available when we were coming up, and cause there was a war on, meaning people were pretty much forced to eat cheap, locally-grown foods instead of things like Roadster’s Diner-mite burger, which comes with a patty of fried mozzarella thicker than a deck of cards on top of the meat. It’s also smothered in a bucketful of “cocktail sauce” – a kinder way of saying ketchup and mayo.

And, just like their counterparts in the West, as lardy Lebanese of the lower classes gobble away on deep-fried donuts and sauce-soaked submarines, richer folk flock to upscale markets like Souq el Tayeb or to dieticians who, for a fat fee, prescribe them diets akin to what their parents and grandparents ate daily.

It’s all so silly. Selling the Mediterranean diet to Mediterraneans. Just eat at your grandma’s house. And if you do go to Roadster, leave off the fried mozzarella patty.

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Lookin’ good by comparison

A Libyan rebel. Lebanon hasn't looked that bad in ages!

A lot of bad things have been said about Lebanon over the past few decades: that it’s fragile, it’s unstable, it’s a powder keg. As far as publicity goes, we’ve been received almost as badly as Rebecca Black’s appalling online music video.

But since the string of uprisings that have taken place in the region since the beginning of the year, upsetting formerly “stable” US-backed dictatorships, Lebanon’s been looking pretty stable by comparison.

Currently, US-European forces are literally fighting to keep Libya from descending into a full-scale civil war. The government in Syria is using force to keep demonstrations there from amounting to an overthrow of the Assad regime, and Yemen, well, Yemen is about as frail as Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the (unfortunate) movie “Unbreakable.”

It’s gotten so bad in the region that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has called Lebanon one of the three most stable countries in the Middle East!

The way things are going now, Lebanon’s kind of like an average-looking person standing next to a group of uglies: We look good by comparison.



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Syria reaches the concessions phase

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

It seems that Syria has reached its concessions phase.

All Arab governments facing revolt this season have gone through a series of consecutive phases so standard they appear to be choreographed.

There’s the denial – President Bashar al-Assad hasn’t even left the comfort of his residence in the “People’s Palace” to address the situation in his country yet.

There are the government accusations that the protests are the work of shady “enemy powers” or seditious groups bent on destroying the country. The Syrian government blamed recent protestor deaths on “snipers” shooting from rooftops who are part of “armed gangs” that have nothing to do with the Assad regime. Remember Muammar Qaddafi’s assertion that the revolt in his country was fueled by drug-laced coffee and al-Qaeda?

Then there’s violent retaliation: government-backed thugs were reported to have shot at protestors in demonstrations in various cities in Syria this weekend, just like they’ve done in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. Whereas the international community was shocked by the murderous actions of the governments in other Arab countries experiencing revolutions, Syria has a lot of experience killing its own civilians. Remember Hama?

And then there are silly concessions offered when denial and murder no longer seem to be working. Assad has offered to study the emergency law that has been in place in his country since the 1960s and to plan a public debate on reforms. Qaddafi said he would give every family in Libya cash. Bahrain fired four cabinet ministers and offered a dialogue with the opposition. Before he was ousted, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt proposed a pay raise to government employees.

The next step is up for grabs. In Tunisia and Egypt the presidents were deposed in short order, Libya is embroiled in a civil war that now involves the international community, GCC countries sent troops into Bahrain to end the protests there, and Yemen’s revolution is in between flaring up and dying down. What happens next in Syria is anyone’s guess, but news reports have it that Western diplomats are calling this “the beginning of the end for the Assad regime.”

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Will kidnapping scare tourists away?

The badlands of Lebanon's wild wild east.

So seven Estonian cyclists were kidnapped yesterday in the lawless strip of treacherous terrain that is the Bekaa Valley.

The cyclists, who had crossed legally into Lebanon from Syria, were picked up by unknown armed thugs and shoved into two white vans.

Nobody knows where they were taken (or at least they are pretending not to know), but the vans headed toward a village where the unbelievably-still-in-operation Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command has a post.

Of course, our prayers go out to those kidnapped, but the real hand wringing that has come in the wake of the kidnapping has to do with frets over its impact on the upcoming tourist season.

Some have brushed it off, claiming it won’t really make a dent on the ever-expanding wave of tourists that plough into Lebanon every summer. Others fear that if potential visitors are scared to come, the tourism industry, one of Lebanon’s major sources of income, will suffer.

I think the kidnapping could scare off those Western tourists who’ve finally mustered up enough gumption to invest in a vaca away from the safety zone of Europe. Yet it may make a trip to Lebanon even more enticing to those who like feeling like they’re putting themselves at risk. After all, taking a trip to Lebanon grants the tourist an air of adventure, as the country survived an infamously brutal civil war and is still home to myriad terror groups and one very powerful armed militia. A tourist can boast about his trip to a dangerous and politically unstable country knowing full well that he spent his whole time in Lebanon lounging around Eddé Sands while sipping preposterously expensive neon-colored cocktails.

But whether the white people will be scared to come or not, Lebanon can still rely on the bevy of tourists from the Gulf States every year. While that’s good news for the economy (specifically for the five-star hotels and $200-a-plate restaurants), it’s annoying for us residents, as nobody likes being pushed around by some fat sheikh in a dress and his gaggle of wives and children, who park their swimming-pool-sized SUVs in the middle of the street, treat locals with disrespect and in general show nothing but disdain for the poor country that’s hosting their fat asses for the summer.

What can be done to scare those tourists away?

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Sects and war

Anti-government protesters in Yemen

Thomas Friedman brought up an interesting point in his weekly column for The Times today.

Citing an article by David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for the paper, Friedman noted that the Arab rebellions that took place in countries with strong national identities, unified histories and relatively homogeneous societies – like Tunisia and Egypt – were successful, while the rebellions-turned-bloodbaths that are taking place in countries whose populations are made up of different tribes and religious groups, and whose borders were drawn by indifferent colonizers, are bound to devolve into civil war. Think: Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

I happened to touch on this briefly in an earlier blog post, which leads me to the obvious conclusion that my blog is very popular at the New York Times. (Errrr…)

But seriously, a multi-tribal, multi-ethnic, multi-sect society doesn’t stand a strong chance of launching a unified fight against a cruel dictatorship and installing a democratic regime. In fact, the nature of such societies promotes the existence of dictatorships, as it is one of the only kind of systems that can effectively rule over (and oppress) such a motley crew of warring identities.

But Friedman neglected to mention Lebanon as an example of a multi-faceted former colony that is prone to civil war. Hell, we know about it almost more than anyone. And had Friedman brought it up, he would have mentioned our governing system, in which power is studiously divided among all sects to avoid any one group coming to dominance. It’s laughable at times – the president has less power than the parliament speaker – and it creates incentives for politicians to form groupings whose raison d’être is to obstruct progress (see: the March 8 coalition). But it’s arguably what’s kept Lebanon war-free for 20-plus years.

Now, I have more than one serious gripe with the system, the biggest of which is that there is no civil status law, meaning that family matters are handled in religious courts, always to the woman’s disadvantage.

But a system that equally – or almost equally – divides power among the different confessions/tribal groupings may work in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, but only after the dictatorial regimes have been kicked out.

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The revolution that wasn’t

A pro-Qaddafi soldier stands in the main square of Zawiya, west of Tripoli. (AP photo)

I’m bummed about Libya.

What seemed like the next North African government overthrow turned out to be the beginning stages of an almost-certain civil war.

According to Hussein Ibish in his piece  that ran on NOW Lebanon today, while the West has been stalling over implementing a no-fly zone over Libya, “the momentum has shifted markedly toward the regime, and Qaddafi’s downfall looks much less imminent, or even likely, than before. Meanwhile, the most dangerous Islamist extremists have either escaped from prison or have been released by the regime, adding a dangerous Salafist-Jihadist element to the mix that was not present a few weeks ago.”

And now that the revolutionary tide in Libya has been butted by the Qaddafi levee, the energy of other uprisings against repressive regimes in the region has quelled. Since Qaddafi has sneered in the face of any possible retaliation from the West, why wouldn’t other Arab dictators do the same? Facing sanctions is a lot easier for dictators than being ejected (though most of them would be welcome to spend the rest of their years in luxury in overthrown-dictator-haven Saudi Arabia).

Libya and other Arab countries that are facing revolts and are unconcerned about killing their own people are in danger of turning into Somalia-style failed states or tearing into separate feifdoms along the lines of the tribal territories that existed before the Sykes-Picot agreement.   

This is a lot less rosy a picture than the specter of oppressed populations across the region doing a spring cleaning of their dictatorial governors.

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