July 2009


I am off for vacation in a semi-wilderness of the Arctic Circle where the Internet connection is dubious. So, I will be offline for a couple of weeks, but I leave you with this:

A friend of mine decided to come to Lebanon for a visit with her American husband. She has a Green Card and has been living in the US for almost a decade. She approaches the consul with a full-fledged application asking for a multiple-entry tourist visa to Lebanon. Mr. Consul stares at her application, stares at her wide-eyed and asks:

— And you are from India?

— Yes.

— What do you do for a living again?

— I am a professor at XYZ University.

— Well, call in a couple of weeks. But to be honest with you, I don’t think it is possible for you to get a visa.

Why, one wonders, would the country of services and tourism reject a tourist visa application beforehand when the applicant is obviously a tourist who has no intention of remaining in Lebanon? The keyword is of course “India,” making this story an instance of how labor-labels or function-labels attach to certain nationalities in Lebanon. This is a conversation I was having not too long ago with Sean, about how “Sri Lanki,” “Russian,” “Saudi,” “Syrian,” etc. often indicate not just a nationality, but a boxed function in Lebanese society. That is true to some degrees of many places, but the law in Lebanon reinforces this state of affairs and makes it difficult to move beyond it and have access to wider functions in society by, say, living long enough in the country and acquiring citizenship. With the result that second generation Sri Lankis in Lebanon today still have the job prescription of, well, “Sri Lanki.”

My friend’s story is an instance of this “labor profiling.” Mr. Consul was not merely being bigoted, though. Like a good bureaucrat, he was interpreting the law within the bounds of his duty. General Security’s outline of entrance visas to Lebanon shamelessly illustrates how the legal enshrines social prejudices into a boxing-in system of job-prescriptions. Legally, my friend should have been applying for a “Visa for work/labor” (link on the left) for that is where “India” appears. Had she been applying for a tourist visa (as a non-Arab), she should have been from one of the countries listed under “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries coming for the purpose of tourism.”

There is much to say about these visa categories, particularly about the exemptions listed under “Note” in “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries etc.,” as well as about the “Fashion model” visa, which functions as a thin veil for prostitution. General Security requires STD tests from those applying as fashion models and facilitates their visas during the shopping month and the summer festival. This used to be the function of the “Artist” visa until not too long ago, which partly explains why for the longest time prostitutes were colloquially referred to as “artistes” (French pronunciation).

So, I leave you with this riveting read on General Security’s website. And hope you enjoy what is left of the summer!

Yup. You read that right. What’s more, Hizballah people are being given guided tours by Vatican cardinals of concentration camps in Europe as part of a coordinated effort to understand best how to go about it.

Israel Defence Forces soldiers are being handed just such reading material with the encouragement of senior officials in the army. The booklet “On Either Side of the Border,” published by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, is narrated by Ibrahim-cum-Avi who claims to have once been Shiite and close to Sheek Hassan Nasrallah. I was going to say it is good to know that we Arabs no longer have the monopoly over conspiracy theories, but I am not sure this one qualifies. More on this from Haaretz.

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Unless you live in one of the “security squares” in Beirut, you would be hard pressed to count to ten before a car honks somewhere within earshot. This is even more true in the Hamra area, where through traffic subsides only after midnight and in the summer heat, fuses tend to blow rather quickly. Given that these are also residential areas, it is easy to lose sleep over this. Someone has decided to express their frustration on Abdel Aziz street in colloquial verse (loosely translated):

Take it easy while you’re waiting

Clever guy, no need for honking

The traffic will flow on its own

Without all this posturing

Signed: Bin Displeased

There is a reason why the “service taxi” conversation genre in Beirut never grows old. Here is my contribution to it:

From Ras Beirut to Cola:

Omar: (shouting to a man on the street) Allah y-khalleek lal-tayfeh [May good keep you for the (Sunni) sect]. (Turning to me with an apologetic smile) I am trying to embarrass him the way he embarrassed me once. I am Palestinian, you know. We helped them [the Sunnis] in Tariq Jdidah on May 7th [2008]. That is why Hizballah did not enter the neighborhood. Don’t you believe it when they say the Palestinians have little influence in Lebanon. We are everywhere, keeping their back. But they do not like us. Between you and me, the Sunnis are the most fanatic in Lebanon. Rafiq al-Hariri did not do a thing to help us. He fought against us, depriving us of work, ownership, everything.

[…] I have family in Sweden. Where? In Malmo, that’s where all the Arabs are. I traveled there through Turkey, then by boat to Greece, making my way up from there to Sweden. I would never do it again. The smugglers are ruthless. A woman’s son fell off the boat and they did not stop for him. […] A Palestinian has no heart, he is afraid at nothing. At the border with Turkey I helped an Iraqi who got caught in barbed wire and got caught myself in the process. The Iraqi ran off without trying to help me. I still have the scar, look (he shows me a scar on his hand). And another long one on my leg (he points along his left shin).

[…] I lived in Sweden for two years. No, I do not speak Swedish, but my 10-year old daughter does. I came back to Lebanon thinking things were looking up and ended up driving this service. I am going back to Sweden, khalas. At least we get some respect there. Excuse me? Yes, tfadalli. Tasharrafna b-ma3riftik, madam.

From Cola to Ras Beirut:

Tariq: Look at this jam, they have cut off traffic on the airport highway. I wonder who is visiting this time. If only we treated each other the way we treat our visitors […] Better go through Ayshah Bakkar, there is less traffic.

[…] (through Ayshah Bakkar, between army tanks) What, they burned tires here yesterday? What is the point of that? What is the fault of passersby like you and me who get caught up here? Or that woman who was shot on her balcony? […] Why would anyone support Hariri or Berri? Look, I support neither Hariri nor Berri. I support my shoe which keeps my feet protected (he points at his feet) — well, I am driving barefooted now. I also support the customer who pays me 2,000 Lira to get him from one place to the other. What have Hariri or Berri ever done for me?

[…] All that goes up comes down. When a bullet goes up, it comes down. No, it has nothing to do with gravity, it has to do with the angle. (He then proceeded to explain about bullets and B7’s, ranges, angles, and detonators using the American University Hospital as an illustrative target). […] I know about these things. I have received military training in the USSR during the [Lebanese civil] war. Houn? Eh, tikrami. Allah ma3ik.

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If you live in or around Beirut, you might have seen those pink taxis driven around by women in white shirts and pink ties. They are driven by women and service only women and families. When I mentioned them to a friend of mine, his knee-jerk reaction was to lament what this country is coming to and to complain about the segregation of the sexes inspired by Wahhabi culture.
Perhaps. But Nayaghi taxi has little to do with that. It is based in Dekouaneh (i.e. Christian area, since ) and is inspired by London’s Pink Cabs.

If you live in or around Beirut, you might have seen one of these pink Peugeots being driven around by women in white shirts and pink ties. A highly unusual phenomenon — not the attire, but women driving taxis or “services.” Nayaghi Banet Taxi (Nayaghi girls’ taxi), as the name evinces, serves only women or women accompanied by their families. When I mentioned the idea to a friend of mine, his knee-jerk reaction was to lament what this country is coming to and to complain about the segregation of the sexes inspired by the demands of our Gulfite tourists. Pink taxis, after all, are current in the UAE.

Perhaps. But that is not all there is to Nayaghi taxi. To begin with, it is owned and run by a woman and based in Dekwaneh. As far as inspiration goes, the websites cites the imagery of Pink Ladies’ Cabs, launched in the UK in 2006 to get party-going women home late at night. Pink Cabs can also be found in South Africa and Australia.

But of course, let us not forget the Lebanese flare or that Lebanese version of female emancipation that refuses to go without makeup. When I asked the lady driver in the pink tie for a card, this is what I received:

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