Lebanon as a wine country

When you think of wine countries you probably think of France, South Africa, Chile, Australia, sure, but there are many countries that produce good wine but are less known for it. This also applies to the the Middle East; while Israeli wines are sold at HEMA, Lebanese wines still have to find their way in into Dutch stores.

When the French got their mandate over Lebanon in the 1920’ies they found that the Beqaa Valley is perfect for growing grapes. While they were not the first to produce wine there, they were able to scale its production. The oldest winery in Lebanon was actually founded by the Jesuit monks in 1857 and was only sold by the church in 1973. While Lebanon is native to three types of white grapes, the commonly known non-indigenous grapes are grown the most.

90% of the wines are still produced in the Beqaa, however more regions have become popular with wine makers such as the Mount Lebanon, South Lebanon and the area around Batroun, leading to a total of almost 50 wineries in the country, ranging from old and commercial estates to small family-owned wineries. The Lebanese whites, rosés and reds are definitely worth a try if you are looking for something new. For people in the Netherlands: Lebanese wines can be bought at anderewijn.nl.

Side note: the Lebanese wines are more expensive than some of the French wines here in Lebanon. Prices start around 8 USD for a Lebanese wine, which isn’t cheap. Up to date, I have not found a convincing explanation whey they are more expensive than some French ones. If you do know, let us know!

Building global friendship

In five weeks Jade and I became not only customers, but also friends with the owners of our favorite local vegetable store in Sanayeh, Beirut. Even when we could go to another one nearby our apartment, we always went here because the connection we got with the family was worth walking a couple meters more. We could barely understand them due to the language barrier, but luckily the son named Wassim was able to speak English. We practiced our Arabic with them, and the father tried to speak English with us.

Unfortunately, this family that had to fly from Syria during the war, is not able to pay for education for their children. Our conversations were limited, but the smiles on their faces and the hugs we got from the children were enough to create a special relationship. Wissam knew I had an obsession for watermelon, so he always made sure he gave me the best one left. I didn’t even have to ask; he knew I would get one every time I came and he always asked me politely if the last one I got was good. When we come back, we hope to see this family again and that they have found a way to support their smart children who should have the possibility to go to school.

Lebanese Alternative Learning: A place that makes me feel at home

Sadly, it’s already my fifth week at Lebanese Alternative Learning, which means I
have only two weeks left before I leave Beirut behind me for my 75 KM hike in Jordan. If I could, I would stay at least another month because the ‘ZERO WASTE’ project I’m working on together with four other Lebanese girls is finally getting off the ground. My NGO isn’t the only reason why I would like to stay longer; Lebanon makes me feel more home than ever before and the country fascinates me everyday. The sun is always shining (I haven’t seen rain once), it’s not a problem when I arrive a bit later because I forgot my keys again since everything starts at least 30 minutes later here, I can cycle up a mountain whenever I want, and the people here are extremely friendly and helpful. Of course Lebanon isn’t perfect, which you probably realized after reading our previous posts, but in the end: what is perfect?   

ed5ee895-4485-49e4-a8bc-5c3140265e07

My NGO’s main purpose isn’t focused on reducing (plastic) waste. LAL actually fulfills a completely different goal: providing education for vulnerable groups. Lebanese Alternative Learning was founded by Nayla Fahed and Nagi Ghorra; CEO & Vice President of the only non-profit organization in Lebanon that uses digital learning platforms to reach a wide variety vulnerable communities.

“Nayla, how did you come up with the idea of combining technology and education for vulnerable communities?”
“As a French literature teacher at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut, I was also very curious about technology. I became friends with Nagi, who was responsible for the e-learning system of the university. We had lunch together often, and initiated small projects containing learning languages and helping out interns. Besides teaching, I created exercises for children that were recovering from cancer. During this period of volunteering, I realized I wanted to create study books for them. One day Nagi said to me: ‘why not create interactive digital activities?!’ Soon we got the chance to meet the NGO Myschoolpulse. Since their objective was to bring school to hospitals in Lebanon for children that were undergoing treatment for a life-threatening illness, they gave us our first funding and we started working with them.’

“In the beginning you worked together with Myschoolpulse, when did you decide to start your own NGO?”
“Officially in 2014, but we started two years before thinking about it. Because we desired not only to work with sick children, the NGO believed we had to start our own organization. Myschoolpulse wasn’t big enough to cover everything; the small number of children they had under treatment did not justify digital which is the solution for large numbers of students. They decided to give us the part we already created and some funding in order to improve the content and the overall plan. From that moment, we started to work together with other international non-profit organizations such as World Vision (funded by Global Affairs Canada). They funded Tabshoura Kindergarten, our first official e-learning project in three languages; Arabic, French and English dedicated to nursery classes, free of charge. The program is based on the new Lebanese curriculum. After that, more and more people came and we started to make any kind of educational programs.”

lal
“Lebanese Alternative Learning is an NGO which aims to develop alternative educational resources through technology and creative interventions. A network of educators, education technology experts, artists and communication specialists are working together to enhance teaching methods and practices in Lebanon. Our priority is to empower vulnerable communities and ensure all children receive an engaging and effective learning experience and avoid school dropouts.” – LAL, 2018

You say ‘any kind’ of educational programs, can you give an example?”
“Digital is LAL’s chore work, but sometimes we give workshops or seminars as well. We have had a very interesting and well-received project about comic strips, in which multiple schools with children from different nationalities were participating. Each school began a narrative, and the next school had to continue. In this way, Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi children were working together on a story. In the end they all met and discussed about how they came up with their ideas. Recently we had a girl from Germany who gave lessons about conflict resolution in vulnerable schools, but we also used her knowledge to create an e-learning module. In this module children learn how to react in certain situations without using violence, and try to improve to use dialogue instead of physical and mental punishment. ”

“You said LAL creates content for vulnerable groups, are there any specific groups that get the most support?’’
“Most of the schools we approach are public schools, refugee camps and non-formal learning centers in Lebanon. At LAL we mainly do the content and partner with other NGO’s that are able to implement it into schools. Our goal is to provide digital resources, motivate children, keep them in school and avoid children from dropping out. We hope our e-learning programs help students to acquire the level of education needed to enter formal education.’’

“Are there any big challenges you are facing?”
Creating content is time consuming, which makes it difficult sometimes. Luckily we have partnerships with NGO’s that provide computers, who also implement computer labs into these schools. In the beginning the internet connection was the main challenge, but now it is possible to install the Tabshoura software out of a box. The Moodlebox is small enough to fit in your pocket, it’s a universal device, internet and electricity independent, providing a local wireless network to which up to 30 smartphones, tablets and computers can connect simultaneously. The scope of the Wi-Fi largely covers a classroom. Because of the help from other NGO’s, young, intelligent volunteers from all over the world that come up with inspiring idea’s, we maintain working with little money and keep improving our content.”

img_2560
The United Nations award, 2017

“Lastly, which achievements are you very proud off?”
“If we look back at our journey, we are very proud of how much we grew in such a short period of time. With a lot of patience and discussions with the Lebanese government, we achieved a contract with the CERD – the center that creates education books in Lebanon and works for the Ministry of Education. This contract states that our e-learning programs are qualified as adaptable in the Lebanese education system. In 2017, we got the ‘Equals in Tech’ award from United Nations for our project ‘Girls can Count.’ This project was funded by Malala and focused on improving women and girls’ digital technology access, connectivity and security. The program was mainly used in schools with girls only. The content we produce is equal for boys and girls, but some of the Syrian refugee camps are very conventional so some parents didn’t allow their girls to go to schools in which they could meet boys.’’

Do you want to know more about LAL? Feel free to visit the website: http://lal.ngo

Meet the project: 26 Letters

We, Jade and Amber, are working at the organization 26 Letters, a school in the centre of Beirut, Lebanon. The aim of 26 Letters is to Find, Teach and Inspire children who lack access to school or who are in need of extra educational support. Yet, what makes studying more fun? 26 Letters creates their own curriculum that adapts to the child’s interest, needs and wants. Expect to find classmates’ names or drawings of the kid’s favorite figure.

img_4228.jpg
A little competition

Besides English, Arabic, math and history, the oldest kids receive interactive ethic classes. Here, the children (and the teachers) not only learn about their personal values but also about the values of others. The children learn that everyone is equal and that only oneself can define who he/she is. 26 Letters strives to expand the border of the children’s social, educational, professional, and personal development.

IMG_4199.JPG
Mmmm Icecream

Enough education for today, because education should be fun too. 26 Letters rewards the children for their good work. Think about ice cream after class, beach days and movie nights.

 

 

However, this goal isn’t enough to describe what 26 Letters actually is. Most importantly, it is a family of students and teachers. Where everyone is welcome and feels at home. We are brothers and sisters who are welcomed to the fullest by the founders Janira, Tamar and German. We are not only teaching the students, but get inspired by their lives and dreams. We are laughing and playing with them and secretly we also learn a lot from our wonderful students. We are very happy and honored to be a part of this lovely family! Watch these videos. You might want to become part of the family too (and you can!).

You can contribute to this beautiful project. A small amount of money will have a big impact: https://www.gofundme.com/286u4s-26-letters-rebuild-a-generation

A country of diversity

When thinking of the Middle East, one of the first assumptions I made was related to religion. I assumed that almost everyone would be Muslim. I definitely thought wrong. When walking in the streets of Beirut you might come across a mosque, but chances are almost as big that you see a church.

A study conducted in 2011 by Statistics Lebanon estimates that 54% of the population is Muslim (27% Sunni, 27% Shia), 40.4% Christian (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5% Melkite, 1% Protestant and 5.4% other Christian denominations) and 5.6% Druze. There are also very small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

In downtown Beirut, you are even able to find a church and a mosque right next to each other. But the diversity and equality go further than what we see in the streets, also in politics you can find an organized division of religions. The parliamentary seat allocation is officially divided equally by law. The Taif Agreement was signed on 22 October 1989. This agreement was made to arrange the equal division between Christians and Muslims, proportionately between the confessions of each category and proportionately between the regions. The position of the President is traditionally assigned to a Maronite, the Prime Minister is a traditionally Sunni Post and the position of the Speaker a traditionally Shia post.

Whether this is still completely practiced in current politics stays a bit unclear, but for me this at least shows that Lebanon is a very diverse country that is able to bring together a lot of religions in a peaceful way. One more reason to love Lebanon.

Sources:
– International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, United States Department of State – Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
– The Taef Agreement, as published by the Lebanese Government

First days of working in the refugee camp

  1. Do not promise anything
  2. Do not give them anything
  3. Do not show too much affection

These are the three rules LOYAC gave us for working with children in the refugee camp. During six weeks, me (Jazz) and five other volunteers are working in a camp in the Beqaa Valley with LOYAC twice a week, in which we will organize a diverse set of activities for the children. Every week we try to educate them on a different topic; e.g. environment, mindfulness or health. I have already noticed this is quite a challenge: , the children range from aggressive to extremely sweet, and some of the children lack access to basic facilities and knowledge.

I really understand the third rule of LOYAC, but it also leaves me with mixed feelings. The children are in need of affection and actively seeking for it, however we should not give it to them since we are leaving after six weeks. I understand that it is for their own sake, but if a 8-year old hugs you and holds you very tight when the day ends, you want to do the same, right?

Contrary to what I expected, the refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley are completely unorganized. I expected a large camp, but in reality the tents are scattered all over the valley. Farmers rent out their land for approximately 30 dollars a month per tent. Based on my experiences so far, the Lebanese try to help out the Syrians wherever they can. But then again, these are probably also the only people I meet.

The camp we are working in consists of 175 people of which 120 are children. Some of these children don’t have parents and live there with their grandparents. Then there is also a tent reserved for children without family. This one honestly breaks your heart. I therefore believe that seeing the camps, and especially the children in the first place, might be a good experience for many people in the Netherlands in order to develop a more nuanced opinion about the refugee crisis.

7 Facts on the first note

Habibaty! After spending almost a month in Beirut, we figured there are already many things that bridge the gap between the Dutch and Lebanese culture (avoiding the term Western and Arab culture). There are some stories that surprise us, some that make us laugh but also others that make us worried. We believe that these stories are worth sharing, because they might inspire you and appreciate an unfamiliar culture. However, we also want you to sit down for a minute after reading our blogs and think about the things that you love about your own and what you could learn from another culture.

img_0878

The government
Since Nicole intended to work on her master thesis besides doing her project for the NGO
Lebanese Alternative Learning, we are getting more and more knowledgable about the very interesting political system of Lebanon (yes, she decided not to do it anymore simply because there’s no time, but now she has an excuse to come back soon). Why is it interesting? Simply because the Lebanese government is quite different to how we, in the Western world, know it. For instance, the President of the Lebanese Republic is the head of state of Lebanon and is, by convention, always a Maronite Christian (i.e. one who is an adherent of the Maronite Church in Lebanon).  By contrast, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament is always a Shia Muslim and the Lebanese Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim.  Although these representatives are a feature of political parties, they play a much less significant role in Lebanese politics than they do in most parliamentary democracies.250px-Flag_of_Lebanon

Electricity cut off three hours a day
In Lebanon, the electricity cuts off three hours a day due to a shortage of electricity. However, we have our doubts about this since we hear different sides of the story. Many people pay for a generator on a monthly basis which covers these three hours of electricity. This costs a lot of extra money which many citizens cannot pay. It also causes a lot of pollution that causes the mortality rates to go up. A 2012 study by the American University of Beirut found that in the Hamra neighborhood, levels of airborne carcinogens were 60 percent higher when the government power was off and private generators were operating, which accounted for 38 percent of the daily carcinogen exposure in the area (Sewell, 2018). Whereas Lebanon’s climate is ideal for solar power, private companies keep selling their power on the black market.

img_1738Cars and public transport
Cars, first of all, there are many of them. Lets say, way too many of them. Surprisingly, a lot of these cars are crazy expensive (in the Netherlands at least). You find BMW’s, Range Rovers and Mercedes driving around everywhere, as if people here get discount on these show-off cars. Second of all, they do not come in an organized way. The traffic is very chaotic but for some reason it seems to work. The same happens with public transport; there are buses on set routes but there are no stops and there doesn’t seem to be a schedule. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes from A to B and sometimes it can take 60, but in the end you will always reach your destination. At times we miss NS, but the commute is also kind of nice, because there is always something to look at in this interesting city.

Vegetarian paradise
The Lebanese cuisine is widely known by Vegetarians. Beans, chickpeas and vegetables in all different sizes and colors; and all of this flavored with the most delicious herbs. In the local stores you can buy loads of them for only 2 dollars, so if you love cooking and have your own kitchen: this country is paradise. But don’t forget that the meat and especially fish at the seaside are definitely worth it as well!

3afdbbfc-51c7-4a1d-bda2-fa3fd97adc3aLebanese people and sports aren’t friends
But you can’t really blame them. With an average temperature of 30 degrees that starts at 06:00 AM, doing outdoor sports like running or cycling is far from comfortable. In addition, the pollution makes breathing almost impossible and cycling here is only for the really crazy ones since the cars aren’t used to bikes at all. Luckily Nicole is able to keep up with the Lebanese national champion, so she found her way to stay in shape. Of course there are alternatives, but from Jade’s experience Lebanese people just aren’t the Dutch when it comes to sports. Five crunches, three push-ups and running around for five minute in a 10 m2 room is enough to make the average Lebanese girl exhausted.

Getting married in Lebanon
In Lebanon it is not possible to conclude a civil marriage. You can only marry at a religious authority such as the church or the Muslim court. Civil marriage is increasingly popular, especially between different faiths. Try to google on travel agencies in Lebanon for civil marriage and you find tons of them. Many Lebanese travel agencies are specialized in civil weddings abroad.

Getting divorced in Lebanon
Recently we read an article about the divorce system in Lebanon.  This article of the HRW states that in Lebanon each religious court comes with its own set of rules. Sunni, Shia, and Druze men can divorce their wives at will. Sunni and Shia men can even do this outside of a courtroom. This can happen without the wife knowing. For women however it’s different and more complicated. Sunni and Druze women can petition a court for a divorce, that terminates the marriage. Yet grounds are limited (he’s in prison, prove of hardship and discord, sexual impotence, etcetera). For Shia women, it’s more difficult, they rely on a long process of sovereign divorce. Another option for Shia is the Khul, a process that gives up all financial rights and needs an agreement of the husband. For christians it seems to be even more difficult.  For confessions, domestic violence is not sufficient grounds unless it’s life-threatening.

However, we believe that for every story, written by an outside authority, locals should
be able to comment. The interesting part starts here. Because according to some local friends (Shias and Sunnis), the law isn’t this strict anymore. A lot of regulations are written down, but are not working in practice. For instance, according to the law girls here are not allowed to wear shorts. Ironically, almost all the girls that are not practicing a religion are walking in short dresses and skirts. Some weird laws are there, they are just not applied and no one really cares. So for all the content we find online, it is important to wonder if the information is still up to date and what the locals think about it, or if it changes per person (being more conservative than the other).


Sewell A. (2018) Staying on the grid in Lebanon. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2018-02-13/lebanon-struggles-to-rebuild-its-power-infrastructure.

Human Rights Watch (2015). Interview: Women Unequal Under Lebanon’s Law. Retrieved: July 26, 2018 from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/19/interview-women-unequal-under-lebanons-law

 

Driving around in Lebanon

What is a better experience than discovering the country by local transport? Many times we have taken the local bus, which always ends up being one big adventure.  There are no rules, everything is possible here. You stand wherever the bus passes by and you simply wave to get in. This also means that during the ride the bus stops lets say.. several times. If someone in the bus wants to stop to get some snacks they just tell the driver and he/she will wait for the passenger to get back. Or.. if you want to buy beers, that’s fine too, but don’t forget to also buy one for the driver. A little bit of music, beers and some cigarettes: completely normal and no one cares. Nobody uses the traffic lights, and passing other cars on the right as well as the left side is allowed.

img_0554.jpg
Bus ride from Beirut to Tripoli: 3000 LBP (1,70 EUR)

Driving drunk? Completely normal; sending messages and bus drivers that try to set up a marriage with you and their sons or nephews? completely normal. If you want to listen to your music and entertain the others, just give the driver your phone and start a little party. No strict schedules and pressure for the bus driver to arrive at the destination on time. Hurry doesn’t exist in Lebanon. The ‘don’t worry and don’t hurry’ part of the culture is something the Dutch can definitely learn from. The first days this can be pretty frustrating, but if you change this mindset, it is pretty relaxing. Local transport is far from safe, but at least it’s ridiculously cheap and way more fun! 🙌🏼

One more fun fact. Many of you might know about the ridiculous prices to get your drivers license in the Netherlands. We suggest you to go to Lebanon, because it’s way cheaper and only has three easy steps. 1. You apply for a driver license at an office. 2. They give you a date to do an exam, the waiting list is looong. 3. You take an exam for which you don’t have to study, which basically means: make one u-turn. 4. You pick up your license. Already convinced to come to Lebanon? I definitely would if I didn’t have my license yet. Lastly, might you ever get the chance to drive in Lebanon: do whatever you want, drive as fast as you can, make up your own rules, and most important: don’t forget to honk as if you will never be able to do this again, because that makes you supercool here and you don’t get a 100 euro ticket .

Brain drain Beirut

Rather than spending my Saturday doing nothing, my plan was to head north up the coast to the ancient town of Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic). However, due to the Beirut traffic I soon deviated from this plan and got off at the first city along the way. While grabbing something to eat I got into a conversation with a Lebanese guy and soon we were discussing politics (of course). The general rule in Lebanon is that people start talking about politics very soon, even though everyone says you should stay off the topic. He told me that after graduating in mechanical engineering he wants to move to France or Canada and that basically 8 out of his 10 friends already left Libanon. Many universities follow the American or French education system so that it is easier for people to move to these countries. This in in line with what I have been hearing a lot; there are more Lebanese people living outside Lebanon than within Lebanon. According to him, there are even more Lebanese in Brazil than Lebanon, but I am have my doubts about that statement. On my plane to Beirut, I was also surrounded by Lebanese from Australia, France, the UK and US. Most of which have left during the civi war and visit Lebanon over the summer which makes Lebanon more of a touristy place then you might imagine.

He believes that change is not going to come any time soon; the Lebanese society suffers form an extreme version of “verzuiling” and since the people are so embedded in their bubble,the political parties will remain to be corrupt since their voters are loyal to the party regardless. With many educated people leaving the country, this process will only be reinforced.

After our conversation he had already paid for my lunch, said it was Lebanese hospitality and kissed me on the cheek when saying goodbye. That is something I still need to get used to.

Jazz