Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Introducing the Middle East

I’m in Lebanon for a few days with my parents. I wanted them to see a little bit more of the Middle East than Jordan while they’re visiting. Last night we were walking around the downtown and came across the grave of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. As we walked through the memorial area my mom and dad both asked me at separate times, “How was Hariri killed?”

I was pretty surprised by the question. My parents follow the news regularly. They are not like a lot of Americans who neither read newspapers nor watch TV. I didn’t expect them to know a lot of the details about it, but I figured they knew the basic story. It did lead to a political earthquake in Lebanon and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops, which had occupied the country and controlled its political life for the past 15 years.

For those who may not know, Hariri was assassinated in a massive car bomb February 14, 2005.

I don’t blame them for not knowing how Hariri was killed, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that earth shattering events in the Middle East can hardly make a ripple in the US. The fact that even people who do follow the news don’t know big, important details of major events shows exactly how hard it is to get people in the US to understand what happens in the Middle East.

It is hard enough to get people to understand what happens in the Middle East, even harder still to convey what people are like. So I’m going to start introducing readers to some of the people I meet here.

Jean is a Lebanese Christian from the Shouf Mountains. He lives in Beirut because during the civil war the Druze and Christians viciously fought each other. There were a lot of massacres at the hands of both sides, and thousands fled their ancestral villages.

Most of those who fled to Beirut have not returned to their villages. Many of the villages, which relied primarily on agricultural production, were totally destroyed. Those who grew up during and after the civil war have no knowledge of farming, and social services like schools and health care are weak to non-existent. They got used to city life and wouldn’t know what to do in a small village in the mountains, so they remain in the cities where most have trouble finding decent work. Rural development remains one of Lebanon's biggest economic challenges.

Mahmoud is an Egyptian who works as a waiter in Beirut’s newly renovated downtown pedestrian mall. He comes from a small village located in the Egyptian Delta, between Cairo and Tanta. The economic situation in Egypt is generally bleak, forcing thousands to Egyptians to find work abroad.

Mahmoud does better working as a waiter in Lebanon than he would working in Egypt. He has been here for about 6 years. He says the work is best between June and October when a lot of tourists come, especially from the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Every year he goes home for about two months.

He says he’s happy here, but wants to return to Egypt. He says the Lebanese are a lot like Egyptians because they are friendly, talk a lot and like politics. He figures he’ll work here for a few more years until he’s saved enough money to go back to Egypt and start his own business, probably some kind of small shop and try to settle down and get married. But in the meantime, he is young, and doesn't mind spending his summers in Lebanon!


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