The Hidden Dream of Lebanon
In 1945, farmer Olsen chopped a chicken’s head. He missed the jugular vein and Mike the chicken was able to live 1.5 years without his head. Mike became famous, toured sideshows and was even featured in Time and Life magazines. If Mike was able to be featured in Time Magazine, why isn’t Lebanon, another kind of headless chicken, able to?
Many years ago, Lebanon was considered a rich and important country; Empires fought to control it and rulers were proud to head it. Yet along the way, brutes came, they poisoned the water, burnt the forests and demolished hope. Lebanon lost its dignity; its head was chopped.
Like Mike, it was able to survive. Yet it struggled, socially and economically. After all, who wants to be seen with a headless chicken?
It advanced in circles; always returning to the starting point. Wanting to belong, it lost its individuality. With little oxygen making its way to the heart, it started to hallucinate and its dreams became reality. A false sense of happiness emerged and reality was distorted.
When you look at Lebanon from above you see beautiful sceneries. A country on the edge of the sea that reminds you of the old Alexandria, you see cities built in the mountains that are reminiscent of the past. The people are warm and welcoming. Its language is old and its poetry, for the lucky ones who understand it, more beautiful than Shakespeare’s.
Yet the closer you look the more hazy things become. Like rating a restaurant without looking at its kitchen, Lebanon can sometimes be overrated.
On the surface, Lebanon looks more like a developed country than an emerging one. It is a capitalist country, with a free market economy and a laissez faire commercial tradition. Its banks are safe and tourism booms during the peaceful days.
Lebanese people like to do things differently. When the world economy was growing between 2000 and 2007, Lebanon’s GDP grew by an average of 4%. When the world went into recession in late 2007, the Lebanese economy exploded to almost 10%. Yet the public debt stood at 165% of GDP one of the highest in the world.
One of the reasons Lebanon was immune to the financial crisis is its central banker, Riad Salameh. With his tight grasp on the country’s banks, he was the reason they were able to navigate the financial crisis unhindered. In 2004 he forbade banks from getting involved in subprime lending and for this reason alone, he should get the Nobel Prize of central bankers.
Consumer debts are high. Debt is used to embellish one self, to pay for futile gadgets, and hope to get a future return on their investment.
Some go as far as to lend for plastic surgery and hope that a new derriere will increase their thinking process and make them work harder. The motto of the loaner: “Today you can have the life you’ve always wanted”.
As if the country needed bigger breasts and smaller brains, expenditure on education was 1.6% of GDP as of 2011, one of the worst in the world. Moreover, it has been constantly decreasing since 2008 and no one seems to care. On the contrary, some reports state that Lebanon has an exceptional education system. Who will argue? Surely not a new derriere.
Other long term issues that impede Lebanon’s forward walk are the regulatory inefficiencies, government bureaucracy and the lack of transparency that create a poor entrepreneurial climate. Furthermore, with the war in Syria, hoards of Syrians are now looking for jobs in Lebanon. Asking for work for as low a wage as LL5000=$3/day. This influx of workers has many effects on the economy. First, Syrians have become major competitors for Lebanese workers. Also, basic food prices have risen and apartment rental prices have increased.
However, the most pressing issue with the youth is the low salaries, high real estate prices and few possibilities of advancement in their careers.
The unacceptable accepted
Joe is a 40yr old self-employed Lebanese lawyer who started his firm 10 years ago. A year ago he received the visit of 2 tax officials who were there to collect his taxes. At first view, these two government agents looked like everyday Lebanese workers: a little chubby guy with a beard and a nice smile, and an unshaved bald one proud of his belly. However after 15 minutes of talking to them, Joe realized that behind their smile was a whole other facet of their personality. They were in the “making money for themselves” business.
With their calm voice and professional tone, they explained he had to pay them or go to jail for refusing to pay his taxes. He made clear that he had been paying his taxes regularly for over 10 years and that everything was in order. They left to come back the next day and recover their fees.
Joe called his friends, lawyers, army officials, politicians… they all told him the same thing: We can’t help you. You’d better pay if you do not want any trouble!
Corruption is certainly not exclusive to Lebanon. As long as human beings can exert power over others, corruption will exist. However this little story is not about corruption. Greater learnings can be uncovered:
– Joe “called his friends in the government, officials…” The very fact that this is considered acceptable, describes a facet of a country that treats its citizen unfairly based on income, connections, social and political belonging…
– The two officials operated as if nothing could touch them. There were no tricks or games played. They were direct, explained the situation in a straightforward manner and did not worry about reprisal from anyone. Joe described them as two gentlemen doing usual business.
– Corruption is becoming part of the culture.
Corruption breeds corruption and the deeper you gaze into corruption the more it looks at you.
The Lebanese way of life
Driving in Lebanon is a whole new experience. You need to keep your eyes open and your ears untied. Your seatbelt should be on, both hands on the handle bar and music turned off. If you are a motorcyclist being safe is even more vital, you need to wear your boxing outfit with all the gears that come with it. If you are a cyclist, make sure to stay away from the roads. If you are a pedestrian… oh well there are no pedestrians. Sidewalks are used to park cars.
There is nothing new here, Lebanese go through this quest every day.
They know about the danger of transportation. Yet what they don’t realize is that they live like they drive.
They view life as a series of quests; Short term quests, where every mission is a stand alone one. Unrelated days, unrelated years and an eternal recommencement. Same mistakes are made, bad roads paved over and over again. Same fights, new street names. Same ideas, new brittle bridges. Same disagreements, interminable highway congestion.
The future is for tomorrow and today is the only day that matters.
The real danger is that Lebanese enjoy their way of life. They claim it their own, teach it to their kids and give it names. They are proud to say: “If you can drive in Lebanon, you can drive anywhere”
What they forget to mention… Until you can’t drive anymore…
Like Mike the Chicken, the dream of Lebanon is to grow a head, a head with the dreams of its ancestors to create a unified country. A head that can transcend its difficulties and unify its parts. Where justice is rooted in its traditions as its cedars in the ground. A head that can transform dissimilarities into strength and indifferences into ambitions. A head that can control its body and that sees itself for what it really is: a symphony of differences.
At the height of his fame, Mike was worth 10 000$. Indeed, 10 000$ to own a headless chicken. Unfortunately, without his head he suffocated to death and his dreams never realized.
The head I refer to is not an allegory to government officials; it is an allegory to what is really important for a country: The people.