Humanity in Beirut

Friday 8th February 2019 – Beirut

Beirut was one of the stops I was most looking forward to when I set off, not only because I had never been to Lebanon, but also because it was not so long ago that sadly the war prevented all tourism here and still when you tell people you are coming they ask if it is really safe.  

It, along with the other middle eastern countries were also important in the International House story as from the beginning of the Houses they have had Arabic, Jewish, Sunni, Shia and Christian residents from the region all living side by side.  This has often involved heated debates but at the end of the day they have shown each other respect and sought to understand and developed tolerance and friendship within the I-House context.  

For someone who has been lucky to live in relative peace in the UK, seeing the bombed out and bullet hole ridden properties around the city was disconcerting and sad.  My taxi driver told me about how he and his wife escaped to Saudi during the war, but when they had children they could not afford the schools in Saudi and his wife and 3 children returned to Lebanon in the midst of the War, I could not imagine the daily worry for him and his wife through that period. Thankfully they all survived and he now had 5 grandchildren. 

It is nearly 30 years since the fighting stopped and restoration and regeneration are also everywhere.  There is a focus on design and elegance, art and food and the long and fascinating history of the country.  More than this the people are charming, we were welcomed and helped by everyone we met. 

Sandy Edmonds, Harry’s granddaughter

This stop was also special as Sandy Edmonds, Harry’s granddaughter, joined me from her home in Vermont.  Sandy is my father’s first cousin, but family politics meant that they only met a very few times.  She is the most wonderful woman, a true lover of art and people, having been an art teacher for many years in US Public Schools.  So, it was a delight to explore Beirut together.  

Main gate AUB

I do not have any information about what Harry’s actually did on this stop, but with his close connection to the Dodge family I imagined that he would have visited AUB (American University Beirut) as Bayard Dodge, was president from 1923-48 and Dr. David Stuart Dodge held various positions from 1961-97. http://www.aub.edu.lb/President/Pages/history.aspx

Ada Dodge Hall named after Dr. D. Stuart Dodge’s deceased daughter

Harry may perhaps have met with Samuel B Kirkwood the president at the time.  Originally, we were going to have the honour of meeting Mr. Khouri, the current AUB president, but he was called away on business so we did a campus tour instead. 

AUB tour by Ali, in the pouring rain, they gave us some very smart AUB umbrellas!

Our guide Ali, a current AUB student in Finance was utterly charming and showed us around the beautiful campus. 

The re-built main College Hall at AUB

The University kept going as far as possible through the war and he showed us the tunnel that allowed the medical students to get to the hospital from the campus to go on duty without going up onto the street.  Parts of the campus were destroyed including the main hall, but have been re-constructed and they even have a very funky building by Zaha Hadid http://www.zaha-hadid.com.  

Zaha Hadid building at AUB

There is an cedar grove in the middle of the campus that were planted by the founder Dr Bliss and are still standing. I imagined Harry standing by the President’s House which has the most wonderful view out to sea, or perhaps he even got to go in! 

View from the President’s House at AUB

After our tour we met up with Chicago I-House Alum Rajab Ghazzaoui, who is currently working at the AUB business school.  Over coffee he was able to explain more about the complex politics of Lebanon and the region and also the challenges of daily life in Beirut. These include electricity being rationed to 3 hours a day for most householders, unless they have a generator, the traffic and lack of public transport.  The newly formed government is a welcome sign, but the continued corruption that is endemic makes it hard to keep hope of real change, good jobs and growth. The war forced many to experience living overseas either, mostly in Europe or Saudi Arabia so they have a broader perspective that you might find in other countries.  

Coffee with Rajab Ghazzaoui

My event at this stop was to be hosted by Dirk Kunze, I-House NYC alum and his team at FNST Lebanon & Syria in their very funky office space Garage 664.  FNST is a German not for profit focused on liberal principles and political education.  They operate in around 60 countries and focus on promoting freedom and dignity in all areas of society and hold events that encourage international dialogue, rights for minorities and democratic control.  

Dirk Kunze being interviewed by the media at my event

This event was to be very different to all the others on my trip as it was open to the wider public as part of FNST’s Alphabet Series of events.  We were letter ‘H’, fitting for Harry!  The title of our event was ‘Humanity in the times of populism, the value of international networks’.  So we could weave together my event and what FNST do in their work.  

Raya Gaffer El Hassan, Minister for the Interior Lebanon

On my quest to find attendees at the Beirut event I had contacted an alumna of International Student House DC, which is part of the World Wide International Houses group, Raya Haffar El Haasan.  Raya had been Finance Minister of Lebanon and I though it would be wonderful if she could come.  To my delight she said she would.  

The panel for the discussions including 2nd from right Omar Chatah (IH NYC)

Last weekend Dirk emailed me to say that in the formation of the new and long awaited government Raya had been made the first woman Minister of the Interior.  He thought that this would probably mean that she would not be able to attend.  However, this proved not to be the case.  Raya amidst the whirlwind of her appointment, made time to come because she wanted to tell the audience how important her time at ISH DC had been in shaping her understanding of the other and how she applies this to her work.  She was totally delightful as we chatted before the event began and she and Dirk helped light the candles at the end. 

We had 50 people attend the event, I would love to say I was the draw but Raya in her new role, was that, but I got to share Harry’s idea, the I-House story and also welcome the other alumni in the audience, Omar Chatah and Naoki Takyo from I-House NYC and Rajab Ghazzaoui from I-House Chicago.  It was so lovely to have Sandy Edmonds there too to hear both from Raya but also others about how impactful their time at the House had been on their outlook and lives. 

Alumni, Raya El Haasan (ISH DC), Dirk Kunze (IH NYC), Rajab Raab Ghazzaoui (IH Chicago), Naoki Tokyo (IH NYC)

I will definitely be coming back to Lebanon, I want to see all the other things it has to offer outside of Beirut and truly hope that with continued dialogue and perseverance, the Lebanese people will feel they are living in a thriving and stable country. If you haven’t been do put it on your list. 

Story Snippets…. 

Surrogate Mothers of I-House Chicago – Rajab Ghazzaoui – Having been used to living at home whilst studying for his undergrad, when Rajab was accepted to UChicago for his Masters the thought of finding an apartment and all that entailed was daunting.  So he phoned the accommodation office and they gave him the options including the I-House.   He called them back to ask ‘one flat fee and everything is included?’, ‘Yes’ they said. He was instantly sold.  Arriving at the house he decided to take one of the student jobs and ended up working in the office of the Director Denise Jordan and her team.  They instantly took a shine to him and he ended up with not one but three surrogate mothers, who helped him navigate his time in the House. From explaining how the washing machines worked to ensuring he was eating properly or up to date with his admin, they were there to support him.  He says that he really grew up whilst he was there.  

Challenging stereotypes at Fall Fiesta– Naoki Takyo – Every year at I-House NYC they hold the Fall Fiesta, where the residents showcase culture and food from their countries.  Naoki, said that he had recently found the VHS tape of his Fall Fiesta at the House (I am impressed he still had something to play it on!) and that re-watching it he was reminded how he wanted to break the stereotype that all Japanese are very serious and have no sense of humour.  He and his fellow Japanese residents were dressed in Kimono and it seems that Takyo raised more than one laugh from the audience, achieving his goal. When I asked him and his wife about how he had done this it seems that “what happens at Fall Fiesta stays at Fall Fiesta”, but I think it involved some dance moves and showing more leg than you might normally under a Kimono! 

Appreciation of the ‘other’– Raya Haffar El Hassan – Excerpt from her speech at the event – “For us residents, ISH (International Student House DC) was a home away from home. It provided a safe shelter from the harsh realities we, as international students, had to confront in trying to adapt to new surroundings and environment. During my stay I was fortunate to have built strong and lasting friendships with many of my co-residents. Friendships, I am happy to say that I still have to this day. These are the kinds of bonds that survive the passage of time. My friends were from all over the world – Nigeria, Colombia, Peru, Morocco, Eritrea, US, Denmark, just to name just a few. What a wonderful place ISH was and I am sure it still is. The bonds I was able to form lessened the feeling of homesickness and were essential for my mental and emotional development and wellbeing. I cannot begin to explain how important and life changing living at ISH was for me. The House offers a crash course in the importance of cultural diversity and appreciation of the ‘other’. It makes one re-examine engrained political and religious views and allows for the better acceptance of one another. So when I received Alice’s invitation to attend this event I did not hesitate for a minute, it instantaneously unlocked all the cherished memories I had from my time at ISH and made me jump at the opportunity to re-live them again and to meet other residents in Lebanon who might have shared similar experiences…. I believe this prepares us to become international citizens better equipped for careers in the Global market and provided us residents with a much larger perspective on life.”

Post office PS – for those that are following the Postcard saga (see Postcard blog post) – Lebanon proved the most challenging to date. Every request for stamps was met with a blank look. Whilst I was at AUB, our guide Ali said and there is the Post Office on Campus. So I popped in full of hope that they would have stamps. Well I may as well have asked for transport to the moon as I showed the man behind the counter the postcards. He asked a colleague and they decided eventually that the franking machine could provide the postage and I handed over $3. He promptly put my postcards in his drawer. I protested and he took them out and put them on his counter nodding that he would do the franking and put them in the post. I had to leave then, so I did not see that done, and I very much doubt they will ever arrive in the UK! Leaving Lebanon, I spotted a post box in near my departure gate at the airport. The only one I had seen in my time there. I made enquiries at the newsstand nearby about stamps pointing at the box and once again a look of incredulity from the cashier. After a lengthy explanation about what a stamp was, he went ‘ahh stamp, NO only outside at Lebanon Post!’

Airside post box in Beirut airport