Picnics, wasta and translation jobs

It seems it has been a while since I last published a post. Well, plenty of excuses there: apart from celebrating my birthday and generally diving ever deeper into Beirut’s lively nightlife (I am soon leaving for a stay of six weeks or longer in the Land of Eternal Ramadan, so I get this increasingly urgent let’s-enjoy-it-while-we-can-feeling), I have also been working a lot. But first the fun part: some friends took me on a picnic trip to the Metn, the mountainside immediately above Beirut, where they live. We drove up to the general area of Brumana, which is as maronite heartland as it comes. It looks strangely like Belgium: completely out-of-bounds building activity all over the place, no discernible difference between built-up areas and the roads linking them, any old building in any old style, no matter how conflicting, bang next to each other, interspersed by ugly industrial sites and soulless shopping roads with supermarkets next to ‘super nightclubs’ (and yes, they are exactly what you think they are). Even the ever-present posters of Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayyel, as well as the occasional Samir Geagea, while showing graphically how politically divided these parts are, often from one house to the next, made for an almost Belgian election campaign feeling. Only, this very Belgian lack of any urban planning whatsoever has been transplanted onto the gorgeous foothills of Mount Lebanon, where at every turn you have a brilliant view over Beirut and the sea, and so the natural scenery is saved by plenty of deep valleys and steep rock walls which are simply too hard to build on. Into one of these lush green valleys we drove with a group of people and lots of food to have a pan-Mediterranean-style barbecue day, getting out of the city to enjoy nature. It was a social bunch of nice people, all friends, joking and laughing, climbing trees and jumping off rocks and the food was as hearty as the atmosphere. But even here, ‘far from the madding crowd’, there was no escaping the political strife – it turned out that while most of the group were Aounists (National Patriotic Movement, allied with Hezbollah and others into the ‘8th March forces’), a few were followers of Samir Geagea (Lebanese Forces, part of the ’14 March forces’). Geagea was (is?) the leader of the particularly murderous Ouet-militia (notorious even to civil war standards, partly for the number of their victims who were actually fellow christians. Al-Hakim (the Doctor) as his followers call him, is the only civil war era leader to have actually served time in jail – 11 years in fact, and in an isolation cell. So, back at the picnic, discussion ensues at some point, it gets intense as it goes on, and it ends up with the group actually splitting in two and going off for walks in different directions in the woods. Come nightfall, all return to the ‘base camp’ but the ‘LF’ group is nowhere to be found. After letting the others search and shout for them for half an hour, they suddenly jump out from behind a rock, screaming slogans and pretending to wildly attack the other group in the darkness. Weird sense of humour, but everybody ends up being good friends again and we all drive off together. Ehm, I’m trying to think of a catchy morale to end this story with, but I’m hard put here… As in: not bloody likely the actual political strife between Aoun/Franjieh and Gemayyel/Geagea will end on the same cheerful note, given theinterests involved and the deep wounds of the past still vividly remembered.

One of the things I have done workwise is writing a test translation for a UN organization in Beirut, which has today been accepted. So from now on, I will be spending a good portion of my time translating dry minutes of ESCWA meetings and various other Arabic documents into English (ESCWA is the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia). The story behind this says a lot about both the UN and Lebanon: I had applied for translation positions at various UN agencies in Beirut months ago, long before I came here. I applied online through the incredibly named United Nations Galaxy e-Staffing System. Got some automatically generated receipt confirmations, but that’s it. So a week ago, I meet a girl here in Beirut, just randomly at a birthday party at a friend’s house, we get talking and it turns out her mother is translating for the UN, and they’re desperately short of personnel. So you have this fancy online application system, advertising positions that have been open for years, in a country full of educated people who have to emigrate abroad because there’s just too few jobs to be had here, and at the same time you get an institution like the UN which remains understaffed because they can’t be bothered or aren’t able to get their huge bureaucracy moving along. And like everything in Lebanon, how do you get the job? Through pure wasta, which is the word the Lebanese use to describe ‘connections’, ‘contacts’ (unlike in my case, of course, contacts in high places, with powerful people. In this country, if you haven’t got wasta, you’re nowhere. And the wasta is only to be got in your own sect, of course: if you want a government job, a social security benefit, a permit to start a business – you name it – you have to pass by the za’im (leader) of whatever sect or even clan you were born into (and none other, mind you) and he can get it for you – if he likes you enough, if you’re loyal enough to the sect or clan, or if you grease his hands a little.

More wasta points I acquired: I almost coincidentally (again by being in the right bar at the right time, chatting and drinking with the right people) was invited to the founding meeting of the Foreign Press Association of Beirut (itself taking place in a bar, during happy hour in fact). Many journalists covering the greater Middle East are based in Beirut, and a dozen or so foreign correspondents, freelancers, photographers and Middle East bureau chiefs from various countries got together to start up the association, whose main aims, as far as I gathered, seem to be the organization of an annual ball and making a general socializing effort. It was both interesting and sobering to meet and talk with some of those who are responsible for getting news out of the Middle East and into the West – there were people there working for ABC, NBC, the Chicago Tribune, the BBC website, the Economist, the IraqSlogger website, Vanity Fair, NOS (Dutch TV) and various Belgian, Dutch , Japanese, German and Italian magazines and newspapers. Sobering both to hear about stories being blocked, marginalized or heavily edited in the various HQs in Europe and the US, and to hear stories about the real situation in Iraq.

Oh, and in case you wonder: Robert Fisk was not invited… There was much slagging of him among the journalists, as there also is among many Lebanese. I must admit that I myself have changed my view of the man, after having come to Lebanon, and experienced and learnt about the situation that he is (or, rather more often, is not) covering in his heavily dramatized, often merely contemplative or philosophical pieces. It sometimes sounds as if he’s living on a different planet, while at other times he is blatantly biased towards a certain interpretation of the facts or a certain party or parties in a given conflict, which is far more complex and far less ‘morally clear’ than he seems to suggest. The bias in itself is not a problem (although he might indicate it a bit more clearly), but the side he chooses is sometimes strange, to say the least. Consider this recent article, for example, which is written in a ‘horror mystery tale’ style. He speaks about his dinner at Walid Jumblatt’s fortified Beirut palace and it sounds as if he is in absolute adoration for this notorious weather vane and money grabber (and his wife Nora, ‘the best hostess in the world’). He talks about the dinner guests – some of the very people who are responsible for Lebanon’s predicament, who are greedily participating in its corruption, who refuse to concede serious political participation to a large part of the population, uninterested in their wellbeing and interests, who incite sectarian enmity whenever it suits them, who until the popular uprising in March 2005 forced them to reconsider their position were perfectly happy to cooperate with the Syrian occupation force and then suddenly turned fervently nationalist – he describes those people as the courageous victims of an evil force – ‘a fog’ as he calls it… Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I have a lot of respect for what Robert Fisk has achieved and done for over 30 years, for his coverage of the Lebanese civil war (and many other wars) and in particular of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, for his courage as a war correspondent, for his tireless campaigning to keep the Armenian holocaust in the spotlight, for his encyclopaedic knowledge and his excellent books ‘Pity the Nation’ and ‘The Great War for Civilization’, and I do think he has earned the right to rest on his laurels and retire. But I don’t like the way he seems to be turning into a lobbyist for dubious political parties and causes – and after just a few months of living here in Lebanon, speaking to ordinary people on all sides of all the divides, I am becoming increasingly wary of his tendency to simplify complex issues, involving many guilty parties and a host of conflicting and interlocking interests, into simple black & white morality tales with ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

2 thoughts on “Picnics, wasta and translation jobs

  1. I am a huge admirer of Robert Fisk, and it was disappointing to to read what you wrote of him-not because I echo your thoughts. Sometimes we look at the good of people to the extent that we ignore their faults.

    On the UN-all I can say is Aaargh! Frustrating! I hate the ‘who you know’ shindig

    I visited Beirut in Nov 2006, and loved it there. I lived in Egypt in 2006 and am longing to return to the Middle East, and base myself in Beirut. I currently produce and present a current affairs radio programme at South Africa’s leading talk station. My job is considered top-notch in the industry, but just four months in, I’m not satisfied. I want more. I want to be a foreign correspondent. I’d appreciate your advice please.

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