Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fighting the Good Fight, with Energy to Spare

Walking the shoreline along Beirut’s Corniche, I ponder the fisherman as they cast, watch, and wait. From traditional dress to professional-casual, the men along the rock wall could be on break from University or a day at the office, or this could be a daily ritual to wile away the hours. No one seems even mildly concerned that only one year ago the seafloor was a blanket of oily tar, and an obsidian ring of petroleum sludge defined the high tide line. In a country frighteningly devoid of environmental controls on industrial pollution and where tons of litter is discarded directly on the beaches, the idea of the natural habitat as anything other than something to exploit is counter-intuitive to mainstream Lebanon. Attempting to overcome these entrenched views is a staggering task; it’s easy to simply let things continue as they have. C’est la vie….

Easy for some, anyway. It amazes me how often some form of good comes from trauma, pain, and disaster. Last year, the July War and the oil spill were devastating for Lebanon - economically, ecologically, and emotionally. But the oil spill gave birth to a new vision for environmental action, born right here in Beirut from – no surprise – the inexhaustible Wa’el Hmaidan and Zena El-Khalil. If you followed this blog last year, you’ll recall Wael and Zena as the energy behind a grass roots effort to clean the oil spill from the beaches. They hosted me for one month while I volunteered on the oil spill in November 2006. Frustrated with the lack of freedom and inevitable bureaucracy that evolves within non-profit organizations – as well as in government, private industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Indy Act was born. This union for independent activists (thus, “IndyAct”) serves as an umbrella non-profit for independent thinkers. Members can qualify under IndyAct’s non-profit status for grant funds. They have IndyAct’s organizational resources, interns, and volunteers available to them. Yet, they are free to pursue their own projects and solutions without the oversight and restrictions that come with most non-profit organizations. In a single year of operation, IndyAct has assembled the talents of three independent activists (“league members”) from Lebanon to achieve numerous successes within their three environmental, social and cultural campaigns . With local interest growing in global climate change issues, their volunteer ranks recently swelled from 50 to 80, and their staff of interns will grow from eight to twelve by January.

This week Wa’el and this storm of volunteers are putting the final preparations on their 9th December Walk-a-thon for global climate change awareness in the Arab world. In preparation for the event, they’ve strung “seawater level” tape around Beirut’s neighborhoods, as a visual reminder of the potential effects should Lebanon, the Arab nations, and the rest of the world decline to take action. They’ve created murals around the city (see 1st photo) to spread their “Draw the Line” theme. This is IndyAct's first major public education awareness campaign. It's concurrent with a global event timed to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The road to renewal is painful. During my work here last year, the Ministry of Environment’s lead officer told me quite bluntly, “Why do I care about oil on the beach? Cleaning the oil will not feed my child.” I cringe, curse under my breath. How can he be so selfish, so short-sighted? I resist the urge to mention that the fat boy on his screen saver hardly looks hungry. Instead, I remind myself that it took fires on streams and in landfills, the near-disappearance of several animal species – including our national symbol - and Rachel Carson’s strident writings (insert link to Silent Spring) before North Americans began to rethink the benefits of “better living through chemistry.”

It’s easy to understand the nation’s collective exhaustion with their country’s nearly constant role as the world’s battleground since the 1940s. It’s easy to understand the lack of interest in any future that looks further than tomorrow. Last year, I walked every day through Rafiq Hariri’s pet re-building project – the downtown Beirut Central District (BCD). Though it had a disturbing Disneyland quality to it, it was a hub for the faux riche and provided jobs for quite a few Beirutis. Brought to life after 10 years of post-civil war re-building effort, now it sits silent, evacuated, with Hezbollah’s empty tent city in place of its outdoor cafés. Political persuasions aside, no truly human member of the global village we call Earth, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, Agnostic, or Atheist, could peer into this scene with anything other than disgust.

There is a long, bumpy, pothole littered, bombed-out road to travel from an age-old habit of disregard for the Lebanese coast, to Lebanon’s tiny (but energetically) emerging environmental movement and ecotourism industry. The Lebanese who truly hope for clean air, water, and beaches have a challenging road to walk. Yet projects like the Eco-Village , an environmentally sustainable holistic retreat, and the Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve show the promise Lebanon holds. Protected areas are growing and Lebanon is using these areas to attract the coveted eco-traveller. Al-Chouf is a forest preserve established to protect the last of the brutally over-harvested cedars that signify Lebanon’s ancient history and decorate the nation’s flag. Together with Lebanon’s largest remaining wetlands area, Aammiq Wetland, they comprise a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All three of these projects testify to the power of the people in Lebanon who truly value their country and its unique gifts, and are committed to passing them on to future generations. I took the 2nd and 3rd photos during our visit to Al-Chouf this week.

Days before the Arab Climate walk-a-thon, the IndyAct office is alive with activity. Well into the night, people come and people go. The faces change as the evening passes, but there are always at least 5 people in the office. It’s the final push to get the word out. Their goal is aggressive. In a city that at least superficially seems indifferent to the pulse of their world, IndyAct wants 5000 participants in the walk-a-thon Saturday morning. If any group can do it, I have faith that IndyAct has the passion and the commitment to achieve its goal.

Escaping the Mall to Explore Jihad

I’d read through several travel guides for Kuwait, yet all seemed at a loss for suggesting how best to pass time in Kuwait outside Kuwait’s apparently insatiable yen for shopping. Locals most often asked me, which malls have you visited? The Avenues? The Marina? Al Kout? At some point, it’s impossible to avoid the mall culture that has become the national past time. Meetings outside of working hours are inevitably conducted at mall coffee shops, and most typically, Starbucks. Yes, the world’s worst coffee has invaded the Middle East. The old-world Arab coffee shops tucked along the side streets are small outdoor patio affairs with dirt floors, benches, and a few scattered tables and chairs. Men in pairs, men alone, but men, always men, chat idly and gesture lazily to emphasize their points. As a filthy menstruating female, I am prohibited entry to this world, but I peer inside whenever I pass. I listen to the soft gurgle of men sucking on water pipes. I squeeze back a dry cough deep inside my chest, and hold my breath against the cloying sweet smoke of the sheesha as I walk on to the Marina Mall. Or maybe it was the Avenues. Or Souq Sharq. I don’t know, which. Each mall is a “deja vu” collection of over-priced clothing, jewelry and perfume shops, the recurring line of storefronts occasionally broken with a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee shop. The monochrome field of white dishdashas and black abayas, the dancing script of westerns shop names in Arabic script, and the presence of gender-segregated prayer rooms are the only clues that I am not in Minneapolis or Los Angeles or Dallas or Tampa or Omaha.

Infinitely bored with the mall scene and its expense - one 250-ml (8 oz) Starbucks cappuccino was $4.25!!! - I believed that there had to be more to Kuwait’s nightlife than the malls, there simply MUST be. I’d heard of the Advocates for Western-Arab Relations (AWARE), a local non-profit cultural outreach organization, and had finally managed to attend one of their diwaniyas. This was my first experience with the concept of the diwaniya, a discussion group intended to inspire thoughtful discussion and reasonable discourse among those with various opinions. I was both wary of and fascinated by the discussion topic for my first diwaniya, “Islam vs. Terrorism.” Wary, because I wondered how truly open any discussion of religion can be, yet fascinated to hear Muslims speak their opinions on what connection – if any – exists between their beliefs and the violence perpetrated by some “in the name of Islam.”

After a short and very dry Power Point presentation that explored the international definition of terrorism and its sub-types, as well as references from the Qur’an that prohibit killing the innocent but do allow for killing only in self-defense, the topic was open to the room. Ever the critical thinker, the vagueness of “innocence” and “self-defense” disturbed me. Who decides one’s innocence? Who decides what constitutes self-defense? If one feels oppressed by another nation (e.g., Palestinian resentment towards the presence and/or expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestine Occupied Territories), is it right to assume the “oppressing” nation’s people are not innocent, and that re-taking settled land by force is self-defense? I could see how a devout Muslim might be able to justify to him/herself an act of violence towards Israel as “self-defense” in this context. When Dr. Lesh, the mediator for the diwaniya, affirmed that self-defense and innocence could only be determined in a court of law, my mind went to the many United Nations Resolutions that condemn the settlements (UN Resolutions 446, 452, 465). By no means am I advocating acts of violence against Israel; however, I left the discussion completely unclear on how Islam would interpret such an action.

One Westerner asked, “But what about jihad? What is it?” Muslims in the group insisted that jihad refers to personal or daily “struggle,” not war. Jihad is an element of daily life that can include striving to feed one’s family, to educate oneself, to raise one’s children as good citizens, or any other aspect of life that requires effort. The Muslims in the room felt that fundamentalists had redefined “jihad” for political purposes, much the way that ultra-conservatives in the US have co-opted the word “freedom” to promote military objectives.

The Muslims in the group wondered, why are only events involving Arabs reported as terrorism? What about the genocidal acts of the Janjaweed in Sudan or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or the brutal massacres of Seung Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Pekka-Eric Auvinen at Jokela School? Aren’t these, too, acts of terrorism? I admit it’s hard for me not to disagree. Why aren’t these reported as acts of terror? Of course, the discussion was about Islam and its view towards acts of terror, not the role that media plays in creating bias. That topic alone could consume many diwaniyas.

One Kuwaiti woman argued, “Westerners know nothing about Islam. When’s the last time you saw a book about Islam in the US?” “Every day,” we answered, nearly in unison. She was not aware that US bookshelves, in stores and in libraries, are flush with books on Islam, and that new ones are released every day. Americans are starved for information about an elusive world they’ve only recently been exposed to, and that’s become part of their daily lives, through the media.

This reinforced the idea that we all censor based on what we absorb from the print, broadcast and Internet media. Everyone, regardless of political, religious, or cultural affiliation, stereotypes each other. When I left I hoped that everyone in the room would acknowledge bias on all fronts, and consider its power in the stories we hear. The diwaniya was intriguing, but it seemed most of us left with more questions than we came with.