Who needs Traffic Lights… We have Honking!
I couldn’t really decide how to start this blog. I’m a bit new to the business. I always assumed blogs were just a bit pretentious unless you had something terribly important to say, but now that I have to write one of these things for my Kiva fellowship, I think I’m growing into the idea. Maybe it’s because now I have something important to say. Was that a touch of prentention? Alas, let’s just hope that someone reads these… Ahlan wa sahlan! I’m JJ. I’m a Virgo, I like fitted hats, and I recently decided that the best way to put off making any major life decisions after graduating with my ever-helpful BA in International Relations was to save up some money, beg others for more, and fly to Beirut where I know nobody and have only a vague notion of what awaits me when I arrive. No, in all truth, I was extremely moved by the chance to get involved with Kiva in a part of the world that is very close to my heart and is so important for us all to better understand. I think I’ve been given a truly unique opportunity to get on board with Kiva– and the world of microfinance in general– at a time when the social entrepreneurship movement is really gathering strength. I hope that I can share some of what I learn along the way with those of you who are kind enough to read along with me.
I will be spending the next 10 weeks working with one of the leading Lebanese microfinance institutions, Al Majmoua, and soaking up as much of this incredible country as possible. I’ve been in Beirut now for about five days, and I’ve decided to decide nothing just yet. Beirut has been at various times terrifying, invigorating, frustrating, beautiful, mysterious, and hilarious.
Echoing a trend from the blogs of many of my fellow Kiva Fellows, my first exciting experience here was vehicular. Not vehicular homicide, nor even manslaughter but damn near close. You see, Road Rules don’t exist in Beirut per say: it’s more like, whoever is on the road, rules. At least that’s what every driver thinks. Taxiing from the airport, my cab driver proved his worth by skillfully weaving between oncoming mopeds and inter-city minivans who cared little for the appropriate direction of travel. Clearly my guy was from the mountains, because the ride was much more slalom skiing than it was driving. Most drivers here don’t hesitate to drive the wrong way down roads, drive backwards down roads, stop in the middle of highways to pick up passengers, blow through what few stoplights exist, or park in any direction or on every conceivable inch of open asphalt. And then, of course, there’s the incessant honking, which, roughly translated, could mean anything from: “Hey, good morning,” to “Do you need a taxi?” to “Are you SURE you don’t need a taxi?” to “You had better move because I’m probably not stopping.” There are of course variations in between, and its always an exciting part of any walk to find out who wins those epic showdowns between oncoming cars who meet on a one-way road.
I spent much of my first weekend in Beirut getting lost in order to get my bearings, as every good traveler knows to do when most streets don’t have names and addresses are described by the big buildings near which they are found. I ventured out looking for an apartment to rent and instead took a grand tour of the city. I walked down the sea hugging promenade of Corniche, through the center of Lebanese nightlife in Gemayzeh, around the luxury condos of Achrifiyeh, across the former Green Line into neighborhoods plastered with posters of Hassan Nasrallah, and eventually found myself standing in Place De Martyres, for many reasons the heart of Beirut, though nothing stands there now save a small iron statue and a tent-museum honoring Rafiq Hariri. The surrounding neighborhood of Solidere was left a wasteland after it had been the epicenter of the horrible violence of the nearly 30-year Lebanese Civil War. Now, it is an haute-culture heaven, paved with granite and infused with all sorts of chic cafes, alongside such traditional Lebanese shops as Salvatore Ferragamo, Porsche, and Dunkin Donuts.
This of course is the new Beirut. And though every block has its share of condemned buildings still bearing gaping wounds from decades of shelling, the center of this city is as far from the past as can be. It seems like that was the intention. As is the case in so many modern developing capitals, Beirut is full of contrast. This point was reinforced during my first field visits at Al Majmoua with Kiva clients, but I promise, I will get to that for the next post. I fear I’ve written too much already. Until the next time, m’aa salaama, with peace,