Lebanon, the Safe Haven – for Armenians too

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This month marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire initiated systematic massacres of the Armenians in its midst.

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Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Source: Wikipedia

I don’t remember ever hearing of the Armenian Genocide before moving to Lebanon. It was all over the news, however, when I was in Italy last week. Pope Francis referred to the tragedy as a genocide during a special mass of remembrance. His pronouncement was all the news could talk about for the remainder of the afternoon, bringing the history of the Armenians back to my attention.

My lack of knowledge about the genocide prior to living in Lebanon turns out to have been no accident. The massacres are now widely recognized internationally – and even by some within Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) – as a genocide by historians and scholars. But Turkey has always denied that the targeting and killings were systematic, and take umbrage at the term genocide. The Turkish government has run an effective and proactive campaign to keep it from being officially recognized by the US national government (despite its recognition by 43 of our 50 states), discussed at the UN, taught in Canadian schools or acknowledged in London museums (see this piece from the Los Angeles Times for a more detailed discussion).

For a quick history lesson (in case you, like me, missed it): the traditional Armenian homeland was once split between Eastern and Western Armenia – the former conquered by Russia, the latter under Ottoman rule. Armenians were also concentrated in Cilicia, an Armenian Kingdom in the Middle Ages, and a region of modern-day Turkey which borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 1915 and 1922, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire.

According to Wikipedia, “The genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.”

Survivors fled. The Armenian diaspora is now estimated at 8 to 10 million people (triple that of modern-day Armenia’s population). Many of the diaspora are direct descendants of genocide victims.

And the reason I started hearing about the genocide after arriving to Lebanon? As it has done for Syrians over the past few years, Lebanon opened its borders and provided refuge to countless Armenians. There are an estimated 230,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. Uniquely, they were granted Lebanese nationality in 1924 by the French mandate, and became a vibrant part of the fabric of Lebanese society. They are renowned in particular for their craftsmanship. Lebanon today is home to the only Armenian university outside of Armenia, and to the Catholicosate (Holy See) of Cilicia. The Catholicos (head of church) fled Cilicia in 1921.

When my parents visited me in 2013, we took headed just north of Beirut to Antelias, to visit the Catholicosate, which we knew had a museum.

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The main church (right) is surprisingly small. (c) Amy E. Robertson

A young woman in her twenties greeted us, told us the museum was free of charge, and accompanied us to unlock the rooms housing the Armenian treasures. The three of us were the only visitors that morning. We asked a couple of questions as we entered, and she offered a guided tour. We jumped at the opportunity.

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the Cilicia Museum (c) Amy E. Robertson

Room after room housed beautifully displayed artifacts from Cilicia, primarily relics and religious art of its churches. Richly woven tapestries, liturgical garments threaded with gold, delicately illustrated Bibles, silver wrought into chalices and crosses, and more. Some had been smuggled out as refugees fled the genocide; more has been recovered by devout Armenians who travel to Turkey to track down their historical treasures from antiquarians and collectors. The third floor of the museum houses its painting and sculpture collection, described on the museum website as follows: “Primarily as a post-Genocide phenomenon, the collection stands as a witness to the special circumstances and experiences of Armenians in exile.”

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the seminary (c) Amy E. Robertson 

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priests (c) Amy E. Robertson

Pictures were not allowed inside of the museum, so I cannot share with you the treasures. I can only urge you, if ever in Beirut, to find a few hours to visit the museum.

And you may be well-versed in Armenian history, but if, like me, you are not – I would also like to urge you, whether you are in Beirut or anywhere else around the globe, to find a few minutes this week, as we mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn more about the history of the Armenians.

Official Observation of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015.

Museum Information  and official website of the Cilicia Museum

For a taste of Armenia when in Beirut, here are my favorites:

Mayrig – Traditional Armenian cooking. Cozy restaurant with stone walls, stained glass lamps and impeccable service. Now with a branch also in Dubai,

Batchig – Mayrig’s more stylish younger sister, with twists on tradition and a more casual atmosphere. Located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh.

Badguer – homey restaurant and cultural center with homestyle cooking, located in the Armenian quarter of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud.

Nothing says “I love you, Mom” like a discounted African housekeeper

Huh???

Seems like that’s what this Lebanese agency that brings domestic workers into the country wants you to think:

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The image of the SMS above was reproduced today on the Facebook page for KAFA, an NGO in Lebanon that fights to eliminate all forms of exploitation and violence against women in Lebanon. (Mother’s Day is celebrated in Lebanon on March 21.)

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 250,000 domestic migrant workers in Lebanon (that’s about 100,000 more than what the Lebanese government says are registered). They hail from Kenya and Ethiopia, Togo, Senegal, Madagascar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and more….

Filipinas are the preferred domestic worker here, and receive the highest wages. As far as I can tell, there seems to be an assumption about Filipinas being better educated, and they usually speak English, (a sought-after skill for the Lebanese who want their kids to practice English with their nannies). College educated and English-speaking from Bangladesh or Nepal? Sorry, based on your nationality, you’re at the bottom of the pay scale. Kenyans and Ethiopians fall somewhere in the middle.

Shortly after I arrived to Beirut, one Lebanese woman expressed her concern when I told her I’d hired an Ethiopian to help around the house.

“Do you lock the house when you go out?” she asked me.

“You mean, with my worker inside?”

“Yes.”

It took me a second to gather my thoughts, blown away as they were by this casual dismissal of basic human rights.

“I could never lock anyone inside the house. I mean, what if there was a fire, or an accident?”

The Lebanese lady tried to break it to me gently. “It’s for her protection, so that she doesn’t mix with the wrong people.” She paused. “It’s that the Ethiopians aren’t mentally stable.”

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An Ethiopian domestic worker in Beirut. (c) Ester van dan Berg, flickr Creative Commons

According to a recent study by KAFA of Bangladeshi and Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon, “Clear indications of forced labor are found when examining the work and living conditions in Lebanon. About 77% of those surveyed worked at least 14 hours a day and were denied rest periods during the day. The personal identification of 96% were retained by their employers and 90% were prohibited from going out alone, while 91% were denied the right to a day off. Moreover, 50% were locked inside the house, and 43% were not allowed to contact their families.”

Yeah, with those conditions, I don’t think I’d be so mentally stable either.

The dismal report continues, “Domestic workers are also the victims of emotional, physical, and sexual violence exercised by the employers or the placement agencies. The survey showed that 46% of the MDWs were threatened, including threats of physical violence, denunciation to the police, deportation, in addition to being denied basic rights such as access to food, receiving their due salary or contacting people. About 62% were subjected to verbal abuse by a household member, a relative, or someone from the recruitment agency. Over half that amount, or 36%, were subjected to physical violence such as beating, pushing, slapping, hair pulling, stick or belt beating, biting and hair cutting. Moreover 10% of the surveyed claimed sexual violence such as unwanted sexual advances, molesting, or rape. The survey found that 82% of the workers declared that they felt they were forced to work.”

Migrant workers arrive to Lebanon and other Arab countries through a system called kafala, which is a sponsorship program.  According to the ILO, “Employers justify the retention of passports and confinement in the home on the basis of the kafala system, which gives them legal responsibility for the residency and employment of their domestic workers. Their sense of entitlement over the worker is heightened by the significant cash outlay they have made to recruit him or her from another country. In the countries of the Middle East, some of which lack affordable public provision for the care of children and the elderly, even families with very limited financial means are left with little choice but to hire external help… Employers also prevent their employees from leaving by requiring them to pay high fees for their release, withholding their wages as well as personal documents.” This four-minute video by KAFA illustrates how the system functions.

The situation is such that both Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from coming to Lebanon as domestic workers. But they arrive anyway, sometimes smuggled in illegally – an act which can result in incarceration.

According to the NGO Caritas International, migrant workers (male and female) comprise fifteen to twenty percent of Lebanon’s total prison population. “Most are charged for irregular entry or stay, escaping from the employer, falsification of documents or theft. However, a large majority of complaints that employers file against their domestic workers accusing them for theft are false, or even abusive.”

At the end of last year I came to realize that all incarcerated female foreign workers are kept at Adlieh: a dungeon of a prison built underneath a highway flyover not far from where I live. Formerly an underground parking lot, this prison was created to house 250 inmates, but hundreds more are crammed in.

According to a 2012 report in the local newspaper, those in Adlieh are not technically prisoners, but ‘administrative detainees’ – trapped in limbo because they cannot afford to buy a ticket home but lack the papers to work and earn money for their ticket, or because they have no identification. Or because they have run away from their employers but require their approval to go home.

Detainees are kept in groups according to nationality and gender. Caritas helps arrange food for the prisoners, and a woman I know helps support this effort. I offered to help out with one meal, and I prepared a vegetarian rice dish, bulgur salad, fruit, juice and cookies for 50 women one day.

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“Would you like to give the meal to the Filipinas or the Bangladeshis?”

I was seriously supposed to choose? “Either is fine. Whoever needs it most.”

“Bless you. Label it for the Bangladeshis then, because the Filipinas receive more support.”

Maybe that’s because the Filipinas earn the most on average, and so can better help their compatriots in prison. My Ethiopian employee told me that at the church she attends, they take up a collection from time to time to pay for plane tickets for those who are entitled to go home but lack the funds. Being at the bottom of the pay scale, it’s no surprise that the Bangladeshis would end up most in need. Heartbreaking.

Certainly not all Lebanese are comfortable with the kafala system, nor with the racism that was perpetuated in the Mother’s Day ad above. In addition to the admirable staff and volunteers of organizations like KAFA, Caritas the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), the Anti-Racism Movement, and the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF), there are thousands of people in and out of Lebanon who would like to see the system changed. (Elie Fares, author of the blog A Separate State of Mind is just one of them – it was thanks to his blog that the SMS came to my attention today.) Let’s join their ranks.

If you’re interested in doing something more than reading about the issue, financial contributions can be made to CDLH to help amplify their efforts, or to the Migrant Community Center to help provide workshops, classes and events for migrant workers in Beirut. Make the donation in your mother’s honor.

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year, when resolutions are on the minds of many. Do you resolve to travel more next year? Do you resolve to do something more for others in 2015? Or maybe make your next travels more meaningful by combining the two….

Sea turtles and school children seem to grab the spotlight in conversations about volunteer vacations, while more traditional service opportunities often get lost in the shadows. No matter where you are in the world, though, the hungry need meals, the elderly need companionship, and rescued pets need care. These are meaningful ways to contribute that often don’t require special skills.

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The first time that I showed up to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Beirut, I wasn’t sure what my role would be, but I had volunteered before in soup kitchens in my hometown of Seattle and I knew that I could do everything from cook to clean. As it turned out, the biggest need was for someone to simply put equal portions of rice and stew on plates. I could do that. On the days that bakery cakes were donated, my expertise cutting birthday cakes came in handy. I served lunch at the soup kitchen for four months.

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It wasn’t earth-shattering work, but it met a need. Thirty elderly Lebanese went home every Thursday afternoon with full stomachs, thanks in part to my efforts. Sure, a long-term solution for hunger is ideal, but in the meantime, hungry people got fed. I was proud to be a part of that.

As a bonus, I met people that I never would have gotten to know otherwise. As a work-from-home mom living abroad, my social circuit is dominated to other moms and expats. Through volunteering, I met local college students and young adults committed to a new Lebanon, elderly people who needed a listening ear as much as they needed the food, and the sturdy-shoed nuns who were the humble hosts of the weekly luncheon. I got to practice my budding Arabic skills to boot.

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My educational background is in international development, so I love to see organizations that are “teaching a man [or woman] to fish.” But immediate needs don’t disappear while long-term solutions are being developed, and ladling meals at a soup kitchen, providing companionship to the elderly, mentoring young adults or reminding hardship survivors that the world hasn’t abandoned them all can make great volunteer opportunities while traveling as well as while at home. No matter where you find yourself, this kind of volunteering can open the door for the kind of authentic person-to-person exchanges that many other forms of volunteering don’t foster.

This post is my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a guide to impactful adventures, edited by Ethan Gelber. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your free copy, go to http://bit.ly/1wvCUDS and register your email address.

For more information about FoodBlessed and its work feeding the hungry in Beirut, Lebanon, check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FoodBlessed and website at foodblessed.org

Giving Tuesday, and Giving Syrian Children a Chance

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Syrian children are thrilled with their new books

 

Shortly after moving to Beirut, I met a woman named Tuesday. Apparently she’s not the only one – she says there is even a Facebook group of women named Tuesday. But she’s the only one I’ve ever met. And I’m thinking of her today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

Following the U.S.’s famed “Black Friday” (shopping frenzy day) and “Cyber Monday” (more shopping madness, but this time online), comes “Giving Tuesday”.

Created by the non-profit sector in 2012, Giving Tuesday channels the generous spirit of the holiday season into charitable giving. It’s a way to give a gift to someone you have probably never met, whether your gift is to help fund cancer research or to provide notebooks and pencils to a child in need.

Over the past few weeks my friend Tuesday has been channeling her generous spirit into a campaign for an education center for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The center is in the battered border town of Arsal, where Syrian refugees outnumber locals – the same town where Syrian refugees from the volunteer group Chabaab lal Oumma (Youth for the People) distributed food aid to Lebanese in need back in May.

According to the UN, it’s an area where between 50% and 70% of children – more than 10,000 individuals – are unregistered for school.

With this same group of earnest and energetic young women volunteering to get things organized, an education center was established for the Syrian refugees. They didn’t let the lack of text books or even chairs stop them, and over the past couple of months the numbers have swollen to more than 800 registered students. Teachers are refugees themselves, working without even any monthly stipend.

Two weeks ago my friend Tuesday started a campaign on GoFundMe.com to help support the school. On the first day of her campaign, a young man named Yuki Tanaka donated GB£1,500 (US$2,360), posting the following message:

“I stayed in Arsal and worked with Syrian refugees on February, 2014. I visited the school as well. Everyone I met there are very kind so I love them very very much. I always concern [sic] their life and future. Thank you for giving me this opportunity because sadly no one supports them in this world except us.”

According to a Beirut-based volunteer with Chabaab lal Oumma, Yuki had been saving his money since his last visit to Arsal, when he spent two weeks working with the volunteers from Chabaab lal Oumma.

A couple of days ago, a 10-year-old girl living in Beirut named Polly Stokes committed all of her savings – nearly US$100 – because “she wanted to help other kids get an education.”

Tuesday’s campaign is still in progress, but she has made the first transfer of funds and the first installment of supplies has been delivered to the classrooms in Arsal.

Five-subject notebooks for older students…Arsal School1

And copybooks for elementary students…

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Today on Giving Tuesday, would you consider giving my friend Tuesday your support, and help give Syrian children in Arsal a better education?

If you have funds to give, that could help provide a few more desks and chairs, geometry sets and pencils, transportation for students who live too far to walk, small stipends for the teachers…

If you have time to give, you could take a moment to share this message with a “like” or a forward…

Click here to see Tuesday’s campaign on GoFundMe.com.

While the campaign is in British pounds, donations can be made in Australian, Canadian or US dollars, British pounds, or Euros.IMG-20141201-WA0025

Tuesday and I will be grateful for anything you can do. But we sure as heck won’t be the only ones appreciating your support.

*All images courtesy of Chabaab lal Oumma, and may not be reproduced without permission.

Good morning Beirut!

A week or so ago I was contacted about participating in an art projects called Portraits, by a London-based artist who goes by the name IMPREINT.

A simple but effective concept – take a picture holding a balloon. The person and the balloon are each imperfect and unique. But the gathered images together remind us that we are more the same than different.

That is my interpretation at least. IMPREINT’s own website is rather cryptic, allowing each viewer to interpret the art for oneself.

What do you see in this project? What do you see in my picture?

As part of a Good Morning location series, my participation was to be Beirut-specific, and I was asked to take my picture somewhere characteristic of the place. In my image you see Zaitunay Bay in Beirut – an ultra-sleek marina with a boardwalk and cafés.

Is it characteristic? As much as any other place in this city of many facets. I could have just as easily taken the picture on a street crowded with concrete apartment blocks or one lined with elegant French colonial buildings, in front of a mosque or a church, in the foothills of the mountains rather than the edge of the sea.

I chose Zaitunay Bay because, well, I happened to be there. But also because I felt it encapsulates a couple of Beirut’s many contradictions.

Just behind me there is a skyscraper being built, the cranes and construction powerful symbols of both the city’s wealth and its unflappable drive to go on. The skyscraper in turn is tucked behind the ruins of the St. George Hotel – once glamorous, but damaged first by snipers during Lebanon’s civil war, then gutted in 2005 when a car bomb exploded just in front, killing former prime minister Rafic Hariri.

Along the left edge of the image is the corner of the Phoenicia Hotel, another symbol of Beirut’s glamour – one that has retained its allure since Beirut’s heyday as the “Paris of the East” in the 1960s. Just outside the image, behind the Phoenicia, are the ruins of the notorious Holiday Inn, once a battleground for warring militias.

The turbulent history seems at odds with the rest of the image of ladies taking a morning walk along the sea, luxury yachts in the background. But the juxtaposition of luxury against need, peace against conflict, calm against chaos, is all part and parcel of Beirut.

So, characteristic? As much yes as no.

IMPREINT’s website includes a brief interview with the artist, a snippet of which I’ve included below:

DO YOU THINK ART COULD HAVE A SOCIAL IMPACT?

I: ART HAS TO HAVE A SOCIAL IMPACT.

WITH A PROTEST?

I: WITH A PROPOSAL.

In IMPREINT’s project I see a proposal for the joys of childhood. I see a proposal for recognizing the universality of humanity rather than an emphasis on our differences and divisions. What do you see?

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Have your own interpretation of the project to share? Post your picture to IMPREINT’s Facebook page.

Beirut Barracks Bombing – October 23, 1983

This morning I headed to the US Embassy for my first visit since arriving in Lebanon more than two years ago. Passport renewal time.

I had a 9am appointment, but arrived plenty early. In Lebanon you never know what kind of traffic you might face, and at any American embassy you never know what kind of line might be waiting. I was lucky that I didn’t meet either.

While waiting for my turn, a voice over the loudspeaker announced that there would be a minute of silence observed at 9am, in memory of those who died at the attack on the US Marines Barracks on this date in 1983.

Marine Barracks, Beirut 1982. Photo Credit: James Case from Philadelphia, Mississippi, U.S.A.

According to Wikipedia, “At around 06:22, a 19-ton yellow Mercedes-Benz stake-bed truck drove to the Beirut International Airport (BIA), where the U.S. 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) was deployed. The 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, was a subordinate element of the 24th MAU. The truck was not the water truck they had been expecting. Instead, it was a hijacked truck carrying explosives. The driver turned his truck onto an access road leading to the compound. He drove into and circled the parking lot, and then he accelerated to crash through a 5-foot-high barrier of concertina wire separating the parking lot from the building. The wire popped “like somebody walking on twigs.” The truck then passed between two sentry posts and through an open vehicle gate in the perimeter chain-link fence, crashed through a guard shack in front of the building and smashed into the lobby of the building serving as the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines (BLT). The sentries at the gate were operating under rules of engagement which made it very difficult to respond quickly to the truck. Sentries were ordered to keep their weapons at condition four (no magazine inserted and no rounds in the chamber). Only one sentry, LCpl Eddie DiFranco, was able to load and chamber a round. However, by that time the truck was already crashing into the building’s entryway.”

Debris marks the site of the Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks building that was destroyed in a terrorist bomb attack. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

An aerial view of the remains of the Marine battalion Landing Team headquarters and barracks at Beirut International Airport. Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Lucas

241 servicemen were killed – 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers – making the incident the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II.

An elderly Lebanese man nearby was killed by the explosion as well.

The attack was followed by one the French barracks ten minutes later, killing 58 French paratroopers.

No need to wait for Memorial Day to come around again in order to remember those who lost their lives on this day 31 years ago.

At 9am sharp, a few servicemen were lined up in formation before the embassy flags, flying at half-mast. The entire embassy compound fell silent.

Marines, sailors and soldiers, I remembered you today.

Biking in Beirut

Over a recent coffee with two Lebanese friends, I discovered that neither of their daughters, ages 8 and 9, know how to ride a bike.

It seemed surprising, until you think about the lack of public spaces in this concrete jungle. Narrow sidewalks are overtaken by parked cars when they aren’t full of people, and streets are equally narrow and clogged with traffic. There isn’t much place to take a bike ride in Beirut.

The exception is the waterfront. At the famed Corniche, bikes are best ridden at off-peak times, when you don’t risk running down any of the hundreds of men, women and children that love to take a morning/afternoon/evening stroll along the boardwalk that lines the seafront. A better choice for an easy bike ride in Beirut is at the bland but uncrowded waterfront at BIEL. The company Beirut by Bike noticed that too, and have set up shop with hundreds of bikes for rent.

But what about those girls who haven’t learned how to ride a bike? Do they have to miss out on the fun?

Cleverly, Beirut by Bike’s stock of rentals isn’t limited to two-wheelers. Tricycles are as popular with adults as they are with kids, and BbB stocks the trikes in a variety of sizes.

While there a couple of other bike rental shops around town, BbB is single-handedly managing to change the conception of biking in Beirut. They sponsor night bikes on Friday evenings. Hosted a 13km bike-a-thon on October 5 with 1,650 participants. This Saturday (the 18th), BbB is the sponsor of a fundraiser for the National Organization for Organ & Tissue Donation & Transplantation (NOD), where L.L. 10,000 (US$7) gets you a bike & helmet rental, plus water and a t-shirt from NOD, with all proceeds going to the charity. Sunday (the 19th) BbB will be back on the roads, this time in Dbayeh, co-sponsoring with the sporting goods store Decathlon a fun ride with professional cyclists. They even offer free lessons to teach you how to ride a bike (by appointment and weekdays only). Beirut by Bike is doing an admirable job of making biking a sport accessible to all.

Other noteworthy efforts include the company Outdoor Generation, which offers cycling classes and tours for children and adults; a feasibility study by the Beirut municipality to develop a bike route through the city, and another study for a bike route along the northern coastal road; Deghri, the Arab world’s first bicycle courier service; and Cycling Circle, a club that organizes events such as the upcoming costumed Halloween ride on October 31st (event details available here).

The Lebanese are a determined bunch. Despite pollution, traffic, and general lawlessness on the roads, they are managing to develop a vibrant biking culture. I’m impressed.