LEBANON: Lebanon Makes Mexico Look Like Switzerland!

Like an aging Hollywood star with her close-up days behind her, Beirut’s crumbly wrinkles and liver spots seep through its

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smiling facade. This is not the sparkling city I remember from my trip 6 years ago. Masquerading as a democracy, Lebanon is into blame and communication control. At various times during the past month, I’ve heard weary people blame the instability, insecurity, inflation, ineptitude and inefficiency on Hezbollah, Israel, Palestinian refugees, Syrian refugees, Yasser Arafat, Iran, Syria, and the favorite whipping-boy du jour, the US, which is just blanketly responsible for every ill from

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Spam to Spandex. Beirut Apt Apt Ceiling The heat, the humidity and the general hassles might not feel so onerous if the communications infrastructure worked. But, Lebanon makes Mexico look like Switzerland and Carlos Slim look like Mother Teresa! Cell phone calls, for example, cost a whopping 36¢/minute (US$). When I tried to use my Skype pay-as-you-go service to call local cell phones at a cost of “only” 19¢/minute, I suddenly couldn’t use Skype anymore – for any calls, including to the US! Skype investigated and found it was a “third party issue,” meaning my calls were being blocked in Lebanon. OK, so I bit the bullet and bought a local SIM card for my cell phone, expecting to pay the 36¢/minute. But, the SIM card wouldn’t work in my foreign phone. As of June, there’s a new “rule” that foreign cell phones have to be registered at the airport. The SIM card wouldn’t work in a local phone a friend loaned me. My only alternative? Buy a local cell phone – at $30. What a racket! Internet is no easier. People purchase monthly plans that restrict the amount of data they can upload and download in a month. In just 4 days of uploading photos to my blog and handling a couple of Skype calls, I’d burned through an entire month’s allotment. So, yesterday, I once again chomped on that bullet and purchased a month of service that I’ll use only during my final 2 days. Cost: $44. Scheduled rolling black-outs plague Beirut. There’s a daily schedule of the 3-hour increments when power is cut, not to mention the other, surprise black-outs. (Every time I get in the elevator to haul me to my 7th floor flat, I say a little prayer to the electricity gods.) It’s worse outside of Beirut, where electricity is off nearly as often as it’s on. Comparisons of generators are a frequent dinner party topic. At a recent party, one guest described a German entrepreneur’s effort to bring in solar panels. By the time the businessman had calculated all the taht al tawlaa bribes, the cost of the panels had ballooned 400% and he could no longer afford to do business in Lebanon! Unruliness extends to personal behaviors, too. My fist impression upon returning to Lebanon was formed at Customs: The Lebanese did not invent standing in line. Chaos consumes every aspect of life. Crossing the street is literally a fight for the fittest. (I intended to get a video of me crossing a busy street, but I thought it would freak you out too much!) It’s too bad. Once described as the “Paris of the Middle East,” and later described to me as the stage in which the Middle East plays out its

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dramas, Beirut seemed poised for a comeback a decade ago when Rafic Hariri restored civic pride through rebuilding. His assassination in 2005 still brings lumps to throats. But, building continues. My friend Judy takes Beirut’s economic pulse by counting the number of cranes she sees each time she comes in to town. Construction site barriers are postered with promises of a better life: luxury hotels guaranteeing an unforgettable experience, luxury condos guaranteeing a prosperous future. Maybe so. But I still believe the country needs more than a facelift or tummy tuck. [*Carlos Slim, with a

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personal net worth of $73 billion, is the world’s richest man and CEO of both Latin America’s largest cell phone system and Telmex, which controls 90% of Mexico’s landline system and charges among the world’s highest usage fees. Coincidentally, both his parents are of Lebanese decent.] # # # # #