Sunday, March 18, 2007

Chilling at the University of South Lebanon

On the day before I leave Lebanon, I make a trip to the South. I have with me Tarek, a Lebanese man who works as a translator and fixer for journalists. He is my guide. Also with me is David, an Irish guy who is working on a unique documentary on the Middle East, and Steve, an Australian tourist.
We leave early, without eating. When we reach Tyre, we stop to have the most delicious fuul I have ever tasted. With our stomachs full, we proceed.

South Lebanon is a series of winding roads slicing gently through rocky mountainous terrain. Tarek takes shorter routes on gravel roads; we reach a dead end at one stage and have to make a tricky turn at the top of a mountain. The view is beautiful, and the high location is a perfect vantage point. Villages merge into one another, distinguished only by a change of name. We make our way to the home of Hassan, a boy of 13 who was injured by a cluster bomb. However, he is at the hospital so we continue to the nearby university.

The University of Lebanon (South) is located in serene surroundings. Its campus is made up of just a few buildings. Su`aad, a 19-year-old woman, dressed fashionably in jeans and a trendy shirt, walks out of the university grounds as we enter. She agrees to be interviewed and leads me to the cafeteria where she gathers a group of her peers. Students crowd the corridors, with clouds of smoke billowing up from the many cigarettes the young men are smoking. In the cafeteria, the obligatory shisha pipe takes pride of place at the table. It is like any ordinary university cafeteria, except for one difference: women and men choose to sit separately. For one to feel the pulse of any country or place, all one has to do is visit the local university. It vibrates with an energy unique to youth.

Mona and Hassan are both 20 years old. Mona is a sweet-looking woman with a husky voice that makes her sound far older than her years. Hassan has a tiny build – rare for a Lebanese male. His thin voice is almost squeaky, but his eager personality is contagious. Mahmood is 21 but appears older.4 He is nattily dressed in black tailored trousers, a lightweight striped sweater, and sharp black shoes. A striking ring completes his polished look. Rafah also appears to be older than her 18 years. With her spectacles and simple attire, she comes across as the stereotypical "brainy woman".

We make our way to an empty lecture room. Rafah and Hassan are studying pharmacy. The others are studying business science. I ask about the main issue affecting Lebanese youth and their answer is unanimous: unemployment. Newly qualified graduates can expect a starting salary of US$600; just US$150 more than the salary earned by an unskilled worker who receives benefits. Lebanon is a small country with a population of just four million people. It cannot provide enough jobs for graduates, and the government considers this the responsibility of the private sector.

Most Lebanese students apply for jobs both outside the country as well as within, and accept whichever they get first. The five students I spoke to say they don't want to leave Lebanon. I ask how they see themselves contributing to the economy of the country. They appear to be mystifiedWith unemployment a real threat, they cannot see themselves contributing without jobs. Rafah has an entrepreneur's mind. "It's up to us to open our own businesses so we can provide jobs both for ourselves and for others. If we don't, the government is not going to do anything," she says.

Hassan echoes her thoughts. "In the South, there are no big companies for us to find work in. If we want good jobs, we have to move to Beirut or overseas. That's why we should open our own businesses."

Beirut is the big, bad city. The mindsets of random youth I spoke to there differ vastly from those in the South, which in turn is completely different in itself because people there are Shiite. They differ, not in terms of ideology, but rather in regard to their values and morals.

The Western media has long been blamed for corrupting Arab and Eastern societies with the depraved value system it packages and sells, wrapped in glamour. In the South of Lebanon, a Hizbullah stronghold, these youth are not seduced by the false glitter of Western lifestyles. "In Beirut, you'll find most Muslim girls are not in hijab. They want to copy what they see on television, in terms of dress and behavior. But they don't realize it's an empty lifestyle," Mona explains. Su`aad, the only one of the three women not wearing hijab, adds: "And those who do wear the headscarf, dress inappropriately."

Mahmood enters the discussion. "What we should take, and will take, from the West is their knowledge of technology and science. The Arab and Muslim world should stop relying on the West for this. But we don't want to follow their lifestyle. Our lifestyle is the Islamic one. We are proud to follow this way of life," he says.

The conversation turns to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. A heated discussion ensues, and I'm unable to keep up as they switch from English to Arabic. I wait for Tarek to translate, and the answer I receive is disappointing. "This was the agreement made between the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government when the camps were set up. There is nothing we can do." This is the sum answer of their discussion. I ask them if they truly believe they can do nothing, and sadly, they do.

Their identity is proudly Lebanese and they hope the world will recognize the true Lebanese identity, which is one of peace and love.

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