Jenny January 9, 2013

As we went from 2012 to 2013, I thought back a bit of the year that passed. I think most of all, 2012 was the year when I met fascinating people. Here are some of the people I crossed paths with:


In January,

we went to Mleeta, the ever-fascinating, Hezbollah-run outdoors museum in the southern Lebanese mountains. The place, which sets out to tell the group’s version of their conflict with Israel, is essential for anyone interested in understanding Hezbollah and why they enjoy the support that they do. At Mleeta we met Samer, a guy from a region in northern Lebanon where most people are opposed to Hezbollah. His story of what brought him to Mleeta is a reflection of what is great about Lebanon’s social mosaic. During the war in 2006, families from his area organised to help those in the south who were hurt and displaced by the fighting. The war brought them together, he said, despite their differences.


17 February

marked one year since the revolution in Libya started. We were there, visiting Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. During those weeks, we met more interesting people than this post allows for to mention. But two of them left an extra strong impression: Mariam and Maria, two migrant workers from the Philippines. When war broke out in Misrata, they decided to stay instead of evacuating like many other foreigners did. Throughout the fighting, and the months when they city was under siege, they volunteered at a hospital.


Came March.

We were in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. There were things to be worried about, especially how the militias continued to act with impunity (and the situation today is even more worrisome). But in our meetings with people, we came across great initiatives. People were discussing things, and were hopeful about the future. We went to visit the Talaa Tawfiq school, where teachers and students described that, after the events, they were eager to build a new and different Libya.


In April,

I was in Mexico to take part in the Narco News-run Authentic School of Journalism. While the school had me introduced to amazing people from across the world – activists, community organisers and journalists from places like Bolivia, Singapore, South Africa, USA and Colombia – the stories I will always bear with me are those from people who lost their loved ones to the drug violence that haunts the country. This woman, whose son is missing, bears a message on her t-shirt which says it all: “Where are they?”


Back in Beirut in May,

I met with LAU professor Rola Diab. We spoke about languages and the fascinating manner in which many Lebanese speak, switching back and forth between, Arabic, English and French (or at least two of them). Code-switching is the linguistic term. While there is a strong class component to this – Lebanon’s reputable private schools are English or French medium, while most public schools teach in Arabic – trilingualism remains an integral part of Lebanese society. This is a country where there is nothing strange with starting a sentence in one language and finishing it in another, or being better at imported languages than the home-grown Arabic.


Came summer and June,

not a very uplifting month. The situation in nearby (and dearly beloved) Syria continued to get worse, and of course, the contested border separating Lebanon from Syrial did not stop the political violence from spilling across. A Syrian I interviewed shared a harsh but realistic comment: “It’s emotionally hard, but Syrians are increasingly understanding that we will have to settle with a bad scenario because at least, that is be better than a really bad scenario”.


In July,

we went to a school-turned-refugee-shelter in eastern Lebanon, right across from the Syrian border. Families who fled the recent fighting in Damascus were settling in the empty classrooms, where they slept on mattresses and shared simple improvised lunches on the floor. Syria, dearest. It’s devastating to see the country so fast being ripped apart by the mad logic of war.


August was hot,

as always. But Sona Tikidjian’s kitchen, on the top floor in a house in Beirut’s eastern suburb Bouchriyeh, was not: it has large windows that open up towards the urban cement garden outside. This is where Sona, who is of Armenian heritage, cooks delicacies from her native Armenia. Every week, she makes su börek, itche and potato kebbeh to sell at Beirut’s farmers markets. We spent a morning together with Sona and her mother (who is also her always-ready-to-assist assistant, mashing potatos and sprinkling sesame seeds on the pastries), and spoke about food, migration and belonging.


In September,

I got introduced to something I knew nothing about before: kushti (or pehlawi), an old form of wrestling which is found across the Indian subcontinent. These days however, it’s losing popularity pretty fast. I came across the sport in Dubai, where there are public kushti games every Friday down by the fish market in Deira. The man next to me in the closely packed circle of spectators introduced himself as Khawaja Azad, a Pakistani national who “comes from a family of great wrestlers”. Khawaja gave me a live commentary of the game which was priceless! He convinced me that wrestlers “are not illiterate and simple, but sharp-minded” and explained that their disciplined exercise routine makes them stronger than most.



was dedicated to one thing: the book that Mashallah News is doing together with the graphic design studio AMI. It’s a compilation of stories from Beirut. True to Mashallah News’ quest to share less-told and inspiring stories about contemporary society, the book will tell of unknown and surprising things about the city and its people. We’ve worked hard on putting it together (we still are – it’s not finished but we’re getting there!) and I’m very proud of AMI, my co-editors and all the contributors who are working with the project. Come to the launch in Beirut this spring!


In November,

after a month’s intense work with the book, I went east. India! What better place to continue the 2012 encounters. This is a country where most days bring at least one meeting – be it with a person, a fascinating project or a beautiful way of looking at things. One evening in Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, a mosque and tomb in central Delhi, I met a woman called Faiza, who shared a poem by the Punjabi Sufi poet Baba Fareed:

Kaaga re kaaga re / Mori itni araj tosey / Chun chun khaiyo maans / Khaiyo na do naina naina / Mohey piya ke milan ki aas

Oh crow oh crow / My only request to you / Eat the whole of my flesh / But don’t eat my two eyes / My eyes are waiting for my beloved


Finally, December.

This was the month when we took a bus through the beautiful Bengali countryside from Kolkata to cross the Bangladeshi border. Bangladesh is a truly amazing place – mostly because of its extremely friendly and charming people. There is definitely not enough space here to list all the great encounters so far (like Lili who gave us a great introduction to her country, Boby who invited us to stay with him over Christmas, the Ameen family who got me nostalgic over Sydney, or all the kids and grownups who have chatted with us in the streets). I think in the end it will have to be Abir, an art student we met in Chittagong. When he picked up his wooden flute and played, that was pure magic.

How was your 2012? What people did you meet?

Thanks Karim Mostafa (January, February, March, August, September, November) and Alia Haju (July) for your beautiful photos.