Ecrire pour faire une différence

5959 jours, passés comme un songe. Les premiers jours, on est tout ouïe, à l’affût de la moindre nouvelle, de la moindre rumeur. Puis le temps aidant, on réussit à s’affranchir aurais-je dis il y’a encore quelques mois, des actualités de ce lopin de terre coincé entre la rage de vivre au jour le jour et les jours sans lendemains. C’est vous dire au bout de 5959 jours à quel point l’actualité politique et économique du Liban m’était devenue étrangère à défaut d’étrange, non pas par rejet de mes origines mais par réflexe d’auto-préservation, car prendre sur soi les soucis du vieux pays alors que l’on surnage dans une France que l’on essaie de faire sienne pour survivre à la séparation, ferait ployer le plus serein, rendrait fou le plus sage.

Photo by Joe Kassis

C’est donc relativement immunisé des actualités libanaises que je me suis lancé il y’a quelques mois dans cette entreprise un peu folle qui consiste à écrire des articles sur tout et n’importe quoi en espérant que quelqu’un dans ce vaste monde y trouvât une idée intéressante. Contre toute attente, je me suis retrouvé un beau jour à écrire sur le vieux pays et je me suis surpris à suivre l’actualité de ce coin du monde de manière plus qu’assidue, notamment à travers les colonnes d’un quotidien francophone qui a l’amabilité de publier certains de mes articles dans sa rubrique Courrier.

Et je suis, ma foi, assez surpris de ne pas être surpris justement par ce que je lis: nos politiciens gèrent toujours le pays comme une épicerie, ou plutôt comme une ferme dont nous serions le bétail, et ce, malgré une différence de taille survenue au cours de ces 5959 jours, à savoir une épée de Damoclès plus que jamais suspendue au-dessus de leur trône, celle du citoyen qui n’a plus rien à perdre, et qui a donc tout à gagner d’une révolution, et Dieu sait le sang que les révolutions répandent avant de répandre les bienfaits qu’elles promettent aux peuples qui se soulèvent, quand elles sont assez magnanimes pour le faire.

Quant à moi, je persévère dans cette entreprise un peu folle d’écrire sur tout et n’importe quoi durant ces longues nuits d’hiver de ma patrie d’adoption, en sirotant un Ron du Venezuela, un trait de cognac ou un café agrémenté d’une écorce d’orange, en ayant l’outrecuidance de vouloir faire une différence dans ce monde, ou tout au moins de l’espérer, pour l’amour de mon pays d’origine, le Liban.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On a cabin in the woods

Up in the Air, a movie starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, tells the tale of a guy who’s in-between the plane and the Hilton, all the time. I happened to watch it on a plane, one of the many I would be boarding in a globetrotting game which went on for years, taking me from Paris to Abu Dhabi to Beirut to Moscow to London to Hong Kong to Teheran to Stockholm to Istanbul to Rome to Hamburg to Dallas to Cologne to Milan to Warsaw to Madrid to Amsterdam and back to Paris, many times over and not in the same order. Too many trips to count, some for leisure of course, but most for preaching fintech to financial institutions around the world.

The movie felt so familiar.
Like George, I had more air Miles and Hilton points than I could spend.
Like George, I would be back home every few weeks, for a couple of days, and then back on the road.
And just like George, I had lost touch with most of the people I knew.
Mind you, I was surrounded by people, too many people at times, but still, it felt like being a lone soul in the middle of Times Square at rush hour. Like George.

At some point, Silence and Solitude became lifestyle, and for a while, they became friends. My only friends. They would greet me at the airport when I was back home. No one else would. I would take them out for a walk occasionally having nothing else to do in my free time.

The journey would start around the Place Saint Michel. Pretty lame for a Parisian might you think, but then again, why not? It is close to the Seine and a pretty central part of Paris. I would usually walk up the Rue Saint André des Arts, Solitude on my left, Silence on my right, and get myself a sandwich or a crêpe in one of the many restaurants in this street. I would then bifurcate to the right, through Rue Séguier or Rue des Grands Augustins to reach the eponymous docks, the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Seine river. But most of the times, I would keep walking up the street until I reached Rue de Buci and its many bars. Caipirinha and Mojito were trending back then. My least favorite drinks. There was a bar though, not too far from there, which served a very decent Old Fashioned and some interesting malts, but that’s for another post folks, and besides, I am not a fan of lonely drinking. My peregrinations would then take me south, through the Odéon area, down to the Jardin du Luxembourg where I would spend the rest of the afternoon or the day, not far from a bookshop where time stood still, one which I would be writing about many years later. And what would I be doing all this time? Well, owning time. Taking the time to tame solitude, to savor silence. To reflect on who I am, what I want from life. To think.

One of my fellow authors once quoted Sylvain Tesson, a French writer and traveler, in our e-mail exchanges.

Et si la liberté consistait à posséder le temps? Et si le bonheur revenait à disposer de solitude, d’espace et de silence – toutes choses dont manqueront les générations futures? Tant qu’il y aura des cabanes au fond des bois, rien ne sera tout à fait perdu.

« What if freedom consisted in owning time? What if happiness boiled down to having solitude, space and silence – all of which future generations will be lacking? As long as there are cabins deep in the woods, nothing will be completely lost. »

That walk was my cabin in the woods, in the middle of Paris.

Let the board sound

Rabih

An autumn pilgrim

It would have been a typical French Café, not too far from the Opéra Garnier. Sidewalk terrace, wicker chairs, a small round table, and on it two noisettes, which, for those whom Paris has not had yet the pleasure to greet, consist in espresso coffee with a drop of milk giving it a warm hazelnut color. And two folks, enjoying the pale Parisian autumn sun while sipping their noisettes on a cold November afternoon.

They had not seen each other for years. A lot of catch-up to do, but it would have not been about that, they would have been on a tight schedule. They would have not been there for fun but rather on a pilgrimage.

They would have visited the Carnavalet museum, earlier in the day, in a naïve attempt at grasping, through a specific painting, what they both believed would have been La Belle Epoque, “this stubborn, urgent, romantic, belief in a beautiful world that could really survive, if it fights hard enough“, as one of them once put it.

Since they would have found themselves in the Opéra area after that for a quick noisette, they might have strolled around the Christmas displays at the Galleries nearby. Or would have probably moved towards the Parc Monceau, a 25 minute walk through beautiful streets paved with red and yellow leaves: Rue Auber, Boulevard Haussmann, Boulevard Malesherbes. A walk in the park maybe, or maybe not if time was not on their side, and then past it, walking further north towards a very special chocolate factory… Pilgrimage, again…

They would have wanted to check on an old friend, living in the 5th arrondissement in Rue d’Ulm, not far from the Panthéon. He did not talk much and was kind of lonely but nevertheless, the depositary of a name and a legend which should not go to waste.

They would have ended the pilgrimage in a café in Montparnasse, one of four Art Deco cafés facing each other at the intersection of Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Which one would it have been? Le Dôme? Le Sélect? La Coupole? or maybe La Rotonde

One of them would have known.

Would have. Could have. Might have. All virtual, all conditional.

Because one of them did not enjoy freedom of movement, was not found worthy of it.

You see, one of them would have come from a small country on the verge of oblivion.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On an encounter, somewhere in Paris

This story takes place somewhere in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, in an area delimited north by the Place d’Italie, and south by the Poterne des Peupliers.

An area less walked by tourists and typical Paris enthusiasts but not less interesting in my opinion. Nothing can illustrate it more than a walk down the typical Rue du Moulin des Prés to the Abbé Georges Hénocque Square and the lovely tiny little house-and-gardens leading to and surrounding it, then west through the Rue de la Colonie and the intersection with the Rue Tolbiac right at the Saint Anne church, and north through Rue Bobillot passing the municipal pool which waters are heated by the data center severs computing below it, up to the Butte aux Cailles and its many small restaurants and alternative bars, where you can finally take a stab at the escalope montagnarde, an institution in its own right courtesy of a cosy and casual dining room from Southwest France, right at the end of the walk. Worth a thousand words.

You will not be walking by famous iron towers or triumphal archs, and even less by paintings of mysterious half-smiling ladies from the Italian renaissance, but the area has a distinctive atmosphere which you can only feel by walking its streets.

Somewhere on this pathway lies a musical instruments shop, held by old school blues musicians, which meant there was no bling there, no fancy useless gimmicks, no lame talking. The guys used to cater for Hugue Aufrey’s guitars. That says it all. I was a regular customer of theirs.

This is where I met her, on a Saturday morning 13 years ago.

She was not thin, at least not in the traditional sense, and she had these shapes and curves which drove me crazy. A dark red belly-shaped maple top on a solid mahogany body, silver hardware, and no compromise on her beauty, even at the expense of ergonomics, especially at the expense of ergonomics actually. And the roar… a creamy roar sending shivers down the spine of whoever would pretend to tame her. She was a hard player, smooth to the touch, harsh on the back, not only because of the weight of the legendary names behind her kind like Jimmy Page, Les Paul or Neil Young, but also because of the 10 pounds of unchambered mahogany straining your shoulders, heavier than any of the other roaring hot rods out there.

I had been fantasizing about her since my early teens.

She was a 1994 Gibson Les Paul Standard in Red Wine finish. A guitar of legends, a roaring beauty. A Rock and Roll icon. The F50 of guitars, like an iconic car which few could tame at the speeds it was supposed to reach on track.

She would follow me to Paris, London, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, any place in which I lived or spent a significant amount of time and for years would be pretty much the only constant in a hectic life spent on roller coasters.

Until I met a girl with a sweet smile and a gentle creamy roar, somewhere in Paris, but that’s another story. Maybe for a later post?

Let the board sound

Rabih

Lettre à une amie

Chère amie,

Je t’écris ces lignes sans trop savoir où elles nous mèneront, sans trop savoir pourquoi je prends la plume. Il est une heure treize du matin. Je n’ai ni la clarté des idées ni l’assurance du verbe qui légitimeraient un titre à cette missive, en introduction aux lignes qui devraient ou auraient dû en découler. Nous coucherons donc ces lignes ensembles, à la faveur d’une inspiration que le silence de la nuit, un verre de cognac et quelques souvenirs douloureux sans doute, joyeux peut-être, marquants sûrement, se chargeront de favoriser, pour donner corps à une diatribe, qui, j’espère, ne s’éparpillera pas trop. Mais il me semble que je m’éparpille déjà…

Il fut un temps, pas si lointain, où je n’étais pour toi qu’un inconnu de plus qui, débarquant à Roissy en ce 20 septembre, venait quémander une place au soleil. Le voyage ne fut pas des plus reposants: un aller simple, un retard de huit heures à Athènes et une arrivée mouvementée à la Maison des Elèves de Telecom Paris, Maisel pour les initiés.

Il m’aura fallu trois mois pour t’apprivoiser, Ô rouleau compresseur exquis. Que de jours n’ai-je savouré ta beauté sublime tout en subissant l’écrasante tyrannie de ton rythme. Que de fois, du haut de mon balcon au huitième ne me suis-je retrouvé la nuit à murmurer ces quelques mots de Baudelaire, cette incantation au Vieux Capitaine, cette injonction à lever l’ancre. Non pas pour fuir l’ennui mais pour mieux succomber à l’appel du vieux pays, à la tentation de plier bagage pour revenir à ma zone de confort, suicide symbolique de l’immigré raté, risée des siens pensais-je à l’époque, mais suicide Ô combien réel aujourd’hui, à l’aune des évènements de ces deux dernières années que rien ne laissait présager à l’époque.

Au bout de ces trois mois donc, point de vieux capitaine, encore moins d’ancre. Ce fut le coup de foudre réciproque, l’amour qui dure encore. Des hauts et des bas, nous en aurons pourtant eu, mais les départs fracassants auront toujours été suivis de retours, jamais de regrets. Je t’en aurai préféré d’autres, j’en aurai même courtisé quelques-unes, orientales, saxonnes, tu m’auras fait subir les rigueurs de ton tempérament, le feu de ta rébellion.

Car tu es rebelle chère amie. Tu as un caractère bien trempé dirai-je, si je voulais faire dans la dentelle ou l’euphémisme. Un caractère de chien si je prenais un ton plus familier pour cet article. Et pourquoi pas au fait? Je le dis donc, haut et fort: à bas la dentelle. Je concède pour autant que tu auras dû bien des fois composer avec mes humeurs massacrantes. Et mon Spleen …, tu auras dû te faire violence pour le souffrir.

Un couple comme un autre. L’un suit, l’autre se laisse suivre, les rôles s’inversent, et puis c’est le coup de foudre, l’état de grâce, jusqu’au rappel des troupes, cette réalité où l’on fait véritablement la connaissance de l’autre, et suite à laquelle tout passe ou tout casse. Tout est finalement passé.

Tu as fini par avoir raison de mon Spleen, j’ai fini par apprivoiser ton caractère. Je t’aime encore, non plus d’un amour éclatant et fougueux qui veut dominer, façonner à sa guise, mais d’une amitié douce qui réchauffe le cœur. Je t’ai tout donné, tu m’as tout donné: je ne suis plus un inconnu de plus pour toi, tu m’as adopté comme l’un des tiens et pour cela, je te suis à jamais reconnaissant.

Mais au bout de toutes ces années, une petite flamme vacillante brille toujours dans mon cœur. Celle d’une mère patrie vieillissante que j’ai laissée derrière pour suivre mon destin. Une mère patrie qui perd la santé, qui perd la raison, mais dont le cœur bat toujours, dont le cœur à défaut de la tête, se rappelle encore et toujours ce fils parti il y’a des années mais qui revient de temps en temps prendre des nouvelles.

Chère amie, souviens-toi, tu fus sa marraine à une époque pas si lointaine, elle fut rebelle aussi, à sa façon, il y eut des hauts et des bas… Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, ta filleule a besoin d’amis. De vrais amis. Elle a besoin d’espoir, elle a besoin d’un phare, d’une lumière dans les ténèbres. Pour l’amour de Dieu, ne te renie pas, ne la renie pas, sois cette lumière, ce phare, reste ce flambeau de civilisation qui éclaire le monde, garde le cap pour elle quand d’aucuns qui se prétendent de ses amis l’auront d’ores et déjà perdu, quand d’autres ne l’auront jamais eu.

Reste Libre, Egale, Fraternelle, et garde dans ton cœur la nostalgie d’un Liban meilleur et le Liban vivra…

Bien à toi douce France

Rabih

Cet article est également publié dans les colonnes de L’Orient-Le Jour

On 2 PM meetings

I had been writing on serious stuff lately. Guns, revolutions, Fauré, explosions, or poetry and heartaches. Rejoice dear reader, for I will indulge in a lighter subject today, on fintech for a bit of fun, as always, and more precisely, on an everyday life black hole, a trap you cannot avoid if you work in French fintech:

The 2 PM meeting.

Photo by Jackman Chiu

2 PM meetings in fintech are a rite of passage into professional adulthood. A universal norm, a rule to abide by. An inevitable plague. More. A law of nature. Like the 2nd law of thermodynamics or Newton’s universal gravitation. The entropy of a system always increases. Apples always fall to the ground. Meetings always fall on 2 PM. The ones you cannot avoid anyway.

Here’s how the typical scenario unfolds. You are just back from lunch. All your resources – blood, energy, brain capacity – have been diverted to the central reactor – that’s your stomach – to avoid a core meltdown – that’s a steak-frites or a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches, unless it is chicken curry in which case you are in real trouble. You are not yourself anymore and your higher cognitive functions amount to idle. Everything else is in use by higher priority processes in your body. You spot an illusive lifeboat: a much needed caffeine dose you try to grab on your way to the meeting room in auto pilot mode. Trying to cross the Pacific on a raft.

The meeting starts. If luck is on your side, you will see it through without anyone soliciting your input. You might even get away with a quick nap, or a power nap to stay in the corporate lexical field. You try to convince yourself that fortune favors the bold, and you might be close to succeeding but the thing is, the bold is not you right now.

At this stage, odds are against you and the best you can hope for is a boss or colleagues who have been there before, or with a solid sense of humor perhaps, or past heroic feats to your credit which plead for mercy on your behalf.

Minutes slowly go by, and then you start counting the seconds. Still, you fight to keep your eyes open, to no avail…

And Sleep, the universal vanquisher,
Sets free the captives he enchained, at last

… because everything has an end thank God, even 2 PM meetings in French fintech companies.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On a portal to the city of light

I heard it for the first time eleven years ago, on a Wednesday evening in Abu Dhabi. It felt like a call. More than a call, an invitation. A portal to end-of-19th-century Paris. Don’t ask, it just took me there.

To a place and an epoch close enough to our time to make the French Terror and the Napoleonic wars become knowledge which people of that place and time learnt, rather than memories they recollected. Close enough in time for Paris to have already been transformed by the works of Haussmann and his contemporaries into a very viable first version of the lovely city it is today.

Close enough in the mist of time to keep shining this specific Parisian touch which spanned from the end of the 19th century up until the great war. La Belle Époque, as it came to be known in retrospect.

Victor Gabriel Gilbert, Le Bal

La Belle Époque can hardly be framed in words to try to explain what it was or how it felt. Two world wars and a cold one right after, two major economic depressions, many global scale pandemics and the rise of terrorism, among other horrors since that time, made sure it would not be possible. Words hardly have any meaning after that.

We could try to imagine it though, with the help of some music, or a painting, or a book maybe… It might have felt like being in one of the adventures of Arsène Lupin, not one revisited by Netflix with a 21st century twist but rather one crafted by Maurice Leblanc, the father of this peculiar gentleman burglar.

But back to Abu Dhabi. It was 2010, on a Wednesday evening, and I had just heard Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in F sharp minor for the first time.

Composed as a piano and chorus piece in 1880, then re-arranged as an orchestral version in 1887, it was a perfect fit for the time and place it stood for: 19th century, Paris. Coordinates to which this time machine would hook me up ever since.

It would also put a pen in my fingers and some thoughts in my head. This is how it all started, in French of course, on a moleskine notebook, on a Wednesday evening in Arabia, leading years later to the post I am wrapping up today, in English, on a Friday evening in France.

Let the board sound

Rabih

PS: If you like Paris and words which take you places, meet an author doing just that. The posts are not always about Paris, but they always take you places… Try this one for instance.

On a bookshop where time stood still

There was a bookshop on the corner of Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Soufflot in the 5th arrondissement of the capital. That’s somewhere between the Panthéon and the Jardin du Luxembourg for those who have yet to visit the city of light.

It was one of those places where time seemed to have stopped. Or more like a place where time would sit back and share a glass of Porto with the owner. Yes, Porto, because that’s what the owner would be having. The man was somewhat old, but time had a tendency to relax itself in the bookshop, so I could never really tell. He seemed to be of Levantine origins, but again, I could not say for sure. His bookshop was open seven days a week. He had all the time in the world.

We would pay a visit from time to time, usually on Sundays, spending some time looking for books, or records more often than not, before hitting the Soufflot street down to the Luxembourg garden. Part of the tradition, informally agreed but strongly enforced, was to share a glass of Porto with the owner as time stood still. The ritual came to be when he realized we were Levantines too, although the subject was never brought up and our country of origin never had any place in the conversation. Very few words were ever spoken actually. Out of concern for Time taking a nap in the background maybe, who knows…

And one day, a Sunday as usual, we found the bookshop closed. It would never open again. We did not see it coming…

As it happens to be, I come from a country which, like the bookshop, seemed to have struck a deal with Time. Living there was kind of easy despite all the problems rooted in the after-war Lebanese way of being. Kind of, because we knew deep down inside that we were living on borrowed time but still, it seemed as if the passage of time would never bring forward the mayhem one would normally expect for a country eaten by corruption to an extent you could only try to imagine. Talking of a deal…

And so, things kept on rolling just fine in this sunny Levantine country and every day came with its glass of Porto to enjoy. We ended up believing that judgment day would never come. And indeed, we did not see it coming.

Hell broke loose on a Tuesday evening.

Time was up.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On an old friend

I met him many years ago. I was new in town and like most people missing home, I would go there looking for, I don’t know, solace, or maybe memories. I found this old piano instead. 

He was sitting in a corner of the western lounge in the Lebanese parish of Our Lady of Lebanon in Paris. He seemed old, very old. Very lonely too. I would sit next to him with a cup of coffee, no words spoken, just two lonely beings in the cold Parisian winter.

Most old timers like him do not speak much. They have been long forgotten and very few people actually care to hear their stories, but you see, a piano still has a soul as long as he can sing. So one day, I thought I would start a conversation. I lifted the lid, tried to play a few notes. And boy was I surprised when I found out. 

He was a Pleyel.

Photo by Rabih

It might not mean much to many, but if you are a piano enthusiast, the name must have sparked some excitement. A vintage Pleyel to other pianos is like a vintage Ford Mustang to other cars: it cannot rival the modern day Aventadors or other Veyrons and R8s in performance, and maybe not even the 21st century version of itself, but it still has an aura and an appeal that eclipse more recent muscle cars and Italian prancing horses. At least in the eyes of a certain breed of car enthusiasts. 

But back to Pleyels and what makes their legend. Or who actually: Chopin for one. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin himself played them almost exclusively. The Grande Valse Brillante was most probably composed on a Pleyel. The Fantaisie-Impromptu as well. His Nocturnes in B flat major were even dedicated to Marie Pleyel, wife of Camille Pleyel, owner of Pleyel & Cie. Following his footsteps, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Debussy were also known to compose on Pleyel pianos. 

But as far as my new acquaintance is concerned, there is more to it than famous composers. What really made the legend of this piano to me is a tie it has to a country now on the verge of oblivion. 

This particular piano was born in 1913 according to his serial number and his birth certificate which I could find in the Pleyel & Cie archives, digitized by the Museum of Music in 2009 and made available online. I found another interesting information in these archives, on the same page: he had three brothers, three Pleyel pianos, n° 159937, 160328 and 160329 who were manufactured around the same time and shipped to Beirut in 1913 on the 12th of April and the 22nd of May, to a Mr. Wadia Sabra. Who happens to be the composer of the Lebanese national anthem and the founder of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music if the name does not ring a bell. The father of Lebanese art music or musique savante.

From then on, my piano friend also became a distant cousin: three of his Pleyel brothers settled in Lebanon and taught generations of Lebanese musicians the basics of music at the Conservatory. As for him, God knows what journey led him to retire in a Lebanese parish in Paris, down from good old Brittany and his first owners back in 1913, the Gauvu and sons house in Saint Brieuc. I tried to uncover the full story but to no avail, the Gauvu house seeming to have closed its doors before the dawning of the Internet age. I like to think he felt homesick to a country he had never really seen but only knew about from the postcards his brothers would send him from time to time… And decided to retire to it in a way. For many years, I sought professional advice on restoring it and pulling it out of retirement and into a real home but as time went by, I came to understand that some things are just meant to be the way they are. And although this piano is very old and very tired, he bears a name and a hidden story which make him part of a legend no illness or aging should take away. Hence this post.


If you happen to be in Paris, feeling lonely, and having some time to spare, I think you would enjoy a cup of coffee with him. I can imagine how it could have worked for Sabra when he was in Paris in 1922. He could have met him. He might have. The Pleyel was only nine years old then…

Let the board sound

Rabih

On coming back for good

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir, coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours : Allons !
Charles Baudelaire

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever coming back. Like for good. 
Most if not all of them are Lebanese and the question is usually rhetoric. Something you ask to keep the conversation going. To break the ice. And to that I usually have two or three interchangeable answers like “For sure!” or “Nah, don’t think so” or “Dunno man, it’s complicated” depending on the person asking and how much appetite I have for more rhetoric chitchat. 
But sometimes, the question begs for real answers. Reassuring answers actually. Your grandmother needs to hear that she will not remain heartbroken forever. Or your friends contemplating the road you took want to hear that leaving and coming back are two sides of the same coin, or maybe that they are not. And to that I usually come up with a diplomatic one-size-fits-all answer, because there is no point in making people sad or keeping them hanging, especially grandmothers, for the true answer is not a simple yes or no. 
You see, if you have lived in another country for months, a couple of years, or maybe a bit more, you might still be talking about coming back. But once you’ve been there long enough, “coming back” starts to sound like “leaving” to your ears and boy has it already been hard the first time.
Think of it in terms of investment: the time and effort you put into learning a language, calibrating yourself to new social norms, building a career, a network, making friends, getting yourself a home, feeling at home, securing an education for your children. The time you spent learning to like a country and its countrymen, even love them. As the list goes on, you are less eager to let go and besides, you had already done it once when you left what was your home country a long time ago.
Think of it in terms of commitment. Whether out of love or reason, this new country is now yours and you his, for better or worse, till death do you part as they say. And you do not get off a marriage unscathed.
That is my point. There is no leaving and coming back, there is leaving and then leaving once more.
But then again, when you think of it in terms of heartache if such a thing is even possible, you realize how great a deal of your life you left behind when you moved overseas, including parents, friends, memories and even food, and how your heart aches for it, how you crave it more than anything.
Breakfasts outside with thyme mana’ich, labne and thick Lebanese coffee, evenings with friends playing cards, dining or relaxing with a beer watching the world cup from a terrace on the heights of Beirut, while the sun sets on the Mediterranean and the fishermen’s boats start lighting like fireflies in the sea, …” as I put it in a previous post.
The true answer? 
Few people would understand that you can love a country with all your heart and care for it even if you left it long ago in the pursuit of some kind of fulfillment, even if you would not come back for good, especially if you do not come back for good. And that this love is heartbreaking.
That if you do come back to the country of your ancestors, eager and joyful as you are, you are still leaving a part of you behind, in another country you learned to cherish, and that it can be devastating.
That leaving is seldom a reversible process and that there is no such thing as coming back to the way it was before, that this 16 year long stint is not just a bracket in your life you can close at will and that there is no right or wrong answer to the problem.
– So do you ever think of coming back for good? – I do. More than you think.- And will you? 
Well, can I take the wound of another separation? One is not enough already? But for Lebanon, maybe… 
So I always end up saying “God knows Grandma, God knows…” as I walk the thin thread between the love of my life and my life’s true love, my heart silently longing for both. 

For France, 

For Lebanon.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On universal income

Or why it is not a question of yes or no but rather when.

Universal income, as in income for all regardless of employment status or activity, has been a recurrent idea in recent years. In France, Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate for the 2016 elections based his electoral program on the idea of universal income, along with a few other like legalizing cannabis. He gathered only 6.36% of votes in the first round and retired from politics. For a majority of voters, universal income seemed like a utopia at best given that so few of them voted for him. 

But look again.

Since the usher of the industrial age, human held jobs have been replaced through scaling and automation, whether in agriculture, the industry or services. Bank clerks have been replaced by ATMs and ATMs by online transactions and cryptocurrency. Round the corner grocery shops have given way to  supermarkets, where cashiers are now being replaced by automatic checkouts, which are fading out in favor of online stores. As a fintech professional, I am well placed to know that it took 50 or 60 people to run an operations department for a medium sized regional bank, the whole of which can now be replicated, streamlined and automated to a very high level in a software platform operated by less than 10 people including support, and I am being conservative. Even machines are being made redundant by technology evolution. 

You see where I am going with this? 

The human workforce could, and still can for now produce a given value through direct human work and retain part of it as wages. Automation on the other hand, whether through software or robotics can produce tremendously more value on the same tasks through scaling, standardization, speed, reduced error rate and other potentials yet to unravel with the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Some would argue that humans who can no longer compete on the same tasks should benefit from a part of the value produced through automation. Although not specifically aimed at automation, some countries have implemented such safety nets, financed today by tax.

For instance, French workers which are made redundant benefit from a monthly unemployment allocation which amounts to a sizeable percentage of their last wages, and lasts for up to 24 months. If they are still unemployed by that time, they can still benefit from a safety net, the RSA or Revenu de Solidarité Active, which amount to 535 euros for a single person in 2021, plus other benefits on housing, medication, transportation and energy. It does not mean a care free life, far from that, but the mechanism provides shelter, food, warmth, education for kids and sustains parents in search for other means of subsistence. Dignity.

The corner stone of such a mechanism is that people can in most cases find another job or learn a new one. But what will happen when humans can no longer compete with automation on any task? Wat will happen when purely automated corporations will produce tremendous value to their shareholders without any human intervention? When people become redundant in the cycle? The logical solution seems to be that part of this value, equivalent to what would have been a payroll, should be distributed as universal income to the billions of people who are “liberated from the vicissitudes of salaried labor”, or in lay words, made redundant. The safety net of the 21st century would effectively become a universal income for the generations to come. 

If we take the reasoning to its logical conclusion and assume that nearly all economic value and innovation are ultimately created by automation (arguably if artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies hold their promises) then the shareholders become the people. All of them. The universal income will then amount to a universal dividend.

Or will it. If humans do not produce economic value, do not produce innovation and only benefit from the value and innovation created by automation, the logical conclusion of the argument is that the world will have become a farm and automation its farmer. Universal income will be a given: feeding the cattle. That is assuming Automation with a capital A is benevolent or whatever is equivalent in the machine readable sense.

But apologies dear reader, I tend to forget myself. This last idea sounded like a T-800 promoting a not so bright future to mankind. Things do not have to be so bleak, and if humans do not produce economic value anymore, they are free to produce other kinds of value, perhaps beyond the reach of automation, and yet to be discovered. 

If you ask me, I would bet on the spiritual. Or music. Something not of interest to Automation (with a capital A). 

And don’t go reading Answer by Fredric Brown. 

Let the board sound

Rabih

On the Ivy League and success

According to a study done in 2014, the University of Pennsylvania produced more billionaires than any other university in the world.  Numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the list were Ivy League institutions as well.

Photo by McElspeth

The Ivy League refers to 8 universities among the most prestigious higher education institutions in the Unites States and in the world: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. 

Across the ocean, the Grandes Ecoles in France are the pinnacle of higher education. Presidents Sadi Carnot and Albert Lebrun attended the Ecole Polytechnique, arguably the top engineering Grande Ecole in France. Other presidents like François Hollande or Jacques Chirac attended  the Ecole Nationale d’Administration or ENA, one of the most selective and prestigious school, the Route 66 to high (actually very high) positions in the public sector.  President Valery Giscard d’Estaing attended both.

Getting into any of these venerable institutions is like reaching a straight 15 lane highway leading to success it would seem, and the statistics vouch for this statement. It is true that Ivy League or Grandes Ecoles alumni, to take the United States and France as examples, are disproportionately represented in fortune 500 or CAC 40 CEOs, Supreme Court judges, governors, Nobel price laureates, presidents and billionaires. Students at these institutions will have already found a dream job before graduating, on which they will pass, to aim for higher and get there thanks to the powers conferred to them by the word Yale. Or ENA if you are reading from France. Or Bocconi for our Italian friends.

We must however not forget that admission rates into these temples of knowledge are so narrow that only the most prepared, the most clever, the most versatile people will make it through the cut. The tuition fees at many of these institutions are through the roof, which tips the statistics in favor of the rich at universities like Harvard. Rich and clever. Are these not already markers of success in the world we live in? 

Besides, the practice of legacy preference at many of these schools favors the offspring of alumni, and if your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking, then it is summertime all year long and the living is as easy as it gets.

So where do we stand… If you are very clever, very rich and well prepared, and your parents have preceded you on the path you plan to walk, then… will the education you get at Harvard, as excellent as it is, get you significantly closer to being a CEO or a billionaire? Or is it rather the network of alumni who look and dress and talk like you and the titles these institutions confer to you?

The question I ask is this: what part of success do you owe to the school name and what part to your hard work? What part do you owe to prestige and what part to your intellect? What part do you own to your choices and what part to the path on which your parents preceded you?

I do not have answers and God knows if anyone has, but I can sure make a case for less elitism: the Ivy League is not the only league. If God or Fate or the Cosmic Dice bestowed gifts upon our youth, intelligence be it or wealth, then why on earth would we want those gifts sealed behind a gate with a Yale lock? And why would we keep otherwise gifted people locked outside?

Why a Lock at all?

But also, why the rant could you ask? I don’t mind, I can hear that too…

Let the board sound

Rabih

On political courage and ideas

“La France ne peut être la France sans la grandeur”

Le Général always held the greatness of France in high esteem. He was driven by the idea that “France cannot be France without the greatness”.  LA grandeur. THE greatness, not just greatness. A very defined and specific greatness, one without which his France would not be.

Photo by Nicolas

It was so central to the character that it gave him the means and will to transform an improbable gathering of French men and women of good will fighting the Axis into the sole legal representative of France in the eyes of the free world and the governments of the Allied Forces. All this despite the fact that the French government had capitulated to Nazi Germany and had stripped the General from his possessions, his military ranks, his citizenship and sentenced him to death for treason. 

He had the courage to stand by his idea of what France should be and his courage led France to victory against all odds. France emerged in the aftermath of World War 2 as a permanent member of the UN security council and would enter the very select club of military nuclear powers fifteen years later. 

In 1958, the General was called back into the political arena, was elected president in  December 1958, and again in 1965. He called in two referendums during his time as president and linked his political fate to their outcome. He took decisions which could (and would) alienate him the support of powerful allies and key voters. He withdrew France from the NATO military command and initiated the independence of the French nuclear program much to the dislike of the United States, ended the French colonization in Algeria to the great anger of the pied-noirs and the military and vetoed the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Economic Community. Twice. All for the greatness of France. 

The General was a cunning politician who knew all the trick in the hat and then some and despite that, some of the decisions he took proved later to have been less than effective. But he had the courage to do what he believed had to be done for the sake of his country and countrymen, even if the decisions came at a great personal and political cost. A school case of political courage.

But political courage alone is not enough, and I like to think that the General would have not disagreed. Remember, the man was driven by a certain idea of France.

You need an idea. One you have thought inside out, upside down and backward, for long enough to possess it. To be inhabited by it. You need to write it down over and over again, proof read it against the opposing tide, criticize it and let your peers take a stab at it, fight it with everything you have until the day where in your mind, it provides an answer to any question, a solution to any problem and only then can it be put to trial in the political arena. Your idea will be challenged, tested further than it has ever been and part of the political courage is to stand by it even when everything seems lost.

Political courage and an idea, that is what it takes. And this is where most leaders fall short, and even the very few who happen to take courageous decisions beyond electoral concerns often lack an Idea to drive them.

In the end, I would like to make a case. Not for politics with courage neither for politicians with ideas but for citizens who have ideas. 

Embrace your ideas, test them, throw them a thousand times at the sounding board and refine them with every echo you get back. Listen to people who share your ideas and even more to those who don’t. 

And when you are ready, face the world and lead with courage. Political courage.

Let the board sound

Rabih