On a girl with character and a muscle car

An apple red 1974 Dodge Challenger, rushing through the turns in a futile tentative to reach the summer sunset, before the night sets in. The girl driving it was not running away. She was speed-driving an oppressing feeling of inevitability off her chest and onto the asphalt, racing the race of her life in an attempt to beat the chequered flag before it signaled the end she was dreading. It was 6 PM already and the stakes were growing higher by the minute. She was driving towards the capital, with 2 hours to go according to the GPS, but much less according to her plans: the tuned and well looked after muscle car had a top speed of more than 200 kilometers per hour and the girl could not care less about speed tickets or traffic. She was planning on cutting through anything or anyone standing in her way.

Photo by Traf

The sun had already set by the time the car finally came to a stop. 37 minutes to departure. That was 7 minutes before the gates would close, but it was already too late for her. Even with all the time in the world, she would have never been able to reach them without a couple of much sought after passes: a European or American passport or visa and a valid plane ticket, both of which she did not have. Fortune favors the bold. She reached to her chest, grabbed a golden medallion and the picture hidden inside, put it to her lips, took a deep breath and started running the fastest sprint ever run. 372 meters, through revolving doors, a couple of stairs, three border police checkpoints and all the crowds trying to flee this god forsaken land. She had already 12 cops on her soles by the time she reached the departures gates, with 3 minutes to spare. And then she saw him, right at the other end of the terminal, the last passenger boarding, and too far to hear her over the crowd. All she could do was stare at his back while she still could, before she would be taken down by 12 angry men. Right at the last second, in a fortunate twist of fate, or maybe thanks to providence, he turned back, as if to wish this land farewell one last time. Their eyes crossed, and what he could not have heard in her silent voice, he saw in her big brown eyes. He knew right at this moment that his life would never be the same. He dropped his bags and rushed to her through the crowd.

Nothing else mattered.

To Rita, to the love of my life

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

On a coffee shop for expatriates

!ازيك يا برنس

That’s read from right to left, pronounced “Ezayyak ya brinse“, and Sayyid’s way of greeting you to his coffee shop every evening. It was not a Starbucks, nor a Costa, and certainly not a French café. No fancy décor, no elevator music, no jazz. Oum Koulthoum was the staple as far as music was concerned. Fairuz could be heard as well. Abdel Halim Hafez also, from time to time. It was as real as it gets in this part of the world: Egyptian tenants, and clients from all over the Arab world: Egyptians obviously, but also Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, a few folks from Iraq, a couple of people from North Africa and some Lebanese…

Shisha, a.k.a hookah or arguileh, was common ground. Water pipe that is.

شيشة حامض و نعنع من فضلك

The rest depended on personal preferences: Koshari tea, ginger, coffee. Backgammon, Dominos. There was however a code for tobacco. The main choices boiled down to either Mouassal or Ajami. The latter consisted of finely chopped tobacco leaves with a couple of embers placed directly on them. Harder on the lungs supposedly, but definitely harder on the pocket, so most of the folks there would put back their ego where it should remain and take Mouassal, or fruit flavored tobacco. “Two apples” meant you were a newbie, a mistake to avoid at all cost. “Mint and Lemon” was a good compromise and most would smoke that, although a few posers would have more exotic flavors. It was a health disaster in all cases, with one alternative just being less expensive.

Most customers would come in around 9 or 10 PM and many would not leave before 2 AM. They probably had a lot on their minds and no one to share their dreams, their hopes, their fears. All they could do was drown their sorrows in the grey and white volutes of a mint-and-lemon-flavored shisha and make it last long enough to count.

Now would probably be a good time to give you more context. Abu Dhabi, 2009. The wave of the subprime crisis had already hit the shores of Dubai and drowned its swollen real estate market, driving most of its workforce to the neighboring emirate where work was still available. Most of Sayyid’s customers fell in that category. They had left Dubai some weeks or months ago looking for the next opportunity as you would put it on your linkedIn profile. Except these folks did not have one. Most were coming from God forsaken places, thriving to provide for families they had left back home, and many were in “professional transition”, which meant they needed to find a job, fast, or risk loosing their work permit. Their only escape from the vicissitudes of their lives was a daily dose of Sayyid’s coffee shop.

This part never gets told in the expatriate official tale. Expatriation is not always about living between the expat compound, the 5-star hotel, the platinum lounge and the Michelin star restaurant. It is sometimes less glamourous. Much less. It sometimes sounds like “immigration”. At least for the poor lads who need it most.

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 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 FinTech and people

Or how it looks from the inside.

Every experience is unique and different people can have different accounts on a career in FinTech. Here’s mine.

I got in FinTech by chance. I received a call I was not expecting. Until that moment, finance did not ring a bell. Trading floors seemed like movie stuff. The Wolf of Wall Street was not out yet so none of the people I knew whom had embraced this career could explain it to me with a simple example. But it struck some strings: the job required extensive travel and I would be expected to become autonomous fairly quick. I was in for both.

I had to learn quite a few things in little time, and this was a major motivator. Learning how a financial platform is operated, learning the operating model of investment banks, funds and treasuries. Learning finance. Bonds, foreign exchange, rates, equities, derivatives, valuation models. Learning how an operations department works, how a front office desk operates, how risk is managed and what is risk for a financial institution. I am still learning 15 years later.

I started on support but was soon entrusted with high stakes decisions and started looking after much larger accounts. I worked on delivery projects around the world. I got to manage senior and less senior people and I thrived to give them opportunities to grow and that place in the sun at which everyone deserves a shot. That was probably the most rewarding part of the ride.

Although many in the field usually come from engineering, computer science or finance backgrounds, I found out later that many of the fintech professionals I would meet, and not the least impressive ones, came from backgrounds as far from banks and finance as can be. I met business architects who graduated with a BA in geography. Traders who studied history. A project manager who was a commissioned officer in a previous life, honorably discharged after having served his country well and lead battalions on many theaters of operations. Another one who was in the navy and an expert on submarine propulsion. And a legendary developer, trained in chemical engineering and a collector of rare minerals.

I also got to work with people from all around the world. French, Italians, Germans, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, Icelanders, Swedes, Americans, Brazilians, Lebanese, Syrians, Emirati, Indians, Iranians, Australians, Romanians, Russians, Pakistani, Egyptians, Jordanians, Iraqi, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Senegalese, South Africans, Ivorians, Belgians, Chinese, Pilipino, Indonesians, Malaysians, Japanese, Singaporeans, Kazakh, Turkish, Greeks, Canadians, Polish, Irish, Omani, Kuwaiti, Palestinians, Columbians, Czech, Dutch, and Bulgarians, to name a few. I faced cultural challenges at times, but it was an enriching experience every time.

I got to travel a lot. There were years I would spend most of my time on business trips, in between the airplane, the hotel and the trading floor. Projects took me to the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Iceland, The Netherlands, The United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Russia and Turkey, many times over, and I have more stories of nearly missed planes and last minute miracles, of 2AM naps on a random couch on a trading floor somewhere in the world and all night celebrations when the fight is finally over, of epic fails and even more epic successes than I can count.

I have had Borscht in Moscow, duck tongues in Hong Kong and donkey meat in Milan. I have been challenged to the hottest curries by Indian colleagues and to the most treacherous vodkas by Polish ones. I have laughed my head out countless times cracking jokes around a beer with the same clients who had cornered me in a workshop earlier in the day.

I’ve lost many hours of sleep across the globe but won so many good memories along the way. I also gained a few friends for life. Folks, I hope you are reading this, you will recognize yourselves.

Make no mistake, the job is not for the faint hearted. The pressure is tremendous, the working hours long and the clients very demanding. Nerve wrecking situations are the norm, especially if you work in delivery. You get humbled quite a few times, but on the bright side, you are surrounded by extremely bright people and the rewards are at the level of the challenge.

I hope my colleagues and fellow professionals will recognize themselves in these stories, that it will bring a smile on their faces in these dire times and wish that readers see the job for what it really is, a people job. And no amount of Work from Home will change that.

Let the board sound

Rabih