From Corporate World to Family Business: A Lebanese Tradition of Transition

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The struggle is real.

There are so many misconceptions tied to the working for dad route. The assumption is that you’re living a cushy lifestyle, able to jet off to Milan for a weekend on a whim, and incessantly receiving special treatment just for being the boss’ offspring. A chunk of the Lebanese youth, including myself, have decided to go for this path professionally and I want to shed some light on the truth of it.

BEFORE I GET ON MY SOAPBOX, SOME BACKGROUND: I work as the creative strategist for our American imports chain, Wesley’s Wholesale. Basically, I’m the advertising/marketing/PR/anything-on-Adobe/all-around-social person of the company.

Why would you want to work for your family?

When I thought about my career path and how I would grow in a corporate structure, I saw myself being able to do the work to make it to the summit. It was not a question of capability, it was more about investing in the future. Climbing the ladder, especially with Lebanon’s salary margin, looked depressing. If I wanted to live according to the standards that I’m used to while growing up, it was hard to imagine how to do that given the limited liquidity a corporate job could offer, even in the long run.

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Your salary is probably SO much higher than what it was at your old job.

Not necessarily. Working to run an expanding business doesn’t automatically equal Rich Kids of Beverly Hills status. There are more costs, more sacrifices, and more spending when you’re trying to keep all the cogs greased. A machine won’t run on prayer alone. However, at the end of the day, you’re busting your butt for your family empire, not partners behind glass doors. You’re not focused on the monthly wage because you’re looking at the bigger picture. This is your livelihood, it’s what puts your sisters through college, it’s what you can build your future-life on.

So you’re guaranteed a top position where you’ll never be fired. How difficult for you.

It’s not like being crowned a duchess. Do not assume that all heirs/heiresses of family empires are undeserving brats. There is immense pressure with such an inheritance. Knowing that suddenly there is a beast that you need to figure out how to tame when you were used to caring for domesticated kittens? It’s overwhelming.

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If you’ve got that position or that’s the road you’re on, it’s because your bosses think you’re worthy and up to the task. They see your potential even if you don’t. If you’re useless, no one’s going to drag a dead horse, not even your parents. They’ll only tolerate you for so long before they chuck your ass out. It’s not personal, it’s business.

What do you even do there? Aren’t you a designer?

I’m a designer with a background in advertising. This comes in handy when expanding a mom & pop, brick & mortar imports empire. I use what I learned via the art of selling in order to improve our model and approach. Branding, in-store customer experience, public relations, brand equity – so much of design thinking is part of running a retail business.

In essence, being part of management is like working for a start-up and your job title doesn’t encompass all that you do. You have to wear many hats and learn all facets of the business that you aren’t qualified for for one simple reason: it’s your business. There’s no such thing as “that’s not my job” because everything is your job. If someone slacks off or makes a mistake, you have to put out the fires and pay for the damage.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire someone more qualified for the job? 

In absolute terms, yes. If your spawn is in a completely unrelated field, not in it to win, or plain incompetent, finding someone else would be the better option. I can understand why many families don’t do this though: trust. When you have started a business that is making dough, you’re not going to grant the inside info to a stranger. The secrets of the trade, the magic sauce in the burger, the heart battery thing in Tony Stark’s chest – you can’t give away your recipe for success or you could risk betrayal. Confidentiality clauses can only get you so far before John Doe is stealing your concept and suppliers from right under you.

Don’t you have any brothers?

I can do anything my nonexistent brother could’ve done. Like a boss. Next question.

But you get to do whatever you want, right?

There is more freedom. Creatively, I have direct contact with my client at all times (dad) and I have more flexibility to work on side projects because I dictate my own work load.

But do I get to sign off at 5pm everyday? No. At Sunday family breakfasts, you talk about incoming shipments. At birthday parties, you ask about people’s thoughts on blue corn tortilla chips. Even when walking down the aisle of a Whole Foods for some soap while on vacation in New York, you’re thinking, “oh my god, these chocolates would be such a hit at Wesley’s.” Work never stops, you’re always on the clock. Heck, I’m even blogging about it.

Oh, so…are you happy or not?

In the last few months, I’ve met a lot of people who told me they tried the family thing for a while and couldn’t stick with it. It’s not easy blurring the lines; it depends on the nature of the business, clashing personalities, and what someone wants to do with their life and where they want to do it. For now, I’m giving it a try. Like any job, it has its plusses and minuses. Regardless of the duration, I know my time isn’t being wasted when it’s going to la familia.

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The 3-Month Itch

I’m off again after 3 months of being back and I’m THRILLED to be hopping onto a plane. The appalling images of the garbage trails have been flooding my channels. I walked through RHIA’s departure floor last August thinking that it would be solved by the time I returned but here we are, 6 months later, with the same shitfest.

Before my latest flight to CDG, I had lunch with my laptop at Cafe Younes in Hamra, an old hideout of mine during my second-round-of-undergrad-days. Maybe it was a move to remind me of when I felt like there was a lot of possibility ahead. A refresher of those vibes before I bask in West Coast living and become removed from the headache that is the Levant and its neighbors’ temper tantrums.

We try to grow our businesses, we fill our calendars, we pour more hard-earned cash into something we hope will be a sustainable source of income and/or purpose. We try.

Or we leave for some fresh air so we can keep doing the above with some sanity when we come back like the labrador that returns to an abusive owner only to be kicked in the face again. I can’t help but ask: what makes us come back?

Oh Lebanon, I may love you too much for my own good but even love grows tired when one side’s fighting the battle alone. Here’s to hoping some of this garbage gets sorted out before my return. And I don’t just mean the trash.

Nike+ Run Club: Byblos was our Valentine

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Taken by Ali Itani

As readers of El-Tanein Diet know, the Nike+ Run Club (NRC) runs twice a week from the Nike store in Beirut Souks every Tuesday and Thursday evening. However, what is not advertised on their flyers is the NRC-organized fun runs on weekends. I stress on the words “fun run” because the main point behind this group is to run for the sake of running, not for medals or podiums.

Leading the pack in this group of awesome folk is Mark Jibran, the NRC coach and all-around positive force of nature. Having a good coach should not be underestimated when it comes to sticking to a fitness regimen. If one’s trainer pushes too hard or doesn’t know how to motivate effectively, then they have failed as a trainer. What seems to fall through the cracks when finding a personal trainer or fitness advisor is not the reps or preferred activities used to get one in shape, but the personal approach they have while one is undergoing training.

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Mark Jibran, NRC Coach – Taken by Ali Itani

And that is where Nike hit the jackpot with Mark. He knows how to deal with people and he knows how to push without making you want to throw spiky pineapples at him so he’d back off.

For each coach, there is a pacer: Mohamad Marhamo. With M&M, the NRC is guided by two smiling and seasoned runners. We are pushed to keep running at our own best pace or, at the very least, to keep running. We are told how to stretch, how to stay hydrated, and how to exercise correctly. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you that they know what they’re doing, both are members of De-Feet Runners, a group of ultra-marathoners who run marathons back-to-back for 6 consecutive days to raise funds for charity.

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Mohamad Marhamo, NRC Pacer – Taken by Ali Itani

Running with these two on the Beirut corniche will show you that this group truly does run BEY. Be it at 6am or 6pm, fellow runners all over the path call out a happy hello to M&M because they are deep-rooted members of this athletic community that is alive in our city. While the rest of us sleep in, these guys are out there enjoying the sunrise and serene calm that you rarely associate with our chaotic capital. By being part of this group and going for runs at the crack of dawn, I got to witness this spirit and, dare I say, be part of it even if just for a few instances.

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For Valentine’s Day, we decided to take on the cultural port city of Byblos (Jbeil) for an early morning 10km run through the old souk and asphalt road to Amchit. On the bus there, while still trying to figure out how and why I was on my way to run on the morning of my 28th birthday, I was also debating how many kilometers I would actually do. The warm-up was set at 2km so that was the minimum but where would I stop? I’d done 10km in the Beirut Marathon but that question popped up, like it does before every NRC meetup, do I feel like it today?

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At every kilometer, my mind would ask, “are you ready to turn around?” But as I neared the halfway point where M&M were waiting with water, I had other NRC members making their way back and cheering me on. So I thought, “yalla, another kilometer and then you’ll stop.” And that’s how it went on until I did the entire 10. I did it thanks to their cheerleading combined with my mind not wanting my body to succumb to being closer to the age of 30. HA.

I was never a runner. Hell, I still don’t think I can call myself one. But maybe, in the future, with the help of NRC, I will be.

Beirut, Be Good

  

The other day, I was thinking that this has been the longest stint I’ve had in Beirut in the last 2 years. Personal trips and business flights had me in and out of Lebanon a lot. People used to say that that is why living here was bearable. I had the breaks needed to cope. It was the opposite though. Only after I started traveling more did it get harder and harder for me to stay.

This week has shown me a side of my country that has left me uneasy. I feel the violence that occurred on Saturday was a blessing in disguise. Although people were assaulted and violated, we were shown where we stand in the eyes of “our leaders.” The Lebanese public demanded basic rights and were met with force. The government brought on the same response that every action they’ve done leads to: bringing the people to tears, only this time it was via tear gas and brutality rather than frustration and disappointment.

Had the demonstration remained civil and truly peaceful, the woes of the protesters may not have reached the rest of the public at home and abroad. Escalation and injustice attracts international media attention and creates necessary pressure on those responsible.

I admit that I was not there on the 22nd. I was discouraged, time after time, feeling that our efforts were wasted and heading in an unclear direction. And I will also admit, hearing about the water cannons made me fear for my own safety. After seeing my friends fall, my fellow citizens take hits – I was relieved that I was safe at home and repulsed by how they were treated. I had given up. That didn’t last very long though; sitting behind screens felt wrong and their fire rekindled mine. My dad and I decided to join the protesters earlier this afternoon before the shit hit the fan again. Seeing the crowd slowly grow as the hours passed is the kind of thing that needs to be felt so the public knows their voice matters, that maybe they’re not powerless. I’m not a fan of movements that ask for the fall of the government and do not propose plans; we need strategy. With that said, I am an advocate of supporting the community that shows what Lebanon is really about. 

Unfortunately, it got dangerous after we left and my spirits are sinking again. The test now will be when the demands of daily life return. What worries me is what happens next. Did we just need a weekend to vent? What is our long-term plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes? How do we ensure that we will have new leaders that will respect our existence and represent the public instead of their own interests? Will the fall of our broken system really improve this situation? Things need to change. If not now, then when?

My expat friends abroad have made me feel like I’m one of the last guardians still here, still trying to build a future in dysfunctional purgatory. This coming Saturday, however, I’m leaving you Beirut. I will be back but I don’t know if I’ll stick around once I’ve had a taste of a stable nurturing environment that will feed my hunger for more. I’m choosing the same path that many before me have: to invest in myself first so that I can invest in my country more effectively later on. I need to do this. If not now, then when?

I hope that the bond that unified us against corruption doesn’t buckle, I hope that our media stays objective, and I hope that we maintain our stance with dignity. Lebanon, I don’t know how to love you anymore but I don’t know how to stop. I haven’t left yet but all I ask of you while I’m gone is that you be smart, be strong, and be good.

Staying Productive When Unemployed

Courtesy of Stokpic

Courtesy of Stokpic

By unemployed, I mean not going to an office every day. That means you could be freelancing, applying for higher education or a new job, or planning world domination via miswak toothbrushes. Whatever your reasons are for not clocking in, here are some tips that I came up with from my own summer of unemployment.

Let Side Projects Take Center Stage
Use the flexible schedule to work on the side projects that were always lower on your list of priorities. When you have a full-time job, it’s tough to burn the midnight oil on something that isn’t a must or hasn’t fully taken shape yet. When the day’s events are up to you though, you can recalibrate where you want to invest your minutes. Not all side projects have to be grandiose and extra ambitious. It can be as simple as getting through all the books on Obama’s summer reading list.

Keep To-Do Lists and Deadlines
Without a boss or manager keeping you in check and the sun luring you into beach bummery, it’s not hard to waste away ending up in an endless lethargic stupor. Having daily lists of what to do can keep you on your toes, making sure you cross off the most basic tasks for the day. Just remember to be realistic with your expectations of what you can accomplish. Being productive AND sleeping in is doable, just set up the schedule that works for you.

Stop Feeling Guilty
You need discipline as mentioned above but you will have the propinquity to revel in the newfound freedom. There is beauty in being able to wake up when you want and shift things around on a whim. Learning to be okay with doing nothing temporarily every once in a while is a skill that has to be acquired. In the technology age when we’re all incessantly connected and online, we need to master the art of stillness. And if you’re wasting too much time/energy vegetating and living the funemployed life, take up a new hobby and eat more falafel. Those vegetarian sandwiches cost $2 and keep you full all day.

Courtesy of Stokpic

Courtesy of Stokpic


Change Desks for the Day

Get out of the house and off the bed. Changing it up helps you feel like you’re going to work, especially when your home is supposed to be the place you turn off your brain. If you need to get work done that doesn’t depend on internet connection, go to a spot that has bad wifi. You’ll be too frustrated to bother connecting which will force you to pour your energy into the tasks at hand, spending less time reading The Atlantic articles about millennials. Trying different hideouts to camp for the day with your laptop/sketchbook/agenda can be a fun way to get acquainted with your surroundings. You’ll test cafes and meet people who are a) escaping electricity cuts
b) researching something you could be into or c) wearing a tarboosh because they’re a lost Italian tourist.

Be selective with where you go though because spending hours on end at coffee shops can rack up quite the bill unless you’re one of the types that orders one cappuccino every 4 hours. A balanced way to assess how much you should ingest at a cafe is to base it on: how much internet you consume, how many other laptops are there, and how many waiters have changed shifts.

Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

Not to sound like a preteen on tumblr but with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy? 

A Maktoub 3 Loubnan Update

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

It’s been a few months since the launch of Maktoub 3 Loubnan, my very own little side-project. So far, I’ve received a total of 3 postcards. Unfortunately, snail mail is slower than initially expected but that’s alright. As long as I know that it’s working, the patient anticipation will make every postcard arrival sweeter.

What I do think about though is how generations before us used to communicate. The postal system was only functional for a good 150 years since stamps weren’t put into circulation until the Penny Black in 1840. And I’m saying “functional” as in, the majority of the world’s population depended on it for correspondence. Now, we text, email, and whatsapp. Communication is so cheap, so accessible, so…fleeting. Gone are the days when your loved ones had to wait months on end to hear your news or get an “I love you.”

Call me sentimental but snail mail is still a beautifully personal way to talk to someone. It takes effort to find the card, to write out the thoughts with ink, to slap on a stamp and pass it on for delivery. It passes through multiple hands and shoots to make the journey. But when the recipient gets that piece of mail, there’s part of that person on paper. It’s concrete and real. Ultimately, it’s human.

Could an email ever look like these?

I do hope that this slowed pace doesn’t discourage the rest of the Lebanese diaspora from sharing their memories of Lebanon via postcards. However, as an insurance policy, take photos of the front and back of your cards before posting them. That way, if your postcard doesn’t make it home, at least the photographic evidence will make it to my inbox. Email them to info@maktoub3loubnan.com.

Afternoons with the Sursocks: Sawfar & Beirut

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On the tree-lined road of Sawfar, known there as the corniche, there is a relic of the Lebanese past that people have forgotten. When asking my friends about the Sawfar Grand Hotel, most have never heard of it or its story but they know of “that big old abandoned structure off the main road of the town.”

Turns out, in the 60s, Sawfar was the happening place to be for all established families of Beirut as well as the travelers who passed through there thanks to the railway. The Sawfar Grand Hotel was built in the late 1880s by the Sursock family and was the first casino in Lebanon. Because it was built around the same time the train station was opened across the road, travelers taking the Beirut-Rayak line would stop there to stay at the hotel which was notorious for its casino, cinema, and nightclub, the Monkey Bar.

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I had always hoped to sneak onto the property and explore solo but the problem with that plan is that you never get the backstory right. You don’t know who walked the halls before you, who danced on the broken tiles under you, or who fell in love in the courtyards around you. Without the story, these structures remain unidentified bodies in the morgue, rotting down to the bone. They’re still part of what once was but they’re less human and you don’t know who they were when they were alive.

After finding out that the property was owned by the Sursocks, I got in contact with Roderick Cochrane, the youngest son of Lady Cochrane and grandson of Alfred Sursock. He was surprised I hadn’t already been to the hotel but even more flabbergasted that I was asking for permission to access the property first. That’s just not how things are done in Lebanon when it comes to the abandonment of our historical gems. Rarely do you find people who even pay attention to their existence, let alone respect their boundaries.

The hotel itself was never managed by the Sursock family and had various families (Tueni, Najjar, Rihani) renting it over the years. Government officials, Saudi kings, and other foreigners would take up residence at the hotel because it was a place they could easily get to and comfortably speak in Arabic. No need to fly to Europe. Apparently, the restaurant was a draw as well; George Rayess, the first Lebanese chef to publish his own cookbook, was a cook there.

It closed once the civil war of ’75 broke out but Roderick says that business started to dwindle a few years before that because of the proliferation of air conditioners in Beirut. Summers were bearable and less people made the trip to mountain getaways by then. After closure, it was the headquarters for the Syrian army who also contributed to the damages of war by stripping the wooden beams from the roof and burning them for warmth as well as dragging the elevator engines down the stairs, creating deeper gashes in an open wound. It, along with the Sursock’s villa there, suffered through the war and was looted by inhabitants and militias. And so, like all hotspots of Lebanon, the hotel’s heyday was in the 1960s. The more I find out about our past, the more I find myself wanting to have a Midnight in Paris trip to the days when our country was more advanced than it is today. We all seem to be enamored with the fantasy that is now long gone.


When asked why the Sursock family seems so adamant about preserving old Beirut, he replied, “it’s a special mentality. Although the Sursock money came from being merchants of cotton and wheat and things like that – things have changed. We don’t operate in that vein anymore. We don’t have money in the banks, we have it in properties.” Both villas’ gardens are used as venues for weddings and private events now. However, Roderick’s attachment to the properties is more sentimental than economical. He lives in the Beirut villa and spent childhood summers in the villa of Sawfar, named Donna Maria after his grandmother. He says,“it’s about family. If we lose our properties little by little, what will be left of us?”

When it comes to saving what is left of our architecture and history, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Laws have not changed, corruption continues, towers rise. “The Lebanese are merchants, they think about profits. They don’t think about the future. They forget about the past and they don’t think about what’s got to be good for their descendants or what country they’re going to leave for them.”  Sighs all around.

Roderick seems to have hope in the younger generation when it comes to change though. He senses their anger and understands their frustration, but commiserates with those who leave for better opportunities. “You have to survive,” he says. He notes how most who stay behind only do so to inherit family businesses since typical salaries aren’t the numbers you can build a life with.

After meeting him and talking about his family’s legacy, work toward preserving Lebanese heritage, and the summers in spent in the town above Aley, Roderick granted me my wish of visiting Sawfar and advised me to “park my car at the villa and take a stroll down through the corniche past the gendarmerie, down to the hotel across from the train station.” He also informed me that Lady Cochrane was spending her summer in the renovated servant’s quarters of their old villa and that she’d love to have a chat. A chance to talk to the woman who was there throughout the glory days of the country and started APSAD, a foundation for saving our heritage in the 1960s? Roderick was suddenly my genie and I was already somersaulting on a magic carpet.

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The delicate woman spoke of the peak of Sawfar’s summers when she was young and how things have transformed since then. Less people visit villages, more people moved to the city, and the spirit of the youth has slowly evaporated. The house had an esplanade where her mother made a floor for dancing and, before she was born, her father planted all the trees along the corniche, the trademark of Sawfar’s main road. She says, “it’s one of the only villages that hasn’t been spoilt by concrete.”


Lady Cochrane’s family is a multinational smorgasbord. Born in Naples to a Lebanese father and Italian mother, married to an Irish nobleman, and relations to French, American, and Canadian in-laws, it is quite the compliment for such a worldly woman to say that “Lebanon was one of the most beautiful countries you can think of when I was young. Beirut, you would never believe it but, Beirut was simply beautiful, one of the most beautiful cities of the Mediterranean.” After all, she would know.

As she speaks, I can’t help but feel guilty for not pumping my own grandmother for stories like this. She’s 10 years younger than Lady Cochrane (who’s 93) but doesn’t reminisce; she’s more concerned with electricity cuts of the present. As if she heard my thoughts, Lady Cochrane then mentions her plans to have windmills installed in Sawfar so the village can have an alternative electricity supply. She may be aging, but she’s still leveraging her influence. On top of that, she studied town planning for 7 years but never got her degree because she couldn’t make the last term move abroad since she was married with children by that time. “We’ve ruined our mountains, our cities, everything. We should make an island and put all the skyscrapers there and rebuild Beirut the way it was before. We create Beirut as it was, with lovely buildings and green spaces.” So who’s got a spare island? Maybe Dubai can lend us one and we can supply the towers.

“Everything good in Lebanon was suppressed. But there it is, we still have a few places left in the mountains.” She feels it’s too late to save what is left of Beirut; I hope, for Lebanon’s sake, that she’s wrong.