On this stormy day, January 13, 2023, the sea is angry, the skies upset and the wind is howling. I am not used to seeing my beloved Mediterranean upside down and inside out to a point where the beaches are doubtfully welcoming anyone.
Walid and his lovely family have invited me for lunch at the Sporting Club, one of my favorite hangouts of all times. A wonderful article on the Sporting Club has just been published by l’Orient-Le Jour and has justifiably given it top scores.
No matter the season, the Sporting Club of Raouche has always represented friends, gatherings, unforgettable swims and great food.
I have prepared a few questions for Walid, that is Walid Abu Nassar, one of the owners of this wonderful place. He has been a friend since the glorious summer days of AUB and we go way back in our friendship.
As Walid says “family not friends” is how he likes to describe us. I agree.
Naturally, the first question I have for Walid is: “What grounds you in Lebanon?”
“Lebanon is where I was born, where I have my best childhood memories, it is a country that has given me the best days of my life” . This introduction that many of us expats and ex-students can relate to, continues with words like “Home” ,
and “being in love with the sea and the mountains” and a country that “is not a must but a choice”. “I have studied, worked and lived in the US and Europe, everywhere felt OK but it was not Home” continues Walid. What grounds him, and a lot of us, is the feeling of being Home despite where we live and moved to.
My next question is about the Lebanese being resilient, and asking why does he think they are.
“We’ve been through so many wars, civil strifes, revolutions, occupations: the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans to name a few. We’re all human and when any human suffers a loss it takes time to recover from it. However the next time it becomes easier, we build calluses when these contrary events concern us day in and day out. We have two choices: to give up or fight and move forward.”
Resiliency thus is tied into the genetic make-up of a person and is learned from example.
Asked if he thinks all Lebanese have the quality of Resilience as a strength or a Necessity and whether it applies to him as a Parliamentary Candidate or as a person, Walid answers that he was born into a Lebanese family of people displaced throughout History. The Lebanese come from Africa, such as the Egyptians, from the Middle East and Asia, such as the Armenians and the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Palestinians, from Iran and the Arabian Gulf area. All these people contribute to their Lebanese identity through their diverse Ancestry. Through Migration people had to learn to challenge themselves and often rebuild their lives. They inherited Resilience from their parents whom they saw toil and sacrifice in order to have a better life. Lebanon has impressed the world with how fast it picked itself up in History. Everybody knows the stories of the Civil War of the 70s, broken glass was fixed the next day, as the Lebanese refused to fall victims of disrepair and never gave up.
Asked if he thinks the sentence :”The Lebanese don’t deserve their beautiful country” is fair, he says we are all responsible for the country, those who chose to leave and those who chose to stay. Blaming those who stayed for the current state of affairs is not right and that ultimately we are partially all to blame. “We are a small country, in the middle of big political strifes around us, everybody wants a piece of us. Our job in Lebanon is to tell people around us that we are here to stay. The choice to leave Lebanon is justified at a personal level but being bitter about it is not conducive to anything. In fact people who leave choose not to do anything about Lebanon, so why blame those of us who stay?”
“Your positive outlook, is this a strength?”
I have always known Walid to be a positively serene person. In fact that is such a rare quality in Lebanon, especially nowadays.
“From the moment I wake up, I move forward, otherwise if I couldn’t do that, I’d stay in bed”.
Walid proceeds to talk about a positive attitude that will make any individual strive to do his or her best in the day that is offered to him/her. “If there are hardships, work around them, don’t let them stop you”.
My own father, Martiniano Roncaglia, always went by the motto:”Finché c’é vita c’é speranza” and was the quintessential eternal optimist. (As long as there’s Life there’s Hope).
“If you could meet one person from the past that you emulate, who would that be?”
“I’d meet Isaac Asimov again. I met him when I was a student in college and was impressed by the image he had of the future of the world and Technology. In 1976 and 1977 he talked of things that are true today. I am in awe of his writings and would very much like to know what he would say about us humans today and how far we have come”.
“Were you a good student in school? What advice would you give students today about staying in school?”
Walid says that as a first grader he was a dreamer and loved to play with imaginary friends in imaginary scenarios. It is upon playing with other students his age that he realized that all children have a fantasy imaginary world and strive for the same things. As he loved being around other children, he also learned from them and encourages all kids to think of making new friends and share thoughts with them.
“Learn to play and become a better version of yourself. Dream together, play together.”
Sound advice for today’s young people who retreat behind their computer or phone screens! It is best to forge new friendships and connections and stay in school where one can nurture these to the fullest of their ability.
Knowing Walid has a great support system in his family and close friends I was curious to know wether he is an advice seeker or wether he prefers to be his own problem-solver.
His business is successful as well as his private life, “Would you start off by asking for help?” I ask him.
His career spans for several decades and he has had good and bad moments, as expected he says. “However you can never ask for enough advice and opinions. Whether you go with it and apply it it’s one thing but why not get the point of view of those you trust best?Be willing to listen and see if it fits” . He has a point, because no-one is alone. If we surround ourselves with trustworthy people, we can weather any challenge. And seeking points of view can and will change our horizons.
“As a Candidate for Parliament do you think the current economic state of affairs can improve?’
“When I decided to run I would not have done it if I had not believed I could contribute to improve it. It is a general belief that it takes a lot of good people to do good things for the country. For too long we have had people in charge with long failure records. As a US citizen you get to Retirement and feel that you want to “give back’ to society, to the schools and to your environment. You do public service, help your community. In Lebanon this culture does not exist, people just stay afloat and live day by day.I felt I had to give back to my country without blaming the system and tried to set some things straight…what prompted me to run is Change. I wanted to make an impact, a difference. I was told if I was not sponsored by Embassies, big names and considerable finances that it was not worth a try. I disagree totally! The truth is, if you build your platform where people see your vision and trust you, all you need is votes. People will rally around the candidate that gives them a voice, a spark, a belief in themselves. That’s why I ran in the elections.”
I asked how the Parliamentary elections are held in Lebanon.
“In Lebanon you run as part of a community. There are 18 religious denominations and they are all represented. I represented the Latin Minority Seat. The different Seats are based on Circomscriptions. My Seat was in the Circomscription of Achrafiyeh. A candidate runs as part of a list of a minimum of candidates. I ran with Paula Yacoubian, wether I agreed with her or not. If one gets elected he or she represents their constituents and not their religion. The 128 Parlamentarians don’t represent their tribe so-to-speak but their country.”
Walid said he would be ready to run again if he gets the votes. But that it is not always simple to be on the ballot. As we know friendships can suffer a great deal during a run into Politics.
I asked him if he believed in the saying: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer”, he responded that you don’t want to make enemies in the first place and in that case keep them in your sight but do not give into their game.
Along the same lines, asked if he would easily forgive Walid says to stay away from those you feel you can’t forgive. And that sometimes indifference is best. My own dad used to tell me :”L’indifferenza é imbattibile. Non soltanto disarma l’avversario, ma risolve il problema” (Indifference is unbeatable. Not only it disarms the adversary, but it also solves the problem).
“For those of us who left Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s, how do you entice us to come back?”
Walid believes that the right time to come back for a visit is any time. “Lebanon offers a friendly environment, manners and ethics are still present, locals want to genuinely help others, whether their neighbors or foreigners.”
Asked about Lebanese food and how it has put Lebanon “on the world map” with its adaptations and adoptions, its fusion cuisines as well as its great reputation, Walid says “Lebanese Cuisine caters to every palate. It’s a mixture of cultures such as European, Turkish, Armenian, even the Far East cuisine is involved. These bridge the gap to create flavor. When the craze of Veganism began, one is not to forget that Lebanese mezzes are almost completely vegan from the start. Pescatarians and meat lovers have ample choices of fresh fish ( the Sporting Club offers and array of fresh fish dishes of which I was the beneficiary that day!) and fresh meats such as goats, beef, lamb in any shapes and form. The Lebanese pizza version, Manouche and Lahme bi Ajin are two well-known varieties, and his favorite dish is a combination of Lamb chops with stuffed zucchini and sausage, drizzled with a minty yogurt sauce.
“That they May have Life and Have it abundantly” greets visitors and students through the Main Gate of the American University of Beirut, do you believe all Lebanese can live by these words?”
“All Lebanese can achieve happiness and embrace it, Life is about achieving your fullest potential and avoid lamenting over things you cannot readily achieve. Everybody needs to work to get to their full potential”.
Walid’s greatest legacy from his parents is the fact they taught him to appreciate people without distinction: ”Wether a Pope, a Billionaire or the neighbor next door, everybody deserves respect and has a real value. If one values the individual as such, he or she will have found the real meaning of Life. What differentiates one person from another is the shape of their body in a bathing suit, all other distinctions have no importance. We are all flesh, blood and bones with a bundle of emotions and feelings. We need to appreciate the simplicity of what it means to be human”. Well said and so true!
As the top values Walid cherishes as a businessman, family man and all around good person are Ethics, “Be true to yourself and to the people you are working with.”, Success achieved from saying “I can” and the satisfaction of a job well done. “Don’t let Greed take over, especially not the Financial worth kind. Money for some will never be enough. You want to be remembered by the character and person you have made of yourself, intellectually and emotionally. “
Finally one more question I had ask: “What would you tell us, this community of ex-students and teachers, all weaved together in these memories of our Lebanon experience, as to why we should come back to create new memories?”
“Come back maybe not to reconnect with your old memories which may not be there still… but come back because Lebanon is ready to make new memories with and for you, memories you will wish you can come back to in the future. You’ll get pleasure and appreciation in remembering . Whether your memories of Lebanon are good or bad, remember the sea is stormy like our lives, calm returns eventually.”
As a side note from me, Kahlil Gibran thrived in bad weather, he said that all storms are designed to be weathered. It is true that I find a different Lebanon every time I visit, but it is also true that I can never get Lebanon and the Lebanese out of my mind. This trip, after 4 years, was an incredible experience. I observed sacrifices, failures, defeats but also the banding together of families and friends, and the helping hands, even when those hands had no possible ways to help themselves.
Maybe this is the Lebanon that makes us all connected, the one which embraced us as students and the one that haunts our dreams and makes us wish the playground was still there as we left it. In fact it is. Because we are it. And by caring about the plight of the Lebanese people and encouraging them, we have truly understood what grounds us.