I left my native Lebanon to New York City back in 1987. The war was still raging and the political and economic situations were highly unstable if not volatile. Today, almost 27 years later, the Lebanese struggle with rationed electricity, unstable economic and political situations, living on the brink of another war, receiving a flood of refugees from another neighbor and the only difference from then to now is how much thicker the pockets of our political leaders are getting. Corruption is their religion and money their God. How will the web of greed be ever dismantled?
During the last few days, Shanghai was submerged in a large cloud of gray pollution that seemed to call over terms like ‘apocalypse’ and ‘end of days’ from many of its residents. A look of worry shrouded everyone’s face and all conversations centered around the same theme: the toxic smog. It felt so bizarre to walk around in a dark city with masked people and alarmed eyes everywhere you looked. The pollution was literally off the scales (over 500) and no comforting answers anywhere as to when and if it will end. Now, a few days later, it has dropped to 195, still an alarming number in any country, but here in Shanghai, it calls for a celebration. What kind of world are we bringing our children into? What levels of abuse are we subjecting our planet to in the name of progress, money and power?
The human story has its sad chapters; the ones that star as the unfortunate characters; the ones we look away from when we pass them in the streets. This post is for them; a gentle reminder…
In Qibao, and old area of Shanghai, is a neighborhood(if you can call it that) of green lanes. Confronting realities wait there behind each door and in front of some where young women prepare to sell themselves for a living. As much as this practice is as old as civilization itself, it remains heartbreaking to witness people’s daughters going through this to survive. And most painful of all was seeing a little girl forced to grow up in that strange world of green lanes.
أحبك “I love you”
Reem is 9 years old. She is a Syrian refugee living in a camp in North Lebanon. I learned today that she lost both her parents in the recent conflicts. The only message written on her hand is : I love you
Today two good friends and I went for an adventure in a remote Shanghai neighborhood where mostly migrant workers from the provinces live and where their children go to special schools. These are the workers responsible for lifting Shanghai from the ground up to soaring levels with its new high rises and luxury hotels that mushroom at an impressive speed around the jewel of China. The residences are extremely modest and the children struggle to learn as best they can under their current circumstances. On this day the teacher said that they would be celebrating children’s day (normally on June 2nd in China) and strangely enough they pointed out a few of the girls who they consider ‘beautiful’ and explained why they were dressed in party clothes and not the usual school uniform. The declaration of their beauty was done openly in front of all the other students, a concept I found incredibly alien and difficult to understand. “She is the most beautiful girl in the class” the teacher announced loudly, ” and this is why she will be presented on stage today”.
Shanghai, the pride of China, races towards its future, bejeweled with glitzy sky scrapers, glowing with billions of energy consuming lights, employing the largest work force in the world, day and night, 7 days a week and waiting for no one to be ready for this epic change. In neighborhoods like this one, people are given very little notice before their homes get demolished giving room to bigger, more modern and more expensive buildings. The people themselves are moved to housing outside the city to start a new life with little character, with no traditions and with not much choice. Every week that I visit these alleys, I find that more and more of them has disappeared…
The thing about the future is that is seems to happen on time and not wait for us to be ready to receive it. And always things appear to be later than we think, don’t they?
Today I was with a friend on a photo walk in an old Shanghai neighborhood condemned to demolition and we saw that from week to week homes were being demolished leaving in the rubble, shoes, clothing, old furniture, toys… It would seem that people had very little time to pack up and leave their homes before they were destroyed and we wondered at the levels of stress this must have caused a family that lived there possibly all their lives. Change is often associated with pain, even if it was a change were seeking all along.
Behind and right next door to the glitz and glamour of Shanghai, real people live their real lives in the old lanes. The first shock you get walking through the very old parts of town is the extreme narrowness of the alleys and the very small size of the overcrowded rooms people call home. It is quite a wake up call that I make sure I take myself through at least once a week so as not to be fooled by the fake reality that expats tend to exist in in a place like Shanghai.