Michael Karam: Doing the right thing a Lebanese obligation

Our columnist explains the Lebanese philosophy of wajbat - the duties employees are expected to carry out such as attending funerals or government press conferences - but which have a detrimental effect on productivity.

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Michael Karam

The Lebanese live by the philosophy of wajib, or duty (most commonly referred to in the plural, wajbat). Visiting relatives on religious holidays is doing one’s wajbat, as is entertaining guests, especially foreigners. To not do wajbat is ayb, a shame. Ayb is definitely not good.

The three-line whip of wajbat is paying condolences. I know a chief executive of one of Lebanon’s biggest companies who anxiously scans the death notices in the local press every day to ensure he is not caught out. Indeed, a decent chunk of what is left of Lebanon’s productivity is lost when employees take time off to attend funerals – which last three days to ensure no one gets away with not showing up – but few are the employers who will clamp down on the practice. Simply put, there are some things you can’t avoid.

Like a government press conference. Often a simple press release is all that is needed but to not put on a show would be ayb. The ministry deserves a bit of respect, and so last week, I trundled off to do a bit of wajbat at the headquarters of the Lebanese Press Association, where a Lebanese trade event in Europe next month was to be announced.

For the organisers, the most important thing is to ensure a good turnout. It doesn’t really matter who attends as no one actually listens to what is being said (there are normally transcripts of the speeches anyway). I would wager a full room of people rounded up off the street would be better than one half filled with industry experts. The important thing is to be seen to show up, the ultimate reason for performing wajbat.

Still, efforts are made to ensure the right people do show up and the ministry’s, or even better the president’s, name on an invitation will normally convince an editor to play it safe and send a junior reporter. Ditto local TV stations who will cover it, also out of wajib.

Last week’s media attendance was, I reckon, about 25 per cent with the rest of the audience made up of members of the delegation travelling to Europe. They turned up because they felt it was their wajib to put in an appearance.

An occasion of national importance such as this needs a well-drilled team, and in a precarious job market, it is easy to rustle up half a dozen doe-eyed beauties, normally fresh graduates, in black dresses stationed at the elevator.

One takes names, another makes sure the names are spelled correctly, yet another sees that business cards are dropped into the bowl and yet another points you in the direction of the conference room just in case you get lost.

Overseeing operations will also be a ministry representative, more often than not a formidable, and in most cases middle-aged, woman, there to ensure the show runs on rails, that the mics are set up and that the bottles of water are in place.

The minister will arrive followed by his retinue made up of a neatly dressed and slightly bookish woman with a clipboard, a harassed-looking aide and a close-cropped, uniformed bodyguard clutching a walkie-talkie. He will be shown to his seat where there will be more fussing over the angles of the microphones. Then the fierce woman from the ministry will give a nod and everyone will rise for the national anthem.

Last week, no one knew if we ought to sing or not, a comic moment inspired by someone, probably a keeno from the ministry, who clearly thought we should. At one point it looked as if we might just pull it off, but at line three most of us ran out of steam, and while a few brave souls ploughed on there was huge relief when it was all over.

The speakers, an industry association head, not one but two ministers, and a director general, then wrapped up their speeches in less than 30 minutes. All said the same thing, essentially that they were “proud to be taking Lebanese know-how to Europe”. There were no questions and so, wajbat done, we all sloped off into an adjoining room to wolf down a few canapés.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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