Monday, October 8, 2012

Middle East Love Fix

Middle East Love Fix by Bruce Northam
An Interview with philanthropist Wafa Kanan
This article was published: Monday, October 01, 2012 (original article link)

My travels have introduced me to many veiled saints, but my connection to Wafa Kanan, who I’ve worked with in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, remains a secular blessing. Born and raised in a warring Lebanon, she now resides in Los Angeles, the base for the ALO Cultural Foundation, a non-profit charity she founded that funds social and health programs for underserved communities worldwide. The foundation also surgically reconstructs the bodies and faces of children with severe genetic abnormalities and simultaneously nurtures harmony in the Middle East. Kanan makes a difference one child and one case at a time—trusting that loyalty can transform violence.

The word alo is a warm Middle Eastern greeting. This Los Angeles prime-time news segment says it all, and might bring happy tears to your eyes…

* * *

Q. With what’s happening in the Arab world right now (Arab Spring turned Brutal Fall), how are you redirecting ALO’s mission?

A. Each situation requires intense controversial discussion that gives flight to ideological breakthroughs. Similar to my foundation, ALO Magazine (a publication echoing the foundation’s message, changes with every issue. We build our content to address issues transparently and bridge cross-cultural understanding. What’s happening in the Middle East is no different from what happened in America in the 1900’s, or in Europe centuries ago.

History repeats itself, as the world strives for equality. Unfortunately, equality and its sister—democracy—are sometimes nothing but words. Politicians use them as rhetoric, building on weak foundations. It boils in people’s hearts to breathe free, and when they do breathe again, the opportunists yank them into another cycle of madness. The questions remain: Is there true democracy and equality anywhere? How do you define it internationally?

Q. As Al Qaeda seeks to undermine efforts to build U.S. and Arab relations, do you think it’s possible that the Arab world itself will rise up against such activism?

A. Let’s make it clear first, before I answer this question, that I do not claim to be a political pundit. Personally, I see vital issues that are being missed by both the media and government. People choose to ignore the fact that there is a difference between the policies of a government and the will of the people. Every government has its own supporters and outlaws. Minority groups should have rights and a voice for peaceful, positive change.

We all know how bad news travels fast; controversy sells. This is a huge challenge for Middle Easterners. You must understand the culture of a country and its religious structure, and study its laws to determine the validity of its government. ALO knows that solutions are not resolved by war, but with real development: education, awareness, and social advancement. But it never happens quickly enough.

What happens when a government ignores essential rights for its people? Resentment rises. What happens when the world ignores basic human rights, religion, and history? Revolutions are launched by underground militias in countries that have no other choice but to follow leaders of oppression. Then, greed rules.

Only when all religions and religious leaders begin a true dialogue, while promoting understanding and tolerance, will we rise as one against anyone and anything that destroys humanity.

We should invest our international grants intelligently to bridge the gap and connect people to our common humanity. Violence and war are not the answer. That is why the ALO Cultural Foundation focuses on cultural diplomacy and bridging both sides through philanthropy and involvement—we are connected by our actions and not by our spoken words.

Q. What do most U.S. citizens fail to comprehend about Arab people?

A. If I must categorize, most Westerners have a lack of knowledge about the region. Innocent ignorance that means unfamiliarity with Arabs’ culture, diversity, and customs. In the States, Americans take for granted their lifestyle and independence, and it seems from the surface, they want to run other countries with the same set of values. The Middle East is the source of a 5,000-year-old history that cannot be overpowered by Western methodology or ideology…but rather by contemporary interconnectivity.

Concerned citizens in the U.S. should help change the message sent by the government’s foreign policy, not just the 50 billion dollars changing hands annually. I’m talking about cultural understanding while accepting our differences. Most Arabs face challenges Westerners can’t comprehend. While the majority rules, that majority should be the people and not the government.

Never give up.

* * *

The ALO Cultural Foundation is making a difference;

* * *

Author: Bruce Northam, the writer and host of American Detour, has reported (mostly good news) from 125 countries on seven continents. His keynote speech, Street Anthropology, is a hit on campus and at corporate events and Governor’s Tourism Conferences. His book, Globetrotter Dogma, is an award-winning ode to freestyle wandering. Visit

Insights on U.S.-Middle Eastern Business Affairs

This is an article that appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Premier Traveler magazine.

Growing up in war-torn Lebanon, Wafa Kanan’s life story covers an unlikely transformation from underdog to overachiever. It was no small feat when as a young woman  raised by a conservative family, she had launched both a travel agency and an import/export business while obtaining college degrees in law and political science—all by the age of 19. But when the continuing conflicts in Beirut cost her these businesses, she decided to start a new life for herself in Los Angeles.

Since relocating in 1990, her list of accomplishments has continued to grow exponentially. In addition to successfully establishing ALO magazine (a nationally distributed lifestyle publication devoted to Middle Eastern Americans), she has worked closely with the governments of Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, the Sultanate of Oman and other countries in the Middle East to coordinate $5 million of public relations for the region. During these campaigns, Kanan stressed the importance of both philanthropic and media representation, noting, “When both work together concurrently, it makes a huge difference for the country.”

As president of the brand marketing firm Unique Image, she was careful to build its business model around this very concept. Working under the umbrella of both Unique Image and the ALO Cultural Foundation, she has worked with hundreds of nonprofit organizations, most recently ensuring the delivery of 1,000 hearing aids to underserved families in Lebanon under the “So Lebanon Can Hear” mission. When asked what the most difficult part of such a massive, international undertaking was, Kanan replied: “Devoting the time, efforts and financial resources to make this project a reality in a difficult economic climate, while keeping a profitable business model and leading a non-profit organization based on volunteers.”

One point of pride is Unique Image’s fruitful partnership with the Chambers of Commerce in Dubai and Oman. Her trailblazing strategizing was instrumental in their rapid development on the world stage. But difficulties can arise in the region and it’s sometimes necessary to be nimble in their wake. When dealing with the government of Egypt, for example, Kanan had a three-pronged model in mind that would enhance Cairo’s sustainability. It addressed job creation, media exposure and the continuation of humanitarian efforts she had begun with orphans in the country, thus improving their education. “However, in a meeting with the minister of social services, I knew immediately that the country was headed towards a major revolution,” she laments. “Our pro-bono efforts remain in limbo because of the government’s myopia towards philanthropy.” Still, she has high hopes for the nation and has kept a dialogue going so that one day they might return.

According to Kanan, the difference between a successful campaign and a flopped deal can all come down to who you know—the importance of networking cannot be understated. But rather than focusing on superficial connections via LinkedIn, she recommends trying to associate with others on a personal level when at all possible. Find like-minded people in your field, she says, and the movers and shakers will come to you. It’s because of this practice that she now counts the former vice mayor of Beirut as her close and personal friend. Both share an ambitious vision of a future Lebanon that’s not just free of conflict, but thriving. In 2006, the two played an important role in establishing sister city status between the cities of Los Angeles and Beirut. With food, fun and entertainment as the three tenets of Middle Eastern hospitality (something that is taken very seriously in the region), you’ll find it’s not all too difficult to make worthwhile connections when you’re a foreign visitor as long as you’re willing to put yourself out there.

On Travel

Between her various worldwide projects, Kanan finds herself flying an average of twice a month (airline miles are reserved for charity work, which she says makes it easy for a business traveler to give back). Regardless of the industry, she notes that we live in a global economy and recommends travel as a means to gain perspective that will bring something new to your work. Although she admits that the experience isn’t as glamorous as it once was— “Welcome reception for weary travelers and the sense of  hospitality are sorely missed at many domestic airports in particular, but also at many international airports”—she commends the cities that are still able to deliver an exceptional experience. Who, in her opinion, is at the top of the game? She gives Qatar high marks for its superior airport facilities in Doha and the eponymous airline for its “elite experience and unparalleled quality of service.”

Insider Business Advice

As an undisputed expert on Middle East-American business affairs, Wafa Kanan shares some of her valuable insight with Premier Traveler to help readers avoid any snafus along the way to a profitable business deal in the Middle East.

  • First and foremost, she cautions people against the erroneous belief that the region has one uniform culture. “Each country is proud of their nationality and they have high-esteemed ideas regarding who they are and where they come from. So, I believe learning about the culture should be one of the most important steps to doing business there. Otherwise your time and efforts can be misdirected and a waste.”
  • “Take a gift or some token of appreciation when visiting a home or a business.”
  • “For some cultures, a woman should not pay at a restaurant, even in a business setting; a man might get offended.”
  • “Hospitality is important, so accept it and make sure you return the gesture with a thank-you note.”
  • “Do not shake hands with covered women or attempt to touch or hug them. Make sure you keep your hands on your chest with gratitude when you greet a person. A woman should also not shake the hand of a man with religious customs unless he extends his hand first. In an open society where citizens enjoy religious freedom, the shaking of hands is perfectly acceptable, but observation of a culture is critical.”
  • “Do not plan a meeting outside the office if you mean to do serious business.”
  • “It is noticeable that most countries in the Middle East stress the importance of status, power, position and brand. They like to work with those who are on top of their game. Everyone loves a winner, right?”
  • “Work the corporate ladder but seek to meet the decision makers. Always compliment your counterparts and be yourself. Trust is a major part of the deal and if there is a sense of mistrust or dishonor, it’s a deal breaker.”
  • And what is the one common denominator she’s observed that ties all countries in the region together? It’s not at all dissimilar to what we’ll find at home. “Everyone wants to know what’s in it for them. It’s all about the end results.”

~ Ally Miola