A Lebanese Philanthropist

Interview with Ayad Nasser

13 MAY 2017,
Ayad Nasser
Ayad Nasser

When asked about his origins, Ayad Nasser answers he is from “worldistan”, a citizen of the world. For him the world is not ours, we are just visitors and our bounding duty is to respect our host, the earth, and everything in it. Ayad Nasser, an investor from Lebanon renowned in the real estate industry, has forged a vision beyond borders and realized that every piece on this earth is our shared home. Yet, when it comes to his Lebanese origins, he has a keen belief that we must always define ourselves as just Lebanese, without any reference to religion or political affiliation. For him, we are first humans and then Lebanese, as simple as that. Labeling limits us as humans, the less labels we identify with the more we can accept each other. We must accept that unity is our most important identity as humans and as Lebanese. Nasser further elaborates on his vision and perception of nationalism in the interview below.

You introduce yourself as a citizen of the world, yet you have a keen interest in improving and investing in Lebanon. How far would your efforts take you to fulfil your vision for your home country and how do you explain your devotion to Lebanon in regard to your cosmopolitan identity?

I surely believe that the world is for all of us. Yet, since I was born in Lebanon and was fortunate enough to prosper financially in this country, I regard it as my duty to give back to Lebanon. I would give and help any other place as much as this country, but since Lebanon is not appreciated by its people, I feel it has a similar story to mine. As a person abandoned by his own family, I struggled against every obstacle and hardship and transformed negativity into positivity. I defied circumstances and believed in myself as a human, I successfully improved my situation and prospered after a bitter childhood. I learned to lose so others can win, others’ happiness has always mattered to me. Lebanon faces the same fate as mine, its people are turning a blind eye to the beauties of this place, they are shattered by religion and politics and destroying every hope of rising from the ashes. So, I owe it to this country that gave me more than anyone else did to encourage positive change and influence people to become responsible for their home. My advice for fellow Lebanese is to help our country and contribute to a better future for our kids.

Would you be discouraged by people not willing to change or those who do not share your vision?

If I was discouraged by my parents I would not be where I am today. I learned to give without expecting anything in return because my parents were supposed to give and support me and they did not; thus, I learned to expect nothing from others. What I am committed to achieve is to open the eyes of the citizens in this country, I would not say Lebanese because to deserve this country we must respect each other first, share with others, care for others, give without taking back. This applies to all countries, not just Lebanon, we must deserve our home no matter where it is. When I feel tired and drained, I resort to nature in Lebanon or abroad and enjoy a modest time off in simple environments where I sit with animals and contemplate nature. I abstain from going to luxurious places to refresh as I have a firm belief that simplicity and nature affects us way better than conspicuous consumption and luxury retreats. We must wake up to the value of simplicity. So, I do not expect people to encourage me, but me to encourage them.

Your idealism has been labeled as platonic. Do you see that living for others and sharing with others is as ideal as people portray it, or is it a label they hide behind as an excuse for selfishness and greed?

When people usually label me as idealist, I ask them whether respecting and caring for each other is that difficult or far-fetched. If we wake up everyday in the morning with a resolution to greet everyone we would meet and help at least one person in one way or another, as simple as putting a smile on their face, only then we will understand that what we call ideal are just simple acts of kindness towards others, and the effect it would have on us and the country is surprisingly satisfying. if we regard this as ideal, then we must reconsider ourselves as humans, because such “idealism” is our most basic duty towards our country and our world. If we regard this as platonic, it means we are not ready to be humans. A simple smile has more power than any effort we would make, it is a simple gift to ourselves and to others. By fixing and improving our country we can improve the whole world to which we belong. The significance of what we do here and now echoes beyond countries and borders.

As a father, do you raise your kids on the same ideals and principles you follow yourself?

Yes, of course. But I also teach them to forge their own principles, which would be far better than mine. What I ask of them is to always be humane in whatever they do and say. They must learn to be humans before religion, before academic achievement, before money, before family. I do not even encourage them to be like me but to be like themselves, because I might make mistakes sometimes and they must know how to defend their humanity before defending me or anyone else they love. Never treat someone badly for the sake of anyone you love because then you will be defending your ego and your arrogance. Always abide by your human values. I never encourage them to be better than their friends, whether at school, at work or at life in general. What makes you different is how you treat others. As for schooling, I always tell my kids that the major purpose of school is not just academic achievement, you go to school to become a cultured person above all, to become open minded. I keep reminding them that if they are studying for the sole purpose of becoming the best doctor, the best manager, the best banker, the best engineer at the expense of being the best human and the best citizen, whatever academic achievement they may attain is of no value. How we use education makes the real difference.

How would you convince sceptics that idealism becomes a living reality with simple actions of love and dedication to others?

The examples we need to set for others to encourage positive change are nothing more than respecting our peers, greeting our neighbors, being respectful on the roads and sharing with others. From such simple acts, we will feel much more positive about ourselves and initiate a country-wide chain of change. Encourage institutions to reward respectfulness among colleagues and punctuality not just at work but on every occasion they are committed to. Rewarding good citizenship and care for others encourages human values among Lebanese and every human being. As Lebanese and humans we must learn to incorporate a simple and modest life, because this way we can eliminate jealousy and greed. Focusing on appearances and show off limits our potential for a better country and a better world. If we share what we spend on luxuries and appearances to improve the country and help others, we can initiate real change.

What image of Lebanon do you want the world to see?

I want all Lebanese to be models for respect, humbleness, simplicity, kindness and authenticity before anything else. This country is blessed with thousands of years of culture, we are just four million people, which makes it an easy task to implement sharing and respect in everyday life. The wealth of our culture must motivate us to preserve and appreciate it and respect diversity. If we destroy such treasures for the sake of money and personal interests, we will lose our identity and history.

Patriotism vs cosmopolitanism, how do they complement each other based on you own experience? And does improving Lebanon have a far-reaching effect beyond the borders of what we call home?

My patriotism is not just for my country but for the world, for earth and for nature. I belong to the world, but since I was born here I would like to take care of my country and improve it as much as I would like to do the same for other places in the world. The change I want to see in my country, I want to see in the whole world. We must start where we stand, and the mission I dedicate myself to achieve is borderless. Respect and kindness is not about patriotism but about humanity. By setting an example of respect in Lebanon, I am helping the world, and by helping a sick country is the same as helping as sick fellow human. We can affect people beyond Lebanon. If I fix just Lebanon, it will not be my success, through Lebanon we can influence change everywhere in the world. We can see how the Arab world is being fragmented and destroyed. Muslims, Christians, Jews and many other religious sects have lived in this area accepting each other and growing in knowledge and prosperity for so long. Unfortunately, religion was abused and diversity blemished for the sake of power and personal interests. Change starts from accepting and respecting others.

Concerning the environment and the ongoing debate on sustainability, does your commitment to the world and people include an equal consideration for the environment and nature? Do you believe in a vision that cares for humanity, sustains progress and preserves nature at the time without falling victims to our ego and becoming a threat to nature?

The air we breathe is the most important thing we need to survive every second. For me, the environment is divine, if I had to choose a religion I would choose nature. Killing a tree, you are killing nature, you are killing a spirit. We must give priority to nature, we must learn to respect nature while at the same time thrive as humans. We cannot say we need to grow and survive at the expense of nature. We have made this planet a living hell, we destroyed what is beautiful to enjoy fake luxuries and forge a false happiness based on materialism and appearances. We must raise conscious generations able to understand the priority of nature before industrial growth. It is not about believing in that vision, it is about adopting it as the only alternative we have in the face of the systematic destruction of our home. Nature is our great teacher, the wisdom in nature includes every virtue humanity needs to recover from this decay; respect, love, appreciation, consideration, giving, sharing, acceptance, diversity, harmony, authenticity and so on.

Amid the frustrating living conditions among Lebanese people and the political turmoil all around, do you find that people are still able to accept and join this movement of sharing and cooperation? How do you manage to show them that your vision reaps positive results?

Being positive is the only thing that could help us in such times. We are obliged to respect others, we are all equal on this planet. What I can do on a personal level is to be an example for others, I abide by my principles without prioritizing my personal interests and disregarding other people’s rights to exist and prosper. This country suffers from corruption as well as its people, and to overcome this obstacle we must put our leaders to check and avoid political affiliations. We must recognize the weight of the choices we make when we choose our leaders, because such choices determine our future and the country’s future. That is what I keep saying to fellow citizens. People are eager for change, but it will take a considerable time before the Lebanese can truly implement such vision and change their practices. We must unite beyond politics and beyond religion, we have more in common than differences. This is a vision that must be adapted by the whole world, not just in Lebanon. It is about time we understand as humans that we are all one, unity defines us. The civil war has inflicted countless obstacles and immense destruction on many levels, Lebanese people need time to overcome the burdens of war and be ready to resume from where they had stopped before the war; in other words, to make their country “The Switzerland of the Middle East” again.

What is Urban Dawn project?

Beautify the city and unify the people is the motif of this project. Through art we can communicate our message to reach everyone, as art is part of heritage. We invited 50 international artists to express themselves through graffiti on different walls across Lebanese cities, Tripoli, Ouzaai, Burj Hammoud, Ashrafiyeh. This project opened the gates between Lebanese and non-Lebanese, as international artists believed in the initiative we are doing for the country, where the civil war mentality still permeates the overall mood among the different parties and sects following the bitter civil war during the 70s and 80s. We still fear others because of their political and religious affiliations. Fear, hatred, jealousy will never be a recipe for anything good, this country belongs to everyone. So, my devotion stems for my hope to bequeath a country based on peace, equity and mutual love to my kids, instead of just giving them money, houses, land and material wealth. I want them to feel that they belong to Lebanon not as a nation but as a beautiful piece of paradise. In addition to such projects, I also hold roundtables at universities to communicate and promote this vision for Lebanon among young generations who hold the key for change and to integrate their own voices in this vision. To know more about the Urban Dawn project, see the video below the article.

A final note

In Lebanon, everyone is trying, especially young generations. The people are putting a lot of effort and bringing new visions to improve their country. Despite all the hardships that befell this country, we still see examples of visionary people who work hard to steer Lebanon to more hopeful shores. People come from all over the world to explore our rich culture and enjoy the upbeat spirit of this place. The most important to our countries and our world is to be a role model in our society in terms of respect, care and consideration for others. We cannot thrive as humans unless we start changing ourselves first to create a chain of change across our own country and beyond. The focus on competition perpetrated in modern society is one major obstacle in the face of change towards the better. Competition breads corruption, greed, jealousy and hatred and hinders the evolution of a society where everyone matters and everyone is granted a decent and equitable life. The only competition we must adopt is to become better humans every day and care for others more than we care for ourselves. When we ensure the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us, only then we can experience a genuine prosperity and happiness ourselves. Money and show off are doing way more harm to our society than we can understand. Money and material belongings never make us better than others, but our deeds do.
A simple and modest life beholds the most pleasures. Genuine happiness lies in simplicity.