Saturday, December 19, 2009


There are a couple of images that come to mind whenever people hear the word "Lebanon". For those of us who remember the 1980s and 2006, it might look like this:

or this:

For those of us whose images of the Middle East come from Aladdin or the Children's Illustrated Bible, it might look like this:

For those of us who live here, it looks something like this:

and this:

So normally I try and steer people away from both the war-torn and orientalist views of Lebanon--while they both have some roots in history, the present is a very different.

Of course, then there are times like this morning, when I was walking across the field to work, when I turn the corner to see...a man walking a giant camel. Named Amadou. (The camel, not the man) Apparently, Amadou lives right behind my house! As you all can imagine, I'm psyched. I don't have to go to Egypt for my camel ride--or at least I don't have to ride on a camel in Egypt. Alhamdoulilah.

Side note: Does anybody know the rules for citing photographs in blogs? Clearly these are not all mine--although many of you may remember my stint as a 7-year-old war photographer back in '87. I feel a little silly for asking in this Google age, but I'm curious as to what the standard is.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beirut birthday

Birthdays are always a little bit strange. There's definitely an element of "hey, look at me!" that feels just a little unseemly...rather akin to when one is, say, writing a blog about her travels. Birthdays abroad are even stranger creatures, because generally you're with a group of people whom you don't know particularly well and there's artificial pressure for the gaeity and merry-making.

That being said, my 30th birthday in Lebanon was fantastic. It was touch and go there for a bit...the karma gods must have gotten wind of my plans to "call in sick" for my Saturday classes so that I could just stay in Beirut and actually made me sick. (side note: I teach Monday-Thursday and Saturday. I have Fridays and Sundays off. Two sabbaths in a row is what makes Judeo-Christian or Judeo-Muslim countries work. Muslim-Christian sabbaths? Not so compatible.) Luckily, my father had plied me with antibiotics before the trip, and so I was able to treat myself immediately and only felt sick for one and a half days. On Friday (my actual birthday) I came down to Beirut for a walk along the Corniche (a beautiful seaside path that curls around the city) and dinner with Lily and Trevor and headed back up to the Chouf at a very responsible hour as is befitting my newly acquired maturity that comes with living for three decades.

Saturday, I taught my class and slogged through the torrential downpour to my friend Amal's house in Bakleen. Amal is Sheikh Sami's assistant and an all-around amazing woman. She and her family (her mother, her sister-in-law Houda who speaks better English than I do, despite never having left the Chouf, her niece Gigi, and her brother) made Brazilian beans and rice and a pineapple-pistachio birthday cake, and we sat in their very cozy kitchen and chatted. I left from their house to go to Beirut, where I met Sarah, Lily, Tevor, James, Emma, and Rena for dinner at Le Chef, which serves cheap and delicious "working man" food. For those of you who are into this sort of thing, this is the one restaurant where Anthony Bourdain got to eat before he was evacuated in 2006. For those of you who are not into that sort of thing, sorry for wasting your time. Several bottles of wine later, we ended up in Hamra at a series of bars. There Trevor and I invented a drink (a variation on the "car bomb" in which a shot of Arak is dropped into a pint of Almaza beer) whose name I shall not repeat, as it is very far outside the realm of political good taste. Also, I am aware that 95% of my readership is family. I promise that nothing occured which would bring shame to any of you.

Which brings me to today, day 2 of my fourth decade of life. The rain is gone (but threatening to come back), my head is on my shoulders, and I'm ready to go.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Trips and Tribulations

This past weekend was something of a milestone for me. I had my first visitors (Lily and Trevor, up from Beirut for a village weekend) and I rented my first car (which we used to go to a sad little grotto in the next town over, the neither sad nor little Barouk Cedar Reserve, and the palace at Beiteddine). Driving in Lebanon was surprisingly easy (although granted, it was a Sunday) and the feeling of liberation was tremendous. It was money well spent!

I was coming off of this lovely weekend on Monday when they asked me at school to bring in 2 passport pictures for my work visa. I was a bit puzzled, seeing as I had already given them passport photos (and my passport!) for this very reason on November 3rd, but brought them anyway. They then ushered me into a car and we drove to the gendarmerie at Beiteddine, which looks just like you would imagine a Lebanese bureaucratic center to look like...a courtyard piled with construction remnants and cast-off desks, offices crowded with people and papers, and stamps for everything. I (still) don't speak Arabic, and my handler from the school only speaks broken French, but I did understand when they pulled out a brand new work visa application for me...nothing had been done since I turned in my passport! They then told me it would be 20 days to process my visa, which means that my tentative "Christmas in the Netherlands/Paris" plans won't come to fruition.

I was beyond frustrated, and so I used the only weapon in my arsenal suitable for confrontation with unjust authority. Reader, I cried. I didn't burst into tears--that wouldn't have suited the occasion. Rather, it was more of a silent protest wherein a single tear would slip down my cheek every 2 minutes or so. They had the effect of everyone (including the commandant) trying to pacify me, which probably meant empty promises on their part--but at least it got me noticed. This makes me sound manipulative, but in my defense it was 2/3 genuine emotion and frustration and 1/3 self-awareness. I was really excited about seeing Molly and Edwin, not to mention Amsterdam, Paris, and the Vermeers!

It's another lesson in inshallah, which means God willing. Maybe I will get my passport back in 10 days and be able to buy a last-minute ticket, or perhaps it is the will of the Almighty that I spend Christmas in the Levant. We shall see.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pictures (at long last)

This is what the road to my village looks like.

After arriving at the Cedar Reserve (only 13 km from my house--that's like 8 feet!), but before reading the part of the brochure that said "Collecting any part of the cedar (especially cones) is strictly prohibited." For the record, I found this branch already broken on the ground.

It was awfully cold and we bid a speedy retreat.

A briefly sunny view from the Cedar Reserve.

I (sort of) get around

I know that I already mentioned the central operating principle of finding places in Beirut (and most of Lebanon): if have to ask where it is, you should have been born here. Or at least speak Arabic that's not repeating where you think you want to go over and over again in a bad accent with no other explanation. OK, perhaps they've got me on the second part.

This, rather predictably, has gotten me into situations that end in
a) bemused but empathetic eye-rolls and smiles from the cab driver once we get to where we're going
b) a taxi door being shut with just a wee bit more force than would be considered strictly necessary (or polite)
c) meandering taxi rides that don't get me where I need to go, leading to...
d) multiple taxi rides
e) hitchhiking
and finally, but only once,
f) tears.

I am happy to report that the ratio of successful arrivals to near disasters is steadily increasing. I especially thought about it tonight when I went to Beirut to have dinner with Kelly (and drop off papers to get a Syrian visa) and it took me 2 taxis, a door slam, and 3 kind people to help me get where I was going. The upside is that I now know that Haigazian University is on Hamra St, and that it's Arabic pronunciation is nowhere near what I would have imagined.

Poco a poco, or as they say here, shway, shway.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A few thank yous

The first, most noticeable thank you goes out to my friend Betsy from Greensboro, who sent me this lovely postcard of a banner! Yes, that’s Lebanon that you see in the background. The picture looks like it was taken in the Cedars Reserve, which is about 13 miles from my house. Betsy has a blog called The Beautiful Mundane, which (as its name suggests) is full of lovely sights and sounds. Betsy is a great curator. She’s also a great documentarian (if you’re at all interested in the ins and outs of modern Quakerism and its different branches, may I recommend her film Can We All Be Friends?), an eco-entrepreneur (her eco-friendly laundry soap is addictive—buy now and buy often!), a brilliant marketer, and all-around wonderful human being.

As long as I’m doling out the praises (and also bearing in mind that 90% of the people who read this are family who already know about his blog), I also want to say thank you to my uncle Ned, who gave me a shout-out on his blog after my first entry. Ned created the website and has been blogging since before the word blog even existed. That, my friends, is no exaggeration: his archives go back to April 1996. Ned is another wonderful curator of interesting things and ideas. His professional interests are of the technological variety, but his non-professional (unprofessional?) interests are wide-ranging and, well, interesting. Alchemy, geography, robotics, crowd sourcing, fiction, and even the occasional simian feces-flinging joke: it’s all there.

So go out and read, and tell them that Sarah sent you.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I see the moon

I can almost guarantee that my commute home last night was better than your commute home. It hasn’t gotten cold yet here, but there’s a definite nip in the air, and I walked home past the terraced olive grove under a clear sky and a full moon. During my walk, I kept on thinking about a Federico García Lorca poem that we read—Lorca, of course, poor, doomed, tragic Lorca, one of the first casualties of Franco’s forces when they came to Andalucia. Lorca, whose fascination with gypsies (I know I’m supposed to say the Roma, but it just doesn’t translate well from Spanish, and besides they were called gypsies in the thirties before anyone knew any better) seems both quaint and fierce nowadays. It’s a poem about the full moon, who sees a young gypsy boy asleep outside. It’s actually (like most poetry involving gypsies) quite sad and morbid, but I defy you read the line, “Huye, luna luna luna” without shivering a little with delight. And that’s what I was doing on the way home.: looking at the moon, looking at the moonlight on the mountains and the olive grove, whispering “huye luna luna luna” to myself, and shivering with delight all the way.

La luna vino a la fragua

con su polisón de nardos.

El niño la mira, mira.

El niño la está mirando.

En el aire conmovido

mueve la luna sus brazos

y enseña, lúbrica y pura,

sus senos de duro estaño.

Huye luna, luna, luna.

Si vinieran los gitanos,

harían con tu corazón

collares y anillos blancos.

Niño, déjame que baile.

Cuando vengan los gitanos,

te encontrarán sobre el yunque

con los ojillos cerrados.

Huye luna, luna, luna,

que ya siento sus caballos.

Niño, déjame, no pises

mi blancor almidonado.

Cómo canta la zumaya,

¡ay, cómo canta en el árbol!

Por el cielo va la luna

con un niño de la mano.

Dentro de la fragua lloran,

dando gritos, los gitanos.

El aire la vela, vela.

El aire la está velando.

Local Knowledge

So far as I can tell, the general philosophy of navigating Beirut (and Lebanon in general) is based on a single precept: if you can’t find your way, you should have been born here. Or, in my case, you should at least be able to pronounce the landmark closest to where you’re going. (My batting average is shamefully low on that count.) Streets, if they’re labeled at all, aren’t labeled according to the names on the map. Building numbers seem to be non-existent. I won’t give you my ever-expanding list of mishaps that have come as a result of this—or tell you how many items on that list have ended in tears—but the system does make you feel just a little smug once you finally (FINALLY) figure it out on your 5th attempt.

Mary Pipher (author of The Middle of Everywhere, a book about refugees that I highly recommend) said, “Every day in a foreign country is like final exam day.” I have to say, I agree, and the exam is on local knowledge. Thus far in my stay, I’ve learned the following:

  • the shortcut up the hill to avoid walking on the main road
  • that buses from Beirut to Semqaniyeh don’t run on Sundays (this I learned the hard way)
  • which vegetable stand sells swiss chard and beets
  • that the Yago Roastery is a magical place that roasts and grinds coffee and all manner of spices
  • that Safa Chicken is the preferred shawarma joint among the teachers, narrowly edging out Big Momma’s
  • NEVER to get into an elevator around 2:00 pm or 6:00 pm, as the electricity often cuts off around those hours
  • that saffron is gathered in the spring
  • that I can order a beer while checking my email at the internet cafe
  • there’s a series of roads that lets you circumnavigate the town, as opposed to one the one (super busy) main road

I have yet to learn:

  • an easy way to get fuel for my stove
  • at what intervals the buses to/from Beirut actually come and go. “Sit by the side of the road and hope” is not great traveling strategy.
  • where to buy fresh olive oil and honey (everyone seems to have it in their homes, and whenever I ask where they bought it, they just offer to give me some)
  • who the non-skeevy car rental agencies are

I’d give myself a 52%.

I love local knowledge. I don’t think I’m alone in this. In New York, I loved knowing which subway car to get on so that the exit was right at your feet at your stop. I loved deciding which bars would fit which mood. I loved jumping on buses without having to even glance at a map. I loved directing my parents to order this appetizer and that entree from the menu. Local knowledge makes us, well, locals, and the parts of our brain that once struggled to figure out every day tasks are now freed up for ennui and judging tourists (or helping them, as is the case more often than not both here and in New York).

But not having local knowledge is pretty thrilling, too. Where will I eat? Well, what’s around this corner and behind this door? How do I get there from here? Well, where’s the closest landmark that I can pronounce intelligibly? How long will it take me to get there? Damned if I know, but I’m along for the ride.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Beirut, a mini dramatis personae and way more information about last week’s itinerary than you really need to know.

Pictures will come, I promise! I know that you’re sick and tired of me complaining about the molasses-on-a-frosty-morning-like speed of my internet, but it really does take a long time to upload pictures.

One of the ways that I used my Adha holiday was to finally get a handle on Beirut. This finally happened for a couple of reasons, namely that I finally had time to invest a couple of afternoons in just wandering and that I finally have friends in Beirut. My first friend is another Sarah who works for an American NGO here. Sarah graciously offered me use of her couch for crashing purposes and took me out on the town.

Sitting in a bar for the first time after a month in the village, I felt like a new person. I don’t typically think of myself as someone who needs alcohol to have a good time (cue the ABC after-school special music), but I did miss environments where men and women of more or less the same age could mingle without it being fraught. (Many Druze men—the religious ones, who use the title “Sheikh”—aren’t allowed to shake hands with a non-related woman or ride alone in a car with her.) I’m not going to lie, either—the bourbon tasted really, really good.

My friend Lily from New York is also here. It’s really nice to have her here, especially because our travel stars often align. We met in Dakar in 2004 (the only two Quakers in all of Senegal, so far as I could tell) and randomly ended up in Lebanon at the same time. It’s been wonderful to have a “pre-existing” friend, especially someone with whom I’ve already traveled! Lily is an excellent fellow wanderer, and so we’ve meandered through several Beirut neighborhoods in a quest to get to know the city. We walked from Hamra (the neighborhood where American University of Beirut is) to Pigeon Rocks (islands with natural stone arches and lovely little grottos) and along the Corniche (a walking path that goes along the lip of the Mediterranean) to the downtown area (devastated by the civil war and rebuilt into a pedestrian mall area dotted with designer boutiques) and Gemmayze (the East Village of Beirut). Lily’s girlfriend Suzy is a filmmaker in New York but she lived in Beirut for several years, so it’s been nice to take advantage of some of her contacts and meet more people through her.

Finally, there’s Kelly, who is the other English Language Fellow (ELF) in Lebanon. She teaches at Hagassian University (an Aremenian university whose classes are nominally all in English) in Beirut. This past Saturday, we got on a tour bus packed with student members of the Hagassian Heritage Club and had a tour of Northern Lebanon. It was pretty cool—we saw old forts, salt drying beds, an amazing monastery in the very dramatic Qadisha valley, and an artificial lake with the biggest fake Christmas tree I’ve ever seen. It was really funny to be on a bus full of students who were only marginally interested in talking to Kelly and me, but we entertained ourselves quite well.

OK: you’re probably as tired of reading this as I am of writing. I’ve been sitting at my computer frantically typing lesson plans all day. The upshot: Lebanon is beautiful and friendly, and I’m finally learning my way around Beirut! I’m becoming an excellent local tour guide (ahem, ahem) for anyone who wants to come my way!

The Perils of Over-Poeticizing

As many of you know, Eid-al-Adha was last week. I had the entire week off (rather blissfully, it must be said) and really enjoyed seeing friends in Beirut and generally being a bum.

Also as many of you probably know, Islam uses a lunar calendar, which means that the month in which Adha begins is based upon when the new moon rises—specifically, it’s always 10 days after the first crescent moon. Nights have been crisp and clear here, and there was something incredibly thrilling about watching the crescent grow larger and larger out of my window each evening before it set into the mountains.

I was walking home from the internet café a few nights ago, and saw that there was a spotlight pointing directly into the path of the waxing crescent moon. It was so lovely—this beam of light going into the sky and landing in the path of the moon. I went down to the store an hour later, and the beam of light was parallel to Orion’s belt. I thought about how much the Arab/Islamic world had contributed to astronomy and silently congratulated whatever holy person had arranged for the spotlight to raise our awareness like this.

The next night, I walked to the gym. I noticed that I was getting closer and closer to the spotlight—and when I turned the corner, there was the source: the brand-spankin’-new KFC that had just opened.

I was happier in my ignorance. There’s probably a lesson there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's that time...

It's officially been a month, which means that it is high time to have a blog. I wish that I could promise coherent entries, reliably posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and full of pithy observations about Lebanese society, but if you're reading this, you know that that is highly unlikely. I will instead promise to post as often as I can and to not descend into the "I ate this today" level. Oh, hell. Actually, I take it all back. I make no promises.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I will probably go to my friend Amal's house to eat tabbouleh and baba ganoush, just like the Pilgrims did. In my many years of missing holidays (actually only 3, thank you very much) I've found that it's easier to do something that's totally unholiday-like rather than trying for a feeble imitation. Adha (the major Druze celebration) is happening on Friday, so at least there's a little air of festivity. Granted, this air of festivity mostly takes the form of fireworks being set off from apartment balconies without ceasing...which, I suppose, is better than how they celebrate Adha (called Tabaski) in Senegal. I guess that fireworks are marginally less irritating than sheep.

Since this is a blog, I suppose that I should start with a top ten things that I've learned about Lebanon in the past month, in no particular order:

10. This is something that I kind of knew already, but everyone in Lebanon is incredibly welcoming. Everyone. If they know one word of English, it is "Welcome!" and they say it constantly. Within seconds of knowing someone, you nearly always have an invitation to drink coffee or pass by their house or to eat (see #9) and visit.

9. Everyone is defined by their religion/ethnic group. Again, I knew this before, but it's been reinforced over and over again. Only within the last several months have people been able to get their sect removed from their identity cards. The Chouf, where I live, is a bastion for the Druze, a tiny religious minority found in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. The Druze split off from the Sunnis in the 12th century, and have a reputation for being somewhat secretive and closed to outsiders

8. The mustache is not a good way to identify people. Practically every man has a very prominent mustache--it's simply not a very distinctive feature.

7. Again, chalk this up under things I knew already, but the food is amazing. Good food is everywhere, and people are very proud of it: tabbouleh (the secret is not to use little to no bulger wheat and a good proportion of mint to parsley), freshly harvested olives, baba ganoush, capseh (a rice dish), lentils, manaqeesh, and countless unnamed dishes.

6. Related to numbers 7 and 10, people will feed you until cannot eat anymore, and even just a little bit more after that. After a long lunch at my friend Maha's house, and after my third avowal that not a single bite more could possibly pass my lips, she literally picked up a spoon and did "here comes the airplane" into my mouth.

5. There are absolutely no discernible traffic rules. I have yet to see any lanes painted on the roads, any evidence of seatbelt laws, any no-passing zones, any turn signals, or any stop signs. There are traffic lights only in Beirut, and people largely ignore them.

4. Lebanon has amazing levels of language proficiency. Everyone is at least bilingual in either Arabic and English or Arabic and French (standard education is done in either English or French), and many people are trilingual. A standard conversation will have elements of all three languages mixed in together.

3. Everyone will tell you how difficult Arabic is to learn within 3 minutes of meeting you. And it is. This is simple fact. That being said,

2. Everyone will be very gracious if you try and speak Arabic, even if you are in your "demented two-year-old phase of language acquisition in which you point to things, name them, and expect lavish amounts of praise. Also simple fact. And I'm not naming names here.

1. This seems like a terrible way to wrap up a top ten list, and this really is in no way the most important fact about Lebanon to me, but the internet is infuriatingly slow. One of the side effects of having your infrastructure regularly targeted by invading/occupying neighboring countries is, I suppose, underperforming internet speeds. We're talking 1997-era speeds for my home connection, when it works. Skype with video is sadly impossible and it also makes sending emails difficult, as I never know if my connection will last.

This is to in no way discourage you, my friends and family, from emailing me, just please be understanding if the reply takes a little while. Also: the postal service works! My address is c/o Sh. Sami Abilmona / Irfan Establishment / B.O. 04/2010/1503 / Simkanieh, Chouf / Lebanon

This is becoming a much longer post than I had intended, so in the meantime, I wish you an Adha Mubarak and Happy Thanksgiving--celebrate with turkey, sheep, and fireworks, and know that I wish dearly that I were with you!

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