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 cafĂ© 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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