Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics; or the Translators' Dilemma

No, don't worry--this is not (and never will be) a political blog. I just don't have the heart for it.

But the recently-held municipal elections (and a well-timed Arabic lesson) got me thinking about something.

First, a little background. One of the things that makes Arabic such an elegant, poetic language (and one of its redeeming qualities in terms of ease of acquisition) is that the entire language is based on three letter roots: the most oft-used example is the root KTB. Kitab means book. Maktab means office (a place where writing happens). Kitabat means writing. Kitabut means discourse in written form. Are you starting to see a pattern here? But wait--kutbah means beads. Huh? Every root has a base meaning. According to one website I saw, the KTB root primarily communicates the concept of writing. But KTB doesn't just mean the idea of writing, it communicates the idea of binding together or joining, like stitches or beads on a string. And so writing is a way of binding letters into words and words into concepts. It is also a way of binding writer and reader together. Pretty cool, huh? And like I said, very, very elegant.

I like root words. A lot. This is something that I inherited from my family, although more often than not, the meticulously detailed word history that my father or grandfather would explain to me would turn out to be an example of fiction rather than actual etymological fact. Just ask my uncle Ned about kiosks.

Family quirks aside, sometime word roots can give you surprising insights into a culture. Most of you probably know already that the English word "politics" comes from the Greek root "polis", meaning "city". Politics is about how groups of people live together and govern their lives. The Arabic word that we translate as "politics" is "siyehsiyeh"--which has an SYS root. The base meaning of that particular root? "Control." In this sense, politics is less about how we live together and govern our lives, but how we control (ourselves and others).

Now, I don't want for this to sound patronizing at all--look at us Westerners, with our 'sivilization' and such. How evolved are we! We should really let the Arab world bask in the glow of our superior governing principles. Clearly, the practice of politics in the west (and present-day America in particular) doesn't always compare to the ideals set out by the root of our words. But it still is an interesting thought--the area of my brain that lights up when I hear the word politics is different from the area of a brain that lights up when it hears the word "siyehsiyeh," even if they are considered to be translations for each other.

I shall leave it up to more qualified minds than mine to decide how much language influences culture and vice versa.

Victory is Ours!

Forget the Palestine issue. Forget the Golan Heights. Forget Hezbollah. Forget Iraq.

There's a war that's brewing between Lebanon and Israel, and it's been simmering since I've been here. This week, peace finally broke out, and Lebanon won!

I'm talking, of course, about hommos*, the mashed chickpea spread that has shown up at every single potluck I've attended since 1995. The Lebanese have been all a-twitter at what they feel is the appropriation of their culture by the Israelis, who have proclaimed hommos a national dish and who were (until recently) the title bearers of the World Record for Largest Bowl of Hommos.

Well, my friends, all that changed this week. Just read this article ( and all will be explained.

Now, if only the Tabbouleh right-of-return issues were so easily solved...

*Not to be confused with Hamas, unless you are Sasha Baron Cohen and you are trying to be funny.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Order of Acquisition

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately, and especially how and when we acquire it. This is largely selfishly motivated, as I am about one month into Arabic classes with my amazing tutor Rima. Arabic is the first non-Indo-European language I’ve ever tried to learn, and it’s both intimidating and not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve toyed with the idea of blogging my Arabic progress, but I’m stymied by not having an Arabic font installed on my computer. I will say that I’ve got my possessives down (it’s a much more important feature of Arabic than it is of English) as well as my present tense verbs. Learning the past tense these past few weeks has felt like a huge step forward. At the very least, I just doubled my language capacity!

One of the big things I’ve been thinking about is how language shapes identity, and the personalities we form in other languages. Think of everything you do in your language (which, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume is English): you love, you work, you laugh, you form connections, you take in the world. These are the things people do in every language, in fact. When you learn a new language, though, you give up your ability to do these things that are so automatic to you—so necessary to your daily life—all at once. In her amazing book The Middle of Everywhere (about working with refugees—if I haven’t pushed this book on you yet, read it!), Mary Pipher wrote “Every day in a foreign country is like final exam day.” The amount of stress it can cause is immense. When I was first learning Spanish in Guatemala, I slept for 10 hours a night—minimum—because my brain was so exhausted. Even then, I had dreams in which I would be in a place surrounded by people who were speaking a language (not Spanish!) that I couldn’t understand. It was inescapable and, at the time, a little overwhelming. Thankfully, this phase only lasted for two weeks at most.

Here in Lebanon, things are a little different. First of all, I’m an English teacher, and English is the medium of instruction and interaction at my school. Secondly, and not unrelatedly, language education here is amazing. There’s a t-shirt that they sell in tourist shops that reads, “Hi! Keefik? Ça va?” (Keefik is “How are you?” if you’re talking to an Arabic-speaking woman—keefak for a man—and ça va you can probably puzzle out on your own) This is a very common greeting in Lebanon, and it reflects the fact that you will often hear Arabic, English, and French within the same conversation—often in the same sentence! Code-switching (the act of changing languages within a conversation) is even more impressive here than in the already impressively bilingual South Bronx. For this reason, even if your opening salvo for a conversation might be in Arabic, the odds are that the Lebanese person (the person sitting next to you on the bus/bar, your taxi driver, etc) you’re speaking to will respond in English. It’s been hard to work up a lot of language anxiety because everyone speaks my language!

Still, I am feeling adamant about learning Arabic, and I can feel a little defensive when my conversation partners automatically speak English back—especially in the (admittedly very limited) situations where my Arabic is better than their English! I also feel defensive when I ask a question in Arabic—for example, “Where is the school office?”—and the person I’ve asked answers with “Where are you from?” instead of with the information that I actually need to know. This is really a mark of admirable cultural curiosity and openness, I know, but there are times when I actually need to know something, and I’d rather not give my life story to get it!

To combat this defensiveness, I’ve taken a cue from CLL (Counseling Language Learning), a teaching methodology we learned in grad school. CLL suggests that adult students invent a new persona for their new language, in order to avoid the dissonance of not knowing how to do the basic things that make up our adult identities. This isn’t quite as removed from mainstream culture as you might think: Beyoncé (as good a role model as any) has famously talked about her stage personality “Sasha Fierce” in contrast to her more reserved authentic self. So, with Beyoncé’s approval, I’m trying this out. When I’m speaking Arabic, I’m no longer Sarah Gulley, mild-mannered English teacher from North Carolina on a fellowship in Lebanon. I’m Rena Ghassan, from Dar El Qamar. I feel a little strange discussing this in such a public forum—it feels a little bit like talking about having a Second Life account or a role-playing game habit wherein all of my unrealized ambitions can have free reign. But thankfully, I’m not going to tell you that Rena is a rock star or an elf queen or an elf rock star. She’s a student, leading not a terribly glamorous life. Although I should mention that she’s a student with such limited verbal skills—so perhaps I should consider making her a three-year old. Like all experiments, this might be doomed to failure and/or ridicule (keep any comments nice, please!), but we’ll see how it goes.

Billy Collins wrote about “great car of English itself” in the last line of “Consolation”—for right now, I’m changing back and forth between that comfortable sedan and an early-model, rattling, falling-apart-at-the-seams Mercedes taxi that is a staple of my Beirut life.

Nawruz (originally written on March 22nd but posted late!)

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Oh, spring has sprung—despite the mini cold snap that we’re facing this week. (Highs in the mid-60s! Heavens!) The clearest sign of spring (apart from the flowers blooming everywhere and blessedly long days) was a party that I went to last week. My friend D from Iran had a lovely gathering in her apartment last Saturday night to celebrary Nawruz, or Persian New Year. Her instructions (sent by text) were to arrive at her house by 7. Unfortunately, I missed the bus to Beirut (by 15 stinkin’ seconds!) and got there closer to 9. The sight that greeted me in D’s cozy, warm apartment was this:

Nawruz is celebrated every year when the earth is in a specific position in its revolution around the sun. This year, we reached that position at exactly 7:32 p.m and 13 seconds—a much more interesting New Year’s countdown than just plain old midnight. I missed the countdown (which the party followed via streaming radio from Iran) but apparently once the clock struck 19:32:13, everyone popped balloons and ate food from the specially prepared table. All of the foods and objects on the table begin with an “s” in Farsi—grass (or at least something green and growing, represented by the pineapple top) honey, oil, cookies, nuts (especially pistachios—yum!), and garlic. It was quite a feast, much of it brought from Tehran by D’s brother, who is visiting this week.

After some of the guests left, they served Koukou (made by D’s grandmother), an Iranian take on the Tortilla Española, but even more delicious: imagine a frittata with spinach, parsley, and other greens.

I understand why we celebrate our New Year at the first hint of the returning of the light—sometimes that first glimmer in the darkness is enough to sustain us and put us in a celebratory mood. But with Nawruz, the light is almost fully back, the flowers are in bloom, and the whole world (not just the light) is new for the New Year.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Reason #342 why I love Lebanon

The Lebanese American Elementary School has billboards that say, "We invented the alphabet, and we know how to teach it." How's that for marketing?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pictures, pictures, pictures! (UPDATED: Picture, picture, picture!)

So, I know that many of you (OK, really just my mom and dad) have been asking for pictures, and I finally have a way to get the pictures off of my camera. (Thanks to my mom and dad who sent it to me!)

Without any further ado, here is a picture of my part of Semqaniye, my village. For those of you keeping track at home, it's just beyond Beit Eddine (home to a lovely 18th century Druze palace) and Baaqlin (the largest village in the area). Semqaniye is nestled in a valley...looking at this picture, if you go further left, you go up up up a hill that takes you to the commercial center of the area, then to Walid Jumblatt's house in Mokhtara, then to the Cedar Reserves, and then across the mountain to the Bekaa Valley and then to Syria. If you continue going right, you descend to the Mediterranean Sea and Beirut.

In this picture, you can see my school (the green striped building in the center of the picture) and my apartment (the salmon striped building to the left of the school):

You can also see a bit of the olive orchard in front of my house to the left, and the secondary school just up the hill opposite. Notice too the first blush of color the trees on the hill...this picture was taken back in December. Now, the leaves are coming back, there are daisies blanketing the fields, and the frogs in the stream are singing full force outside my window every night.

OK--other photos will have to wait, unfortunately. Getting pictures uploaded at 3.8 kbps isn't the speediest process in the world, especially when the electricity cuts out halfway through, wiping out 2 hours of work! I've been trying to do it for the better part of a week, but to no avail--we'll see how this week's fancy Beirut internet cafés do.

Friday, February 5, 2010


OK, I know that it would have been much more appropriate to post these yesterday, on Darwin's birthday (Happy birthday Chuckie D, by the way!) but it wasn't in the cards.

So, in the spirit of the day between Darwin's birthday and Valentine's Day, I present to you these lovely cards, for the scientific romantic in all of us.

Happy V-Day, and lots of love to all of you!


(a postscript: I half-heartedly tried tracking down the original creator of these, but to no avail--if anyone can figure it out, please let me know!)


So...I didn't actually take these pictures. I've been huddling by various stoves in my apartment building for a number of reasons: for one, cement block construction is many things--versatile, cheap, ubiquitous in the Middle East--but it is not known for its insulation properties. For two, I've already seen 2 major car accidents (in the same place in front of the hospital that my school runs) this week, and I have no desire to put myself in the path of a Lebanese driver (to be fair, a driver of any nationality) with minimal control over their cars.

On a side note, since I've started driving more, I'd like to revisit the idea of Lebanese drivers. I think that you can make an argument that, as a country, Lebanese drivers are the among the worst in the world. There are no discernible traffic laws, no one wears seat belts (even children), people are not afraid to pass even on switchbacks and curve, and a general sense of "If I can get away with it, it must be OK," prevails. On the other hand, you can make an equally compelling argument that Lebanese drivers are the best drivers in the world. Every driver here has to be completely aware of your surroundings from the moment you pull out of your driveway. People have a very good sense of the size of their cars relative to the size of the hole in traffic they are trying to squeeze through. They also have a good sense of what their cars are capable of--especially when it comes to acceleration and deceleration. No passive drivers these, content to rely on traffic laws instead of their own senses. Driving among them, I'm alternately amazed, terrified, and infuriated.

That being said, despite my grudging admiration, I have no interest at all in being anywhere near a snowy or icy road. To tide you over, here are a few pictures (not taken by me) to give you an idea of what it looks like here in the snow--and I promise to get the appropriate cables for my camera soon so that I'll be able to show you my pictures)

This second picture is a bonus picture, because not only does it show the snow, it also shows Druze traditional dress, for both men and women. (It's harder to find good pictures of this than you might think). Please note, if you can, the mustaches on the gentlemen shoveling snow.

I'm working on a more extensive post on the Druze, but frankly I'm a little trepidatious to submit you to another history post for a little bit.

And, just as I'm wrapping this post up, the sun has decided to come out (just in time to set). It's supposed to snow again on Sunday, but tomorrow at least should be a pretty day.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Another psuedo-intellectual history post, I'm afraid. I'll get back to my usual celebrity gossip and detailed personal eating habits soon, I promise! Thanks for indulging me!

One of the first things that anyone here will say to you is how difficult Arabic is to learn. “Even we struggle with it!” they say, shaking their heads and chuckling slightly at the unlikelihood of you ever advancing beyond the basic greetings and food words. And OK, they have a point. It’s really damn hard. It’s a Semitic language (no delightful Indo-European cognates here), the alphabet is different (but hey, at least it’s an alphabet!), the orientation is different, there are no vowels anywhere, and (most daunting of all) the spoken dialect is literally a different language from the standard or classical Arabic, and the dialects of different countries are often mutually unintelligible.

So yes, there are many strikes against me. My 60-word vocabulary is nowhere near the 2,000 words or so required to get by in most basic daily situations. And a lot of the words I know (like “very”, “every”, and “also”) don’t really help me get a sense of the conversation. When I listen to conversations, it goes like this: “I Arabic arabic arabic Arabic also Arabic Arabic Arabic Arabic very Arabic Arabic Arabic. And you?” To which my standard reply is either “alhamdoulilah”, which means “Thank God”, or “inshallah”, which means “God willing”, either one of which are appropriate in almost every occasion.

However, while going over some food vocabulary, I solved a linguistic mystery, one that has made my Arabic learning if not a lot easier, at least a lot more interesting. And to explain the mystery, I need to tell you about an historic period that has influenced my life in 2 very important ways.

Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Spain in 711 from Morocco, landing on the rock of Gibraltar (which still bears his name: it means The Mountain of Tariq), and within 50 years had conquered 75% of the Iberian peninsula, including all of Andalucia, most of Castilla, Catalunya and Barcelona, and most of Portugal. Only Asturias, a thin, mountainous strip in the north, and Galicia in the northwest remained of Christian Spain. This—and how do I put this delicately?—scared the Vatican shitless. To have Muslims to the East in Turkey and the Holy Land, not great, but not as threatening. To have Muslims to the East and to the West? This was serious. But other kingdoms weren’t as concerned—or at least not ready to commit troops to push an increasingly entrenched Caliphate out of Spain. So Rome did what Rome did best in those days: it found the body of a saint. And not just any saint, but St. James the Minor, one of the original 12 disciples, who had been assigned to minister to the heathens in Iberia. He hadn’t been a terribly successful saver of souls and was killed shortly after his arrival. His body had been lost. But suddenly, in the 8th century, just after the Muslim conquest of Spain, his body reappeared. Where, you ask? In the westernmost reaches of Spain, which, as you recall, had just had 75% of its territory conquered by the Muslims. The Church immediately declared this to be a venerated pilgrimage site and declared an indulgence for any pilgrim who made it to Santiago de Compostela. It became enormously popular, and one of the first tourist attractions for medieval Europe. If Rome was a political pilgrimage and Jerusalem a military one, Santiago was just a nice, long walk. Christians from all over flocked to Santiago, and the church had a touchstone for reclaiming Spain for Christendom. (For those of us living in a post-Dan Brown age, the Knights Templar formed to protect pilgrims along the way, setting up hospitals, hostels, and even proto-banks, as well as hiding the truth about the Holy Grail and the Holy Feminine.)

The pilgrimage has continued uninterrupted to this day. It’s important to me because I was also a pilgrim back in 2002, just after I graduated from college. It remains among the 2 or 3 happiest summers of my life, and one of my best travel experiences. El Camino de Santiago (the Road of St. James) made me connect to Spanish history in a way that I didn’t think possible. It also made me think of the Arab conquest, because St. James had two manifestations: Santiago Peregrino, where he appears as a pilgrim with a shell, a drinking gourd, and a walking stick, and Santiago Matamoros, which was alternately translated as St. James the Moor-Slayer or, as I saw in several cathedrals along the way, St. James the Arab Killer. The origins of the pilgrimage, like St. James, has two faces: peaceful and bloody.

Eventually, and I hope that I’m not spoiling anything for you, the Catholics won—but it took them until 1492, a year school children across the U.S. know for a very different reason. For nearly 800 years, the language of most of Spain was Arabic, not the romance language we know and love today. There was also a hybrid Latin/Arabic dialect called Mozarabe, (mose-AH-ra-bay), which had romance word cognates but written in Arabic script. The first Spanish poetry every written was in Mozarabe. And it’s impossible for two languages to exist side by side for over 700 years without some influence. Which (finally) brings me to my linguistic mystery.

When I was learning Spanish, it puzzled me to no end that the word for “olive” was “aceituna” (ah-say-TOO-na). In French, it’s olive. In Italian, it’s olivo. What made Spanish different? When I learned the Arabic word for olive, though, it all made sense: zeitun (zay-toon). And when you add the definite article to it, it becomes as-zeitun. This applies to all sorts of other words. Aceite is “oil” in Spanish. Zeyt is “oil” in Arabic. Cereza is “cherry” in Spanish. Ceriss is “cherry” in Arabic. Zumo is “juice” in Spanish. Zum is “juice” in Arabic. Once I figured this out, I went to Wikipedia to confirm my suspicions, and there’s a nice long list of Arabic cognates in Spanish for those of you who are curious. It was pleasing to see concrete evidence of something that I had known abstractly before. And it makes Arabic a little less daunting.

Monday, February 1, 2010

8,000 years of continuous habitation

I got into the country just fine, but my blog had a hard time getting its visa issues worked out. This is a total blogger cliché, but sorry for the delay!

I've started renting cars more and more often, mostly on the weekends, because public transportation on Sundays leaves a lot to be desired. So for the past two weekends, I've been reveling in the freedom that a car brings. Last Sunday, I went to my Quaker meeting, but yesterday I decided to go to Jbeil, also known as Byblos. Byblos is one of those places like Jericho, with layers and layers of human habitation going back many millennia before the Common Era. In the archaeological site yesterday, I saw Neolithic houses, Phoenician tombs, Roman temples, and a Crusader castle. My brother Will, an archaeologist who (if I may brag just a little) found part of a Clovis point on one of his digs, would be miffed if I didn't mention that there are certainly similar sites in the Americas, but the scale of what was left behind was different. It doesn't make it any less impressive theoretically, but in terms of actually being on the site...well, let's just say that the phrase "Old World" suddenly takes on a much deeper meaning.

In the Byblos souk (think of a stereotypical "Arab" market, but marketing exclusively tourist trinkets), there was a delightful bookstore where I got the Atlas Historique de la Mer Méditerranée. The book contains page after page of the same map of the Mediterranean, just at different points in history. Thumbing through it, I thought of this amazing video showing an animated history of the Middle East. (This made the blog rounds a few years ago--thanks to [my uncle] Ned at for being the first to show it to me.)

It's hypnotic to watch the waves of civilization after civilization wash over the region, and then recede as a new one grows. The first time I watched it, I thought, "Huh. That's cool." Now, living here, and watching Lebanon turn new colors time and time again, it takes on a new significance. Lebanon is geographically either very fortunate or very unfortunate, depending on how you look at it. In ancient times, its ports were a gateway to "The Orient" and a stop along the Silk Road. It was (still is) a crossroads of language, culture, and trade. Of course, it was also halfway between the Egyptians and the Assyrians, the Greeks and the Persians, the Muslims and the Catholics...and now it's between Israel and Syria.

Every group that has come through has left its mark. The Egyptians left their gods (at least until the Greeks and Romans got here). The Phoenicians left their ports, their alphabet, and their place names--driving through Lebanon (and also Our Southern Neighbor), you see village after village whose names begin with Kfer or Ain--these are the remnants of the Phoenicians. Kfer means village, and Ain means both eye and spring (of water). The Romans left temples. The Arabs...well...they're still here, linguistically, religiously, and in every other sense of the word. The Crusaders left castles and family names (Franjieh, for example, which means "Frankish"). The Turks left architecture and political institutions. The Armenians brought refugees, religion, and crafts. The French left language and bureaucracy. The Syrians and the Israelis left a bloody mess.

And through all that, largely the same people, the same families, have lived here continuously. The Druze, my community here, don't allow converts, so they have existed as a community since the 11th century. As an American mutt who can't trace her family lines reliably past 200 years--and who has the luxury of not needing to--I am astounded by this sort of thing. It makes being here that much more interesting. It also makes questions of "But who does the land really belong to?" much more complicated.

I joked before I came here that what this region was really crying out for was another American with a minimal understanding of the context to set things right. Now, even as I understand the context a little more, I'm not any closer to feeling like I have a notion as to what will come next, or even what the best thing to come next would be. What color(s) will be washing over Lebanon in the future?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A post in which I do not gloat about several things, not the least of which is the 75º weather that we're having here, because that would be unseemly.

Not to brag or anything, but I just got back from a fairly fabulous European vacation. And before any family members (a.k.a. 95% of my readership) ask themselves, “And what am I, chopped liver?”, let me promise you that I was very sad to miss Christmas and the associated activities, and that really, if I could have gotten home for the cost of going to London, Paris, and Amsterdam, I would have.

That being said, I had a wonderful time in Europe. I flew into Paris on the evening of the 23rd and spent a foggy Christmas Eve morning walking up to Sacre Coeur, then hopped a train and a ferry and another train to London to see my friend Rachel, an art history master. We spent a quiet Christmas in London (complete with the YouTube Yule Log video crackling in the background), watched movies, and wandered about. It was absolutely freezing, but in a good way. London also included some cheeky gingerbread men, a visit to the Natural History Museum, and a trip to the Wellcome Collection (which was, as suspected, a transcendent experience). After a few days of that, we hopped another ferry (this one overnight) to Amsterdam, where we met up with our friends Molly (from NYC) and Edwin (from Utrecht), saw lovely museums (the Rjiksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum), delighted in Dutch design, giggled at 15th century carvings in the choir stalls at the Old Church that illustrated Dutch sayings (including “Don’t try and out-yawn the oven door” and “Money doesn’t come out of my arse”), and generally soaked up the gezellig atmosphere that is Amsterdam in the wintertime.

For New Year’s, we went to a party with Edwin’s friends and stood on a bridge over a canal at midnight as the entire city erupted into an impromptu celebrations of all things fireworks. It was like the 4th of July, but everywhere you stood was a good spot. The next morning, slightly hungover, I made my way back to Paris to meet up with Marie-Louise, Diarra, Ousmane, and Papis, my Senegalese host family. It was absolutely wonderful to see them again after (almost) 5 years, and I had a lovely time catching up with the family in their warm (in every sense of the word) apartment just outside Paris. I also loved seeing how independent Diarra is now(she was still in university when we were roommates) and really loved this video of her paragliding back in August!

The next morning, Diarra drove me to the airport and I began my 17 hour journey back to Beirut. It isn’t that the distance is so great, it’s just that the connections aren’t remotely convenient, leaving me with 8 hours to kill in the Rome airport. Once back in Beirut (at 3:00 a.m.), the passport gods—a.k.a. Lebanese bureaucracy—decided that I had gotten off easily earlier and confiscated my passport at the border. Luckily, they still let me in, but I’m off to Beirut tomorrow to apply for a residence card and (hopefully) get my passport back (without a bribe). The good news is that a) the incredibly nice man who was confiscating my passport knows Sheikh Sami (my boss) and his sister is one of the teachers that I work with weekly, so at least my passport was in good hands, and b) it was 68º at the airport—I was definitely happy to be back in a Mediterranean climate!

Since then, it’s back to regularly scheduled programming—classes, trainings, and visiting. I’m going hiking in Jezzine on Sunday, which I’m super excited about. Pictures to come soon, because while now my camera is working, my DVD drive just broke and won’t let me reload the camera software. Much love to all of you!

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