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?

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