The walk to and from work winds through the neighborhoods on the city’s Western hill. It is both a cathartic and frustrating affair – more of the former than the latter, though it can become tiresome. I do not have a car, or a moped, or even a bicycle. So most of my movement through Zahle is done at a relaxed walk: from my apartment, down the hill past the Christ the King Institute; past old, one-story houses of beige stone; by the greengrocer, the bakeries (for my morning pastry), the patisseries; by hair salons and sandwich shops; then the open walk along the hillside towards the Lebanese Red Cross with its lovely view. All the while, the shuffling of Zahlawis waking up, putting clothes on the line, packing items into cars, chatting over early coffee and mena’eesh – the upward rise of the Lebanese accent as words, countless in their torrent, drift by.

My favorite time, by far, is the walk home. While eventually it slopes uphill (and gives my ankles grief), it is as if an entirely different series of neighborhoods slide by from morning. There is a softness to the dulling light because the sun hides behind the mountains, where a golden-colored crust forms in the early evening. As I walk past, the noise of traffic and conversation dampens some, and you begin to see movement above: women, young and old, walk out onto their decorated balconies – whitewashed, hung with grape-vines and other flowers – to lean on the rails or sit awhile, watching as people like me walk by, watching them. Then, suddenly, everything slows. Everyone knows that it is time to breathe and enjoy the cooling daylight, and I feel like I too am perched on a balcony, watching passersby – even as I am one of them.

I have been here for a month now, living in Zahle. In the grand scheme of things, my presence is not so important to those around me. But for me, it turns up everywhere: how I will spend my mornings, afternoons and evenings is saturated with this place and its rough hillsides and bitter coffee. My work continues to go well, and there will be fun on the horizon I hope. I plan on a trip to Beirut this weekend, where I can do some much needed wandering, to make the city less imagined and more real.

But in that vein, I am brought back to my sense of infancy here in Lebanon. On the walk home today, looking at the hillsides and their array of plant-life I spied a not-quite ripe fig on the ground, crushed. Looking up, I could see a vine-like tree with big, bushy leaves like hands, green bulbs dangling from it all over. It was a fig tree. The leaves in question, of course, were fig leaves.

My first reaction was to notice that “yes, these are in fact the same kind of leaf used to cover Italian Renaissance sculpture’s more lewd areas.” But it was still odd to absorb this thought, because they have long been just that – a thought, and an intellectual one at that. I did not grow up with fig trees in the backyard, nor did I go fig-picking (that just sounds crude somehow) with my extended family. It just isn’t in my catalog. I had the same start of surprise when, walking home through a shortcut by a church I stopped to adjust my bag and found before me a young olive tree, already speckled with green olives. I chuckled slightly in surprise, and again had to remind myself that it was not out of the ordinary to witness olives and figs in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But this underscores my point: the transition from foreign and external to something intimate and internalized, something that I can associate with the every-day and practical efforts of life here. I am still a mind in transition, looking for apple trees and instead being showered with crushed figs. The innocent shock (or reminder, I should say) of figs was further emphasized by the juxtaposition of a large and overflowing dumpster, organic and other materials heaped onto the ground around it. The fig tree extended shade to the dumpster, and offered it some figs as well. That the fig leaf of Western art and myth should be placed so near to filth initially struck me as vulgar in the more academic sense, but there you have it. I may have changed time zones successfully, but I have yet to change something more internal. It took time to grow used to Egypt while I lived in Alexandria, to become accustomed to the Mediterranean’s everyday blue. I hope I can do the same in a place where I have more baggage to drop off.

Here’s to a lovely month.

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