Archives for category: Lebanon

Two weekends ago, I decided I felt like going on an afternoon walk up through Wadi al-3araish to see if I could hike up the mountains from there.

To get to the mountain, you pass through an increasingly narrow, limestone gorge on the north side of town. Too narrow to be settled, Zahle grew some distance from the mouth of this splendid natural feature along the banks of the Bardouni river, which is more like an aging stream. Its bed is covered in algae, and the length of its course, cutting through town, is strewn with metal and plastic waste. The momentum of Zahle’s growth has mostly been towards the valley proper, squeezing in between the mountains until it reaches the open, fertile Beqaa.

Walking through Wadi al-3araish.

But Wadi al-3araish (Valley of Grapeleaves) is to the north of it all in the shaded gorge that follows the river towards its source at Naba3 Bardouni. The stone is a deep gray; trees cling to the steep rock faces, and the sound of trickling water is everywhere. Here the river is left alone, because it is here that the Bardouni Cafes were started, more than a century ago.

They have sense become something quite other than their origin. At first a couple of restaurants with chairs and tables plopped on the pine needles and under the oak, today the Cafes du Bardouni is a very developed, semi-built-up strip of restaurants, arcades and vendors. It is all, of course, very ritzy, and aimed to please the best of Beirut, Europe and the Gulf. That is not to say that locals do not enjoy them, but for the most part they are out of people’s average price-range for a nice meal.

I was amused, walking through this long chain of tables, to find that in one restaurant, a peasant woman was sitting down at this bizarre work station to make marqouq – a peasant bread that is large, very thin but somewhat hardy. It reminds me somewhat of very large crepes. Still, there she was, dressed in her patterned 3abaya and white veil, sitting in the middle of all sorts of ingredients and with the large, rounded oven necessary for marqouq, as waiters and patrons in tuxedos mingled casually in front of her, asking her questions and making orders.

It all seemed a little incongruous. Not unlike the coal-boys who come and change the coals of the argileh (water-pipe), who in nicer restaurants are generally stuck wearing the ridiculous embroidered vests and tarbouches of the 19th century, the woman’s traditional-ness was on display, a statement of authenticity: come to our restaurant, we dragged a woman from the mountains who is going to make this bread for you. Eat it and like it, then tell your friends.

It was hard to tell if she was happy there. A woman of her age (she had to be at least 50), and as worn-looking as she, probably deserved some rest after a long, trying life in the mountains. Having her peasant cooking talents – honed to feed her family – used as a business tool must have been an odd position. Doubtless the money made it worth her while. But will it always do so?

Descending from the cool mountain world to make home-baked bread for wealthy strangers, I can only imagine the mental conflict. But maybe her sitting there, in a restaurant in the Bardouni, is more a sign of her strength and willingness than it is of passive resignation. Maybe she enjoys it. Maybe. It is difficult not to wonder, however, when living tradition becomes a display.

Tables from a restaurant, on the side of the road not bordering the river.

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My last few posts about life in Lebanon have been largely negative, so I thought I would write a little about a few thoroughly positive experiences I’ve had in the past two weeks. Two in particular stand out.

The day I was leaving for Istanbul (technically the day before) I headed to Beirut to spend the afternoon padding along the streets of the capital which, for me, is somewhat of an event. It was still cool then, the mountain breezes were still taking a stop in Zahle before rushing through the Beqaa to fill other souls with momentary bliss. Walking down to the monastic school down the street, I found that (I had forgotten) General Aoun was about to speak to a sizable crowd of neighborhood locals. Rassieh looked like it had walked out of The Netherlands, there was so much orange (the General’s party’s color) everywhere, on all the houses, flags, posters, everything. A woman, much in the same vein as World Cup fans had earlier this summer, refused to let people walk past her without stepping under her FPM flag (among whom I was one). Couldn’t avoid it. It seemed like my part of the neighborhood (noticeably cut off at the small LF office up the street) is a big fan.

I don’t have strong feelings for Aoun, only that it’s interesting to have a Christian politician swimming against the current, so to speak. As a former passive supporter of the Party, Aoun and the Free Patriot Movement stood out to me as something worth at least checking out – so I did, largely because it was so darn convenient. It was pretty fun: everyone was smiling, waving flags. Once inside the venue, the Lebanese National Anthem was played (Kulluna li-lWatan!) and the General started speaking, the topic being: “Stop Sacrificing the Lebanese Youth to its Elderly.” Interesting stuff.

Regardless of my political indifference, it was just fun to see everyone so happy when he got there: all the security guards were smiling, and they were very helpful with a few issues I was having, and the participants were all enthusiastic.

The other experience was later, as I had lunch at Sa7et al-Nejmeh in Downtown. A small family sat at the table next to mine: A Lebanese father, a Filipino mother and their two children. After all that I had heard and witnessed of the treatment of foreign workers in Lebanon, it was wonderful to see what looked like a happy, mixed marriage between a Lebanese Arab father and Filipino mother. The children all spoke Arabic, and the mother mostly English, but they seemed to be quite successful and were having a nice time.

Over here, life can be resistant to change. But it happens sometimes, creeping up on you – at least, it does here in Lebanon. You can call it whatever you want: the Lebanese expat community returning with new value-sets, the fruits of education, or some ingrained trait of the Lebanese people. One way or another, change comes along for the better if you wait long enough.

You just have to work on your patience.

In a more boring turn of events, it turns out that the Israeli fence does not actually demarcate the Blue Line between what was once the French Mandate of Lebanon and the British Mandate of Palestine, the historical border that continues to separate the two modern nations of Lebanon and Israel. This meshes with what I have read recently in other sources on the topic. So yes, for those of you waiting to hear: it was in fact “all just a silly misunderstanding.”

I of course retract my theories about Israeli provocation and about the New York Times article’s complicity therein. I do, however, voice my respect for the LAF for actually taking a stand on what they thought was a violation of their country’s sovereignty. I think most Lebanese actually felt proud of the army for the first time in a while. Still, if the border is so tense that a misunderstanding like this could leave half a dozen dead, maybe we should fix the problem and put a real line, as some are suggesting.

Lebanese soldiers guard the border as Israeli shells continue to strike inside Lebanon.

It has been a hot, quiet day in the Beqaa Valley today – not so much in the Lebanese South. While I spent several hours waiting on work-related email replies, the village of Adeisseh witnessed clashes between the Lebanese and Israeli armies. I found out right before lunch, which naturally made for some strange conversation.

An Israeli cherrypicker reaching over the border fence into Lebanese territory.

Already the violence on the ground is being superseded by the battle over narrative; the Lebanese claim that their sovereignty was completely violated, while the Israelis insist that its forces were conducting “routine activity.” There is, of course, photographic evidence of an Israeli cherry-picker reaching comically over the border fence to start uprooting some conifers it viewed as blocking the sacred Israeli line of site. For those of you who have seen The Lemon Tree, this is not overly surprising, but just as patently ridiculous.

Reports fly everywhere. Aljazeera is finally covering it, the BBC has an alright article; other sources are already analyzing the potential for the issue to inflate. But it’s the New York Times whose insistence on protecting the Israeli image in the media war that once again struck me as typical.

While lengthy, the Times report refused to allot any blame to the Israelis. Rather than acknowledge that its own photo (taken from the Associated Press) proves that the Israelis entered Lebanese territory, it takes care to use language making it perfectly natural that the Israelis bombed a Lebanese military outpost using artillery and helicopters, and continued shelling two hours after the UN peacekeepers came to calm everyone down. More significantly (in my eyes) is one photo in the slideshow on the site’s front page, showing Israeli soldiers “looking through the sites of their weapons.” Anyone who knows a little about guns can see that those are not typical assault rifles, they are sniper rifles, which they were using to continue shooting at Lebanese soldiers and others from across the border. The caption, however, makes it sound as if they were standing ready, waiting for some sort of Lebanese aggression.

It’s a bit nitpicky, but this is what the image battle is all about. Media documentation is the real aim, and the role of social media is almost considered key in this process today – this post from Beirut Spring. The New York Times isn’t helping with its shoddy, gray-area reporting. It can’t keep the Israelis hands clean forever, but it’s certainly trying.

Now, concerning the tree they were uprooting, it seems odd to me that they should choose now to test the Lebanese army, given the increasingly tense situation in the region: rockets in Eilat/Aqaba, the STL, Hassan Nasrallah’s speech tonight. You could keep on listing.

The more I contemplate, the more it seems like a deliberate provocation on behalf of the Israeli army to continue destabilizing Lebanon. The closer the country gets to anarchy, the more opportunity for Israel to invade and uproot Hezbollah. Except that they continue to forget that when they operate in Lebanon in recent history, they have always united the Lebanese, rather than driven them apart. Will they ever learn? Also, the US gov’t has been oddly silent. Where is its condemnation?

So the Lebanese state has to safeguard its sovereignty from Hezbollah – but not Israel?

Walking home yesterday evening, I spotted purple among the green.

Fig tree on the road home.

Some of the fruit has begun to ripen, turning from a shy green to a more bold, majestic purple. I took a few pictures, because I like watching things grow and change.

Almost Ripe. It really is a lovely tree.

It is entirely possible that I picked a few, brought them home to wash, and ate them.

Whenever I need groceries, it is always this little shop called “Hawki’s” that I turn to in my neighborhood of Zahle. Like many Zahlawi buildings, it’s situated in one of those classic Libano-Italian buildings from (I’m guessing) between the 17th-19th centuries. That is to say, golden-colored sandstone with a rough exterior, polished on the corners of the building; bright green shutters and black iron balconies, all topped by those lovely carrot-blush tiles.

Hawki’s is owned by a family, namely the father – I’m going to call him S. S is a nice guy (he has to be). He offers good advice and runs into the upstairs room to hunt for merchandise I might need. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. His son, who also works there, was kind enough to give me an arak glass (note: not a glass of arak) when I bought my first Arak from them, despite my protests. All in all, an alright place to do my shopping.

Because Zahle is relatively prosperous, it is not out of place to spy non-Arab faces on occasion, working as domestic help: Ethiopians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Nepalese. Someone from the building opposite mine has a Filipino maid, whom they send on errands to Hawki’s to buy a few items, like cigarettes. I have seen her come in several times now while I am there, shy and small-seeming, but trying hard to be confident. Chuckling with the locals, S will ignore her until he has served everyone else (even if she were before them), then turn cold-facedly to her to ask what she needs. She responds in heavily accented English, which he cuts through by interrupting and talking pleasantly to someone else, leaving her waiting again.

Why S feels the need to do this is beyond me. Well, actually it isn’t, but I don’t really feel like going into it right now. Regardless, the plight of domestic workers is not unique to the Arab world. It is however a good example of some of the things that make globalization either a jungle or a goldmine, depending on who you are. Transnational communities, remittance work, complete lack of labor protection – these are all part of the picture.

But it was great to catch this New York Times article discussing domestic workers in Kuweit, because it could have been about any Arab country, or anywhere at all – it even makes reference to the US somewhat. But it all makes me want to tie this into Ethiopian Suicides, the Lebanese blog associated with the Anti Racism Movement, which advocates on behalf of domestic workers and all issues of race in Lebanon. The reality may be gray, but some people are trying to bring in some color.

Last time I was in Hawki’s, before I left for Istanbul, it was just S, the Filipino girl and I. She was buying cigarettes, while I waited for her to finish. I nodded my head to her in greeting, and she smiled widely. An honest smile.

It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Not to overuse a metaphor, but hills seem to bear the city’s many brightly-colored buildings as if on waves, tossing them this way and that, until the horizon is an impossible distinction between the saturated buildings and the backdrop of dark, Balkan trees. The skyline is similarly confusing: neighborhoods rise and then give way to water: the Gold Horn, the Aegean and Black seas. Mosques like giant, many-domed spiders somehow dominate even the skyscrapers, leaning into their surroundings from the heights.

Watching the sun behind this particular set of lines is simply staggering.

It may have a long, dark history and a shady present, but today’s Istanbul is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have just returned from my trip there for the conference between Turkish and Armenian NGOs, which went quite well, and am already yearning to go back. Lebanon is lovely, but there was something in Istanbul that I find lacking here in Zahle, in Beirut.

I know now, after some thought, what it was I felt absent in Lebanon. It is nothing new, but is cast far into a far more stark silhouette by my return from one of the world’s great cities. In Istanbul there is a sense of togetherness, of identity and comfort with oneself and one’s fellow citizens that I have simply not found here in Lebanon. True, the Lebanese strut around in Western clothes, indulge in fatty Western foods, and engage in Western intellectual discourse. But it is all somewhat of an exhibition, a show. I have never seen more made-up women in my life than here, nor men for that matter – to name a more superficial issue. In Turkey, there are those who dress smart and those who are more relaxed. There is a more encompassing sense of “modernity” (whatever that means) without the need to advertise. It is self-realizing, while in Lebanon it is self-congratulating.

There is a point where collective identity becomes so strong that it almost fades away completely, because a people can be so conscious of it that it becomes a non-issue. At least in Istanbul and among Turks, there is such profound attachment to the Turkish-ness that it is almost a non-issue, not worth mentioning unless called. There are profound (at times brutal) historical reasons for this, of course, but it exists nevertheless. As such, there is such a sense of ease with oneself and the environment that I was simply stunned. I was blown away by the number of Turkish-language bookstores I happened by, while in Lebanon, the freest country for Arabic literature, Arabic holds second place to foreign works – and then, good luck finding a decent bookstore.

This is from a public bus in Istanbul. I found it a nice image for, well, obvious reasons.

This issue, language, was the most potent message of all. In Lebanon, education means speaking Arabic poorly and code-switching with English and French as much as possible. The Lebanese pride themselves on being multilingual while they let Arabic die as a language of culture and knowledge. In Turkey, I was hard-pressed to find anyone outside of my hotel who spoke English at all. Coming from Lebanon, I was oddly relieved by this change. Here I finally had someone being happy with who he was. Turkish is the language of communication and academia in Turkey – it is as healthy as a language can be, and tells me that the Turks have more self-pride than even the Lebanese.

History has been nicer to the Turks than to the Lebanese, and Turkey is not without it’s problems. But it is just sad to watch as the most successful Arab nation gets rich through more forgetting. That I can hardly bear.

I can deal without 24-hour electricity, warm water, and even without the lovely Balkan weather. But it is hard to return to a country where people are so eager to seem like something else.

Lactuca Sativa

A few cool BBC articles today struck me as both neat and indicative. In the United States, we perceive the Middle East as a stagnant backward region still living like Bedouin in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This is highly untrue, but worse it’s simply boring to think that way. The cause of conflict in the region is directly associated with change and adaptation to the future. It has been when people try to answer this question that things get interesting, sometimes violent. This article about vegetarian activism (and reactivism among the police force) in the Jordanian capital of Amman just goes to show one of the more bizarre ways that new ideas are “taking root,” so to speak.

Then there is this article here about what golf means in both Iran and Egypt, and what that means to the rest of the world. To an extent I can agree that there is a dynamism in other parts of the region not present in many Arab countries, but I don’t think it fair to stop there; Lebanon really doesn’t deserve to be heaped into the same pile as Egypt, and outstanding political issues still menace the Arab states (and help prop up dictators) that don’t quite reach into Iran or Turkey.

The statue featured center is Martyr's Square, which is also the park in the lower left but from a distance. The top right is the financial district and house of Parliament, rebuilt almost exactly the same, minus the circle of trees.

Since arriving in Lebanon, I have looked for forms of stationary to communicate with people from home. Postcards are perhaps the most fun kind of correspondence because, well, they’re exotic. In my hunt for good postcards I have turned up some interesting finds.

While this postcard is actually old, it is a good example of the style that dominates Lebanese giftshops.

Sifting through the stacks of postcards in shops, I have come across mostly new books of cards, but there have been moments where I am struck by the numerous cards that predate the War. I found a lovely brand new booklet of pre-War postcards in a stationary shop at Rafik Hariri Airport, and the other day stumbled across some more in another place as I looked for a coffee set (for my sister, I assure you). They are easily recognized by their highly saturated colors and cartoon-like lines – fitting descriptions for how a many view the time before the War.

What surprises me is not that old booklets are still around, but that they are manufacturing them again. I would show you some that I purchased, but my camera is long gone – so I’ve included a few examples from the internet. I suppose that there is some value to be had in their retro quality today, but I think something deeper is at work. Things were simpler then (again, so people like to remember), the world had its boundaries. It’s a lot easier to show the city at a smaller, less crowded, more stately time than to show to the world today’s reality, a city with scarce public space and rampant, opportunistic construction. A card I saw not long ago shocked me because it showed a public garden with a statue at its center which I have never seen in today’s Beirut – because today it is little more than a glorified parking lot, and I have no memory of it being different, being a child of the Diaspora. Martyr’s Square (which is the park in question) is today one of the ugliest reminders of the city’s forgetfulness.

But its beauty still lives on in the old postcards expatriots send to far-flung relatives in Brazil, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Taken December 2009, hardly anything has been done to rebuild after the damage sustained during the War. This is probably because there is little direct financial benefit - typical.

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.