Archives for category: Work

Inevitable as it was, Bridging The Divide was featured in the Addison Independent, one of the more popular news outlets in the Champlain Valley. The article can be found here, and explores the organization’s business model, philosophy, and projects it has supported.

Also, the video from the BTD front page:

Annie Swanson from Bridging the Divide on Vimeo.


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.

The new website for the Int’l Aid NGO Bridging The Divide will be going up on Wednesday, July 14th (Bastille Day, oddly enough). Expect this site to get a lot cooler.

For now, take a quick look at the old site to get an idea.

It’s been noticed over and over by a number of Lebanese resources (here, here and here, for example) that Lebanon is/has been suffering from an uncommon campaign of hooliganery perpetrated by overzealous fans – mostly among the country’s youth. A lot of folks have been wondering why they have been causing such a ruckus, but far more just don’t seem to give a damn, and are in fact perfectly happy to contribute to the noise that keeps certain bloggers awake at night. I can understand the excitement (to an extent) in Zahle, where half of the city’s population has probably lived in Brazil at one point. Yet even when Brazil was ousted by Holland there was still gunfire in the surrounding hills. What gives?Do you think you'll be stronger when you grow up?

Well, the Cup is over – Spain won. The Beqaa valley hasn’t been sporting too many Spanish flags, but there was still palpable excitement for the game last night. I didn’t watch because I didn’t need to – I could tell what was happening based on the noise drifting up the hills from the city to my apartment. This begs the question – what now?

Beirut Spring makes a point that reminds me a lot of something my father mentioned when I visited him in Beirut the other day. He said (and I agree) that for the most part, the fanaticism of Lebanese young people can be attributed to a lack of alternatives: right now, outside of the starkly sectarian and volatile political arena, there is little that Lebanese youth can do to express excitement and energy (which the Bridgebuilders from ASO are working to fix – check it out). The country is not producing enough fun, enough jobs, enough opportunities for young people to apply their energies healthily, and so the Cup was a perfect opportunity: an event that Lebanese can gather around regardless of sectarian affiliation (though some feel differently). So it makes sense when you think about it from a sociological standpoint that people who are fed-up with sectarianism, finally presented with something fun and relatively apolitical for a change, are taking it as far as it will go.

But as we’ve noted, it’s already finished. The pressure-valve for the youth of Lebanon has been sealed again, and it seems only more obvious that there is not much to take its place. The fun-starved of Lebanon, especially the lower-classes, must now return to the gray realities of political life. The World Cup song, “Wavin’ Flag,” is about growing up, growing stronger, grabbing after freedom whatever the cost. Is that message possible in today’s Lebanon?

Outside of the French doors one can see a park shaded by coniferous trees; in the small patch of sunlight an occasional salamander shuffles past; a merciful breeze sometimes drifts through the open door. This – and of course some furniture and computers – is my Zahle office experience.

For now, our headquarters is tucked into the western hill of town across from the Lebanese Red Cross, commanding a lovely view of Zahle’s many carrot-colored roofs. Walking home I am frequently tempted to make a gesture at Walt Whitman and lend my own Yawp to the sound of car horns, and (in the evening) cheers and groans as the many Lebanese are drawn into the stress of the World Cup’s later rounds.

The office here in Zahle has a some fun faces. I share an office with Ghelda (our Director of Finances), share some work with Drakoulis (Director of Iraqi operations), and then there is of course Paul, our Regional Director. Claude (our liaison with the Fattouch foundation) and [whatshisface] round out the team to make six. It’s all very fun, and thanks to Drakoulis I am gaining an appreciation for well-made ice-coffee. Drakoulis is also the one of charity-poker fame – while in Kurdistan at an expat party, he played a three hour poker game until 3:45 AM and won, though most of his earnings went to charity. An illustrious character, no doubt about it.

We all have different roles, but to a great extent it boils down to the same thing: making sure that our partners get the support they need for their work, and making their results available to outside audiences. There is a lot of walking in and out of rooms, quick conversations, and emails flying around – the air is thick with them. A lot of our effort is going towards making sure the new website is functional when it goes live, but there is other work: grant-writing, contract approval, finances. And more crops up every day, it seems.

It’s definitely manageable, Internet-gods willing. I take comfort in the fact that it’s a great work environment, with the real environment just a few meters outside my door, and salamanders to follow with my eyes.