Archives for category: Zahle

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.


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.

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.

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.

A Byzantine image of Mar Elias

That’s right. Last night was a Saint’s Day in Lebanon for the Eastern Christian community, honoring Mar Elias (St. Elias). I don’t know very much about these celebrations (being half-Muslim, half-Protestant), so I had to ask a police officer what on earth was going on. Zahle, being overwhelmingly Christian, celebrated with a prolonged series of blasts. Fireworks and gunfire raged from nightfall until around midnight – I honestly thought I was in a war zone.

Given the typical regard for safety practiced in Lebanon (which is to say, almost none), it isn’t too surprising that at least two fires broke out on the hill on the other side of town, and sirens were screaming into the night trying to get through Lebanese clogging the streets, honking their horns just to be festive.

I understand that it’s about celebrating, having a good time, etc. But the fires were very avoidable. My downstairs neighbors were firing little fireworks (the children, actually) from their balcony! No regard for where they aimed them. Despite the obvious flames and smoke rising in spots of the city, no one thought to stop firing their fireworks. Apparently, living in a region filled with lots of dry, flammable grass is not incompatible with momentary pyromaniacal pleasure.

If I still had my camera there would be picture-proof, but I do not. It all just seemed silly and avoidable.

General Michel Aoun of the Free Patriot Movement

In spite of its poorly organized website, informs me that Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriot Movement, will be visiting Zahle to make several appearances around the city, one of which will be in the neighborhood of Al-Rassieh this coming Friday, which is conveniently nearby.

I have pretty mixed feelings about Aoun, but it could be a fun experience to see him talk. Here’s hoping I can attend!

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.