One of the four minarets added to the Hagia Sophia Church upon conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, when they turned it into a mosque. Today it is a museum.

There is no doubt that Istanbul shares the same sunlight as Beirut; the way it drenches and fulfills everything it touches, from the rolling hills to the watermelon-hawker, has the same quality of light without interruption, light as it is meant to be. Pigeons muster in the mosque courtyards and flutter windward at the slightest provocation. Looking around me, I forget at times that the pale houses and flats with their red-orange roofs are not in fact part of the hills that ring the city, but the product of human effort and, in Turkey, a crooked sort of persistence.

But I am not in Turkey to talk about politics – at least, not in so many words. One way or another, I am away in Istanbul for work, helping to cover a conference being held between our Armenian NGO partner ICHD and a Turkish NGO, which has at its heart the need to improve civil society relations between Turks and Armenians, whose tumultuous past is only beginning to show signs of calming.

OK, maybe that sounds a little political. But it’s they who will be doing the work, not me. I just get to cover the event and meet the partners. As well as eat lots of tasty, tasty food. Point being, I might be AFK for a little while, but expect to hear back from me soon enough.

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A suggestion for urban space in Fort Worth, TX

Skyscrapers are cool. This is the principle that has been embraced by peoples worldwide since they arrived on the scene in the 1920’s. Other than that, popular culture in the United States has taken little active interest in issues of urban planning beyond the mere suggestion that “we should think about putting a mall here.”

Urban planning, or urban studies as it’s sometimes called, really is about more than just beautifying cities or building subways: it’s about patterns of human settlement. And because everything is connected, urban planning is more a reflection of settlement patters in all of its forms – urban, suburban and rural. It speaks to the very way we set up our lives to occupy space, of which there is a lot in the US. The most common critique of new urban planning concepts is that they are not applicable in the vast expanses for which our country is known. It comes off like wishful thinking.

It isn’t. The American suburban phenomenon has been under assault for a long time, but as long as the automobile was a useful scale for planning (and the oil economy is functional) there was no arguing with the prices. Today the story is different: oil companies are resorting to extreme measures to find new oil (tar sands in Alberta, eww), and the effects of Climate Change are, well, becoming apparent with the hottest summer recorded in world history. To top it off, the United States is no longer the innocent country-girl claims to be in collective consciousness: as of the 2000 Census, the American population living in urban areas was at nearly 80%, to say nothing of where it is now in 2010. In essence, the United States has changed greatly while the picture we have of ourselves has stayed much the same; so we are not coming up with solutions to problems, because we pretend they don’t exist.

I have pretty strong feelings about all this: As long as the automobile is a practical scale for planning, we will continue turning farmland into cheap housing and create real-estate crises. As gas prices rise and the economy remains in recession, the proportion of the American population that can take advantage of a car-scale lifestyle drops. It becomes taxing to get to school, buy groceries, run errands, commute to work – and of course, to have fun. In an era like this, suburbanism becomes a luxury – but I won’t talk too much about suburbanism, which I will save for another time.

Instead, there have been a lot of great articles in The Times about New Urbanism that have been a breath of fresh air. It seems that the gasping age of the automobile is leading many to rethink settlement patterns, and to begin pointing fingers at Suburbia, long despised by urban planners and geographers alike (I have had many long, lovely conversations on this topic). The Congress for New Urbanism looks like a group I can really support, running projects to rejuvenate dying areas in cities across the country, among them New Orleans. The article about the hoped-for destruction of the Sheridan Expressway made me feel proud that citizens are taking back their cities (read: their homes) from the automobile, making urban life livable. Philadelphia just opened “The Piazza at Schmidts,” an urban market-shopping-entertainment space in an otherwise crowded neighborhood. The examples keep coming.

Even if the automobile recovers from the fuel crisis, this way of thinking is the sort of stuff that changes the quality of life for people and helps combat urban social issues. Even Times Square is now a pedestrian “mall” (which, as some people already know, is a term that I strongly dislike for pedestrian streets). I am amazed, proud, and encouraged. Which brings us to the final, awkward issue of malls – what is a mall? Even that seems to be changing, and probably for the better.

These spaces don’t need to be unreal or futuristic, just functional, human and (yes) sustainable. If there is anything that the environmental movement has taught us, it’s that we can’t keep trudging along the same ruinous path, especially when we know the dangers ahead of us. Our lifestyle and how we arrange it in space is the root cause, and it’s one whose costs we cannot afford to bear, or pass on to the rest of the world.

"Mall" concept-art.

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.

Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi of the Israeli Northern Army confirmed today that he was OK with striking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, even in densely-populated areas. This begs a few questions: is it true that Hezbollah is using human shields? Are the people OK with the arrangement (because sometimes they actually are)? And what exactly is Ashkenazi’s great PR plan for the sudden rise in civilian death toll if he goes through with it? Sounds like operation Iron Dome has got him a little cocky.

I am hardly OK with the idea of Hezbollah camping out among civilians, but it seems unlikely that they would do so in places where they are blatantly unwanted. Still, it raises a few doubts and questions, which in all fairness should be posed to Hezbollah – except they would not be well-received. Based on Nasrallah’s reactions to the possibility of having Israeli agents working inside the Party, his brisk comment of “Our organization cannot be infiltrated” (see my earlier post) seemed a little unfriendly. Hezbollah enjoys the legitimacy of much of the Lebanese population, but not all of it – it should not be above all scrutiny.

In addition to this, more tensions with the Party of God seem to be mounting. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (tasked with investigating Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005) has indicated that several Party members were likely involved – and not Syria.

Mix dry ingredients separately from wet ingredients, then combine. Mix well, add to heat. The flavors will taste better after they have stewed.

The New York Times has this saddening “Room for Debate” section on tenure for college professors. Should we keep tenure (which is fading from a number of campuses) or should we just let it go? Based on my experiences (yes, at an upper class liberal arts college), I think the system isn’t broken. There are flaws, but I feel like the last bastion of job security in this country is under assault by people who solely value output, not the wellbeing of their professors. And I’m tired of listening to economists speak smugly about everything in terms of costs (monetary or otherwise) – so tired. Because that’s the chief argument against tenure, to calculate salaries and benefits into large frightening sums (not people educating our population). The less costly option is not always the best one, not always the most humane. Especially in the long run.

Life has its costs. Good, robust living has its costs. So does good education. I think we should keep paying it.

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.

Settlers offering their children advice on how to handle an Uzi.

The Foreign Policy website’s Middle East Channel has this blissfully simple article today about how American tax money directly finances Israeli persecution and settlement activity, and just how counterproductive this works out to be. This money is often funneled through American or Israeli charities – Christian and Jewish – that goes directly to support settlers in the occupied West Bank. From your checkbook, straight to the frontlines of American foreign policy. Or as the Middle East Channel puts it: “Hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars in deductible contributions are funneled into occupied territory through American charities to fund the enterprise that is killing the very peace process the United States aims to champion.”

I don’t know about you, but that stirs up strong associations with the US government’s dogged pursuit of Islamic charities that fund organizations like, say, Hamas or Hezbollah. The New York Times even had an article a week or so ago that I found piquant (GRE word, that one) and horrifying. So what, when it comes down to it, is the real difference? We know, of course, that there are charities giving to fundamentalist groups. But can you really call Hezbollah or Hamas fundamentalist? What about Israeli settlers and their fundamentalist Judaism? In the bigger picture, Israel’s terrorism against Palestinians is more of a threat to our homeland security than what Hezbollah does on Lebanese soil.

As always, there seems to be some kind of imbalanced reckoning going on. A deadly, flawed kind of reckoning.

Hillary Clinton, in a strangely two-sided move, has bypassed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and imbued the State Department with the power to oversee development efforts directly where it sees fit – thus the recent money-laden visit to Pakistan. In some ways, this is good news. USAID has a long history of aid-with-strings projects, which has strangely enough not been to the taste of aid recipient populations, undoing any diplomatic yields we could expect. So to de-fang this old institution has been a long time coming.

But the State Department doesn’t seem capable of doing a better job. To look at The Cable,

Clinton showed her Pakistani hosts a series of maps that detail where key investments will be made in Pakistan’s ailing energy, water, and health sectors. By giving a larger portion of the money directly to the Pakistanis and focusing on big-ticket, high-profile projects that ordinary people can see, Clinton is hoping to prove to Pakistanis that their initial negative reaction to the aid legislation was misplaced.

Does that sound like top-down development advice with strings to anyone else? Maybe her ideas sound great on the table, but is that money really getting to Pakistanis? Likely not. In fact, most big-ticket development projects don’t benefit everyday dudes at all. Rather, they serve as a nagging reminder of a useless foreign presence in their government offices. A whole lot of money spent on nothing.

If the State Department really wanted to foster development (and economic prosperity, because that’s all we care about), they would do best to actually give directly to the citizens (not corrupt officials) through microfinance NGOs already on the ground, the school systems, and yes, in getting some sustained electricity flowing through their wires. All these big-ticket visible projects are nothing new. It’s more of the same failed ideas from an unimaginative politician. You want change in diplomatic and military relations? Fine. First, change your policy.

The full Cable post is available here.

Because I couldn’t resist, here is an amazing video from Hani Alireza’s website, which I talked about in my earlier post “Hipsters of Saudi Arabia.

It’s quite something, even if you don’t speak Arabic.