Tuesday, January 25, 2011

27 January

A recent irony for our blog has been that at the point where people would expect us to have so much to say, we have very little to say.  The first reason is practical.  We’re busy putting together essays for the end of our semester, so that’s not terribly interesting, and we also hope to save money for our travels to other countries, so we would not be seeing much of Lebanon at this time anyway.  Secondly, things are extremely complicated here.  Everybody we talk to has their perspective on why things are happening the way they are and the motivations of all of the players, domestically and internationally, concerning the future of the country.  As outsiders, we have learned the importance of suspending our judgment and our perspectives to allow ourselves to be open and observant to what is going on.  The fact of the matter is that there are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, no clear-cut storyline that can describe the situation here.  The only way that we can appropriately approach the situation is distantly, critically, and prayerfully.  We do know that things have been calm in our neighborhood, we read the news everyday, and we ask lots of questions.  That seems to be best for now as we wrap up our classes and prepare for a vacation to Egypt and Jordan.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

13 January

If you’re still checking this blog, you really are a champ!  I know it has been forever since we’ve made a post.  We returned to the states during Christmas, which was marvelous, but we are back in Beirut now. 

Before launching into anything else, I suppose I should address the recent news coming from Lebanon.  Yes, the government has collapsed, but this is not as dire as it might sound.  In a parliamentary system, it is possible for a cabinet coalition to fall apart, but the government itself is still in-tact.  Please do not picture a state of anarchy, with people taking to the streets waving flags and rifles; the PM, president, government offices, and military are still firmly in place.  The task now falls to the president to re-from the coalition, which could take months.  For example, Belgium also has a parliamentary system and have been “without a government” for 8 months now.  The collapse creates a power vacuum and means that no new decisions or legislation will happen.  In truth, this has been the state of affairs in Lebanon for several months anyway owing to a complete stalemate between the two blocs.

At the center of the debate stands the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has been commissioned to investigate the 2005 death of Lebanon’s popular PM, Rafiq Hariri.  Hizbullah deems the entire enterprise a tool of the US and Lebanon’s southern neighbor and has demanded that the PM and president’s party end all Lebanese funding to the UN and rescind the Lebanese judges from the court.  Recognizing the unwillingness of the PM to take those actions and after several months of stalemate and attempted intervention by the Saudis and Syrians, last night the pro-Hizbullah bloc withdrew from the government.

For now, all is very stable and the newspapers are no more alarmist than normal.  I have spoken with several Lebanese professors at the school who assure me that nothing will happen imminently; all sides want peace for now.  I do believe this will hold for at least some time.  So we wait.  It is like standing on the corniche during January: the sun is shining down on you, but out to sea, you can see the steely gray clouds gathering as the thunder rumbles.  As with the weather here, you never know if the storm will dissolve or hit the city; there is an equal chance of both.

Friday, December 24, 2010

24 December 2010

As the Christmas season approaches, we consider the message of Christ’s birth in the context of all we have learned and experienced in Beirut.  The prophet Isaiah foretold:

For all the boots of the tramping warriors
And all the garments rolled in blood
Shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
A son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders;
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Praying for peace has never been high on my spiritual priority list.  Occasionally the most relevant geopolitical hotspot makes its way onto the “prayer concerns” list at our Sunday services and is rattled off with other problems.  However, a constant mindfulness of the ways in which God’s shalom is denied to countless men and women should be a central part of our relationship with the Prince of Peace.  This same Prince came to establish the Kingdom of God that the prophets described in terms of swords being beaten into plowshares and lions laying down with lambs.  To be called Children of God is to be those who work for peace (Matthew 5:10).

Our experience in the Middle East has added this new insight into the heart of God who knows violence, oppression, and death all too intimately through the life of the one born in Bethlehem.  As we await the celebration of Christ coming into the world, we anticipate and pray for the day where He returns to wipe away every tear and where wars will be no more.  This Christmas season, we encourage you to pray that God’s peace may be manifest in the following places:

-Lebanon: Though widespread violence is not a current reality in the country, distrust and suspicion define the social and political landscape.  Pray that true peace that not only ceases aggression but that also reconciles, may reign in this country.

-Israel/Palestine: Pray for improving relations between Israel, Fatah, and Hamas.  Pray that the spirit of the Torah and the prophets, which called Israel to a high standard of justice may move this state to respect the basic right of those who have called the West Bank home to live in their homes and work the land.  May justice be the greatest guarantor of peace, rather than the ways of war.

-Iraq: May those who worship the Prince of Peace in a land that has disintegrated into a wilderness of violence find security and protection.  Christmas, the recognition of the Son of God entering this world, will not be celebrated in Baghdad because of threats to the lives of Christians.  Christians are rapidly emigrating from the country.  May a community that bears witness to the Kingdom of God not disappear from a land that needs healing and reconciling more than most.

We wish you and your family a Merry Christmas this season.  May the New Year be one in which our hearts are moved and governed by the Prince of Peace.  May Jesus Christ, who freely acquainted Himself with infirmity, suffering, and death, establish His Kingdom in communities and nations that are defined by such horrors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

26 November

Downtown Beirut.  It lies about a thirty minute walk from our abode in Hamra, but is a completely different world.  The walk takes you past blocks of current construction, each with large pictures draped across the fenced-in area showing what lovely residential plazas will rise from the ground within the next year.  Eventually, the construction abates and gleaming new facades, full of designer stores on the ground levels and apartments above, come into view.  Because the whole of downtown was granted to one construction company after the civil war, the buildings all feel the same- a nod to some Ottoman architectural flourishes, but mostly just overly polished and too new.  Near empty caf├ęs dot the pedestrian area, but it’s the afternoon and coffee or lunch is much cheaper in any other part of the city.  Many of the residential streets are quiet (I don’t think people are really living in any of the buildings), making it seem too pristine, a bit unreal, and as though it is all hiding something.  Just as you’re feeling a bit “Wrinkle in Time” about the whole affair, you turn a corner and come face to face with the secret.  Twisted wrought iron hangs from the balconies of a windowless and dilapidated concrete building.  Devoid of residents with a shelled out gash running along the whole side of the building and pockmarked entirely with bullet holes, this ghostly figure of the past reminds me that all the gleam of downtown, all its polish and bravado, cannot completely closet away the past.  

If you only look at the grandeur of the Mohammad al-Amin mosque on the main boulevard (complete with a gigantic chandelier that wouldn’t fit in my family room at home), forget the world while gazing at the gorgeous iconostasis in St. George’s Orthodox Church, or simply roam around the posh Saifi Village boutiques, it is easy to forget that the Green Line ran right through the middle of downtown.  But a few last reminders linger.  The statue in the center of the Place des Martyrs, in front of the mosque, resembles a piece of Swiss cheeses it has so many bullet holes in it.  Here and there, shelled out, bullet torn facades of apartments and even a church stand as testaments to lives lost and destruction wrought.  If that is not enough to testify to a city torn apart by the power struggle between its various factions, be sure to walk inside the monument erected to Rafiq Hariri.  Blown up in 2005 by a bomb that shook half the city, this very popular prime minister has been laid to rest next to the mosque he built.  He lies (I suppose its him or at least relics of him...a bit macabre really) under a bed of white mums in a strange, seemingly impermanent, tent-like structure, surrounded by giant photos and green indoor/outdoor carpeting.  In reaction to his death, 1 million Lebanese, which was 25-33% of Lebanon’s population, turned out for a protest.  Today this group, known as 14 March (date of the rally), continues to have great say in government matters as a political coalition that continues Hariri’s platform.

But Rafiq Hariri is not really gone from the scene: the hottest debate in Lebanon right now revolves around the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has been set-up to investigate his assassination.  With all parties entering the debate, including Syria and Hezbollah who have the most to lose, Lebanon is again finding itself in the line-of-fire.  Yet, Beirut continues to live its frenetic lifestyle, with a string of bars and clubs going wild downtown and a host of cafes filled with hookah smoke in Hamra.  The newspapers are filled with drama and doom, but in a place where peace is so ephemeral, no one takes much notice.  Everyone wants the gleam and the polish, willfully ignoring what might be lurking underneath.   

Thursday, November 18, 2010

18 November

Two Conversations

A middle-aged man, short and thick through the center, stands poised in front of a blank canvas.  A bit disheveled himself, he seems just another piece in the collection of sculptures, paintings, and books littering his tiny room.  Attracted by the bright and interestingly abstract paintings stacked one on top of another all over the walls of this studio, I cross the street with Nathan to peer through the windows.  Noticing us, the man puts down his palette and waves us energetically inside.  He begins to describe to us the various paintings, with broken but understandable English.  We’re offered a choice between coffee or tea and he disappears into a dingy backroom to put the pot onto a hotplate.  He’s not a native of Beirut but he lives here because it is a “breath of fresh air in the Middle East,” where he can speak his mind freely, particularly politically.  Rummaging through some paintings, treating them a bit roughly actually, he pulls out two tableaux, both featuring various odd images. 
            He begins explicating his work.  Gesturing to the large volume in the center of the work, he begins to explain that it represents the law of Syria or any Middle Eastern country.  Across it walks two giant boot prints and a tank assaults it- showing the disregard the military has for the law.  Several animals chew at the book, especially an overly large cow-devil thing representing the government.  In one corner a rooster cries, trying to wake everyone from the nightmare.  Thrusting the tableau to one side, he picks up the second, which looks like a stylized interior of a cathedral.  He explains he has painted in military figures in place of icons of Mary and Saints because the military has co-opted the church.  We both listened, fascinated by the politics of the art.
            Coffee finishes and we sit down around his desk to sip strong coffee from our tiny mugs.  His paunchy friend comes in and joins us.  Arabic and English mingle together, as we ask about other paintings and they make jokes about some of his portraits.  He tells us we are welcome anytime, as we leave into the evening twilight, laughing at the random hospitality of this kind stranger.


Despite her flamboyant blazer and liberal application of makeup, the woman across the lunch table from me has a deep anxiety etched into her eyes.  She’s a Presbyterian from Baghdad, visiting NEST on a tour of Lebanon with a delegation of Iraqis and Americans, and we are all having a very posh lunch in the dining hall to celebrate.  Several of us have asked her about the recent violence against Christians in Iraq, including the murder of 62 Christians after their church was held hostage and several bombings and home attacks.  She describes how the Christians are the minority in Baghdad without an active militia that will reap retribution for any attacks made on the group.  This makes them an easy target in a country where they are not welcomed.  Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Iraq grew dramatically worse post 2003, with the toppling of Saddam’s regime.  Many of them blame America for making their plight worse: why would America do this to fellow Christians, she asks before continuing.  Now Christians are targets of violence, even when they are in their own homes.  She wishes the US military would apply pressure to the government to protect minority groups, but she knows the US is intent on leaving.  Guilt and shame, anger and sorrow wash over me in waves: what am I to feel?   

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

17 November

Probably the best way of traveling around Lebanon is by hiring a driver for the day and getting enough people to fill up a sedan and split the cost.  Last Saturday we did just that for a trip to the Bekaa Valley, which is nestled against the Syrian border.

After finally freeing ourselves of the oppressive Beirut traffic, we found ourselves on the open road surrounded by mountain ranges on each side.  As we weaved between cars on the road with Arabic music playing, I realized that I was actually cruising through Lebanon of all places and what an adventure we were on.

Our first stop was Baalbeck, which is renowned for its historic ruins that are larger and more majestic than any others in Lebanon.  We first stopped by a Roman rock quarry that boasts the world’s largest rock, which had been cut out as a giant altar in the Temple of Jupiter, but was never moved.  The quarry’s custodian is a local man who thought that it should be protected and not used as the town’s landfill, as it was at the time.  He would open up bags of trash, find something with somebody’s name on it and deliver the trash back to these homes, asking them to stop depositing it in the ancient quarry.  He is glad to tell his story, will pour you some Arabic coffee, and has a pretty respectable souvenir shop.  From there, we went to the ruins of Baalbeck, which were more magnificent than anything we had expected.  The diameter of the fallen columns of the Temple of Jupiter is bigger than my wingspan, and the “little temple” of Bacchus, which is essentially intact, is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens.  It is a wonder that such a behemoth and such a work of beauty was constructed essentially in the middle of nowhere.

From there, we traveled to Ksara winery, which is the most famous winery in Lebanon.  Jesuit monks founded the winery in 1857, and its most distinctive feature is a system of caves that extend for three kilometers where they keep their wine barrels.  We went up to their bar for a free tasting, toured the caves, and bought a half-bottle of one of their red blends.  We trust that we can find further bottles in our friendly neighborhood stores.

Our day concluded with a trip to Aanjar, which had originally been a Byzantine city, but was absorbed by the Umayyads, which was the first great Arab dynasty after the initial Muslim conquests.  It was not as magnificent as Baalbeck, but it was in a quiet setting surrounded by mountain ranges, and the whole place was ours to discover and scramble over.  It was also intriguing to see how seamlessly the Umayyads recycled Byzantine architecture, including a pillar we found on which the original Greek text and an inscription of the cross were still intact.

We continue to do well in the bustle of Beirut, even finding a coffee shop where we have decided to be regulars.  However, we miss the freedom to drive ourselves and cook our meals, while random longings for things such as Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, and open space for ultimate Frisbee haunt us.  However, the opportunity to explore a country of rich history and culture and the chance to learn more about Middle Eastern churches and Christian-Muslim relations are invaluable.  Melinda and I are having conversations and considering ideas that we would not have had two months ago, so we know that we are learning a great deal.  We look forward to learning more, though an American hamburger would be awesome in the meanwhile.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

7 November

Instead of writing a fully paragraphed entry, I’m going to hit some interesting points about living in Lebanon.

            Things that are Cool

- As night falls and we sit playing backgammon on the balcony, hearing the call to prayer echo through the darkening city.  Every time I hear it, I feel that I am somewhere different.

- Delicious, thin bread called manakeesh with various different toppings.  I love to watch the street vendor heat manakeesh on the big, rounded griddle and then add the ingredients to the top, before folding it in half to hand to the salivating customer.  Maybe the most delicious kind is zaatar, made from thyme and other spices mixed together and placed on the bread.

- Wandering through the hippodrome (horse track), in a light rain, going from booth to booth tasting the wines of Lebanon with newfound friends.  Then, after an evening of laughter and strolling, finding the booth with free gingersnaps and banana fritters.

- Living in a small, international community of incredibly nice people.  We eat every meal and have every class with the same twenty people, but everyone is so nice, it is actually very pleasant.

- Jaunting away for the weekend to the nearby Qadisha Valley, exploring the Maronite hermitages and monasteries- talk about gorgeous and historically fascinating!  In order to avoid persecutions and escape the high taxes imposed by the Muslim government, the Maronite Christians escaped to the mountains, where they built a plethora of hermit caves, monasteries, and terraced gardens to survive.  While there are many predominately Maronite villages still in this area, most of the monasteries and hermitages are largely empty and many are only ruins.  Our guide kept pointing out aged caves in the cliff where chapels once were, in addition to visiting a Colombian hermit and the monastery where the Patriarchs used to live and where many are buried.  

            Things I will Never Take for Granted

- Lanes and reflectors on the highway.  For that matter, I will never take for granted lights in tunnels or taillights, which both seem to be optional here.

- Guardrails.  At some points on our journey in the mountains, I could look out the window of our bus and see straight down a sheer cliff with nothing protecting me from certain death it except the driver’s ability to stay on the tiny, crooked road.

- Eating in a reputable restaurant and knowing that I will not wake up at 4am, deathly ill.  I think I traveled probably a total of 2 miles that day between my bed and the bathroom.   I guess I should consider that my training for the 10k I ran this morning.

- The ability to flush my toilet paper.  I won’t elaborate on that.

- I’m still a bit freaked out that there are so many stray cats roaming the streets.  In fact, I’m unsure if there are more cats or more cranes in Beirut.

- Grass, trees, anything that might remind me of nature.

So, these are just a few notes about things I miss in America and things I really like about Lebanon, just to give you a different look at our lives here.

From Beirut, where I ran my first 10k today in what resembled more a parade than a race, with people in costumes and on stilts, bands on multiple corners, and something like 20,000 people walking in mass,