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 cafés 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,


Monday, November 1, 2010

1 November

Beirut can be a difficult city for two people who thrive in open spaces and value the color green.  We are doing well, but Melinda and I are not used to being somewhere without a field, canal path, or parks in which we can explore or throw a Frisbee.

This weekend, we accepted an invitation to explore one of Lebanon’s most beautiful destinations.  For the past few weeks, we have had the pleasure of meeting an older couple, Robin and Juliet Grayson; Robin is an Anglican priest in the United Kingdom, and both are friends of our local vicar, Nabil.  During last week, we received the offer to join Robin and Juliet for a trip to the mountains surrounding the Qadisha Valley.  We could not refuse.  So, at 7 am on Saturday, we met them and were on our way.  Just outside of Beirut, we stopped at the Dog River, where on the side of a mountain is an inscription from every conquering army that has come through Lebanon.  One of the oldest steles, left by the Egyptian armies of Ramses II, was replaced by one commemorating Napoleon III’s 1860 expedition to protect the Maronite Christians.

Lebanon is a small country, so I was expecting the mountains to be, well, pretty.  They were, in fact, serious mountains with sheer drops into a valley of which I could not see the bottom.  Our driver took us up the winding roads, stopping for photo opportunities of the mountains.  Our first stop was a museum commemorating the life of the artist and writer Khalil Gibran, who is best known for his collection of poems, The Prophet.  Afterwards, we stopped at a small place on the road for Arabic coffee, zaatar, labneh, and cheese melts.  Zaatar is bread seasoned with a thyme-based mix, and labneh tastes like something between goat cheese and sour cream.  After this, we continued through the cold (yes, cold!) mountains to a peak with a preserved grove of the cedars of Lebanon.  These trees have been famous for millennia and some were harvested to be the pillars in the temple of Solomon.  It was just perfect to walk through a place of such undisturbed beauty, where 1,000-year-old trees can thrive.  Cedar trees may sound very common in America, but these ancient wonders sprawl out on a majestic scale.  Afterwards, we perused some souvenir shops that claim to have objects made from naturally felled cedar wood.  We did not see anything we wanted, but one man gave us an ornament shaped like a cedar tree with our names burnt into it; it will work perfectly whenever we have a Christmas tree!

After the Cedars, we went to the Monastery of Saint Anthony.  The Qadisha Valley has a long monastic tradition, and this monastery dates back to the 4th century.  It is literally on the side of a mountain and includes a shrine to St. Anthony in a cave, a chapel carved into the side of the mountain, and the first Arabic printing press in the Middle East.  Its preservation of the area’s history and culture and surrounding natural beauty made it the perfect embodiment of the Qadisha Valley region.

We had a wonderful weekend getting our fill of fresh air, cool weather, and majestic mountains, all of which were shared with new friends.  We look forward to more adventures as we endeavor to adapt to (and occasionally escape from) the strange and exciting place that is Beirut.


Monday, October 25, 2010

25 October

After an impromptu invitation from a woman at church who works in southern Lebanon, we journeyed on Friday to Tyre.  After Arabic, Nathan and I met our NEST friend Marjorie and headed off for the Cola “bus terminal.”  The terminal turned out to be a jumble of mini-buses and touring buses hanging out under an overpass.  We were accosted by a man and directed to a mini-bus going to Sidon, where we would change for Tyre.  Now I knew there had to be a real bus going directly to Tyre, but who was I to blow against a very strong wind?  We boarded the mini-bus, a very high class one I might add, and headed into the Beirut traffic.  Once we finally pushed out of Beirut, we only stopped a few times: for the driver to buy cigarettes from a stand, purchase a small coffee, and leave the bus to retrieve a phone number from a fellow bus driver. 

The drive to Sidon wound around the coast, which was quite pretty.  Upon arrival, I summoned my French and asked for a bus to Tyre.  I was directed to a rather small, forest colored vehicle, a cross between a van and a mini-bus.  Already full of burly military men, lanky students, and a few others, we were ushered on board.  I found a seat in the last row, but they had to fold out chairs for Nate and Marjorie.  Crammed inside this bus, where upon take-off the man next to me lit a cigarette, I felt really like I was having a serious adventure.  Along the road the lamppost banners displayed a happily waving Achmadenijad, alternating with the rather stern Ayatollah Khomeini, punctuated by a smiling Colonel Sanders peddling his latest chicken sandwich on the billboards.

Dropped off in the heart of the old market sector, we could barely hear ourselves think over the loudly broadcast sermon from the minaret.  After finding some hummus and parsley salad for lunch, we caught a taxi for the famous Al-Bass archeological site, home of the largest unearthed Roman hippodrome.  I really thought our taxi driver had scammed us because the place has no real entrance: just a dirt drive and two huts.  I don’t know how they manage to hide a giant Roman arch that once marked the entrance to Tyre or the 480m hippodrome, but they do.  We paid the fee and walked past a huge necropolis, filled with jumbles of sarcophagi and tombs dating from Roman and Byzantine days.  No lie, you could actually see shards of bones through broken holes.  At the back of the site stood the giant stone arch with the old road leading through it, colonnaded on both sides.  To the left of the columns and arches stand the remains of three sections of stadium seating and the center of the old hippodrome where they held chariot races (think Ben Hur).  Photographing the beautiful columns and scrambling up the ancient stadium seats, I felt overcome by the history.  I’m not sure I’ve been surrounded by anything quite so ancient.

There I stood, hidden in the ancient yet squarely in the heart of modernity.  I am constantly amazed at how Lebanon manages to juxtapose its past and present: standing amidst the lovely Roman ruins, I stood only meters from a camp filled with the ruined lives of Palestinian refugees.  Left with nowhere to go after being run off their land, many of the Palestinians who fled from Israel still remain in sordid camps in Lebanon.  I do not wish to delve into the controversy of Israel-Palestine, but the presence of the Palestinians is key to understanding Lebanon.  With the influx of these refugees, the delicate balance of Christian-Muslim power balances in Lebanese politics was upset.  I’m wicked oversimplifying, but this event did greatly help along the civil war in Lebanon.  Even today the Palestinians are often a source of strife as politicians wrestle over complicated questions of citizenship. 

This blog aims to keep you up-to-date on our lives, but it also aims to tell the story of the country we’re exploring.  Lebanon is a fascinating place, full of beautiful relics of the past- like Roman arches and columns by the sea- but also filled with hallmarks of a war torn history- like the bombed out shells of buildings in Beirut or the refugee camps.  Theirs is a complicated story- much more so than most of us realize.  So while I ended my day in Tyre sipping Almaza and munching baba genoush while watching the sun sink into the sea from a beach café, the questions and the complexities of this country continue to resound in my head.

From Beirut, where I not only spend my time thinking about history, but I also spend lazy days eating dates and playing backgammon,


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

19 October

Dropped off literally on the side of the interstate by the bus, I wasn’t really sure we’d ever find the ruins and old town of Byblos.  We wove our way through the new town until we spotted the remains of the large Crusader castle, which then led us to the old town of Byblos.  Tossed between the Phoenicians, Romans, and Crusaders, Byblos has developed a long and rich history, attested to by the ruins remaining in the city today.  These ruins, combined with the rambling alleyways, old tan-stone homes, and blossoming trees tucked here and there throughout the old market, transport the visitor away from the noise of modern Lebanon.  We roamed through the Crusader castle, saw our first Lebanese cedars, and took in the stunning view of four Roman columns in front of the cerulean sea for quite some time.  I simply loved it. 

This is now our second full week of classes, and it goes well.  The introductory Islam class is proving incredibly educative, particularly since we are reading (a translation) of the Life of the Apostle.  This book, written roughly 100 years after the death of Muhammad (d.632), attempts to compile the various narratives about the life and actions of Muhammad.  I have been intrigued by the author/compiler’s concern to place Muhammad in the monotheistic and prophetic line of the Old and New Testaments.  Like many Christian apologists arguing that prophetic words of the Old Testament point to Christ, Muslim apologists have historically also used the Old Testament (and New) to point out prophetic material pointing to Muhammad.  It really is fascinating.  I look forward to exploring more primary source materials. 

Outside of NEST, we continue our somewhat torturous Arabic lessons.  I must note that I did successfully say “I would like two beers, please” in Arabic and actually get the result I wanted.  That’s really the extent of my skill.  I have also managed to “insult” one of the professors here.  We had been kidding at lunch one afternoon about the very proper way to say the beginning of his last name- Awwad.  I mean, it’s not that hard, but the vowel is a little different from English.  The next day I tried it again, and my pronunciation of the vowel was off just enough that, instead of “Awwad,” I managed to say “cross-eyed.”  We had a nice laugh.

We remained in Beirut this past weekend, touring the really nice National Museum on Saturday and attending an Assyrian Church service with our Eastern Churches class on Sunday.  Nathan and I both found the service fascinating, despite our inability to understand the Syriac language.  The priest, attired in gorgeous ivory vestments with gold and red embroidery, led the service, which seemed to mostly focus on the Eucharist.  Incense and chanting by the priest and a “choir” of young women appareled in burgundy pervaded the service, and, as in many Orthodox Churches, for a time a curtain closed between the nave and the altar area to symbolize the doors of the kingdom.  Punctuating the service, latecomers would walk to the front of the church, kiss a gemmed cross, and accept the peace via a sort of handshake from the choir members.  As is the church’s custom, we were invited to partake of the elements with the other believers, provided the women in the group donned a headscarf.  Standing in line with all these other believers waiting for the bread, a sense of the oneness of the church overwhelmed me, and I was again reminded that “we are all beggars” when it comes to grace.  No one has special standing, no one has one “right” way to worship- we are all God’s children, coming to him with open hands and hearts to receive anew God’s incomprehensible grace.   

From Beirut, where the interstates have no traffic lanes, the motorbikes go any direction they please on any road, and the taxi rides leave me needing an Advil but feeling a bit thrilled,


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

12 October

Disoriented and about to roll out of my tiny twin bed, I awaken to the sound of concrete mixing, hammers slamming, and pipes banging- noises which my earplugs manage only to muffle.  After a quick breakfast of traditional Lebanese bread (flatter than a tortilla and tastier), cucumbers, and some sort of white, mildly-crumbly cheese, we head off to Arabic lessons down the road.  Quickly dodging between ancient Mercedes and brand new Nissan Z’s, heading past the purple and gold Hallmark store (kitsch crosses the globe I guess) and the loads of closet-like shops selling sodas and a variety of wares, we arrive at the lesson.

After a slightly painful two hours of writing beautiful, curvy letters and then mispronouncing them all, it is back to NEST.  Chapel begins at 12:10, lunch follows at 12:30, and then comes coffee.  Arabic coffee certainly bites back, but the fun of sitting on the balcony with everyone else and laughing makes it worth it.  I vow to love the coffee by the time I leave; Nathan already does.  Then, being the diligent student that I am, I read the local paper, attempt to use the internet and fail, then do some reading, and end with a stroll.  It’s a pretty good afternoon schedule I think.

Nathan and I are both enrolled in A Survey of Eastern Churches, Introduction to Islam, and Islam in the Modern World at NEST.  So far, very good.  I am perhaps most excited about the Eastern Churches class, both because I love theology and liturgy and because we get to take trips as a class.  I realize, though, that Islam classes are most relevant and will apply myself to them with great fervor.   Anyway, being a student is all I know how to do, so what else would I do?

My time at the café is about end and with it, the internet.  Sorry to put up so many posts at once, but, with the internet being so dodgy, it’s the only option.  We did take a fantastic trip to an idyllic town called Byblos…but I’ll have to get to that in the next post (great foreshadowing, eh?).

So, from Beirut, where the weather has finally cooled a bit, but Nathan insists he should continue to unbutton all the buttons of his polo to fit in with the Lebanese men,


A Note from Nathan

One of the most intriguing aspects about living in a new country has been reading the local newspapers.  Lebanon has an English-language newspaper, and it has not taken long to discover the tensions, anxieties, and hopes of a country.  The purpose of the grant Melinda received was to return to America better equipped and prepared to serve as a minister of Christ.  I think that one element of the news has already done that; I realize now just how much and how closely the Middle East watches America and the West. 

The Lebanese media is very aware of developments within the United States and Europe about which they have every right to be anxious.  They know that a large numbers of Americans think that a Muslim should not be allowed to be President or a Supreme Court Justice.  They know how a Muslim community center raised such a fuss in New York City.  They even know how a Lebanese-American has been getting insinuated as less than loyal in a competitive House race in West Virginia (this candidate also happens to be a Presbyterian).  There has also been the rise of right-wing parties in Europe that have been incorporated into governing coalitions that are explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.  Lebanon is a country in which Christians and Muslims share power and its capital is a truly modern and welcoming city, but there is definitely a sense of fear and anxiety about attitudes and trends developing in our country towards Middle Easterners.  Articles reporting this are not written in an accusatory tone, but in a sense of disappointment when Lebanon finds itself at a crossroads concerning its relationship either with the West or with other regional powers that are less than friendly to the US.  We as Americans need to be a lot more careful about the messages that we are sending to other parts of the world when we treat people from certain parts of the world differently.  We are being watched closely, and consequences reverberate across the globe.

Another interesting part of living in another country is going to church.  Melinda and I spent our first Sunday in Beirut at All Saints Anglican Church.  Saleem, our Palestinian friend, is an assistant to the priest at the Arab-speaking service and told us about a van that picks people up in front of NEST.  Melinda, our Scottish friend Marjorie, and I got on the van, and the parishioners on board wanted to know if we spoke Arabic.  When they found out that we did not, they kept telling us when the English service was.  We tried to explain that we wanted the experience of an Arabic-language service, and also that this was the only time the van came to our school anyway.  After attending the first service, we were welcomed warmly by some of the congregants who spoke English.  It was nice to see that “coffee hour” also exists in Lebanon, though with Arabic coffee and a spicy, garlic bread.

The English service is run by a man named Father Nabil, who thought he was leaving Lebanon for a few weeks to finish his war-interrupted college examinations and ended up living in England and serving as a priest for over 20 years.  He leads a very international congregation, where the liturgy and worship style changes weekly.  He is very good at explaining why certain things are done in the midst of the service and making sure that everybody is “equally uncomfortable with how things are done.”  It is a very deliberate attempt to be a reconciled community of believers in Jesus Christ from different places and backgrounds.  After the service, we were invited to Nabil’s family’s apartment along with what seemed like a dozen people.  We had good conversations with everybody, including Father Nabil, who is a very hospitable and thoughtful man.  I had planned to check out the Presbyterian Church, which I’m sure is nice, but we were just welcomed so warmly, took so much from worship, and felt so much a part of the community that we see no reason not to come back.  I look forward to not only being spiritually fed at this church, but also seeing how a church manages to sustain a true community amid a group of people that are mainly transient. 

Overall, we are warming up to the crowded and crazy place that is Beirut and feel like it will be a good year, especially with the start of classes.  We look forward to sharing more with you later.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

1 October

Despite the stale humidity and raging sun, my incessant need to explore has beckoned me around Hamra.  I admit, the heat dissuades me from exploring much further, but I have heard it will break soon.  So, like everyone else, I find myself waiting.  Sweaters have made an appearance in the shops, so I take heart that some cool air will soon blow through Beirut.  Then again, sweaters come out in American shops in July, so who knows!

My favorite spot in Hamra has become the Corniche.  Stretching for several kilometers, this paved walkway circles around Hamra and follows the curve of the Mediterranean.  First green around the volcanic looking rocks of the coast and then growing into a deep blue, the Mediterranean is lovely.  I enjoy watching it swallow the rocks and then slowly reveal them again.  Men - well, mostly men- stand on the rocks and fish with incredibly long poles, and every so often, a large resort area with pools and posh cabanas juts out into the water.  The Corniche is home to joggers and walkers, men in white flowing robes and women in tiny tank-tops, babies in strollers and elderly couples out for some air.  At night the Corniche becomes the center of activity: some stroll with their children, others play loud Arabic rock from their parallel parked cars, and a few smoke water pipes, despite it being disallowed.

If you continue to follow the Corniche - past the hotels, past the gelato stand, past the Ferris wheel in the always empty amusement park- you will arrive to the Pigeon Rocks.  Although the large trucks belching black smoke in one’s face make it difficult to climb the hill and the barbed wire encasing a random military area seems strange, the Rocks are worth it.  Made of many lovely white layers and looming large above the water, the main Rock is an arch and the other simple stands beside it.  I’ve drug Nathan there several times, trying to catch the optimum light for photographing he rocks, but I’ve not found it yet, owing to clouds and a later-than-realized sunset.  

We did escape the bustle and noise of Hamra to visit a beach several kilometers north of Beirut.  I enjoyed walking a short distance along the coast (the beaches are demarcated so you stay in yours) and watching the sun sink into the sea, but the real story surrounds the transportation.  Having grown used to the organized, clean, indoor, bus depots of Korea, I felt very unprepared for the madness and chaos of the Beirut bus depot.  People stood helter-skelter amid the outdoor station, buying tickets from the counter outside the bus they wanted.  Never did I see a timetable or price notice.  For someone as seriously organized and anal as me, this was a trial.  Not to mention, the bus simply dropped at the side of a highway to get to the beach.  What happened to going to the town’s bus depot or at least a bus stop?  Luckily, the young Iraqi with us seemed to think this was business as usual, so I let it out of my mind.  Later that night, to return to Beirut, we merely walked up to the highway, waited two minutes, and a mini-bus arrived.  For two dollars, we got back to Beirut, but not before stopping along and picking up any random pedestrian until the bus was full.  Then it just dumped us off on the side of the road again!  We had to take a taxi back to NEST.  I know there must be a reason, a logic, an organization to this, but I don’t know what it is.  I surely hope I figure it out soon!  Anyway, it was quite the experience. 

So, before I lose the internet, signing off from Beirut, where I change clothes several times a day without fear because there are free laundry machines,

29 September

Marhaba from Beirut!  After two flights and a death defying cab ride, we have arrived and settled into our dorm room at the Near East School of Theology (NEST).  For those of you confused about why I find myself yet again in some far-flung location, let me explain.  Nathan and I will be participating in NEST’s Middle Eastern Studies program, with a particular aim at better understanding Islam and witnessing this Lebanese Christian community that strives for ongoing dialogue between Christians and Muslims.  Given the rising concerns in America regarding Islam, such a pursuit of knowledge seems quite germane.

So, here I am in Beirut, sipping bottled water from a tiny plastic cup in a vain effort to cool myself and find re-hydration.  I’d love to open this blog with something more interesting, but the humidity and unseasonable heat have colored much of our experience so far.  Nevertheless, undaunted by the sweltering Mediterranean sun and casting aside the fear of doing laundry three times a week, we have bravely explored our area Beirut: Hamra.  Filled with students sporting anything from Abercrombie and Fitch shirts, to brilliantly colored headscarves, to jeans with more zippers than anything I’ve ever seen, Hamra plays host to a number of colleges, including the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB).  Across from the AUB, on one of the main roads in Hamra, a number of tiny shops selling a variety of delicious looking flatbread sandwiches draw crowds of students at any time of the day.  Walking further away from the AUB and into the heart of Hamra, the roads narrow and the variety of shops increase: tiny places crammed with TVS and computers, giant meats strung from ceilings, convenience stores packed with snacks…as our cab driver said, anything you want, you’ll find here.  Above the shops, tall, tan apartment buildings dominate the skyline, while shorter, older apartments with gorgeous balconies and painted shutters speak of a time before the war, when architecture was an art around here. Below, giant SUVs- Infiniti, BMW, Cadillac- squeeze themselves down the alleys as pedestrians risk their lives dodging between slowed vehicles.  Hamra hums with energy. 

Tan and concrete, like most buildings in Beirut, NEST sits off one of these jammed little roads.   NEST is self-contained: classrooms, the library, the cafeteria, all housing, and even a basketball court on floor -2 are all here in this several storied building.  We live on the 4th floor, in a comfortable dorm room with a lovely balcony.  Everyone we meet here, whether international students in our program, regular students from a plethora of Middle Eastern locations, or professors, have been incredibly kind.  Our program, aimed at internationals, consists of 3 Germans, 4 Danes, 3 Americans, 1 Swiss and 1 Scot.  It has been fun chatting with them at the meals, and we look forward to a year filled with forming new friendships and overflowing with cross-cultural experiences.

Since the Internet tends to be a bit precarious, I’ll end here for today.  Signing off from Beirut, where the humidity is high, but our excitement is even higher,