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,