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,


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.