Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Compartmentalizable Country

One of the many funny things about Lebanon is how compartmentalizable it is. It's a tiny country, yet there can be a vast array of situations, moods and events from one neighborhood and one village to the next. People can seem to go on with their normal lives without thinking much about what's happening a few miles away.

Today some friends and I wanted go to Byblos to see the Crusader castle there and maybe go to the beach. We caught a bus to the place you can catch another bus headed north along the coast and, after drinking some juice, found one headed in that direction.

I was the first one to the door and was a little hesitant to get on with my group of seven when I realized the entire vehicle was filled with Lebanese soldiers. One of my friends reminded me, though, that there is no such thing as "too full" here––indeed, last night I was in a five-person taxi with eight people, one sitting on the drivers lap and working the clutch while he shifted––and we piled in.

As the bus pulled away, there was some commotion amongst the troops as one read something he'd just received on his phone. There was some shouting and the name of a city repeated over and over again.

As it turned out, there'd been a great deal of fighting in Tripoli today, with artillery and airpower and all that stuff––between alleged IS fighters and the Lebanese Military. A number of soldiers and a civilian had been killed by the time the girl next to me pulled up the local news on her phone––and these guys packed into the bus with us, were reinforcements heading into combat.

Byblos is pretty much exactly halfway between Beirut and Tripoli, so it wasn't as if we were heading into the immediate danger zone ourselves. Still, it was strange to think that these guys, some of them laughing and talking with us, were headed to war on the same bus we were taking to an afternoon of sightseeing.

We got out when the driver announced we were at the stop for Byblos, and spent the afternoon as we'd planned. We went to an outdoor restaurant where I ate a gigantic and entirely disgusting chicken liver shawarma. We meandered around a crusader castle. We drank espresso and ate ice-cream and watched the sun sink into the Mediterranean Sea as a couple of newlyweds had their portraits taken by a team of about seven photographers.

Were it not for the helicopters and––one fighter-jet from whence I know not, since Lebanon doesn't have fighter-jets––that periodically sped north over our heads, I could have completely forgotten that 45 minutes up the road, people like those guys we road on the bus with were locked in a deadly stand-off in the middle of Tripoli.

In fact, after the helicopters stopped coming for awhile, I think I did forget about it. And that makes me feel kind of bad.

If I were at my home in Pennsylvania and found out people were being killed 50 miles away in Williamsport I doubt I'd spend the day doing much but thinking and praying for the people there––and possibly trying to get further away myself. Here though, I went a little closer, and strolled around on the beach.

When you look at a place like this from the outside, you can easily think it's terrible how people can just go on with their normal lives with so much suffering around them. Today, though, I realized I can do it pretty easily myself.


Monday, October 06, 2014

The Rose Salesmen of Lebanon

I try, as a discipline, not to be super-depressing when I write. 

Unfortunately, sometimes––if not usually––the most evocative things in life are extremely depressing. And the more you think about them, the more evocatively depressing they become. Maybe that's why pretty much every great American writer ever was a manic-depressive alcoholic. 

So, hopefully in no way suggesting that I'm a great writer––or a manic-depressive alcoholic––this evening I'm sharing something that I find extremely depressing across so many levels that it's simply poetic in its depressiveness:  

War refugees trying to sell me roses. 

Just about anywhere you go in this country there are refugees. Palestinians from the war in the 80s. Syrians from the war now. Gypsies and Turkmens and Kurds from who-knows-when. Some of them, like the Syrian bartender downstairs I sometimes talk to, are doing alright for themselves. Others not so much. Many of those end up begging, or only slightly better, trying to sell knick-nacks on the street. Water bottles, bracelets, terrifying battery powered plastic dogs from some overstock warehouse in western China. 

Some of them, though, sell roses. 


And that, I feel like, is the worst.

There's an old man who walks up and down my street in the evenings past the bars and the store fronts with an arm-full of them. He never bothers you. Just walks slowly past. On the other hand, there are sometimes kids, like one I met out on a castle in the water down south, who are extremely aggressive rose salesmen. To me. 

Do I look like I want a rose? I really don't. But my best guess is the idea goes: I buy it from them, and then give it to someone special. The immediate problem for both of us at that minute in time is: I have no such person to give it to. So, like the bracelet sellers, and the water bottle sellers, and the terrifying battery powered plastic dogs from some overstock warehouse in western China sellers, I mutter laa, shukran and turn a shoulder. It's sadder though, because in a more perfect world I still wouldn't need any of the latter items. But I would love to buy a rose for someone. 

Of course, in a more perfect world, neither would they be trying to sell me roses, because there would be no war and their houses would still be standing and their families would still be alive. And––while it's ridiculous to compare in any way––if I did have someone to give a rose to, then chances are I wouldn't have ended up here either. 

But there we both are––them trying to survive by selling me something I don't want as a symbol of some affection that I don't have––completely unable to help each other. 

Where is the silver-lining in all that? 

I really wish I knew.   


Friday, September 26, 2014

Intensive

A lot of people who read this blog are surprised when I tell them I didn’t learn to read until I was 12. It’s true, though. I had some tests done when I was ten or eleven and found out I have a type of dyslexia that makes it extremely difficult––painful even––to keep track of multiple letters in a word and multiple lines on a page. Through a few different techniques and ways to visualize what was on a page, I did learn eventually, but it was difficult, and I honestly don’t think I reached a point where it was completely effortless till I was in college. 

With that in my past, it would have been hard for me to imagine that I would ever decide to attempt to learn a completely different script and way of reading. Twice the time of my life since then, though, that’s exactly what I’m doing. 

Last Sunday night I moved into a hostel next to an Arabic institute in Beirut and Monday morning I started Intensive Beginner Urban Arabic in the building next door. Classes go for three hours a day, five days a week, and in addition there’s about two hours of homework. 


Leading up to this I was trying to look at it positively, but, for the reasons mentioned above, I kept finding myself secretly dreading it. Looking back on the week, though, it has in reality been a great experience so far. Everyone in my class is interesting. NGO workers from Europe, Lebanese people who were born abroad but never learned to read Arabic. Expatriate wives of Lebanese. People, like me, who were just interested. A girl who went to college in Ithaca, just up the road from where I live, and is doing graduate work here. They are from all over the place but have come here to learn the same thing, and there's a sense of camaraderie in the group I don't think I ever experienced in four and a half years of college classes back home. 

The people are the main thing that's made it good, but the atmosphere is pretty cool too. The building we are in has a nightclub on the roof and an arguile bar and café on the ground floor. I've never actually gone to the night club at night, but in the afternoon when it's sunny and no one is up there it makes a great place to study. In the restaurant on the ground floor they serve free breakfast to guests every morning––I get an omelet––and then in the evening it is packed with Lebanese eating mezze and smoking arguile. 

A Swiss-Lebenese guy studying Foosah Arabic lived in the room next to mine, and when I found out he works out, he offered to show me the gym he uses. I bought a monthly membership and we started lifting weights together. Yesterday he told me he's moving down south to go to a different school in a Shia controlled area. I've only known him for a week, but somehow it's sad. Last night we had a little party for him down in the café with some of the people from the floor, and over some local beer under a haze of arguile smoke between us and the never quite dark Beirut sky, it felt like we were saying goodbye to an old friend. 


We nearly finished the alphabet today and are starting to be able to have legitimate sounding––albeit verb-free––conversations in class and when we practice together. So looking back on the past five days I'm surprised at both how much Arabic I've learned, and how many friendships have started. So much for my dread right? I guess I shouldn't speak so soon. On Monday we learn the last two letters and plunge into grammar and usage. And it's only five days into five weeks. 

At the rate things are going, who knows what could happen here in that amount of time? 



Saturday, September 20, 2014

The local news

I'm back in Beirut now. Most likely for a long while. The trip over went pretty smoothly. Detour around the Ukraine, but I guess that should be expected. I learned Qatar looks ridiculously amazing from the sky, and that while 14 hour flights to the Middle East are not as crowded as they were three years ago, the percentage passengers who are screaming Arab babies is as high as ever.

I spent all this morning riding buses to nowhere. Cobbled together haphazardly from government run routes, private companies and people with vans, Beirut's bus system is less "system" and more of a randomly evolved organism with very few consistent rules. The only way really understand it at all is to use it, so this morning I was doing just that.

After some shawarma and a stop at Starbuck's in Hamra, I ended up at the Virgin Records store. They will not let you into the Virgin Records store if you are carrying a cup of mango juice. Just FYI. While there I picked up a copy of the Daily Star––Beirut's main English language newspaper.

I occasionally watch cable news and often frequent the networks' news websites––but I almost never read local news. Flipping through the paper this evening though, I had a strange feeling I couldn't quite place. Then I realized: all the local news I was reading was things I was used to seeing on the national news back in the States. It's all happening right here, or just a few miles away.

Sitting in an overstuffed leather chair with a fantastic view of Beirut's cityscape and the Mediterranean behind me while reading the paper, I wasn't quite sure if that feeling was exciting or unsettling. At any rate, whatever happens, I'll be here to see it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Home is behind
The world ahead
And there are many paths to tread

Monday, September 01, 2014

We Own The Night

I've always loved night photography. About five years ago I got a Lumix point-and-shoot that had a night photo setting as well as a very-wide angle attached lens and while attempting to capture a lightning storm, discovered it was also quite good at catching stars and clouds. A a few years ago, necessity forced me to make the jump into the DSLR world, and while my portrait and action photography improved exponentially, I never had a lens that was very suited to wide field astrophotography (which, as it turns out, is the name for what I'd been doing with my old Lumix). So for a long time, I nearly forgot about it. 

Moving to Lebanon in just a couple weeks, I've been taking stock of things I will need and not have the option of buying there. I've refurbished the things that can be refurbished (like my computer, fortunately!) and replaced some things I couldn't. It's also been a great excuse to buy some things I've always wanted but had never quite been able to justify. One of those things was a true super-wide angle lens, and on a recommendation from a cousin (it's amazing how many good recommendations I seem to get from cousins) I decided on one that was almost absurdly wide and had pretty good low-light capabilities as well: the Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX II 11-16mm F2.8 Aspherical

The funny thing is, I was not thinking about stars at all, just landscapes like the one's I saw out west last year, or the vistas in the Kadisha Valley I'd never quite been able to do justice to before. This evening though, I arrived home to find the power out and a more-or-less interesting sky shaping up above. So it was that I once again turned my camera toward the heavens. And I got one of the more pleasant surprises in my recent memory:







I think it can see more stars than I can.