Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Day in Beirut

Last night on the winding eight mile drive up the mountain my taxi driver pulled over to get another 24oz beer and asked if I wanted one too, and I was pretty close to saying yes. But let's back up.

Yesterday morning I woke up and played Settlers of Catan. Only it was the most intense game of Settlers I've ever played. My housemates and I have played Settlers almost every evening for the last week and a half, so there was nothing unusual about that. Yesterday, though, we were entertaining a young couple from New Zealand we'd met in Jordan a month before, and when we learned the night before that they played Settlers, a match quickly ensued. They won, which was highly unacceptable, and meant that yesterday morning was the rematch.

The night before we'd stayed up to the wee hours of the morning arguing about theology, so the game got off to a late start, and turned into a race against the taxi that was coming to collect the Kiwis from our doorstep. Catan is not a game that is easily rushed––but if you've never tried it you should. It adds a whole new element of stress. I didn't win, but neither did the Kiwis, which was really the point.

Our guests left, and we jumped on a bus headed for the city. It was Friday, and every Friday I play soccer with Syrian refugee kids down in Borj Hammoud.

After rendezvousing with some other friends of my friends who wanted to come this week, we made it to the school where we play. I was about then starting to feel the fact that while I'd already worked out once that morning, thanks to the unexpected speed game of Catan, I'd eaten nothing all day but candy and hot chocolate. So as most of the kids hadn't arrived yet and there was more than enough help, I ducked out to find some shawarma.

As I was walking back from the cafe in my soccer shorts, I heard a little, far-away sounding voice squeak: "Androus!"––my name in Arabic. I spun around but didn't see anyone. Then a little face popped up over the wall of the flat roof of a building about four stories up. I waved and it giggled and then disappeared. It was one of the little girls who comes to play soccer every week.

It was a such little thing, but somehow it made me feel really strange. Here I am in this completely alien environment––a poor Armenian neighborhood in a city in Lebanon full of refugees––and somebody here knows my name. Actually, a whole bunch of people––albeit little people––do. How weird is that?

I thought about it as I went back to the organized chaos that is helping with two concurrent games of soccer between 70 exuberant little Syrians who all want you to play goalkeeper on their team.

The games ended around dusk so the kids could have time to get home just before it got dark, and my housemates and their new friends and I headed out to find some food. Since we were in an Armenian neighborhood, I took everyone to Mano which is a sandwich shop/deli that specializes in different kinds of Armenian sausage.

Mano is on Armenia Street, which, if you follow it across the bridge eventually splits into Pasteur Street and Gemayzeh Street and leads you through Mar Mkail––which is basically where everyone in Beirut who "goes out" on Friday night "goes out" to. The friends of my friends had to meet someone in that general direction, so, fortified with some Armenian sujuk, we headed over the bridge and started the mile-and-a-half walk.

In a little side street off of Mar Mkail is an establishment named Chaplins themed and decorated entirely around the actor Charlie Chaplin. Despite its slightly off the main drag location and general hole-in-the-wall appearance, it is quite popular. This may have something to do with Charlie Chaplin, but I tend to think it has more to do with the fact that between the hours of six and nine every night, shots cost 2,000 Lira––that is, $1.33.

One of the friends of my friends who I was meeting for the first time was Palestinian, but grew up between Lebanon, Jordan and the States, so it was interesting talking to him about his life experience split between those three places. He remembered Mano from his parents taking him there as a child and was surprised I'd known where it was. When I mentioned Chaplins existence to him off the cuff, he insisted we go there as well––although I'm less sure it was because he remembered it from his childhood.

One of the coolest things about living in such a transient city is how many people you meet. One of the strangest things about it is that you often quickly and casually say goodbye to those people forever. Whether it was the Kiwis who spent the night with us, my friend's friends, the kids we played soccer with, or really anyone for that matter.

Then came the usual struggle of getting back up the mountain. While it was still only 7:30pm or so (basically mid-morning by Beiruti standards) Taxi prices had already gone up and there is no bus that goes directly from Gemayzeh to where I live. In the end we took a service from there to the Doura round-about, where we found a group of taxi drivers standing by a convenience store drinking. One was willing to take us up the mountain for a very reasonable price, and Almaza in hand, got behind the wheel and plunged us into the wild Beirut traffic.

We made it about two blocks when one of my housemates realized he'd forgot his backpack somewhere in the city and jumped out of the car. While my other housemate and I were concerned, there wasn't really much we could do, and so continued on with our driver.

It was now just me in the back and my housemate sitting in the front passenger seat when the driver pulled out his smartphone and handed it to him. Texting and driving is dangerous, especially when you have a bottle of beer in one hand, so the gentleman had fortuitously handed the phone to my housemate with an open text conversation and began dictating to him in broken english. This got  rather awkward when it became apparent that the person on the other end of the conversation was a woman the driver was involved in a rather steamy affair with. The exchange was cut mercifully short only when we pulled in at a convenience store to buy some more beer.

Refueled for another couple miles, we continued on up the mountain and arrived safe and sound at our front gate. About 45 minutes later, my other housemate made it back, backpack in hand, and we put a rather mundane capstone on the day by cooking a light supper and watching TV.

It was another day in Beirut.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Running in Beirut

Running in Lebanon is rather dangerous. Even registering for a race can be somewhat hazardous.

Today I went downtown to pick up my number for the Beirut Marathon 10k event this Sunday and found the entire district was blockaded in what looked like preparation for the D-Day invasion. As it turns out, the invaders were about three dozen posh looking Lebanese, protesting that the national parliament a few blocks away had just voted to reelect itself for two more years. The most dangerous person there was probably the girl with the clipboard [right foreground], yet I still had to run the gauntlet of the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Force, six US Humvees, UN Peacekeepers, and about 200 men with M-16s [not pictured, because they don't like it] to get to the ritzy Beirut Souks shopping plaza where they were doing pre-registration.


It honestly wasn't bad when I lived down in Gemayzeh in a hostel. Then there were actually sidewalks. That is, when they don't completely block the sidewalk to put up a billboard advertising the race you are training for, forcing you for one horrifying second to hurl yourself into the right-most lane of a four-lane highway. But since I moved up the mountain things have got exponentially worse.

There is now nothing but miles of extremely steep, twisting road with barely enough room for two small cars to pass each other and no berm at all, but on which cement trucks and transport buses make up most of the traffic. There are some parts where, when walking, you basically have to just press yourself against the cliff-face, close your eyes and pretend you're somewhere else as a diesel semi-trailor grinds past you nine inches away.

There are still places you at least can run, though. The secret is to find side roads with large military checkpoints. Side road means less trucks, and large military checkpoint means slower trucks. As an added bonus, the view is often quite breathtaking.


Unfortunately, if there is one thing I hate in this world, it is wild dog-like creatures. And out here, in the howling darkness that is everything east of the last Lebanese Army checkpoint on the Beirut city limits, there are wild dog-like creatures.


But every silver lining has its cloud.

Today I helped tutor some Syrian and Iraqi refugee students at an after-school program run by a friend I met at Arabic school last month. The main reason I came was actually to help him and some other friends get back to my apartment on the mountain for a long-promissed dinner that evening, but I was assured I'd be helping the students with only English grammar and the Arabic alphabet. An hour of algebra homework later, and we were piling into my friend's Peugeot hatchback.

I don't have a car, so I'd only ever taken the bus on the 30 minute (without traffic) drive from Beirut up to my place, so just getting to the base of the mountain was somewhat stressful, and could really be a post unto itself. We made it, though, and after getting on the right road at the roundabout at Mkallas, we headed up the mountain and all breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then the car broke.


After watching a YouTube video on how to pop the hood of a Peugeot, pouring several liters of water into the radiator reservoir, and watching them trickle down the highway back toward Beirut, we discovered that the hose connecting the radiator reservoir to the radiator was ruptured. I'd always rather wondered what it would be like to get stranded on the side of the road in Lebanon. So it's almost a relief to have finally experienced it now. It was also good that it was within a few––albeit extremely steep––miles of my apartment. So after convincing everyone that pouring water all over the red-hot engine block was not a suitable substitute for a functioning radiator, we pushed the car about 40 ft. uphill, abandoned it, and jumped on a passing bus.

I felt quite bad about my friend's car. But dinner was delicious.

And after a succession of Almazas, sitting on our balcony playing guitar and chatting as we looked out over the sparkling on-off lights of Beirut and its suburbs 1,600 ft. below, I felt quite alright about the whole thing. Even the algebra.

As it turns out, though, driving here is still worse than running. And that's really something to feel thankful for.

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