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. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Memories of home, thoughts of friends

This afternoon I watched Gladiator. There's something about the story of that film that always gets me.  I think it's the sense of longing for a past you can never return to even as you're pressed to carry on in the present. It's embodied so beautifully in the movie by the visions Maximus has––often at very climactic moments––of walking through a field of barley toward his home in the Spanish countryside where his wife and son wait for him. It's the one thing he wants at the beginning of the story––and the one thing fate will never let him have as you learn early on that his home has been destroyed and his wife and son killed. That scene of him walking home always resonates with me in a way very few movies ever have.

I certainly haven't yet gone through anything quite as traumatic as losing my immediate family––let alone a spouse or child––or having my home destroyed, but there are certainly moments when something causes me to snap back to times in my life that I remember being happier or more content but that I know, no matter what I do, I can never return to. Relationships end. People die. Groups split. We can look back at them, but we can only move forward. 

Watching the film this gloomy Saturday afternoon, it hit me harder than it ever has before. 

It wasn't until this evening when I was looking through some pictures of friends from the past couple years that it occurred to me why. I'm right now on the edge of closing a chapter of my life. In just a few weeks I'll be leaving my home, my friends and my country for a very long time. It's what I want to do––what I have to do, really––and I'm more excited about it than I've been about anything in a long time. But today I realized it may be more bittersweet than I imagined. 

The home I'm living in is the home I grew up in––and it almost certainly won't be mine to return to when I get back. My family is at a time of transition. One generation taking the place of another, and I'd be a fool to think it will be the same when I get back. While the last two years have been painful in many ways, the friends I have right now are the best I've ever had by far. We'll still be friends (I hope) whenever I return, but chances are it won't be the same. People move––very quickly around here––and while I will see them all individually again, the memories we made as a whole group will be just that: memories. 

So, this is all not to say I expect to be stumbling down bullet scarred alleyways in Beirut while having hallucinations of striding through the green fields of Coryland toward a home I can never return to. Just that there's some sadness in a parting I'd not expected. And while watching a Ridley Scott film this afternoon, I realized that. 

The other thing that struck me in the movie as it always has was what a beautiful imagining of heaven those scenes of Maximus walking home are. I know it's not written from a theistic, let alone Christian perspective, but let's just say that if it ends up looking like that––which I (and I think C.S. Lewis, heretic that he was) tend to believe it will––then I will be a very happy man. It means all those moments of wistful longing for people and places we can never return to are really hopeful instead of sad. 

And what could be more beautiful than that?