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.