Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Original Philadelphia

I arrived in Amman Jordan yesterday afternoon after a quick flight from Beirut, took a bus, took a taxi, walked a few blocks, and made it to the flat where I'm staying. It's in a really fun part of town, so even though I was more or less on my own the first night, I definitely haven't been bored.

 I got up around 8:30 this morning and went down to this little plaza overlooking the city where there had been guys playing flamenco guitar music and smoking argyle the night before and saw a placard indicating the significance of different buildings that could be seen from that place. One in the distance was labeled as "Umayyad Palace." Having no pressing obligations, I decided to walk there. While it was probably only half a mile away as the crow flies, it was on another hill, which meant I had to cross the expanse in between. Complicating matters further is the fact that few of the roads here go in a straight line. So all said and done, it turned out to be more like a two mile hike, and that was with a good bit of shortcuts through private property and up near-cliff faces... on the way I ran into this little guy, who insisted on me taking photos of him posing....

It was well worth the trek though, as the place that I ended up is basically the historical and archaeological center of Amman Known as "The Citadel," it has ruins dating back to the bronze age and coming up through Bible times, Greek rule, Roman Rule, Byzantine Rule, Umayyad Rule... etc. I ended up getting a private walking tour of the place for about 45 minutes by a guide who was there... I got a sunburn, but it was worth it I think. Interestingly, Amman was once called Philadelphia. Below is stone head that I saw in the museum––I can't quite place it, but I'm almost sure I've seen her in a book before.

This afternoon I met up with two friends from school. It was really weird––surreal almost to see them here in Amman after not seeing anyone that I've known previously in over a month. But there they were, walking toward me on the sidewalk. We definitely had some serious stories to exchange over pizza from the past month and a half since we left Bryan for the summer.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Cedars of the North

 While I had gone to see the cedars in the South about three weeks ago, a number of people told me that the cedars in the North were much more impressive. Yesterday I got the chance to see them, and they did not disappoint. What I enjoyed just as much as the cedars, some of which were 1200 years old and bigger than any tree I've seen in real life, was the drive up.

The northern cedars are in the mountains more than two hours of winding roads and switch-backs out of Beirut. By the time we arrived there we had risen several thousand feet in elevation, and you could actually see snow on some of the higher peaks. It was also extremely cool and clear, which was a wonderful departure from the hot smoggyness of Beirut and the coastal areas.

The mountains on the way up reminded me very much of the mountains in the Greek Isles, which is interesting. I know nothing about the geology of the area, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were once part of the same land mass. They are just a few hundred miles away, after all.

 On the way up we stopped at a restaurant along the side of the road and had a delicious Lebanese meal with hommos, tabbouleh, fattoush, flat bread, and fries (oddly enough). I honestly think I may miss the food here more than anything else. I suppose there is always the Mediterranean section at Wegmans, but I'm not sure it will cut it for me anymore.

Monday, June 20, 2011

all the kings of Tyre, all the kings of Sidon

This weekend I did many things that I had always wanted to do, and several that I had never wanted to. I swam in the Mediterranean Sea, visited the city of Sidon, got lost in Sidon, stayed with a friend in Tyre, road around the ruins of a Roman Hippodrome (the same one where the chariot race in Ben Herr was filmed) on the back of a moped––without a helmet, laid eyes on Occupied Palestine, or The Zionist Entity, or Israel, depending on your political views from a distance, played Texas Hold 'Em with a group of Druze, had my foot partially run over by a taxi, and did a number of other things that my insurance company must never find out about.

Above is what I believe is a crusader castle in Sidon or Saida. I was rather rushed there trying to make a connection and got rather disoriented in the Souk or market that reminded me a bit of Venice without the water, and thus didn't have time to take many shots. Things got better when I finally made it to Tyre or Sour, as the locals call it. I promptly went to the beach and spent most of the next day getting a tour of the city from the back of a moped driven by my new friend, Jonny.

Tyre is full of Roman ruins––the most I've seen since I was in... well... Rome. Parts of a number of major movies have been filmed here, and I thought these below were particularly beautiful. If you look at the hill just visible on the horizon directly to the right of the palm tree in the center, you are looking at the Holy Land. That's how close we were to the border.

That evening on the Corniche we met this elderly woman and her grandson. I had a very long one-sided conversation with her. One-sided because it was entirely in Arabic... not really my strong suite. Jonny had borrowed my camera just before and was kind enough to capture the moment.

oh, where to begin?

Yes, the name of my blog did in fact change. It became Where Soul Meets Body after I deemed the previous name, Just Like A Real Boy, to be too depressing, and the one that preceded that, The Floating World, was appropriated by an adult entertainment company (a discovery made––much to my chagrin––by my grandpa when he tried to find my blog by googling it... awkward). At any rate Where Soul Meets Body was intended to be a temporary title until I could come up with something more creative and that didn't immediately label me as a DCFC fan. After about a year now, I finally have come up with something that I fancy a bit better, and that I think pretty generally expresses my life right now... which is what it's supposed to do I suppose. I don't even know where to begin when describing this past weekend which I spent in Tyre... but I'll give it a shot in my next post, which should be up presently.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Jesus-Mobile & Other Discoveries

I spent a lot of time in the Borj Hammoud neighborhood this week wandering and taking photos. I've found that people are starting to recognize me there now––which is kind of cool and kind of intimidating at the same time. One women even remembered me from when I was there with a friend almost two weeks ago, just after I arrived in the country. She told me I should come to her shop if I came back. Just after I ran into her I passed these two women sitting in front of a house. I thought the colors were rather striking and asked if I could take a picture of them, while the colors turned out better than I expected, what really makes it, I think, is the expression of the woman on the right.

That day I also stumbled upon this vehicle, which I have since dubbed "the Jesus-Mobile." Borj Hammoud is populated mainly by Armenians, who are, culturally at least, very Christian––and they wear their religion with a swagger. Cross tattoos on muscular arms, images of Mary above the cigarette counter, rosaries hanging from mirrors, and of course, the Jesus-Mobile.

This next day I found myself not too far from Borj Hammoud photographing/playing soccer with a group of Turkmen children. The Turkmens, from what I gather, are kind of like gypsies with a semi-refugee status who migrate around the Levant working and begging. These little guys spoke about zero English, and I still speak about zero Arabic, but somehow it didn't matter too much once we started playing. It was a blast.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Clouds Over Beirut

It's been delightfully cool and breezy the last few days. Sunday we went to a forest (the Lebanese definition of forest is quite liberal) a few minutes out of town and went for a hike. It was quite hot and I got my first sunburn since I've been here. That night though it cooled off and has been nice since. We even had rain last night, which looked quite dramatic over the city.

In other news, it appears that a new government has been formed after being without one since February or March if I remember. It collapsed last time because Hezbollah withdrew forcing a shutdown when things didn't go their way, and now the new government is composed even more so of them and their allies. The government hasn't been given the vote of confidence yet, but it will be interesting to see what the response from the West is if that happens.

According to one local news website there was some rioting yesterday with some major highways being blocked, but I didn't see anything like that (although I did think I noticed more security forces than normal while I was out walking the corniche yesterday afternoon.)

While on the corniche I met an interesting (and somewhat inebriated) man sitting on the railing overlooking Pigeon Rock. I ended up talking with him for almost an hour before he tried to get me to pay someone $50 to take a photo of the sea rocks from under a nearby restaurant, at which point I made an excuse to leave. I walked all the way back to downtown, which is a good hike. It was beautiful weather for it though, and I saw some rather interesting things, like people deep sea fishing, and workers accidentally spilling a bag of sand from the 15th story of a high-rise under construction.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Just to keep em' guessing

On my flight from the US, a man in Amman told his son that I was Italian. Yesterday I walked up to a checkout counter at a grocery store and the cashier started talking to me in Arabic and then seemed surprised when I gestured that I didn't understand. Today someone randomly asked me if I was Russian, and then, after explaining that I was from the US and conversing for a few minutes, he said "so you said you're from London?" I'm apparently no longer recognizable as an American. That's not to say that I look Lebanese or Arab, just that I don't look entirely American.

I remember the days back in Italy and Greece when people would automatically start speaking English to me when they saw me, and I would sometimes hear "Americano" said in hushed tones as I walked passed. So what happened? Are the Europeans just more perceptive at identifying Americans? Or perhaps I look different now. I know that I dress differently, so that could be it. At any rate, the world being what it is today, being mistaken for something non-American is probably a good thing, and I guess I will choose to think of it as such.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

And they're talking it to me

Standing at an intersection for an hour can be exhausting. Taking two Arabic lessons for two hours is exhausting. I did both of those things today... one after the other, since my Arabic teacher unfortunately had some kind of issue with her in-laws or something like that. At any rate, I ended up standing on the curb with the taxi drivers where she was going to pick me up for more than an hour.

She got there eventually though, and I was able to take my second Arabic lesson. They are pretty intense. I had tried to study Arabic a few times before, but it was modern standard Arabic, which is quite different from Lebanese Arabic––a whole different ball game. Things are generally spelled the same, but pronounced almost completely differently. Apparently people in other Arabic speaking countries consider it to be a kind of snooty, pretentious version of the language, kind of like Castilian Spanish vs. American Spanish or something like that... which is kind of funny.

I was originally only planning on taking a couple lessons, but even though it's kind of demanding, I decided I'll probably keep doing it as long as I'm here... when else will I have the chance to take private Lebanese Arabic lessons?

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Night On the Town - Rave In Sniper Alley

Last night I went on a walking tour of Beirut––the only walking tour of Beirut. We started at the American University and 15 or 16 stops later ended up on the other side of Centerville. Along the way our guide, who was really cool, told us about interesting and ironic things, like the Holiday Inn that was occupied dozens of times by almost every army in the region (and I don't have a photo to post of it, because it is still being occupied by the Lebanese Army, and they don't like people taking pictures) houses where the rent is only 250 Lira (a few cents) a month, but have been unoccupied for decades, and a Synagogue in a part of the city where there are no Jews that was destroyed by the Israelis and is now being rebuilt by the Lebanese government. Below is one of our last stops: "Sniper Alley." Apparently there are no snipers there today... just a few old residents who occasionally throw tomatoes at passing tour groups.

Just before that we passed Hariri Mosque, and the "Egg," the dark concrete structure in the foreground. It was apparently the city's first modern structure. Its real claim to fame, however, is that after it was blown in half during the civil war, it became popular with ravers. That's right, ravers. People came from all over the world to dress up like zombies, trip on acid, and dance to techno music in a bombed out structure in the middle of the ruins of post civil war Beirut.

Just before the Egg, we stopped at Martyr's Square and our guide gave one of the best (or at least most concise) explanations I've heard of the political situation in Lebanon, highlighting the role of protest––specifically protest where we were sitting, in Martyr's Square. He also remarked on Lebanon's current state, one that it may have never been in before: the most stable country in the Middle East. He did end with some rather foreboding words, that he felt in the next few months, as the UN releases the findings of its investigation into the killing of the late Rafik Hariri (for whom the above mosque is named) that Lebanon will be plunged into turmoil again. "You will be glad that you came now," he said. I of course wondered if by "now" he was referring to a period as long as seven weeks... if he meant a shorter period of time, I suppose that I may not be glad that I came "now." Or just maybe I will be, but who knows.

At any rate, it was a great walking tour, even better than the one I went on in Dublin a couple years ago (has it really been that long?!). Rather than joining our guide for a happy hour at one of the local establishments near where the tour ended, we hiked back down to the Souks and went to a traditional Lebanese restaurant where I enjoyed my first Mezza, replete with hommos, olives, skewered beef and chicken, tabbouleh, and two kinds of fried cheese that I can't remember the names of.

We walked back to the car and just as we were getting in fireworks started shooting up from just a few hundred meters behind us and continued for ten or fifteen minutes (Beirutis are all about fireworks, apparently). It seemed like a fitting end to the evening.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Falafel Anyone?

Aside from getting over a cold, the last few days have been amazing. While I'd spent some time this week walking around Beirut, today was my first chance to get out of the city and see some other parts of the country. We ended up going to Beit Eddine, which is a castle/palace about an hour south of the capital. On the way there I was amazed by the scenery in the valleys, which were full of banana plantations. Up a few hundred feet it looked like you would expect a Middle-Eastern country, with olive trees and bare rocks. Up a few hundred more and it started to look more like Colorado with evergreen trees and much cooler temperatures.

 It would have been worth going just for the scenery on the trip there, but Beit Eddine, when we got there, almost made me forget about it. It was easily one of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in... if it can really be called a single "building" - it had multiple courtyards and wings other architectural elements that I have know idea what to call.

After spending most of the early afternoon walking through the castle and taking tons of photos (of the palace, and some Lebanese kids who wanted me to take pictures of them) we headed north by a different route. Along the way we stopped at a restaurant where I had my first ever falafel. I wasn't quite sure what I was getting myself into when I first saw it, but it was actually quite good.

Our next stop was a national park sort of thing where I got to see Lebanon's national symbol: the Lebanese Cedar. Apparently the cedars in the south are "only" 400 - 500 years old, and thus not as imposing as those in the north. They were still beautiful though. Mark explained that long ago much of the country had been covered with trees like this, and it becomes easy to see why the Bible so often refers to the natural beauty of Lebanon.