Saturday, November 19, 2011

To the Lighthouse (Ila Al-Manara)

You can't understand the sense of triumph I felt as I crossed the street unless you've been to Beirut. I had been taking advantage of a hole in the stormy sky, wandering the streets of what feels like home, when the sudden desire to see the sea pushed me to brave the ominous and amble down to the corniche. A lonely patch of blue hovered over me; the Med revealed itself as an apparition as it came into view from behind the derelict walls of the Manara district.

Manara. "Lighthouse." For me, yes, a beacon. That a city of such chaos can bring clarity to a mind as cluttered with the politics of breathing as mine is something of an apparition as well. The physical lighthouse stands as an ugly pillar at the tip of West Beirut, its stoic concrete a Medusa to approaching ships. This morning the only ships pushing across the sea were two UN patrols sulking across the horizon. I was one of the few who walked past the lighthouse.

On sunny Saturdays the corniche is packed with every flavor of human being manufactured by the universe. Old men who've seemingly experienced the entire history of the world stroll nimbly with their hands clacking prayer beads behind their backs. Bored youth hang lazily over the railing, their own hands consuming a more modern devotional object - the mobile phone. Hijab-clad women walk next to uncovered heads pushing strollers and running after small children. Westerners marvel at the fact they are in Beirut, often donning shorts and backpacks and a sense of wondrous curiosity at the impossible place in which they find themselves - mountains, sea, bullet-riddled buildings and shiny skyscrapers and beaten up taxis and glistening Mercedes. Sri Lankans in green Sukleen uniforms stab up garbage, joggers in Adidas suits weave through crowds, and coffee sellers shout "ahwi" to alert the entirety of the promenade to their liquid wares.

I've walked that route far more times than I can count, but each step is a sense of renewal and revelation. I don't know if I will ever be able to describe what it is that draws me to this place, where there is not 24 hours of electricity, where UN warships patrol the coast, where airplanes land with the sea on one side and Sabra and Chatilla Palestinian refugee camps on the other, and where buildings crumble from war or neglect, but there is a soul to it unmatched by any place I've been, a will to survive, a desire for something divinely greater and infinitely more beautiful than the present.

And so, I crossed the street from the corniche to the path that would lead me back to Hamra with a smile born of amazement, for once I had had to dart across this very street during small gaps in speeding traffic. Today, cars idled as they waited impatiently for something I had always taken for granted: a red traffic light. A lighthouse, indeed.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thinking about Lebanon

The bus left Budapest for a snow-covered outdoor museum in the suburbs. Sun shone down on the Hungarian December, but the temperature was unkind, and a biting wind ensured that I would not feel any comfort during my visit. Yet I would not miss the object of my destination for any weather. I was going to Memento Park to see the communist statues.

As an American who grew up in the eighties when glasnost and perestroika had made it seem like the United States of Capitalism had triumphed over the evil of the Soviet Empire, communism seems almost quaint or unreal, like it had only existed in the movies. Yet as a student of East-West relations dating back to my college days, I knew that it was real, and I wanted to see the remnants of it to prove it.

I had just left a two month stint in Bulgaria, where I saw plenty of Soviet leftovers, from the communist stars stuck on buildings in Varna to the statue of Stalin stored in a garage beneath a museum in Veliko Turnovo, its nose missing and bird doo splashed upon its head. I had had many talks with Bulgarians about life under communism. I was curious. What little I knew of oppression came from history books or flashes of images on television. It was no accident that I discovered the existence of the Memento Park, for I had actively searched for vestiges of the communist era.

As I rode the bus to the park, I reflected upon the idea of conflict tourism. My curiosity about conflict had been piqued when I studied in Europe during my junior year of college. I went to Auschwitz and a few other concentration camps. I visited museums of the world wars even in the smallest of villages like Clarveaux, Luxembourg. I toured the murals of Belfast. I followed the outline of the Berlin Wall and stopped at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I saw all of these things through the eyes of one whose home had never been threatened by conflict.

Yet it was Memento Park that made me think about conflict tourism. I was not the only one – countless Americans I encountered were equally as curious and made it a point to visit these types of sites. And why? Did we find it entertaining? Was it something to check off a list? What drove us to conflict sites?

I’ve moved on to another part of the world since then, a part of the world that has yet to find the peace that Europe now enjoys. I spend much time these days in Beirut, where the same molten rage that must have run beneath Europe in the first half of the twentieth century boils below. Lebanon is only twenty years removed from a fifteen year civil war that left Beirut looking like the apocalypse had hit it, and in those twenty years have not been peace or stability, but occasional flare ups in armed violence and political assassinations. The sectarian tension at this moment is very real, and the weary Lebanese face the possibility of another violent interruption in their lives.

When I first set foot in Beirut, I marveled at the bullet-riddled buildings that still stand as if the war had just ended. The former Holiday Inn that had housed rooms with stunning views of the Mediterranean now casts shadows over construction sites, its towering presence an eerie reminder of the destruction that had come to what was once known as the “Paris of the East.” In that trip, before I had seen the grand ruins of Baalbek or Byblos, I walked the Green Line. It was the line that separated East and West Beirut, Christian and Muslim, friends and enemies. The line ran from the candy blue of the sea along a road that eventually leads all the way to Damascus.

Before his assassination, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri rebuilt much of downtown and included a massive mosque with blue domes and minarets shooting towards the heavens like missiles, but beyond downtown, the Green Line is very much still the Green Line, with buildings full of bullet holes and a sadness that seems to have taken up permanent residence. In some buildings, people live on the bottom floors, but bombed out levels remain bombed out above them, with only the ghosts of Beirut past inhabiting them.

Along the Green Line sits the National Museum, which once held great treasures of the ancient orient, but its location made it a battleground, and much of the collection in the museum was destroyed. The most fascinating and thought provoking exhibit in the museum was the very last thing I saw during my visit: artifacts that had been melded together from the heat that war had brought to them. It was as I stared at these mementos of destruction when I had to hold back tears. How could people do this to each other? Why? For what purpose?

And then perhaps I found the answer to my question about why we venture into conflict tourism. We’re looking for clues into the nature of conflict because we cannot understand its existence. We as Americans have been blessed to live in a country where, 9/11 aside, war has not touched us, and we cannot figure out why others can’t live in peace. So when I sit in Beirut, wondering if there are any people with the courage to stand up and cut the fuse to this ticking time bomb, I hope that my Lebanese friends finally get the peace that they deserve after so much suffering.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rocky Mountain High

Photos from my hike along the Beaver Brook Trail near Denver in early April.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Snakes on a Plane

Dummy me, forgot my camera. If I hadn't, you would have seen photos of a street in Hamra populated by throngs of green beer guzzling (mostly) Lebanese. You would have seen the green hair, the funny hats, the girl dancing with a pineapple. You would have noticed somewhere in the background the 500 year old, 500 pound Kuwaiti who kept trying to get me to go back to his hotel with him.

Did you know that pouring Blue Curacao into beer will turn it green?

The party was in a liquor store. Unlike in the US, where liquor stores tend to be synonymous with bad neighborhoods and unsavory characters, liquor stores in Beirut just sell liquor (and beer and wine, etc.) Except this one, Sam's Beverage, which, in addition to selling booze, held a street party for Paddy's Day with free green beer.

Sam's is where I buy my Almaza and wine, so when I stopped in last week, the owner invited me to the Paddy's Day party. I used to buy beer from one of two shops a few blocks away, but stopped going to one when once I purchased two large bottles of Almaza, took them home, and realized the old man had given me one small bottle but charged me for two big ones. The other place I stopped going to when I realized their prices were several dollars more than everyone else. (12000 for six Almazas when it should be 9000. That's two whole dollars more for a six pack.) Anyway, Sam's is closer - a minute's walk down my street. The owner's a nice guy (he should be - I'm in there enough) and it was a pleasant surprise to discover the beer was free (especially after having dropped a pretty penny at the Mayflower so I could have a few Paddy's Day Guinnesses.)

It's funny how a holiday that is supposed to be in memory of a Christian saint (though he’s never been canonized by Rome) has turned into a global celebration of drunkenness. Most people think nothing of the reason for the day. I do, of course, since I overthink everything. St. Patrick's Day wasn't much of a holiday in Ireland. You went to church of course, and you thanked St. Patrick for getting rid of the snakes and bringing Holy Christianity to heathen Ireland, but that was it. It was the Irish Americans who made it a holiday. They wanted to celebrate their heritage and the country they so loved but were pushed out by British oppression and forced starvation. Back then, the Irish were working class and generally too poor to travel to back to Ireland. So they brought Ireland to them.

Fate brought me to Ireland. By a stroke of luck, U2 was playing in Dublin one week before I was supposed to study abroad in Luxembourg during my Miami U years, so I flew over early and fell in love with the place. I can't forget flying in there for the first time, seeing from the plane window a green I'd never experienced, going to the ATM for money called pounds, trying to figure out the bus system to get into Dublin, watching rows and rows of red brick Georgian homes from the bus window, taking a taxi (I'm not sure I'd ever been in a taxi at that point in my life) to the Brewery Hostel, a yellow building next to the Guinness Brewery. I'd never had Guinness before, hated James Joyce (we had to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my senior English class), and couldn't figure out how to make international telephone calls.

All these things make me chuckle now.

I began to learn about Ireland, about the history, about the politics, about the literature, about the music. I was interested in everything Ireland; it became a hobby of mine. And then, a curious thing happened. I began to identify with it. I began to understand what my own Irish ancestors had gone through, the O'Hagan clan from County Tyrone. Not only did Irishness become a part of me, but it became a part of my Americanness. These two things were inseparable from one another. We are a nation of immigrants, a land whose ancestors were poor and persecuted. Now, immigrants are the poor and prosecuted. The thing that made us a nation is now ripping us apart. Fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of lifestyles that are not like our own.

James Joyce, who is now my favorite writer, said while living outside Ireland,
“All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light, but though I seem to be driven out of my country as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.”
He wasn't talking about church faith, as he despised organized religion. He was talking about the essence of being, that which makes us human, what most people call the soul. Joyce desperately wanted to love his country, which was a part of his being, but he couldn't. He hated Dublin, but said “When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.” He couldn't bear to watch his fellow citizens' engage in politics, either supporting the British monarchy that had oppressed them for centuries or following the different nationalists sects that couldn’t get along to accomplish anything, and he couldn’t bear their blind obedience to the church that also oppressed them with its rules and superstitions with no regard for the human soul, and he didn’t tolerate the cultural and moral decay produced by economic development, particularly as the rich got richer while the poor continued to starve. These were all recurring themes in his books.

I know exactly how he felt.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy Paddy's Day!

This is my second Paddy’s Day in Beirut, tying it with the number of times I’ve celebrated Paddy’s Day in Dublin. (If there had been blogging back then (1998 & 2000), I’d link to my posts about them. Alas, those memories are recorded with pen and paper.) Last year’s Paddy’s Day in Beirut was great. I convinced Amigo to have a Paddy’s Day party and to sell Guinness. I invited a bunch of Irish Americans with names like Barrett, Foley, and Cole. The only catch was that I was responsible for procuring the Guinness, which you can find in very few places. So, a couple of days before Paddy’s Day, I strolled down to Score Market and purchased 48 cans of Guinness for around $200.

Do you know how heavy 48 cans of Guinness is?

Now, imagine this American girl wearing a Cincinnati Reds cap walking down a rainy street in Hamra carrying 48 cans of Guinness. I made it a block before my arms started to burn. I made it half another before I had to set the cases on top of the short poles that prevent people from parking on the sidewalks. I began to use each of those poles, then I reached muscle failure and could no longer carry them. Seeing me covered at this point in sweat, a shop owner let me leave one of the cases in his shop while I carried the other home. I went back to get the other one and he began to ask me questions about Guinness, so I told him about the brewery and the process of making it dark and I was going to give him a can to try. But it turns out he is a devout Muslim, so he apologized that he couldn’t accept it.

Amigo didn’t make any money on the Guinness that Paddy’s Day. He had to charge ten bucks a can to make any profit. But streams of whiskey were flowing, too. He had purchased all sorts of green colored food not typically thought of as Paddy’s Day food – foul, green almonds, olives.

Tonight I’m going to stop by the liquor store where I get my Almaza and wine, as they’re having a green beer party. Right now I’m sitting in the Mayflower Hotel drinking Guinness because Score Market is out of it. Someone’s having a party – wish I knew who…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To Bidet or Not to Bidet

Us Americans aren’t bidet users. I imagine most Americans don’t even know what a bidet is. I can’t use the one in my bathroom, because the water is scalding hot. We’re talking injurious heat. So it sits there – or sat there until Sunday after the bathroom poopfest. It became handy in cleaning the floor and the walls. As I discovered, it has much better water pressure than the shower. But hot, hot, hot!

The bathroom flooded again yesterday. This time it only two the maintenance guy two hours to unclog the drain. The disgusting mess was not as bad as on Sunday, and it didn’t flow into my bedroom this time, but it was still gross and I had to clean the bathroom again. The guy didn’t call a plumber so I’m just waiting for it to happen again.

I've always thought it strange that most of the world uses bidets but Americans don't even know what they are. Just google "Americans and Bidets" and you'll find article after article asking why Americans don't use bidets.

Bidets are more hygienic and better for the environment.
Justin Thomas, editor of the website, considers bidets to be “a key green technology” because they eliminate the use of toilet paper. According to his analysis, Americans use 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year, representing the pulping of some 15 million trees. Says Thomas: “This also involves 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce the paper and 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching.” He adds that manufacturing requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually and that significant amounts of energy and materials are used in packaging and in transportation to retail outlets.
So there you have it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I was up pretty late last night chatting with a friend a half a world away, which made for a fine morning of sleeping in. What I woke to, however, made me wish I could have stayed asleep.

I woke up, said a little yay to the sunshine, and expected to enjoy my afternoon in its warm glow on the balcony. I was going to go out and get some Coronas (still the only marketing campaign in history that has affected my consumption habits), hope I could find a lime (lemons are adequate substitutes), and dream about grilled bratwurst. I was staying home to avoid any remote possibility of running into anything that reminded me of the rally for St. Hariri Day*, as my friend calls it.

I slowly rose from the bed and put my foot on the ground. Wet. I looked around and saw two upright water bottles, one unopened. Not the culprit. I looked up and saw the water coming from under the door. I opened it. Water, water, everywhere. I looked in the kitchen. Water. But I hadn’t left the sink running. Then, I splashed over to the bathroom.

Oh. My. God.

The water was ankle deep. Not only was it ankle deep, but it wasn’t just water, either. It was water mixed with the ancient contents of a toilet, weeks or months or years worth of stuff stuck in aged pipes. We’re talking poop. And cockroaches, only some of them dead.

I ran downstairs immediately. This being Lebanon, the building manager tried to unclog the drain with a coat hanger and a plunger instead of calling a plumber. There were a couple of phone calls after that, but either no plumber works on Sunday, they were all at the rally, or there just aren’t any plumbers. So the maintenance guy had to spend his whole Sunday – seven hours total – standing in the flushed contents of a toilet. Every time someone turned on the water in another apartment, more disgusting sludge came billowing out from the bathroom drain.

I was stuck inside all day while the maintenance guy plunged away while water flushed and gushed and only started to stink in the evening, so there’s that. Right now, I’m busy cleaning up the mess in increments. I can only do so much before I start to feel sick. I bought some Detol and will use the whole entire bottle to disinfect it. I tried various methods of optimism – heyatleastI’mnotinJapanthosepeoplehaverealproblems, thebathroomneededcleanedanyway, atleastidon’thavetopayforaplumber – but in the end, it’s still poop.

*The rally is to celebrate the Cedar Revolution that occurred on March 14, 2005, a month after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. It was a day when one million Lebanese – one fourth of the population of the country – marched on downtown Beirut to say Enough! The Syrians were pushed out, and Lebanon thought just maybe it could finally start to be a real country again, united under one flag, ready to move past political assassinations and the divisions that had stoked its 15 year apocalypse and the havoc that followed. Hezbshatan had other plans, however, provoking Israel to invade in 2006, kidnapping Beirut in 2007, and generally being all around dicks, accompanied by their “Christian” buddy Aounosaurus. (Not that the March 14 folks weren't dicks, too. Politicians.) Six years later, Hezbshatan has forced a government collapse, a Syrian puppet is about to be Prime Minister, and the Cedar Revolution is dead. That hasn’t stopped the grand delusion from taking place every March 14th.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Money talks

They put out the new 1000 lira bill last week (who's they? there's no government...) It looks quite nice. The 1000 was my favorite bill before and they made it even better. They've kept the best part of the bill - the chart that shows the Phoenician alphabet and beneath it the evolution from Aramaic to Nabataean to Arabic. This chart may just make the 1000 pound bill my favorite bill in the world currently in circulation.

I am a bill collector and have been since...well, actually, since my first trip out of the country to Australia in 1994. Coins, too, but those are more difficult to carry around. I put my bills in my copy of my favorite book, James Joyce's Ulysses. It's for my own odyssey...

What a country puts on its money tells a lot about the people of that country. The US puts George Washington, the leader of the War for Independence and first POTUS, on its most commonly circulated bill, the one dollar. The man who saved the union and abolished human slavery in the US, Abraham Lincoln, appears on the five dollar bill. Then it gets a bit, well, it shows what Americans value most by placing the first treasurer of the country, Alexander Hamilton, on the ten dollar bill. On the twenty you find one of my heroes, Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence. On the fifty is Ulysses S. Grant, put there for his military leadership during the Civil War, not for the mediocre job he did as POTUS. Finally, the hundred, the largest bill in the dollar arsenal, with the face of Ben Franklin, the last American renaissance man, a guy who was too old to be the first president of the country he helped create. On the backs of the bills are institutions rather than personalities. What's interesting is that all of these personalities and institutions are GOVERNMENT-centric. Tell that to all of the government haters in the US.

The very first bill you find when you open the book is my favorite bill that was ever used, the Irish ten pound note, sadly replaced by the euro. On one side is a picture of Joyce, and on the flip side is a map of Dublin and the opening lines of Finnegan's Wake, which is actually a continuation of the last line in the book.
riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius view of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
I'd write something here about how the Irish really know what to value except elsewhere in the book is a five pound note with the picture of a nun on it.

Other bills in the book:

Lebanon: An old 1000 pound note, the same that was produced during the war, though the one I have was minted in 1991, the year after the Ta'if Agreement. I also have the old version of the Lebanese 1000 pound bill, not the old old one but the one printed until this year. I used to have a 5000 but I spent that last week.

Luxembourg: A 100 franc note featuring on one side the Grand Duke and on the other a nice drawing of Luxembourg City. The Luxembourgish notes were semi-rare because they had a monetary union with Belgium and we just used Belgian francs all the time.

Egypt: One pound features on one side an old mosque and on the other the temple of luxor and some writing even older than the Phoenician - hieroglyphics. Five pound note features cool ancient Egyptian stuff on one side and a mosque on the other.

Northern Ireland: A 5 and a 10 pound sterling note issued by the Ulster Bank I picked up during a trip to Belfast. On the front of both are some hills and haystacks, the city of Belfast, and the Giant's Causeway. The back features the Ulster crest with its motto "nihil impossibile erit vobis" which I'm guessing means something like "nothing is impossible." Quite a good motto considering Ireland has been at peace for more than a decade now. The two bills are identical except for their color.

Turkey: A one lira Turkish note I picked up in Istanbul, which isn't very common since they use one lira coins. It features a picture of Attaturk on one side and what looks like a dam on the other side. I admit I don't know much about Turkey to know what the significance of the dam is.

Mexico: A 50 peso note from I picked up when I was driving from Monterey, California to BFE Texas. I stopped in El Paso and walked across the bridge to Cuidad Juarez, which is now apparently a warzone. On one side of the bill is a picture of Jose Maria Morelos and some canons. As an American I do know something about Mexican history; however, I have no idea who that guy is. On the back of the bill are some guys in boats with what looks like giant nets. Also, there are butterflies and some scary looking masks.

Australia: Five dollar bill. It's a rainbow colored piece of plastic with a clear window in the corner. On one side is Queen Elizabeth, England's queen, because Australia never broke away from the monarchy like we did in America. (It's a source of political tension and the subject of many songs by Australia's greatest band, Midnight Oil, whose lead singer quit to be a member of the parliament.) On the other side I'm guessing is the parliament building and I don't know what else. It's really a mess of a design with drawings and scribbles everywhere. You can barely see the Australian flag on it, that blue cloth with the Union Jack of Great Britain in the corner.

France: Fifty franc note featuring aviator and author of Le Petit Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who, as we learn from the bill, died when he was 44 years old. What we don't learn from the bill is that Saint-Exupery's plane disappeared in 1944 during the war. He had joined the French Free Forces after French cowards signed the armistice with Germany. They actually found his plane a few year ago in the Med. The bill has pictures of Le Petit Prince on both sides and some airplanes. Considering France's long intellectual, artistic, political, and everything else history, Saint-Exupery seems like an odd choice to feature on currency.

Jordan: One dinar, featuring on one side King Hussein and on the other three guys riding camels who are supposed to represent the "Great Arab Revolt." Not a great design for combating global stereotypes of Arabs, in my opinion, but a pretty bill.

Poland: A fifty zloty note featuring some king who looks like he belongs on a deck of cards on one side and drawings of some Polish cities on the other.

: A two leva note featuring, if I can remember the Cyrillic alphabet correctly, some guy named Paisi Hilendarski, who lived from 1722-1773. He must have been some kind of scholar because there is a drawing of what looks like a university on his side of the bill. On the other is the Bulgarian lion and some Cyrillic scribbles. St. Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet, was Bulgarian.

Hungary: A 200 forint note featuring some King Robert on one side and the ruins of a castle on another.

Romania: Another plastic bill, a five lei bill, but this one is cool. The clear window is a music note. One one side is composer George Enescu and on the other is the music conservatory with some lines of music and a subtle piano in the background. It's very nicely designed, and I give props to anyone who puts the arts on their currency rather than politics.

Iraq: This is the only bill I have for a country I haven't visited. It's a 250 dinar note with Saddam Hussein's picture on it given to me by an Iraqi colleague.

USA: George Washington's face on a $1 silver certificate back when US money was based on more than just a theory and debt to the Chinese. A one million dollar bill featuring the Statue of Liberty on one side and Mount Rushmore on the other. It's fake, of course. A 9/11 deception bill featuring George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld on one side and some kind of retarded stuff on the other.

Also in the book are a postcard featuring Ireland's great writers I bought in Dublin and an old photograph of my last purely Irish ancestor holding my baby grandmother.

I wish I had kept a Belgian franc note, a German mark note, an Austrian mark note, an Italian lira note, and a Dutch guilder note but for some reason, despite going to each of those countries multiple times, I never kept any (I have coins.) I also didn't keep any British pounds, Czech crowns, Slovak whatevers (guessing crowns), or Swiss francs. And I spent my five euro note in Charles De Gaulle airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Beirut last year.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Since my darts opponent has left Lebanon, I have spent some time making this animation using MS Paint about one day in my life as the user of the internet in Lebanon.

Even though because I used MS Paint the pictures are pixelated,it is still better viewed with a full screen.

Music is:

ATB First Love
Smetna (from The Bartered Bride)
Beatles Revolution 9
Breeders Cannonball
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Underwater (You and Me)
John Fogerty Centerfield
Beatles Norwegian Wood

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cockroaches could survive a nuclear holocaust

It's been awhile since I wrote anything about Amigo's pub precisely because I haven't been there of late. Part of the reason is my trips to outerspace, and another part is that I just grew tired of the place. Last night, however, I went there to kill some time away from the throes of a computer screen.

I threw on my Reds t-shirt and a pair of pants because it was no longer warm enough for the shorts I had been wearing all day. Hamra is still Hamra, but it's a better version of Hamra when the sun shines, the weather is warm, and I can sit all day long on the balcony.


It was a nuclear age. A bomb had been dropped somewhere and we suffered through periodic waves of radiation. The world around us seemed no different except there were strands of lights hung throughout the city that glowed red when another radiation wave was approaching. We had mere seconds to get behind anything we could - a wall, a chair, anything that could absorb even the tiniest bit of radiation, perhaps tacking on a few extra minutes or hours or days to our lives. We knew cancer was inevitable, but we tried to live as if death weren't lurking a few years away.

When the red lights flashed and we had attempted to take cover, the world around us was eaten by an orange glow, and then, just like that, the wave passed and was gone. We didn't feel any different; we just knew that more time had been taken from our lives. After one of these waves from which I had hidden behind a brown wicker chair, I was angry. I had been walking around the city and some farm fields all day marveling at how great was life. I had a strange encounter with Pete Rose. I had coffee at a cafe on a European square (but the dream did not necessarily take place in Europe. The farms looked like Ohio, only with more trees and less flat.) So when night fell and the red lights glowed and the orange wave swallowed the world for a bit, rage came over me. Why had the stupid politicians done this to us? Why had they made policies that had led to nuclear war? Why had these weapons been built in the first place?

The politicians didn't like me questioning them, and suddenly, a black gas began to fill the room I was in. I recognized it as poison and fled the room, but not before I had already inhaled some. I stumbled outside and grew weaker and weaker. I thought surely I would die. Then, an antidote! Apparently, the vast quantities of sugar in donuts could counteract the poison and there was a Dunkin Donuts in a shopping center I walked by. But when I got to the counter, they only had five donuts and they didn't have any I liked, plus I thought they were too expensive so I didn't buy any. I stumbled out of the store and prepared to die. Then, an antidote! A Krispy Kreme store stood on the other side of the shopping center. It, too, only had five donuts, but there was one that not only was a donut I liked, but it also had five mini-donuts on top of it. I bought it, ate it, and, feeling revived, went to see a musical.

High school friends were in the musical, people I hadn't seen in years. I went to find a seat and as I sat in one on an aisle, I saw our intern from a couple of summers ago. I said hi, I haven't seen you in Beirut. He responded with a slew of profanities and insults to the point where I was ready to get into a fist fight with him. But then I saw a certain Lebanese friend walk into the theater, and an immediate sense of calm came to me. I no longer heard the insults, and I no longer felt the anger, even at the politicians who had stolen our lives with their nuclear activities.


Somewhere between 9:15-9:30 I trotted through the Hamra night to the Evergreen forest, where Almaza flows in the streams and the woodland creatures meow or crawl around in the plates of carrots and cucumbers. There were only two other people there until an English guy walked into the bar in search of food. He, like I had when I first entered the bar more than a year ago, assumed that "Pub and Reste" meant "pub and restaurant" and the "Wine and Dine" written in neon on the electric sign outside meant "Wine and Dine." He stayed for some beers anyway.

Being an evil Westerner like myself, I correctly guessed that he worked in development. He was only in town for three days. It was supposed to be two, but because the term "deadline" has no meaning for the Lebanese, he had to stay an extra day to complete the work. Not exactly painful given that back in England it is wet and cold.

When he left, Amigo made his usual jokes about spies, only this time he said he'd rather have CIA than Arab spies since at least everyone knew what the CIA wanted. It was just then that an American poked his head through the door, and upon seeing the dive bar, nodded in satisfaction and entered. Amigo, however, did not switch gears, and the poor newcomer was bewildered by the instant accusations of being mukhabarat. No hi, hello, or welcome, just laughter about another CIA agent entering the pub. I explained to the guy that he had just walked into the middle of a joke, but he didn't seem amused. He stayed anyway and drank some beers, telling me that he worked with refugees - mostly Burmese and Iraqis - in upstate New York. I thought about how I had known nothing at all about refugees living in the US until I read Dave Egger's What is the What? about the Sudanese Lost Boys. [If you haven't read it, do. But have a box of tissues next to you.] He left me as the only customer in the bar.

Finally, the rocketship I had been waiting for landed, and I was easily defeated in darts in a mere two games by the ship's commander. A man of many talents.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ground Control to Major Major

We took off from Beirut, a parking lot, as the sun hung low in the end-of-winter sky, navigating through narrow streets and metal asteroids. We mocked stupid drivers, cursed semi-trucks, laughed as an unfortunate man waved other cars around his taxi with a broken axle. Beirut turned into suburbs and we climbed higher and higher and farther and farther into the Lebanese atmosphere.

The road from Beirut into the great beyond is steep, necessitating harrowing curves and skillful navigation. With big eyes and good fortune I watched a billion possible head on collisions not come to fruition. We left daylight and approached the darkness of Lebanese space, reaching the peak of the mountain road just after the last rays of the day's sun had become forever forgotten. We hit the police checkpoint, then the army checkpoint, then around the bend, down the hill,

A full moon flush with the ruddiness of a new night illuminated the entirety of the Bekaa Valley, whose tiny, twinkling lights were no match for the radiant sphere dominating the cosmos before us. No photo or words can recapture the instantaneous breathlessness of that moment. We pulled over in a vain effort to forever preserve the moment in binary form, but even the cosmonaut's fancy camera could not save the initial awe of the sight.

The clarity of the night lent a brilliance to the stars that one doesn't get in an urban cosmos. Orion hunted Ursula while she tried to protect her cub. Scorpio clicked his shiny claws and Leo paraded with his luminescent pride and I struggled to recall the names of constellations I had known so well as a child. The night cloaked the posters of dark stars, hiding Nasrallah and dead Khoemeini and Imam Musa, who left the building long ago.

The night also masked the potholes, blackholes, a danger to the health of our four-wheeled ship. The cosmonaut navigated the treacherous path to Planet Btedhi with wild abandon. Eventually, we landed. Yes, outerspace is cold, if you were wondering, but there was plenty of heat to get us through the night.

I woke up to this view, fortunately early enough to enjoy a sunny warmth for a couple of hours before the winds began to blow some weather in. Planet Btedhi is a lot like Planet Earth, only they don't have 24 hour electricity or internet and there are no car horns or blaring pop music to disturb the peace. The temperature began to plummet by the afternoon; comfort was a shooting star diving out of existence. I learned about photovoltaics and watched the Btedhians prepare for the next day's workshop on that topic. Wires and computer chips were everywhere. The Btedhians are a smart race of people who want to use the sun to overcome their electricity problems. What a novel idea! Maybe the Earthlings should try it!

On Planet Btedhi, stores don't have shelves. If you want to buy a toaster, you have to take it off the tree it's hanging from. On Planet Btedhi, their pizza doesn't have tomato sauce. Also, they drink pineapple beer. And they have woolly animals with tiny legs that participate in marathons on the winding roads. Oh, and they have ham from invisible pigs. I didn't see any, anyway. Also, the mystery of the Flintstones has been solved, because we found the ruins of their home near a reservoir in the hills. You can see this amazing dwelling place in the photos that follow. Not quite as impressive as the Roman ruins on Planet Earth, however.

American astronauts helped the Btedhians alleviate their water problem by building this reservoir, as another alien race with yellow skin, gnashing teeth, and Iranian weapons was stealing all the water for their crops. It's still not enough water, for climate change is causing desertification in Lebanon and there just isn't enough snowfall in the winters any more. Snowfall is vital to the Bekaa because there is no rainfall in the summer. The water table is found deep in the ground, too, so wells for irrigation have to be dug quite deep, and the fuel to run the generators for the pumps is expensive. Solar powered pumps would change the lives of the farmers out there, but that takes funding, so we'll have to work on that.

On Sunday I learned that the Btedhian weather can be unkind. Shamefully I did not attend the workshop that the Btedhians worked so hard to prepare, and I regret that, but my Earthling body was no match for the alien temperatures which had dipped into what humans would call winter. But the workshop was given in the Btedhian language and though I have learned some phrases, the complicated topic of photovoltaics - a word I hadn't even known in English until my voyage to the planet - would have left me wishing I had stayed under the down comforter in the headquarters. Which is what I did, by the way. The weather was such that we had to delay our return trip for another day; however, we had expected that, and I had packed extra undies for the occasion.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to miss that cosmonaut, for he is returning to Earth while I will continue to float through the vast expanse of outerspace. But it is just one mission that has finished, and perhaps we can continue to help the Btedhians overcome their energy problems.

The title of this post is a reference to the character Major Major in Catch 22 and David Bowie's Space Oddity, both chosen for a purpose. Wiki says it well:
His character also stands in contrast to the other authority figures in the book who relish their power and use the bureaucratic system and the law of Catch-22 to maintain or try to increase their power over others.

Here are some more photos of Planet Btedhi:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Making Arak

Yesterday I went back to the village of Btedhi in Bekaa. We left at 5am and hit a patch of fog in the mountains that was so thick you felt like you had reached the edge of the world and then went into the nothingness beyond it. The bad weather must have covered all of Lebanon, because when we left Beirut it was raining after a thunderstorm, and it rained all day in Bekaa Valley. You couldn't see the mountaintops. And it was cold. Winter cold. In the thirties. We got there so early that nothing was open for breakfast, even in Baalbek, which is as close to a city as you're going to get out there. Always cool to see the Baalbek ruins and say a silent prayer to Bacchus. Not so cool to see the streets lined with Hezbollah flags, but it is what it is.

The weather was such that we got stuck in Btedhi for the night, but that just made for a great night. One of the highlights was hanging out with a half a dozen guys from the village while they were making arak, Lebanon's version of Ouzo. You could smell the alcohol as soon as you got out of the car, and inside the small room the fumes were enough to make you drunk. At one point there was so little oxygen in the room that no one's lighters would light, which set off roaring laughter.

They had already processed the grapes into alcohol and had added the anise and sugar to work towards the finished product. The first jar they filled was 30% alcohol. It decreased each time to 28, 27, and further down. When they finish the batch, they mix the jars together to get about 25%. I had a sip of the 30% stuff straight from the tube and thought my body was going to catch on fire. But then water was added to the glass, as is the way arak is drunk, and it tasted nice (though it was still too strong for my beer-drinking taste buds.)

I was told the distiller worked exactly like an espresso machine. The top of it is heated and water is poured onto it, causing condensation on the inside, which is what's needed to start the flow of arak.

I've had homemade spirits before - in Bulgaria we drank rakia semi-frequently (often purchased from under the table at the Veliko Turnovo market) - but never straight from the distiller. I enjoyed the evening immensely and thought about similar times in Bulgaria and how, like the Bulgarians, Lebanese grow their own food as if it's a celebration of life.

The clouds cleared for the night and without urban luminosity you could see myriads of stars and feel your own insignificance in the universe. The moon was so bright you could see the patchwork fields and tiny towns of the valley quite clearly, and the mountains glowed white with the snow that had fallen all day. You could almost forget there were problems in the world.

I saw the sunrise over snowcapped mountains and enjoyed breathing the crisp, cold winter air as everywhere I looked were great white heights. The snow had come very close to falling on the village, and truthfully, I wouldn't have minded so much, as I had good heating.

Going back there this weekend (and wouldn't mind getting stuck an extra day if the weather is bad in the mountains.) Will take a look at the USAID built reservoir to see what my tax dollars are doing. Glad to have a reason to wear my hiking boots.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Ingenius Gentleman of Btedhi

I spent my Saturday in Btedhi in the Bekaa Valley. Simply breathtaking. Or perhaps a better term would be breathgiving, for the air cleanses your lungs and the views cleanse your head after being in the chaos of Beirut for so long. The village is near Baalbek, whose ruins I had previously visited in July 2009. (That's Baalbek in the hazy distance in this photo.)

Some highlights:
  • Clean air.
  • Snow-capped mountains.
  • Olive groves and wine fields.
  • Satellite dishes at gypsy tents.
  • Hawks instead of pigeons.
  • Peace and quiet.
  • Wind turbine juxtaposed with the ancient ruins it sits on.
  • Roman column rising up in the middle of flat farmland that was part of a series serving as a guide to Baalbek.
  • Nearly getting shot by some idiot hunter (the bullet hit two feet in front of me.)
  • View of all of Beirut lit up at night.
  • Going from 35 degrees to over 60 in the span of 30-45 minutes.
  • Good company.

A friend who is working on alternative energy out there graciously let me ride with him into the valley, whose luscious farmland, snow-capped mountains, Roman ruins, steepled churches, Hezbollah flags, gypsy tents, potholed roads, and crazy drivers make a visit seem like an adventure into an impossible land.

There's something about olive trees that fills me with a sense that the past, present, and future are indistinguishable from each other. Very spiritual trees, even when they are tamed in rows. These photos contain plenty of them, including the one above.

The sunshine was nice and the empty roads begged one to wander them. As the afternoon wore on, the wind began to whip its way around the curves and corners with an iciness that reflected the snow on the mountains. Still, for a good part of the day it was warm enough to be outside, so I meandered around the village and sport a bit of sunburn to prove it.

As always, the thoughts that filled my head were various and roaming. There were the usual musings about history, about all of the empires who have controlled this land, with the bias of my Western education providing me with extensive knowledge about what the Romans did here while teaching me next to nothing about the non-Western empires. There was another failed grasp to understand how something so ugly as Hezbollah and sectarianism could exist amidst such beauty. I thought about how Lebanon's greatest writer, Kahlil Gibran, was born just over one mountain but achieved his prestige in New York and how Syria was just over the mountains on the other side of the valley. I marveled at how my sight deceived me in the distance to the mountains and thought how odd I was so warm when up there was much colder, though not enough to keep the snow from melting before my eyes.

I thought of more practical things, too, about how there are no water systems in many of the villages in Lebanon so everyone has to have their own water tank and how foreign governments were trying to help build new systems with the aid of local NGOs but progress was extremely slow, with bureaucratic nonsense and politics mostly at fault. In Btedhi, a sign proudly proclaimed that the Italian government is aiding in the development of an irrigation system.

And then there was the windmill.

It may seem a bit quixotic to be putting up wind turbines and solar panels in a land where corruption is so severe that they can't even make the street lights run at night, let alone provide electricity for 24 hours a day. But change doesn't come when people sit back and do nothing. Kudos to those who are doing something. They're astronauts exploring the vast expanse of Lebanon energy problems. Or, er, cosmonauts.

Other photos, twenty hours after I started to post them. (Thanks, Lebanon internet.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Achtung Baby!

I'm old enough to remember jubilant Germans standing atop a graffiti-covered wall with sledgehammers and euphoria, but I was twelve years old and not yet able to fully comprehend why what I was watching was so significant. The feeling of seeing that joy turned out to have a profound effect on my life.

But that triumph belonged to another generation. I was a child when the Cold War was escalating itself out of existence while the Islamic revolution in Iran was just getting underway and Lebanon fought its apocalypse and Arab dictators padded their bank accounts. I was three years old when Hosni Mubarak took power. I was a teenager when Islamic fundamentalism replaced the Soviet Union as "The Enemy," a result of Iran and Lebanon and the various dictatorships in the Arab World. Right now, I am listening to Ahmad, who owns a liquor store across the street, light firecrackers in the road after watching the same jubilation more than two decades after the sledgehammer crushed the hammer and the sickle. This is my generation's Berlin Wall.

Oh what a day after last night's heartbreak! I couldn't take my eyes off the Blackberry when I wasn't in a place with a television. When it was announced yet another presidential statement would be made, I hurried home and flipped on the tube. It only took 30 seconds to ignite euphoria. Aljazeera English once again showed how good it is by having not one talking head say a word for a full ten minutes as we listened to the crowd of more than 3 million make the name Liberation Square mean something again.

This is not just a great day for Egyptians or Arabs, but a great day for all of humanity. Congratulations, people of Egypt. You have been an inspiration to the whole world.

I dedicate this song about the fall of the Berlin Wall to you. (Oh, Bono and Edge, you look so young. I can't believe it's been 20 years since Achtung Baby came out. Talk about something else that had a profound effect on my life - and probably did more than any history book to help me understand just how significant those sledgehammers were.)