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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Quiet Spaces

There are two kinds of quiet in Lebanon. There is silence of those gone, disappeared, assassinated, remembered in images large and small peppered across the city, in empty buildings that stand like ancient ruins, rubble and echoes of beauty reminiscent of ancient civilizations. But these buildings are not remnants of a distant past, they have not been eroded by the passing of time or weathered by nature, they have been ravaged by the same generations of people still walking the streets today.

Remains of one of the churches on the 'wrong' side of the green line, which is just off the main road leading into downtown. The so-called green line was the unofficial boundary splitting the city into the mostly Muslim West Beirut and the mostly Christian East. Most of the buildings along the line were destroyed during the war (1975-1990) and while many of them have been rebuilt or remodeled, there is still much more to be done.

History lesson for those interested -- The civil war erupted in 1975. April 13, 1975, according to most historians. On that day, a group of Christian Phalangist militiamen ambushed a bus carrying Palestinians, killing 26 people and sparking a civil war that enveloped the city and spread to touch almost all corners of the country. (If you want to see an interesting movie about this incident and the onset of the war, there is a film called West Beirut) But it would be inaccurate and overly simplistic to assume that this conflict is based solely in the clash of Muslims and Christians. In fact, the city and country fractured into strong factions of Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Palestinians, Maronites and those are only the main groups. Many Lebanese fled the city and as the war dragged on even more headed abroad. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of PLO leaders operating out of Beirut, adding to the fighting and destruction of the city. And yet today, the shops and property along the former green line are some of the most ritzy and expensive places to be found. (P.S. There are obviuosly a million other aspects and events of the regional history but those were just the facts I decided to toss out for the moment, please don't take it as complete or any statement about what the most important events were, this was just a last-minute rant to contextualize some of the pictures :-)

A large banner depicting assassinated former PM Rafik Hariri, hanging from one of the remodeled buildings. The mosque peeking above the shelled building was a project initiated by Hariri as part of the revitalization of downtown.

The second quiet in Beirut is the elegant and soothing beauty of the Mediterranean, with its turquoise waters crashing against the stones. I sat for two hours, taking in the calming repetition of waves along the coast, where young couples come to escape the confines of society, children come to play, families to picnic, some men to fish and everyone to absorb some of the tranquility offered by the sea. (Or to pick up foreign women, which was the only disturbance of my afternoon…) What started as a nice friendly conversation, which I was happy to have and to practice my Arabic, since I've barely used it at all since I got here, dragged on into one of my all-too-frequent conversations about my work, my family and my imaginary husband. I then tried to go back to my writing. None of which, apparently, was enough of a deterrent since he then tried to move closer to me and hold my hand. A swift mish mounasib (not appropriate) comment got the point across more directly and I was finally left to enjoy the day for myself. I just do NOT understand social interactions in this part of the world. Friendly just does not seem to be an option. (Or maybe this is just the result of the fact that I look Russian, and in this region that means I may be a 'working girl'.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Streets of Beirut

The building to the right is the former Holiday Inn. During the war there were fights even within the building itself. Now there is an ongoing debate over who owns the rights to the property and as a result the building has remained untouched. My new apartment is actually right next to it. From my balcony I can look through the building to the sea.

I went down to the water on Saturday and will put up pictures soon, it is gorgeous!

Here are some of the buildings on my way to work.

Also common on many of the buildings, walls and balconies...pictures of some of those assassinated. I have much better pics coming soon, but just to get you started...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Goodbye Amman, Hello Beirut

If Jordan is the Switzerland of the Middle East, perhaps Beirut is the New York City.

We often talked in Amman about Jordan as the Switzerland of the region. Stable government, always talking to multiple parties, trying to be on neutral ground and contributing to peace talks, little major internal struggle and overall a relatively boring place. (While clearly there are a million holes in this comparison, there were enough similarities for it to be an interesting discussion :)

I have only been in Beirut for a few days but it is so drastically different from Jordan and what I saw of Egypt that I have to compare it to NYC. Everyone is very trendy and fashion-oriented, including a wide range of styles including everything from trendy hijabs to brightly colored mini-skirts. I have walked the streets without a single comment tossed in my direction and the city seems to bustle at all hours of the day. Walking around or turning on the television results in an onslaught of languages with Arabic, French and English all spoken fluently by a large portion of the population...often all at the same time. Any given conversation includes comments or partial sentences in each of the three (I feel so ignorant!). There are shops filled with handmade items, expensive cars, and people from around the world.

There are also trees again. The city is nestled between the Mediterranean and the sharp rise of the mountains, and the view is stunning. Goodbye desert, hello water and mountains!! I am so excited to be back around lush vegetation and cannot wait to make some time for exploring the coast. I have always wanted to live by the water.

All of this being said, there is another major aspect of Beirut. The chaos. There is not a section of the city that was not ravaged by the war and it is starkly evident on every street and in every neighborhood. It is not that there are buildings you should visit or areas preserved to remember the war, it is that every building was a part of it. The buildings are diverse in size, color and design; a welcome contrast to the monochrome monotony of the Amman landscape. Some painted in bright colors with elegant curved white trimming, while shiny new skyscrapers rise up as cranes put the gleaming pieces into place. But these buildings are not just a mix of restored antiquities and modern architectural endeavors. There are other buildings, maybe a third of the structures, which remain untouched since the end of the war. And it is important to say they remain untouched since the war because they were clearly touched by and during the war. Virtually every unrenovated building I have walked by shows scars from the fighting. Mostly in the form of bullet holes. Some buildings display a scattering of small holes while others are riddled with them. Another portion of the structures sport gaping holes left by more severe or targeted attacks. The newly renovated and reconstructed buildings juxtaposed with the untouched buildings presents such a strong contrast that it stopped me in my tracks several times.

This contrast is not an abnormality. It is not the characteristic signature of a particular street or neighborhood. This mixture is the reality of an average block in Beirut.

No matter who you are or what your status you were affected by the war. The fighting may be over but the fallout is still occurring in a very real and fresh way. The war is still on the minds and in the lives of the Lebanese. Not just in the constant reminder offered by their daily surroundings, but also because everyone was touched personally and emotionally by the fighting. Some left the country, including my boss, Eliane Metni, and her husband. They were gone for nine years and her first son was born outside Lebanon. They had stayed for years, avoiding mortars and shells on the way to classes, making weekend plans (and contingency weekend plans) based on the information or rumors they would hear about where and when shellings would take place.

It is all so fresh. The war is still a strong presence every day. And change is in the air. The string of assassinations that have wracked this country are horrific and more widespread than most people have probably heard about, obviously culminating in last year's assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, which resulted in the long overdue pullout of Syrian troops. But that was neither the end of the struggle or the assassinations. There have been several other assassinations since then, fights internally among members of parliament and protests both for and against the Syrians, Western involvement and Hezbollah. The problems are widespread, complicated and ongoing (just this weekend there were protests because of Assistant Secretary of State David Welsh's visit) and I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the history I need to know to fully understand. But I am looking forward to learning as much as possible and helping a country that is on the brink of what could be truly positive change. It is going to be an interesting year!

**p.s. for those of you who may not know, I have moved to Beirut and will be working in Lebanon until July**

Arabs and Scots

Since my pictures seem to be uploading I'm going to post a few more while I can...on New Year's Eve in Cairo I was with several friends from Amman, including five Americans, two Scots, two Danish and two Australians. Since it was a special occassion, the boys were in full kilts for the evening, an entertaining sight to most but I do believe many people in the Middle East have probably never actually seen a man in a kilt before. At least based on the reaction they got that night. People were fascinated. They would stare and talk and one man even came over while I was sitting with Paddi and tried to lift up his kilt. I'm not sure who was more amused/shocked. It was hilarious.

Meanwhile, a few more photos from the Citadel in Cairo...

McDonaldization and Commercialization

To continue my diatribe on Egypt :-) here is a great picture we took from the combined KFC/Pizza Hut just outside the entrance to the Giza Pyramids. I think it speaks for itself.

Secondly, as I mentioned before, the 'tourist police' really just want money and are there to cash in on the commercialization of their national treasures as much as any of the vendors or small children constantly dancing around with identical paperweight pyramids, postcards, and other pointless kitsch to sell. It is sad and abundantly evident that the monstrous profits reaped from the entrance fees (and at the local fast food restaurants) are by and large not reaching the local population.

That being said, we did our best to contribute to the local economy by renting camels and paying backsheesh (tips, often forcefully demanded) to our camel drivers.

The materialistic onslaught continued at the 200-year-old cafe, where the lively music and conversation was only rivaled by the lively flow of men, women and children of all ages trying to sell everything from, well, take a look...

The merchants range from cute and friendly (like the kid with Justin) to the incredibly rude, pushy and occassionaly downright disturbing (like the dirty, bedraggled, and far from coherent man who repeatedly tried to touch everyone and was thrown out twice while we were there).

All told, the cafe was definitely one of the most fun and interesting experiences we have had, on this trip or any other.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

No Wonder It's A Wonder

I ended my year in a strange hostel in downtown Cairo, having a laughing fit with a good friend and desperately trying to close my eyes, knowing my closest friends at home were just heading out the door for their New Year’s Eve adventures.

And so it’s a new year. How does it feel?

It hurts. And not in that usual post-New Year’s Eve sort of way. It’s my legs. I can’t move. Sunday morning Rob and I hobbled our way down to the street from our hostel and over to the Egyptian Museum. We alternated between wincing, aching and laughing at our own state of disarray as we struggled up the stairs to the first floor (European system) exhibits.

Apparently climbing hunched over down the narrow shaft of a pyramid exercises different muscles than any of our normal activities. Mix that in with riding camels and you have yourself a recipe for agonizing soreness of unanticipated proportions. We are a disaster. So there is your caution, pyramid-goers beware.

I saw my first pyramid on Friday, we actually went to explore two of the less famous ones (dubbed the ‘red’ and the ‘bent’ pyramids). There are around 90 pyramids in the upper region of Egypt, but of course the three most famous are the ones you always see, at Giza with the Sphinx herself. The two we visited first were built earlier and were basically the initial attempts as people slowly discovered the proper way to build the pyramids. The bent pyramid is exactly that, as it was being constructed the builders realized the initial angle of construction was too steep and would collapse. In an effort to adjust, the angle was altered halfway through the process from around 54 degrees to about 43 degrees, resulting in the ‘bent’ and imperfect shape you can see now.

I have found myself having a particular affinity for this one. Can you image all the hard work, resources and people it must have taken to construct? The entire structure serves as a reminder of the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed, and is the embodiment of the old adage "If at first you don’t succeed..."

The red pyramid is built in the earlier style with a stepped exterior created by the stacking of the original stones. It is often referred to as the first ‘true’ pyramid and is the third tallest in Egypt. It is called the red pyramid because of the supposed red stones at the entrance (although we didn’t think they looked all that red). In later years, limestone was added to the exterior of the pyramids to create a smooth surface along the entire outside of the structure, but this one was constructed before that technique was employed.

Walking up to the pyramid, we climbed stairs to the opening and began the descent down into the inner chamber. The passageway required you to crouch down with your legs bent until your chest almost touched your knees. They have installed footholds, arm rails and lights along the shaft and I cannot imagine what it would have been like entering that space for the first time with no light. As we made our way down the temperature began to rise and we could feel the air becoming increasingly stagnant. As we neared the bottom the air began to smell and the shaft opened into a large room.

In that room the ceiling was constructed to look like the inverted pyramid, although the room was much too small for that to be true. It had neat angles and a huge staircase that led up to another smaller room that contained the burial chamber. The smell inside was intensely putrid and stifling. Between the smell and the heat, I kept alternating between placing and removing my scarf from my face, and the air was probably pretty contaminated (as you can see by all the particles that showed up when we tried to take pictures, it looked clear when we were standing there!)

The next day we went to the famous Giza pyramids. They are an amazing sight to behold and the Sphinx is just strikingly fascinating. I only went inside the middle pyramid. It was actually easier to enter and better ventilated than where we had been the day before, but was basically a similar, though easier, climb in to a chamber that leads to the tomb. The rooms were simpler and there were a few other passageways but they were all closed off.

We all met in the afternoon for camel rides, which was entertaining. Their movement is much more awkward than the gaits of a horse and you are so much farther up in the air! We had an interesting band of camel drivers and mine was incredibly friendly almost to a fault, although it did get us into a camel race and I have to say I’m glad I did it although I would take a horse over a camel any day.

On the way back to the city we went straight to the docks and hired a boat to take us out onto the Nile for sunset.

Now while this all may sound like a wonderful adventure, and it was a great trip, I have to say it was also one of the more shocking, frustrating and aggravating experiences of my life as well. Cairo is a loud, polluted city filled with people trying to get your money any way they can. I am accustomed to people asking me for money. I have grown used to the barrage of people trying to sell me random everything from pantyhose to paperweights. I am even getting better with the concept of negotiable prices (and they’re pretty much all negotiable!)

But I am not. I repeat not. Used to people manipulatively and intentionally misleading me in an effort to force me to visit their shops and buy their products. The first day we arrived Justin and I mistakenly asked a man for directions, although we were almost sure we knew where we were going. He was friendly and said he would show us, welcomed us to Egypt and chatted about how much he likes helping visitors. He said he didn’t want any bak-sheesh (money or a tip) and that he wanted to give us his card. He took us on three rights right into his store and told us to sit down and have a Pepsi, that the museum (which is where we were heading) wasn’t open until after noon. Then he started telling us all about his oils and the selling began until Justin, bless his Arabic skills, got us out of there. We took another (the fourth) right back to where we started, one block away from the museum, which had been open since nine.

Every move we made was a long, drawn-out negotiation process, and it never ended there. Once a price or destination was established, another option would surface along the way, like the taxi drivers that would offer to take you to see some town you didn’t want to see (where their cousin probably has a shop). It shouldn’t have to be an hour argument to get where we said we wanted to go. We shouldn’t have to spend our entire ride arguing about whether or not we will stop in some small village, I shouldn’t have to fight with someone about whether or not I will pay them to be in a picture with me or be blatantly told to tip and tip well because someone was doing their job. I am not even doing justice or beginning to scratch the surface on this whole mentality that plagues and taints a vast majority of the people we interacted with there. It is exhausting, frustrating and downright angering, especially when so much time and energy is wasted on such discussions, not to mention the impact it can have on our mood after a while.

Despite being the sixth largest city in the world, Cairo still has a long way to come on its modernization and cultural growth. It also remains much more conservative than we had anticipated. One night we walked around for 45 minutes and failed to find a café that would allow me and Natalie inside.

Rob was my stand-in husband on several occasions and was offered camels in exchange for me numerous times, the best offer being 5 million camels (although one of the camel drivers tried to offer up the pyramids, but I don’t think that counts).

We did, however, make it to the souk and to a raucous café that has apparently been open for 200 years straight (wonder what year they started letting women in?) The lively place was filled with people of all ages, tables of foreigners and locals alike, colorful walls, exotic lights, children and people approaching your table every other minute trying to sell everything from tissues and necklaces to henna tattoos and keyboards. One group of men luckily sitting right near us was playing music and singing Arabic songs that most of the patrons seemed to know. We contributed to the clapping as best we could and the whole evening was quite an experience.

Cairo does have some exceptional architecture, which makes Amman look even more bland, but overall I have to say I have a greater appreciation for Amman and for Jordan after being there. Some of my friends had spent the previous week in the south of Egypt, traveling up through Alexandria and Luxor. If I make it back to Egypt that is definitely a direction I would be interested in exploring. Overall it was an amazing trip and an eye-opening experience. So glad that I went. But definitely not going on my list of favorite cities.