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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Academic Year Begins

I write from AUB's sunny campus, where classes have begun. Lots of hustle and bustle. Students, of course, are everywhere, eating and drinking, congregating outside, unencumbered by the heat. I don't have class until tomorrow, but I had several meetings and enjoyed walking across the vibrant, social space that is AUB.

Although Nicole still has a touch of traveler's sickness--which I had the fortune to get out of my system, Insha'Allah, in a single day--we enjoyed our weekend. On Friday night, we went out in Hamra with a couple of my new colleagues for dinner, a walk, and ice cream. After a sleepy Saturday, we attended vigil Mass (in English!) at a Franciscan Capuchin church in our neighborhood. Having attended a Capuchin high school, and given how rare Roman Catholic churches are here, I was excited to find the church in our backyard. Not that I'm not looking forward to Mass at Maronite churches, it's just comforting to find something familiar. Anyway, the church almost exclusively serves people from the Philippines who are living in Beirut, although Masses only seem to be offered in English, Arabic, and French. About twenty people attended Mass, mostly women, which is consistent with the gendered nature of the domestic work so many immigrants in Lebanon do. (Women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Ethiopia, and elsewhere work here as housekeepers and nannies in private residences, hotels, and apartments including the one where Nicole and I live. It's not uncommon for even modestly priveleged families to employ domestic help from abroad. A colleague here with young children said that at orientation at her kids' new school the principal reminded parents not to let their maids do the kids' homework.) Anyway, the community there was super friendly and made us promise we'd return next weekend. I think getting to know people there is going to be a blessing and an education. The church itself is lovely, with signs that ask visitors to wipe off lipstick before kissing the statues of the Franciscan saints that line the walls.

Yesterday I backpacked through the famous Cedars of Lebanon with an eco-hiking group called Vamos Todos. What a great organization. Vamos Todos piles folks into an old Mercedes bus and treks all over the country for walking, rafting, caving, and other types of expeditions. To my brother Steve: when you visit, we will definitely go on one of these'll love it! Anyway, I joined two of my new AUB colleagues for this particular "Vamos" trip. The ancient Cedars are in the North, an area full of mountains and farming villages. We stopped in the Bcharre (home of Khalil Gibran) region at a little roadside bakery where a woman was making mankoushe on a domed heating unit. She'd flatten a doughball, spray it with water, slap it on this unit, and then cover with zaatar (thyme, oregano, olive oil, etc.) or jibnee (cheese). Heaven. The hike started in Arz and we walked through the cool--soothingly cool after hot and humid Beirut--forest of Cedars into the more barren, de-forested mountains. Every few kilometers we'd go through a little village, but mostly we just passed goatherds, hunters looking for birds to shoot (shotgun shells are everywhere!), and the area's famous apple orchards. We helped ourselves to a few apples, which were unbelievably good. We saw farmers growing corn and potatoes and other more mundane crops, but the apple orchards really impressed. We came upon a little farm house where an old woman was making cheese outside and, fishing a few balls of fresh cheese from the milky water in her bucket, she insisted we try her jibnee. Not a bit of saltiness (unlike most of the cheese that's melted on mankoushe. It just tasted like whole milk with a hint of smoke. Finally we made our way to Bekaa Kafra, the hike's endpoint, and the home of "Mar Charbel," the Maronite Saint. Bekaa Kafra has the distinction of being the highest village in Lebanon--not the highest point, but the highest inhabited town. After thirteen kilometers plus, it was a relief to arrive. A grotto and miniature church have been built in a cave where Charbel used to pray, and a Guild has converted his old house into a very solemn chapel, where believers ask for intercession in complete silence. Charbel was a nineteenth-century Maronite monk who lived most of his life as a silent hermit, but is believed to have healed many, especially after his death.

I slept most of the bus ride home, and sleeping while on trecherous Lebanese roads is tough. A combination of the altitude, the sun, and the sheer distance (eight miles is a long way for me!) wiped me out. But what a great day. A fitting end to the weekend. A good final weekend free of student writing. Have a great school year, everybody. I have some more work to do this afternoon, but hopefully I'll post hiking photos this evening. Think good thoughts for Nicole, who hasn't been quite able to shake the inevitable stomach bug.

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