This blog is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are of the author as a private citizen and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ain't No Party Like A Bchenneta Party...

The ecotourism group Vamos Todos has been one of the best finds of the entire trip to Lebanon so far. Today I joined the group for another hike in the north of Lebanon. This time, we enjoyed the little village of Bchenneta and some of its surrounding mountain vistas. We climbed steep, stony paths and were rewarded with views of the plains of northern Lebanon, as well as Tripoli and the southernmost tips of Syria. Being a beautiful Sunday morning, numerous villagers were out shooting at birds, an odd soundtrack to an otherwise serene walk. We passed several herds of goats.

At the end of the hike, we ended up at a place Vamos called a restaurant, though it looked more like somebody's house. Long tables were set up in an enclosed porch and our hosts had an impressive spread of kibbe, salads, yogurts and cheeses (thanks, goats), jhadra, fresh fruit, and some very thick coffee. Do I need to tell you how delicious this entire meal was? We had been told that one Marie Bechara might be in town. Marie is a very talented singer originally from the area who at some point moved to Australia with much of her family.

I ended up sitting next to Nick Elias, one of Marie's cousins who was also present (the sound of a Lebanese man with an Australian accent sounds pretty much just like you'd imagine it would), and we chatted. Turns out Nick and Marie and the family are cousins of the Becharas in Youngstown, Ohio (my hometown) and they've visited the fair Mahoning Valley various times over the years. They assured me their cousins were both successful mall developers and good Catholics. Small world. Anyway, a guy broke out the rababa (a traditional, bowed instrument) and played. Marie and Nick both ended up singing and they had amazing voices. They sang traditional Lebanese folk songs and the hikers (including me, but the Lebanese hikers in particular) really enjoyed the show. Singing along, as well as dancing (including a guy with a glass balanced on his head--yet another thing the Lebanese have in common with Italians), ensued. Really fun, and a great experience.

We made some nice stops on the way out of the region too. Stopped at Our Lady of Miziara, the big Maronite church nearby, with huge statues depicting all twelve apostles lining the path to the church. Once you get close to the church itself, equally large statues depict key events from the lives of Mary and Jesus--a neat hodgepodge of Biblical stories including the visitation and the wedding feast of Qana. Last stop: the fortress where Mustapha Barbar Agha (a renowned leader and governor of Tripoli during his era) was buried in the nineteenth century. Inside the citadel is an operating mosque, but the ruins of the fortress itself are what is most amazing. It's a huge stone structure, full of rooms, look-outs, and intricate staircases. Amazing place.

Click on 'Photos' link on right of this page to see photo album of today's hike.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Last night Nicole and I and a friend of ours went to the Lebanese National Oriental Orchestra and it was an amazing performance. In additional to violins and cellos and other familiar (to us) instruments, orchestra members also play various traditional Arab instruments. The orchestra mostly performed numbers with upbeat tempos, great for experiencing the traditional sounds that are this orchestra's specialty. I had to browse LOO's website as well as wikipedia this morning to learn the names of some of the instruments. Examples: the qanun (like a zither or very large dulcimer), the oud (similar to a lute--the LOO's "first oud" player, who was awesome, seems to occupy a place of prestige, kind of like a "first violin" in a Western orchestra); and the ney (like a flute). Looks like they perform about once or twice a month. Nicole and I will definitely return. Seems like a good place to take anybody who comes to visit us too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scenes From Night School

Observing Night School (a literacy initiative run by University students) has been fun. We experienced a blackout last night in the middle of class--usually the generators kick on right away--but after a few minutes the power came back and nobody was phased. During a discussion of the word "dear," one of the teachers used the nugget, "When two vowels go out walking, the first one does the talking." I have no recollection of hearing that before, but Nicole remembers the phrase from phonics.

The teachers are really good at improvising when the (American) textbook exercises don't quite fit. One exercise asked students to match the words "name," "address," "phone number," "apartment number," and "social security number" with examples of each. The "correct" answer for address was something like
"425 Main Street," but addresses in Beirut don't have street numbers (and sometimes don't have street names). The sample phone number had seven digits, whereas numbers here have eight--and I told the teachers that the exercise is dated or at least potentially confusing for U.S. audiences too, given that you generally need to include the area code ("does each state have its own area code in America?" one of the teachers asked me, and I recalled that long before cell phones and fax machines many states did only have one or two area codes...about the time I was learning phonics).

I wonder how the word "bravo" came into common usage here. The teachers frequently use the word when a student gets an answer correct. The French words in heavy rotation ("merci" and "bon jour" are ubiquitous in Beirut) aren't surprising, but what's up with "bravo"?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beirut's City Center

An ear infection acquired while swimming in the Mediterranean has proven a small but painful hiccup. I visited AUB's hospital, got checked out quickly and cheaply, and received painkillers and an antibiotic, both free of charge since the doctor had samples on hand. Ear infections hurt and I can see why they usually make babies scream a lot. Luckily, it's nothing serious.

I turned 37 on Friday and celebrated with an afternoon nap (which seemed like a good way to fight the infection). Insert joke here about how I'm aging and need naps. Nicole and I went out for a birthday dinner at Walimat Wardeh, a place I really like that serves really healthy, mostly traditional Lebanese foods. I had white fish served on a bed of rice with yogurt on the side, and some sauteed greens (hindbee, which is kind of like endive). Along with Aunti Selwa and La Tabkha, Wardeh's one of the restaurants in Hamra that seems to preserve traditional foods amidst the busy bustle of the neighborhood. And with all the olive oil and fresh veggies, all three offer healthy alternatives to the area's "sandwich culture." And speaking of food, Nicole got me some great books for my birthday including my favorite, "The Rural Taste of Lebanon: A Food Heritage Trail," which combines narrative, cookbook, travelogue, and reference book. I love it.

A friend of ours got sick and had to pull out of plans to spend Saturday downtown, but Nicole and I went anyway and had a nice time. The "City Center" is about a 45-minute walk but once you arrive downtown a lot of the historical sites are very close to one another. Downtown's right along the old "green line" which divided Beirut in two during the Civil War and you can still see destruction that the fifteen-year war caused. The Monument to the Lebanese Martyrs, which commemorates the fall of the Ottoman empire, ironically is pock-marked with bullet holes, and so serves as a reminder not only of the Ottoman era (when it was built) but also of the fighting during the 70s and 80s (when it was damaged by bullets). The war also unearthed some previously hidden Roman ruins and not far from Beirut's high fashion shops and boutiques are the remains of a Roman bath house, the empire's only law school (Nicole was happy to see this site), and numerous columns.

As you walk along the cobblestone-lined Roman "cardio maximus," you pass numerous cafes, that mostly serve Italian food, which I guess is appropriate. You also pass parliament, the offices of the prime minister, and the awesome clock tower (the time piece is a humongous Rolex) that's basically the center of downtown. Mostly, though, the area boasts beautiful churches and mosques, all of which are pretty welcoming. I loved both St. George cathedrals--one is Maronite and one is Greek Orthodox. Unfortunately, you can't take pictures inside, but we found postcards that do a pretty good job of capturing the gilt walls and the numerous icons that cover them. I went back this morning and attended Mass (in Arabic of course) at the Maronite cathedral. Next weekend, maybe I'll get up earlier and make it downtown in time for the Orthodox mass.

After much sightseeing yesterday, we were tired and sought sustenance at a grocery store in the downtown souks that has a salad bar with really fresh stuff, including palm, artichokes, and beets. And on the way back to Hamra, we got a free ride home. A taxi driver was honking at us, which is the normal experience when one chooses to walk around Beirut. Since that's normally the way that drivers solicit riders (instead of vice versa), we thought nothing of it, until we realized that the driver was one of Nicole's students (from her ESL class) who insisted we accept a ride home. Why not?


--Here is a link to some photos of St. George's Maronite Cathedral that somebody posted on facebook. You have to be signed into facebook to follow the link.

--Here are photos that Nicole and I took this past weekend, mostly of the City Center.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Is it time for a midweek post already? Wednesday hasn't arrived, but it feels like a Wednesday. So what's happening on campus? I just observed night two of the student-run literacy program and filed my notes. I was going to focus on data-gathering for now and save the rest of the work for next year, back in the U.S., but inevitably I find myself turning my notes into a story--at least in my head. So far (only two nights in...) the story is the level of organization among the University students who organize and run most all facets of instruction. The stakes are high; those in the class are studying English to prep for standardized tests they must pass to get promotions. Already I'm anxious to see what happens next.

My English 204 students, meanwhile, are skyping with their partners at UM-Dearborn, gathering data for the literacy profiles they're writing. If we keep up this project next term, Margaret has suggested trying to organize some mass Skyping sessions in computer labs, so we can circulate and get in on the fun. Probably a good idea. Maybe we can make it work, despite the time zones.

What's happening off campus? Nicole, between Arabic class and her two gigs, has resolved to cook more Lebanese food. Inspired by our recent purchase of books on Arabic cooking and the slow food movement here, today she made some good tabbouleh and some REALLY good lentil soup. Also in off campus news...dare I say it and risk the evil eye?...I think the weather's starting to break. Still hot and humid by midwest U.S. standards, but I think something like Fall is starting to fall. Finally, still looking into details, but we might get our Agatha Christie on, and spend Christmas on the Nile. Egypt's high on our visit list and we're hoping to head there for the holidays, Insha'Allah.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Work Week Begins

I have a little bit of class preparation to complete today, but mostly spending today writing and conceptualizing the academic projects I'm working on. Tonight I'm observing the first evening of the Night School (community literacy) program. Although students here don't do paid work, many are involved in significant community service or advocacy work of some type, and the Night School program is a prominent example. A completely student run English-language teaching program. The language learners in the class are employees of the University (mostly maintenance, security, and kitchen staff, most of whom speak little English) who wish to learn English in order to achieve job advancement. Employees must pass English proficiency tests in order to get promotions.

Yesterday I had hoped to get work done, too, but alas Nicole and I couldn't resist spending much of the day exploring Beirut. We wandered (okay more than wandered...more like "walked and walked and walked") to the Verdun district, which consists mostly of upscale shopping, the kind of area that I think challenges a lot of Western perceptions of "the Middle East," full of stores where I couldn't afford anything! High fashion, so definitely interesting people watching possibilities. We also saw a movie ("The Other Guys") at a pretty inexpensive little theater there. Hollywood movies screen in English with both French and Arabic subtitles (so lots of writing on the screen!), so we were happy to verify that we'll be able to see--and understand--the new Harry Potter film as soon as it's released here. Not sure if all cinemas are like this here, but this one at least assigned specific seats (you pick out seats when buying tickets, like going to a play or getting an airline ticket), which ushers enforced. Also dropped some cash at a really great bookstore on some books on Lebanon and Arabic cooking that we couldn't pass up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Palm Island

Now that Nicole is settling into somewhat of a work routine, I think our habit of working during the week and then having some kind of adventure or excursion on the weekend has been solidified. This week was no exception. We headed to Jazeeret el Araneb, or Palm Island, which is in the Mediterranean, about a twenty-minute boatride off the coast of Tripoli, in the northern part of Lebanon. Once again we and our new AUB friends traveled with the ecotourism club Vamos Todos.

We made a brief stop in Tripoli where we got some knefe for breakfast. I've seen several different versions of knefe (a very sweet dessert or breakfast made with cheese and syrup), many of which are different from how my sister Anna makes it. This small bakery in Tripoli served slices of knefe on fresh sesame seed rolls. Because the dish doesn't have enough carbs and calories already, I guess. We tried to share a couple messy pieces among our group, cutting or tearing up the "sandwiches," and really ended up trashing a table at this bakery.

The shore in Tripoli looks like old movies about the Greek islands (think "Moonspinners" for instance). Old fishing boats where fishermen are sewing nets, getting ready for the day, in front of a backdrop of tiny islands and rock formations. Of course, you also have lots of trash in the water and along the peers; littering seems to be largely socially acceptable throughout much of Lebanon. And you also have the military's presence--here in the form of a boat full of heavily armed guys patrolling the coast--which means you have to take care not even to appear to be photographing them.

Honestly the boat ride was the highlight of the day, in part because I got to drive. Vamos Todos hired what I take to be a commercial (more or less) operation. Three fun-loving, shirtless, very tanned Lebanese guys who clearly live their lives on the sea. They also provided lunch--a couple coolers full of fish ready to bbq on the island and bags of pita bread. The youngest of the three, one of the older guy's sons, appeared to be about seventeen years old and, since I was sitting near the wheel, talked to me in Arabic for most of the thirty-minute ride to the island and about midway through the trip, for reasons that escape me, insisted I drive. So I steered this big fishing boat while he carried on a conversation with me. I'm pretty sure he was calling me "Captain." Yes, Nicole took many pictures.

As we approached the island, the young kid took over "Captain" duties, and I wasn't sure if we were just going to pull up on the sand, but the kid's dad threw an anchor into the water and we tied onto a rock connected to the island by a land bridge. Getting off the boat, for those of us less coordinated than others, involved closing eyes and leaping. Palm Island is a nature reserve although, sadly, you see lots and lots of litter. On one hand, it's this gorgeous, rocky, little Mediterranean island, and on the other, a place where trash from Lebanon washes up on the shore. So we took a stroll around the island and picked up garbage for the first thirty minutes there. Found the remains of an old Crusader church inland; apparently, Crusaders from Europe set up residence here many centuries ago and used Palm Island as an outpost.

The shore has these great benches covered with umbrellas made of palm leaves and Nicole spent part of the day reading in the shade. Mostly, though, we swam. The reserve is already shut down for the year (Vamos got special permission to go, I suspect with the condition that we pick up litter!) so we had the beach to ourselves, which was amazing. The water was slightly cooler than it was in the south of Lebanon a few weeks ago, and slightly less salty too. What's more relaxing than spending most of the day in the sea, letting the water and the sun wear you out and give you a great night's sleep?

On the ride back home, my young friend got into a fairly loud conversation with one of the young-ish Vamos tourists. Not sure what they were talking about exactly, but out of nowhere, with no warning that was understandable to me, they both took off running down the middle of the boat and, while the boat was cruising at full speed not even close to the shore of Lebanon, dove off the back of the boat. The kid's dad laughed, stood up, and assumed driving duties. We went in a circle and picked them both up. "Pretty good, eh?" one of them asked, climbing back onto the boat. Weird. Cool day, and Nicole bought some sweets in Tripoli that came in a baklawi tin that she loves.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Students & Projects & Work...Oh My

Yesterday on facebook, Colleen asked me about students in Beirut and how they differ from students in the U.S. After a few weeks of teaching, here are some initial observations. AUB has a serious-minded student body. My English 204 students, for instance, expressed very specific goals, plans and reasons for attending university. I think a lot of undergraduates at AUB are focused: "I plan to attend medical school at either Duke, Northwestern, or AUB." Or, "I plan to buy a building in Gemmayzeh and open an import/export business." You're less likely to hear "I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my psychology degree." In the U.S., some students have a broader and more open-ended goal of upward mobility through education: "I'll get a degree in business and then get a good job," etc.

I think the difference has to do with material conditions as well as cultural expectations. AUB students don't work. My sense is that only a handful of students here have paid jobs. My Beirut students are fascinated by the work lives of American college students and we discussed the other day the phenomenon of what they called "after school jobs" in the U.S. I told them that a lot of students at UM-Dearborn don't have after-school jobs, they take after-work classes. In a sense, many students here have the time to focus. College is a singular priority, thus they're hyper-serious about it. Also, Lebanese culture places a high value on doing well in order to do your family/clan/community proud. Success or failure is not just an individual thing, it's a family thing. I think U.S. college students tend to use "the individual" as the primary basis for thinking about mobility, work ethic, success, and future plans. Lebanese tend to have a more collective and/or familial mindset. Wasting an opportunity reflects poorly on one's family.

Students in Beirut often come to college from more rigid and structured educational settings too, so discussions, groupwork, and low-stakes writing (all hallmarks of my classes) can appear unstructured to them. They also expect very specific instructions, directive feedback, and explicit grading criteria. Invariably they are multilingual; Arabic and English are standard and often they have also spoken and/or studied French, particular Arabic dialects not limited to Lebanese, or other tongues. Many have lived in multiple countries during their lives and many have familial roots in several countries in the Middle East, the U.S., and sometimes beyond. I have a student who is half Arab and half Czech and grew up in Dubai and Paris. Many are very involved in student or civic organizations that do community service or advocacy work; some of these organizations have a "party" or sectarian affiliation.

A lot of these issues impact and inform the two research projects I'm working on. I have already mentioned that Margaret--a colleague back in Dearborn--and I are linking our two writing courses and students are conducting skype and email interviews with across-the-pond partners about their literate habits. They're essentially gathering data on the academic and non-academic literacies that are part of the lives of college students in the two respective cultures. As students gather this data, Margaret and I are doing a teacher-research project using the partnership as the basis for an analysis of the potential of internationalizing writing courses. The project is just getting started, but we have high hopes for a productive partnership.

The other work I'm doing is with the civic engagement and service learning office here. The office has been extremely hosptiable to me and I have had a great meeting with its director. Interestingly, service learning is a part of the culture of the professional programs here, particularly engineering. They are working (and this is where they are making use of me) to reach out to the humanities and social sciences. This is the exact opposite of UM-Dearborn's Civic Engagement Project, where humanists, anthropolgists, and sociologists comprise most of our core group. Anyway, in addition to working with their office, I'm doing some participant-observation research on several of their initiatives, including a very cool community literacy project in which student-volunteers teach English in a "Night School" setting. I went to their organizational meeting last night, met many of the students involved, and made sure they were comfortable with my presence. They teach four levels of English and each level has four co-teachers. Classes meet four nights a week for the whole year, so I'm worried about data overload, but excited about being involved.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Like other Arabs, Syrians are intensely proud of their heritage and their important contributions. Yesterday in Damascus, we learned that the first alphabet was developed not in Lebanon but in Syria, and civilization has its real origins not in Mesopotamia and Iraq but rather in, you guessed it, Syria. One of the first things our guide told us was, "All civilized people have two homes: their birthplace and Syria."

Nicole and I took our first trip outside of Lebanon to the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus. But of course like the claims about where the alphabet and civilization originate, that statement is widely disputed. Same goes for whether John the Baptist's body really resides in the Old City of Damascus. But no matter how hotly those statements are disputed, folks in Syria love to talk about their place in history.

Driving from Beirut to Damascus is like driving from Detroit to Toledo if armed checkpoints dotted I-75 from Monroe to Tony Packo's. We had our passports and Syrian visas, but we also had to fill out Lebanese exit forms and Syrian entry forms. Border guards make notes on your entry and exit forms of all previous travel documented in one's passport. The road to Damascus was bright and I couldn't help but wonder if St. Paul was blinded not by God, but rather by the sun.

We started our tour at the National Museum, a great source of pride for the Syrian people, as I noted above. The Museum holds treasures from all over the region and from the ancient (Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, etc.), Christian, Islamic, and modern eras. The Ministry of Culture in Syria maintains good relationships with historic preservation communities in the region even during political tumult. We saw what the Syrians claim is the oldest cuneiform, written on a finger-sized rock and magnified for museum visitors. We liked the garden outside the museum the best, maybe because the weather was breezy and because Damascus has more green space than Beirut. The gardens are full of mainly Roman artifacts and we took many pictures.

Our guide took us to the old train station, dating back to 1917, and built toward the end of the Ottoman reign mainly to take Syrian pilgrims to Mecca. Though many of the routes have been destroyed, you can still travel cheaply by train from Damascus to cities like Tehran. The station was beautiful. Like many of the historic sites in the region, it sits in the midst of daily life without much fanfare. As I've said, the fanfare comes not from plaques but rather when you hear people talk. We met a French woman (I think part Arabic and part French) whose grandfather was the architect who designed the station. Again, the pride and the sense of history.

Down the street from the station is a government building where virtually all bureaucracy happens. While passing the building, I was surprised to learn that Syria has civil marriages, unlike some countries in the region. As you approach the Old City walls, one of the first things you encounter is the statue of Saladin, the Arab military leader who fought the Crusaders. With pride, our guide told stories of Saladin's mercy. Reportedly, he provided emergency medical care to enemy soldiers and befriended enemy leaders like Richard the Lion-Hearted during the Crusades.

I wish we had been provided even more time to wander in the souqs (the outdoor markets) that literally fill the Old City. I would have been happy to have spent the entire day getting lost in the rows of spices, nuts, sweets, fabrics, jewelry, and housewares. Our guide may have had a little kick-back deal going with vendor-friends of his, because he seemed to point us toward the most expensive shops and talk up the quality therein. I should say that sweets in Damascus are not quite the same as Lebanese baklawa--more whole nuts and honey, less rosewater and other "extra" flavors. We had some simple ones that reminded me of the chickpeas with honey my family eats on Christmas Eve. Very, very nice.

The Umayyad Mosque is one of those places, apologies for the cliche, that words can't describe. The site has hosted worshipers for many, many centuries, and the entrance is a former Temple of Jupiter, with the arches and columns still standing. As you enter into the Jupiter courtyard, you find the "Putting on Special Clothes Room." I wore long pants and long sleeves, both mandatory for men. Nicole wore the same, along with a hijab, and thought she was prepared, but she was given a long skirt to cover her slacks. Many visitors, especially women, are given long, hooded robes that cover arms, legs, and head. And of course, everyone must remove shoes.

The Mosque is like a little village, with numerous nooks and crannies. Inside the walls of the mosque are schools, meeting rooms, special shrines to Islamic figures including Ali, Hussein (including an indentation in the stone where the Umayyads kept his head), and John the Baptist, whose tomb and head are both present (there's one of those disputed claims). The prayer rooms have beautiful, pristene maroon carpet with blossoms and pillars that point toward Mecca, as well as a huge digital clock that lists the day's prayer times. The main courtyard of the Mosque is the place to gaze at the minarets, including the Minaret of Jesus, which locals believe is the site where Jesus will return on Judgment Day. The ground is covered with white limestone and most people in the courtyard have already removed shoes before they get near the prayer rooms. A domed structure houses the money collected for alms for the poor, one of Islam's pillars. And the walls of the yard are covered with calligraphy, gold with mosaics of paradise. The paradise images, including trees and green forests on top of the gold backdrop, represent Mohamed's words upon seeing Damascus, something like "I thought I'd only enter paradise once, after my death."

We did some further sight-seeing in the Old City, including Azem Palace, where the Pashas once lived, and did more wandering, usually my favorite thing. We saw the Christian Quarter, including Straight Street, where St. Paul had his revelation, and his wall, where early (the first, according to Syrians!) Christians lowered him from a window so he could flee the city after his conversion. Our guide recommended a restaurant which turned out to serve Italian food. Um, Italian food in Syria? Really? Luckily, they also had shish tawook, which was some of the most tender chicken I've ever eaten. And the Arabic art inside the restaurant has inspired Nicole to re-do our bathroom in a similar style once we get back home.

To see pictures of our visit, follow the "Photos" link on the rightside of the blog, or just click here to go directly to the Syria album. Nicole will post her thoughts, too, and no doubt talk about some not-so-nice European tourists we met.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More Quick Hits

Much of this work week has revolved around prepping my English 204 students for their research exchange with U of M Dearborn students. My colleague Margaret's students at UMD are partnering with my students at AUB to interview one another on Skype about what academic literacy and non-academic literacies look like in their lives. How much and what types of writing are required in your classes? What kinds of expectations do your professors have of your writing? What kinds of reading and writing do you do in your life outside of the University? Etc. Our classes are going to create databases of literacy narratives of students at the two respective Univesities. Margaret and I are using the narratives as data for our own research too, so essentially the students and the two of us are all collaborating on the project. Fun stuff, but much logistical work is involved.

My mom and dad got tickets to come visit Lebanon during late January and early February. Another reason to pray for continued relative stability in the region. As Nicole and I continue to explore, we'll be on the lookout for stuff my folks are likely to enjoy (any religious sites) or not enjoy (the beach). Speaking of exploration, this weekend's travel plans: Damscus, Syria. Damascus was high on my list of places I wanted to visit, so I'm excited about exploring what many believe is the oldest continually inhabited city in the whole world. Syria and Lebanon are such different countries in so many ways, but in terms of distance, going from Beirut to Damascus is like going from Detroit to Toledo. Like last weekend's destinations (Tyre and Qana), Damascus figures heavily in both ancient history and the Bible (St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus). Really anticipating seeing the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus' "Old City." Not only an enormous (numerous prayer rooms, relics, shrines, and even schools and cafes are part of the Mosque) and reportedly breathtaking place, it's also one of the most sacred Mosques in the world. And the head of John the Baptist is there too.

Have I mentioned how much people seem to love ice cream here? Most places serve both gelato and bouza (Arabic ice cream). I pass by an ice cream shop on my walk home each day and I'm always interested in the odd demographics. You know how in the U.S. you see mostly families, parents with children, and maybe groups of teens at ice cream shops? In Beirut, you'll see groups of businessmen enjoying a midday gelato. Kind of odd. Also odd: the old guy who seems to live in the building next to ours who wears a 50 Cent (as in the rapper, not the unit of currency) t-shirt pretty much everyday. Is he a fan?

Lastly, before returning to class preparation, let me say something about water. I feel like I have a curious relationship to water. I usually choose to work in my office at the University even on non-teaching days, mainly because I get more work done here but at least in part because the English Department has water service--a great perk! Though we drank no tapwater, water (which you inevitably end up consuming via the food you eat) is most likely what made Nicole and I sick when we first arrived. Makes you realize how precious safe drinking water is, especially when it's very hot. Bottled water (relatively cheap, luckily) is our most regular, and probably most important, week-to-week purchase. I rinse my mouth with bottled water after brushing my teeth. I rinse fresh fruit we buy--after soaking it in water with an effervescent precept tablets--with bottled water. Our kitchen sink water doesn't run hot, so we boil water on the stove to wash dishes. The shower has a mini, electric water heater. So when you are getting ready to take a shower, you plug in the hot water heater and flip it on. Not complaining per se, just listing some of the ways that life revolves around water and the processes one goes through to utilize water safely and effectively.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some Quick Hits

Pretty typical workday here. Woke up, walked to campus, spent the morning in my office doing some reading and writing connected to the cross-cultural literacy research. For lunch, walked to Kadche on Bliss Street and had two falafel sandwiches (total cost: 4,000 ll, or about $2.50 U.S.). Now, reading a stack of student papers and prepping for class tomorrow. Later, will work out and then meet the director of writing program at Cafe Younis.

Those of you following this blog will recall that last weekend Nicole and I attended the Saturday Vigil Mass at the Franciscan-Capuchin church in Hamra with about fifteen parishioners. We hit the English-language Sunday Mass yesterday and it was standing room only. Must have been two-hundred people and perhaps 95 percent were Filipino women. Very nice community, and the Mass experience there is interesting on many levels. Much of the music, for example, is recorded Filipino music with lyrics that are projected onto a big white sheet from a scratchy overhead machine.

Speaking of the immigrant population here, I've noticed travel agents advertising one-way plane tickets "for your domestic helpers" from Kathmandu, Addis Ababa, and other cities in South Asia, Africa and Pacific islands. Even modestly priveleged families (more or less, the equivalent of the [shrinking] group we call "middle class" in the States) often employ such laborers.

Shout out to everybody back home who enjoyed "Apple Butter" fest at Chez DeGenaro on Saturday. I saw lots of nice pictures, as well as a video of Mazin piloting a too-fast hayride. Looks like fun. Already looking forward to being at next fall's fest, Insha'Allah. Now, back to work.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Touring The South

Nicole and I have begun to socialize with a nice group of new AUB faculty. The entire group is new to Beirut and everybody's keen on getting to know the city and experiencing everything the culture has to offer. After a Friday night dinner party (the first of others to come), we took a Saturday trip down to the south of Lebanon. Like last weekend's hiking expedition in the north, this trip was organized by Vamos Todos, whose founder/leader Mark puts together these great expeditions all over Lebanon and beyond.

I already posted an entire set of pictures from the trip, but I wanted to offer a brief narrative too. Our first stop was Tyre, an important Phoenician center of trade. Tyre was larger than Beirut in the ancient world and pops up in the Bible several times, including the story of the building of the temple, when the Hebrew Kings sent for builders from Tyre. We walked the streets and enjoyed the view of the Sea (like Beirut, Tyre sits on the Mediterannean) and the old stone buildings. We went to one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, a subterannean chapel underneath a cathedral (Our Lady of the Sea) and took a very short boatride around the harbor. Mark from Vamos Todos told all of us from countries other than Beirut to get our passports ready to show the army. But unfortunately the army decided they weren't keen on the idea of foriegners out in the bay without "permission." Nobody was sure just what the problem was, but we didn't have much choice but to cut our ride short. The south, apparently, is like that--unpredictable, in large part because of the threat of incursions from the nearby Israeli border.

So we hit the beach. Nicole and I both jumped into the sea and enjoyed the salty, warm water. It was in the 80s and sunny, but this is already considered "late season" in Lebanon, so very few people were partaking in the joys of the water. We got to swim for a few hours and work up an appetite for a lunch of fish (of course) cooked over a fire. Vamos Todos had arranged for lunch to be served in one of the cabanas along the beach. They're not fancy but sell nargileh, mineral water, juice, and so on, and have small kitchens where our chefs for the day made french fries (fun fact about Lebanon: fries are very popular, in sit-down restaurants as well as take-out places), salads, and fried eggplant to go with the fish.

We toured around Tyre some more, including a nature reserve with organic gardens and an extensive irrigation system, all in an area heavily damaged by various skirmishes with Israel over the past few years. Also got to see loads of Roman ruins in Tyre, including the remains of an old bathhouse. You have to wonder whether the Romans and their slaves knew their work would still be standing (at least partially standing) twenty centuries later. Our friend Colleen had told us that a lot of the ancient ruins just kind of sit in the middle of fields without fanfare of any sort. That was definitely true in Tyre, where grass and brush was growing in most of the ruins.

The Vamos Todos bus took us to nearby Qana, believed to be the site of Jesus' first miracle. You know the story, right? Mary and Jesus attend a wedding feast where the supply of wine begins to run low and, sympathetic for the embarassed family, Mary convinces Jesus to lend a hand. So he fills vessels with water and turns the water into wine. Good wine, too, as several guests wonder aloud why the family saved the best stuff for last. Anyway, we walked down steep steps into a valley where a grotto has been built in a cave where locals believe Jesus and Mary slept the night of the wedding feast. Centuries old stone carvings of Jesus and the Apostles line the path. A hunter was shooting at birds at the bottom of the valley and the shots were more than a little disconcerting, given this part of the country's volatility. Other than that, though, the scene is very peaceful. Needless to say, a lot of Christian pilgrims visit the town. But the Shia Muslims in the area (the south is a heavy Shia area) also revere both Jesus and Mary very much, so the place is commemorated and maintained in a sacred way.

A quick stop in Saida (Sidon) on the way home for sweets. Word is that Saida has the greatest baklawa in Lebanon, but we were tempted by the ice cream, which was some of the best I've ever had. Ice cream is very popular here--most places have both booza (Lebanese ice cream) and gelato. This little bakery in Saida encourages you to mix a bunch of flavors together, so I enjoyed a nice lemon, rasberry, and strawberry mash-up. Fortification for the trip back to Beirut.