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.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Thank goodness for the wide availability of academic books through google books and eric. Full-text .pdf versions of monographs, right there on the screen. Amazing. Currently I'm in the middle of Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing by Helen Fox and Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching by Suresh Canagarajah, both useful for my two research projects. I wonder if the Fulbright organization ought to stop subsidizing mailing books for grantees--a Fulbright benefit that's extremely difficult to use because you have to use special government pouches, plan very far in advance, and pay out of pocket to mail stuff to D.C.--and start an e-library service that creates .pdf texts (of needed books that are not already available on the web) for scholars and relays them to all corners of the globe. Just a suggestion.

The Rare Quantitative Finding Reached While Conducting Qualitative Research

Fifty percent of the students I interviewed today for my research on the Night School Program brought me turkish coffee.

Hiking In Bkassine And Jezzine

First of all, pictures of the hike are available here.

I convinced Nicole to join me on a "Vamos" hike in a part of South Lebanon just below the Chouf and the Cedars. The villages of Bkassine and Jezzine boast cool, green pine forests and the hike promised stops at an olive oil press and pine nut producer. So Nicole signed up...and survived a 6 kilometer walk, a full 2K longer than the distance suggested on Vamos' website. Although in the mountains, the region was warm and sunny and we ended up having a really nice time. I'm not sure when I'll be able to talk Nicole into another hiking excursion--especially after the steep, challenging declines and narrow/ancient stone staircases through Bkassine--but I'll keep trying.

In nearby Jezzine, we explored an old palace that had been damaged by frequent fighting in the region but still maintained much of its opulence. You can explore, take photos, pretend you live in the massive palace, or just wander around. Like many historical sites in Lebanon, little fanfare surrounds the place. It just is. This particular palace has Roman statues, great halls, checkered stone and tilework, and other breathtaking features. The main road up to the palace was closed, so we climbed a thorny hill, crawling onto one stone wall at a time (Nicole passed on this part of the experience), all the way to the top. Well worth the effort.

Villagers in Bkassine cooked a lunch comprised of many Lebanese favorites: kibbe, salads, rice with pine nuts and pistachios and a bit of ground lamb, hummus, and fresh fruits, including local bananas, which are grown in the southern part of the nation. Nearby was what turned out to be one of the nicest churches we've seen in the country. St. Thecla's. St. Thecla is revered very much in most eastern rite churches. She is the subject of a non-canonical text (a book of the Bible that didn't make the final cut of Catholic or Protenstant versions) called the Acts of Paul and Thecla. In the earliest days of Christianity, Thecla was sentenced to (and miraculously spared from) death several times, once for fighting off an aristocrat who was trying to rape her. It's believed that after being sentenced to having wild beasts eat her, the female beasts decided to spare her life. St. Thecla's in Bkassine had little baggies containing q-tips with blessed oil that visitors could take with them and apply to parts of the body that were hurting or injured in some way.

We walked through Bkassine and found the oil press. Though it was Sunday, the family-run press was in full operation. Happily olive-picking season is upon us, so the presses were crushing locally grown olives in huge, industrial agitators and presses. A little room off to the side had a mattress and chair, so clearly the family spends a great deal of time very, very close to the machines. One of the producers talked about the process, though of course he spoke in Arabic. No matter, I was too busy watching the oil production. Naturally I thought of the great scene in Godfather II when the Don takes his young family back to Sicily and tours the Corleone oil press (Michael, a little boy, tastes the oil and then puckers his lips) before he shoots the Don who killed his father.

I tasted the oil but didn't pucker my lips. The producer poured some into a paper cup and we all dipped our fingers in to taste. Then, he poured the remaining oil back into a big ten-liter container. Again, we Americans are so obsessed with germs. The oil was so fresh that it tasted sweet. Sadly, they only had ten-liter containers at the press, so, thinking that was a little excessive, we didn't buy any. Nearby, we also stopped at another family-run business--a home where the family extracts pine nuts from cones and sells the nuts. Pine nuts are used in a lot of rice and meat dishes (e.g., sautee some pine nuts and maybe some raisins in olive oil and use as a topping on big platters of rice with chunks of lamb) and are one of those foods that's a source of pride. The family operates the extractors in a little garage-like room behind the "main house." Burlap sacks full of pince cones line the driveway and fill the backyard. A little room in the front of the house has 1) a blanket and toddler toys for the kids, and 2) a card table set up with a scale and a money box. That's the "store." Also sampled the pine nuts (of course!) which were, well, nutty and fresh, as you'd expect.

Speaking of things that taste good, no, and I mean NO trip to the south is complete without stopping for ice cream or sweets in Sidon. Thing about crowded spots in Lebanon is that lines are, at best, suggestions. You have to elbow your way to the cash register, pay, and then take a receipt to a clerk near whichever "baklaway" or "bouza" that you want. Good way to end the day. Good way to end the post. Ma'Sallam.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


The Ministry of Labor still has my passport. The University is obtaining a work permit for me so that Nicole and I can get residency cards. As of now, we are still in the country on tourist visas. So while this whole process plays out, I'm without my passport. Doesn't much matter, except that any travel outside of Lebanon is on hold until I get that passport back. Right now travel to Turkey is very cheap. And we would like to visit Syria one more time before our Syrian visas expire next month and perhaps go to Egypt for Christmas, but we don't want to buy tickets until I have my passport. So if anybody from the Ministry is reading this, please expedite my paperwork. Shukran!

We had some friends to dinner last night at our apartment. A bit of a challenge, since we don't have an oven, but I managed to cook a stew of sorts with lots of eggplant and potatoes, along with tabbouleh and a lazy cake (broken cookies, or "biscuits," with melted chocolate and condensed milk poured over the top, and then hardened in the fridge). Good to have company. We'd like to do that more often. In the meantime, today's a normal day (aside from student elections) of reading the annotated bibliographies of my English 204 students, catching up on emails, getting a little writing done, and grabbing lunch at Aunti Selwa's. Ma'salem.

Aunti Selwa made fish today. And more to the point, on the way back to my office I stopped to inquire about my passport. Should be back either this Friday or next Monday. Thanks Ministry.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The AUB campus buzzes with activity this week. The normal stuff: students eat cheese or falafel sandwiches and drink Mirinda orange soda, the scores of semi-tame cats that populate AUB prowl the sidewalks, kids toss frisbees and sit on benches and study. In addition to the normal buzz, everyone prepares for tomorrow's student elections. Campaigning is intense. Students affiliated with campus political parties like 'Order Out of Chaos' and 'Students at Work' hand out flyers and plaster signs on the walls and congregate in really big groups.

Aside from the handful of indpendent candidates, most students running for office are affiliated with one of Lebanon's political parties. Kind of like if students at American universities ran for Student Body President as republicans or democrats. Only in most cases, the animosity between parties is way more complicated and deep-seated. NOW Lebanon has an interesting report about the relationship between the sectarian parties and their student wings. According to a representative from Amal (a Shi'a party--wikipedia uses the term "militia"), the group provides "moral support" and to a lesser degree "monetary contributions" to their student candidates.

Even though the names of the campus parties don't explicitly reflect these affilitations, one party represents the March 8 Alliance and another represents March 14--the two coalitions with opposing views on both the degree to which Syria should have any sovereignty in Lebanon and whether UN tribunals should continue investigating the 2005 assasination of Lebanon's Prime Minister. The politics are complex and even the student elections reflect the complexity and the high stakes.

Normally tourist groups walk through campus regularly; AUB is a stop on most bus tours of the city. But tomorrow no visitors are allowed on campus, so as to foster order during the election process and, I presume (and my students agree) to prevent tampering.

I realize this all makes the elections seem dramatic, but many of my students maintain a skeptical and ho-hum attitude about the whole process. I talked to my English 204 students before and after class today about the elections and a good number of them wish the political parties would leave the campus alone. There's a real divide between the school's secular and non-partisan ethos and the sectarian politics that in some ways define Lebanon.

But more and more, I see that politics don't define Lebanon. The pride people take in the villages they come from, the food, the ancient history, certainly the hospitality. These things seem to exist on a plain above politics. Not totally apart from politics, for that would be impossible, but above the world of squabbles that--no matter how divisive--don't change people's DNA.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mar Mikhael

What's better than discovering a neighborhood? We spent much of today in an area of Beirut called Mar Mikhael, part of Ashrafieh named for Saint Michael. Before today I didn't think I liked Ashrafieh because all I knew of the area was ABC ("ahh-bay-say"), a high-end shopping mall where you can buy designer track suits for a couple hundred dollars. Seriously, walking around town with an ABC shopping bag means you must be something.

Mar Mikhael is away from the overpriced glitz of ABC and looks decidedly less glamorous. But in addition to the hardware stores and body shops, the area boasts some cool people and places. We met an artist from up north who was happy to show us her studio and chat. She kept apologizing for her English, which was very good, but she was proud, and rightly so, of her painting. Not to mention the restoration work she does on icons and Christian art from around the region. We also found a neat store that sells an odd mixture of homemade handicrafts--everything from traditional clothing (abayas, etc.) to decorations to Arabic water pitchers (I've seen a lot of public places that just put out these vessels and visitors just help themselves to a drink right from the pitcher--Americans are so obsessed with germs). We didn't buy anything but I'm sure we'll be back.

We went to Mar Mikhael to attend a book signing. I love autographed books, and loved even more the idea of getting my hands on a copy of "Man'oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery," a combination cookbook, reference work, narrative, and labor of love. The book's all about the delicious breads and the roadside stands all over Lebanon that sell them. And there's an English-language version. We met the author, Barbara Massaad, who was really gracious and interesting. And I've already read half the book, which has inspired me to get a gas saj, the big convex metal cooking disc, when we get back home next year. Nicole doesn't know this yet. But zaatar and jibnee man'oushe at our place, anytime. If you're reading this, you're invited. The saj is really great. You see them at a lot of street food places. You just slap on the dough which cooks in minutes.

Anyway, the book signing was at a restaurant called Tawlet, which operates in conjunction with a local farmer's market. On most weekdays, either one of the market's "producers" or a guest chef creates a lunch buffet using fresh stuff from the market. They also do cooking classes and various special events (like tonight's signing). The restaurant wasn't serving, but they had all kinds of free snacks, all homemade, fresh items. Jibnee (cheese) and lebneh (yogurt), fresh breads, heirloom veggies, and something called "hashish el baher" that I'm pretty sure is NOT what it sounds like. It was some kind of herb along with carmelized onions on pita. Really delicious, and had no intoxicating effects, I swear.

And we met a beekeeper there. Anna and Mazin: We got his card for you guys but he doesn't have an email address, just a phone number. Sorry. But he was very excited to hear that we have family who keep bees in the U.S. Mr. Habib sets up at the market and had a really impressive spread with him tonight too. Including cedar honey, direct from the famous cedars of Lebanon. He had these fresh cheese curds from his farm and he was stuffing little mini breads with the cheese and the cedar honey. When we told him about Anna and Mazin's bees back home, he even broke off some pieces of honeycomb for us.

Really hope to connect with some of these folks again, very soon. And we'll definitely be heading back to Tawlet for the extremely fresh foods they offer. Maybe even for their cooking classes. I'll need some tips for when I get that saj next year.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Near the end of the day in Tripoli, I saw a teen boy with a massive headwound. He sat in the passenger seat of an ancient-looking Mercedes speeding him to the hospital. You could make out the blood from halfway across the neighborhood. The car's driver madly, repeatedly beeped the horn as they raced down a road parallel with a creek that carved a deep, trash-lined path through the middle of town. No idea what had happened to him. Needless to say, the scene was surreal.

Many things about Tripoli stand in stark contrast with Beirut, which we have gotten so accustomed to so quickly. The vast majority of the population in Tripoli is Sunni, and the population seems very devout, especially on Eid al Adha, the holy day on which we visited. Beirut--especially the Hamra area--maintains a relatively secular feel, but Tripoli feels more like the version of the Middle East we Westerners often see on the news, i.e., a place where nearly everyone is Muslim.

So it was appropriate that we visited a Mosque, one of the Mosques the Maamluks built on top of a Crusader church after the Crusaders were finally defeated. The Taynal Mosque has the typical Maamluk style of black and white checkered pattern stones. The muezzin (who calls the neighborhood to prayer) was in a jovial mood for the holiday and chatted up visitors, especially our guide, who the muezzin kept telling what to tell us about Tripoli and the mosque. The dress code wasn't quite as strict as the Umayyad Mosque in Syria, but Nicole still had to put a hooded robe over her clothes.

The Crusader Castle was the highlight of the visit. It's a huge complex of multiple rooms and multiple floors, and it's remarkably well-preserved, given that the Crusaders built it upon arrival in the Middle East. You can wander and explore and do just about anything you want to do. Some of the sights at the top of the castle are a bit precarious and Nicole and I found ourselves climbing some narrow steps to get to the top. The Lebanese Army maintains a strong presence in and around the castle and of course you have to be careful not to take any pictures of the soldiers or their vehicles. This was pretty funny. A soldier walked past me carrying a big pot of oil. I wondered if he was going to heat it and use it to fight off invaders below, but alas he was taking it up to his mates where they were frying chicken for lunch.

We walked through the souks, some of which were closed for the holidays. Like the souks of Damascus, those in Tripoli exist in this vast maze of narrow alleys. Little boys were playing with plastic cap guns, chasing each other up and down the ancient streets. We went into an old bathhouse down in the souks. You go into a big entry room with soft couches and blankets to provide some relaxation before your bath. Oh, and a big bin of sandals to use in the actual baths. I walked all the way through and frankly was happy just to be an observer, not a bather. We went to one of the soap khans in the souks too. Tripoli has long been a center of soapmaking. We went to an old family business where they still make soap from local olive oil. Not as rustic as it might sound--their sign advertises their website and they take all kinds of credit cards.

Okay, the day included a bakery...of course. "Abdul Rahman Hallab and Sons," where they've been in the kenefe business since 1881. Trays and trays and trays of the stuff. Not to mention all the baklaway, chocolate, and ice cream (the latter is just about mandatory at big bakeries here). I got kenefe of course. They serve it relatively dry but bring squeeze bottles of syrup (homemade simple syrup infused with rose water) to your table. Nicole got something even better. Ouzi with chicken, mushrooms, and curried rice, all in puff pastry. Insanely good.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Eid Mubarak. The lights are up around Hamra for Eid al Adha and classes are canceled at the University on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week. The holiday's exact date depends on the movement of the moon and the exact day/time of the holiday can't be determined until a few days before and even then is the subject of debate. Until a few days ago, the University only planned to shut down on Tuesday and Wednesday. So with the extra day off, I had to make some adjustments to the syllabi of the two courses I teach. On the plus side, an extra day of holiday. And Hamra seems more crowded this weekend (and the crowds a little more raucous) than usual. Nicole and I have plans to travel to Tripoli during the holiday, so stay tuned for updates and pictures.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Chouf

This weekend's hiking took place among Lebanon's famous, ancient Cedars, the national symbol of the country, and an immense source of pride for Lebanese people. A group of faculty members at AUB organized the trip and we filled an entire bus with faculty from across campus, most of whom didn't know one another, and who unanimously felt we need to do more such activities.

The first leg of the hike was at the Niha Fortress, a spectacular old along the side of a cliff that overlooks the 'Aray Valley. Down in the valley is the road between the "south of Lebanon" (home of important old Phoenician cities like Sidon and Tyre) and the Beqaa Valley (the eastern part of the country that borders southern Syria). So the fortress is a strategic lookout spot and was used for just that purpose dating back to at least 975. Through the centuries, various groups used the fortress, mostly the Druze, who still are the major group living in this area of Lebanon. Crusaders from the west occupied the fortress for several years as well.

You hike around the side of the precarious clip and are rewarded with close-up views of various rooms, chambers, and water collecting devices carved into the rock. We continued past the Fortress through a very green (moreso than the north, I thought) and mountainous area of the Chouf. We passed a huge goatherd, tended by one shepherd and two very smart border collies, one in the rear and one near the front of the herd. Each time a goat would stray one of the collies would bear its teeth and maybe utter a quick growl and the goat would get back in line. Those dogs are amazing. We ended up at the Prophet Job site, where the Druze in particular believe Job (the same one recognized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims) was healed. There's a temple of sorts, also carved into the side of a cliff, including a prayer room and a nice lookout deck. Druze come from all over (at least all over where Druze live, which is mostly in Lebanon) to visit the site.

We ate lunch in a shady spot near the Prophet Job site and then hopped onto the bus for the heart of the Cedar Forest. The trees are pretty spectacular, especially one that is believed to be the oldest in the whole Chouf (over 3,000 years young!), and one whose branches spread out and provide shade for dozens of pilgrims who really do consider the area sacred. We got to enjoy the sunset in the Forest and take a shorter and shadier hike. Being in the forest reminded me of being in Flagstaff or even Mt. Lemmon in Arizona. Anna, you'll be interested in knowing that the road up to the forest in the Chouf is every bit as precarious as the road to Mt. Lemmon, only we were in a huge bus, not my little pick-up truck. Fun! Pictures coming tonight or tomorrow--as always click on the "Photos" link on the right.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On The Cheap

Beirut can be kind of expensive. Some food items are essentially cost prohibitive; at the grocery store, for example, chicken, brand-name cereal, and Quaker Oats are too pricey to consider. One can buy lowfat milk in cardboard quarts that don't need to be refrigerated until you open them. A quart costs about LL2500, or about $1.75, not awful, but still, a lot of money for just a quart, and pricey enough that I don't eat cereal for breakfast everyday like I do back in the U.S.

So how does one eat on the cheap in Beirut? Close to AUB, sandwich and mankoushe places that cater to students are great. I can buy a lebneh sandwich for LL2500 (less than two dollars U.S.) and feel as if I'm eating very healthy: a fresh whole wheat roll with thick yogurt ("lebneh") spread on both sides, stuffed with cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives, and drizzled with olive oil and some dried spices. Very filling too. Just down the street from the University's main gate, there's a place where big falafel sandwiches are only LL2000, a little more than a dollar. Mankoushe (very thin, fresh dough, baked while you wait and topped with various items, most popularly olive oil, a squirt of lemon, and "zaatar," a dried mixture of thyme, oregano, salt, and I'm not sure what else) are even less than that and the "jibnee" (cheese) variety have big hunks of salty, fresh, melting cheese on them.

At the grocery store, meanwhile, certain things are extremely cheap, including pita bread (bags are as low as LL500, about 35 cents!), fresh parsley and cilantro, tomato paste, lemons, fresh garlic, and bulghur. So pasta with a clean-out-the-cupboard sauce (whisking together tomato paste, olive oil, garlic, and a little bit of the water the pasta was boiled in) and a handful of whatever frozen vegetables are on hand is an inexpensive meal. Likewise, tabbouleh and pita is a very cheap and healthy meal to prepare at home. I also found a place down the street from our apartment that has big huge jugs of water (I think it's between 3-4 gallons) for only LL1500 (one dollar), but it's heavy to lug home and difficult to pour into a glass.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Some Midweek Randomness

I've already taken pages and pages of observation notes at Night School and we're only a few weeks into the program. The students in level one struggle with conjugating be verbs, in large part because Arabic has no equivalent of "to be." I am happy is just "ana sayeed." My name is Professor DeGenaro is just "esmee Professor DeGenaro." In level four, meanwhile, students listened to "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette and filled in missing lyrics on a handout, a simulation of one of the listening sections of the EET (Elementary English Test) for which they are preparing. Everybody involved has been very cool about letting me observe and I think I'm going to have a lot to write about. I'm waiting on IRB approval to interview the teachers and learn more about why they are volunteering. That should add a new dimension.

Speaking of writing, my English 204 students are beginning to hand in fieldwork reports based on their interviews of American college students. This is one of those sets of papers I look forward to reading. At some point during the Winter semester, AUB wants me to give a lecture on campus about this students project, which is a bit daunting but also a cool opportunity to share the research--and give me a specific deadline for writing about the project and the findings.

For three consecutive mornings, I've had to go the medical center (luckily just a few blocks from our apartment) for various tests for the Ministry of Labor (aka, the ministry"), which hopefully will grant me a work permit and residency visa if I pass all the exams. I still just have a tourist visa, which is fine since the Fulbright Commission, not AUB, pays me. But in order to stay more than a few months, I need the residency status. A pain, but what can you do? I can't help but think of the Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter when anyone refers to "the ministry." E.G., "the ministry wants to know if you have cholera."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bchenneta, Part 2

Bonus Photos

My pictures from yesterday's hike and party in Bchenneta are available in the normal place, but here are some extra shots from the good people at Vamos Todos.