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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Literacy and Literacies

Today in class (Advanced Academic English) I covered literacy as a context-dependent concept, code switching, and the importance of literacy awareness in 2010. I used the car horn as an example of a "code." What does honking a horn signify in Detroit? What does it signify in Beirut? In Detroit, that particular piece of "language" might mean hurry up or perhaps even I'm gonna kick your ass whereas in Beirut the possibilties are wider: want a ride? or gee whiz we're all stopped are possible meanings.

Other kinds of literacy (including the thing we call "academic literacy") differ across contexts as well. Students hadn't had this conversation before, but they had lots of experiences to process in light of the concepts. Many have lived in multiple countries; all speak multiple languages; we find ourselves in a place where the East and the West clash constantly. We talked about code switching (moving between different language practices) as an essential rhetorical skill and the students immediately began to point out how unstable the contexts are: how facebook code seeps into academic code, how/why/when English words makes their way into conversations in Arabic, etc.

My research questions this semester include: How does "academic writing" differ across two cultural contexts, both of which are extremely multi-cultural and cosmopolitan? What kinds of overlap and messy instability exist between these allegedly different contexts? How do students across these contexts perceive their literate experiences? Dearborn is a place full of Lebanese (and other Arab) influences. Beirut is a place full of American (and other Western) influences. A colleague at UMD and I are linking students at our two institutions. They'll write literacy profiles of one another. We'll all analyze the data. Hopefully we'll learn something.

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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some Scattered Images

Beirut's most beautiful feature has got to be the sea (the AUB campus is a close second and I'll post pictures soon to prove it). The city sits alongside the Mediterranean and Lebanese people of all ages spend loads of time on the "Corniche," a long, paved boardwalk-of-sorts. Stroll along the Corniche and you'll spot teens smoking nargileh (hookah), families who have brought plastic chairs and bags of nuts and seeds to snack on, and older men playing backgammon or cards on upside-down cardboard boxes. And in the background, the bluest water imaginable. Nicole and I had a late dinner on our first night here at a little cafe where we sat maybe ten feet from the water and ate foul (the Arabic fava bean dish) and other treats. The sound of waves. The smell of cherry-flavored nargileh.

Yesterday, after a very long walk, I ended up at a public beach and dipped my feet in the sea for the first time. Felt great, especially on such a hot and humid day. A group of guys were playing a very competitive beach soccer game. No shoes and a real soccer ball. Ouch. How competitive was the game? Sand was kicked in people's faces. The concession stand sold nargileh of course. Oh, and lest my description of the beautiful water become too idealized, I should point out that littering is largely acceptable. I saw someone pull his car over, gather KFC and Pizza Hut (both chains seem to be very popular in Beirut) wrappers from his car, fill a plastic bag, and toss the whole thing over the railing into the sea.

Amazing how fast one gets accustomed to the military presence. We learned that the soldiers in green camo are usually Lebanese Army and the more ubiquitous (at least around AUB) gray-uniformed soliders are the paramilitary ISFs. All carry very large machine guns. After a few days, they become part of the backdrop of everyday life.

I can't post without talking about food. Street food is amazing in Beirut. 'Faysal Snack' up the block from our apartment offers amazing mankoushe (fresh bread with various toppings--although why look any farther than the simple cheese version?), zaatar, etc., right out of a hot brick oven. It's almost cheaper than eating at home too. I mentioned on facebook that I'll "pass" by Faysal each day on my way to campus, if by "pass" you mean "stop for breakfast." We ate at Kabobji for dinner tonight. Kabobji, like the sea, really highlights how social Lebanese culture can be, and how happy Lebanese people usually are when they're out and about in the city. It's a "typical" restaurant in that you see 20-somethings on cell phones, teens in big clusters, older folks (especially men) talking earnestly with one another. Nice place. Tonight, a Saudi man and his Lebanese friend joined us at our table because they thought we looked friendly. The Saudi guy especially was full of life, bubbly almost, and eventually mentioned that he had a daughter whose hand I might be interested in. Yes, Nicole was sitting right next to me. Four days overseas...not too bad. Am I right?

I start work tomorrow and will post soon about my research, faculty orientation, my classes at AUB, and other topics that have less to do with delicious snacks and more to do with, you know, work. I did spend this morning preparing lectures for the first two weeks of my graduate course, so it's not all marriage offers and hummus, I promise. Keep checking the "Photo" link on the right for more pictures too. And rumor has it, Nicole has posted her first blog entry.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Holiday Snaps

Be sure to click on the "Photos" link on the right-hand side of this page. I've posted a first album with a few shots of our apartment and the area where we live. More to come.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Flights, Etc.

Nicole and I got to Detroit Metro with five suitcases, one of which we knew was going to be over the fifty-pound limit. As we waited in the long line, an agent from Royal Jordanian chanted--as if trying to stress everybody out--"no repacking at counter" and "over fifty pounds, pay $100; over seventy pounds, it's not getting on the plane." We watched numerous passengers get sent away to repack and then rejoin the end of the line and each time the agent said, "You should have weighed your suitcase while you were in line." I'm not sure how you weigh a suitcase while in line, but his point was well-taken.

We got to the counter and while the ticketing agent typed in our passport info, we quickly weighed each of our suitcases. Good, good, good, good...and 74 pounds! "Quick, Nicole, unzip one of those suitcases." Before the agent could look up, I had stashed a copy of 'The Norton Book of Composition Studies' and a pair of Converse All-Stars in one of the Under Fifties. Heavy bag: 69.5 pounds. Disco. And since we were paying to check an extra bag already, Royal Jordanian didn't charge us the $100 fee. Score. But she couldn't access our Amman-to-Beirut boarding passes, so she told us just to ask for them in Jordan during our two-hour layover. Experienced travelers: you can probably guess that it wasn't as simple as she implied. Friends, when you inquire about doing something overseas and someone's advice begins with the word "just" (e.g., "just pick up a voltage converter at any corner store" or "just speak English and everybody will understand"), you can bet the task will be more difficult than suggested.

Waiting for the Detroit-to-Amman flight, and speaking of language barriers, I befriended an elderly, talkative Iraqi guy going back to the Mid East for reasons having to do with a green card. I asked him several times, "tit kellem ingleezy?" which he shrugged off as if to say come on, you know what I'm saying. I really didn't, but he seemed like a good fella and we had a nice chat. He had a lot of questions I couldn't answer (he pulled out his passport and said "stamp?" a few times), and he expressed nervousness about walking to the bathroom, but I feel like we bonded. I put together enough Arabic to tell him of our flight delay and convinced him to make the walk to the bathroom ("tai," I said, waving him toward me, and using one of the only Arabic words, meaning come with me, that I pronounce pretty well).

A late start, but the eleven-hour trip to Jordan was mostly uneventful. Royal Jordanian flight attendants wear cool hats (fedora-shaped but the wooly material of berets) and give out warm towels every few hours. I read Edward Said's memoir and snoozed; Nicole read "Persepolis" and watched the in-flight movies; little kid behind me did lots of kicking.

Got to Amman about 75 minutes late, which gave us a half-hour to make our connecting flight. Royal Jordanian agent at "transfers" desk waved us toward a lower-level gate so we joined the crowd rushing to other flights. We all ended up in another security/screening line. Why in the world did we need to go through the x-rays again? Lines at Queen Alia International Airport are rough guidelines at best. A woman in a wheelchair got wheeled to the front of the line and the muttering began. "She walked fine a minute ago," somebody said. Yikes. You had to put your carry-on down on the conveyor belt--forget about removing your laptop or paying close attention to your stuff--and then muscle your way up to the x-ray walk-through. We looked like five-year-olds playing soccer, except instead of bunched around a ball we were clustered around the entrance to the walk-thru. Since the situation wasn't yet stressful enough, a "last call for flight 301 to Beirut" announcement came over the loudspeaker.

Finally get to the lower-level gate and the agent tells us we should have gotten boarding passes upstairs at the transfer desk. Emphatically I tell her they sent us downstairs so, miracle of miracles, she lets us through the door without boarding passes. Onto a shuttle bus, which takes us across a very hot tarmac, with very armed soldiers, to a little plane where we wait for thirty minutes for more passengers. So much for "last call." At least nobody was checking boarding passes, which of course we didn't have. Chatted with a woman who looked like an older Olympia Dukakis, who like my new Iraqi friend, didn't care that I didn't understand much of what she said. The flight to Beirut was maybe forty minutes and when we exited, the heat and humidity hit us. All our luggage made it and AUB had an 'Allo Taxi' driver waiting for us, holding a "MR. DEGENARO" sign. I've always wanted to get picked up by somebody holding a sign with my name, so now I've got that going for me.

The 80-degrees-at-8:00-am thing surprised me a bit and, despite the warnings, so did the drive to Hamra. You know when you're driving on a busy road and you're careful to stay in your lane? In Beirut, not so much. You know how when you're on a motorcycle you try to avoid going the wrong way on a one-way street? In Beirut, not so much. Once we arrived in Hamra, our driver honked the horn at somebody and began to rapidly roll down the window, so I thought the driver was going to yell at the guy, right? Nope, he was just asking the man if he knew where Viccini Suites was. Already I've seen several drivers do this: you honk the horn loudly and pull up next to somebody, which seems almost menacing to Western eyes, but then the driver will ask for directions and use some term of endearment like "habibi." Horns are used AT LEAST 500 percent more than in the U.S. At least.

So we arrive at Viccini Suites. I suspect that our driver initially didn't know where the place was because, when asked to pick us up, he would have considered it inhospitable to say he didn't know. We saw this last night while walking around Hamra looking for our street--people would rather give somebody (especially a guest in their country) erroneous info than do something as rude as say "I don't know." Finally at our building, two slight blunders. Tired and surveying our five suitcases, Nicole innocently asked if the building had an elevator and the guy at the front desk seemed mildly insulted ("yes, of course, what do you think?"), probably because Nicole asked a "business" question without prefacing it with friendly small talk. I did something similar when, unsure whether AUB (who helped arrange our housing) had clarified that we wanted the apartment for ten months, I asked if I could check the place out before taking possession. The cliches are true: in the Middle East, share a cup of tea and make some small talk, and THEN get down to business. And for goodness sake, don't blow somebody off by saying that you don't know.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Final Post

That is to say, a final predeparture post. Two days until the flights that will take us from Detroit to Amman and Amman to Beirut. We leave mid-morning on Thursday and, due to the time change, arrive early morning on Friday. I got some very smart advice to eat lots of yogurt and drink lots of bottled water during the days leading up to the trip. Most Americans get sick soon after arriving in the Middle East, a combination of breathing germy airplane air for fifteen hours and getting used to different bacteria in the water. Before departure, staying hydrated and ingesting the good bacteria in yogurt can at least help reduce the likelihood of getting sick. I suppose having some orange juice on the plane could help too. Anybody have further suggestions?

Last night my sister Anna threw a great going-away dinner party with lots of delicious food and great company. My mom made stuffed grape leaves. She doesn't have a drop of Lebanese blood in her, but she makes the best dolmas I've had. Anna made pasta and Greek salad and loads of sweets. Best of all, though, lots of friends and family saying bon voyage. Thanks everybody.

Needless to say, we'll miss people the most this year, but being away from other, familiar comforts will be strange. Going to Mass at Gesu. Knowing that virtually everyone I meet will understand the language I speak. Being able to get a delicious, sinus-clearing bowl of pho when I'm under the weather (although for all I know, Hamra might have great Vietnamese restaurants). Turning on my laptop with little concern that the electricity might cut out at any moment. Watching bad tv. I hope a little time away from the most familiar things will make me more aware, more deliberate, more thoughtful about day-to-day life.

I've also been thinking of those things I won't miss at all. Ten months without driving a car, "commuting" to work, or breathing exhaust on the Southfield Highway. That sounds pretty good. No big box department stores or cable news or intersections with three drugstores and two gas stations. No shoveling snow, all winter long.

Stay tuned for pictures and a first post from Beirut in a few short days, Insha'Allah. Expect stories of airport security, language mishaps, Mediterranean hospitality, and much more by week's end. Ma'as-salam.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


As I look over AUB's academic calendar, it occurs to me that I'll be teaching on Thanksgiving. I'll be teaching Lynn Worsham's essay "Going Postal" (among other things, about how emotion plays a role in how we teach persuasion) that afternoon in my graduate course and I suspect the first portion of class will be an explanation of the idiomatic title.

Anyway, given that campus closes for Christmas and New Year's, Easter, the Feast of the Assumption, St. Maroun's Day, Armenian Christmas, Al-Adha, Hijra New Year, Ashoura, the Prophet's Birthday, "Independence Day" (November 22), and May Day, I certainly can't complain. Still, Thanksgiving has meant a day off school every single year of my life except 1973-1977. Nicole and I have talked about taking a trip to Istanbul on Thanksgiving (get it?), so maybe we'll leave for Turkey after I get out of class on that Thursday afternoon. But if not, maybe we'll Skype into a couple turkey dinners back in the States. I figure everybody will be congregating around 9:00 or 10:00, Beirut time.

Speaking of differences, I've heard from several individuals that for the most part you can't buy milk in Lebanon. Milk, I'm told, tends to be expensive, if available at all. More Lebanese people eat yogurt or labneh than drink milk. So we won't have cereal and milk first thing each morning. More common breakfast: bread, olives, cheese, tea, and labneh.

Mealtimes. On the first day of faculty orientation, I have a fairly full schedule of events until lunch at...1:30. And that's relatively early. Many in Lebanon eat a large meal at 2:30 or thereabouts, followed by a nap, then chores/housework/etc., capped by dinner at 9:00 or so.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I have read some good books in preparation for my year in Beirut, including Helena Cobban's The Making of Modern Lebanon, a history of the country, and Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, the classic meditation on leading a reflective life. But the most interesting thing I've read has been Understanding Arabs by Margaret Nydell, a Georgetown Arabic professor who regularly leads workshops on Arabic culture for various western organizations.

Nydell's book came highly recommended by a friend named Colleen, who Nicole and I met years ago at the University of Detroit Mercy and who shares many mutual friends with my sister Anna. Colleen and Anna and their families are coming to our house this Friday for Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

I have found lots of insights in the book about differences between "Western" and "Arab" culture. Of course no single, monolithic thing called Western culture or Arabic culture exists, but Nydell's analysis nonetheless speaks volumes about why westerners have confounding experiences in the Middle East. Here are some key ideas. Arabs tend to value dignity very highly, and image and familial reputation are both part of "dignity." Projecting a negative public image (behaving badly) harms one's dignity and the dignity of one's family. Arabs can seem fatalistic to some westerners because they tend to emphasize how much is in the hands of a higher power. An example: the term "Insha’Allah," which is used constantly to mean something like "God willing," though I think of it much more akin to my grandma's old favorite: "we'll see," which she would say whenever somebody implied that something was a sure thing. It's bad luck to get too confident or to forget about fate.

Arabic culture tends to focus less on the "individual." Failure and achievement reflect not so much indidvudal merit or lack thereof as much as the family, clan, or community from which one comes. To that end, Nydell writes, friendship and interpersonal connection can seem more intense in the Middle East compared to the West. Friends don't refuse reasonable requests and they are intensely hospitable to one another. Even a business relationship is personal and business meetings should always begin with casual conversation, which can seem like a waste of time to westerners. Even strangers, who ask directions from or even just meet the eyes of a new "friend," can be the objects of hospitality/generosity (e.g., the invitation to a meal), which can seem, well, wierd to outsiders.

Nydell writes that meals with guests are large and that one should never decline the offer of a beverage. My brother-in-law Mazin told me that some Arabs feel like a visiting a home where you're not offered a beverage is like visiting the cemetery. Who but a dead person doesn't have a drink to offer a guest? Here's a cool tidbit: you should take care not to praise an object in someone's home because the person may then feel obligated to give it to you. Here's another: some feel that telling someone his or her baby is cute is bad luck, akin to what my grandma (Italians and Arabs--very similar!) used to call asking for the evil eye. Anyway, as a rhetorician, I think language is the most telling signifier of values, and here are some words that Nydell says are important at big meals:

1) "Ahlan wa salam" or "marhaba" = welcome!
2) "Alhamdu lillah" = thank God (may be used to decline food once you're stuffed)
3) "Dayman" or "Sufra Dayma" = always (i.e., thank you, and may you ALWAYS have the means to be such a generous host)
4) "T'eesh" or "Bil hana wa shifa" = cheers/live long and prosper (the response to "Dayman"

Thanks, Colleen, for suggesting the book. Everyone else, ma'as-salam, and, in anticipation of next time you are my guest, marhaba!