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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Last Post

I can't attempt to sum up a year in the Middle East without slipping into some serious hyperbole. Most profound professional experience. Best year of my life. Adventure. But it's not just hyperbole. I'm so grateful for the friends that Nicole and I made; for the opportunity to witness history unfolding; for the joys of cheap buses and street food; for the chance to visit Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, the Emirates, Jordan and Egypt; for the experience of intense hospitality in south Lebanon; for my hiking group; for the new knowledge about Palestine, the lives of refugees, Arab culture, and domestic laborers; for the chance to teach the internationally inclined students of AUB; and for this past year's research and writing projects.

If you are an academic reading this, I urge you to consider doing a Fulbright. Go somewhere you've never been. Let your work transition into new projects (especially if you're recently tenured). Regardless of your profession, go see the rest of the globe. Talk to people. Walk or take the bus. Eat cheap food. Learn about places that are only abstractions to you or that are reduced to sound bites by American media and American political discourse. Go experience a place that makes at least some of your friends and family say "why there?" I'm talking about developing nations, former or current colonies, somewhere with a little edge. Go if you've always wanted to go. Go if the thought only recently crossed your mind. Go.

I started this blog while sitting in my office at the University of Michigan Dearborn, looking out my window at the greenery separating campus from the Henry Ford Estate. Deja Vu. One year ago I had just finished teaching Summer I courses, was en route to Washington DC for Fulbright Orientation, and in the middle of several books about Arab culture and the history of Lebanon. I'm in my office again, unpacking files and books, going through a year's worth of mail, and getting ready for Summer 2 courses (they begin next week!).

A few days ago, Nicole and I flew home. A one-hour flight from Beirut to Amman, Jordan, where Royal Jordanian treated us right. We had an overnight layover and the airline sent us to a hotel, gave us a great dinner and breakfast, and generally put the U.S. airlines to shame (a pretty low bar, but still...). Next day, Amman to Chicago. Thirteen hours. Vegged out with a slew of movies on the seatback tv, including the very funny "Cedar Rapids." In Chicago, passport control told us we'd need to retrieve our bags (even though they were checked through to Detroit) and take them through U.S. customs. None of our bags were on the conveyor belt. My data. Souvenirs for family. My new cookbooks. All lost. American Airlines told us we'd need to wait until our final destination to fill out the 'missing bag' forms. Forty-five minute flight from Chicago to Detroit. Sadly, we head down tot he American Airlines help counter. Sitting outside their office, all of our bags. They got to Detroit on different flights (a big TSA no-no) and never went through customs (an even bigger no-no). But we got them! And a caravan of three vehicles and eleven people met us at the doors of Detroit Metro Airport.


Blogging is so 2004, right? That's when I started blogging at I was teaching at Miami University, volunteering with the Kerry-Edwards campaign, and living in Hamilton, Ohio. I mostly put that blog on hiatus this past year, but even though it's 2011, the blog is back, and renamed "blogging is not dead." I won't be writing about walking to the corner to get a zaatar manoushe or visiting a refugee camp, but check it out anyway.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


In the midst of packing for the flight to Detroit, we have had the chance to bid farewell to many of the great people we've met in Lebanon. Seems like most of our meals these past few days have been farewell meals. Luckily the stress of attending to all the details of the trip means less time to get sad about leaving Lebanon. Not to mention excitement about seeing everybody back home. Detroit, here we come.

Monday, June 20, 2011


June is not the optimal time to visit the United Arab Emirates, a desert nation between Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. It's hot. Very hot. Face-melting hot. And yet we had a really good time on what was probably the most "touristy" trip we took during our year in the Middle East. We stayed in the Emirate of Sharjah (comprised of small, tribal emirates led by Islamic leaders, UAE's only been a nation since the 1970s), at a place my student Majdoline recommended. Since the heat meant we could really only spend six-seven hours a day out exploring, we were able to swim in the gulf each day. So our hotel's location right on the beach was perfect. Swimming in the Persian Gulf in June is like being in an enormous hot tub. The water was that hot.

Most days we took the shuttle to the neighboring, more famous Emirate of Dubai, one of the wealthiest spots on the whole globe. Seriously, there are ATM machines that dispense gold bars. Emiratis have so much oil money that they import foreign workers to do most labor (hard or otherwise). Dubai is the center of that opulence and attracts visitors from all over the world to see the spectacle. I ate malls but I have to admit the world's largest one--complete with an aquarium, hockey rink, and many other over-the-top amenities--was sort of cool. Dubai is a place with stores selling burkas next to stores selling the most risque lingerie. Also, a place with the world's tallest building, the Burj al Khalifa, where we went to the observation desk on the 124th floor (nowhere near the top!), whose heights creeped me out quite a bit. We met up with my student Majdoline, whose family treated us to a night on the town, including dinner in the shadow of the Burj al Khalifa, watching the extravagant water fountain show, set to the music of Michael Jackson of course. It was a pleasure getting to know the family. We walked around the old souks for as long as the heat allowed and rode on the abras--the little commuter boats that zip up and down the Dubai "creek."

I actually enjoyed the other Emirates more than Dubai. We spent one day in Al Ain ("the spring"), which is inland and is technically part of the Abu Dhabi Emirate, though it's right on the border with Oman. Al Ain attempts to preserve some of the pre-oil history of the land so we hit several museums that commemorate patriarchs like Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, "founder" of UAE (first president when the nation was founded a generation or so ago). Al Ain also has an absolutely amazing oasis of thousands of date palms. Right there in the middle of the hottest imaginable desert. Highlight of Al Ain, though, was the camel market. Livestock traders bring camels, as well as goats and sheep and small birds, from all over the gulf to sell. It's out in the middle of a parking lot and hard to find, but I'm happy we were able to visit. The camels are pretty majestic, not to mention expensive. The ones sold for meat are cheap, but the racing camels go as high as $10 million. So you have these expensive animals next to cheap goats that people buy to eat. Strange juxtaposition.

Sharjah itself was nice as well. We took the shuttle from our hotel to the city center and visited the art gallery and the Islamic Heritage Museum, the latter is a little visited gem where you can find things like grand kiswahs, the silk and gold coverings of the Kab'a in Mecca. And the "blue souk" in Sharjah has remarkably cheap stuff. Hart to believe it's only a few kilometers from the over-the-top expenses of Dubai. At the Sharjah souks I bought shoes and a dishdasha and Nicole found several really nice scarves. A fun and unusual trip, one we certainly would never have done had we not been in the region.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Last Hike

Happy Father's Day. With only five days left in Lebanon, I went on my last hike with Vamos Todos today, a lovely but tiring trek through Arnoun, up the mountain to Beaufort Castle, followed by a great lunch at a "rest house" next to the castle. I'm happy to have had another chance to visit the beautiful south today. I'll miss these Vamos hikes!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Wedding Of The Century

At long last, the day of the big nuptials arrived. Dr. P and Rita tied the knot in what has to be the most extravagant wedding I'll ever attend. (Background information: Dr. P is the attorney who runs the NGO where Nicole has worked this year and both he and Rita have been hospitable to us during our stay in Lebanon. In fact, we celebrated Christmas at the home of Rita's parents.)

Lebanese weddings have a reputation for being quite festive and for months everyone at the NGO/law firm has been buzzing (obsessing). Dr. P is something of a public figure in Beirut, since in addition to practicing law, he lectures at the university and frequently serves as a pundit on Lebanese news shows. So even by Lebanese standards, the wedding promised to be an event. It was.

We joined with a couple of Nicole's colleagues to hire a car for the night. Since nobody wanted to be crammed into a little car--thereby running the risk of messing up hair and make-up--I had the bright idea to get a minivan from our landlord's cousin. Plenty of space, right? Yes, but I was teased for picking a minivan: "Bill, are you taking your students on a field trip or are you taking us to the wedding of the century?" So much for my high society chops.

The wedding was held at the Greek Melkite church in Harissa, just north of Beirut on top of a mountain overlooking the sea and adjacent to the Maronite Cathedral. The Melkite Patriarch (the eastern rite church's equivalent of the Pope) was brought in from Damascus to officiate, assisted by a team of priests, black-clad cantors (like both Orthodox and Maronite Masses, Melkite ceremonies have way more singing compared to us boring Roman Catholics!), and loads of insense. Fun fact: at most (Christian) weddings in Lebanon, the bride and groom walk down the aisle together.

The Melkite church looks a lot like Orthodox churches: lots of icons, gold-colored mosaic work, and byzantine architecture, all of which provided a lovely backdrop for the wedding. The Patriarch placed gold crowns on the heads of the bride and groom and led them as they processed around the altar. What a site.

We headed up the coastal highway to Casino du Liban in Jounieh for the reception. Jihad Akl, a famous Lebanese violinist performed. I thought his entrance was going to be like when Johnny Fontaine arrives at Carla's wedding in The Godfather, complete with swooning. Not quite, but guests were definitely impressed. The reception was in an enormous courtyard at the casino with a fountain in the middle that changed colors. Surrounding the fountain was a raised stage where the couple processed and danced during much of the party, sometimes flanked by acrobatic Arabic dancers. When the couple entered, they descended a large staircase that led to the circular stage with the fountain as fireworks went off. At one point, French can-can dancers came out and did a show. A live band performed too, mostly accompanying Akl, who paraded around the circular stage, his violin electrified.

And of course, dancing. We were at the reception for about six hours and at least two-third of that time, the couple was dancing. And I don't mean slow-dancing to Spandau Ballet or Harry Connick Jr. They were doing some serious, uptempto, Arabic dancing. Guests hoisted the couple in the air a couple times and were frequently encouraged to join them on the stage. By the end of the night, the band had given way to a DJ who spun mostly Arab pop music and a few songs in English (a techno remix of "Eye of the Tiger"!). We didn't get out of there until nearly 3:00 am.

If you know me, then you know I'm going to talk about the food, right? First course: a trio of mini seafood bites (smoked salmon, shrimp, and minced crab) with avocado mousse and a mini-salad. Second course: mushroom and beshamel in puff pastry (this was the highlight--very delicious). Third course: filet, a muffin made of mashed potatoes, and a quiche-type thing made of cheese and mushrooms. Dessert: dark chocolate parfait. One last note: a video played during dinner that offered a humorous look at the couple's courtship, splicing together a conversation of Rita asking questions with bits of Dr. P's media appearances. The video ended with a collage of photos, one of which was a shot of the bride and groom sitting on my lap on Christmas Eve, me dressed up like Santa Clause.

What a night. I have to say that I expected a high society vibe but in the end, the Lebanese PARTY impulse took over. The wedding ended up being all about dancing, eating and drinking, and spending time together. Extravagant? Yes. But more than anything else, it was just a wild, loud, late, good time! Pictures coming soon.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Countries visited during the past ten months:
--United Arab Emirates

Middle East/North African countries not-yet-traversed:
--Saudi Arabia
--Oman *
--Israel *
--Palestinian Territories *

*Saw it through a fence but didn't actually enter

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Depressing Exchange

Last night in the Dubai airport I was sitting next to a Lebanese woman who had come to the Emirates to meet her new domestic worker and bring her back to Lebanon. The domestic worker, sitting between us, had just arrived at the airport from the Philippines. (The Philippino government doesn't allow its citizens to work in Lebanon so women who come here to be housekeepers and nannies must fly to a neutral site and then come to Lebanon.) Boss and worker had the following conversation:

Boss: I'm surprised you didn't bring pictures of your kids.
Worker: My husband will post them on facebook for me.
Boss: What facebook? No facebook or internet for you at all.
Worker: Okay, that's alright.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Communication Skills

Enjoying drinks at Bread Republic with some of the people who keep AUB's Communication Skills program running.

Office Cleaning

I handed in final grades the other day, thereby ending my tenure as "Visiting Professor and Fulbright Scholar" at AUB. Today I am cleaning out my office, packing up my books and files, and getting ready to hand in my keys. What a bittersweet day. I'm excited to see my family and friends back in the U.S. and of course sad to leave behind all of the good people associated with the communication skills program and English Department at AUB. I can't think of a better affiliation to have had while in Lebanon, and not just because the AUB campus is so green and offers a great view of the sea.

And of course while I'm excited to think of summer teaching at UM-Dearborn, going to Youngstown for the weekend, eating tacos from the take-away trucks in Mexicantown, and the obligatory summer shows (Dirtbombs, Kills, and New York Dolls are all on the agenda), I'll miss manouche at Snack Faisal, hiking with Vamos Todos, and me and Nicole hopping on the cheap bus to southern Lebanon for the day. The "Beirut-Dearborn Writing and Learning Community" is taking shape. Four AUB lecturers have signed up to be part of the collaborative teaching experiment next academic year, so the cross-cultural literacy narrative project looks like it's going to continue, and grow, and perhaps be the vehicle on which I return to Beirut in the near future, inshallah.

In the meantime, two more weeks in the Middle East and no teaching duties. Tomorrow a.m., Nicole and I are flying to the Gulf for a five-day getaway, our last international travel until we head for the U.S. on June 24-25. We also have the wedding of the century on June 17. So look for a few more posts before I retire this blog for good.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Aphrodite's Island

Many in Lebanon associate Cyprus with the notion of civil marriage. Civil marriage does not exist in Lebanon, only churches and mosques can marry, and interfaith marriage is nearly non-existent (though some types of interfaith marriage are acceptable--e.g., a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman). So, Cyprus has become a bit like the Las Vegas of the Middle East, providing a haven for Lebanese people--often from different religions--who want to get married.

Cyprus is a small island nation in the Mediterranean, less than thirty minutes by plane from Beirut. In part due to the close proximity and low cost and in part because a relaxing trip sounded good, Nicole and I visited Cyprus earlier this week. As Nicole has noted, the trip did not start well because on Saturday our last week of tutoring at the Palestinian high school program was abruptly canceled, leaving us unsure if we'll be able to say goodbye to the kids. Bummer. But that night, we flew out and as soon as the plane was in the air it was heading for the runway.

Our tickets came with a free transfer to our hotel. Score. Unfortunately, the driver did not show so we had to take an expensive taxi. And our hotel room was hot, thanks to dodgy air conditioning. I have much patience when it comes to most things, but when it's too hot to sleep, my patience disappears. So that first night was a bit rough. Luckily, the next day they fixed (more or was still not as cool as I'd prefer, but oh well) the a.c.

We spent the first morning in Larnaca, a beachfront city full of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sites and artifacts. It felt odd to hear Greek, instead of Arabic and French, on the streets. Cyprus attracts loads of European tourists, as it's an inexpensive place to escape to the beach. You get used to the warmth of Arabs so, as was the case when we visited Istanbul, Turkey, we just had the impression that people weren't as friendly. Though that's probably not the right word. Cypriots seem perfectly nice but, like Istabulis, they just don't have that intense hospitality you feel when visiting Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Plus, different notions about appropriate swimwear. Europeans love the speedos in a big way.

The morning's highlight was definitely the church of St. Lazarus, a tenth century Orthodox "Agios" built over the tomb of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Turns out Lazarus traveled with St. Paul first to Antioch and then to Cyprus, where he became a bishop. Many of his relics were relocated to Turkey but his tomb is still beneath this church. I had worn shorts (it was hot!) but luckily they church provided a wrap to cover my legs, so Nicole and I were able to walk down into his tomb. The church itself, like many Orthodox churches, is FULL of amazing icons. As always, we took loads of pictures.

We also went to the nearby Agia Faneromeni, also a beautiful church built over ancient tombs. The site was originally a Phoenician holy place known for magical, healing powers. The "pagan" tomb is now a chapel, full of candles (creepy) and of course its own iconostasis (pretty). We spent the afternoon swimming, reading next to the water, and napping. We had also seen a sign advertising Indian food, which we hadn't eaten since leaving the U.S., so we took a really long stroll along the sea and found the place. Expensive, but pretty good, and reminded me how much we miss Indian food.

The next day we took a little daytrip to some of the important archaelogical sites around the island. Kourion dates back to the 12th Century BC but really thrived under the Roman empire. It's got a huge Roman theatre and a royal home with great mosaics. Similarly, Pafos, on the western cost of the island, was an important Roman site, with several cult houses full of amazing mosaics, as well as several castles and another theatre. We stopped at the Petra Tou Romiou, a rock formation where Aphrodite was born, according to legend. Also, Choirokotia, a stone-age settlement from 7000 BC. Always interested in the odd corners of Christianity, I visited the church in Pafos built on the site where St. Paul recieved thirty-nine lashes. The pillar to which is he was tied is still in the church's courtyard.

According to legend, St. Paul made his inquisitor go blind. Also: when Sts. Paul and Lazarus arrived on Cyprus, they were hungry and thirsty and Lazarus, according to legend, asked a woman at a vineyard for some grapes. When she refused, Lazarus turned her vineyard into a salt lake. Finally, this: on Christmas Eve, Cypriots believe the "kalikantzari" arrive to wreak havoc on their homes. Kalikantzari are ugly, gnome-like creatures, the ghosts of babies who died before being baptized. They show up on Christmas and dirty the water supply and play other pranks. So villagers cut olive branches, take them to church, dip them in holy water, and then sprinkle the water around their homes to protect against the spirits. But families who have lost babies put out food for the kalikantzari. Who says Christianity isn't any fun?

Ate Cypriot food on the boardwalk in Pafos that day. Yummy. Back at the hotel, Nicole was tired and caught a quick nap in the kinda air conditioned room while I went swimming again in the attempt to work off some of the mousakka and kieftedhes (kefteh meatballs).

On our last day we went to Limassol, another beachside community. We ate lunch in a little cafe with turtles and birds and fishtanks. It was called Astarte, which seemed like a good sign, as Astarte is the Phoenician/ancient Lebanese version of Aphrodite. I also found two great buys: an amazing cookbook called "Kopiaste" and can't wait to start making some of the Cypriot and Greek goodies therein. Also, an icon of St. Lazarus. I'm not a big souvenir guy, but cookbooks and icons tempt me every time. We went to the crusader castle in Limassol, which has been converted into a medieval museum, complete with weapons, stoneware, mosaics, and the like. The castle was the site where Richard the Lionhearted got married during one of the crusades.

Luckily, our transfer to the airport showed up and spared us another pricey taxi ride. And the plane ride was shockingly fast. Back in Lebanon, safe and sound. About three weeks until we return to the U.S. Cyprus was lots of fun and the historical sites (especially those connected to Orthodox Christianity) were very interesting. Hard to complete with the Mideast, though, and places like Jordan and Syria remain the most treasured places we've seen this year!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wazzani, Ghajar, The Border

Hiking yesterday in the south reminded me that 'Vamos Todos' is one of the things I'll miss about Lebanon. The group has allowed me to see so much of the country, mostly places I would not have been able to access otherwise. Yesterday was no exception. After an early morning stop for manoushe--standard Vamos practice--we made our way to the southern border. The three or four non-Lebanese folks on the bus had to get out at the military checkpoint near Bint Jbeil to show our papers, including written permission from the Lebanese Army (the latter handled by Vamos) to approach the border. We stopped in a village called Kfarkila, full of pictures of fallen "resistance" fighters, and I managed to snap some photos of the fence that separates Lebanon from Israel, which is rarely called Israel by anyone here. It's "occupied Palestine," "Israeli settlements," or just plain "Palestine."

We headed east and the bus dropped us off next to the Golan Heights. We started our hike through the mountain farms high above Shebaa and Ghajar, parts of the Heights that are more or less part of Lebanon now, though the borders and identities of those living there (Ghajar is mostly Syrian Alawites, and half the village is considered part of Israel) are grey areas. It was a hot and sunny day but rocky, pretty views made up for any weather-related discomfort. We passed by loads of tomato and zucchini plants (no garden for me this year, I thought), and also tent-homes of farmers. Ended up walking 10K, which felt great. I think I was the only non-Arabic speaking person, but some generous pals translated much of Vamos leader Mark had to say about the area.

Ultimately we ended up at what appeared to be a resort-in-progress along the Wazzani. Beautiful place, low in a valley, ducks and geese swimming in the water, but I'm not sure it's a great location for a resort. Having walked our way to strong appetites, we ate the standard Lebanese feast there, and then headed to the site of the Khiam Prison, a notorious place where prisoners-of-war were held during much of the Civil War. A guide who was a former POW there showed up around what's left of the complex, which was nearly leveled during the 2006 war. Enough structures still stand that you can see the tiny spaces where people were held. You can also see several spots where they were tortured, including a metal box used for solitary confinement and noise torture, consisting of someone banging on the outside with a rock while you're inside. Disturbing stuff.

New Blog

My new friend Ed, who I just met at the ATEL Conference, keeps a blog with a cool name. Check it out if you're interested in teaching language internationally.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

ATEL Conference

Today I gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Association of Teachers of English in Lebanon. Like NCTE in the U.S., ATEL brings together English teachers from both University and K-12 levels for traditional papers as well as workshops and teacher-training sessions. I had a good time meeting so many teachers and I never had so many people show up for my paper at a conference before. The latter had a lot to do with the fact that there were only three concurrent sessions, BUT STILL. Some miscelaneous observations:
  • Lots of Catholic nuns teach English in Lebanon. Also, lots of Muslim women. Hence, many attendees had their heads covered.
  • The British Council is a major backer of the organization and conference, and the event reminded me of a story the AUB historian Dr. Salibi had told us last week (when we interviewed him for our symposium) about how during his days of schooling in the 1940s, most of his English teachers were Brits.
  • One of the publishers in the book display area was selling really depressing "simplified classics" editions of American novels. Why do we do that to kids?
  • Coffee vendor outside the UNESCO Palace (where the conference was held) had some really good pre-conference joe for only 500 but I had to wait until he was done selling to literally dozens of Lebanese army, gingerly handing cups one-by-one through the barbed wire outside UNESCO. Strange image.
The ATEL President gave a fiery keynote, imploring "It is from the Holy East, the land of the prophets, from which the word of God spread...this is the land of the the missionaries who spread education." And this: "I call on publishers to lower the cost of books. You are impoverishing education."

I met a lot of teachers from Lebanon and Jordan who were very interested in the collaborative Beirut-Dearborn teaching project, which was the subject of my talk. Ended up exchanging a lot of cards and--I hope--getting some people excited about trans-cultural classroom projects. I hope these contacts represent a chance for more teachers to try projects like the Beirut-Dearborn experiment. Who knows? This may lead to future visits to the region too. I hope so...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prayers For AUB Student

During Sunday's protests at the border, an AUB student was critically injured. Please say a prayer for his recovery. Here is a story from the local, English-language press about Munib:
An American University of Beirut student is in critical condition after he was shot in the back during deadly clashes along the South Lebanon-Israeli border on Sunday.

Munib Masri, 23, was shot by what appeared to be a dum-dum bullet, (though this remains unconfirmed) which exploded on impact, as he was retreating from the fence about five meters from the border with Israel, according to his friend, AUB graduate student Suha Afyouni, who was with him at the solidarity march to mourn the anniversary of the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” of Israel’s founding in 1948.

“He was turned around, he was leaving [the area] when he was shot,” Afyouni says.

Masri is a Palestinian who holds dual Jordanian and American citizenship. He is undergoing surgery today. He has already lost his left kidney and spleen in an earlier operation. His spine is also fractured, and he’s sustained injuries to his diaphragm, along with pieces of shrapnel lodged in his back.

Masri and Afyouni had gone down to the protest on Sunday with a group of other students and professors from AUB. Afyouni described the mood as very peaceful and calm until Israeli soldiers began shooting in the air during afternoon prayer, and that’s when things “just got out of control,” she says.

Afyouni was separated from Masri and did not witness the shooting, but said she is confident he wasn’t doing anything “remotely injurious” to provoke Israeli forces.

Israeli gunfire killed 12 people and wounded hundreds Sunday as Palestinians marched on Israel's borders with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza in a massive show of solidarity.

And here is a message from AUB's President Dorman:

During the demonstrations last Sunday at the southern border of

Lebanon, one of our students, Munib Rabih Masri, was grievously

injured. We are all shocked and saddened by this development, and our

thoughts and hearts are with Munib and his family.

We are appalled by the unrestrained use of deadly force against

unarmed protesters that has left one of our students in critical


Along with the entire AUB community, I wish Munib a full and speedy

recovery, and we continue to monitor his condition and to coordinate

with his family to provide all the support that we can.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


After months of planning, the Communication Skills Program hosted an all-day symposium for all of our writing teachers at AUB. I enjoyed helping the program director and a couple other faculty members here put this symposium together. The preparation was as rewarding as the actual event, in fact, as it was an opportunity to get to know my "temporary colleagues" in Lebanon. We had a session on the history of the program, reviewed some best practices at a handful of other programs, and took time to brainstorm what the dream program would look like. The history session was probably the most interesting part from my perspective: during its long history, the language instruction at AUB has changed several times (Arabic! Turkish! English!) and unstable periods like the Civil War years made staffing difficult (understatement). Last week, in preparation for the symposium, the planning team and I had the pleasure of interviewing an historian who took first-year English at AUB in 1945, co-founded the student newspaper, and after grad school in Europe returned to AUB where he had a distinguished career. Well into his 80s, he still lives in the Hamra neighborhood. Needless to say, his insights were invaluable. I did a solo workshop a few months back for the program but collaborative events are almost always more interesting. The schoolyear's starting to wind down (two more weeks of regular classes, which I hear might be partially interrupted by a transportation strike) so today kind of felt like a final fling with the program. Bittersweet.

“The Rose And The Dictionary” by Mahmoud Darwish

So be it.

For me, it’s essential,

Essential for the poet to have a new toast,

New songs.

I carry the key of legends, the relics of slaves,

And pass through a vault of incense

And pepper and the old summer,

And I see history in the form of an old man

Playing backgammon and sucking in the stars.

So be it.

For me it’s essential to reject death,

Even though my legends die.

I am searching in the rubble for light, for new poetry.

Oh, did I realise before today

That letters in the dictionary, my love, are stupid?

How do all these words live?

How do they increase? How grow up?

We still nourish them with memories’ tears,

With metaphors—and sugar!

So be it.

For me, it’s essential to reject the rose

That comes from a dictionary or a volume of poetry.

Roses sprout from a peasant’s arm, a worker’s grip;

Roses sprout on a warrior’s wound,

On the forehead of a rock.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bourj Al Barajneh

Nicole and I finally made our way to one of the refugee camps in Beirut, a visit I wish more Americans could make. The living conditions are shocking. Estimates vary, but some claim that as many as 40,000 Palestinian refugees live in the one-square-kilometer camp at Bourj al Barajneh, located in the suburbs south of the city. A woman we met who helps to run a women's programming center said she thinks that number is more like 25,000. Either way, we're talking about perilously overcrowded conditions. The refugees there have no official access to utilities, so as you walk through the narrow alleys of the camp, you constantly have spliced electric lines above you and leaky water pipes below you, both rigged in the attempt to access basic needs. The water, we were told, comes straight from the sea and is "very salty." The rigged lines represent a dangerous combination and death by electrocution is common.

The women's center, formerly a U.N. facility but now independently operated, runs various education and vo-tech programs in some of the fields in which Palestinians are allowed to have jobs in Lebanon. Until August, they could not get work permits at all. That has changed but they are still legally barred from most professions including law, medicine, and engineering. The woman who works at the center, incredibly dedicated, mentioned that she has little hope for young people, but that she keeps working anyway. Nicole and I agreed that conditions seemed bleaker than we had expected. You want to find a sustainable, just solution, but all indications seem to suggest some combination of studying hard, getting into University, and leaving Lebanon is the best thing for many young refugees to do. A first step Americans can take? Recognize that empathic representations of Palestinians are virtually absent in American media.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Much grief in Lebanon today as Palestinians and those sympathetic to their cause mourn the death of at least ten people on the Lebanon-Israel border yesterday. For those not following the situation closely, here's a synopsis: Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (Palestinian territories) as well as Lebanon and Syria (where they live as third and fourth generation, largely unwelcome refugees) held marches yesterday to commemorate what they call "al nakba," which mean catastrophe, their term for the founding of Israel in the late 1940s. On the border in south Lebanon yesterday, a crowd of mostly young Palestinians marched, some peaceful, some throwing rocks over the fence . Israeli soldiers fired on them.

I feel like a broken record repeating the obligatory "it's complicated" mantra, but I would ask any friends reading this back in the U.S. at least to try to empathize. In the West we think of refugees as people temporarily living in tents; Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been here for over sixty years, mostly living in crowded camps and facing various types of discrimination like the inability to access Lebanese health care or education or work permits. They are not allowed even to visit the homes and villages of their grandparents. Over 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon; one out of ten human beings here is a Palestinian refugee. Please try to imagine the context of the desperation many feel.

You might think that calling the founding of Israel "al nakba" is intolerant, racist, or unreasonable, but wouldn't you consider becoming a refugee catastrophic if it happened to you? You might think throwing stones is violent or provocative, but is opening fire--if you're one of the most powerful militaries in the world--an appropriate, scaled response? Try to have some empathy, and know that this is a problem without a solution--at least a solution on which all sides would agree. The deaths are sad and so is the injustice. All we can do is say a prayer.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Poetic Regulations" by Mahmoud Darwish

The stars had one only task: they taught me how to read.
They taught me I had a language in heaven
and another language on earth.
Who am I? Who am I?
I don't want to answer yet.
May a star fall into itself,
and may a forest of chestnut trees rise in the night
toward the Milky Way with me, and may it say:
Remain Here!

The poem is "above" and can teach me whatever it wishes.
It can teach me to open a window
and to manage my household in between legends.
It can wed me to itself for a while

My father is "below," carrying a thousand-year olive tree
that is neither from the East nor the West.
Let him rest from the conquerors for a while,
and be tender with me, and gather iris and lily for me.

The poem leaves me and heads to a port where the sailors love wine
and never return twice to the same woman.
They have neither regrets nor longing for anything!

I haven't died of love yet, but a mother sees in her son's eyes
the fear carnations harbor for the vase.
She cries to ward off something before it happens.
She cries for me to return alive from destiny's road
and live here.

The poem is neither here nor there, and with a girl's breast
it can illuminate the nights.
With the glow of an apple it fills two bodies with light
and with a gardenia's breath it can revive a homeland!

The poem is in my hands, and can run stories through her hands.
But ever since I embraced the poem, I squandered my soul
and then asked: Who am I? Who am I?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What's Been Happening?

Well, a lot actually.

I had been anxious about Monday night's lecture but I'm happy to say that Margaret and I managed to get some members of the AUB community excited about maintaining the Beirut-Dearborn relationship. I still have this dream of establishing a "sister writing program" relationship. Not sure exactly what that would mean, but maybe next year we'll have a better sense of what it COULD mean. We're now planning to find three or four instructors in each of our respective writing programs who wish to pair up their classes and have students write literacy narratives about one another, like Margaret and I had our students do in the Fall. We hope to create a learning community of sorts that brings all of these instructors together to plan and collaborate in Fall 2011. Then, in Winter/Spring 2012, their students complete the research/writing projects. Wash, rinse, repeat...if successful. Can't wait to start this project.

In related news, Margaret has left after a whirlwind couple of days in Beirut. Yesterday we spent the entire day meeting with various people on campus, introducing Margaret to what AUB--especially the writing program--is all about and talking about the above project too. Between our lecture and our campus day, Nicole again played the role of tour guide and took Margaret to Jeita Grotto, Jbeil (Byblos), and Saida. Margaret is off to France for another whirlwind couple of days of research with another collaborator. We sent Margaret with a suitcase full of our stuff so, Margaret, if you're out there, we're so appreciative that you're lugging gear across the world for us.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


A sigh of relief, that is. Last night, Margaret Willard-Traub and I gave our lecture about linking writing courses internationally. Sharing data from our linked courses last Fall felt good, a reminder that we accomplished something worth growing. Allowing students in Beirut and Dearborn to talk to one another, develop relationships, and write together was one of the most enjoyable projects I've done as a teacher. Seeing student work projected onto a big screen was enjoyable, too, a way to see points of contrast (very different ideas about literacy for example) but also to make an argument for collaboration. Insha'Allah, I think the collaboration is going to continue. Part of what we wanted to accomplish was getting our audience excited about doing more of this next semester, next year, and beyond. Speaking of audience, in addition to the usual suspects (English faculty), great to see some of my AUB students in the house.

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Things

Somehow Nicole and I have lived in Beirut all these months and never visited Bourj Hamoud until yesterday. The Bourj Hamoud neighborhood houses much of the city's Armenian community and affords opportunities to sample the food and culture, both of which have influenced Beirut life. Very inexpensive sandwich shops line the streets, so I tried a wonderful basterma sandwich and we spent a few hours wandering the streets with our friend Karine.

On a separate matter, Monday night is the lecture I'm giving with Margaret, visiting this week from back home in Dearborn. If you're in Beirut, be in West Hall Auditorium B at 6:00 pm to hear us talk about academic literacy across borders. We'll describe our teaching parternship last Fall and hopefully get some AUB audience members excited about continuing such partnerships in the future.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Day In The South

Some lovely new friends took Nicole and I to the south. We had been to Saida and Tyre numerous times and had even made our way to the village of Qana (where many believe Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding feast, also the site of two infamous Israeli attacks, one in the '90s and one in the '00s) back in October, but this was the only foray on much less-traveled paths of the south. Nouhad, an AUB student who works with the literacy program I've been observing all year, and her auntie Nissrine took a day to show us around--thanks for the hospitality guys and for showing us things we would not have otherwise experienced.

The day's highlight was the beautiful church in Maghdousheh, not far from Saida. Because village life feels so different, it seemed like worlds away. Many believe the cave here is where Mary used to wait for Jesus who frequently visited these parts early in his life, some say to preach, some say to fish. Probably both. Jewish women could not enter into Canaanite cities so Mary stayed in Maghdousheh, now known as Our Lady of Mantara, or Our Lady of Waiting. Pilgrims visit the site to pray, both Christians and Muslims (who have a deep devotion for "Mariam"), but this is nothing like going to Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, where you'll often find tour buses and the like. But actually, it feels like an even more sacred place, likely due to Jesus and Mary actually having walked the hills.

Like Harissa, a large statue of Mary looms over the whole complex here. You can climb the tall tower (it's like being in a lighthouse) to her statue and see great views of the villages of the southern valleys and even Saida, with the sea in the background. In the tower are images of Mary from around the globe (Guadalupe, Lourdes, and so forth) and a chapel on the ground floor. The four of us also entered the holy grotto, where a handful of people were praying. Inside the cave are small shrines with candles and statues and pilgrims often leave photos or personal items of people for whom they are praying. Just like San Xavier and the other Spanish missions in the Sonoroan desert.

The church itself is Greek-Melkite and, while the outside does not appear to be very special, the inside is amazing, full of stained-glass windows that narrate much of the Old and New Testaments. Nouhad told us which stories are also in the Quran (Noah, Moses, Cain and Abel, the tower of Babel, etc.) and, well, we were pretty much in awe of how different the place is. The icons indicate the Greek influence, but the stained-glass work really sets Our Lady of Mantara apart from other historically significant Christian places we've seen in the Middle East.

We left and ended up taking a few wrong turns and then got caught behind a funeral procession. It appeared that every man in the village was walking, slowly, and of course it's improper to pass the procession. Nouhad explained that the women would probably all go to the cemetery after the burial. A herd of goats also slowed us down at one point. So we were hungry enough to stop at the first site of a saj. I love typing that sentence. I enjoyed a tasty jibnee wa soujouk (a slightly spicy sausage of sorts that's very popular at Armenian restaurants) and, thanks to Nouhad's translations, got some saj tips from the old couple running the stand.

We next visited Mleeta, the newly opened "landmark about the resistance." This has gotten some attention in its eleven-month history as being the beginning of "Hezbollah World," an attempt at "Jihadi tourism." What to say about Mleeta? It's complicated, like any war memorial is. Mleeta is a remote mountain area that the Israeli army occupied for eighteen years. It was a place that saw fierce fighting, and deaths on both sides. The landmark is in part a memorial to those Lebanese--they call themselves the resistance because they believe they are resisting they claim was an illegal occupation--who died here. Yes, they consider themselves to be holy martyrs. One of the buildings at the landmark houses Israeli weapons and supplies that were found in the area after the war. One display ("The Abyss") is a huge, outdoor pit with Israeli tanks caught in what look like webs. You can also walk through the underground bunkers dug during the war where soldiers lived, hid, prayed, ate, and strategized.

I hate war and can't say that seeing these memorials and displays was fun, but it is a site that is extremely educational if you want to try to understand a group's point-of-view. It's sad to see reminders of death. It's sad to see displays that illustrate how long this war (it's ongoing...things are peaceful right now, thank God, but I think it's accurate to say that both sides consider themselves in a state of war) has gone on. It's sad to see a land so beautiful and know it's been the site of so much fighting. And, to American readers especially, whether you agree with the cause, whatever you think of the state of Israel or the actions of Israel, it's interesting to learn why many people in south Lebanon feel the way they do. It appears that they feel that no outside force should occupy their land, many feel it's a "holy" cause, and some feel it's a cause worth dying for.

On to less intense things. Well, slightly less intense. Nouhad wanted to take us to Bint Jbeil also. Bint Jbeil is a small village where many of her friends and relatives live and where many Dearborn residents come from. So this was an exciting opportunity. We got close, we were almost there, and then, a checkpoint. A pretty common thing in Lebanon and normally you get waved right through. We got waved to the side of the road and asked for our papers. When the "plainclothes soldier" (in a No Fear t-shirt!) saw we were Americans he wanted to talk to us separately, but luckily Nouhad insisted she come with us to serve as translator. We were questioned on the side of the road and told that only Lebanese could go to villages on the border. Americans would need special, written permission from the Lebanese army. Ouch. Bummer we couldn't get to Bint Jbeil this time, but we were thankful we weren't kept at the checkpoint longer and that we left with our papers.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Upcoming Lecture

"Beirut & Dearborn: Collaboration and Transcultural Academic Literacy"

Bill DeGenaro and Margaret Willard-Traub

Monday May 9, 2011
6:00 PM, American University of Beirut, West Hall Auditorium B

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick Hits, or Kristina and Pritham Part IV

--Today, I'm a little bit jealous. I'm at office hours, prepping for class, while Nicole is playing tour guide, taking K&P to Baalbeck and Anjaar, not to mention Chtula (a place 1. where everybody going from Lebanon to Damascus stops to fill out their exit cards before getting to the Syria border and 2. where they serve kick-ass arisha and honey sandwiches). Insha'Allah they'll have a great day. Me, I'll be teaching. Sigh.

--Nicole has blogged. As always, she brings the funny.

--Two fruity moments in Tripoli the other day, with K&P and Nicole and I. First, freshly squeezed orange and carrot juice on the street. Delicious, and served in glass mugs. You know what that means, my germaphobic American readers: you hand the empty glass back to the juiceseller who gives your glass a quick water rinse and fills it up for the next customer. Second, also on the street in the middle of the souks, fresh lemon or "toot" (mulberry) ice...perfect on a hot day. The iceseller has this enormous, electric, refrigerated, stainless steel bin with a division to separate the lemon from the toot. It's like a huge ice cream maker. He dumps juice into each bin and then takes a spatula and slaps the juice against the sides of the bin, which instantly freezes the liquid. When somebody orders an "ice," he takes the spatula and scrapes some off the sides. Great operation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Not much time to blog, but I had to post on our adventures in Jordan, because the trip was certainly one of the highlights of our year in the Middle East. Jordan is much more widely visited than Lebanon, even this year when visits to the country's historic sites are down eighty percent due in large part to hesitation among westerners to visit the region after the rash of revolutions in the Arab world. You go to ruins and culturally significant places in Jordan and see much more infrastructure and organized preservation, especially compared to sites in the south of Lebanon, still a place with relatively little security--at least in the perceptions of many.

Going to Jordan with Kristina and Pritham--our friends for over a decade--was a treat. We crammed so much into five days. Crusader castles, but also the Islamic castle at Ajlun, where Saladin defended the region against Europeans intent on conquering the Middle East. I should say that the old man outside Ajlun with the tin tea pot as ancient as the castle made the best mint tea I ever had. Everywhere in Jordan, old men cook tea, add fresh mint leaves and sugar, and sell in tiny cups. Wonderful stuff, even to a coffee drinker like Pritham.

Jerash, a city in the fertile, green, north of Jordan, boasts a remarkably large and well-preserved roman city. Hadrian's arch, named for the great emperor, a network of temples, a forum/agora, a hippodrome as nice as the one in Tyre (and I'm saying that as a lover of the south of Lebanon!), a nyphaemeum or public fountain, colonnaded streets, and a theater where old Arab men in kilts improbably play bagpipes to demonstrate the amazing acoustics. When we visited, we were perhaps the only foriegn tourists there, but we were surrounded by school groups. Hundreds of Jordanian kids. And they all did Arab dances to the bagpipe music.

Our guide Suhaib did us right, introducing us not only to the amazing mint tea (smoky from the coals on which it's cooked), but also to Sawani, a tasty stew that reminded me of my sister's Iraqi-inspired version of Middle-Eastern cuisine, and tabon, lumpy flat bread cooked in forns filled with hot stones and pieces of charcoal. He also was patient when we got a flat tire in the middle of the desert. He maintained his patience when the four of us monkeyed around in said desert, snapping pictures and carrying on.

Jordan is almost exclusively Sunni but has historical places with immense significance to all three religions with Middle-Eastern origins. Especially Mt. Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the promised land and then died, punishment from God for questioning his mission. We got to stand on that mountain and look out over Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethany, and Hebron. The Holy Land. Being there, you couldn't help but feel sadness that the place is the center of so much violence and injustice. Like Moses, we could look but not enter. Down the road from Mt. Nebo, we went to Madaba, the Mosaic City, so called because the Greek Orthodox church there (St. George's--a place FULL of icons including a really disturbing one of John the Baptist's head) has a fifth century mosaic floor with a detailed map of the Middle East. Beautiful.

Taking the King's Highway south to Petra reminded me of the winding road that leads from Tucson up to Mt. Lemon. High peaks, desert landscape, vistas with enormous valleys. We got to Petra late in the evening, sleepy, but Pritham and I didn't want to miss seeing the old city at night. Three nights per week, local Bedouins tell visitors about Bedouin hospitality (yes, they serve mint tea), line the narrow pass into the city with candles, and play traditional songs in the dark, lighted only by tiny candles. The part of the walk with cobblestones is brutal on the feet when it's dark out, but the experience is very cool.

Next morning all six of us (including young Henry, a British teen who's working for Suheib's tour company for a few months before he starts University) hiked that narrow pass. Pictures don't do justice. Words even less so. Imagine huge rocks in red, brown, ochre, and grey, ancient niches carved into them. Imagine a narrow, dusty path. Imagine tombs and dwellings and temples all carved into that rock. You can opt to ride a donkey but otherwise walking is the only way into the old city, made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, created by the ancient Nabateans, who controlled part of the trade route that connected people of the Mediterranean to peoples of the Indian Ocean and the spices and silks there. Their city was well fortified, naturally, by this rock path. Virtually every edifice was carved into the huge rocks.

Highlights include the Treasury (the facade is familiar to anybody who saw the aforementioned Indiana Jones movie), the Royal Tombs, and the Monastery that requires walking up 900 stone steps from the Old City to a high peak where the mountains are less red and ochre and more black. Oh, the colors of those rocks. Again, pictures and words don't cut it. Petra earns its title as a wonder of the world.

We kicked around the southern desert, where Nicole experienced what she considered the trip's high point: a very fast and bumpy ride on the back of a 4x4 truck through Wadi Rum, the valley where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed. The area, not far from Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia, is hot, dry, and inhabited by Bedouins who, once again, welcome visitors with tea. We also went to Aqaba, a city along the Red Sea, where we enjoyed amazing grouper for lunch. You look out over the Red Sea and on the opposite side is the border of Egypt and Israel. So as you look around the bay, you're looking at three (VERY) different countries. Kinda cool. And Saudi's only around 15 kilometers to the south, so it's a real point of convergence.

Lastly, the Dead Sea. You know the waters and muds of the Dead Sea are supposed to be healing, right? Well, Krstina and Pritham and Nicole and I went to the bank of the sea, caked ourselves with mud, waited for the mud to dry in the hot hot sun, and then rinsed in the Dead Sea. What a sight. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but our skin felt amazing. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth and is dazzlingly hot. The water is so salty that you naturally float, regardless of your body's position. You can't sink. I floated out pretty far from the bank and stood straight up in the water without touching bottom. It's a freaky feeling, to say the least. Our hotel also had a pool and three little Iraqi boys befriended Nicole and I in the morning when K&P were sleeping in and we were catching a swim. By "befriended," I mean began a water fight. Three brothers, parents nowhere to be found, determined to splash us, which made them laugh hysterically. The youngest, perhaps five years old, would remove his swim cap, try to fill it with as much water as it would hold, and then dump it on us. I don't think that kid ever had as much fun. The oldest insisted I cup my hands, scoop him by the feet, and toss him as high as I could. I counted off--"wahad, thnayn, thlatha"--and the sound of my Arabic, you guessed it, cracked him up. In his defense, the sound of my Arabic makes most Arabs laugh. Anyhoo, funny kids.

So much more to say about those five days, but I'll leave it at that for now. As always, a boatload of pictures available here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

K&P, Part II

So just in case you're reading this and thinking to yourself, isn't this guy a teacher? The answer's yes. I've just moved my class online this week, so all my teaching is taking place on my course moodle pages. Students are conducting research, assembling annotated bibliographies, and responding to each other electronically. I'm coaching their research and responding to their bibliographies online. So I can do the work during downtime during K&P's visit and in the evenings. I could say more about the projects students are working on (the possibility of civil marriage in Lebanon, drug problems in the Bekaa Valley, the growing presence of western fast food in Beirut), but I'll save that for another post or two. For now, adventures in frugal middle east adventures, Bill and Nicole style.

Have I ever blogged the telefrique? It's an old cable car that connects the seaside town of Jounieh to the Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral at Harissa, directly above the bay at Jounieh. From Harissa, Beirut is a tiny speck to the south, little villages dot the mountains to the north, and the very blue waters of the Mediterranean are in front of you. And you are VERY high, on a mountaintop. The bus does not go to Harissa, and I'm generally too cheap to spring for a taxi, so I'm all about the cable car. The lonely planet book's explanation of the telefrique is full of Hitchcock jokes--get ready for vertigo as you peak in the rear windows of Harissa residents from the terrifying telefrique.

After a few hours exploring the ruins of Jbeil (aka, "Byblos") and eating fish sandwiches at Feniqia, the place that gives you a little baby-sized saj to warm up bread at your table, I convinced the gang to hop off the bus in Jounieh and ride the cable car. They were closed in the morning because it was too windy to run the cars. Nicole initially wanted to stay on the bus and just meet up back home in Hamra, but we bribed her with the promise of stopping at Sea Sweets along the coastal road. So Nicole was in. The cars are pretty much just like the cable cars at Cedar Point, except you travel a much greater distance. You cross the highway heading away from the sea toward the mountain and, sure enough, you are looking in people's windows. When you get to the mountainside, the car hits a much steeper incline and instead of looking in people's windows, you're looking at trees that appear to grow horizontally, away from the side of the mountain. Vertigo? Heck yeah. Especially when you start to think about the fact that internet connections are lousy and the power goes out constantly here. Sure enough, our car stopped at one point and we just dangled over the mountain for about three or four minutes. Yikes. I think we were waiting for a generator to kick on.

K&P really liked Byblos, birthplace of the alphabet, birthplace of writing. Phoenician Kings ruled Byblos and were close allies of the Egyptian pharaos. Their stone temples and royal tombs, from four and five millennia before Christ, still survive and are pretty amazing. The Romans built their town over this complex, overlooking a Mediterranean harbor. The Crusaders later looted the Roman city for stones to use to build their own citadel there, which also survives to this day (and has survived umpteen empires conquering this place and decades of civil strife in the Middle East). That's some good architecture. The four of us did stop for chocolate from Sea Sweets and did the obligatory run down to Snack Faysal for spinach pies et al.

Yesterday's destination was Tyre, in the south. I think K&P found Saida to be the more charming of the southern cities, thanks to its partially enclosed souks in the old city, but Tyre's ruins didn't disappoint. Tony, if you're reading this: the ghost was not in Tyre this week; maybe he only shows up when you're visiting. Tyre's hippodrome has got to be one of the most amazing and well preserved remnants of the ancient world. Three days in a row of tombs, temples, and crusader castles, all thanks to the amazing buses of Lebanon. They might be smokey, but boy is the price right. Might be the last time Nicole and I visit some of these cities too, so I think this has been as meaningful for us as it's been for Pritham and Kristina. Our friend Karine met up with us in the evening and we had a nice visit. Certainly went to bed with lots to be thankful for, especially good friends from all over the world.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

K&P, Day One

Our friends Kristina and Pritham are visiting from the U.S. I'm up bright and early and about to make some fo'ul for breakfast but a few quick highlights from yesterday. First, and this connects to the fo'ul, walking from Eshmoun back to Saida we passed by a farm with huge greenhouses and Pritham sort of wandered onto the compound. We told him that, given the barbed wire, maybe visiting wasn't a good idea, but of course we're talking about not only Lebanon, but *south* the hospitality is almost overwhelming. Sure enough, a couple guys from the farm came out and gave us a "faddul" (more or less: "please come in"), so we walked around their greenhouses to check out the operations. Really beautiful operation, especially the tomatoes, which they had vining on/around twine that ran from the ground to the greenhouse ceiling. They insisted I fill my backpack with the largest fava bean pods (thus the fo'ul for breakfast today) I've ever seen. And they invited us to stay and smoke some shisha with them but it certainly would have turned into a three-hour affair, thereby making us miss the last bus north. Also, I had pretty much exhausted my entire Arabic vocabulary already.

Back on the coastal road, we went to get the best ice cream in Lebanon. I should say that most ice cream places here encourage you to mix up as many flavors as possible in your cup. So even if you get a small, you can get tiny spoons of five, six, seven flavors. Lovely. Waiting in "line"--which in the middle east usually means mass of humanity in blob formation--a guy named Hassan (or "Hank, my American name") struck up a conversation. Turns out he lived in Ohio for thirty years and is now back home in his village outside Saida. I told him I taught in Dearborn and he said, "Oh, Bint Jbeil, Michigan." He's obviously familiar with Dearborn. So now after a nice talk about ice cream we have a standing invitation to visit Hank's village. Hopefully that will happen sometime soon.

K & P enjoyed wandering around Saida. We spent most of the day wandering in the old city, having some delicious fish, and chatting up the priest at the old Greek Orthodox church in the souks, who wants Nicole and I to go back to Saida for Easter Mass (Catholic and Orthodox Easters fall on the same day this year).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Edward Field

The American poet Edward Field is visiting the English Department this week and I had the pleasure yesterday of attending an intimate session with Field and a group of AUB students and faculty. Field spoke about his distinguished career, his writing process, and his bohemian experiences in Tangier, Greenwich Village, and even Afghanistan. A few bites:

* "Sentimentality used to be the biggest sin in poetry. I know what they mean--false feelings. But what about real feelings?"

* "Rewriting is the hard part. And the fun part."

* "In my poetry, I take off all my clothes."

A lovely session. I hope that tomorrow--when I head to Cafe Younes for a day of writing--that his words continue to resonate. I should also say that I walked away from his session wanting to visit Morocco but not Afghanistan. I'm hoping to attend his more public reading this evening.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teaching Orwell

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell suggests that euphemism and vague, abstract, cliched, and partisan language weaken public discourse. Circumlocution is a sign of weak writing and weak thinking and leads to more weak writing and weak thinking. Orwell claims that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The state intentionally uses vague, euphemistic phrases like "elimination of undesirably elements" to avoid reality. We have an ethical imperative to write clear, honest prose so we don't internalize and repeat state-imposed, sometimes unethical slogans. This influential, sixty-year-old essay has become canonical in writing courses because it argues that bad writing has consequences.

We read this essay in my English 204 course yesterday and students really resonded to Orwell's critique of language and discourse. I shared the American example of "collateral damage," and a few students knew the phrase. I asked them to share further examples of euphemisms or abstractions. Initially, their examples were general: politicians use language that makes their own parties sound good. "Yes, but can you think of any specific phrases?" I gently pushed. Finally, specificity, as one student mentioned that Hezbollah uses the phrase "divine victory" when talking about their 2006 war with Israel. A valid, if uncomfortable, example. Part of me immediately regretted pushing for specific examples. The student explained (in very non-partisan fashion) that "divine victory" is an abstraction and hence fits Orwell's conception of vague political discourse, but I still hoped that his example would not cause unspoken conflicts in the very diverse class.

The experience reminded me of my own complicated position as a teacher and outsider. I'm comfortable in the U.S. "teaching the conflicts," that is, engaging students with controversial issues of the day in order to analyze the language used by politicians, media, social movement leaders, and everyday people, and formulate their own ideas and arguments about those issues. Lebanon is a different context and I'm mindful that my presence as a teacher from the West echoes colonialism in some ways. I have no intentions to convert, save, or impose a partisan belief system, but I do want to teach critical engagement with the English language, so experiences like this present certain challenges.

America has its Orwellian moments, from last month's congressional hearings on Muslim loyalty to the post-9/11 suspension of civil liberties in the name of security. Lebanon does too. On English-language tv stations, words like "gay" and "pork" are censored. Odd that an episode of "Glee" that centers on a gay, out, high school student (not to mention teen pregnancy) can air, but the WORD "gay" is censored. Likewise, cooking shows can broadcast people cooking and eating pork but the WORD itself is bleeped. A friend and AUB colleague did some research on state censorship and posted on his blog a very interesting list of banned films along with justification. The document apparently comes from a local DVD retailer and was given to the retailer by the state. Justifications vary from materials subject to boycotts and blacklists to materials considered obscene, anti-Christian, or anti-Islamic. Some of the justifications themselves are wildly anti-semitic. Many are Orwellian, insomuch as they use vague language to advance a political end.

About many of these matters I am still an outsider. I will always be something of an outsider by virtue of my nationality. But I'm beginning to learn about the issues and their contexts and I want very much to understand more deeply. You can learn a lot from reading. You can learn even more from being present in a place and interacting with real people. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand is to put the learning that happens via human interaction in conversation with the learning that happens from reading texts like Orwell's essay.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"On This Earth" by Mahmoud Darwish

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April's hesitation, the
aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute's sigh and the invaders' fears
of memories.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the final days of
September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud
reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples' applause for those who face death with a smile,
a tyrant's fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth, the Lady
of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name
later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cafe Younes

Today I write at Cafe Younes. I work on two essays at once, toggling back and forth, composing and revising. Whereas most of Beirut prefers tiny cups of espresso or sludgy turkish or Arabic coffee, french presses rule here. We're close to campus and all things European carry cultural capital. I sit outside on Younes patio, drink my french press, breathe secondhand smoke. Old Arab men reading stacks of newspapers with stories about unrest in Syria, kidnapped Estonians in the Bekaa, and revolution in Libya smoke. Undergrads working on power point presentations smoke. A man who looks just like Javier Bardem and speaks what I'm pretty sure is a non-Lebanese Arabic dialect smokes. Round, mosaic tables. Free copies of the Guardian, International Herald-Tribune, Daily Star, and various Arabic papers. A brilliant place to write.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tony Departs

My blog has been quiet for the past ten days or so while our nephew Tony visited. Partly because I've been busy popping around from city-to-city in Lebanon and partly because Tony ought to tell his own stories of Middle Eastern adventures.

Last Sunday we hiked in the Batroun region, then spent Monday in the southern city of Tyre, probably my favorite place in the country. Tyre makes for a great do-it-yourself visit because people there are so social. The "far south" gets few American visitors due to proximity to Israel/Palestinian territories and hype about the dangers there, so a lot of people want to chat you up about where you're from. We visited the Roman ruins and I finally bought a big saj (a convex grill-like device commonly used to make various Lebanese streetfoods). Don't ask me how I'm going to get it back to the U.S. Family members: be sure to ask Tony about the horses and UNFiL troops in the hippodrome, and the litter of pups and ghost in the funerary complex.

Tuesday I taught all day so Nicole took Tony to the Beittedine Castle. Wednesday and Thursday we took two days to see the Christian coastal region: Nahr al Kalb, Jbeil (aka Byblos), Jounieh, Harissa (home of Our Lady of Lebanon), and Jeita. As promised, the telefrique to Harissa was a bit terrifying and the walk to the Jeita Grotto was tiring. Friday, Nicole, Tony, and I kept the d-i-y spirit alive and went to Tripoli and Batroun, cities in the north, and then out to drinks with Ghassan, a friend of mine with an MFA who Tony wanted to chat with about grad school decisions. Saturday, closer to Beirut for a soccer match at AUB, lunch at Aunti Selwa's (who knew she opened up on weekends?), and some much-needed catch-up on schoolwork.

Sunday, our pal Karine joined us for a day in Saida that included much falafel and a difficult-to-arrange-but-well-worth-it expedition to the Phoenician ruins of the god Eshmoun, a place nobody in Saida seemed to know of. Monday, out to Bekaa Valley for Baalbeck, Anjar, and the winery at Ksara; we did an organized tour which Tony didn't seem to find too "old lady"-ish, which is good, because those cities are a bit more difficult to access on your own. Sad to see Tony go. Any visit to Lebanon is too short. Have safe travels, T!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tony Arrives

Nicole and I took Tony to Mayrig, an outstanding Armenian restaurant in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut, a great meal for his first night in Lebanon. We shared dishes: a cucumber and tomato salad, grape leaves, cheese dumplings, sausage in a spicy red sauce, and a plate with three different types of kibbeh: lentil, potato, and raw lamb. To walk off at least part of the meal we walked to the city center from the restaurant and enjoyed the nighttime views of Downtown Beirut.

Speaking of walking off some calories, we got up bright and early for a "Vamos" hike through three mountain villages up north in the Batroun district: Smar Jbeil, Jrabata, and Sghar. I think Tony had a good time. We explored an old citadel, the monastery that houses the tomb of St. Rafqa, some high cliffs, and a 1,400-year-old Marian shrine that's a series of mountainside grottoes. Came home tired. Click here for pics.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Miscelaneous Friday

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, a piece of the West that unlike St. Valentine's Day has not made its way to Beirut. Nicole and I celebrated the holiday at the Lebanese Oriental Orchestra. Nothing salutes the Irish quite like listening to the oud.

Speaking of the West, Caribou Coffee on AUB's campus sells "finjehn ahwe" for about 6,000LL (four dollars). Across the street from the AUB's main gate, several shops sell amazing espresso for 1,000LL or a cup of "American coffee" for 1,500. One-fourth the price. Business booms at both.

Trying to get as much schoolwork as possible done today, because inshallah Nephew Tony arrives tomorrow to spend spring break in Lebanon. We'll probably visit many of the same places we went with my parents and sister, with some surprises thrown in for good mesaure. Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Summarizing Rashid Khalidi

Khalidi, a leading scholar of Mideast Studies, visited AUB to discuss preliminary observations about the Arab revolutions. He called the revolutions in Egypt et al "unprecedented" because the movement on the ground has been peaceful and inward-looking. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revolutionary movements in the region resisted colonialism. Recent movements are fighting oppressors who are Arab, though backed by outsiders (look with shame, for instance, at the American tear gas cannisters used against peaceful protestors).

Young protestors, Khalidi observed, assert democracy but also individual and collective dignity. Police state repression of civil rights assaults individual dignity, of course, but also had resulted in a collective malaise and defeatism in places like Egypt. The entire Mideast saw no democratic revolutions, no toppling of monarchies, no liberalization from within during recent decades. "Arab" identity, though not monolithic, has reasserted itself as a meaningful marker, he said. In the abstract, Arab revolutions have the same goals as liberal revolutions in the West: democracy and freedom; they echo the French and American revolutions. Although he acknowledged that we don't yet know whether sustainable change is occuring, Khalidi argued that the moment is fresh. And he pointed out the reactionary, not peaceful status quo is mobilizing--successfully in Libya.

Regarding the West, he suggested that the U.S. (and by extension Israel, to whom the U.S. gives money, weaponry, and support on the UN Security Council) is left wondering how the revolutions will affect its own interests. American foreign policy has long been torn between "ideals" (democracy) and "interests" (oil, support for Israel). Khalidi mentioned American knowledge of geography, history, and foriegn languages and the audience laughed before he could complete his thought. Interesting and telling moment. The rest of his thought: All that America doesn't know about the region and, by virtue of our singular ignorance of foriegn languages for example, world culture and geography ultimately benefit the status quo. Insular attitudes--Khalidi said most members of the House of Representatives don't have a passport--benefit the status quo. But, inescapable images of Arabs peacefully organizing for democracy and freedom threaten that status quo, he said. Business-as-usual and hegemony-as-usual in Washington becomes more difficult when Americans are at last exposed to positive images of Arabs.