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.

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.

Good Presentation

Last night Nicole and I attended a lecture on campus featuring Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, noted theorists of social justice and social change, though perhaps best known as former members of the Weather Underground and as punching bags of the far-right American media, which during the 2008 presidential campaign alleged a close relationship between the couple and then-candidate Obama.

To their credit, Ayers and Dohrn turned the lecture into a discussion about activism, democracy, and the current political moment. In a brief, contextualizing talk, Dohrn suggested the moment in the U.S. has five salient features: 1) the decline but persistence of imperialism, 2) the oft-ignored acceleration of the income gap, 3) the increase in assaults on human rights, 4) the ongoing massive incarceration of non-violent criminals, and 5) the stripping of benefits of workers. Nothing new there, but Dohrn articulated well how she sees these themes playing out in the U.S. and being systematically ignored by information conglomerates.

Ayers gave a compelling talk about the gulf between the "symbolism" and "reality" of Obama. Candidate Obama was honest, Ayers said, about his moderate views and has stayed true (continuing the war in Iraq, dragging his feet on closing Gitmo, refusing to say "poverty") to that moderate ideology to the disappointment of radicals. That is the "reality," which doesn't necessarily diminish the "symbolism," best captured by images of Obama in Grant Park in November, 2008, signifying to many a victory for racial justice, a defeat of Bush extremism, and an invocation of Chicago's and America's civil rights moments from forty years prior. Ayers suggested that the Obama narrative has played out as a "great man" narrative (he mentioned visiting college campuses and repeatedly hearing things like "I hope Obama brings peace and access to health care"), a narrative which can weaken organizing and disempower movements. Lincoln wasn't an abolitionist, FDR wasn't a member of the labor movement, and LBJ wasn't a civil rights activist. Politicians respond to movements on the ground: "Critical shifts are people shifts." He closed with three suggestions: 1) change the ways issues are framed (not "we need prisons to protect our safety" but rather "how many people must we really incarcerate?"), 2) link the issues, and 3) see yourself and your world as dynamic works-in-progress.

Good discussion followed, as audience members talked about using Frerian frameworks in Lebanon, working on literacy issues with Palestinian refugees (a subject close to the hearts of Nicole and I), and other matters. Wikipedia pages on Ayers and Dohrn link to all kinds of interesting articles about their controversial pasts, and their ongoing academic and civic work.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Tomorrow is the anniversary of the March 14 Cedar Revolution, Lebanon's peaceful demonstrations after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. The demonstrations resulted in Syria pulling most of its troops from Lebanon and also the formation of an independent, "unity" cabinet controlling Lebanon's government. The mostly Sunni controlled political parties that led the Cedar Revolution formed what is now known as the March 14 bloc. Earlier this Winter (maybe you saw news stories about Lebanon's government collapsing?) that cabinet dissolved after the opposition parties (the March 8 bloc), largely Shia-led, orchestrated a constitutional crisis by pulling out of the cabinet.

To mark the anniversary, an enormous rally is happening downtown today, close to the public memorial where Hariri is buried. Last night, when Nicole and I got back from Batroun, we walked through downtown on the way home and saw thousands of folding chairs; several huge, newly assembled stages; streets shut down; and tents (local media is reporting that the tents are specifically for first-aid purposes). Last night, after we returned to Hamra, the music began. Cars adorned with Lebanese falgs and pictures of Hariri drove around our neighborhood blaring Arabic music. That continued much of the night into this morning. Now everybody is presumably downtown, so things have quieted considerably, which is helping my ability to get some reading and writing done today. Buses had lined up on our street, too, taking demonstrators downtown. The buses, too, covered with flags and pictures of the P.M.

March 14 supporters have converged on Beirut from all over Lebanon. From what I've gathered, the 2005 demonstrations were against the Syrian army and Syrian influence in Lebanon's government, whereas today's demonstrations are against "the arms," the heavy weaponry--literally and figuratively--of Hezbollah, by far the most powerful of the March 8 bloc. Hezbollah is still working to block, or at least discredit, the international tribunal investigating Hariri's murder. All of this seems so minor compared to revolutions taking place across the region, but stay tuned. 2011 represents a moment of transition in Lebanon's government and many are praying that the two blocs can maintain the relative peace that Lebanon has enjoyed the past few years.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


What to do on a lazy Saturday? Take the bus to Batroun. Officially Batroun is in the north, but the town most resembles Lebanon's coastal cities (like Jbeil, aka "Byblos"), the mostly Christian cities just north of Beirut.

To go north from Beirut, one must get a bus from the Charles Helou terminal (terminal=dodgy underpass where a bunch of buses park). In our neighborhood, we hop on the #4 mini-van toward downtown. But this can be tricky, because as I learned when my parents were here, there are actually two #4 routes and the other route goes...well, to tell the truth, I have no idea where we were that day we hopped on the wrong #4. The mini-vans pack in as many passengers as the drivers can fit--they often get flat tires--and often drive around with the sliding doors open. Luckily, either because we look American or because Nicole's a lady, the drivers come to a complete stop when we ask to get off ("hone, minfudluck" works). We hop off in Martyr's Square, walk down to the Helou, and get on a bus heading north, usually easy to identify because the drivers yell "Trabouls, Trabouls," the Arabic word for Tripoli, the northernmost point on the coastal route. The bus runs north and south all day, along the Sea, you just hop off when you get to your city.

Batroun is very friendly. You can see the Mediterranean from pretty much anywhere in the village, which is full of sleepy streets, citrus groves, and cafes that serve Batroun's famous fresh lemonade. We grabbed a couple sandwiches and the waitress said to us, "Welcome to the most beautiful place in Lebanon." Why thank you. Eating our sandwiches, we saw a guy walk by with a goat on a leash. Two other goats followed behind them. Gotta love Lebanon! We wandered in and out of various old Maronite churches, including St. Stephen's, also known as the church of the fishermen. The church overlooks a marina where guys sewed fishing nets and worked on their boats. Next to the marina, the old "Phoenician wall," which some say is the oldest man-made thing in Lebanon. Actually, it's only partially man-made, as the Phoenicians fortified a natural rock wall to protect their city from flooding. We climbed on the wall, took pictures, and enjoyed the sun, which is always impossibly bright over the Mediterranean. But the great thing to do in most little towns in Lebanon: walk. Moderate temperatures, friendly people, the sun. That's why walking is the best.

To get back to Beirut, you just go stand along the side of the highway and the next bus that goes by stops for you. You pay your fifteen-hundred lira (one dollar), although sometimes they charge two-thousand on the weekend, and you're good all the way back to the capital.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Simple, Direct, To-The-Point

The other day in class I was talking to my students about the English-language adjective "arabesque." You know, meaning ornamental, affected, serpentine? The word can be used to describe most any type of visual, musical, and/or written expression. As you might guess, the subject came up as we discussed expectations for written prose in English. Students who have studied at Lebanese public schools (where much instruction is in Arabic) or the French academies here (where virtually all instruction is in French) tend to write in ways that are arabesque. Long introductions, long and prosaic sentences, more than a little bit of circumlocution, big words.

We're reading Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" in a few weeks and I'd like to move the reading up. As a trained rhetorician, I'm trying to focus our discussions around concepts like conventions, expectations, and cultural differences. Not everybody values the traits that have become institutionalized in language and writing instruction in the U.S. Simple, direct, clear, crisp prose. Is Raymond Carver translated into Arabic and French? I would be curious to know how his fiction--distinctly American not only in terms of prose style but in many other ways too--is received among audiences outside of the U.S. Have Strunk & White been translated and/or marketed to students and English-speaking audiences overseas? Those are the texts that come to mind when I think of how canonical and mythic the notion of "keep it concise" has become.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Great Timing

In the midst of feeling more than a little outrage about the anti-Islamic movements in the U.S. (see my last post), Nicole and I attended a great event on campus, a panel discussion on media manipulation that featured some very high profile Muslim speakers. Great timing. The event had a very open atmosphere--though to be honest we may have been among the only non-Muslims present--and was a reminder that good people continue to do positive work, work that deserves our attention every bit as much as the crap that needs to be exposed, critiqued, countered, but probably not dwelled upon.

Lauren Booth was the evening's "big name." She's a British journalist, human rights and Palestinian rights activist, and Tony Blair's sister-in-law. She spoke about her own conversion, inspired by a mystical experience in Iran and her love of Palestine, and the extreme responses to her decision to become Muslim. Also present: Ammar Nakshawani. We had heard good things about his lectures but we didn't recognize his name at first. Once he began his lecture and we heard his British accent, Nicole looked at me and said 'This is the guy who Anna (my sister) says is so good.' He was too. He spoke about a line in the Qu'ran about spreading Islam by the sword that's often quoted out of context, and gave the historical background. If you include the lines that comes immediately before and immediately after, the statement has a totally different effect.

The audience was really attentive throughout both of their talks, remarkable if you are familiar with Arab audiences who can be, well, pretty chatty--this is true at the Mosques in Dearborn and true in my classes at AUB!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Where Is The Outrage?

News stories like these don't make me anxious to return to the U.S. this summer. First, a post about a city councilwoman who--along with a U.S. Congressman--spoke at an anti-Islam rally in California. The councilwoman advocated the murder of Muslims. Earlier in the year, she told attendees at a Muslim charity event that she knows Marines who would be happy to kill them. "Protestors" at that charity event also shouted the most unbelievable epithets and threats at attendees.

And here is a link you must follow. This story situates the aforementioned protest within other instances of hatespeech and overt violence and has an absolutely amazing video of the proest, showing tea party members shouting at young Muslim children to "go home," telling them that the Prophet was a pervert, and that they're parents rape children. You must watch the video if you are at all unsure of whether or not you have an obligation to call out others--relatives, co-workers, whomever--when they express support for the leaders of this social movement around a dinner table or in an email forward. Make no mistake. It is a social movement. Comprised of extremists on the lunatic fringe, but a movement no less.

Why do these stories make me less excited to return to the U.S.? Not because of what these people think. I know they represent a small minority of heartless racists. No. Because of the lack of outrage. There is next to no outrage. There is very little organized resistance to the racism and xenophobia, not to mention public policy initiatves (see for instance the government hearings into whether or not Mulsims are loyal...which these "small government" supporters are willing to pay for with tax dollars?!). I'm not asking this question rhetorically. I honestly want to know: Where is the outrage?

Because wherever the outrage and resistance exists, I want to be there. Sign me up. If there is a group that is putting their bodies between children entering a Mosque or charity event and "protestors" telling them their parents are rapists and terrorists and their Prophet is a pervert, sign me up. You know, kind of like how Egyptian Muslims lined up to put their bodies around Coptic Christian churches there that had been targeted by al qaida, an image that apparently these idiots in California missed.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Migrant Workers In Libya

I have a morning routine: get up around 6:30, shower, make tea, and eat breakfast while watching Al Jazeera. Though the earthquake in New Zealand and the drug wars on the US-Mexico border have gotten a bit of attention, most Al Jazeera stories this week revolve around Libya, and rightly so. I've commented before that it's somewhat surreal to be in the Middle East as massive changes occur. Is this like being a American Fulbrighter in Eastern Europe in 1990 or so? Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. Yemen? Bahrain? Iran?

To Al Jazeera's credit, the network has covered migrant workers currently in a frightening limbo at ports and in camps in places like Benghazi. Also to its credit, the New York Times ran a compelling piece on the situation the other day. In Libya, many of these migrant workers come from southern and southeast Asia, and to a lesser degree from African nations like Ghana and Nigeria. They work for foreign construction companies as well as corporations from whom you buy things. And they work for extremely low wages, of course. And at times they are the targets of Qaddafi's paranoia and tyrrany--especially black Africans, the Times reports.

Many are stranded because their employees, who often "hold" their workers' passports for them (gee, thanks), have in some cases fled the country, forgetting to return papers to their vulnerable employees. It's a bad situation, and I wonder if this is a moment in which maybe the international community could raise its awareness of the condition of foreign workers in much of the region here. Including Lebanon. After that morning routine, as I walk to campus, I pass construction sites (lots of building going on in the Hamra neighborhood) where many of the workers aren't Lebanese. And women, also not Lebanese, walking the children of their bosses to school. And a travel agency with signs in the window advertising one-way flights "for your domestic workers" from places like Ethiopia. Labor is quite cheap in the region, thanks to migrant workers who have few rights and protections. I hope "democracy revolutions" can be positive for them too.