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!