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Monday, February 28, 2011


A few curious moments last night in the community literacy program I'm studying. First, while teaching posessive pronouns, the teachers kept using the prepositional phrase "for + pronoun" to signify posession. "Is the jacket for him? Yes, it is his. Is the mobile phone for her? Yes it is hers." That's a pretty common usage variation (especially for native speakers of languages in which one word means both "for" and "of"), but here's an odd one. The use of the word "revise" as a synonym for "review." One of the teachers asked, "Which of last week's lessons would you like to revise?" and I thought she meant the students were going to rewrite something. But, later, she said something like "let's revise the vocabulary words from last class." This wasn't just a slip of the tongue, as she repeated the word several times. "Review" and "revise" both have the same root, meaning roughly "to see again," so obviously they have a close connection, but I had never heard this variation.

Okay, one more moment, this one not so much linguistic as just funny. Well, the power goes out during most class periods and usually everybody's pretty good about ignoring the fact that it's pitch black in the classroom. Often, someone will get out a handheld device and use the flashlight app (which comes in very handy in Lebanon), but other times everybody will just continue the discussion or lesson in darkness. Well, last night the power went out during a lesson on comparatives (big/bigger, small/smaller, etc.) just after the teacher asked "Both of these lights are bright, but which one is brighter?" As if on cue, the lights all go out. A little "rolling blackout" humor for you, faithful readers.

Some Random Updates

My blogging slowed considerably in February, at the beginning of the month when my family visited and later in the month when work seemed to increase. What's been happening in Beirut?

Literacy work is definitely the common theme of the activities that fill my days. This semester, which just started, I'm teaching two sections of Advanced Academic English, one of the introductory writing and rhetoric courses AUB offers. In preparation for writing a report on literacy in their lives, students are reading and responding to various articles about technology, social networking, and daily life. Also, the Saturday tutoring program where Nicole and I work with Palestinian kids is back in full swing after a short hiatus. Also resuming is the "night school" literacy program I'm studying. The latter means I'm back to doing classroom observations Monday-Thursday late afternoons. And finally, I've started to tutor a friend's high-school-aged daughter, who wants to increase her English fluency.

Rain also fills the days. February is the height of rainy season in Beirut and 2011 is no exception. It has poured most everyday during the past week. The high winds have pretty much destroyed two of our umbrellas already. And a lot of the sidewalks in Hamra are polished stone, which makes for some treacherous (not to mention wet) walking. Yesterday, for example, Nicole and I took a Sunday walk to the movies in Verdun (pronounced "vair-DUH"), a pretty long hike, and at times we had to hang on to each other in order to stay upright. By the way, "Black Swan"? Disturbing and intense. I was happy to hear that Natalie Portman won the Oscar because she owned virtually every frame of "Black Swan." Recommended.

I promise to blog more in March, as we get back to a more regular schedule. Expect tales of tutoring, more on all we're learning about the Palestinian population in Lebanon, and some reports on my nephew Tony's Spring Break visit to the Middle East, happening in less than three weeks. Bring me some Quaker Oats and the new Dirtbombs CD in your suitcase Tony.

Monday, February 21, 2011


One of the strongest experiences Nicole and I have had in Lebanon has been tutoring high school kids from one of the Palestinian camps in town. The students, with whom we meet on Saturdays, are preparing to take their SATs in English, which most colleges here require, and struggling mainly due to the language and cultural specificity of the test. Imagine not only taking the SAT in a language that you don't speak at home, but also trying to correct "grammar" in sentences that refer to things totally unfamiliar to you. Allusions to Darth Vader, Frederick Douglas, and the prom all needed explanation this past weekend. Another question that caused confusion had a line about how "intimacy, love, and marriage" intersect. In the SAT practice books (and presumably on the test itself), a lot of questions in the reading section focus on American history, often referring to the revolution or the civil war. Helping a kid decipher a question about the latter, I asked, "You know what a civil war is, right?" and he responded, "Yes, but which one are they talking about?" Plus, they know the metric system, which complicates the math sections.

The students work very hard and I have no doubt they'll accomplish a great deal. But they certainly have challenges. As refugees they essentially have no country. They and their families are barred from setting foot on Palestinian land. And the country that has given them refuge largely bars them from getting work permits, traveling freely outside their camps, and accessing health care. Some even blame them for the country's political problems. It's hard to get my head around the complexity and gravity of the situation, especially when the human face that's put on the issue is that of a kid.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Night Hike

As Nicole notes, her Valentine's Day gift to me was a night hike. Last night after work, we joined the "Vamos" group for a moonlit walk in the north of Lebanon, through the villages of Ibrine and Batroun as well as the nearby *city* of Batroun too. We stopped at several grottos and small churches dedicated to the revered Lebanese saint Mar Charbel and enjoyed the fresh air, something Beirut lacks in a BIG way. We wore coats but couldn't help think that winter--such as it is in Lebanon--seems to be coming to an end. Did I mention that we also stopped at a little pool hall/bakery (what a combination!) in Batroun for a jibnee (Nicole) and a zaatar (me)? Delicious, of course. Batroun's an old seaside Phoenician port with an ancient wall that protects the city from the waves. I believe it's more or less midway between Byblos and Tripoli. Insha'Allah we'll return and see the city during daylight hours too.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Things I'll Miss About Hamra**

I've written before about how vibrant and diverse Hamra seems to a kid born and raised in the Midwestern U.S. Most areas of Beirut are either Christian neighborhoods or Muslim neighborhoods. Hamra sits in the middle of Ras Beirut, west of what was known as the "Green Line" during the civil war, and western Beirut was Muslim Beirut. But Hamra, perhaps due to its proximity to the University with its secular identity or to the fact that it was the "swanky area" pre-Civil War, somehow maintained its diversity. Even during the war. Our friend's father, a Maronite dentist, kept his Hamra practice open throughout the Civil War, giving free check-ups and teeth cleanings to Muslim, Christian, and Syrian soldiers who were fighting each other on the streets of Beirut.

Now, you walk around the neighborhood and see both mosques and churches. You see some women wearing the hijab and men wearing dishdashas (though far fewer than you see back in East Dearborn, which more closely resembles one of the southern Lebanon village from which many residents of East Dearborn immigrated), as well as loads of young people in "western" attire. You see men playing backgammon on upside-down cardboard boxes and selling thick coffee in tiny cups from long-handled tin pots and thermoses. Taxi drivers and bus drivers seem to be their best customers. I think each time I've ridden a city bus, the driver has stopped at least once or twice for a tiny cup of street coffee. You can buy good halal meat from butchers, extremely fresh jibnee and arisha from cheeseshops, and fruit from donkey carts. But you also find many English speakers, not to mention Snickers bars and hot dog stands. It's an oddly comforting juxtaposition, an easy place to feel welcome. You find new, lush construction; rich investors from the gulf nations (first weekend here, at Kibab-Je, one of them had a long conversation with Nicole and me about his daughter and I think I knew where the conversation was headed...), and also pockets of poor foriegn workers. Priveleged college kids from all over the country and beyond. Also, streetkids selling roses and chewing gum.

I always hated it when I lived in Arizona and would hear people suggest that border towns weren't the "real Mexico." Who are we to say what is and isn't real? Border towns have their own unique--yes, often problematic--histories and characters. Likewise, Hamra has experienced a unique trajectory from swanky playground for both wealthy Lebanese and wealthy westerners (Frank Sinatra!), to sector of Muslim Beirut during war, to center of political organizing and social movements, to college town.

One of the things I'll miss about Hamra is the fact that you can sometimes "end up" at an interesting place. Example. Last week one of my fellow Fulbrighters who works in the north was visiting Beirut and we all "ended up" at the home of some aid workers who were ordering pizzas and basically opening their doors to friends and friends-of-friends who wanted to watch events in Egypt unfold on Al Jazeera. It was the night when Mubarak was expected to step down. Many of those present had ties to Egypt and/or had worked there and had strong opinions about events. Interesting night. Another example. The evening that the Lebanese government collapsed, we "ended up" at a cafe for a bookclub event. We read drafts of memoir chapters written by a teacher in Hamra, an American who had grown up here in Beirut in the 1950s, and of course talked about what was happening with Hezbolah, the Hariri cabinet, etc. And last night, a friend of ours made Chinese dumplings for the new year. He's from China, teaches Chinese at AUB, and took my graduate class last term because he wants to improve his language teaching techniques and perhaps earn a master's in English while he's in Beirut. He and his fiance made three kinds of dumplings from scratch. And in an odd culinary combination, we sampled a walnut liqueur from the Bekaa Valley. It was amazing. Even Nicole, usually a teetotaler, sampled it and enjoyed.

Anyhow, Hamra, with its loud heartbeat and hotmix of people, is conducive to nice evenings like that. Maybe we can bring a bit of that with us to our neighborhood back in Michigan. Start walking to more places and talking to more people more often. I hear many people observe that despite its political problems, Lebanon affords a nice lifestyle. Social, friendly, warm.

**A note of the title of this post. Even though I'll be here for another four or five months, I already find myself regretting that the year will come to a close so soon. I'm like the kid (or my dad before he retired from teaching) who in June observes that summer vacation's going to end in less than three months.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Istanbul, Turkey

(Still catching up on the blogging after my family's three-week visit to the Middle East)

Nicole, my parents, and I enjoyed a comfortable start to our trip to the city formerly known as Constantinople due to a half empty flight from Beirut. On the morning of January 28, we spread out, read the free newspapers (thanks Mideast Airlines for being infintely better than any carriers in the U.S.A.!), and flew over the Mediterranean. By the time we changed money and made our way to baggage claim, my parents' suitcase was already sitting outside the 'lost and found' office whereas the suitcase Nicole and I were sharing was out of sight. Momentary panic. But I quickly found our bag on the conveyor belt, sitting on the same spot it sat when the belt came to a stop. Crisis averted. Our guide shuttled us to the Grand Emin, which we learned was closed for construction. Again, a crisis averted, as the Emin sent us to Ayma II, a hotel owned by the same company.

We quickly changed into warmer clothes--Istanbul is a chilly city in January--and hit the neighborhood. We stayed just outside of the old city (Sultanahmet) in a bustling business district on the European side of town. Didya know that Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents? The Bosphorous splits the city down the middle and one side is considered Asia, the other Europe. We did some people watching and found a cheap cafe where we ate pide (breads topped with various meats and cheeses) and shared a piece of subourek, a sour version of the Greek dish pastitsio. All for the equivalent of about $10 U.S. Our hotel provided a beautiful fruit tray so we enjoyed fruit, played a few games of 500 in the room, and went to bed early to rest up for sightseeing.

Next morning, we sailed to Buyuk Ada ("big island"), in the middle of the Mermera, the sea to Istanbul's south, but only after the hotel's odd but tasty breakfast: noodle soup, yogurt, bitter tea, olives, dried fruit, and boiled eggs, all on the top floor of the Ayma, surrounded by picture windows, seagulls hovering outside. The ferry to Buyuk Ada carries a mixture of commuters (no cars allowed on the island but a good number of Istanbulis work there) and tourists (almost exclusively Arabs, who seem to love Turkey, even during the cold winters there). We watched jellyfish in the Mermera and listened to the bastonie salesman, a short mustachioed man who could play Hercule Poirot, deliver his loud and humorous pitch for his versatile cane/walking stick. My dad bought one. On Buyuk Ada, we walked, took a carriage ride, and ate fresh fish from the sea. The island is beautiful; you can watch horses and other animals running free. Returning to the hotel, we saw images of massive demonstrations on tv (no English stations at all!) and quickly learned that a movement had begun in Cairo to oust Mubarak. Seeing things unfold from a cheap hotel in Turkey, no access to English-language news...I think these things seemed even more surreal to my parents. Nicole and I were getting used to feeling as if we're uncomfortably close to history.

Speaking of history, the next day we visited the old city, my parents proving that They. Can. Walk. We strolled through the Hippodrome and the ancient obelisks from the Roman era, the wind kicking off both the Mermera and the Bosphorous, rain threatening to fall. Nicole bought a couple cheap umbrellas that quickly imploded after only a few minutes due to the high wind. We sought refuge in the Blue Mosque, from the era of Sultan Ahmet (who gave his name to the neighborhood) in the 1600s, a massive, beautiful structure that provided the inspiration for Prime Minister Hariri's mosque in downtown Beirut. Our guide Sedat also took us to Topkapi Palace, the complex from which the Ottoman sultans ruled from the 1400s to the 1800s. You walk through huge gates into huge courtyards. Really amazing place. Equally amazing, the Ottoman treasures preserved there, including the diamond that proved central to a 60s heist movie called "Topkapi" that my dad loved. Also on display in the old palace, the extra-large clothing of the wives of the sultans (who desired big women who symbolized wealth) and special objects of the Prophet, Islamic treasures including keys to the Kaaba and swords allegedly owned by Mohammed. Walked through the crowded Grand Baazar. And the day's highlight, the Aya Sophia or "Haggia Sophia," the result of Emperor Justinian ordering that his minions build the largest church in the world. The result was the structure that served as a Byzantine church from the 500s until the Ottoman empire, when it became a Mosque for five-hundred additional years. My mom and Nicole were tired by this point, but my dad and I walked up the long ramps to the perch where the empresses used to watch the coronations in the sanctuary below. The place is under perpetual rehabilitations so you can see both Christian and Islamic art on the walls. Yet another place whose beauty overwhelms.

Then came January 30, when the highlight of the day was the Dolma Bacche, the newer Ottoman palace, this one along the Boshporous. The palace itself is smaller than Topkapi, but the artifacts inside really make the place what it is. The tea services, "reign of terror" furniture, paintings, china, and other priceless antiques. My parents loved this place more than anything else we saw in Turkey. You really get a sense of how the sultans lived, that is, decadently. Fun fact: the sultans rendered their closest servatns deaf so that they couldn't spy on the sultans. We took another ferry ride today, this time on the Bosphorous where you can enjoy views of the two continents that Istanbul is part of. All the Arab tourists (i.e., everybody but us) took loads of photos of an estate along the straight where a famous Arabic soap opera, "Silver," or "Noor el Mahennet," is filmed. We went to Istanbul's other souk, the Egyptian or Spice Baazar and I bought saffron, as well as some dried fruits. And then we said our goodbyes to our guide Sedat.

On the 31st, we had most of the day, since our flight wasn't until the evening, so Nicole and I talked my parents into hitting the city solo. Reluctant at first, they ended up being kind of impressed with my navigation skills. Did I mention that Istanbul has an amazing public transportation system? We took the tram all over on this day and it couldn't have been easier or cheaper. Why, oh why, can't Detroit have something like this? Nicole wanted to hit a few shopping districts, so we first returned to Sultanahmet and then venured over to Taksim Square. In the latter, we found Mr. Kumpir, which we had learned about on a travel program a few months prior. Mr. Kumpir is fast-food of sorts, serving these amazing twice-baked potatoes stuffed with all kinds of tasty fillings. Really nice, especially after all the meat (Turkish cuisine can be summed up as such: kebaps, kefte, and more kebaps) during the previous couple of days.

A late-evening flight took us back to Beirut, where my sister was waiting at the apartment, having spent a few interesting days with her friends in the south of Lebanon.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Baalbeck and Aanjar

Nicole and I held off visiting the Bekaa Valley until my family came to visit. Well worth the wait and already I'm looking forward to other out of town guests so we have a good reason to return to the region. The Bekaa lies between the Mt. Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges of mountains, close to the border with Syria, and for centuries has been one of the most fertile areas of the middle east. The area boasts enormous production of grapes, wheat, and all types of veggies. Tents and shacks full of nomadic, itinerant workers (called "gypsies" by many) line the highways. A rough life, especially on the wet and muddy day we visited. Most of the Bekaa is Hezbollah country, too, and the area received significant Israeli damage during the 2006 war. Many in the West don't know that Hezbollah provides various social services in the area. This partly explains why vendors around Baalbeck sell Hezbollah t-shirts, some bearing slogans like "Islamic Resistance," some simply bearing the organization's flag.

Naturally we enjoyed some of the culinary delights of the area. We ate lunch in Chtoura, where locals spread a thin layer of raw kefte (ground lamb that's usually cooked on skewers) on pita and flash-bake the sandwiches in really hot forns. Earlier, we stopped on the side of the road to Baalbeck for honey and arisha (sort of like cottage cheese, only much more flavorful) spread on a crepe-like bread.

Baalbeck is the crown jewel of Lebanon's ancient ruins. The city has a temple complex from the Roman empire that rivals anything in Italy. The small Temple to Venus and the Muses whets your appetite as you head toward the massive complex that houses the Temples to Bacchus and Jupiter. The image of six massive columns which stand inside the complex is on the cover of many UNESCO World Heritage brochures and documents and for good reason. It's magnificent. It was cold and rainy but we were in awe anyway. In the middle of the courtyard between the two big temples, you can still see where sacrificial animals were bathed in large pools and then burned on a huge stone slab. At the Bacchus Temple, our guide talked about how priests in the Bacchus cult used both wine and opium, not to mention sex, in their rituals, which is commemorated in the intricate stonework, containing images of grapes as well as poppy plants.

Aanjar is less well-known than Baalbeck, in part because the old city was just discovered during the middle of the twentieth century. Aanjar is a tiny Arenian town close to the Syrian border that is home to a remarkably well-preserved Umayyad city from the 700s. The Umayyads were an early Islamic dynasty whose capital was in nearby Damascus. For about fifty years, the Umayyads had a city in the Bekaa with a mosque, palace, marketplace, and tiny residences. Now you can wander through the remains of the city, which is surrounded by a dark pine forest. The rainy weather added to the place's mystique (and made the city muddy too), and its stone architecture could have been the backdrop for a surreal scene from Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same." If the band had survived into the 80s, they would have filmed a video here! Because the city is so well-preserved, you can really get a feel for how people lived. Less famous than Baalbeck but even more amazing in some respects.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


The past two weeks I have been on semester break from the University, showing my parents and my sister Anna around. Nicole and I have loved having the chance to see some family and this has been a great excuse to break with our normal routines. Take today for example.

The day began with yet another demonstration of what great walkers my parents can be. Our Lebanese friend Karine came over first thing in the morning to join the five of us on a trek down to Tyre, in the south of Lebanon. We walked to the other side of Hamra to catch a city bus down to the Cola bus terminal, a roundabout where city-to-city buses heading south congregate. At Cola, you find a bus going to your desired city and hop on. When the bus is more or less full, the driver takes off. Sounds like a bit of a hassle, but it's a super cheap way to get around. The equivalent of a couple U.S. dollars took us all to the other side of the country. But hats off to my folks for their willingness to walk to the city bus route.

We made a quick stop in Saida to change buses and get some kak (crusty Arabic bread) and chay (tea) and then we were really in the south. That phrase, "the south," can be kind of loaded for westerners living in Lebanon. Southern Lebanon borders Israel, of course, and the area is heavily patrolled by U.N. troops who attempt to maintain the fragile, frequently broken, peace between the two nations. Southern sites like Tyre and Qana have been damaged by the fighting and parts of the border are disputed. The south is Hezbollah's power base, too, and pictures of its leaders hang alongside the road along with pictures of Lebanese killed during Israeli incursions.

The fact that tension and violence have been a part of life here makes me very sad because the south is also beautiful, hospitable, and probably my favorite part of the country. As you ride from Saida to Tyre, you are passing through areas referenced in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran; land controlled not only by Roman and Greek empires but also Egyptian, Babylonian, and Phoenician rule; and some of the most beautiful banana and orange trees and beaches you'll find.

So Nicole, Karine, Anna, my parents, and I arrived in the city and walked the souks. Which is pretty much what you do everywhere in Lebanon. Fish mongers, butchers, and shopkeepers sell their wares in the souks. Once again, my parents walked their butts off, and Karine helped my mom locate a bunch of goodies: a skirt, a samovar style tea kettle, and a sack of huge cinnamon sticks like the ones that some cafes here serve as coffee stirrers. We also walked through the archaeological ruins of the city, which, as I've noted before on this blog, essentially sit in the middle of town, mostly unremarked upon. We took loads of pictures of the Roman ruins in particular and the photo album is here. You can climb around an old stone arena that probably housed gladiator-style competitions, gaze at the ancient columns, and check out what once was a bathhouse and complex system of cisterns.

We spent much of the afternoon here and eventually ended up on the seaside, where we met an old man with treasures from the water. He was making a half-hearted attempt to sell these treasures but mostly he just wanted to show them off. Shells, old coins, rings, that type of thing. Nice guy. We dipped our feet in the Mediterranean. Teens were on the beach playing a tennis-type game with hard paddles that really make the tennis balls zing. Wouldn't you know, my mom got pegged in the eye with one. The guys who were playing were completely mortified and apologetic and, luckily, my mom was fine. By the end of the day, as we all got punch-drunk from the sun and the walking, we ended up cracking up about the whole thing. But meeting "the old man and the sea" (as Anna called him) and the apologetic kids just underscore how the south can be hospitable, interesting, eccentric, and warm.

We ate an early dinner at a place along the sea called Tyros, where a bunch of rowdy Russians were smoking the nargileh. We got a mixed grill to share but mostly ordered a bunch of mezze, including my personal favorites hindbeh (greens fried with olive oil and carmelized onions) and mutabal bettenjehn (an eggplant dish). Karine ordered a few mezze we otherwise wouldn't have tried: liver sauteed in pomegranate syrup, which I did not try, and raw kibbe, which I *did* try. I never ate raw kibbe (raw lamb mixed with wheat, onions, and spices) before, although I am crazy for the COOKED kibbeh. The raw stuff was pretty good and I'm glad I tried it, at least this one time.

The first leg of the ride home (Tyre to Saida), the bus was very crowded. Even the little fold-out seats in the aisle of the bus were full. This means that when somebody in the back of the bus wants off, all the aisle sitters have to file out to make room and then file back on. I had most of my parents' purchases on my lap, too, so I was happy to get to Saida and spring for the extra thousand lira (about 60 cents) for the nicer bus--bucket, motorcoach-style seats--on the Saida-to-Beirut leg.