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.

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