23 July 2014

How was Beirut?

Martyrs' Square Panorama

(In case you needed another) Disclaimer:

Every since I was young, I have been fascinated with stories.  Mostly, I consumed stories like I eat: passionately, too quickly (sometimes uncontrollably), and with an almost reckless abandon that can lead to losing connection with the "real" world.
Graffiti as advertisement

Because I have recently begun to be able to articulate my love for stories, I decided that I wanted to try to tell the story of Beirut in this blog.  In every effort to be transparent, you must know that this is my best attempt to show Beirut as I see it, and - as I mentioned before - it should not be taken as truth or fact - like any good pseudo-intellectual, I am unconvinced that facts actually exist in the way that the Enlightenment has taught us to see them - but merely as one enthusiasts' view of what happened to her during her time in a new city.

In coming back, a lot of people have already asked me (including my friends at the nail place, bless them!), "Oh, how was your vacation?" As with any trip, I am having the trouble finding words... how do you explain to someone in nice little American soundbites this wonderfully complex and fascinating city, let alone the whole country and its history and how it's so connected with the region?  No one has time to listen to me recount the past 4000 years, let alone the past 30...

I should just start carrying around an index card with this written on it:

Beirut is such a fantastic city--a place of such unbelievable possibilities. You can be sitting by the pool or listening to techno in a club one minute and having a wary conversation with Hezbollah ten minutes later. Its a very short ride. For all its problems ( all the problems and all the evils in the world in miniature, basically), it's an absolutely magical, gorgeous city. Impossible to not fall in love with. It's pheromonic. Some cities just smell good the second you land.

Near the Pigeons' Rocks
I'm not sure if stealing a quote from Anthony Bourdain is how I should be writing this blog, but it struck me as a great, rather concise way, to describe many of the things I did over these past two weeks.  To answer the question "How was Beirut?" might be essentializing the place too much, taking out the rich context and flavor of it

I think, however, my answer might be something along the lines of:

I loved being there, although I usually don't love big party cities. I wanted to explore every small alley and street for hidden gems, especially once I discovered brunch was a thing that Beirutis do. It was safe, but you could still see the scars from when it was not a safe place.  My feet were filthy every day, but my mind felt clearer.  People I met were more open or "modern" in ways than many of my Moroccan and Omani friends, but yet I was surprised at how sectarian strife seemed to make people less tolerant as well.

And thus I present the beginning of my answer, which I hope to finish more in depth throughout this blog series.  Drop by drop, the river rises.

20 July 2014

Another Return to Murrica, Another Intestinal Bug

Last sunset over the Mediterranean

So clearly my attempt to blog every other day while in Beirut failed, and my grand ambitions of beginning the blogging on the plane also failed - gosh darn you traveller's tummy - but never fear.  As a Millennial, I have a near-compulsive need to share my experiences in the "public" eye, and thus I am planning a blog series.  I have a list over a page long that I hope to be able to turn into some kind of useful and interesting reflection.

Suffice to say that this trip out of the US reminded me why I do what I do, why the Arab and Muslim worlds continue to fascinate me, and how I need to work harder to be better at being a pseudo-intellectual.  I was getting into an unhealthy rut here, in the US, of drinking and television and other forms of mindless entertainment, and I could feel my brain atrophying, and yet could not seem to care enough to do much about it.  As I told family in a text, this trip has intellectually invigorated and inspired me to do better and to be better.  That and the fact that the bad news from many quarters jolted me out of my self-imposed exile from the world.

I hope you are as optimistic about the future of this blog as I am, and I look forward to feedback, discussion, and debate.

09 July 2014

First Days in the Middle East

So, after almost 8 years of hearing about the place, here I am, in the "real" Middle East. I say that because I spent so much time in North Africa and the Gulf that it seemed almost comical that I had never spent any time as a student of the various Arabics and Arabic cultures in the Levant or thereabouts.
I'm almost afraid to write and publish this blog because of the polemic that surrounds this ancient place. One of my biggest fears about becoming a Euro-American academic is being discredited by earning the reputation as an Orientalist. I figure, however, that since I'm not claiming to be an academic yet, or really, any kind of expert on the area - having spent less than 48 hours here - that I'm in the clear, at least for now.
I thought, before arriving, that I didn't really know what to expect, and that Beirut would be completely different than anything I could have imagined - based on my complete (and stupid) surprise as to how different the Gulf was than Morocco - but of course, I was wrong again. Things feel quite... familiar here. Perhaps it's the neighborhood, Gemazyeh, in which I've spent most of my time so far, and the "chi-chi" European feel to it, or perhaps is the physical buildings and streets and weather, which remind me mainly of Rabat, full of construction and both new and crumbling buildings, mainly made of concrete. Or perhaps it's running around with my former Moroccan partner in crime, as she and I enjoy the fact that we can wear the same clothes we would wear in the US, or marvel at the fact that we can chew gum and drink water in public during Ramadan (as much as we are aware that we're in a Christian part of town).
I suppose I also hoped to find more of a bohemian Parisian feel, as some of my stereotypes about the Lebanese include nights spent in pubs, discussing important political and literary issues, perhaps sipping on a brown liquor of some sort while half the table smokes French import cigarettes. I'm guessing that this happens somewhere, but I also had to remind myself that this is the 21st century and people have lives and jobs and less time in general to sit around and be intellectual for a living.
The best thing that DID happen to me in this vein of intellectualism was a conversation with a tour operator we met at a Couchsurfing meet-up, when the group finally got past the awkward stage of "Where are you from?" (France, Kurdistan, and Lebanon were represented) and "What do you do?" (banking, NGO work, and education). We brought up the idea of violence here, and in the region, because we were talking about all the places we wanted to visit in the world, and I said something to the tune of "I'm really excited to be here because people in the US are freaking out about Lebanon and the safety issues, but in many ways, Chicago, New York, and LA are more dangerous than here." and I also mentioned how I relieved I was to find less cat-calling and street harassment than even Washington DC. The tour operator broke out into a huge grin and gave me the most genuine THANK YOU I've heard in a long time. We both agreed - as I have so many times - that "The Media" distorts everything, and travel makes you realize what bullshit the whole thing is, but how hard it is to escape the bullshit when you're entrenched in such an internet and image driven society. Of course we didn't use those words in that moment, after 2 beers and a margarita each, but still.

As far as what we've done, mainly running around and getting used to the place. That and sweating a lot - so much humidity here, being on the Mediterranean and all. Visiting Saifi and eating and drinking our way through various neighborhoods nearby. My second favorite thing so far has been getting back to a place with food so full of flavor I almost teared up. In the States, I can take hummus or leave it, but here... dear god. I suppose I should have expected this, how amazing the hummus and tomatoes and, well, everything, would taste, but when you're away from the Mediterranean for a while, you forget.
Today, advanced Lebanese dialect class (what did I get myself into...?) and sushi iftar. Wish me luck!

06 July 2014

Ya Lubnan!

I'm going to Lebanon! Beiruit to be exact. I'm not one to get very excited about things, but I've wanted to go to Beirut ever since I took two classes in the 2006-2007 school year with one of my favorite professors - who is Lebanese.

I wanted originally to go to Iran, to spend time with my dear friend from grad school and her family, but, as I am a US citizen, I wasn't deemed worth by the Iranian government to come to their country. Probably for the best anyway, considering that if I pass the Foreign Service exam I'll have to get Top Secret clearance, and a trip to Iran would definitely jeapordize that application.

As Lebanon is the first country in the actual MIDDLE of the Middle East that I will visit, I hope to be able to do a little bit of blogging while I'm there. Not only that, but it's not the most peaceful time there right now. We had planned a trip to Baalbek, and a fantastic vineyard that serves brunch, but we had to cancel that trip because a group called the Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade want to free the region of "crusaders." Oh, and they've also pledged fealty to the new ISIS caliphate. No big deal, but no brunch is worth dealing with a group that is so violent that Al-Qaeda is telling them to calm down.

But enough about scary violence and thoughts of impending explosions. I've already got a few dinners planned, Lebanese Arabic lessons, a sushi iftar groupon purchased, a planned outing to a night club that was/is a bomb shelter, and a tentative plan to visit a turtle refuge where you camp in chalets on the beach and they deliver hookah to your chalet. Stay tuned to this blog for more updates about first impressions of a city I've heard so much about for so long.

05 July 2014

The Empty Space Makes the Wheel

"Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days"

It's Ramadan again, and because it's an "even" year, I'm fasting again. At least for part of it. This year, I am not sure why, but it seems more important that I fast, and I fast well. (Well, except for that time that I accidentally ate a pre-packaged meal with pork in it for suhoor because I was so tired...)

I often face many questions - mostly from people who don't know a lot about Islam, but also from a lot of Muslims - asking me not only what the Muslim fast is about, but more so, why do I fast if I'm not Muslim? Fasting a full Ramadan seems to be this big accomplishment for someone of European descent, but not so much considering the millions of Muslims who fast every year. Why do I do it? To answer that question, go back to why do Muslims fast.

The logistical answer is that Ramadan - the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar - was the month in which God revealed the miracle of the Quran to Mohammed. So Muslims fast in the month that is considered so full of blessings, you can almost physically feel them in the air. By switching Day and Night, by removing the mundane and the profane to make room for the spiritual, Muslims believe - at least the ones educated enough to get this deep into theology - that:

As the Taoist saying affirms, it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel. It is only a certain degree of restraint from the material objects of the senses that makes even the life of the senses balanced, not to speak of making possible an opening in the human soul for the spiritual life.

Ramadan is also quite a special time for me personally because the first night I ever spend in the country was Laylat Al-Qadr (The Night of Power) or as I like to call it, "The Mighty Night." This is 27th night of Ramadan in which, according to Moroccan theologians, it is possible that God, through Jibreel (aka Gabriel), originally revealed the first suras (verses) of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. I came into the country on that auspicious day from study abroad in Spain, and everything was slow during the day, but came alive at night. That was also my first time in a developing country and walking through the market that night - surrounded by the stereotypical scene of shouting merchants, smoke from meat for sale on barbecues, and crowds of Moroccans taking advantage of the lovely late October night - I knew my life would never be the same.

So why do I fast? Getting back to answering this question, I've developed a pattern of fasting for a significant number of days every other year. I've done 2 full Ramadans, in 2008 and 2012, and I hope to continue this tradition for the rest of my life. Below is my reasoning for fasting as I remember it each of the 4 times I have fasted.

2008: This was the first year, and in learning what Ramadan was really about, I decided I wanted to participate in what everyone around me was doing. I did not only want to sympathize, but, after fasting only Laylat Al-Qadr the year before, I wanted to empathize, and to truly understand what my friends and host families were going through. I spent most of that Ramadan sitting around my house, staying up all night, sleeping until 1pm or even 2pm, and going to L'ftoor (Iftar or Break-Fast) at various houses around my community. It was quite tough that year, mostly because I had no air-conditioning, and the fact that I couldn't drink water made it that much more difficult.

2010: This year I was back in the US, and it was the August between my time in Morocco with NSLI-Y and Morocco Exchange. I fasted this year mostly because I missed Morocco and my time as a volunteer that much - even though I was in Marrakech for parts of it - and because I wanted to see if I could do it in the US. There were a lot of lonely l'ftors that year, but I did manage to have some good ones with my Arabic mentor at the time, and with some volunteer friends who were living in Chicago.

2012: This was one of the best years of fasting for me because again I was in a Muslim country, this time Oman, and this was really the first time I did it while "working" and amongst a group of friend who were doing it together with me. I loved the experience of waking up for sahoor and remembering the peace and quiet and watching the men go to the mosque and hearing the adan (the call to prayer) float in through the open windows on the humid breeze of the Gulf. This was the first time it really meant so much, spiritually. Not only is Oman a country with a very strong religious tradition, but I also spent the second half of the month in Morocco, staying up all night, listening to the Quran being recited in the next room. This was the year I learned that devout Muslims read or recite a 30th of the Quran every night of the 30-day month, and listening to it being recited really showed me how much it is liturgical and mean to be heard rather than read.

2014: This year, I probably will not fast the whole time, but I wanted to fast because I want to reconnect with a part of me that I have set aside recently: the spiritual part, the part where I sit and commune with God. I'm also fasting because it will be easier at work, knowing our IT manager is fasting too. And the fact that my roommate is out and about also, doing his first fast, makes me feel like I have a tiny little family in this white bread town. On the second night, we hosted a few people for l'ftor, and I was oddly proud to be able to serve l'ftor to a Moroccan and when he was finished, hand him the prayer rug I own and have never used and have him accept it without question. I felt like my hospitality was put to the test and I passed, quite high on a scale of 1 to Arabian Peninsula. I'm also still feeling the loss of Youssef (which I have yet to write a blog entry about, but I am planning one) and the posts his siblings make on FB make it all the more poignant this year. I suppose I am looking for a way to hear/feel anything from him, and so being closer to God makes it seem like perhaps He might pass my message along to Youssef, even though in the end, I have the sneaking suspicion that all my thoughts and prayers are going out into nothingness.

And so that is my Ramadan history. A special time, based on the experiences in my life that have coincided with it, and this year will be special as well, because I'm going to be in Lebanon with one of my best friends in the whole world. New Arab country, new experiences, old friends. Again, a limited time of spiritually powerful days.