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!

1 comment:

Nicole said...

Thanks for posting. Keep it coming!