Monday, December 17, 2007

UN Security

[K] They’ve put me through three different security trainings, and counting. The first day, before visiting the Nahr el Barad Camp, I had a short briefing that I thought was all I needed. It included instruction in identifying UXOs, that’s unexploded ordnance, and what to do if I should find any (tell the Army). I had no idea what a big deal it was that I was allowed to visit the refugee camp that first day without passing the Basic Security Training and Advanced Security Training Courses, and getting supplied with a cell phone and VHF radio. I spent the next two days in the Beirut office getting those things done.

The training courses are computer-based and interactive. They are really well done, and apparently used for UN staff all over the world. They cover safety of all types, and include car and convoy travel, hotels, survival techniques, and assorted tips like don’t use cell phones near a suspected bomb…

In the UNRWA offices (in the Quality Inn in Tripoli about 10 miles away from the camp; the old offices are inaccessible), one has to sign in and out of the office and say you are going, and when in the camp, one has to keep in radio contact every 30 minutes. I was given a list of radio abbreviations for the different locations. I still have yet to take a more detailed radio training. Should you wish to dial me up on your VHF radio, just call me Bravo William 936.

Friday, December 7, 2007

What a gig


Now that I am firmly ensconced in my position as a special education teacher in an international school I have time to write. The school is not a typical international school in that most of the students are Lebanese, and rich Lebanese at that. The school has a mix of Christian, Sunni, and Shia. A lot of foreign embassies that allow families to accompany their employees send their kids to the school. America does not allow embassy employed families to live here.

The job itself is different than any I have had. It is more of a learning support position rather than providing services just for students with learning disabilities. The elementary school, where I work, is an excellent environment in which to work. The principal is strong, honest, and fair. I really enjoy the little ones.

The school is just a block from the Corniche and the Mediterranean. The Corniche is a seaside walkway that is beautiful to walk down. The school has about 950 students K-12. I understand that the environment in the middle school and especially the high school is chaotic and suffers from a lack of positive leadership. I feel lucky. In all I am having fun and learning a lot. I feel what I have to say is heard and acted upon. We are truly enjoying ourselves.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nahr el Barad

My first day of work at UNWRA, I got to visit Nahr el Barad and Beddawi refugee camps. Nahr el Barad is the one that was completely destroyed by fighting earlier this year between a Palestinian splinter group and the Lebanese Army. It is also where I’ll be working, eventually. For now, there are so few standing buildings that the UNRWA office is in a hotel in Tripoli, about 15 minutes drive away.

Ninety percent of the camp was destroyed, displacing 30,000 people, most of whom fled to the already overcrowded Beddawi camp, about 10 miles away. Others took refuge in schools and mosques.

A recent article in The Guardian describing the camp, says: “Most of the large apartment buildings at the camp have been shredded to their foundations, […buckled] under the weight of giant floor slabs, others collapsed entirely…Bullet holes pepper every face of the ruined landscape… Many walls have been blown away to reveal gutted houses, with charred, splintered furniture dangling over the mess below… The wreckage of luxury cars, now burnt and twisted, recall the prosperity enjoyed by some in Nahr el Barad before the siege…” People who had lived here for many years, were allowed to take only one bag with them when they left.

After the fighting stopped, the looting began. There is nothing left. The Lebanese Army, after checking houses for unexploded ordnance, often blew up the houses.

Before reconstruction can begin, almost 1,000,000 square yards of rubble need to be removed, which will cost $10 million. Fortunately, international donors responded to an emergency appeal and funds are available.

Only 1,000 families have been allowed to return. But they have returned to terribly substandard housing. A contractor hired to build a new six storey apartment block has not gotten windows installed in three of the floors, in December, after months of work. The roof leaks, sending water all the way down to the first floor. I could see cracks between the cinder block walls of the new building. At least, after our visit, heavy plastic, hammers and nails were ordered to be immediately provided for those apartments without windows.

In another area of the camp, residents in some hastily constructed dwellings complained of flooding and no hot water. What they didn’t complain about, or what I didn’t hear, were complaints of schools yet to open for their children, no jobs for the adults, and, of course, no future.

Reconstruction is painfully slow. In order to be accountable to donors, there is a strict procurement process: 1) create budget, 2) get it approved, 3) put items needed up for bid, 4) wait for contractors to bid, 5) get bank guarantees for contractors, 6) evaluate bids at the main office (Beirut), 7) get signatures on contracts, 8) mobilize contractors. And then, as seen in the leaky roofs, monitor every step of the way.

There is money approved to build 1500 temporary houses, but the Lebanese government has not made any land available; the army wants the refugees to stay in a confined area, so land choices are very limited.

The camp borders the Mediterranean, along which I will travel an hour each day to work.
In a MUCH lighter vein, here are some signs I have seen along the way and around Beirut:
  • Internet Romance Cave (just outside Beddawi Camp)
  • Gentle Bag
  • Nails and roots (a beauty shop, of course)
  • Look and Like
  • Rocky Nuts
  • I believe in Bata [shoes] Noel

And a fave: the headquarters of Electricite du Liban, with almost half the neon letters dark.

P.S. Still no president!!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tripoli, and Lebanon update

We were hoping to go to Syria for Thanksgiving weekend but our visas didn't come through in time.
Aleppo it ain’t, but we had a nice overnight excursion to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. We took a minibus 1 ½ hours north of Beirut, along the coast. Wider streets, some even tree-lined. Less chaotic and crowded than Beirut. More Arabic and Moslem. Sidewalks wide enough to walk three abreast—impossible in Beirut. The only parking meters we’ve seen in Lebanon. One street reminiscent of San Francisco, with elaborately detailed three- and four-storey row houses. It had lights hung across the street, presumably for Christmas (a holiday celebrated by many non-Christians worldwide). Tripoli's old city dates from the 14th and 15th centuries and has a great souk (covered shopping) area, adjacent to the Grand Mosque, dating from 1294, and distinctive in alternating black and sand colored stones.

The citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles sits atop a hill, towering over downtown and the port. The original castle was built in 1102, but has been burnt down on several occasions, beginning in 1289. We climbed up several winding sets of stairs to reach it. There is no longer any admission charge, and while apparently still open to the public it has become, once again, an army/police outpost. A nice camou-clad soldier offered me his hand to help me up a steep spot, and a police officer showed us a few points of interest, including a 19th century elevator and a dark staircase that went down, down, down, farther than any of us, including him, wished to go.
As we looked out over the city we could see flocks of pigeons circling, being exerciesed by their keepers. We have seen this too, in Beirut, but not from such a marveous vantage pooint. The sun was setting into the sea, and behind us, the full moon was rising...
Later we had a nice mezze meal (sans arak--no alcohol can be served within a considerable distance of a mosque in this town). We stayed in a hotel that was essentailly four bedrooms of a family home on the second floor. The next day, as we left, the very nice lady running the place presented us with spinach pastries hot from the oven...

Back in Beirut, we found emails from concerned friends in the US, worried about us and curious what will become of us if war breaks out. Things are calm—streets are filled with regular daily comings and goings, all the shops are open and full of people and all the usual things for sale, the ubiquitous construction projects (both new construction and rehabbing old buildings) goes on, seven days a week. There is still much hope that peace will continue to prevail. The president's term has expired and the army is now more or less in control. The army commander is well respected by all and the army itself is not feared. Here is Tom’s summary of the situation: It is at an impasse. There is no president and we are still waiting for an agreement on a candidate everyone can support. The big problem is that egos get in the way.
Should the situation deteriorate and violence break out, we would be evacuated, by sea. We are about 10 blocks from the Mediterranean, and this part of town is very unlikely to be a hot spot. It is nice to know we wouldn't have to go through town to get to the airport. Last year when the Israelis bombed Beirut, Americans boarded some kind of boat and were taken to a U.S. military base in Turkey, and flown to Atlanta a few days later.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Election drama

Here are today’s headlines from a local online news source (
  • March 14 [Anti-Syrian Christian/Sunni faction] No to Aoun's [Maronite Christian] Proposal and for Presidential Elections
  • Erdogan Calls Assad over Lebanon [that’s the Prime Minister of Turkey calling the President of Syria]
  • Hariri [March 14 faction] fails to convince Aoun of Concensus Candidate Following Phone Call by [French President] Sarkozy
  • Verbal Quarrel Between Aoun and Berri [Shiite head of parliament]
  • Foreign Envoys in Last-Minute Talks in Hopes of Salvaging Presidential Elections
  • Lahoud [lame duck president that nobody likes, pro-Syrian]: Remnant of Syrian Hegemony
  • U.N. Chief Fears 'Confrontation' if No Lebanon Agreement Reached
  • Russia Hopes Lebanon Will Elect New President
  • Rice to Syria: Better Ties with U.S. for Free Lebanon Elections
  • MP Franjieh [also March 14 faction]: A New Era in the Region if Presidential Elections Fail

But it's a bright and sunny day in Beirut...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stormy weather, and waiting

Dramatic thunder storms are such a fitting backdrop to the political turmoil in which the country is embroiled. The election has been postponed until Friday, the last possible day the current president can stay in office. Major international diplomatic efforts continue, notably by French, Arab League and, now, Russian governments. Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary-General, warns we are "on the edge of an abyss."

A bizarre bit of news: a strong hail storm in the south caused a number of unexploded cluster bombs to go off, miraculously hurting no one.

We had hoped to go to Syria for the four day weekend, but our visas have not yet been approved though some other ACS teachers have received theirs. Is it some other Tom Moore, bad guy, who keeps our good one on the no-fly list? Is it Cam and I, rabid Quakers? Or maybe Ben (we applied for one for him too, so we can visit Damascus when he comes next month), State Dept. lackey?

So we are stuck in Beirut, more storms on the horizon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Getting on in Beirut, election week

In Beirut, we find ourselves getting used to new ways. I no longer look for my car keys when I get ready to the leave the apartment, or reach for my cell phone to turn off the ringer in Meeting or a movie, having neither of these things to be concerned with. We know to flip the circuit breaker to turn the hot water on an hour before a bath. We realize how very fortunate we are to be in a building with a generator that comes on so quickly and dependably during the daily power outages. Others, even ACS teachers, do not have back up power.

The country runs on promissory notes signed to purchase fuel. Everyone is waiting, hoping, praying, banking on and nervous about the coming election. If we get through the election, people say, things might improve.

The government has been barely functional for almost a year, when opposition forces withdrew from the government and set up a tent camp outside the Parliament building, blocking access to it and to much of the downtown area. The Israeli bombing of Lebanon’s power plants last summer certainly didn’t help. (Last week Cam and I watched a documentary on the resulting oil spill and massive cleanup effort--the layer of oil left on the sea floor was literally peeled off, armful by armful, by individual divers! And legions of volunteers shoveled and raked the oil off beaches up and down the coast).

The election of a president is due to take place Wednesday (November 21st). The election isn’t a vote among the people, it’s the result of a consensus among members of Parliament; all the many factions have to agree on a Maronite Christian candidate, according to an arrangement set up in the Constitution. Some factions (notably, Hezbollah) want to change the whole system whereby certain government posts are earmarked for particular groups. And in the south (thank God not Beirut) Israeli fighter jets and drones have been flying low practically nonstop for over a week now, in defiance of international law and, no doubt, completely ignored by the US press and unknown to the US public—correct? It really adds to the tension and makes people nervous. What are they trying to say—if you can’t agree on a candidate for president we are ready for the anarchy that will result and will swoop right in and take your land and water? I just don’t get it. And then we have Syria bumping off Members of Parliament on a regular basis, most recently in September. And 90% of everybody just wants to sell grow/sell/buy their vegetables and live in peace. People are sick to death of politicians.

There has been a major flurry of diplomatic activity over the last month, with visits by the French, Spanish, and Italian foreign ministers, the US ambassador, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and others expressing support for Lebanon and urging a peaceful election process.

Besides the Israeli fly overs there are other signs of tension. On Friday Cam went to Chatila refugee camp where he is volunteering and they had arranged to take the kids out for a rare visit to a park. They were at the park only 10 minutes when word came of some fighting between factions in another camp. Parents were worried about their children and the group returned quickly to Chatila. They told Cam he should leave the camp. These are exciting times, for sure.

A powerful lightning and thunderstorm—first we’ve seen here—came through just now and at first I found myself wondering if it was thunder or bombs… But please don’t worry about us--we will be safe in this part of Beirut anyway, but what about the South and the refugee camps? And the future of this amazing country?

Sunday, November 18, 2007


We went on a day trip adventure to Saida, known in English, the Bible and, presumably, Phoenecian, as Sidon. Forty kilometers south of Beirut and 6000 years old, it promised us a Crusader sea castle, a souk and a soap museum.

First, to the castle, which was disappointing—how jaded we get about these 13th century relics! It had been destroyed and rebuilt by various powers (Mamluks, Fakhreddine—what would I do without Lonely Planet?!), and most recently used by the PLO as a base during the civil war.

In the very shadow of the castle we found a beautifully restored Ottoman era building housing a restaurant. In the summer it must be lovely to sit at tables outside, at the edge of the Mediterranean, under a covered walkway. We were content with an inside table, with a view of the sea. There Cam experienced his second mezze meal in Lebanon: humous, babganouj, fresh cheese with thyme and olives, salad, grilled chicken, french fries with garlic sauce, lots of pita bread to scoop everything up with, and—you have to!—arak. Cam ordered a nargileh (water pipe). One is never hurried through this kind of meal.

Eventually we left and entered the souk (covered market)--wonderful! Vaulted, stone ceilings sheltering so much life: shops of all kinds, where things are made as well as sold, from bread to furniture, people chatting, eating meals spread out on a cloth on top of the inventory. I bought a wooden spoon with a carved handle for 65 cents! Tom wished he had brought his shoes which need repair. I wished later I had bought more spoons...

We wound through the souk and found our way to the Musée de Savon = soap museum. Tourism is slow in these parts these days, and we had the place to ourselves. A trilingual tour guide walked us through the ancient building, which had housed a soap factory in the 19th century. It was really quite interesting. The soap is made from olive oil in a labor intensive process that involves spreading the soap mixture on a marble floor to set for 24 hours, marking cut lines with chalk, and stamping each block of soap with the factory name and grade of soap. Soap is no longer made at the place, but is elsewhere in Lebanon and in Syria and is widely available in stores, sold 6 or 12 bars in plastic bags.

A 67 cent 45 minute bus ride brought us back to Beirut. On the way to the bus I notice a 30 something lady in a modest headscarf and long skirt, wearing a t-shirt proclaiming in large, shiny letters: ROCK QUEEN. Tom points out a Shia mosque, which you can spot by it’s green dome.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Forgotten humanity

Despised by Lebanon, enemies of Israel, forgotten by the rest of the world, are these stateless, 3rd and 4th generation refugees with no human rights: the Palestinians. We visited the Chatila camp where Cam will be volunteering. Just to visit is an unnerving, enlightening experience; in fact a hostel has been set up at the Youth Center to welcome outsiders and offer them tours of the camp.

Eighteen thousand people live inside the one square kilometer/.6 (that is six tenths, not six) mile camp, in south Beirut. There are no walls or barbed wire. Instead people are trapped by laws—both those that are enforced (Lebanon) and those that are not (Israel and international community). Palestinians in Lebanon have no identity cards and cannot work in many jobs, travel or own property. Various United Nations resolutions to assist them have been ignored by member nations, most notably of course, Israel and the United States. This has been the situation since 1949.

There are 13 of these camps in Lebanon! There are over 200,000 registered refugees living in these camps, but the number of residents is higher. In Chatila Camp we learned that other poorest of the poor, of several nationalities, are living among the refuges there. In the infamous Sabra and Chatila massacres of 1982, when something like 2,000 people were killed, there were people from many nationalities among the victims, including up to 25% Lebanese.

“Overcrowded” seems an inadequate word. Most streets are tiny alleyways, and no sun or breeze reaches many dwellings. Buildings have expanded upward, since outward is not an option, and most reach seven floors, the maximum allowed them by the Lebanese government. That may be a good thing, as construction is poor quality, and the buildings are unsafe. Drainage is very poor and when it rains flooding is widespread. Electricity is more off than on.

There are schools in the camp, run by the UN. But they are overcrowded and operate on a double shift, with half the students in school from 7 – 11 and half from 12 – 4.

Palestinians are only allowed to work in certain jobs in Lebanon. Many work as laborers or run small shops in the camp. Some of the women are able to find work as cleaners around the city, but many of these jobs have been taken over in recent years by live-in workers imported from the Philippines or Sri Lanka.

Cam, bless his big heart, will be working in the Chatila Youth Center, updating their website and just being with the kids.

Since you’re already depressed I will share this as well, from the newspaper today:

“Three people were wounded on Sunday by a cluster bomb in the south…while working in an agricultural field. Cluster bombs dropped by Israel last year continue to kill and wound civilians on a regular basis. Israel dropped at least 1 million cluster bombs during the three last days of the conflict, after the United Nations Security Council had brokered a resolution to end hostilities. It has refused to provide information about its cluster bombs strikes, despite repeated UN requests to do so”.

More innocent lives and limbs would be saved if only they would let the Lebanese know where they dropped cluster bombs. Cluster bombs deliver landmines that blow up later, when someone steps on them, or hits them with a hoe. A single cluster bomb can leave unexploded mines over an area the size of three football fields, for decades later. These ones were purchased with our tax dollars and given to Israel. It just makes me sick.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wine and roses

We have visited two wineries, one more or less by chance (it was on the way to the ancient ruins, honest) and the second with a group from Tom's school, in a—wisely—chartered bus. Both are in the Bekaa Valley, which gets 240 days of sunshine a year and has been the scene of wine growing for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Ksara Winery is the oldest and largest in Lebanon, with grapes planted in the early 18th century and real caves that cover two kilometers/over a mile. The Jesuits took over in 1857 and ran the place until 1972. It is a heavily visited place, well organized and with a bit of a Disneyland atmosphere. Handfuls of small children race about, playing on the furniture (e.g. tables made of wine barrels). On entering, people are grouped by language, an unenviable task on busy days, performed by the trilingual tour guide. If several groups arrive at once, English might be sent off for wine tasting while Arabic watches the video, hastily set to Arabic, and French gets a tour of the caves. Groups then switch and tour guide keeps track of it all. The video is very professionally done and covers the history of the place and how the wine is produced. The caves, which date from Roman times (!), were expanded during World War I, and are the perfect temperature for aging wine.

The second winery we visited was Massaya, a newer and smaller winery known more for its arak (the strong stuff, like raki or ouzo). A busload of American Community School staff made its way over the mountains to the place, well off the main road. We knew that in addition to wine sampling, a huge feast awaited us. The setting was lovely—shaded tables and benches with comfortable cushions adjacent to the rows of vines, and even a pond with koi-- rustic elegance. There was a slight breeze and it was fabulously quiet, at least away from the eating area. Living in the city as we do, this was a real blessing. As you enter, you pass a woman in simple clothing sitting close to the ground baking flat breads with thyme, or cheese or meat—the appetizers. Trays of tomatoes, olives and the tastiest tiny cucumbers ever complemented the warm breads. The wine began to flow. In time, the feast began. Buffet style, there must have been 30 dishes. Not the standard “mezze” fare we have seen in several other restaurants but much more elaborate--gourmet farm. Apparently this takes place every Sunday.

Another chapter in the heavenly elixir department is rose water. I had seen the bottles of rose water sold in import markets in the States and wondered what it was used for. I thought it was a man-made creation—like we buy synthetic vanilla extract, which tastes more strongly of vanilla than the real thing (and is, of course, a whole lot cheaper). Well, guess what. The rose water/syrup that comes in bottles is actually the real thing. Roses smell different here. They look exactly the same (to us, anyway) but they have this candy sweet smell that is, well, good enough to eat. There are several brands of syrup in the grocery store—I buy the one without the red food coloring. I mix 5 parts water to one part rose syrup, and serve over ice. We have taken to keeping a pitcher of it in the fridge.

Street scenes:

  • A small shop that I pass by on my way to Arabic class has a cart that sticks out into the sidewalk so far that one must practically detour into the street. That part is not so unusual. But what amazes me is that the cart is laden with packaged drinks—small bottles of juice and cans of beer—and snacks that the store sells. Stacked on the cart outside on the sidewalk, day after day, and nothing is taken.
  • Further along the street I sometimes see water pouring down from the second or third floor of an apartment building—washing machine effluent? It pours into a lovely garden, watering the trees. Balcony drains reach the sidewalk or, commonly, large plastic bottle placed on the sidewalk

  • There is a broad range of Moslem lady fashion in Beirut. It runs from total Western—not only no headscarf but skin tight t-shirts—to black headscarf and robe. The latter is very uncommon and I suspect these ladies are visitors from another country. What is more usual are various intermediate stages. Today I saw a 20-something lady with bell bottoms and spangled cowboy boots, modest dark flowing headscarf and baggy, long sleeve shirt above. There are many brightly colored headscarves, worn with long skirts or with tight, flared jeans and high heels. If you wear a head scarf you will also have a long-sleeve top, which could be long (mid-thigh or even coat-like, mid-calf) and baggy, or short and skin-tight. If the latter, as in fashion in general here, sparkles and frills are big. One wonders how one finds one’s niche. We noticed that the very sweet couple who run the coffee stand nearby have an adult daughter who does not wear a head covering, though Mom does.

  • Well to do Beirutis who left the city heat for summer homes up in the hills have returned, making streets and shops busier at night. Tom had to wait for the hot from the convection oven bread he likes, in a line behind a flock of Filipino maids and other customers who had placed orders in advance.

As we get ready to go to bed we happen to glance up and see three, count ‘em three, big fat mosquitoes on the ceiling. This is the last week of October—enough already! A battle ensues. The ceiling is 9 feet up. Tom’s preferred weapon of choice is the towel. I prefer The Economist. About 10 minutes later Tom has gotten two of them and we give up. It is late. Unfortunately the third one is quite successful in avenging her departed family members--by morning we have been ravaged. Fortunately the weather is starting to get cooler, so hopefully this is the last of these guys.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Byblos and Baalbek

Tom had a four-day weekend, for the end of Ramadan, or Eid, celebration. One doesn’t know exactly which of two days day the Eid will be celebrated, as it depends on the imam (?) seeing the crescent moon. But what about clouds, I wonder—what if the imam lives in Washington?? Never mind, the American Community School blocks out a four day weekend to cover the bases…

We had two amazing trips. The first was a day trip to Byblos, up the coast from Beirut about 45 minutes’ drive. We got to go with new friends Tim and Francoise in their rented car, along with their sweet little dog Tupi (so nice to get a dog fix; he sat on Tom’s lap the whole way back). Byblos has a quaint harbor guarded by a Crusader castle, and a nice pebble beach. Byblos claims to be the planet’s oldest continually inhabited city. It is home to an excavated area of mind-boggling ancient ruins. We paid all of $4 to enter the sprawling historic site, and view the remains of an incredible mishmash of centuries and civilizations, from Stone Age to Byzantine, Phoenician to Roman. The Crusader Castle was built by the Franks in the 12th Century, mostly with blocks pillaged from the earlier Roman ruins. There are six different layers of city walls, dating from the 3rd century BC. And it is all so picturesque, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The next day we ventured over the mountains to the cities of Zahle and Baalbek. Tom calls the trip over the mountains an “E ticket ride”… Zahle is a beautiful town along a river in the Bekaa Valley. It is reminiscent of Italy or France, its old stone buildings decorated with colorful wooden shutters, ornate iron grillwork, chandeliers and flowering plants. It is predominantly a Greek Catholic town, and bells rang out the Sunday morning as we walked around town. It took less than two hours to get there by public minibus (they leave when they are full) over the mountains. We stayed in a budget hotel at Zahle, accurately listed by Lonely Planet as “dilapidated but character-filled” old house = Ottoman era.

After checking in to the hotel, we boarded another minibus for Baalbek, 30 minutes to the north. Outside of town Tom spotted an Israeli tank that had been captured during the Israeli invasion last year. It had been mounted on a pedestal about 20 feet high, right next to the main road, a prize for all to see. In contrast to the Christian town of Zahle, Baalbek sports posters of Hezbollah leaders and even Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Outside the historic site at Baalbek we were offered picture postcards of the ruins and bright yellow Hezbollah T-shirts for sale.

As you drive into the center of town the historic site comes into view at once. You can’t miss it—there is a vast area of ruins over which the enormous columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter loom. Jupiter is the larger of the two main temples on the grounds. It’s six remaining standing pillars, made of beautiful red and grey flecked granite, jut 70 feet into the air. They are over 7 feet in circumference—the largest in the world! The stones used for the base of the temple are mammoth blocks weighing close to 10 tons--the largest stone blocks ever made. See photo of Tom (below) standing in front of a block and a downed pillar. Apparently people used to think the place was built by giants.

The smaller temple, the Temple of Bacchus (photo at right), is larger than the Pantheon in Athens, and is better preserved. It’s just amazing. It was completed in 150 AD and has survived major earthquakes, religion changes from pagan to Christianity and Islam, and a spell as a dungeon in medieval times. An outer portico supports a ceiling of decorated curved stone with scenes of Mars’ winged victory, Diana taking an arrow out of her quiver, Vulcan with a hammer, etc. It gave us a much better idea of what temple remains we have seen in Italy and Turkey looked like originally. Scattered around the temple and the sprawling site are chunks of carved stone with lions, eagles, faces, etc. and bits of fallen columns and pedestals. There are no barricades or guardrails to keep you from climbing around and touching the relics. It is quite a fantastic site.

Back in Zahle we enjoyed a walk by the river with many other visitors celebrating the holiday. There was an arcade with video games, air hockey and bumper cars. There was popcorn, cotton candy, and the local equivalent of peanut brittle. Strolling families, as everywhere some women with headscarves and some without. We treated ourselves to nice meal at a riverside restaurant (see photo showing dessert)—pleasantly surprised when the bill came to $20.

Back over the mountain, I shot a photo of a bridge destroyed by an Isaraeli airstrike last summer. There is a detour.
Climbing into the minibus, Tom's watch fell off, but he didn't notice. Someone picked it up and handed it to him. Later, a family getting on passed their toddler in ahead of them. A man held the child on his lap and talked to him until the family got settled, then the child was passed from arm to arm back to them. Lovely people!

People everywhere are just outstandingly kind and welcoming. In Zahle a man in a baked snack store (small pastries with lamb or spinach, flat rounds with thyme spice mixture or cheese or lamb, all fresh baked on the spot, with tomatoes, cukes and olives added if you want them) asks where we are from and says, “America ! Bush !good!” I say, “We like America, no like Bush,” in Arabic (rather proud I made a sentence). He disagrees, “Bush good!” He makes gun sounds. “F16!”

And speaking of Arabic, I know the whole alphabet now, more or less. Unfortunately I have very little vocab to go with it so can’t understand what I can read. One day I was practicing the pronunciation of some letters when Tom came into the room and inquired if I was having digestive problems…

Monday, October 8, 2007

To the Cedars

The school arranged a trip for staff last Saturday to the Cedars of Lebanon. Featured prominently on the Lebanese flag, the cedar tree is very important historically in the region. Huge forests once covered the mountains here, and provided the Phoenicians and those who followed them with high quality wood for boat making and for export. The cedars of Lebanon are mentioned in the Old Testament; the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was built of their wood. Today, most of the remaining cedars--some 1,000 years old--are in two forest preserves. The trees have a distinctive shape and though they are not tall by Pacific Northwest standards, they are distinctive and majestic.

We followed a winding road along and above a deep, 30 mile long gorge (Qadisha Valley--in photo) which is itself on the World Heritage list. Each side is lined with dramatic cliffs and dotted with caves and monasteries used by various persecuted religious minorities over the centuries. Villages made of stone, with red-tiled roofs seemed to appear around every other corner.

We made our way to the highest village in the Middle East, at 1,750 meters/5,740 feet. It is B’Qaa Kafra, and is the birthplace of St. Charbel, who some believe causes miracles to occur. It is a picturesque village all made of stone, with very friendly people, and the biggest cabbages I have ever seen (for sale, in small stores). A gift shop outside a church there sold rosaries (surely the ones made of blue evil-eye stones offer the best protection?), incense, plaques and other items with Bible verses in Arabic, English and French-- mostly Arabic, some painted on slabs of cedar which one does hope came from fallen branches.

On to the Cedars, and a lovely walk through the trees. WE HAD TO BRING AND ACTUALLY WEAR SWEATERS, and that was noteworthy and wonderful. Yes, it’s October but down in Beirut we are still sweating. Up there it was cool and the air was clean and delicious. Also, it was Q U I E T. Ahhhh. [Our apartment really isn’t that bad but city life does involve a fair bit of background noise, e.g. the squeaky brakes of the newspaper delivery guy at 6 am].
Outside the presrve, shops selling baby cedar trees and more cedar plaques, some with Bible verses, more with Koran verses.

Then, a classic Lebanese meal with a dozen or more dishes—“mezze.” It does tend to be the same dozen dishes every place, but they are always wonderful, and in a group each person can pig out on the thing they like best. The typical dishes seem to be: hummous (garbanzos with sesame butter, garlic and olive oil); babaghanouj (roasted eggplant with ditto); tabouli (parsley, mint, tomato, lemon juice and a little bulgur wheat—much less bulgur than we make it with in the States—you hardly know its there for all the greenery); french fries, sometimes with a heavenly garlic sauce; stuffed grape leaves; green salad; lamb kofta (ground lamb meatballs with bulgur? Don’t ask me, I’m a vegetarian); grilled chicken and beef; olives; various pickles; pita bread; fresh fruit. Large, decorated glass water pipes sat on the shelf ready for customers to order charcoal and flavored tobacco. This mountain top restaurant, near the ski slopes, looked like a very cozy place to go après ski, when the wood stove would be fired up. The main wall was stone, there was a red tiled roof, and there were plenty of windows looking out over the trees.

OK, Laura—here are the ski facts for the Cedars: altitude is 1,950 – 3,078 meters/5,740 - 10,000 feet. There are 8 lifts, 3 for experienced skiers. The runs are long. The season starts in mid-December and goes until April. Lonely Planet says, “There are numerous “off-piste” opportunities for the more adventurous types”. A lift ticket is only $30—so what are you waiting for? Or perhaps you’d prefer of the other ski areas: at Faqra you can visit Greek ruins when you’re done on the slopes—they apparently look terrific under a layer of snow; Laklouk is peaceful, with good cross-country; and Zaarour, at 2,000 meters/6,560 feet, has 2 advanced lifts, uncrowded slopes and awesome views.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Lebanon, where is that?

Lebanon, land of the ancient Phoenicians, is in the Middle East, on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Palestine/Israel to the south, and Syria to the east and north. Cyprus is only 125 miles away, across the Mediterranean to the northeast. Italy’s a $300 roundtrip plain ride away (yes!).

It is the only Middle Eastern country with no desert. It is long and narrow, with a long strip of sea coast (where Beirut is), and two mountain ranges reaching 10,000 feet, with the rich Bekaa Valley inbetween. Roads in most of the country snake around ridges along hillsides, and some communities are still difficult to reach.

The largest religious groups are Shiite Muslims, Christians, and Sunni Muslims, followed by Druze (an offshoot of Islam influenced by Greek philosophy). Maronite Christians (basically, Roman Catholics of Eastern origin) are the largest Christian group, followed by Melkite (Syrian) Catholics and Armenian Othodox. There are also Armenian, Roman and Chaldean Catholics , Greek Orthodox, and Protestants, some Bahai and at least 12 Quakers!

It’s small—4,000 square miles (that’s 10,000 square kilometers)—the size of Connecticut, or for you Washingtonians, Peirce, King and Thurston counties combined. Small. Four million Lebanese live here; it is said that 16 million live elsewhere, in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Egypt, Kuwait. One famous Lebanese person who left was Khalil Gibran. He was from Tripoli, in the north.

It’s hot in Summer—still now, in early October—but gets cold in winter, which I hear is November – March. The latitude is 34°, like Los Angeles. Hey, Washingtonians: This place has 300 days of sun a year.

Lebanon is stuffed with ancient ruins: Phoenician, Roman, Crusader, and Ottoman Empire. They are all around the country and we have much to explore… In downtown Beirut alone there are preserved remains of a Roman bath and market, a Maronite church dating back to the Crusades, and an Ottoman era building that now houses Parliament.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

On the Street

Small businesses thrive--there are so many little stores. You find some rather odd pairings of goods. Recent sightings in shop display windows were: cheese and cooking gas, yarn and pets (cats), flower seeds and hair coloring, plants and espresso, cigarettes and baked goods. On the next block from us are four, count ‘em four, florists in a row. All four are reportedly brothers, who were left plots of land by their father. Apparently they don’t get along well enough to join forces. One specializes in cut flowers and another potted plants. Our first dinner guest brought us our first Beirut plant (yay!) from one of the stores. It’s a star jasmine, and we have it on the balcony.

One of the larger stores, a gaudy department store call El Dorado with multiple floors and half floors that appear surprise! at the end of a row of clothes, has the most marvelous window display: a bevy of naked mannequins dressed only in large-sized El Dorado bags, females with the bags tied under the armpits and males around the waist…

Security is evident all over town. Various buildings where members of parliament live have permanent army patrols stationed out front—usually several soldiers in grey camouflage toting automatic weapons. They will smile and say hello if you meet their eyes as you pass by. Concrete barriers with metal chains or sometimes rope laced between them prevent parking and also make it interesting for pedestrians and vehicles to navigate. We haven’t seen a single accident and only a few dented fenders despite the lack of traffic lights or stop signs, creative double parking, and the very narrow space commonly employed between drivers. The underside of cars entering Tom’s school and other places are inspected before they are allowed to enter. What they use is a large—2 foot square--mirror on a rolling base with a long handle—think huge dentist mirror. They slide it under the car and check for bombs… And periodically there are roadblocks at various points of town, and traffic is frequently diverted for both security and construction. Everyone is used to it and life goes on.

There is a lot of construction; concrete, sign of hope. Not so much along the Corniche (seaside), which one would expect to house more upscale hotels and restaurants if tourism was booming. But in the neighborhoods and commercial areas. You can always hear a jackhammer, a dumptruck, a hammer.

Men from Sudan and maybe Ethiopia, dressed in green jumpsuits, sweep the streets daily and pick up trash. Westerners find the lack of recycling painful. One small shopping trip—small because you have to carry everything you buy and because stores are everywhere—yields 4 – 6 plastic bags. Water is purchased in plastic bottles, large and small, that are not recycled. Paper, newspapers and cardboard are thrown out. I’ve seen two recycling bins, for glass bottles, but they are about 8 and 10 blocks away. The only two in town and so close together! With last summer’s Israeli invasion/bombing, the regular assassinations of elected officials, and recent political impasse, not to mention the daily power outages, I suppose it’s easy to see how the environment slips down the priority list.

So this morning, a Saturday, we decided an omelette with feta cheese sounded nice. We had a couple of tiny eggplants in the fridge. Ah, a tomato would be nice. So Tom slipped on his sandals and hit the elevator button. Seven minutes later he returned with two ripe tomatoes, a cantaloupe and a bunch of baby bananas, for less than 3$. City life!

--photo is from our balcony. Can you see the lady in the middle on the right on her baclony? She is taking in her laundry. On the left a man keeps pigeons on the roof--fun to watch at feeding time

Friday, September 21, 2007


“Lifestyles” is the name of the health club we have joined. Lavish, well-equipped, and expensive, wealthy Beirutis and expats alike descend the elevator two floors below the underground parking in a high rise building overlooking the Mediterranean to mingle in the 20 meter pool, the weightroom, the Pilates classes and more. Spa services run the gamut from massage to pedicure. The library makes it a “club” in the British sense, with overstuffed furniture, magazines in three languages, and TV. There is a slate pool table (happy Tom), internet station (unfortunately as slow as ours at home) squash courts, jacuzzi, saunas (men’s and women’s—huge) and, my personal fave: the laconium. I had to look it up, too. It’s a kind of Roman sweat lodge, a small, round room with heated, benches made with hundreds of small tiles and set at a comfortably reclining angle. There is a small fountain in the middle coming out of an urn, fake Doric columns adorning the walls and the air smells subtly of menthol. It isn’t nearly as hot as a sauna. The floors are heated as well, and around the fountain is a tiled ledge where you can prop your feet. After 15 minutes there you repair to the outer room, with more heated, tiled recliners but cooler air to bring you back to the present. Wow. I am also a fan of “Oriental Dancing” class, which would be thought of as belly-dancing in the U.S. I managed to follow reasonably well and it’s quite a good workout. All this for three times what the Y cost in Tacoma, but it is good we joined—it’s hard for us to get exercise any other way—except for all the walking we do = lots, and it gives K something to do besides Arabic class…

Ah, but this is Beirut and everyone--even pedestrians--must enter Lifestyles through the parking garage because of security; like many streets there are barricades on either side to prevent people parking, so the fancy main entrance sits unused.

The photo above is the view approaching the club and also Tom’s school, which lies beyond it a couple of minutes’ walk. It’s an extra bonus of club membership for me—I wouldn’t see the Mediterranean every day otherwise.

Lifestyles, for most people, means work hours of 8 am – 6 pm Monday – Friday and 8 – 1 Saturday. Most small businesses are open 12 hours a day. People work hard, even in the heat of the day. And now, during Ramadan—a whole month--Moslems can’t eat or even drink water from sun-up to sundown. The call to evening prayer reverberates extra sweetly these days. Restaurants, while open during the day to serve other customers (hard to imagine cooking when you can’t eat!), offer special, large evening meals during Ramadan. I’m not sure at what age children join the fast, but they do. The water deprivation in this heat seems especially difficult.

But the weather is cooling down: instead of breaking a sweat at 7:00 a.m. it’s more like 8:00 or 9:00 now. And often there is a lovely breeze. It is easy to see why so many people move to “summer” homes in the hills above the city from April to November. The views of city and sea up there are beautiful as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another assassination

There was a car bomb in a suburb of Beirut early this evening. [Several miles away—we are fine.] The target was a pro-government Christian member of Parliament, and it is assumed the assassins were pro-Syrian. A barbaric attempt to reduce the pro-government majority in Parliament. Syria has never accepted that Lebanon is a separate country. In 1920 France drew a line separating the two. Sigh. This is only the latest in a line of assassinations of MPs.
We like to be hopeful that it might bring people together more quickly.

More: school was cancelled for two days, and may have to made up on Saturdays later. Why two days, I asked. One for mourning and one for the funeral.
People are nervous, and traffic is light as some people stay off the streets.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

New mantra…

Tom says his 16 years in the Tacoma School District prepared him well for Lebanon: everything’s a process, and there’s one more step.

Ah, the inefficiencies. But you can’t get mad—everyone is used to it and they are so kind. Things will happen insha’Allah, if God wills it. The ATM cards we ordered when we set up an account at a local bank finally came (had to pick them up at the bank; the only other option was to have them delivered to our apartment, but then we would have had to give (not just show) the delivery person a copy of our passports as proof of identity). We tried to use the cards but the PIN numbers they had sent us weren’t for the cards, they were for on-line banking, so we had to order ATM PIN numbers, which took another 2 days and another trip to the bank, which is only open from 8:15 – 1:00. On Sunday I spent 2 ½ hours locating and riding 2 buses to get to the Friends Meeting up in the hills outside Beirut. Overshot it by a kilometer or two, but would have been nearly an hour late anyway; the return trip was only an hour. Next week I’ll get there! We haven’t gotten mail in over a week and consequently the credit card bill wasn’t paid in time. I finally had to call overseas to an 800 number [not] and wait on hold to get the billing address. Similar problems with the mortgage surfaced today.

On the upside: One remarkable irony is how safe we feel. Women walk alone, in tight T-shirts, low cut capris, heels and lots of jewelry, even late at night—no lewd remarks and no fear. You have to reach over to the bus driver to hand him money as you leave the bus, which has two open doors for people to come and go at will. The driver carries a huge wad of bills. Sidewalks are small and home to numerous obstacles like posts, chains, holes, chunks of concrete, signs, motorbikes, cars (!), holes, plastic jugs collecting runoff, steps, etc. So when you pass by someone coming from the other direction, you often come very close. I don’t even bother to clutch my handbag anymore. We rarely count our change. The local produce seller (Mr. Haj—not his real name but a term of respect because he has been to Mecca) regularly throws in an extra pear or handful of plums to the kilo of fruit we buy. We do look both ways crossing a street, especially a one-way street… But we are completely at ease where valuables, money and personal safety are concerned.

I started Arabic classes this week, thankfully. It is so good to have even a few words, and people are so thrilled when you try to use them I have no qualms about asking a shopkeeper to help me recite the numbers, or conjugate a verb. I have a good teacher, Nada, and I keep thinking about and appreciating the great ladies—the very talented and experienced teachers--I worked with in Tacoma. They had to teach English completely in English; my teacher (Nada is her name/Ishma Nada) liberally uses English and French (for the French-speaking students) when teaching Arabic. It certainly makes it easier for me, especially learning the alphabet. There are 28 letters, which take different forms depending on whether they are at the beginning (right to left!), middle or end of a word, and whether they are handwritten or printed by a machine… Like French, nouns are masculine or feminine. Fortunately, there seem to be consistent word endings that work for male and female pronouns as well as verbs and nouns, so that helps.! I have 3 2-hour classes a week, and homework. It is really good to be doing something

I’ll leave you with a couple of curious sightings:

  • an advertisement for Desperate Housewives on the Al Jazeera English TV station
  • a Moslem lady with a full brown headscarf and hip length tunic, wearing camouflage capris and high heels below

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Glimpses of apartment life in Beirut

Since there are no formal addresses, when you give someone directions you give area and landmarks. For our apartment you say its in Hamra (district), on rue Basra (Basra Street), across from the Mayflower Hotel, Chatila building (no sign--how do they know??), third floor. People seem to know all the landmarks—and it’s a big city. Our apartment is on a quiet block, with the Mayflower, its Duke of Wellington Pub, apartment buildings and an office building. There are trees in pots in front of the Mayflower, and several in the ground in front of our building and another apartment building. You notice the trees because there aren’t a whole lot of them. The Mayflower sports flags from Canada, China, Japan, Britain, Germany, Norway, France, the UN, Lebanon (in the middle, over the entrance), EU, Jordan, Australia, USA, Bahrain, Italy, Iraq and Kuwait, in that order. We got our DSL Internet connection by approaching the hotel, as we found we were reading their signal. Lots faster than applying through the phone company. We had to sit the computer desk on top of a sheet of wood because the wires aren’t properly grounded and we kept getting shocked when touching the back of the computer… Our building has seven floors, with two apartments on each floor.

On the adjacent street is a bookstore, a seamstress, women’s nightgown and undergarment store, barber shop, apartments, another hotel (The Napoleon, catering to a mostly middle eastern clientele), a flower shop, and the occasional feral cat. They are small and gentle; some people feed them. On the other side of the street is an upscale bakery and chocolatier, with the best croissants in town, so they say. Next to it is a snack shop selling spinach or meat filled pastries like samosas, and flat bread with spices or olives. And a man or his wife, in a tiny place selling Arabic coffee, Nescafe or herb tea—for 30 cents. Several other stores offer a wide variety of things—the other day I went into a store with jewelry and watches in the window and found a cheap Chinese telephone, then thought to ask for a 110-220 volt transformer and they had that too! Stores are small and crowded, and occasionally dark when the power goes out.

We have three large-ish food/department stores within a 6 block radius: Smith’s, catering to expats and carrying Lebanese wines from the Bekaa Valley (not bad!), the Co-op, which is not a co-op, and Idriss, which won’t accept any paper bills if they are torn or taped (found out hard way). All three go on and on—you have to peer round corners to locate hidden aisles with more goods and whole floors you might have missed. I was so fortunate to have the wife of the Assistant Principal, also a “trailing spouse,” who has been here for 6 years, to show me around these places. Let’s see, at the store, there are dozens of yummy cheeses to choose from, pastas, canned goods, several varieties of pita bread, laundry soaps, locally made foil and plastic wrap, unrefrigerated eggs--products from Lebanon, Egypt, China and France most often. Some things you’d think might be cheap, like olive oil and almonds, bear prices similar to the US.

At a pharmacy, as in many countries you can go in and tell the pharmacist your symptoms and they will discuss options with you and give you medicines. Thankfully the local ones seem to offer multiple brands of 50 SPF sunscreen (I chose the cheapest French-made one)—I didn’t know it came in 50.

I have arranged to have one 19 liter water bottle delivered each week, for $3. Looks like it won’t be enough—we’re four days into the week and running low. But you can buy water at every store, so I’ll supplement with smaller bottles when needed. We are not sure if we should be brushing our teeth or washing vegetables with the tap water…so far so good.

Today I washed and hung out the sheets. Out the kitchen window of our fourth floor apartment, after wiping the lines clean of city dirt. For one as leery of heights as me, and as clumsy, it was an experience. But things dried better there than on the drying rack on the balcony, and I didn’t lose anything to the alley below--hurrah.

The kitchen sink (granite?) is quite flat—no, I think the drain is actually a little higher than the sides.

Tom makes coffee in a small pot on the stove (alot), mixing powdered beans with sugar and water, letting it come to a boil three times and then settle. See photo of Tom is his native habitat.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Surprised by hibiscus, or bougainvillea on cedars*

* see photo, um, sideways

Lebanese people are known for their generosity and their survival skills. This makes it so easy to be a visitor here, and to make deep connections with people.

Fireworks, celebratory gunfire, and numerous roadblocks accompanied the Lebanese Army's victory over a militant group that had taken over a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Apparently 12 fighters escaped, hence the roadblocks.

Elections are planned for September 17. Can this country with people from 17 different religious sects form an effective government?

Assorted wonderments of life in Beirut:

  • Hibiscus around every corner, in a wide range of colors
  • Ditto, oleander bushes and jasmine (mmmmm…)
  • Arabic numerals: the sixes look like western sevens and the four is a backwards three
  • Internet providers that are not “illegal,” but rather “unknown to the government”
  • The Beirut Health Food Store, catering to macrobiotics
  • Houses have no numbers, streets no signs
  • The occasional banyan tree, massive and draped with what look like hanging roots
  • Cable TV with 70 stations, in Arabic (from Lebanon, Egypt and ??), French, English (BBC, CNN, MSNBC), German, Spanish—for $25/month
  • The Turkish concierge of our building, who greets me by kissing me three times on the cheek (left, right left), several times a day, and gives me fresh figs and grapes

Sunday, August 26, 2007

An incredible day—Shabba (Chebbaa) Farms

We traveled to the south, a Saturday trip offered to new ACS staff to the village home of a long time staff member. We had no idea what we were getting into. We were unwittingly included in an elaborate birthday party, among other things. There were almost 20 of us in two Mercedes buses and the Headmaster’s car—T and I in the car. We went about 150 km to the southeast, stopping at the staff member’s village for a “snack” of roasted vegetables, homemade cheeses, pita bread, amazing fresh figs, grapes from the vine overhead, many kinds of cookies, candied pumpkin, quince preserves, pita bread, olives, and more.

The staff person‘s father was a major figure in the area. Among other things he had provided a library for a local school, a project to which ACS students had contributed by raising money and donating books. The school’s principal arrived and we left to visit the school, after acquiring a Lebanese Army escort. The library was quite impressive for a village school—6,000 books in three languages. Lebanese children study Arabic, French and English—all at once, from the third grade.

We noticed many, many unfinished buildings in the area. Two reasons were given. There are millions more Lebanese that live outside Lebanon than live here (4 million in Lebanon and something like 16 million in other countries). Many of them return to build homes for their relatives or themselves. Construction occurs when infusions of cash pour in from these people. Overseas Lebanese clearly contribute very significantly to the economy. And some of the construction is rebuilding following Israeli bombings from last year... We saw many rebuilt bridges that had been destroyed.

We were in the Shabba area, which is cut off from Shabba Farms, formerly free Lebanon but overtaken by Israel and now filled with Israeli “settlers”. I put it in quotes because it is a term that sounds so inoffensive, yet in reality their presence is absolutely an offense—the Israeli army overran and took over some of the choicest land in Lebanon. Shabba Farms is a rich area with fertile land, 14 villages, and plenty of water. The Israelis have diverted the water for other uses in their country and left the Lebanese in the 14 villages trapped, unable to leave or see relatives outside the “occupied territories”. They say if a goat wanders in from the free Lebanese side it is shot.

We got to go right up into the no man’s land next to the border. There is a UN post (we saw both Indian Sikh and Spanish UN peacekeepers—the Sikhs have UN blue turbans instead of caps!) on one hill, an Israeli installation on another, and an Israeli camera on a tower on a third. We waved. Beneath the camera tower is the yellow gate (see photo on left--below tower) where Hezbollah soldiers captured the two Israeli soldiers last year, the event that sparked the massive Israeli bombing attacks on Southern Lebanon last summer. We were not allowed to take photos of the UN post, but could fire away, so to speak, at the Israeli side. Wow.

The whole trip was made a bit bizarre by the fact that we were in a veritable convoy including a man, hired by our host, standing up through the sunroof of a car filming the whole thing. Besides the three ACS vehicles and the Army jeep in the lead there was the father's car and several others. We still didn’t realize this was a birthday bash.

After the border area we went to a beautiful spot along a river, where Tom joined the Lebanese soldiers and other locals in downing gulps of ice cold water from a waterfall (I declined). Then we were taken to a restored mill at another spot along the river. USAID and Mercy Corps had developed a museum at the 500 year old mill, which had been used to grind wheat.

Then it was time for lunch, only a couple of hours after the “snack” in the village. It was a restaurant at a beautiful spot along the river. Vast tables had been set. It was a traditional Lebanese “mezze”—plate after plate of delicious food to share. First a plate of pickles of various types and olives. Then humous, eggplant dip, salad, herbs with tomatoes, labne (yogurt cheese), fried cheese sticks, stuffed grape leaves, breaded balls of chopped lamb with garlic sauce, French fries (!), chicken, lamb tartare ( = raw!), small fried fish, and a few more I’ve forgotten. There was bottled water on the table but then they passed out Pepsi, orange soda, Seven Up, glasses of Johnny Walker red whiskey, arak (like ouzo) and beer to everyone, whether you really wanted it or not. Impossible to have a clean plate—you were immediately urged to eat more. I noticed a slim Lebanese lady across from me escape this threat by getting up and leaving the table several times… Then there was music---traditional Druze musicians in costume (white headdress like Saudi men wear, dark vests and dark trousers that are bulky in the crotch). First a lone singer with a one stringed instrument, who did a kind of musical improv singing praises to the host and various guest, including, of course, all of us foreigners who had deigned to visit them. Then the pace picked up and there was dancing. It was wonderful! The host (the father) danced with his mother, his daughters, his wife, even his two year old grandson, whose party it was. A line dance followed, and many of us joined in, including Tom and I. Later there was an Arabic rendition of Happy Birthday (familiar tune and including “Happy Birthday” in English at the appropriate moments), cake, and more luscious fresh fruit. A man in costume came around pouring “Arabic coffee” fragrant of cardamom, from a decorative pot (in Beirut all we’ve seen is Nescafe, though Tom did manage to find a pricy espresso yesterday). Another round of dancing (I want to get lessons!) and we made our goodbyes and took our sunburned selves off to the car.

Back to Beirut, losing the Army escort, passing through several checkpoints and across the Bekaa Valley, descending into the city from the north, its lights below and the Mediterranean beyond. An incredible day, and a marvelous place.

Other notes:
· Saw our first Lebanese stoplight last night, in Beirut
· Tried Lebanese wine, from one of the Bekaa Valley’s 17 wineries—not bad!
· We have a telephone—number is: 961 (that’s the country code) 1-355-132

Thursday, August 23, 2007

We're here!

We’re here!

Flying in, skimming over the Mediterranean, bit of orange haze in the air, apartment blocks, palm trees.

On the highway into town, billboards on either side of the freeway: one is Nasrullah, the head of Hezbollah, in a robe and turban; across from it is a man in a suit of the latest design from Paris.

The apartment is huge—maybe 1,000 square feet, three bedrooms, a balcony overlooking a quiet street and a hotel (The Mayflower) across the way. We are on the third floor, and use a small “lift” (holds three friendly people) that thankfully has an emergency call button. People are envious because we have so much space, are in a great shopping area, and have CENTRAL AIR CONDITIONING. The floors are gray marble, the walls freshly painted concrete, the furniture modern and all new. In fact everything is new—all the utensils, plates, broom, trash cans. They have even stocked the basics in the fridge and left a bag of essentials—soap, trash bags, matches, TP, cornflakes (!). There is a gas stove with 6 burners, a washer dryer, one full bath (incl. bidet)—shower has great water pressure YAY!--and two with toilet and sink. Cam better get here soon so we can justify all this space!

Downstairs we have a wonderful, smiling concierge named Mohammed—there at all hours. The building has no number, but a name (Shatila). The streets are, for the most part, not labeled either, or they may have names that change from block to block. Best to know landmarks to tell people the way. Traffic is rather thrilling, though the experienced can feel the flow and practice relatively safe pedestrianism. We are doing lots of walking. It is hot—40 ° C today (not sure exactly but body temp. is 37°…). But we hear that come September 1st it starts to cool down. The streets are surprisingly clean and also safe—women walk alone at night with no fear. And stores are open and people are out late—if you get invited to dinner it’s at 9 pm.

The school has kept both of us busy with orientation activities: meeting the 19 new teachers, meals out and at the school (GREAT FOOD!), including tonight on the rooftop with a sea view, walking tours, etc. They seem to be offering me (Kristine) a part-time job tutoring…I am considering it. I would be job sharing with another “trailing spouse,” amazingly also from Tacoma. She has a TESOL certificate and I keep pushing her as the more qualified, but they seem to think I can do the job as well. I do want to enroll in Arabic class, and the one at a French-speaking university sounds the most interesting. I may get to meet with the head of the UN Human Rights organization locally, too, and ask about jobs. The only thing that could possibly tempt me to do full-time is a UN position that fits. So I do want to check out that possibility. But English with little kids does sound really fun, too. And I have my wonderful RIFP colleagues to turn to for help on tutoring ideas! Please stay tuned…

It’s an incredible place. Beirut sits on 5,000 years of history. There are ruins galore to explore. Next weekend we go to a huge cave, where you can take a boat in at one end and a cable car to reach the other. We also go to the south of Lebanon to a farm in a disputed area where the Hezbollah are active. [Don’t worry—things are calm] We had to supply copies of our passports in advance so there would be no problem passing security checkpoints. We also were invited to a farmer’s market outside Beirut and a jazz club with an oud player, but those will have to wait. To say people are “resilient” seems so superficial—people have lived through so much. It makes them crazy and it makes them so very strong and deep. I feel so fortunate to meet them.

People speak Arabic as a first language but many also speak English or French. We have had no trouble getting around, except for getting quite lost the first day before we had a map and our bearings.

The women are stunningly beautiful. Maybe 30% wear headscarves. At the school, among the teachers there only two and both are new. The Elementary School principal remarked how wonderful it was to have scarved women teaching Arabic, as in the past this was forbidden at ACS. Now it is OK . And they are lovely—I am so glad to know them.

All for now!

Writing from Seatac

Writing from Seatac at the Air France gate, reflecting on what a wild 10 days we had before departure! It was a series of unexpected hurdles, punctuated by moments made magnificent by friends. Let’s see, the Friday before, Cam had lost his credit card. He was due to leave on a major trip to Africa this Friday at 6 a.m. At least he had his passport, which he’d had to overnight to Washington, D.C. the week before. We had gotten through Moving Sale #2, wherein not a lot had sold but a massive flow of STUFF downward and out to the garage had resulted, which was very positive. A steady outward flow ensued, with a parade of trips to various charities and the recycling place over the next week.

Monday we found out that UCLA did not grant Ben a parking permit. We had given him Tom’s Mazda, which we had driven to San Francisco, and parked at Aunt Margaret’s house awaiting his return from Zambia.

Tuesday we were honored by a wonderful gathering of friends at Laura and Greg Grimstad’s house. The food was excellent, the weather perfect, and it was small enough that you could really talk to everyone. What wonderful friends we have! More on that to come.

Because Cam’s credit card had been lost, the plane reservation for his flight from Africa to Beirut had not gone through, so we had to fax my credit card and ID to Ethiopian Airlines, Meanwhile, we were still waiting to hear back from Botswana about the safari the boys were planning to take. Numerous emails had gone unanswered. Ben and one of the other volunteers in the Zambian refugee camp were counting on Cam to arrange the trip, and only three days remained before Cam’s departure. Finally, on Wednesday, they responded. Cam had to get to the bank to wire money for the trip.

Wednesday we found out that both our car and homeowner’s insurance would be canceled. This despite assurances a month earlier that there would be no problem. So Ben not only has no parking but can’t tag on to our insurance, but he has a car loaded with his stuff in a city 8 hours drive from his school… We emailed him, sent the title to Aunt Margaret, and wished them well in finding some solution to that dilemma. With five days to go before we left for Beirut, there was nothing more we could do. As for our van, we debated trying to sell it, but decided to leave it in the garage and try to reinstate the insurance next summer, cancelling it when we leave again. As for the house insurance, we were referred to an agent for renter’s insurance, which we got, at nearly twice the former rate, requiring a trip to Seattle, avoiding the closure of multiple lanes of I-5, to deliver a power of attorney, which we had to formulate, along with pictures of the house, and other documents. We were treated to dinner by the Kirbawys. Lovely time at East West Café.

More than once, friends stopped by with gifts of packing boxes and offers to help. Honestly, if you every need to know how rich you are, leave a place and see how your friends turn out to support you! It’s been just amazing.

On Thursday we sold the Toyota. I felt as if I was moving in circles, but the shelves were becoming more bare and the six bins we were packing in were filling, so I must have been accomplishing something. Cam’s credit card arrived, 18 hours before his departure. Ben called from Zambia and was shocked at the price of the safari, much higher than quoted. The woman who had wanted to go with them couldn’t afford it at that price. Calls and emails to Zambia. Thursday evening we went to dinner with Cam’s friend Sam’s family and his new girlfriend Jessie. Another lovely time!

Friday we woke at 3:00 A.M. to propel Cam to the airport for his 6 am flight. Allowing 1 ½ hours was not sufficient; Tom watched Cam sprint down the hallway to the gate, clutching his bag and his pants, with five minutes to spare before departure. He made it, we found out, because he called us at 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning from Johannesburg, when his credit card didn’t work. Saturday. The bank wouldn’t open until Monday. In his first days there, he was going through all the back up cash he had brought for his two month trip in Africa.

Saturday morning three of Cam’s friends came to move the furniture to the second floor. It took them two hours. Saturday afternoon the Ukrainian refugee ladies took over, cleaning for three hours. But there was still alot to do.

Sunday afternoon the Hunters stopped by to bring us treats, help if they could, and say goodbye. Shortly afterwards the dishwasher refused to drain and Tom got out the snake.
No luck. Kris still feverishly packing. Laura Grimstad called to see if we would like to have pizza, and could they help in any way? Her timing was exquisite… Laura called for pizza and the marines: Greg and Laura and Greg and Amy all came. Tom went to rent an electric snake, and all went to work on the clogged drain, packing, deep cleaning of the of the kitchen, weighing the 10 suitcases we were taking (up to 80 lbs!), and more. It was fun, and magical too, to have to many helping hands. We really couldn’t have made it out the door without all the help.

Monday we were greeted at 8:00 with hot coffee and pastries by Amy Hunter, Angel in training. At 9:01 we were at the bank, getting Cam’s situation straightened out. At 11:00 Kevin Grimstad loaned his muscles power to weigh the bags. Only one came in under 50 pounds so the jettisoning began: out went the chess set, the Thai food and the crayons. Next it was the big French dictionary and the snowshoes. Ah, but this allowed room for my pillow and Harry Potter.

Off to the airport, Laura our chauffeur. Hard to believe we actually made it! And all 12 bins and bags fit in the car. Things went very well at the airport. They didn’t charge us for overweight bags. Laura captured our last US moments on camera, and we headed off to security, where we and our carryon bags were thoroughly searched. I guess it was the Beirut destination. Or maybe the sleep deprived look.

Huge sigh of relief getting on the airplane. Charles de Gaule airport in Paris, sprawling, crowded and yet chic—so French. More to come……..

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Packing up

We are getting ready to go. Kristine had the most incredible send-off from her colleagues, students, and former students at RIFP (Refugee and Immigrant Family Program, Tacoma Community House). A once in a lifetime experience. Treasured memories to take along to Beirut.

The house is rented, boxes are starting to obstruct the pathways in every room, and Air France tickets are in hand for August 20th.