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.