Wednesday, August 20, 2008

UNWRA revisited

A few days after returning from the States, my former colleague at UNRWA (that’s the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), contacted me. She was seconded by the Danish Refugee Council for a management role in rebuilding Nahr el-Bared, the camp that was destroyed by fighting (and, later, looting) last year. We had worked together up until I left UNRWA in June, though I had a different boss. She called me to ask, nay—to beg—me to come back just for the month of August, to work with her up in Tripoli. She would be leaving then as well, and she had many projects in the works that she needed help finishing up. All sounded interesting: a newsletter for the refugees, training some field staff in making project proposals and writing reports, working with the camp information officers. All up in Tripoli, so none of the Beirut office madness to deal with. And all with her, a friend, someone well organized, with good communication skills and always working with a team approach in mind. Respectful. Fun. And—amaingly--all during the month-long vacation of my former boss, a well-meaning but badly organized micro-manager who moves at 100 mph at all times and who regularly fails to pass on important information to people affected by it, inspiring the trust of no-one and leaving a trail of unhappy campers in his wake.

Soooooo, Tom and I talked it over, and I decided to go for it. It is certainly nice to be begged to work! I do also have a short-term editing job for AUB (American University of Beirut), but I can continue that work at a slower pace on evenings and weekends while working with UNRWA in August. Come September I will be back to editing with the laptop on the balcony, but for now here I am in Tripoli.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Aleppo Trip

We dashed to Syria for a quick trip, to take advantage of the visas the school had gotten for us back in May, as an avenue to for a possible emergency exit. The visas cost us $100 and last only three month; it was now or never. We went north this time, to Aleppo, with several stops on the way.

We took a bus from Beirut to the border, where a car and driver named Zacharia were waiting for us. As the places we wanted to see were fairly remote and somewhat difficult to reach by public transportation, we had arranged for the private car for two days.

First was Krak de Chevaliers. The best preserved Crusader castle in the world. It was given up without a fight about 800 years ago,
and hasn’t changed all that much since. Two questions sprang to mind: how did people get up to the castle at the top of the hill (1000 feet or more) with all those building materials (huge stones)? And, how did guys in full armor make it up the steep staircases inside the castle? Glad we had been advised (and remembered) to bring a flashlight; we were able to explore dark passageways and deep pits. It has a great moat, still filled with water.

We skipped Saladin’s Castle, not all that eager for the climb in the afternoon heat.

Our first night’s stop was at Hama, a lovely town known both for it’s wooden waterwheels and also for the massacre of 800 people committed by Hafez Assad’s troops in1982 an effort to stop a rebellion. Let’s talk about the waterwheels! They are huge--20 – 60 yards in diameter—and were formerly used to pump water into an aqueduct system to irrigate crops. Now mostly they provide local color, and some water to a city garden. The technology dates back to the 5th century, but the earliest of the existing ones are merely 14th century… They make an amazing, groaning sound as they turn—really loud! Tom says it reminds him of the sound large wooden ships make. As we walk through this lovely, picturesque city, when I first hear the noise I think “generator”, because this is what we hear in Lebanon each day when the power goes out. But instead it is this other man made sound from another century. Apparently, an expert can diagnose any mechanical issue with the wheel just by listening to the sound it makes as it turns. Reading about them before seeing them, I had pictured scoops or paddles on the end of each beam, but there are none—just 20 or so boards hitting the water, one after the other.

The next day, driving, we see in Syria: brown, a lot of rocks, concrete buildings. Primarily agricultural. Fields ringed with sunflowers. Poor, but not wanting—simple poor. Bedouins herding sheep, living in tents. The ubiquitous poster of Bashir Assad, smiling and waving.

I notice quite a few people with blue and green eyes , and find it arresting. Maybe it’s the contrast between olive-tone skin and light eyes, or maybe it is because they seem to be ringed with a dark outline somehow. Assad has blue eyes.

Afamia (also called Apamea)—ruins of an ancient city. More Western tourists than we’ve seen at any site in Lebanon—kind of stunning to think that they apparently feel safer coming to Syria than to Lebanon.Afamia was founded in early 3rd century by a former general in Alexander the Great’s army. It was supposedly home to 30,000 mares, 3,000 stallions and 500 “war elephants,” in addition to 500,000 people, 380,000 of whom were slaves… Mark Anthony and Cleopatra visited. It was seized by Pompey for the Romans in 64 BC. The site features a 2 km long main street lined with colonnades and remains (mostly cannibalized for local building projects over the centuries) of what was the largest Roman theater in the eastern empire.

On to the Dead Cities. There are 500 towns, all deserted 15 centuries ago—no one knows why. We visit Serjilla, the one with the greatest number of semi-complete buildings. Some buildings are still intact, a few others have been rebuilt. Lots that are standing are two stories tall, with archways supporting the second floor. Here is Tom with an olive press in a Serjilla house.

We end the day in Aleppo. Pulling in to town we see lots of rusty satellite dishes. We stay in a hotel inside the old city, right next to Aleppo’s famed souk (covered market)--see photo.

Next day we visit the Aleppo citadel. Very impressive, perched atop the highest point in the city. Tom says it is reminiscent of Ali Baba where they show the seat of power. Smooth, sloping walls
repelled would-be invaders, along with the moat (now dry) and a zigzag entryway. The Aga Khan Foundation restored the enormous throne room (photos) of the citadel—amazing.

Later, in a pastry shop: Just short of garish, walls lined with beveled glass, ceiling (metal?) with gold painmted outlines. Lights encased in clear plastic baubles strung together in flower shapes. Two veritable trees growing in pots against the windows. They serve a special sweet (halewa) here—soft dough encasing soft, mild cheese, over which sugar syrup is poured and chopped pistachios sprinkled. We tried it yesterday; today we have just tea, unfortunately Lipton’s, when we had been hoping for Syrian chai. Oh well.

Quick trip! We board a cushy air-conditioned bus bound for Beirut. I will get off in Tripoli.

Choice signs seen from the bus:

Par King
Beachy Eargasm
Pop Lava

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Saturday trip to the market

Every Saturday there is an organic farmer’s market in downtown Beirut. Today we walked there, a nice 30 – 40 minute stroll (despite the 90+ degree sun and humidity) through Martyr’s Square—the former park-like area that became the bombed out “green line” of the civil war, and Solidere—the painstakingly restored lovely buildings that had also been decimated by war.

Here are photos along the way.

As we set out, the end of our street.

And about 5 minutes later, Tom and another typical streetscape.

A typical bit of sidewalk (left, below). One must always be alert to dips, holes, protrusions and a full array of potential obstacles. Makes life interesting.

Next, downtown, photo below left shows tops of church and mosque next to each other (with a protruding street light, unfortunately). Then (right) can you see two guys painting the top of the Hariri mosque?

In the downtown area, that was off limits for 18 months when Hezbollah and allies set up tent camps in protest over who-cares-now-what, we pass by ruins of extensive roman baths, that are right below Parliament. The ruins are in a railed enclosure, in a park-like setting. Photo on left shows Parliament building above the ruins.

At the market! We buy lucious peaches, some dubious corn (we never see it here), and cold melon juice to go. Usually I get lovely lettuce here but we have just been to the French supermarket and picked up lettuce, so I pass. Of course we have to carry what we buy, so we show some restraint.

We head back. We pass the remains of the old Sheraton hotel--tall thin block in the center, below---that found itself in the middle of the civil war. Don't know why it hasn't been torn down, though we hear it is still apparently structurally sound. Full of holes from various armaments.

And a bombed out church, a remnant of the civil war.

Another city view.

And we are home:

T on the balcony--