Tuesday, September 30, 2008

End of Ramadan

What happens (as far as we know)...

In the morning you wake up (presumably after the best night’s sleep you’ve had all month because you didn’t need to wake up at 4:00 am to eat your only meal for the day), have a small meal, put on your best clothes and go to the mosque, where you make a big donation of food for the poor, and recite a certain prayer. At least that’s what I read--haven’t talked to anyone about this aspect of the holiday. We do know that after that part, it is important to spend time with your family, and that everything shuts down for two days. We see many many deliveries of flowers and candy being made, mostly by motorbike (equipped with enclosed shelf units), but also by car and by foot. We give the concierge a big tip (~ $30), and enjoy the relative quiet of the day. An old man on the street wishes us Merry Christmas. Our health club sports a big bouquet of flowers and we are handed a card bearing “Happy Fotor” (end of Ramadan, spelled in interesting manner). We hear the occasional fireworks--fine, until there comes an M-80 or something, which is just too similar to the RPGs of last May for comfort.

I was surprised to hear that Rosh Hashanah is the very same day. It just amazes me that people’s spiritual beliefs, so similar in so many ways, are the basis for so much horrendous violence.

So until next year, when Ramadan will come about 10 days earlier.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Late September

The weather has mellowed and it’s lovely. We are down to 2 showers a day! It is 80° F and 54 % humidity. Speaking of showers, it rained for the first time since March (?), maybe April, last week. The new ACS teachers showed no sympathy for excited students who rushed to the window to watch it.

I had to temporarily suspend my hanging of laundry out the window, an activity that still causes me some heart-fluttering moments as I stretch out the waist-high fourth floor window to reach the third and fourth line out. Having (temporarily) lost various articles to cheap clothespins or the wind in the past, prompting a trip to the thankfully patient neighbors on floor three or to the concierge on the ground floor, as a matter of principle I always use two pins on the underwear…

Anyway the rain was nice. It did. However, postpone a planned hike in the cedars, complete with home cooked meal in a village and an invitation to participate in harvesting apples. Hopefully, next week.

Eid--the end of Ramadan--will be this week. It is a mystery to me why the exact date can’t be known in advance. It has to do with spotting the new moon--wouldn’t you think you could predict the date of the moon’s appearance? Anyway, Tom’s school had been given Wednesday - Friday off, and it now is thought that the holiday will actually be on Tuesday--so he gets that off too! We are going to rent a car for the first time (always new thrills to be faced in life, eh?) and visit the one corner of the country we have not yet seen--Hermel, up in the north east. Wish us luck--we will be taking the main Beirut-Damascus highway over to the Bekaa Valley.

One more Ramadan note: for us wimpy old foreigners, one good thing about this month is that dining with Lebanese friends is at such a reasonable hour for us: 6:30, sunset. Ordinarily the hour of choice is 8:00 or 9:00 pm. A weird culture mix: Hard Rock Café for iftar (fast breaking meal). Tom had a cheeseburger.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Neighborhood sightings

Here is Tom up on the roof of our building. You can see a few of the many wires that are draped about, but not the flock of satellite dishes. Full moon rising behind Tom, over the Mediterranean.

(Other) intriguing sights spotted recently:

  • A sign for "Aquatic Fish" (and, uh, what other kind?)
  • "Ancestor Roastery" (oh dear)
  • "Soviet Italian jeans" (huh?)
  • sheep brains on the menu (oh, ICK!)
  • "Brood" malt beverage, 0% alcohol (no comment)

And FYI, the big supermarkets are called "hyper markets" here. Still not as big as Fred Meyer.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hike and another Ramadan note

Hiked today at Baskinta, right in the middle of the country, about an hour's drive from Beirut, on the "Literary Trail," which honors several famous Lebanese writers who are from the area. (Note: the Lebanese writer most famous in the West is probably Khalil Gibran, who has his own museum further north). It was an 11 km hike (6.8 miles).

Baskinta is a beautiful, sheltered valley, below Sannine mountain--we could clearly see where we had gone snow-shoeing last winter, above the tree line. The guide told us that Sannine mountain was 2600 meters (8500 feet).

We got very near to one of the Roman-carved stones from Emporer Hadrian's day, telling people which trees not to cut. The first recorded ecology laws! But we couldn't get close enough to see it or take a decent photo because of all the bee hives right in front. It is Fall and honey harvest time, and the bees are very active. Here is a new sign about it anyway, one of a number along the 440 kilometer Lebanon Mountain Trail that runs most of the length of the country, and financed in large part by USAID (yay--your tax dollars going for something constructive!)

We passed many fruit trees, apple, apricot, pear, and figs. Heavy bunches of grapes. I had a magical experience in the fig department. The group had come across two wild fig trees, with smallish purple figs. I had two or three, careful to pick out ones that were not on their way to being dried or had broken skin indicating insect activity. They were very nice. BUT a few steps further down the path, as I waited for a lady in front of me to negotiate a steep bit of trail, I noticed just to my left another fig bush. It bore much larger, green figs. Just at my eye level was the fattest, juiciest, fresh fig I have ever seen. A tiny bit of foam was coming out of the bottom, so juicy in the sun. Another hour later perhaps it would have been spoiled, but at this moment it was perfect, at the pinnacle of ripeness. Orbits have their apogee, Bhuddists have Zen, and there was This Fig. It was so calling to me. I plucked it, and the violins began to play. A harp chimed in. A cool breeze gently filled the valley. The sun's rays sparkled. Yes, dear reader, it was very, very good.

Down the steep valley walls into the valley floor we trekked. Here is our guide Georges, sitting on what long ago (several hundred years?) a section of a carved stone pipe line carrying water from the mountain top to the valley, to turn massive flat grinding stones that ground grain into flour.


Apres hiking, and back in Beirut, we went out to dinner at a chain restaurant called Kababji , this one about 8 blocks from our apartment. When we walked in at around 6:15 p.m. the place was empty but all the tables were set with not only plates and silverware, but condiment trays (olives, radishes, dill pickles, hot peppers, fresh mint sprigs), a basket of bread, and a small plate of dates--the traditional fast-breaking food, ready for the customers that would arrive to eat their first meal since sunrise this Ramadan day. They made up a table for us, the lone customers, complete with the dates. A few minutes later another (Christian) couple arrived and were similarly taken care of. By the end of our meal, other people were starting to come in. Within 10 minutes the place had filled. The call to prayer came over the PA at the time of sunset, 6:36 pm. Waiters poured water for everyone. Still no one drank or ate. Restaurant staff were taking orders like mad and seemed well prepared for this, an iftar about two weeks in to the month of Ramadan. Finally, as we left, people were eating and drinking--the call to prayer at an end.

As we walked home, we heard the call to prayer from another mosque. The people hearing that one had had to fast a little longer...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Another Ramadan note

Several nights we have awoken to a kind of town crier, walking along the streets beating a drum, alerting the neighborhood that it was time to eat something before sunrise. Apparently he is dressed in traditional Arab garb. The tone of his chant is quite lovely and touching somehow--it’s like time-to-get-up-and-see-what Santa-has-brought-for-you! One of Tom’s colleagues (Canadian) told us last year in her neighborhood she heard this call every single night of Ramadan, at about 3:30 am. After Ramadan the man came door to door asking for tips for the service. She was definitely not of a mind to tip him, however.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Pronounced ‘RamaDAN”, we are into the second week now. Some stores and most offices have shorter hours, some restaurants don’t serve alcohol this month, and many offer special “iftar” (fast-breaking, evening) multi-course meals. Most schools delayed their starting days this year to October 6th, after Ramadan.

My classmate and I were commiserating with our Arabic teacher about how hard it must be for her to go without eating and drinking all day. But she said, no, it wasn’t hard, it was a special, magical kind of time and that she loves Ramadan. It is a spiritual time, where one feels closer to God, and when good things you have done through the year may come back to you. People make donations to charity, and surprising and wonderful things happen. She told us about her cousin, who’d had her purse taken from her car. Nothing happened the first day after, but the second day one relative gave her a new wallet, another new makeup, and her boss gave her twice the amount of money that had been in the purse. The teacher gave someone some money and two days later found the exact amount she had given in a place she had forgotten she had it. A couple of days ago a chef in the south opened an oyster and found 24 pearls inside.

Tom says he notices that people he work with who are usually very outgoing but who are fasting this month are quite subdued, and the whole air around the school is kind of quiet. Once Ramadan is over, they bust out and things get back to normal.

One person told me that if you are taking medicine you are exempt from fasting. Diabetics on insulin are exempt, but not other diabetics. Some elementary school children even fast. My teacher told me that women having their period don’t have to fast, but have to make up the days they didn’t fast during Ramadan over the next year. Seems like that would be even harder, being the only one around with no energy or sleep. (You can’t eat or drink from sunup to sundown, so people get up at 4 am to eat.) Our coffee guy won't drink coffee in public--he is not fasting but he doesn't want the whole world to know it.

Tom gets three days off for Eid al Fatr (sp?), the end of Ramadan. We are planning to go to an area of the country we haven't seen before, and will be renting a car to get there. Car rental fees go up for Eid...

Ramadan gets almost a month earlier every year. Next year it will be in the height of summer’s long, hot days.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Today I went to the big grocery store, a 12 minute walk. For years the store was Monoprix, a French owned store with many French as well as local products. Recently, however, a Kuwaiti firm bought the chain, at least all the stores in Lebanon. Gone was the Monoprix name, replaced by something unmemorable like ITS or something. Even the logo is icky.

At first we noticed the inexpensive French wines dwindling, and the odd product we had come to appreciate, there no more. Today I noticed a definite increase in American products, at a price: a pint of Ben & Jerry's for $10, and frozen Boca Burgers for $6.50. But it's still so Lebanese: I wanted to buy a bag of organic purple beans, but at checkout I was told that "there was no code" and I couldn't buy them. This after the person bagging ran to the produce counter to confer with staff there. "You can buy it tomorrow," the clerk told me. I had to pay for the other things, leave my bags with a worker at the door, go back in and select a different type of beans.

Last week I led two small groups of new ACS teachers on a shopping tour of Hamra (our neighborhood). It was fun! It had meant so much to me last year when Carol Easton led me around, I wanted to offer newcomers something similar. This time we hit the Beirut Health Food Store, an unlikely place to buy pillows (a uniform store), a Palestinian craft store, a nut store with a very sweet owner (who had just finished roasting before the power went out--and the almonds were still warm-mmmm!), a deli with fresh baked and frozen baguettes, the post office (hidden on the second floor of a building), a liquor store, the "in" coffee shop (hard to find), a tailor, a famous pastry shop, a grocery store that stays open later than others, the "500 store" = dollar store, and a huge clothing store called El Dorado that goes on and on down various staircases in a bewildering array of garish display areas and deadends. And of course I showed them Mr. Haj, our lovely vegetable seller, who may not have the variety that indoor stores have, but who has the best prices, a ready smile, and will never cheat you. His canteloupes ($1 max) are always dynamite--we eat an entire one for dessert almost every day...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Two classic days

A couple of typical days for us in Lebanon--

YESTERDAY another hike in a gorgeous gorge
TODAY a few minor tasks involve hours of complicated and mysterious maneuvering and numerous dead ends

Less than an hour from Beirut, off the Tripoli highway and down narrow, winding roads edging a drop into a precipice that cradles Nahr Ibrahim (Ibrahim River). Tree lined and shaded, a wonderful break from Beirut. The hike was quite steep, and the way unfortunately littered with trash—much more than other hikes we’ve taken. But the spot was lovely, and the best was yet to come: a swim in a cool, green lake (well, for Tom anyway—the water temp. plus the idea of diving off a high rock in full view of all our group dissuaded me) . There were people camping by the river—the first campers we’ve seen in Lebanon. And a sizable garbage dump full of plastic bags. Sigh.

After returning from the States a month ago, I had been a good girl and sought out a doctor for a pap smear and mammogram—no doubt two of every woman’s most favorite activities ever. Then suddenly I was back working at UNRWA, and mammogram and bone density tests were put off until today.

The mammogram appointment was for 9:00. Proud of finding my way down the winding basement corridor of American University Hospital, with no signs for “Mammography”, I arrive at 9:01. To the cashier first, I was told. Another hall and around a corner. Cashier examines my referral paperwork and tell me it has expired and I must go back to the doctor’s office for new papers. “But my appointment is at 9:00!” I say. “Sorry”. I can’t remember exactly where the doctor’s office is. In the hospital there is a bank of 4 elevators. They are all on the 5th or 6th floor—with a dozen people waiting on 1. Do all four rush to wherever the next person pushes the button? Could be, its Lebanon. Later I notice some elevators have several chairs next to them; I understand why. I make my way to the building adjacent to the hospital. Here there are only two elevators for the busy seven floor building of clinics, and only one working. There is no directory of doctors and I can’t remember which floor. I try asking; no one knows. Half an hour, endless corridors, three elevator rides, and an accidental trip through ICU, I find the doctor’s office. The secretary says, “I just have to change the date”, she says. “You mean I could have changed the date myself?!” I bellow, Ugly American that I am. “I have to stamp it too.” OK—the stamp. Back to the hospital basement, fast when you know the way (or guess right, as I did). As I wait for the cashier, the person before me tries to pay for a 35,000 ($23) charge with a 50,000 ($33) note. The cashier has no change.

When it is my turn I have to wait for 10 minutes for them to verify my insurance. Then its back to the mammography office: its 10:45! But they take me right away. A scarved lady manhandles me and tells me afterward that all is well—no waiting days for radiology to make a pronouncement here!


1. Google comes up in Lithuanian here! Amazing, since it is on another continent 1,000 miles and at least six countries away.

2. Visiting Nahr el Bared refugee camp on my last day with UNRWA. It is only the third visit I have made here in my 8 months of working toward the reconstruction of the camp. This is actually the “Adjacent Area’ of the destroyed camp, as demining and rubble removal have yet to take place in the actual camp. Here, inhabited buildings alternate with bombed out ones, and bullet holes mark many structures. The roads are pitted and passable only at a very slow speed. There is nothing green to be seen. We have to pass a Lebanese Army checkpoint and present our UN IDs to enter.

In this forgotten, broken down place, a terrible place to live, we find the incredible shining star of PYCI--the Palestinian Children and Youth Institute’s center and program and its gentle, smiling coordinator, Nassim. He started by organizing games in the street for kids in the neighborhood. Now, with funds from Save the Children Sweden, and, thanks to my current boss, UNRWA, he runs a brightly painted, modest and wholly welcoming 5 room center. He doesn’t advertise. On the first day of the summer activities program 72 children showed up. By day 6 there were 350, then 500. Activities are well organized. We see photos of kids peering in the windows into the classroom, waiting for their chance to participate. Other photos show a 6 foot wading pool with 15 children in it, so happy. 15 6 – 12 year olds where we might have a couple of toddlers! Outside we notice bullet holes on the second floor; the first floor where the center is has had its holes filled and painted. Nassim tells us that the center is open from 8 am for morning activities, free play in the afternoon, and then teens come in the evening. “How late is it open?”, I ask. “’Til 11:00”. “What hours are you here?”, I ask. “All the time”, he smiles. “This is where I relax. These are my people.” Amazing.

3. Also my last day, two sweet Palestinian ladies I have worked with give me earrings in the colors of the Palestinian flag. I give one a pair of my favorite earrings in return. So many of us "internationals" are leaving our jobs here; the Palestinians have no choice but to stay.