Friday, March 27, 2009

Refugee kids

At first our Thursday group of volunteers just spent time reading books with kids in the refugee camp. It was hard to find books that didn’t have too many pictures or subjects that were completely alien to life in the camp: houses, grass, parks, zoos, or even igloos. Now we have moved on from books and I spend time dreaming up lessons plans, perusing the internet for ESL games, and having similar problems. A number of activities involve using objects in the classroom--maps, clocks, even books--there are none of these.

Someone took a photo of one activity I found that was a hit” “My Grandmother (Tata) is going on a trip and in her suitcase she is bringing something beginning with letter A”, B, C. etc.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Trip to hell, a wedding and a funeral

Hell’s Valley (Wadi Jhennam), so called because from the top it looks like you can see into the bowels of the earth. It is around 200 meters (650 feet) deep and the valley walls are very steep. A river runs through it, with falls this time of year. It is some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen here.

At left are flowering peach trees in the valley. And Tom heading down the trail.

A smiling old man (our guide says he is poor in life but rich in heart) offers the entire group tea.

The views are stunning. This is probably the most remote hike we’ve been on, and one of the longest at 13 km (8 miles). We drove along the coast north all the way past Tripoli (and Nahr el Bared Refugee Camp) before turning inland, not far from the Syrian border, and about 2 1/2 hours from Beirut (including the obligatory stop for fresh baked snacks--yum).

Drinking tea in small plastic cups at the man’s house, we hear music coming from further up the valley. It is a wedding. We walk on, toward the music, and see (and hear) the wedding party crowded on a rooftop. There is Lebanese line dancing (dabke). We pass by the bride and groom’s getaway car and I notice rice sprinkled on the seats.
Aside from the one tiny village and the wedding party, it is quiet and we see no other people. The valley walls are beautifully terraced in spots, reminding us of a human presence somewhere. Otherwise it felt unusually remote and untouched.

The day before, Tom and I volunteered at Bourj Barajneh Refugee Camp, substituting for ACS teachers who had started short-term English conversation classes there but were off on a field trip this day. Here is Tom with his class.

And this is outside the Women’s Center building where we taught.

On the way out, walking to the ACS bus (because the roads are too narrow for vehicles inside the camp) we hear drums and bagpipes--yes, bagpipes--and soon see crowds, in fact become surrounded by crowds as the head our way. It is a funeral procession. Behind the bagpipes are banners of some military group, followed by the flower- and Palestinian flag-draped casket. We feel quite awkward to be intruding, but the road is narrow and there is no place to disappear.

Curious signage of the week:

  • Top Tapis (“tapis” is French for rug)
  • Wedding Planer (we see dozens of billboards with this on it)
  • International Teaching High School

The Ball, and Wrong About Spring

We got talked in to the St. Patrick’s Day Ball at the Movenpick Hotel. We were warned that Tom should wear a suit or tux, but decided that the only sport coat we brought from the States would have to do. I was thankful for the designer top sister Margaret gave me last Christmas. We live fairly simply and weren’t inclined to buy fancy duds for the one evening. I did splurge on manicure and pedicure (hey, it was my birthday treat) and a pair of fancy stockings. Alas, the manicure shot is the only one I have to share as in my haste to get to the ball (pumpkin syndrome?) I neglected to bring the camera along. [Small factoid: what we call a "French manicure", which is also called a "French manicure" in Beirut though people are more likely to speak French than English (so why not "manicure francais"??) is basically unknown in France. How do these things start?]

The Movenpick is right on the Mediterranean, and a short taxi ride for us. We wanted a “service” taxi, the type that picks up multiple passengers and may not go directly to your destination, but costs only 2000 Lira ($1.33). Generally these are ancient Mercedes, with multiple bash marks and, often, assorted colored fenders. But this was our magical night at the ball, and we happened to get a cushy, newer service, and arrived in style.

In the outer hall outside the banquet room, waiters circulated with trays of shrimp and salmon canap├ęs, and gin tonics, wine and champagne. I passed on the champagne, memories of next day headaches from bubbly white wine masquerading as the real thing, but when a French friend later asked why I declined a waiter’s offer of the bubbly and I saw that the bottle was actually Moet Chandon, I dove in.

There must have been several hundred people there. Lots from the British Isles. People were well dressed but relaxed, having fun. Robert Fiske came in blue jeans and a rumpled sweater; if you are that famous the dress code apparently does not apply.

There was a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream on each table. A four course meal was served around 11 pm. We had to remind ourselves it was fundraiser. We never did actually learn what the funds were for…

A band imported from Ireland didn't start until after dinner and played only one set--perhaps too busy with all the alcohol? But no one seemed to care, as canned dance music played and dozens of people danced, including a happy nun in full habit, and us (which is probably what saved us from hangover). When we left at 1 am the party was still going.

I was wrong about Spring, at least this year. We have now had several weeks of coolish (~65 F) weather with occasional showers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Israel Floods Lebanese Fields with Rainwater

The small article below, too typical, colored my day today. Yesterday I went to a lecture at AUB (American Univeristy of Beirut) by a Harvard professor who spoke of the long-range plans in place that reduce Palestine to a charity case. I hope you heard about the "macaroni incident" there? [John Kerry, on a recent visit to Gaza, learned that Isreal had forbidden a Mercy Coprs shipment of pasta to enter. It seems pasta (along with crayons and tomato paste) are not essential and therefore suspect. Perhaps it could be used to "shell" Israel? Anyway, it took an intervention by Sec. Clinton to release the shipment]

"Israel deliberately flooded Lebanese farmlands with excess rainwater from an Israeli orchard, located off the southern town of Mais al-Jabal early Tuesday, ruining crops and properties.The Lebanese Army and UNIFIL dispatched teams to look into the incident, which drew protests from the southern residents.Tuesday's flooding is part of a systematic practice by the Israeli authorities to turn the highly-fertile land into swamps by channeling rainwater into the fields via trenches, which were dug for that purpose. The Lebanese Army and UNIFIL have tried to block the water channels to protect the crops.Separately, UNIFIL's media coordinator, Dalia Farran, reiterated calls for Israel to hand over official maps detailing where the Israeli army dropped cluster bombs during the July 2006 offensive."

Beirut, 17 Mar 09, 15:57

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Beirut Spring and Rachaya

Two months of rainy days end abruptly with blazing sun and dazzling blue skies. The temperature goes from 60 to 80 in one day. And mounts from there the next six months… We may not see rain again until after that. In fact the word in Arabic for “winter” is the same as for “rain” = “shitte”. One local friend said last week she planned to change her Facebook status to “Tired of all this shitte”.

Sunny Sunday morning we wait on Hamra Street to board the bus that will take us to southeastern Lebanon for a hike. An “80% off” sign draws me to peer in to a women’s clothing shop window. I judge a couple of items to be “not too bad”. I realize that the decision on whether enter such a shop is proportional to how long one has been in Lebanon (or how soon one expects to visit the US or Europe). Spangle level is not something I have to think about in the States.


We had been looking forward to this hike, which had been twice postponed because of rain. It is in the south, close to Syria and not far from the Golan Heights. The brochure covering the section of the Lebanon Mountain Trail we will hike tells us we might see “India fig” and “Palestine pistachio” trees.

This is Druze country. Men is (mostly) black with white caps and distinctive baggy pants. Women in black or dark blue shirts and long skirts, with flowing white cotton scarves. [The camera batteries finally died or I would have included more pix, sorry]

Mt. Hermon rises above the rocky hills and valley dotted with grape vines, almond trees and the occasional herd of goats. Mt. Hermon is the border with Syria in this part of the country, and temporary (well, sort of) home to German an Austrian UN soldiers on patrol. Two photos, the one on the left, not by me…

Wish I could have shared a photo of the red and purple flowers we passed amidst the orchards.

The town of Rachaya is lovely, with red tile roofs. (Another borrowed photo on the left)

Rachaya is definitely off the [lightly] beaten tourist track, about 2 hours drive from Beirut. As we neared the high bridge destroyed by the Israelis in the 2006 invasion, I see a sign I hadn't noticed before near some construction equipment: A gift from the American People. Well, a good gift to be sure, but one that would have been quite unecessary had we not previously gifted the bombs to Israel.

I can't resist sharing another few choice signs (mostly shops) spotted on the way:

  • Swear Sweet
  • Countryside Girl
  • Lebanese Canadian Modern School
  • Natural Center for Ever Living
  • Pizza Hot

And I few others I had jotted down from the previous trip to the north:

  • War Games Sale Talk
  • Top Human
  • Old Age Wood
  • Basket In
  • Mega Snack

Monday, March 2, 2009

Baalbek and the snow

Over the Lebanese mountain pass, heading to the astounding Roman ruins at Baalbek. our hired taxi has to stop to put snow chains on--a first for us and once-a-year type event. A flock of handy souls populate the police stop after which chains are required, ready to sell you a set, and/or to put them on for you, for a price.

We get to see the Temple of Jupiter in the snow--not a common sight. Here is new teacher Lauren from Texas, experiencing her first snow fall ever (while apparently about to be devoured). The temple is an enormous 290 X 160 feet, set on a podium 40 feet above the surrouding terrain and 22 feet above the courtyard--the largest religious building ever constructed by the Romans. It was built on top of gigantic pre-Roman stone blocks, some of which are 60 feet long, 14 feet high, and 12 feet deep, weighing 1000 tons! It is a big mystery how they were carved and placed there.

Here is Tom next to a couple of the remaining pillars, with the smaller Temple of Bacchus in the background. Bacchus, actually a temple to Venus, is the best preserved Roman temple in the world. So many gems in Lebanon! A good deal of the overhead bits between the outer columns and the outside wall of the temple are still in place, and feature carvings of famous people, notably Cleopatra (complete with asp).

The site was used as a holy place long before the Romans. The Phoenicians worshipped here at the time of Solomon.

We then went to on to Anjar, snow changing to rain. Anjar is one of the few known Umayyad cities, from the 8th century AD. The Umayyads were the first Moselm dynasty, and came to rule an empire from southern France to the Indus River.

We were frozen, and headed from there to yet another fabulous mezze meal at a nearby restaurant. The surrounding town of Anjar is home to thousands of Armenian refugees from Turkey, resettled in 1939.