Friday, May 7, 2010

Adventures in Al-Shem, Part 1: Beirut, Lebanon

I woke up bleary-eyed after a night of dancing at Yacout, Rabat’s best (and only?) Sub-saharan-themed dance club (awesome live band!). Some of us FBers had decided to celebrate the end of the Symposium by a night of Hoot-dances and impromptu karaoke (I Will Survive, of course). But no sooner had I kicked off my dancin’ shoes then I was awake again, in time to catch an early flight that would take me, eventually, to Beirut.

I was one of the Moroccan Fulbrighters chosen to participate in a “Middle East/North Africa Region Fulbright Enrichment Seminar” held in Amman, the capitol of Jordan. (The FBers not chosen to go to Amman will be hosting the other Enrichment Seminar, held this year in Rabat). I decided to profit from the SD-paid plane ticket to do some traveling beforehand. So 4 other traveling companeros and I flew to Beirut, and traveled over land through Syria and Jordan, eventually ending up in Amman.

I have never been to that part of the world, on that side of the Jordan River, and let me tell ya, it was so incredibly different than North Africa.

First, Beirut is a cosmopolitan city, set on the Mediterranean Coast. I was surprised to find so many English-speakers and bars and nightclubs and art exhibits. We checked in to the (highly-recommended) Talal Hotel in the hip Gemmayze quarter of the city. Very friendly staff and very friendly fellow travelers. We spent a few days walking around the city, highlights include:

  • climbing the rocks on the Corniche and Pidgeon Rock…in our Adventure Shoes, of course.
  • eating fabulous meals (they actually have hummus there!)
  • listening to THE most beautiful evening call to prayer at the Al-Omari Mosque during sunset. I have never heard the call to prayer ring out so clear and melancholy. I peeped inside and saw that there was an actual, solitary Muezzin singing out into a microphone. I hope he’s an opera singer.
  • REAL cappuccino at Kitsch, a bright pink café/boutique
  • Breaking into/Running around the real track at the American University of Beirut
  • Sneaking into a lecture on Israeli-Middle East-American relations by Aaron David Miller at the AUB campus. Super dry and fatalistic. Sigh.
  • Stumbling upon the “Little Philippines” section of town and eating Steamed Rice Cakes! A blast from my past.
  • Enjoying the silence at one of the oldest Cathedrals in Beirut.
  • Roman ruins! Beirut actually has Roman Ruins sitting amongst it’s new swanky cafes and hotels.
  • Churches and mosques, side-by-side. Church bells ringing with the calls to prayer.

Beirut has seen some dark history, as is evidenced by the bullet-ridden French colonial buildings. The most destructive fighting occurred in the 1975 civil war when the city was divided into a Muslim west and Christian east with a no-man’s-land called the Green Line running through the center of the city. There are still a few reminences of the Berlin-esque separation barrier. Since then, the city has been scarred by the 1982 Israeli Invasion, 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, and violent clashes with Hezbollah in May 2008. There are 4 Palestinian refugee camps around the city, as well as a Hezbollah Tent City in South Beirut. As a cosmopolitan center of arts and education, Beirut has picked herself up, dusted herself off, and blossomed again and again. However, it is still haunting to walk through a city and see, on the same block, a gigantic shiny new high rise with a Chanel store in the window, next to a bright pink-painted French colonial mansion with a gigantic manicured garden out front, next to an old abandoned church with the stained glass shot out and with gigantic missle craters in the walls. A testament to the violence that flares up again and again in the city.

The very best example of this is the former Holiday Inn in the center of downtown. Snipers were using the hotel as a base during the civil war, so it was bombed and shelled continually until all that remained is a skeleton high rise with a few wisps of curtains flapping from the windows. It has not been demolished, but instead stands next to fancy new economic centers, boutique hotels, and strip malls. I had read about this before I came to Beirut, but turning the corner and being face-to-face with it was overwhelming. I imagined a time when walking on the same sidewalk where I stood could mean your life.

I am fascinated by this city (and the country in general, which has some of the region’s most renowned wineries- who knew??), and out of all the places I visited on this trip, this is the one I hope to come back to sometime soon. Maybe to work with Palestinian refugees in the camps? Maybe to teach Methods of Conflict Resolution at the University? Maybe to open a little café and spend my days listening to and telling stories? Maybe all of the above.

Alas, our time in Beirut was all too short and soon we gathered our bags for our Lebanese-Syrian Border Adventures.


1 comment:

wendy said...

While living in the Phils., in a particular neighborhood (where we lived in the big house and from our front yard watched Mt. Pinatubo erupt) we heard the call to prayer. The neighbors complained about the noise but for me it was a reminder to pray. A reminder just for me. God is good, all the time.