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بيروت

It’s hard to summarize Beirut. I keep trying to start an essay-like blog that begins, in varying forms, like this:

“I can’t sleep here because it’s too exciting.  I go to bed late and wake up early, finding another place to go and another reason to stay awake. Yesterday, instead of staying in like we said we would, a bunch of us went to the five-year anniversary gathering of Rafic Hariri’s assassination. There were lots of people, lots of flags. On my walk over, along the Corniche, I passed by the bombed out buildings where he was killed.  I can’t stop thinking about the massive amount of damage caused by one bomb. The downtown shopping area is just a five-minute walk away from this spot, and it looks just like Paris. The area, filled with stores like Marc Jacobs and Prada, was rebuilt after being completely leveled from violence.

Since downtown is new, it lacks character.  Thankfully there is Hamra… where I live alongside a great mix of people from all over the world! It’s easy to get along here, there are many places to consume (both cheap and expensive) and play (coffeehouses, bars, art-houses). Everything is walking distance from my apartment: Café Younes, the university, the Mediterranean…! Most importantly the city is full of very energetic, intelligent and social people.  It has been quite easy to make friends here, at every event there is always someone you know and someone else you are about to know.  I’ve had no trouble at all enjoying myself here.”

Well, I can’t seem to get past this point and bring everything together into one coherent entry. But there’s so much! Here are a few more bits and pieces:

Salt water smell from the Mediterranean, car exhaust from aging taxis, shisha and cigarettes.

Mashrou’ Leila is stuck in my head.

Sunny warm days and cool nights.

On repeat: “Merci,” “Shokran,” “Thank you.”

Almost being clipped by a racing moped, daily.

The pickles they put in my chicken shawerma and manooshe.

My apartment is almost an escape from the slightly chaotic city, I still hear those sounds: honking, yelling, buzzing motors and loudspeakers selling God, gasoline and lemons.

Everyone has a balcony.

I’ve even got my own flowers to water.

Brand new luxury apartments, colorful bombed out homes and bullet holes.

Music, music, music, art, art, art… what will I make?

I visited Neswiya, the feminist collective.

That poetry reading. The professor specializing in vampire literature, the drunk man who fell off his chair during a poem and later exclaiming “Why are all these people in my apartment?!” Not his apartment, rush and get him some coffee. “That’s a new lamp.” Leonard Cohen and I want more of those chocolates sitting across the room. Ghiwa, Anna and I talk about feminism and men whistling “Pssspssspssss” to us along the Corniche.

There will be a march for secularism in Lebanon.  Kinda (from eka3) is one of the organizers and I think that’s too cool.  Went out to a club with her friends. Artists!  Everywhere!  Good music!  Everywhere! Conversation! Cigarettes (“none for me”)! Dancing like a fool!

Bureaucracy at the American University of Beirut…I’m not the only angry one.

Trading music.

That little café downtown, standing in front of the glass pastry case thinking: Oh, Paris!

That Syrian cab driver that smelled like milk, not a bit of English, his monologue in Arabic, driving too slow for Beirut… I say, “Yalla, yalla!  Mish a’arifa!”

Daily three-hour power cuts.  I don’t want to take the elevator, for fear of getting stuck.

AUB is a resort overlooking the Mediterranean.  And also, it’s a university.

Graffiti everywhere.  Hubble-bubble rubble.

Hamra was empty, downtown was full.  Hariri’s assassination, buses bringing people from across Lebanon. Guns, tanks and testosterone.

Café Younes.  Everybody knows everybody.  Who will be there tonight when I post this blog?

Candles in my apartment.  Big windows and flower boxes overlooking the parking lot.  Cloth hanging from the balconies across from mine.

View from my apartment, typical Hamra scene.

At Café Younes now.  Friend just informed me that the Lebanese army shot  at two Israeli planes flying over Bekaa.

How many times have we said “cheers” and raised our drinks?

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1 Some sounds.

During both of my flights I listened to what sounded like a chorus of pissed off babies. Driving to Beirut from the airport, I listened to a milder form of that fitful car honking I would often hear in Cairo. A few minutes ago I was listening to an actual catfight, and moments before that I heard, from a distance, call to prayer.

I heard my favorite Nina Simone song playing in the background at a Beirut bar. As I was speaking with a woman I had just met, the lyrics “Do what you gotta do, come on back see me when you can” played from speakers. Oh, rejoice! I’d been listening to this song back to back for the past month; many people can vouch for this fact. Nina Simone? Do what you gotta do? Beirut? I’m in the right place.

2 No need for a cup of coffee, I had a full night sleep.

I’ve been apartment hunting all day. A woman named Leila brought me to the property she’s looking to rent out. We met outside the Starbucks on Hamra Street (a street full of cafes, clothing shops and booksellers). She is a French lit. professor, we had a nice conversation about her work and then the housing market in Beirut, not cheap. Anyway, I loved the space: big glass windows that slid open, washer, no carpets and cute furniture. And, to be vague, it had a good energy. But, surprise! I can’t afford Leila’s apartment (and thus am looking for a roommate to split the cost with). More significantly, many people who are actually from Beirut can no longer afford to live here. Few jobs, little money, no housing. In other words, I’m getting acquainted with the financial privileges I have being an American tourist in Lebanon.

3 Falling asleep after sunset, staying asleep after sunrise.

I woke up wishing I had a full night of sleep directly ahead of me, mostly because I had actually woken up six hours before my alarm.The culprit that kept me awake: a mix of jet lag and apartment obsessing. Once my alarm did go off, I pulled myself together, left Iman’s apartment (Iman is from Seeds of Peace, she’s letting me stay for a week), and shuffled down the street looking for the Chammas apartment building (to look at a studio). The owner told me that I would find the building “Right next to Socrates restaurant.” Alas, I did not. After asking many people for directions, in English and broken Arabic, I found a woman who knew exactly where to point me… three blocks away. I visited and concluded that the first apartment was better. Then off to another spot, “Residence Diane.” As I was walking, I kept seeing people on the street looking just the way I do, baggy eyed and irritable. We should have all known that the other couldn’t sleep last night, texting one another at 3am to provide encouragement…“Fall asleep before sunrise, you can do it! Yalla!”

Anyhow: The entrance to “Residence Diane” was marble. And inside, even more marble. It was too nice for my price range, so I smiled at the concierge and turned right back around to the street. While continuing my part of the insomniac shuffle, I found myself in good company as I passed a cute round kitten with a big furry head. I really wanted to scoop it up and take it with me.

OH WOW! The electricity just shut off. Not enough energy to run the entire city at once and so there are rotating three-hour power cuts 24/7. Maybe Obama should try that in the U.S., I’d really like to see people running out into the street shaking their Snuggie covered fists at the sky because their television sets/treadmills/microwaves suddenly became temporarily unavailable.

4 Oh! Hello great sea!

At some point this weekend I took a wrong turn walking around the neighborhood and ended up at the foot of the Mediterranean. Knocked out of my sleepless insensibility, a rush of thoughts like “OH! THIS IS INSANE,” “I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M HERE,” “#@!#$^*#” came over me.

I’m wicked excited.

5 circadian blues

“While the body’s ‘master clock’ is centered in the hypothalamus, different parts of the body adjust to time-zone changes at different rates — with the kidneys, stomach and other organs lagging behind the brain.

‘Jet lag isn’t [merely] a lag between you and the outside world; instead, it’s a lag between different parts of your body,’ explains Thomas Wehr, chief of the biological rhythms section at the National Institute of Mental Health. ‘If you’re flying east to Europe, your brain could be in Ireland, and your liver could be in Iceland, so things are not cycling in sync with each other.'”

I’ve got five hours to kill before boarding my connector flight to Beirut. So here’s a post to let you all know I’m in London and doing well. Maybe a little confused, considering it’s 7am and everyone else in “terminal one” seems so awake. Some of these people are even eating lunch now and drinking alcohol. Absurd! Anyhow, my next flight is only four and a half hours long so I will be in Beirut SOON (very excited)!

Before I go, here’s a little substance to add to this post:

Today (or yesterday?) I was thinking about that line from the animated film Waking Life, where one of the characters says, “The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving.”  Just something to chew on.

Much love to you all!

Beirut- In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife were caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. A Shiite Muslim militiaman helped the couple escape.

Arazi, a leader of Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community, sees the incident as a lesson in the Arab country’s tradition of tolerance. Now he is trying to make use of that tradition, along with the global diaspora of Lebanese Jews, in a drive to rebuild Beirut’s only synagogue, damaged during the war.

“Those who don’t have a past don’t have a future,” Arazi said to explain his push to rebuild the synagogue.

Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue opened in 1926 in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city’s Jewish quarter, located on the edge of west Beirut near the Grand Serai palace, where the government meets, and within walking distance of parliament.

Lebanon then was something of a haven for Jews, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition; it later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany. With “no history of anti-Jewish tensions,” it was the only Arab country whose Jewish population rose after Israel’s creation in 1948, according to Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of “The Jews of Lebanon.”

By the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, said Arazi, 65. In addition to heading the Jewish Community Council he owns a food-machinery business with 1,000 customers.

All Together

“Christians, Muslims and Jews were all living together when I was growing up,” said Liza Srour, 57. “Whenever there was a war with Israel, or tension, the government used to provide protection for us.”

That changed with the nation’s 1975-1990 civil war, as Jews fled the violence triggered by rivalries among the nation’s Christian, Muslim and Druze factions and emigrated to Europe, North and South America.

Now, Arazi said, only 100 Jews live permanently in the country, while another 1,900 go back and forth or have intermarried into other religions. Srour is the only Jew still residing in Wadi Abou Jmil.

In 1982, according to an Associated Press report at the time, Israeli shells tore through roof of Maghen Abraham as the Jewish state invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to crush Palestinian guerrillas. The synagogue has been closed ever since, its brittle entrance gate chained and padlocked. Plaster and rubble are scattered on the floor.

Political Calm

Arazi figures it will cost about $1 million to restore the synagogue. Making the effort possible is the end of an 18-month crisis between Lebanon’s political factions, the blessing of the Lebanese government, financial support from a downtown reconstruction project and acquiescence from the Shiite Hezbollah movement that fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006.

He so far has raised about $40,000 for the project, but has promises of more. Ten percent of the estimated cost will come from Solidere SAL, a company founded in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — later assassinated in a bombing supporters blame on Syria — to rebuild the capital’s downtown.

The company has given $150,000 to each of 14 religious organizations that are restoring places of worship in Lebanon — about $2.1 million in all. “We help all the communities,” said Solidere chairman Nasser Chammaa.

The Safra family, whose Safra Group includes Brazil’s Banco Safra SA and Safra National Bank of New York and which was based in Lebanon in the 1940s as part of the Jewish community, has agreed to help fund the project once work begins, Arazi said.

Financial Help

Joseph R. Safra, nephew of Republic National Bank of New York founder Edmond Safra, said: “We do not comment on private matters.” Joseph Safra heads Arview Holdings, Inc., a New York financial-consulting and advisory firm.

Two banks in Switzerland whose founders have Lebanese- Jewish roots also agreed to provide financing, Arazi said. One of the banks has pledged $100,000 toward the synagogue’s restoration. Arazi declined to name the banks.

Even the warring factions in Lebanon’s government have blessed the project. “This is a religious place of worship and its restoration is welcome,” Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, 65, said in an interview. Hussain Rahal, a spokesman for Hezbollah, said his group — which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and which the West considers a terrorist organization — also supports the restoration of Maghen Abraham.

“We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity,” he said. “The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel’s occupation of land.”

Arazi said work on the restoration is to begin next month. Meanwhile, his council is already working on plans for its next project: restoring Beirut’s Jewish cemetery, where about 4,500 people are buried.

Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery’s tombstones, Arazi said: “I remember my father when I come here.”

Link to Ya Libnan article

Hello and welcome to my brand spankin’ new blog about my semester abroad in Beirut, Lebanon. This first post is to answer some of the questions I’ve been getting from people who wonder why I would ever pick this place. Worry not, I have my reasons. And good ones too!

  1. It’s warmer in Beirut than it is in Western Mass.
  2. I’ve been in the mood for some really tasty hummus.
  3. Studying, living and working in Beirut is relevant to my concentration (Hampshire College’s word for major). I study film as well as U.S. visual culture. When I write “visual culture” I mean representation/misrepresentation in mainstream North American media. I’m curious about how images inform the way communities perceive each other. Yvonne Rainer says it better than I could, “My God! Can theater finally come down to the irreducible fact that one group of people is looking at another group?!” Actually, many groups of people are looking (and characterizing) one another. I’m studying in Lebanon because I want to know how identity informs perception, for myself and for others. As I take courses at the American University in Beirut (on Middle Eastern history) and shoot footage for my division three (senior thesis), I will continue to ask questions about the relationship between identity, perception and their greater influence on public affairs.
  4. I want to steal Martine Andraos’ crown for Miss Lebanon.
  5. Last but not least, I have an internship with a music organization called eka3. Walla! Here’s a bit about it: “eka3 is the first and only regional organization dedicated to supporting and popularizing smart Arabic music; not music that plays in the background during dinner; music that grabs your attention, moves your senses, and provokes your thought. Whatever the genre may be, we seek the original, the rich, and the Arabic.” I’m looking at the eka3 internship as an opportunity to get involved with what seems like a dynamic and energetic alternative music/art scene. I will be helping plan a workshop and concert between the artists this coming spring. My internship supervisor, Kinda Hassan, is a video artist as well. To read more about the organization and hear some of the music visit this link: http://www.eka3productions.com/

Check out my earlier post to read more about eka3.

Halas.