From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The 1/3 Mark: Highlights and Frustrations

So here I am one month from the States. I picture myself pondering quietly on the Ventura Pier, and (most of all), running into people I haven't seen in six months on the first day back to LMU (senior year), and this elation pitter-patters in my heart, and then I just want to yelp to the universe YES and NO all at the same time. I am ready. I am reluctant. I don't know!

Here's what's happened amid all this.

Sam the building owner invited all of the SINARC students in his building to his house in the mountains (45 minute drive from Hamra, our neighborhood in Beirut). There were six stories (though only two were developed significantly) with a pool and a garden and a view of the bay of Beirut far below. His whole family--three sisters, their sons, and his 90-year-old father--were waiting to greet us with hugs, smiles, and an entire decked-out living room full of chocolate and Lebanese food. We chowed down all night on fatouche, dolmas, miniature pizzas stuffed with meat, mana'ushe, kefta, and pepsi in glass bottles brought to us by Karim, his 12-year-old American-loving nephew. I felt extremely welcomed and never wanted return to the congestion and stress of Beirut.
I'm sure the city has great night life, and some of my roommates have been giving me a hard time for being a "homebody," but I'm sorry, I spent all my energy and (of course) money on nightlife in Spain, and I'm ready for a little rest. So I haven't yet seen Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East, in its full glory. Though I do hope for a night of dancing and talking to young Lebanese sometime soon.
Also, my energy here goes to studying primarily, and nothing more. An intensive language program should not be any other way. Heck, I've been studying four hours a day outside four hours of class, and I still got a C on my first test. To be honest, I'm just not a natural language learner. Funny how I go for it anyway :).

Another highlight: walking back from the university one afternoon I felt a tug on my blouse from behind, and spun to find a tiny Lebanese girl with short curly brown hair and sparkly eyes offering me a white flower!! Her mother smiled at me from across the street. I accepted, thanked her, and she toddled away.

Girls in big groups frustrate me. It's like ALL energy revolves around getting male attention, and people cease to listen to me. This is why I prefer: one-on-one conversations, mature people, dancing or sitting on a patio philosophizing to climbing all over each other at a bar. Is it so terrible to want to settle down with a book instead of sitting at an expensive bar?
The electricity here goes out every five minutes and we have to recharge it ourselves.
I got uber-sick with "bubble gut" two days ago and was up all night puking and...doing the other thing. Better now. Hope that means my system is adjusted.

Funny story:
I took a nap one Friday night, to no avail, because just after I fell asleep I felt the building begin to shake. Then I heard gunshots and shouting outside our balcony, and I began to shiver. I thought civil war had fallen on my area in Beirut once again. Somewhat terrified, I threw on a shirt, took a deep breath, and raced down the stairs to the nearest open door I could find. It belonged to Columb from Britain and John from Virginia, who was half-naked. I didn't care at that point; I was so scared. "I just had to see someone's face, sorry." They didn't help much. John kept staring out the window at the commotion, and Columb ventured, "Maybe we should get a backpack ready, just to be safe."
Yeah. The bombs were definitely fireworks. It was in celebration of the election of Hariri. I felt pretty silly.

Until next time, ma salemi!

Friday, June 26, 2009

All About Those Lebanese

Don't get me wrong; I love Spaniards. They are sultry, cheery, and great fun. Plus I understand them when they speak. But my heart has moved on to these fascinating types called the Lebanese. Oye, es que, in San Sebastian, I spent the majority of my time hanging out with Europeans (Erasmus), which had its good sides and its bad sides. Good: how awesome they all are. Bad: how I lacked one-on-one time with Spaniards. SO, arriving in Beirut, I decided to do as much interacting as possible with the people here. Granted that's limited, because I'm surrounded in the SINARC swarm (they're great too). But I am putting more effort into talking to people and learning the language.
So here's a couple notes on my experience with Lebanese people (half Lebanese included; there's plenty in SINARC).
1. They stare, but don't do more than that. I'd stare too, if I wasn't used to a certain kind of person (but living in LA, I suppose, gets you accustomed to anything). I wear clothes that show my pale knees, and have long gold hair, and I can see men checking me out from their reflections in shop windows as I pass them. Oh, well. Look, don't touch, and I won't react.
2. They gossip. I can't tell you how many times I've walked into the room and heard story's about so-and-so's daughter-in-law who did such-and-such with your best friend's cousin. Samir, the building owner, is always telling stories about how his children should have listened to him better. Dr. Mimi Jeha, the in-four-places-at-once program director, keeps alluding to times when some student decided to wander off while at the grotto excursion and split his head open, so don't do that, or how Samir should really keep better track of who lives in which room, in case of emergencies, but don't tell him she said that.
3. They are overly polite and gregarious. I'm about the most blunt person you'll ever meet (blunt meaning brutally honest), and chit-chat bothers me, so sometimes this aspect of their mindset and I don't mesh. It's required, when you pass someone you know, to at least exchange a few words: "Kiifik? (How are you) Hamdulillah. (Fine, thanks be to Go) Ma Salemi! (See you later)" The hard core Lebanese, to each other, also inquire as to your health, your family's health, your job, and sometimes invite you to coffee when you've said you're in a hurry. I feel a little awkward going into rooms where they expect me to address them, but where I clearly just want to get in/do my thing/get out. Like at the gym, or passing Samir as I go to school.
4. They smile. I derive endless energy from people who make the effort to show my presence pleases them. To every single Lebanese I have met, or even come across randomly, I get the impression I am being listened to (though not agreed with, sometimes) and that they see God in me. Why can't my own peeps be this pleasant?

That's all on that subject for now. Shout out to my Jenny N, who's having a rough time. Thinking of you. Also to Godfather Jim, if you're reading this. I'm okay, me oyes? No te preocupes!

This program is exhausting. This language is exhausting. There's no end to the amount of studying I need to do to understand even slightly what my professor is talking about. But, as Sister Mary Beth Ingham once told me, "You're tired? Good! That means you're living to the fullest." There's no other way to do it, sadeekatee (my friends).

Tomorrow, excursions to Byblos and Jeita Grotto (see pictures), one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Heather-ana Jones returns.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beirut Bids Salaam Alaykum to The Backwards West

Some initial remarks on arriving in Beirut.
1. You're not going to see too many pictures from this experience, sorry. I'm less inclined to play tourist in a place where I want to attract as little attention as possible.
2. Arrival went smoothly, other than depression from my obvious reluctance to leave Erasmus/SanSe, which made me rather glum, even in my one-day break in Budapest. I didn't even have to pay for a Lebanese visa upon entering the Beirut airport. And as soon as I emerged from customs, I saw my name with SINARC in welcoming letters on a sign held by a smiley driver, who was waiting with 5 other weary American students.
3. I'm not deep in enemy territory per se. Not only because we're not enemies, but also because:
...Beirut is the most "western" city in the ME, often called "the local Paris." Very few Muslims wear veils, plenty of women go to universities (although according to some female exchange students, the local ones are often here to look for husbands), night clubs and "USA grocery stores" cover the main streets like Hamra and Istaklal.
...I'm at an American university hanging out with American students (and some Brits), the majority of whom are female, and many of those total gringas like me(if you don't know that term, do yourself a favor and google it). So I fit right in, and am separate from true Lebanese culture in many ways. Or, if you prefer, I'm experiencing it more safely.
There are dumpsters, beggars, broken buildings, hunger, and dirty streets. That's called poverty. You will find it anywhere outside the upper-class bubbles where you're accustomed to living. There are also buff, dark men dressed in camoflauge and black berets with guns. That's called security, believe it or not. I feel safe around them and they are very hospitable.
Speaking of hospitality, I have experienced it to the max here: the Australian-Lebanese family who helped me get through customs, the first store owner I talked to, the cashier at BarBar (بربر) the the dorm director Samir (that dirty maverick is so much fun; he will be the subject of many blogs), the elementary Arabic professor Tarif. I suppose my favorite story is the market owner, who I will definitely go to meet again. I admit I am blinded by stereotypes and the like, so when I walked in wanting to buy a bottle of water with no idea how to communicate with him, I was expecting impatience, or at least blank stares. Nope, all smiles. His English wasn't very good, but he spoke it (hey, USA, we are so behind...learn another language...better yet, teach your children to value it). "Where are you from?" "The United States," I attempted. "Beautiful country," he replied sincerely. "You are always welcome; thank you for coming!" Baffled, I thanked him, promised to return, and ran to catch up with my roommates.

All of this warmfuzzy amid CNN's reporting "DEATH TO AMERICA", friends and family gasping at the realization that I was going to Lebanon, and an increasingly Muslim world. It's time we opened our mind, folks. The less we give in to fear, the less there is to fear. And, according to what I have seen in 24 hours, we exaggerate anyway. We're the ones who are confused, and at times, blind.

A tip. If you ever feel unsafe in the Middle East, or around Arabs, begin with salaam alaykum. It means peace be with you, and it will always bring a smile.