Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Today and yesterday

Had an interesting start to my day: got on the service taxi only to realize that all the windows were missing, the knobs were only half there, the seat stuffing was all out and the back seat smelled strongly of pee. Actually, in retrospect, the cab looked like it was straight out of a war movie. I looked into the driver's rear view mirror and realized that one of his eyes was half shut and the other only half open - dark purple in color. He had obviously just about survived a big fight. With the election results out just yesterday my hypothesis is that he got into some post result brawl. Of course, he could be just born with two black eyes, who knows.

The cab crawled on while the one eyed beauty squinted at me in the rearview mirror. Screech, he had stopped to pick up not one, not two, not three, but five giggling girls in jazzy designer hijabs. They all squeezed in and instantly tried to involve me in a very animated conversation about something..it was all in Arabic so I feigned many different emotions. Screech. Another halt. There is a rally of cars in front of us, blue flags hanging out and loud celebratory gunfire (I can hear the guns but not see them, thank god!). Now that I think about it, yesterday was even more surreal. While the whole nation celebrated or mourned with gun fire, we, an even stranger group of expats (one Italian, two British, one French, one Lebanese and two Indians) were sunbathing over glasses of white wine in a beach side resort. And while we sipped our wine we complained about this strange culture of shooting in the air. Somewhere deep inside me a voice sniggered and said: "If there is something way weirder than shooting in the air, it's sipping wine in a resort and commenting on it." I am not sure what exactly to make of that voice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gaza on my mind

I've been trying to keep up with the media coverage of the genocide in Gaza. And while many newspapers give a one-sided watered down version of the real story, the American media coverage is particularly outrageous (No surprises there).

The newspapers might shove it into one column, or worse still, forget about it totally. But the fact is that more than 1000 people have already been killed and over 5000 injured, over 300 children. Imagine that : FIVE THOUSAND PEOPLE. Why
do the same number of people killed, matter so so much more when they are in any other part of the world? Why is most of the world getting back to stories that seem much more 'real'? And imagine this: when some of these 5000 people try to escape they are shot at by security forces at the (Egypt) border. When the wounded are taken to a hospital, the hospital gets bombed. When families try to shelter their children in a UN school, the school gets bombed. And when they are counted, checked and ID-d by the Israeli military and pronounced "not terrorists", and kept in a separate building, that building gets bombed. With
phosphorous bombs which burn till the bones and cannot be put out with water.

A few friends are trying to keep the horrific images of Gaza alive in our minds. So that we continue to feel OUTRAGED. So that our sense of complacency about the anonymity of Palestinians, the invisibility of their suffering, and the meaninglessness of their deaths is disrupted. At least for now. I am attaching some links to images from Gaza. Images that most of us DO NOT see when we read our newspaper in the morning.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

What is Gaza, a friend asks...

A mosque gets bombed
A school building collapses
A leader gets killed
Two nameless girls with their donkey carts lie dead
On the streets of Gaza
The count goes up to Three Hundred and Fifty
Now to Four Hundred
Day One, Day two and Day Three
Slowly the news, the outrage and the debates move
From page one to Page three

Perhaps the bombing will stop tonight.
For now.
The Presidents will hang up their phones
Thank God that they didn't have to catch that flight to Cairo
To sign another draft, pass another resolution
Fight over another missing word
Argue over who to blame first.
The newspapers will move on to stories that seem more real
About crashing stock markets and
Presidents on Hawaiian beaches.

Our sense of complacency will return
About the anonymity of Palestinians
The invisibility of those suffering
And the meaninglessness of their deaths.
Till another big bombing
Another Three Hundred and Fifty dead.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Being Brown in Lebanon

Pita log 5
Tripoli, North Lebanon

A few things I have learnt about men, women and being brown (since my last post):

1. Women here get their nails done every week. Preferably in bright red.
2. Women who are NOT domestics wear long black coats (leather or wool) and shiny black boots. Domestics (mostly from India, Senegal and Nepal) where jeans, sneakers and stare at me (wondering why I am an Indian wearing a black coat with sneakers).
3. Cafes are male domain. But strange looking brown women (aka me) will be served with a smile when they wear a black coat, have red painted nails and say “Ana ma beHki Arabi. Ana beHki Ingleezi” (I don’t speak Arabic. I only speak English) flirtatiously. And yes, in case you were wondering, I DO have red painted nails now :)
4. You are nuts if you don’t smoke. Going to a bar or café = getting smoke blown into your hair, clothes, face, eyes. So don’t complain. Don’t be a passive smoker. Be an active one.
5. Dating call on the corniche is honk honk, gawk gawk. Alternatively it’s honk honk, smoochie smooch noise and what’s your number? At which point if you are not interested you yell “Aayb” (Shame on you) or “Imshee” (Go away). But don’t get confused like me and yell Kimchee by mistake. If all else fails flash your wedding ring.
6. You might not see too many lone women walking around on the corniche. But suddenly out of nowhere they’ll be one in a hijab jogging and she will restore your faith in womankind.
7. You are ‘Afreekan’ if you have curly hair and are not very fair.
8. Everyone in Tripoli/Mina is everyone’s cousin.
9. You are both hated and loved if you say you are from America.
10. You are either a domestic (F) or in the Indian Army (M) if you look brown enough.
11. There are no addresses in Lebanon.
12. Atimaj Bachhhan and Raj Kupoor rule. Watch Zee Arabia and the Sheikh become a Bollywood star for proof.

PS: My list of Arabic words and phrases is increasing, shway by shway!
I now know how to write and speak numbers one to ten.
Say hello, How are you, Welcome, Pleased to meet you, Thank you, Pardon, Sorry, Just a minute, good morning, good evening (good night is too hard).
How much is that, Can you please write that down, I am from the U.S (or India as the situation seems to demand), I don’t understand, I understand, I speak English, I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Arabic.
And of course the already mentioned phrases required to ward off men and get served coffee.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

B for Batroun

After Beyrouth, Baalbek and the Bekaa valley our next adventure was at a seaside village called Batroun, about 25 kms from Tripoli. Batroun is an unbelievable place (yaya I know you are getting sick of me saying that about every other place in Lebanon!), but I swear, this one IS unbelievable. Batroun is one of the oldest cities in teh world and remnants from the old old (Greco Roman Phoenician, blah blah) times are the many many churches, the meandering narrow streets and the Phoenician wall.

If you have been to old Morocco, the streets in this city would seem familiar (I haven't, but i have seen Bourne Identity!). It's impossible to describe the feel of this place till you visit it - a dense network of meandering streets, sometimes uphill sometimes going down to the blue blue Mediterranean waters. The usual homes are one storey high, made of mud, some are more extravagant, but all are on the narrowest of streets imaginable and as ancient as ancient can be. At one time our big fat truck got squashed between two houses and we went scrich scratching away through the entire lane (well, to be fair no one had warned us not to come in a truck!)

Our lunch/dinner was at Maggie's sea side shack by the sea, next to an old crumbling wall from the Roman era (I would guess! or maybe greek?!) Maggie has the best job - she spends the day fishing, and then frying the fish she catches and eating it with her customers (not that many in the winters). She managed to fry us about two dozen small fishes and one big fat swordfish (which she caught in front of us), lots of fishy smelling fries, Taboulley, fatoush and bowls full of olives. mmmmmm I could have that meal every single day especially in that setting - right next to the sea with the Mediterranean crashing against rocks and the sun setting behind the umbrellas eeeeeha!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some more Fresh Lebneh

Pita Log 3

I am now convinced that the coins are real. I mean, think about it, why would some one waste time and energy to fake something so well and then sell it for a mere $20? And with that brilliant deduction let me continue the tale of the intense day.

After Heliopolis, our next destination was the Bekaa valley, known for its fertile land and Hezbollah supporters. The hour drive up and down the mountains from one valley to the next was surreal. The terrain was breathtaking and resembled the harsh and stark beauty of Spiti and Ladakh (North India). The valley was huge, covered with shrubs and rocks of brilliant colors and surrounded by the snow-clad mountains colored pink by the setting sun.

A friend had contacted a farmer in that area who did some happy farming among the stones and he met us half way to lead the way to his house. His house was tucked away on top of a hill in a small village far far away from any other habitation. It was already getting dark so I could not see much of the village but it did have an fascinating mix of mosques, unpainted mud houses and a church that jumped up suddenly in the middle of this (mostly) Shia population. The inside of his house was even more surreal - with the old style heating system (the men in the family poured gas and then lit up a fire inside what looked like an iron pipe with a chimney), Allah-o-Akbar blaring from the loudspeakers (live telecast from the nearby mosque, it seemed), and one by one people of different age and sizes pouring into the living room, sitting around us and trying to converse with us in Arabic. The farmer served us some excellent Turkish coffee and tea (in really stylish tea sets, by the way) and lit many a cigarette as we got up, murmured Marhaba (“Welcome/hello”: one of the few Arabic words we had picked up) and either shook hands with the many guests or gave them three kisses (left cheek, right cheek and back to the left). Much to my surprise we made it back (in one piece) to Beirut. We did make a pit stop to pick up some munchies: the best Lebneh sandwich in the country from a road side bakery. And this was the day when I almost fell in love with Lebanon…


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lebanon Week 2

Pita Log2

As a philosopher-architect-Lebanese-friend often says, “Beirut is a schizophrenic city”. It is truly hard to believe that just a few months ago, the now crowded streets of Hamra were full of men brandishing guns, all these shops were shuttered and instead of the loud techno music, all one heard at night was incessant firing. Our Lebanese friend, who has taken it upon herself to show us all sides of Beirut does a perfect job of balancing the two sides. The first day we spent having lunch at a chintzy organic lunch place and checking out the even chintzier AUB campus by the sea. Sunset was at the Corniche (the seaside promenade by the Mediterranean) - Beirut’s version of Venice boardwalk or Mumbai’s Juhu. In the evening, the Corniche is the perfect place to soak in some Beirut lifestyle. As the waves crash on the rocks below, couples and friends park their cars on the road but keep the music system blaring (different version of the ‘Habibi Habibi” song!), bring out their plastic chairs and rent a sheesha (Hookah) from the street-side sheesha seller and cups of Turkish coffee from the coffee-sellers. And here they sit enjoying the lights of the city – lights of the tall apartment buildings, the Hard Rock Café, McDonalds and the lighthouse. It has the perfect amount of noise and activity to jolt you out of your jet lag – but not as impossible to bear as the level of activity at Hamra.

We had been invited for a private party at some club in Gemayze, one of the most happening streets in East Beirut (yaha, we suddenly have a life beyond the Cambridge style 9 pm bedtime!) but our jet lag prevailed and we decided to crash early and rise early to make most of our weekend stay at Ashrafieh. Ashrafieh is one of the oldest districts in Beirut and is another fascinating example of the different ethnic pockets in the city – Shias ( and app'ly Hezbollah) dominating the South, Christians in the East (Ashrafieh area) and so on. It is also one of the chic-est places with stores that sell nothing for less than $200 (I guess we have to reserve our shopping for whenever we get back to the U.S!). Night was spent dancing at a (Gay) party in the basement of an old old hotel somewhere in Downtown Beirut. The people were dressed either crazy (read pink sunglasses and leopard print tights) or designer (leather boots, leather mini skirts and tight tight tight shirts) and we stood out like sore thumbs, as usual. This time our bedtime was wayyy past Cambridge bedtime hours – a little beyond 3 am….

Day 4 was possibly one of the most intense days of my lives. It started off with a mad drive up the hills to a place called Baalbek. I call it a “mad drive” because Lebanese people beat even Dilliwallas hollow at adventurous driving, no rules, no speed limits, no concept of one way/two way traffic, and no walk signs. Yet surprisingly most of the BMWs, Mercs and such (those are the common cars on the street) remain unscratched. Our Lebanese friend surmises, “The war has done one good thing. Taught the people here how to drive well in really stressful situations”.
Ok, I need to stop digressing and get back to the topic, an intense day and Baalbek:

The temple complex of Baalbek is situated atop a high point in the mountains surrounding the fertile (at least fertile enough to grow tons of Hashish!) Bekaa valley. Apparently the history of Baalbek reaches back approximately 5000 years dating to the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC), and this was built on top of an older level of human habitation dating to the Early Bronze Age (2900-2300 BC). Imagine this: if one starts digging under the existing level of excavated temples (which in any case are super super old), one would find another (older) level, and under that another (older still) level and so on. Don’t know about you, but that bit of info totally blew my mind…

Anyway, so getting back to history (or what I recall of our guide’s rant), the beginning of Baalbek can be traced back to as early as the time of Solomon, passed on to the Phoenicians, and then to the Greco-Roman times – when it got its name Heliopolis of the “city of sun”. Here my memory fails me so I am going to resort to google.

The golden age of Roman building at Baalbek/Heliopolis began in 15BC when Julius Caesar settled a legion there and began construction of the great Temple of Jupiter. During the next three centuries, as emperors succeeded one another in the imperial capital of Rome, Heliopolis was filled with the most massive religious buildings ever constructed in the far reaching Roman Empire. These monuments functioned as places of worship until Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD. By the end of the 4th century, the city had declined and lapsed into relative oblivion.
In the year 634, Muslim armies entered Syria and besieged Baalbek. A mosque was built within the walls of the temple compound, which was itself converted into a citadel. Over the next several centuries, the city and region of Baalbek were controlled by various Islamic dynasties.

I am usually a guide-hater but in this case it made sense to get one since I know zilch about such stuff and without a lil bit of info it is hard to appreciate the influence the Phoenicians, Greek, Romans and finally the Arabs had on the architecture of this place. With every conquest, new types architecture creeped in and so you have the Jupiter temple (place of worship) and its massive columns standing side by side with the arches and domes of later times. And the great court (place of worship and sacrifice) sits pretty along with Bacchus (the place of orgy!). As if the place was not crazy enough, the touts outside were crazier still. One came rushing at us and sold us (for $80) what looks like heavy silver coins from one of these eras. Locals tell us that if you start digging anywhere in the Beqa valley you will come up with a fistful of such ancient coins… ok, perhaps not, but fer sure whoever made the fakes did a darn good job.

Ok, take a short break. While I go scrounge for some old coins…!



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