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…!


Saturday, December 06, 2008
Pita Log1, December 4, 2008

Our flight (Middle Eastern Airlines) made a smooth landing. The passengers thanked the pilot with a round of applause. I joined in. Heck, while in Rome oops Beyruth do as the Beyruthians do! The streets outside greeted us with a strong smell of smoke, cigarettes and the sea. The place smelled and looked familiar and reminded me strongly of the congested streets of Delhi mixed with the palm trees and smells of Mumbai. The only reminder that these streets often witnessed conflicts, grenades and civil war were the policemen at every corner carrying not the itsy bisty pistol that the Delhi police tuck away in one corner of their khaki uniform but a mammoth something that they flaunt threateningly at the passing traffic. That apart, nothing seemed too strange, at least not at first glance.

At the risk of homogenizing, let me describe you the men of Beyruth in a few words. Yaha, they are not ALL like this, but the ones that caught my eye at the airport were. Hypermasculine, sharp features, often with a mustache, well built and smoking non-stop. If I tried to find parallels from India, they would be closest to the Jats. Our dinnertime stroll through the streets of Hamra brought out many more varieties – and yeah (as a certain friend had warned me), many more rather attractive varieties. The women are easier to describe. All the ones around my age had one thing in common: they made me feel like a total and complete frump. How could my plumpness clad in comfort-fit jeans and hiking shoes compete with their high leather boots, slim figures, tight designer shirts, trendy colored hair and perfectly arched eyebrows? I’ve decided that to survive I need a complete makeover asap. One of A’s college friends (a Lebanese woman) is showing us around tonight. Maybe she can give me some fashion tips.

What is fascinating is that these designer girls pouting at their slim cigarettes and tapping away in their high heels through the streets of Hamra coexist with many other women in various degrees of hijab, full black veils, black scarves or trendy versions of some form of head covering. The same way that the familiar Starbucks, Costa Café and Nine West shoe store sits right next to unfinished apartment complexes, open trash and mosques and the Salam Alekum flows almost as easily as the Monsieur.

How can my first log be complete without my encounters with the food in Beirut? The streets of Hamra are lined with restaurants of different shapes and sizes. Our ultimate choice is often determined by the existence of at least one veggy dish in the menu. I had read up a little bit online (I don’t want A to starve or be ‘forced’ to eat kebabs again!) so we ended up at this (Sagar look alike) place called Kababji with a Kabab sandwich for me and some eggplant-chickpea dish, Tabouley, and a yum olive, pickle salad for my veggy hubby! The kababs, I would say, come second only to the ones you get on the streets outside Nizamuddin dargah.. and trust me, that means a lot!

I’ve spent most of today morning strolling on the streets of Hamra, where I’ve disguised my frumpiness by perching a pair of designer sunglasses on my head. I am trying real hard to appear “local” and occasionally mutter Wa alekum es salam at all the various men who stare at me, look me up and down and grin Salam at me. But I am not sure I am fooling anyone, yet.



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