sábado, 24 de diciembre de 2011

The Cedars of Lebanon

One of the good things about having family visiting is that I have to do all the sight seeing I usually don't take the time to do. I recently had my sister-in-law over and we decided to take her to what I consider the "heart" of Lebanon: the Cedars.

To me, going to the Cedars is like going on a pilgrimage. There is something very special about the drive up, leaving the craziness of Beirut behind and seeing the change in climate as I drive up and up.

We passed the beautiful town of Bcharre, with incredible rock constructions and tall towers. The view from up there is breathtaking.

We soon got to the Cedars. I had been there in May this year, and I was surprised to find a completely different sight this time. There was snow! And it was pretty cold I must say. But the snow made the sight even more majestic.

We walked around the Cedars in silence for a while. It is very solemn, being in the presence of these giants. They have witnessed so much. And they still grow tall and strong, some as high as 35 metres (115ft)!

This area is very much protected, as there are unfortnately not a lot of Cedars left. However, the Lebanese have made this tree their symbol. And it is a mighty one. These trees can withstand time, war and inclement weather. They grow strong and are incredibly generous with their shade and their beauty. They are resilient, a trait that all Lebanese will tell you about when talking proudly about their people.

I found this biblical quote that I think captures the spirit perfectly: "The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like the cedar in Lebanon" (Psalm 92:12)

It is true that the Lebanese are incredibly resourceful, entrepreneurial and resilient. It is true that in the face of all the horrors they have witnessed, many would have gotten lost in despair and given up. And to me it is almost poetic they have decided to make this tree a representation of who they are. When I am among these giants, I cannot help but feeling how transient and fragile my life is. How precious it is and how easily it can be destroyed.  The Cedars of Lebanon are witnesses of it all. They have seen many like me, walk around, thinking about little sorrows and little worries. Problems that seems so real and that in 25 years will be completely forgotten. But they will be there. Immobile, grand and impartial.


Let's hope the Lebanese are wise enough to preserve these treasures for generations to come.

PS: Even U2 wrote a song about them. Check it out!

viernes, 9 de diciembre de 2011

Running in Beirut

This blog post is dedicated to my friend CR, an awesome Marathon runner and to DL, who came all the way to Beirut to run the last 7kms with us.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a marathon. Yes, you heard right. I trained for a freaking 42.195kms race. I didn't go fast, but I finished it!

There are so many things that I would like to write about those 5 hours and 45 minutes. It can seem like a very long time. But the Beirut Marathon Association did a very good job at organizing it and the experience was overall very positive.

I went there with my friends (who are all experts runners by the way!) and my husband bright and early at 6 am to Biel, the area where the Marathon was starting and ran up till 12:45pm, till the finish line in Martyr's Square.

Some very unusual things happened that day:

1) Amazingly enough, the Marathon started at 7:00 am sharp!
2) Hamra street was empty. For those of you who go to Hamra often, you know that this is a miracle

3) All Lebanese came together to run all throughout Beirut

It is this last point that I want to stress. A few weeks before the Marathon, the organizers hung promotional posters all over town, with catchy slogans related to why people run (and tied sometimes to advertisements). What really caught my eye was this poster that said, "I run for diversity".

I think the Marathon was true to this slogan. And one of the rare occasions when you would see people from all groups of society, Achrafieh ladies next to veiled runners, old and young, foreigners and Lebanese, men and women, all running together. It was a beautiful experience.
I had the chance to run in some of the neighborhoods considered "dangerous" by people from my side of town, to realize that nothing was really different from the other side really (besides the house of worship of course)...

Yesterday a friend told me that the Beirut Marathon is one of the hardest in the world because it is very lonely. Indeed, there aren't many people cheering on the sidelines, because no one really stops to see you (besides your very kind friends who generously spend their Sunday passing you water bottles). So it gets boring and you need to self motivate a lot (thankfully my hubbie was by my side all the time!) Also, there were some drivers who, believe it or not, defiantly drive on the closed roads, which makes the experience annoying at times and infuriating at others! 

But it can't get better than running on the Corniche, with the sun on your face, and the breeze from the sea.

lunes, 14 de noviembre de 2011

Forgiving Beirut

I think nothing in life is a coincidence.

Remember my last blog post? When I was wondering why I was so angry in Beirut?

Well, it turns out I was at this magnificent conference this weekend. The conference was about healing past traumas, individual and collective. And I got some insights into my experience, as part of a collective experience in Lebanon.

I am someone who works on conflict prevention, but on a governmental/institutional level. I had never being exposed to the psychology of war and trauma. I must say that I had to put my brain in check at some points, as us "peace warriors" tend to "know" a lot of things about conflict, and have a lot of labels and fancy words to describe it. This conference was not really about the know, but on a deeper, more subtle level.

I think what really moved me about this conference was that it talked about what war does to people. About why people go to war. About how wars get transmitted from one generation to the other. About how people feel and think after they have been exposed to a war.

I was in the room with a mostly Lebanese audience. And as we all saw speakers, some of whom had been victims of war's atrocities themselves, share their experiences, I sensed deep sadness and sorrow in the room.

There were times when people were silent, there were times when people spoke and had to stop because they couldn't go on anymore. There were times when people were angry and frustrated. There was sometimes resignation and skepticism.

But mostly, there was a gentle determination to remain in the room, to listen and to learn.

One of the things I learnt was that 7 out of 10 people in the country were we live have seen a war event (loss of a loved one, loss of property, murder, bombs, etc.) at least once in their life. I also learnt that 10 out of 60 Lebanese have a mental health condition and only 1 seeks professional help.
I also learned that the more war atrocities one has seen in one's life, the more propensity one has to experience some behavioral condition in life (no matter when the events happened).

My Lebanese friends rarely speak about the war. And why would they? Isn't it a normal reaction, just wanting to move on?

But yet, it is so important to talk...

I witnessed this weekend people from Rwanda, Lebanon and Ireland forgiving the people who killed their loved ones. And not only in the surface, with a little smile, for self-gain or out of disdain. I mean a true sense of forgiveness, where the humanity of the other is embraced, and acknowledged. Where a genuine compassion is possible and gives the opportunity for self healing. I saw how the gift of forgiveness liberates our perpetrators, and honors our deep power to love one another.

I learned in this conference is that we all have our own internal wars. Some of them are due to external factors, and some of them are not. And the easy and common way is to respond with anger, to blame, to hold a grudge and to seek revenge.

I must say that today for the first time I can say I understand Lebanon a little better. On a deeper level. I witnessed the hurt, the fear and the sorrow. The need for revenge and redemption. And I also witnessed that beautiful resilience of the Lebanese. I heard the soft whisper of those who want to be free from the past. Who are willing the work for a bright future in a country that embraces all differences.

I feel full of hope for this country that is so dark and so bright at the same time. I am in awe at the power of people who want to emerge from the ashes of despair and hatred. I saw the deep longing for love and brotherhood. There are no coincidences as I said. I understood this weekend why I had to come here.

lunes, 7 de noviembre de 2011

Aggresive Beirut

I was recently in conversation with some "expat" women over dinner on the topic of aggression. Some asserted that moving to Beirut had made them more aggressive. My usual self would have replied that one becomes aggressive by choice, not be circumstance, but in this occasion, I didn't have such a clear-cut answer. 

Have I become more aggressive since I moved to Beirut?

I am a firm believer that one chooses one's way of being in the face of circumstance, and not the other way around. But somehow in Beirut, I have noticed that little by little circumstances have started to take over the best in me. Since the realization of my latent aggressive self, I have become more aware (self conscious?) of my behavior. And I am surprised at how little it takes now to get me absolutely and completely enraged. Why the hell am I so mad? 

Let’s take a step back. What is aggression anyways? 

Wikipedia tells us: "Aggressive behavior is a behavior which is intended to increase the social dominance of the organism relative to the dominance position of other organisms"

As humans, we are social beings. And as social beings, we influence, love, hate, help, support or dominate one another.  It is just natural. That is what we do. Why is Beirut showing me this side of myself?

There have been events in Beirut where I have felt the need to fight. I have been pushed, yelled at, looked at disrespectfully. There have been occasions when I have felt unsafe. I have heard talks about gunfire, car bombs, and massacres in neighboring countries. But I was usually able to calm myself down. I was usually able to take a deep breath. Not in Beirut. The guns of my mind come out very quickly here.

Is it the constant noise and car honking, is it the reckless driving? Is it the lack of rules, people cutting in line, the ladies followed by their maids, carrying their bags? Is it the mistrust between people of different religions, the unkindness that people show to one another? Is it all the street animals, the children begging in the street? The men staring at me as I walk in the street? Is it the oversexualization of women, the botox and the plastic surgeries?

I have no answers. I am in a weird, inexact and highly subjective realm, the realm of feelings. And I just can’t help these feelings. They are there, like dormant snakes, ready to bite if someone steps on them.

Do I need to grow a thicker skin in Beirut, in order to survive? Does the world need more people with thicker skin? In Beirut, I find it difficult to have an open heart. Sometimes the reality is very raw. And it has nothing to do with violence. It is just an overall feeling of hopelessness (in government, in the future, in things working) and mistrust of the other. It is asphyxiating. 

Can I put the positive spin to this? I sure can. Beirut is beautiful, Beirut is full of life. Beirut is full. Beirut is like being fed a very sweet baklava with a huge wooden spoon, even when you are full already. Some times, it can be delicious, but some others it just too much to get in one bite. 

domingo, 16 de octubre de 2011

Spanish speaker? Arabic speaker rather

In my humble attempts to learn Arabic, I have discovered that there are many words in Spanish that actually come from it. And to my relief, I am not the only Spanish speaking person who doesn’t get Arabic (indeed, the Spanish word “Algarabía”, which means incomprehensible talk comes from “al-'Arabiya”, which basically means "Arabic").

NB: (By the way, as I write this, I realize that this blog post will probably not mean much to my readers who do not speak Spanish, but if you are willing to take my word for it, there ARE loads of words in Spanish that come from Arabic).

NB2: If you want more serious explanation of the influence of Arabic in Spanish, just click here

As I was saying: there are tons of words in Spanish that come from Arabic, many of which I could have sworn were nothing but “Mexicanisms”. Never mind the obvious words, like "Guadalajara"- the name of a city (it also means river of stones)- or "babucha", a sort of slipper that comes originally from Morocco, and that us Mexicans use to refer to any kind of Arabic-looking shoe.  (On a side note: 
there’s even a saying in Mexico “Sacate las Babuchas!” that I have no idea where it comes from, but basically it means you are very surprised).

I have made some fascinating findings with last names. I was in Morocco recently and came across a certain Mr. Bargash. I could not believe this, as “Vargas” is a very common family name in Mexico. The other surprise was when, over coffee, a friend told me that she had found out that the common last name “Reyes” actually comes from Arabic as well. You see, in Arabic, the word “Ras” (plural Reis) means head, boss or king. Well, guess how you say king in Spanish? “Rey”.

The other ones that I like are articles of clothing. “Bantaloun” for “Pantalon” (pants), “Qamis” for “Camisa” (shirt), “Qalcet” for “Calcetines” (socks), “Sobat” for “Zapato” (shoes). I also love the ones that have to do with food: “Zeitun” for “Aceituna” (olive), coming obviously from  “Zeit” or “Aceite” (oil),  “Zukkar for “Azucar” (sugar), the color “Zafra”, that means yellow, and where the word “Azafran” (saffron) comes from. And finally you have places in the house, such as “Assutáyha” for “azotea” (roof), or “Al-qubba” for “Alcoba” (room).

But my all time favorite is “al qawwad” (the messenger) which gives the word  “Alcahuete” (accomplice in a love affair).

I wonder what my Mum will tell me when I go back home, and I start asking for “Zeitunas”, or I say I am going to my “Alqubba”, or if I tell her I like her “Sobatos”… She will tell me “ You are loca!” (which comes from “lawqa").

PS: please note that my “spelling” with the words in Arabic might not be correct, as I am reproducing them phonetically. 

martes, 4 de octubre de 2011

Walking around in Beirut

I wonder if I am writing less these days because I am too busy or because Beirut is becoming “what is usual”. I spend sometimes days thinking about what I am going to write about and then it hits me!

I was running on Sunday on the “Corniche”, this promenade along the Mediterranean Sea, where everyone and their mother spends countless hours wondering around. I couldn’t help but thinking of the “Alameda”  a long street in Mexico City’ s downtown, where everyone goes to hangout on Sundays aswell.

The “Corniche” is Beirut’s traditional waterfront. You have beautiful hotels, the American University of Beirut, Starbucks and Mc Donalds side by side with decaying buildings, coffee shops and little stores.

On the Corniche, vagabonds are strolling around next to highly make-uped and jeweled ladies wearing Chanel (how else would you go jogging, hello?), little kids on their tricycles, next to big kids on their mopeds (yes, on the sidewalk), miniskirts next to veils, bikes and rollerblades and even fishermen next to runners.

On a Saturday or Sunday night, cars are parked along the sidewalk, blasting some Arabic songs, and people sometimes are even dancing too. Others bring their Arguileh -or water pipe- and suck on it merrily while people-watching. A man can approach you to sell you some knock-your-socks-off coffee (to “wake your veins up” according to him. I just get massive jitters), bread, or cigarrettes.  

But don’t be fooled: the Corniche is vibrant and fully alive every day of the week, and dare I say, at every hour. Sometimes when I go for a run at 7am, it is already full of joggers, ladies on their cell-phones or fishermen. During the day, you can see some people jumping off the Corniche to swim (no girls allowed though). And on weekends families come to walk around, the Corniche being one of the only pedestrian areas in Beirut.

I personally just love the Ferris wheel, lit up with neon lights at night or the fact that you can see off "Raouche" the Pigeon rock at a distance.

But what I like the most about the Corniche is that everybody goes. Young and old. Families and young couples. Men and women. Muslim and Christian. Locals and tourists. These days I feel there are fewer and fewer places like this. Hence the importance of public spaces. 

So if you are in Beirut, do not miss an afternoon walk along the Corniche. You will see all of Lebanon there, walking.

 Photos from Wikipedia 

domingo, 4 de septiembre de 2011

Generosity at a whole different level

I have been slacking in my writing, I confess. But I do have a good reason (or excuse?)

I fostered a cat and her 5 kitties for 2 months. My husband calls them the "refugees" (joke, no political correctness at all).

I have written about cats in Lebanon before. There are loads of them in the street. Since I love cats, this is like an awesome thing for me since my landlord doesn't let us have pets in the house.
For my husband, he thinks cats are the Lebanese equivalent of street rats. I couldn't disagree more. Cats have personality. And personality goes a long way (any Pulp Fiction fans?)

So here is the story of the Mum and the 5 kitties: I am walking past the dumpster next to my house and say, as usual, hello to my feline neighbors. I notice this time though that there is a new cat in the block. She is skinny, and frankly sort of ugly. But she starts following me (street cats don't do that) and meowing and meowing. She then goes to a little corner behind a pile of trash and shows me 6 little little cats. Maybe 2 weeks old.

The first thing that surprised me is that a cat never shows where her kitties are. Second, street cats don't follow people. This was a house cat. Long story short, I go to my house, bring milk for her in a little Tupperware and she drinks it like crazy. Poor Mum-Cat is starving. So I pour some more milk and go home.

The next day, there are only 5 kitties left. There is a little fur ball further away, but it looks crushed. Maybe a car backed down? I panic. These kittens are going to die if someone doesn't do something.
But who?

I call my friend who volunteers at Animal Lebanon. She sends a volunteer to pick up the cats and brings them to the vet. The kittens have an eye infection and need medicine. The Mum-Cat is malnourished.

So I call my landlord and my husband and we found a happy arrangement: the cats are allowed home as long as it is not a permanent arrangement and they stay in the balcony. Yahoo!

Having 5 kittens in my house was so much fun. Even my husband warmed up to it, as we saw them grow stronger, get better, and wrestle with each other. I wouldn't say Mum cat got fat, since she was breastfeeding 5 kittens after all. But she looked much better.

After the 6th week, it was time to find a home for the kittens. Friends, friends of friends and people who contacted me through Animal Lebanon came to the house and took them to a loving home, one by one. It made me so happy to meet such generous people. These kitties were going to have a much better and healthier life.

The problem was the Mum. Usually people don't adopt adult cats. And then, a co-worker of mine told me about H. H lives in Saida, a city south from Beirut, and is a huge animal lover. He has a garden and rescues street cats and dogs (in separate locations). He has 60 cats and 50 dogs. And he pays for their food and medical treatment out of pocket.

So I contacted H and he told me no problem, he would take the cat as long as she was spayed. So Animal Lebanon helped me find a very professional vet who did the operation for a good price. Mum cat recovered within a week. 

I drove down to Saida with 2 friends, and H invited us to his house. We sat down in his garden, surrounded by cats of all shapes and sizes. He served us fruit from his garden and fresh lemonade (although he was fasting) and told us how taking care of animals made him feel that his heart was turning softer and sweeter. He truly believes that it  is humanity’s duty to take care of defenseless creatures that can’t speak up. And he doesn't stop there. Every time he sees a wounded, abused or abandoned animal in the street, he brings it to the vet and keeps it in the garden. He has even made a deal with the local butcher, and he comes everyday to pick up the meat scarps to give them to his dogs.

I was just amazed at his compassion and commitment. He is by no means a rich man. But that doesn’t stop him. He only asked me to bring a big bag of cat food. And he took another cat in.

I was so proud of myself and my little cat rescue mission. This man put things in perspective…

Although there are organizations in Lebanon to protect animals and do a great job–such as Animals Lebanon- the amount of work to be done is enormous. A lot of street animals have to rely on people who pick them up spontaneously, such as H, but in all cases that doesn’t mean they will be cared for properly or that they won’t end up in the future back on the streets. I don’t know what needs to be done, but I am certain there must be a way to establish a more systematic approach to street animals’ care and protection. Any ideas?

martes, 9 de agosto de 2011

On things we have in common

A dear Lebanese friend lost a relative this weekend. Not knowing the "protocol", I called upon my Lebanese friends to understand what was appropriate in terms of dress code, what to say, etc.

We decided to go as a group with some friends, since the funeral was going to take place in the village where my friend's family is from, and there was no chance that this clueless Mexican was going to make it up there (my friend later explained that funerals take place in the villages because in Beirut apartments are smaller and there is no room to accommodate visitors).

We arrived to this beautiful village in the mountains, and I noticed because of the religious symbols in front of the houses that we were in a Maronite village. As we entered the house, we were invited to the living room, where all the women were gathered. Later someone explained to me that the biggest couch is reserved for the people who were the closest to the deceased, the immediate family. So when visitors enter the room, it is obvious who to give the condolences to (felt a little silly with my "I am sorry for your loss" by the way, realizing that most people didn't speak English...)

We then proceeded to the balcony, where the men were gathered. Since it was much cooler, I was about to sit down there when my Lebanese friend told me "We go inside". Until that point I had not realized that men and women were in separate rooms. Thank God my friend was there. That would have been awkward to say the least.

We started chatting and the topic of what is traditional in Lebanon around funerals came up, for obvious reasons. It was very interesting to me to realize that people do different things depending on where they from (i.e. their religion). This is something I always forget, that in Lebanon you don't think in terms of "what we do in Lebanon" (as I would in terms of "what we do in Mexico), but you think along the lines of "what my family does" or "what we do in the village".

So my Muslim friend who comes from Baalbeck was telling me that over there, people get buried in the Muslim tradition, with absolutely no jewelry or anything other than a white cloth, to symbolize the humility of the person as s/he goes back to God. When I told her that in Mexico we cremate people she looked at me very surprised. Apparently this is a very foreign concept to them (and reading online, it is actually forbidden for Muslims to cremate the death).
She also mentioned that a huge banquet has to be offered (almost 700 people went the last one she attended) and a respected member of the community is invited to give a speech. She mentioned also something about having horses present during the ceremony.

Something interesting that came up was the hiring of women to cry during the wake. This is something I had heard was done in Mexico, and my friend told me that in Lebanon they do it to.
I was sharing with her that in Mexico funerals are usually very solemn, in funeral homes, with people barely speaking or making noise. This event at my friend's house was somehow more convivial and lighter.

A woman came around offering coffee and water. I gladly accepted since I was hot and thirsty. I soon realized that my other friend, who happens to be Muslim as well, didn't take anything, as it is now Ramadan.

Suddenly it dawn on me: here I was, this Mexican girl, seating with a Maronite, a Greek Orthodox, and two Muslims, having a quiet conversation in a Sunday afternoon. We were all there to support our friend through a difficult time. We were not different.

So next time I hear about Lebanon, about how divided and sectarian it is, I will make sure to remind myself that there are loads of people who aren't like that. That there are decent, loving people no matter where I go. I was honored and touched to be able to be part of this moment and to witness Lebanese with Lebanese, as members of a community, no matter where they came from or which religion they were.

domingo, 24 de julio de 2011

Piano concert under the stars of Lebanon

I recently attended an incredible concert in the midst of Roman ruins a couple of hours away from Beirut. The setting couldn't have been more perfect.

As I was seating and watching my surroundings, I couldn't help but being, once more, surprised by Lebanon. I mean, this is a country that is constantly under some sort of political, economic or social instability. And here, in the midst of what would be considered "hostile" territory (indeed, some unfortunate Estonians had been kidnapped in the area in March this year, and were released recently), I am listening to a world-class pianist perform Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. I did take some video, but -helas- the Internet speed in my apartment will not allow me to upload things to YouTube :(

Top moments of the night:
1. When in the middle of Prokofiev's Sarcasms a series of loud bangs where heard, probably (hopefully) fire works coming from the village nearby in celebration of a wedding or other equally significant event (and the audience of course, pretended not hearing them)
2. When in the middle of the concert, we heard the Call to Prayer, loud and clear. Here, again, the audience and performerpretended nothing was happening. The performer did stop at some point, in a highly theatrical pause, that I suspect had more to do with a little mental break from the noise, than with the music itself.
3. The kebab stand and Pepsi vending machine, inside of the ruins, for all hungry concert- goers searching for a lat night snack.

Overall, the performance was incredible, the setting amazing, and the organization impeccable. Which brings back my overarching conversation around the contradictions of Lebanon. On the one had, you have this chaotic, disorderly country where things seldomly work properly, and on the other, you have this amazingly cultured, sophisticated and refined people, who give you access to experiences that you would never dream of seeing.

Here are some more pictures of an unforgettable night. Enjoy.

lunes, 18 de julio de 2011

Home Sweet Home

I am just coming back from a 2-week conference in the US. I hadn’t been there since last year when we moved to Beirut and this was also the longest I have been away from Lebanon since I arrived.

I spent a couple of days by myself before and after my conference. I noticed during these days that things seemed unexciting and I was bored and slightly numb. There was an overall sense of monotony.

Being usually an upbeat and active person, I kept asking myself what was wrong. I couldn’t really figure it out. This was not my usual self. And then I remembered a comment some American friends had made upon their return to the US after living for years in Beirut. Things were predictable. There were no surprises. Life was dull.

On a bus in the US, I was feeling tense and uneasy. I wasn’t really sure why. Then, I realized that the bus was there exactly on schedule, and it left me exactly at the bus stop. “Why am I so nervous?-I asked myself- There is no need to be nervous or on edge on public transportation here. In the US, things work.” There was nothing to figure out.

Yesterday, I was walking in this amazing mall. Full of amazing stores. Full of pretty, new things that you could only find there. As I was walking around, I felt tired and empty. I just couldn’t do it. The ads, the sales, the stuff. I was completely overwhelmed and anxious and had to leave.

Finally, today on the plane back, as I was watching the news on a tiny TV screen, I realized – to my surprise- that I hadn’t watched the news for over a week. I say to my surprise, because when I am in Beirut I usually read the news in the morning, at lunchtime, and sometimes in the evening. Yes, in Beirut it is totally normal for me to follow the news all the time. Because if I don’t, not only am I totally out of the loop, but also, I have this feeling that I missed something important that could prove key in times of crisis.

In the US somehow I felt disconnected. Not really sure what that meant. I felt isolated and alone. Very far away from everything. I felt like I was not at home anymore.

So now I ask myself… Have I become used to Beirut? Have I become an adrenaline-addict, car-honking, chaos-loving, person? Have I pushed comfort and order aside, to embrace the unpredictability of Lebanon? Wasn’t the US the ideal, what I wanted all along?

This is completely unexpected.

But as I am on the plane, I can’t help but feeling relaxed. And strangely safe. A bit more free. And yes, the flight with Lufthansa was more orderly than the flight with MEA. But as the saying goes “Home is where the heart is”. Well, I guess I am going home now. Because it is now clear to me that my heart is in Beirut.

domingo, 3 de julio de 2011

The Cancun of the Middle East

A couple of weekends ago I was invited to a “Mexican” beach party in a beach club near Beirut. I think I went more out of curiosity than of patriotism. I mean, after seeing the poster for the party- with a pretty bikini girl with a sombrero on, and an inviting “Arriba, Arriba, Andale, Andale”- how could I say no?

So here I come, with my jean-shorts and my official Mexican soccer team T-shirt ready to experience some relaxing beach time on a Sunday afternoon.

When my husband and I got to the beach club entrance, we realized that there were bodyguards at the door, and a list. And our names had actually being put on the list. “Hmmm…” I thought to myself. “I think we didn’t understand what a Sunday afternoon beach party in Lebanon was all about”.

When we started walking inside of the beach club I realized that I was-yet again -severely underdressed (and overweight). Yes, Lebanese women wear high heels and make up even to beach parties.

As we arrived to where the party was taking place, my husband’s jaw dropped, and quite frankly mine did too. Let’s say that right in front of us was a Girls-Gone –Wild meets Cancun Spring Break meets Playboy Mansion.

Our host greeted us with a vigorous champagne splash in the face from a bottle that he had been shaking over the dancers. And as I looked around me I realized that I didn’t have to go to Cancun anymore to experience the crazy spring break frenzy. Cancun had just come to me! Right here in Lebanon, on a Sunday afternoon!

I must confess I was a bit overwhelmed at the beginning by the techno music, the high-heeled girls dancing on the top of the bar with only their bikinis on (that is besides the shoes) and the drinking directly from the bottle from the guys. Gosh I am getting old.

But you know what? They had REAL Mariachi hats hanging from the ceiling and that gave me the little boost of confidence that I needed. Those hats were the only Mexican thing about the Mexican party besides me (and the chilies hanging from the ceiling). So this hot Chiquita put the Mariachi hat on and then showed those Lebanese girls some Mexican moves.

After a couple of hours people just… left.

And all the crazy party, noise and girls wearing mini bikinis were replaced by a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. My husband and I looked at each other baffled and just started laughing. Where else can you see these contrasts, from intense partying to a romantic sunset in a matter of hours? Only in Lebanon.

sábado, 11 de junio de 2011

Clapping on Landings Part 2

A while back, I wrote about my experience of an airplane landing in Lebanon. As I read it now, I can see how uncomfortable it had been for me, new to this area, to understand the way things work in Lebanon, and with a tone of humour, had described a situation that had seemed funny at that point in time.

I had the occasion to be in a flight again back to Beirut this week, and this time, humor turned into anger. Being a person who prides myself on being able to keep my cool, this anger came as a surprise, since this was after all a seemingly mundane situation. However, it also gave me access to a more deeper understanding of my own discomfort and prejudices as foreigner in the Middle East.

I come from a country very similar to Lebanon, in the sense that without a very efficient public sector, the individual protects its private interest through a network of contacts, a tradition of bribery and an overall opportunism. However, I was educated in a French school my whole childhood, and then attended a Mexican university that follows an entirely American doctrine, to then do my post graduate studies in an university in the United States. It isn't then surprising that my overall "opinion" of the world, and how it "should" function is inevitably influenced by a western - or whatever you want to call it- mentality.

In this world vision, the concept of "order" is highly sought after, and following rules, being considerate to others, being polite, waiting, letting others pass first, etc. are behaviours that are expected and also praised.

I have trained myself as a master of consideration (despite my Mexican "gandallismo", or opportunism, that I have described before), so in airplanes, contained spaces, with restricted movement, with a gazillion of unspoken, unwritten rules, I have very little tolerance for any one not abiding by them and "misbehaving".

So it is not a surprise that I yelled at a person who cut me in line, was absolutely disgusted by the dirty seat I was seating on, and was looking with an overall disdain to my surroundings, at all "these" people who were not seating down, stuffing their bags on my face, letting kids throw food to other passengers (i.e. me), fighting with one another, shouting, drooping food on the floor, etc, etc, etc (and yes, clapping during landing).

I spent at least 2 hours looking for a "decent" soul to cross looks with, so I could commiserate with someone about my tragic situation, and feel a little less alone in this chaotic 5 hours flight. After the third hour however, I started noticing the tension in my neck, how tight I was holding my laptop case, and how, after the third try, I could just not focus on my highly important paper full of big, fancy, intelligent words.

But most of all, I noticed how separated and different I felt from the people around me. How much I was certain there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I could have in common with "these' people. In shock, I started feeling ashamed (that is usually what I do, as a good Catholic girl). And then, I started connecting myself with reality and realizing how the "western" filter, the "things should be orderly" filter, the "I am better than them" filter was not allowing me to 1) enjoy the hilariousness of the whole situation, 2) chat with people around me, who I actually knew nothing about and 3) relax.

I noticed that the person I had yelled at in line was- of course- seating in the row in front of me. So I tapped his shoulder and apologized for my behaviour, and explained I had a weak point for orderly lines, and that I could be a bitch about it. He told me quickly "No harm done". Then he looked at me and said "Do you live in Lebanon?". And when I said that indeed, I did, he replied laughing "That doesn't surprise me. I would be annoyed by lines too." In that moment, his wife turned and offered me gum. I took it and she smiled at me.

When the conversation was over, I was moved to tears. "What a jerk I can be, my God" I though. This was an important lesson for me. Trying to make the world around me fit my expectations of how it should be robs me from the experience of feeling connected and appreciating the beauty in what is actually happening. Had I stuck to my righteousness, I would have lost this moment with these total strangers. The generosity and graciousness of this couple was extraordinary: they were joking around and offering gum to a woman who had been a total bitch to them 3 hours before.

If that isn't tolerance, then I don't know what is.

miércoles, 8 de junio de 2011

Camping in Lebanon

Last weekend, I went camping with some friends to a camping site near Amchit (I swear that’s the name of the town). We packed cooler, grill, sleeping bags and back packs and off we went. My husband, who prides himself on being an outdoor expert, was looking forward to starting the fire from scratch, grilling the marshmallows and walking around in Nature (according to him only people who grew up in a city say “Going to Nature”)…

So you can only imagine our surprise when we arrived to the camp site and saw that the first “camper” had brought a Karaoke machine with him. We stared wide eyed around us as little by little we began to understand what camping in Lebanon was actually all about. Let’s say it is more like “partying outdoors” than camping in Nature…

So amidst the highly fashionable concurrence (darn, I am underdressed, again…), perfectly sculpted bodies, the neon Ray ban glasses, the techno beat and the giant plastic swimming pools, we started the grill and opened the first Almazas (local beers) to then watch a most beautiful sunset.

Don’t get me wrong, the campsite is actually great, clean and with a fantastic view to the Mediterranean Sea. But the longer I live in Lebanon, the more I realize than any time you are outside your house it is an opportunity to see and be seen, and the concept of a laid back gathering-such as camping with friends- doesn’t mean you lose the “style”.

After talking with some local folks, there are apparently some “normal” campsites where people truly go to get away from the fast-paced urban life style. And there is a tradition of trekking (check out this post) and even a Lebanese Mountain Trail that you can do like in a month and a half. It’s just that as clueless foreigners we ended up in the campsite that had a website. And that meant, well, that we got the “fancy” experience.

PS: We complained a lot about the Karaoke guy up till like 10 o’clock. After that, I think we all joined.

domingo, 15 de mayo de 2011

Welcome to Lebanon

When you walk the streets of Lebanon, people will greet you in a million ways. Some examples are:
  • MarHaba (Hi)
  • Kifik? (How are you? for a girl)
  • Sabah al khair/nour (Good morning/afternoon)
  • Bonjour (if you are in the Christian side)
I am sure there is a hidden key to which one is the most appropriate, depending on the person you are talking to, but I personally mostly use MarHaba since it generally applies to everyone, no matter what time of the day it is.

What really intrigued me since I got here was that people will 9 times out of 10 reply "Ahlan" or "Ahlan Wa Sahlan". However, people also say "Ahlan" when you come in a shop, when you ask for something, and when you say "Thank you". So I figured out that "Ahlan" was the equivalent of "You are welcome".

However, like everything in Arabic, I knew there was something more to it than the simple straightforward English "You are welcome". So I asked a Lebanese friend and did a bit of research online and this is what I found:

"Ahlan" literally means "family, kinfolk."
"Sahlan" literally means "easy". So '
Sahlan' might refer to something equivalent to "May you tread an easy path (as you enter)."

Another explanation I found read: "The word 'Ahlan' means something like "You arrived among your family", or as we sometimes say "Make yourself at home". It's the same idea : with us you're home, you're in your family. It an expression of hospitality and friendliness.

I know that many times I use words automatically without meaning them. Or even worse, I hear things without really reflecting upon what they mean. Recently, a very wise person told me that the highest thing one can do for another is to welcome that person with respect and love. And when I heard that, it dawned on me that people in Lebanon have been welcoming me as their family every day, in every encounter.

I have written before about Lebanese hospitality which already blows my mind. So this little word "Ahlan" has truly transformed my experience in Lebanon and my experience of the Lebanese. How generous is it to welcome someone they don't know with the respect and love they would offer a family member? And how can they say "You are in your family" to a total stranger?

For a foreigner, who has been taught to mistrust strangers, this is a revolutionary concept. By learning to apply it, I can see how this will improve the quality of my interactions and the overall quality of my life in Lebanon. I will also maybe loosen up a bit and not be so stressed out or focus on the differences between "them" and "me".

What a paradigm shift! I walk among my family in Lebanon... The challenge is "Will I be able to drop the BS and truly welcome them back?" I think it is definitely worth trying.

sábado, 7 de mayo de 2011

Snogging in Lebanon

Lebanon, like Mexico, is a rather conservative country.

Do not be fooled by the nine inch heals, leather pants and cleavages. Girls and boys in Lebanon behave in public. PDA is not appropriate. I wouldn't say that it is as conservative as how I have heard the countries in the Gulf are, i.e. not even hand holding is permitted.

Here in Lebanon, it just doesn't happen that much. You would see the occasional snogging couple in a club, but it is still rare.

It sort of reminds me of my teenage years in Mexico. You see in Mexico, as in Lebanon, people live with their parents till they get married. But that doesn't mean that you don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend. Or that you don't have needs. Especially as a teenager. So, yup, the car is usually the only opportunity you get. Parked in a dark corner, or next to a park... It's not like you are going to do it at your parent's house. Come on... Who hasn't done it??

Lately, I have heard of some underground snogging scene... the "Lover's lane" they call it. It is in the Dbayeh area, a bit North of Beirut. This area was planned to attracts developers, so the town invested in roads and all. But somehow the developers didn't come, so it remains this big open space. And since in Beirut there aren't loads of parks, people have reclaimed this space for running, walking around and yes... snogging.

Last night at a friend's house, a friend told me that she used to go to Dbayeh at night and park behind the cars, and then turn the lights on. I thought of this as a bit mean but also hilarious. Pfewww, that's the worst feeling. When you think you got caught. But that doesn't stop you from doing it!

Another place where I have heard some action happens is near Pigeon Rock. One can see some teenagers in the area snogging, far away from the eyes of pedestrians. Teenagers from all religions that is. Which makes me smile, since teenagers will always be teenagers, not matter where they come from. Maybe we can learn from them to be a bit more fearless. To do those things that are a bit risky, but that gives us a sense of adventure. Even if that means getting caught in a bit of an embarrassing situation...