I remember a time when I had all the internet access I wanted, and I had to sit down and think pretty hard before I could think of something I thought worth putting up on this blog. I gotta tell you, times have changed.
I've wanted to update several times over the last couple weeks, but couldn't. So I've got a backlog of adventures. Since I last put up an update that wasn't a tip, I've been to at least five different towns, two different major Roman ruins, multiple castles, a gorgeous river valley between snow-capped mountains, one of the most impressive caves I've ever seen, some of the oldest and most atmospheric Arabian bazaars in existence, some thumping nightlife and great live music, and, to my shame, because we really didn't have any other affordable options that didn't involve getting soaking wet, a McDonald's. Being able to say I've tried a McArabia sandwich almost makes it worth it. Almost.
That's the stuff I can put up in pictures and leave out of the update without feeling like I've missed something. That does not include the hijinks I've ended up in around here I couldn't explain with one photo and a two-sentence caption. Like talking my way through military checkpoints and discreetly following a nine-man armed patrol just to try some raw beef ground literally into a paste. The fat private guard told me to. And the meal was really tasty.
I've turned down the Hezbollah t-shirts being sold in their founding city of Baalbek. Even at US$3, I doubt they'd make my life easier over the next few weeks, especially seeing as I've somehow ended up in charge of planning a massive gathering of strangers in Bethlehem for Christmas eve and morning. Rumor has it the IDF is also selling a few T-shirts themselves, but seeing as Bethlehem is in the West Bank... did I mention I might be spending that evening in an orthodox Jewish household to observe shabbat? As in sundown, December 25th?
This is my life in the Middle East.
My academic specialty is international politics. Even mentioning this region to a room of international poli-sci people has a similar effect to tossing something small and furry into a tank of sharks and piranhas. It's not pretty. So, while I have a lot to say on the subject, I'm going to try to avoid writing about the political aspect. You can't do that completely, but I'll at least limit it to the tangible things I saw and heard.
While I'd love to tell you the stories of my having to disarm a ten-year-old with a knife in Palmyra and sitting in the midst of the last professional storyteller of Syria while he shouted and whacked his table with a stick, I've already done one post on Syria. Since then I've been to Lebanon and back, and I haven't said a word about it yet. So we're going to talk (very very briefly) about that country instead.
I'm used to seeing cops around. I've even gotten used to seeing them alongside soldiers in camo and berets, strapped with automatic weapons, guarding buildings with razor wire. I'm not used to seeing them manning strategically fortified positions with sandbags and cement roadblocks, and I'm definitely not used to seeing them in the street with tanks. Welcome to Beirut, 2009.
I've been to countries hit by war before. El Salvador. Vietnam. Bosnia. As always, I'm impressed by the damage, but I'm much more impressed by seeing life keep going, and finding people as happy as some people in places that haven't seen war in centuries. But El Salvador's civil war was during the cold war. Vietnam's war with the US was during the cold war. The last war of the former Yugoslavia was in the 1990s.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006. Not before I was born, not before I was tying my own shoes. This war was happening the same time I and those my age were half way through college.
When you think jeeps, soldiers, and tanks in the streets, you think of a city that has been shut down. Let me tell you, Beirut is a lot of things, but, aside from the blocks surrounding the parliament building, shut down is not one of them. Traffic of luxury SUVs and sedans jam up the streets between thumping bars and clubs, long beaches, sparkling high rise apartments, and a new, spotless modern downtown shopping district.
The military presence is off-putting at first, but that's before you look at it closely. Once you get past the M-16 strapped around his neck, you're likely to notice the soldier is rocking back on forth on his heels with his hands in his pockets. The tanks have covers slid over the turrets. The men in berets and camo are at ease, chatting and sometimes showing each other videos on their cell phones. If one waves you over, it's probably just to get you under cover and out of the unseasonable rain they've been having the last week.
There are other little things left over. Power outages, scheduled and unscheduled. A national postage system that doesn't quite exist. Internet connections slower than a hypnotized tortoise. If you ask why, someone will quietly answer "the war," and, if you're respectful, nothing more will be said.
I only saw so much of the little country. It has a lot to see. I manage to time it just when it decided to pour rain for a week, frustrating anyone who wanted to show me the usual sights outdoors, but I still managed at least one sunny day climbing into a gorge surrounded by the sounds of birds and waterfalls, looking up at the hibernating Cedars ski area in on the other side of the ridge. A couple days later, I came back to my Beirut hotel around 3:30 am from dancing at a bar called Cloud 9. I woke up the next morning at 8:30am and could hear the nearest club still blasting dance music.
And I wonder why I'm so sleepy right now.
It's been fun, the places have been great, and I'm full of funny, profound, and just plain bizarre stories, but we'll have to save them for another outlet. I'm going to call it a night soon. My connection might be good enough to get to Middle East album in place with the others. If not, I apologize, I hopefully will have better luck tomorrow in my next country: Jordan.
Check out this entry's Photos.