Yalla to Lebanon!

Yalla[1] to Lebanon!

A century or so ago, my maternal grandparents immigrated to the U.S.from what is now modern-day Lebanon. I have been encouraged to explore my global southern roots as much by my mother and her family as by my Anglo father. I have imagined this trip to Lebanon for most of my life. I have given myself permission to go in order to conduct interviews and participant-observation for my doctoral dissertation on U.S. public diplomacy in Lebanon. For my research, I am here to listen to Lebanese tell their stories. Here, I write my own.

Spring weather is ideal for a visit. As I prepare, my only hesitation stems from the uprisings of civil society in Syria and the “Arab Spring” elsewhere in the broader Middle East. Most images of Lebanon in the mainstream Western media are ill-informed, lacking context. These images, coupled with the standard warning by the U.S. Department of State for Americans to avoid unnecessary travel there, raise concern among my family.  I respectfully acknowledge them, explaining the larger, nuanced context of Lebanese society as best I understand it. They seem to trust my judgment. (I do buy travel insurance for the first time ever, though.)
In between conducting interviews and participant-observation of group meetings, and background conversations with journalists, civil society leaders, university faculty, and arts professionals, there is little time for tourism during my three-week stay. The research results stay confidential, but I write emails home – subject line “Project Lebanon” – about the rest of my experience here.  I fumble through conversations in weak Lebanese Arabic and fret over not seeing the northern, southern, and eastern parts of Lebanon outside Beirut. Yet, I feel so lucky to be here and am so humbled by the diversity of the place. I temper any frustration by getting tutored in the Lebanese dialect and compiling a list of things to do and places to see on future visits.

I have had the pleasure of visiting several countries in the Mediterranean region. None have disappointed culturally. The climate seems to generate a varied and healthy cuisine that must be at least partially responsible for the warmth and resilience of the people. However, green Lebanese olives have more flavor and color than any sampled in Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, or Israel. Wherever I go, I look for them and other market vegetables and fruits (which may also be from Syria). One sniff of the local tabbouleh and fettoush is all it takes to abandon any stateside warning to avoid unpeeled, raw vegetables and fruits. I relish the exuberance and flair of Lebanese cuisine.

It’s a good thing, too, because socializing here means eating. To welcome and enjoy Lebanese companionship is to pay attention to the food being selected and shared. In a Lebanese home, eating everything on your plate means the host must serve more. On my first trip outside Beirut, to a southeasterly mountain village, a friend and I are hosted by a mutual friend and his mother. The meal is traditional and delicious. Appetizers include olives, hummous, baba ghanouj, fresh bread, and a delicate laban (yogurt) that she makes from local milk. The kibbeh, kefta, fettoush, tabbouleh, and potatoes come next. I am stuffed. Then, sweets that are to die for. Toward the end of the meal I say that I will keep this day in my thoughts and my heart. Our male host says enough of the corny talk. I protest. It's culturally appropriate to be effusive and I won't have another chance to show his mother how special this all is. Then, she brings out a homemade cake – apparently, four or five kinds of sweet are only the appetizer dessert.  He says, shall we celebrate the death of bin Laden? Slightly uncomfortable, I respond, well, it is my birthday, tomorrow. We proceed to mark the less controversial event. (Indeed, the U.S. killing of the Al Qaeda leader is rarely brought up by my Lebanese interlocutors.)

I find warm community, delicious food, and intriguing conversation easily in Lebanon. In addition to the uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere, the ongoing revelations by Wikileaks provide plenty of table talk. Much of that goes on late into the night in Beirut. At Regusto, a popular Armenian bistro, several journalists and an American University of Beirut professor delve into Middle Eastern geopolitics. I mostly listen, struggling to stay awake and focusing as always on the food-laden table.  

Community in Lebanon is as complex as it is inviting. Despite its small size (think Connecticut), the country’s mountains and valleys and legacy of several ancient civilizations and foreign colonizers have produced intense diversity. Eighteen legally recognized religious confessions are proportionally represented in the national government. By Constitutional design, one’s confessional background is a key factor in selection for government service. This confessional system of governance complicates national unity, and the history of Lebanon’s struggling democracy includes a civil war between Christians and Muslims (1975-1990). Over 250,000 marginalized Palestinian refugees further complicate the struggle.

Amidst post-civil war reconstruction, the current “Arab Spring,” especially troubles in Syria, cause worry in Lebanon.  Despite an influx of refugees from the north, so far, there is relative stability among the Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. All political parties, and the Hizbullah militia, are restrained. A caretaker government has been in place since January. I keep track of the news headlines through the English language periodical, The Daily Star (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/default.aspx#axzz1NkqZMxLj) and http://www.naharnet.com/ .
The people here seem to have a great capacity to carry on. A dear friend from Beirut sends web links to stories and images of Beirut’s only synagogue. It is being restored as a museum, since there are so few Jews left in the country. Twice, while touring downtown, I see the synagogue. It is fenced in, guarded and entry is prohibited. The first time, I snap photos until a soldier raises his hand to stop and shoo my companion and me away. I see the restoration and the security as favorable. Private sector donations for the restoration, government provision of security. Others, especially Jewish Americans, might dwell on the reasons most Jews have left Beirut. 

The Lebanese political situation is “loaded,” as one Beiruti twenty-something  puts it, but when you consider the actual crime statistics for Beirut and most of the country’s interior, people are safer here than in many U.S. cities. I never feel unsafe as a woman, walking unaccompanied through the neighborhoods of Beirut. I promise my family I won’t travel to our “ancestral village” in the Biqaa’ valley, although I hear of no violent activity there. Several people encourage me to hire a taxi to the Biqaa’; it’s high on my list for the next visit.
I am humbled by the country’s complexity and resources. I soon realize that I don’t even know what I don’t know, while my hosts have a deep working knowledge of politics beyond their own country and region. And they follow U.S. politics particularly closely. As the saying goes, when the U.S. sneezes, developing countries get pneumonia. 

When I am not doing research, I walk and taxi around Beirut, glimpsing culture, politics, and public spaces. A guided, four-hour walk along the Green Line of the civil war era (http://www.bebeirut.org/walk.html) provides a robust initiation to Beirut. I am transported to ancient “pre-Lebanon” at the Beirut National Museum. It’s a large, sophisticated repository of artifacts from the pre-historic lower Paleolithic era through the 13th century of the Mamluk dynasty (http://www.beirutnationalmuseum.com/e-histoire.htm) .

On my perambulations, I love to watch people. Beirutis life seems more communal than mine. Families are really close; children are their center. Weekends are spent among family. There is plenty of running around, though. Those with the money drag-race through downtown in sleek European sports cars. There is a good deal of air pollution because of all the traffic in Beirut. However, an international filmmaker with whom I take Lebanese lessons dismisses me; real pollution is when “your boogers are black.”
Lebanon is a crossroads of many cultures and geographies. Since I cannot on this trip venture much outside Beirut, I suffice with virtual resources. I view Mediterranean seascapes at http://pictures.traveladventures.org/images/beyrut1 and magnificent cedar trees at http://www.shoufcedar.org/).  I gain familiarity with the Lebanese countryside by scanning http://www.beyondbeirut.com/. I find helpful context on national history, politics, culture, and the expansive Lebanese diaspora reading a variety of Lebanese American authors, including Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani.  Beirut, by Samir Kassir, is a popular, recently published history recommended by several friends. My “Project Lebanon” list grows.

The main story of Lebanon is in the uber-dynamic commercial services industry and burgeoning nongovernmental sector. They are driven by resourceful, wise, and resilient people. I take heart because of all the progress I see in the 20 years since the civil war. There is a rising national commitment, especially among Lebanese youth, to sustainable development and eco-tourism. Bombed-out buildings are also constant reminders of war, but gleaming new buildings and elegantly restored architecture, like the National Museum, are just as apparent. Thoughtful Lebanese say that they have a lot of work to do. I reflect, but you have accomplished much. There is always a lot to improve in our lives.

Although I spend most of my time within Beirut, I travel by private taxi or with new acquaintances to three places within an hour from the capital. One is by public bus to the mountain village for the lunch described above. Another is by taxi to Louaize, north of Beirut, near the limestone caves of Jeita Grotto. The third, Harissa, is a bit further. It is an important religious site in the hills above Jounieh Bay. I am so grateful for these guided trips. They are easily arranged, thanks to generous hosts and the abundance of multi-lingual taxi-drivers. Without knowing the local dialect, traveling unaided would otherwise be less efficient and enjoyable.
I learn early while in Beirut not to push my linguistic limits. During my very first taxi ride within the city, I happily chirp in Modern Standard Arabic with the driver. I use the word for “patience” – pronounced “sabr” with a hard “s”  – as in “you have a lot of patience to be speaking in formal Arabic so that I can understand you.” This this driver mistakes for “penis” – which in the Lebanese dialect is pronounced “thabr” with “th” as in “that.”  We end up in an uncomfortable conversation about me not wanting to talk about large penises. And developing a working knowledge of Lebanese Arabic is the most difficult task on my “Project Lebanon” list.

I am a smitten Lebanese American tourist.  I catch myself every day thinking, yalla, back to Lebanon. Until the next trip, I eke out the experience with coffee, pistachios, and sweets from the duty- free shops at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. I listen to Fairuz when I work out. I wish all the best for the Lebanese.

[1] Let’s go; hurry up.