Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jordan Challenge 37: Up All Night in Beirut

Lots of people know New York City as the City that Never Sleeps, and I had a great time testing out the title with Chris a couple years ago. So naturally it seemed like a good idea to try out the same strategy in a new place, with Mike and Cooper totally on board. I am proud to say that Mike, Cooper and I proved that Beirut is a very easy place to have an all-night adventure.  Should anyone at home wish to try it, you can start with this handy step-by-step guide.

Step One: Begin the Day as Usual
For Mike, Cooper and me this meant breakfast, some further exploration on foot of the city, and some quality time reading at a cafe on Rue Gouraud.

It began like most other days in Beirut -- putting in some time with some caffeinated beverages and reading materials at a lovely cafe.
Step Two: Go to a Soccer Game
Funny the things you take for granted.  Beirut is the first city any of the three of us had ever been to where political tensions could be measured by whether spectators are allowed to view the national team play its soccer matches. Luckily for us, according to Mike's journalist friend Steven, things were pretty calm the week we there, which meant that Lebanon could actually play its match against Uzbekistan in front of fans rather than an empty stadium.

Nothing says carefree like a solid wall of riot police ringing the field for the entire game.  This is also the only professional sports event I've ever been to where my entry was seriously delayed because every single fan was subjected to airport-style security searches as the stadium gate.

My favorite fan was sitting about 4 rows down. She had the Lebanese flag painted on her face and also covering her hair.  It was probably due to her attentive support that Lebanon was able to score the single goal that ended the game in a tie.
Step Three: Fuel Up at (Where Else?) Le Chef
Le Chef is something of a local legend.  It doesn't look fancy from the outside, but the food is awesome and you can't miss the distinctive tall, thin waiter who is always there waving people inside with a gravelly-voiced "Welcome, welcome".  Once inside he gives you a menu, which is a bit superfluous because he has already decided what you will order, and resistance is futile. Le Chef had its 15 minutes of fame in 2006 when, under Israeli bombing, internationally-famous foodie Anthony Bourdain, insisted on pressing on with his show at the restaurant before cancelling the rest of the Lebanon series.

If you don't go to Le Chef while you're in Beirut, you may as well stay home. It was, of course, the perfect dinner for our Up All Night experience.
Step Four: Take Up Residence at One of Gemmayze's Charming Bars for a Long Night of Drinks and Conversation
After taking care of the all-important dinner requirement, it was time to move a few doors down the street to one of the many small and friendly bars on the block for drinks and Intelligent Discussion of Important Things. For our political science-heavy contingent (Cooper actually got his degree in economics but if pressed he could play a political scientist on TV remarkably well), that can only mean one thing.  Not celebrity gossip or whether this season of Mad Men was good as the others, but whether the nation-state is inherently a social construct that encourages immoral behavior.  You know, the usual 2 am chit-chat in a bar. We managed to keep the debate alive till about 3:30 am, when we didn't run out of ideas, but the bartender ran out of patience with us and a few other stragglers and suggested we take our witty and urbane ideas elsewhere.
Our good-natured waitress snapped this picture about 2 minutes before she broke the news to us that we would have to move our weighty political discussion to another venue -- perhaps the UN?

Step Five: After Closing Down the Bar, Explore the City
Once our bar had closed it was time for some general city exploration in search of others that might still welcome us with open arms.  Our thought was that the high-end hotels with their rooftop bars along the waterfront might be just the trick.  But alas, we discovered that the high rollers there apparently turn it in by 4 am, too.  However, the security staff did seem concerned about us, and I think noting our less-than-glamorous clothes, decided we might be in desperate need of wet wash cloths for some on-the-spot freshening up, and bottles of water for rehydrating.  We accepted their charitable contributions to our cause and made our way onward to the Corniche.

Around 4 am, and the guys were getting punchy and I was getting bossy.  Hence, the order for them to pose among the statues.

Step Six: Head to the Corniche for the Sunrise
So, obviously, when all else fails (and especially when you're starting to get sleepy) the thing to do is to head to the waterfront.  We were not alone in this conclusion and we spent a pleasant hour or so waiting for the sun to come up by trying to sort out the late-nighters from the early-morning types who inhabited the space with us. 
Mike and Cooper, hiding their sleepiness fairly well.

Mike also took the opportunity to play around with the settings of his camera.  Here is his Artistic Black and White Shot.

Step Seven: Declare Victory and Head Back to the Hostel for Some Well-Deserved Rest
Around 5 am the sun came up, and we watched it make its appearance and then did some more people-watching as well.  Then we gathered ourselves for one last long walk back to our hostel and some serious sleep. Victory!

We did it!  Pulling together one last burst of energy for the long walk home.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jordan Challenge 36: Untangling the Politics of Lebanon

One of the many things I've learned from my ten months in Jordan is that I absolutely love Beirut.  As my good friend and fellow political science Fulbrighter Mike and I often concur, it is a political scientist's stomping ground of the first order.  No decision could have possibly easier, then, when Mike and Cooper graciously invited me to join them for a return trip to Lebanon for a week.  Although the three of us are, admittedly, a bit nerdy in our fascination of the politics of the place, I am proud to say that we also got in touch with our more adventuresome side and did a Middle Eastern version of one of my favorite things from my year of 52 New Things: 24 hours without sleeping (this time in Beirut instead of New York City). But work before pleasure (even if learning the politics was pleasure to our rabidly political brains), and the story of 24 hours on the go in the not-so-sleepy city of Beirut will get its own post.
Mike and Cooper on the Corniche at the beginning of our week-long quest to learn more about the complicated realm of Lebanese politics.

If I could neatly explain Lebanese politics in a single blog post I would be brilliant and probably worthy of some sort of important prize, because that is an impossible task.  So, I shall not attempt it, but rather content myself with briefly mentioning two of the obvious features that make the politics of the country at once impossibly complicated but endlessly fascinating.  The first is Lebanon's sectarian make-up and the second is its neighbors.These two things cause tiny little Lebanon to pack a punch far greater than its size -geographic or population-wise - would normally warrant.

 When Lebanon got its independencefrom the French in the 1940s, there was a national census that found that Christians were a slight majority of the population. A system of governance was set up that gave different sects different roles in the government. The demographics have shifted over time because of a number of factors including the outward migration of Christian Lebanese to other parts of the world, differential birthrates, and the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 who now number some 400,000 (in a country with only 4 million people). But there has never been another census -- one of many points of contention among politicians and the citizenry. The system still works by setting aside special roles for each religious group -- Christians still hold the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Ministership, Shia'a Muslims the Parliamentary Speakership. The fourth largest group are the Druze (a religious sect that broke from the Shia'a in the 11th century), and they have often constituted a sort of wild card in parliamentary politics, where their votes and positions are needed to form a viable government or bloc on an issue.

At various points in time Lebanon has been occupied by both Israel and Syria, and has been engaged in its own civil wars, with those two neighbors also playing pivotal roles in aiding particular sides in the fighting. These two countries also played important roles in the emergence of what is probably the most well-known faction to Americans, Hezbollah. In the 60s, 70s and 80s Palestinians organized through the PLO and Christian militias known as Phalanges with the backing of Israel fought each other, and the situation became an outright Civil War in 1973. The civil war gave Syria a reason to come in as an occupying force in 1976, which it did, and then Israel came in to occupy the southern part of Lebanon in 1978. Hezbollah emerged in 1983 as an Iranian and Syrian-backed resistance movement that used terror tactics to drive out Israel. Now in 2012 Hezbollah continues to control a lot of Southern Lebanon. It also holds twelve seats in the Lebanese Parliament and considers itself still at war with Israel, in part because of some disputed territory still under Israeli control called the Shebaa Farms.
A place I never knew existed, much less ever imagined I'd visit -- the Hezbollah Museum in the town of Mlita in Southern Lebanon.  If you want to understand Lebanon, you have to learn about Hezbollah.  And to do that, go to the source.

This centerpiece exhibit features captured and destroyed weaponry from fights with Israel.

The occupation by Syria was also highly controversial and the cause of much fighting, which came to a head in a terrible car bombing in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister (who was running again for office), Rafik Hariri. Hariri had been a very successful businessman-turned-politician. He was seen as a good coalition-builder and who had been increasingly moving to a position of demanding Syrian withdrawal. His assassination was credited with galvanizing a critical mass of the country and a political coalition known as the March 14 Alliance into demanding Syria's withdrawal. Although the Alliance eventually succeeded in forcing a formal withdrawal, Syria's presence remains a reality in many ways in Lebanon and Syria's civil war has spilled over into the North. A coalition of groups, including Hezbollah and its fellow Shiite group Amal, known as the March 8 Coalition continue to back the Al-Assad regime in Syria, while the March 14 Alliance opposes it.
The memorial to Rafik Hariri is a permanent tented display next to the giant mosque he paid for and had built for the city of Beirut.

With Hariri in the upper right, the other images are of other people who were killed the day of the bombing.  The total eventually extended to 23.  One of the deaths I thought was most tragic was of the young man in the lower left hand corner.  He was a paramedic in the convoy who was on hand in the event of just such an attack.  He burned to death when the blast caught his ambulance on fire.

As I hope even this extremely brief and superficial description of a few salient features and events illustrates, Lebanese politics is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. But we threw ourselves into it. We read books on the subject while we were there, plied Mike's friend and former student turned Lebanon journalist Steven with many questions, visited Beirut neighborhoods and areas of the country that visibly identify themselves with various political factions and discussed, discussed, discussed.
Book club!  In between our wanderings, all three of us were reading books to help us make sense of what we were exploring.  Mike and I were reading Killing Mr. Lebanon, the story of the Hariri assassination, and Cooper tackled Warriors of God, the story of Hezbollah, both of which were written by the journalist Nicholas Blanford.

And of course, we had to discuss -- at great length -- our questions and discoveries, preferably over sunset waterfront dinners such as this one we were having in Byblos.

As I told Mike and Cooper at the conclusion of our week, I now believe I know quite a lot more, but understanding is a whole different thing. It's a good thing I love Beirut, because I think the path to clarity on this one is long and winding, and maybe even never-ending. That's hardly a burden, though, when the quest for understanding is happening in such an amazing place, with two fabulous and equally curious friends and travel buddies. I'd be ready for another round just about any time.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Jordan Challenge #35: Wet Hike Through Wadi Mujib

I just got back from a week in Lebanon with my good friends Mike and Cooper, tackling challenges galore there, but before I record them, there are a couple others I wanted to write about that happened before I left.  For this one, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my fabulous friend Grace, who chose this as her birthday activity, to Kelsey who did most of the logistics, and to Sarah M, and Nathan, who rounded out the crew of Mujib explorers.

One of the lesser-known features of Jordan (at least to foreigners) is Wadi Mujib, the country's "Grand Canyon". It is a giant gorge that enters the Dead Sea, and has the claim to fame of being the lowest nature reserve on earth. In the winter and early spring it is closed because of the danger of flash floods, but in the summer you can throw on a life preserver and try out the "wet hike" experience.  Most of the trails are long and very difficult, and hence require guides.  But the Siq Trail is self-guided and shorter, so that is the one we took.
Ready for anything ahead -- me, Grace, Kelsey and Nathan..

The thing to know about wet hiking is that it really lives up to its name.  We were forewarned to leave everything, including sun glasses, back in our car because we would get totally soaked, and there were places where the water would reach above our shoulders.  Happily, Kelsey had a waterproof camera, and she did bring that, lashed tightly around her wrist, and I have her to thank for all of the fun pictures in this post.  This is definitely a case where the story is in the pictures, so I'll let them tell it.
Watching Nathan tackle the first waterfall, I must confess I was feeling some trepidation.

Turns out that the climb was slippery, but kind of fun.

Sarah and I pressing forward.  Something I learned that day is that pounding water has a lot of force behind it!

Success!  Kelsey, Sarah, Nathan, Grace and I standing in front of the waterfall at the end of the Siq Trail -- all of us, as promised, completely soaked.

Coming back we slid down the waterfalls we climbed up before.  Here's a Grace-ful landing by the Birthday Girl.

In case anyone was wondering, Fulbrighters do float!  But beware -- they also get bruised and a bit beat up by the rocks lurking below.

When we were headed back home, Kelsey shared a secret with us, her favorite abandoned building in the city, discovered on one of her many runs throughout Amman. We just had to explore it, and once we were on the roof, realized it would be the perfect setting for a band doing photos for an album cover.  That was obviously too good of an opportunity to pass up, so here is what we would look like if we were a band in addition to of a bunch of Fulbrighters who just waded our way through an adventure-filled canyon.
Nathan, Sarah, me and Grace working on our sullen/thoughtful rooftop band pose, but not quite there.

Like any good band, we need a little drama.  Here Grace gets kicked out and Kelsey shows us some attitude.
I had just about accepted the fact that a wet hike just wasn't in the cards for this year of Jordan Challenges when Grace and Kelsey made it so.  Sadly, things are winding down for both of them (and me) as our school years are over, and technically our work is just about done.  But I'm glad we're making the most of our last few weeks together, and Wadi Mujib was surely a "mostest" in lots of ways.