Sunday, December 24, 2006

A trip to Baalbek

We were out of the house by 6:30 and on our way to Baalbak. Evelyne’s brother was the “taxi driver.” That was the joke at least because he took a van and there were 7 of us. Le frere ainee was driving. Evelyne’s younger brother sat next to him in the passenger seat. Evelyne and I sat in the middle seats and J, J, and a Westerner who has been in Lebanon since 1982, sat next to her.

Off we went on the Damascus road before trucks could join us. Trucks are not allowed on the road until 10:00 am. Most shops were closed, the metal roll down doors shut tight as we headed up the mountains still driving in the fast paced quick change lanes too close to car in front style that I notice that I have a tendency to drive in at home as well. People even drive on the lane divider here though. A two lane road can have as many as four makeshift lanes.

I think I recognize things along the way. A military compound with white buildings? Trees with the bottom painted white, a place where you can ride ponies, the restaurant/bar China Rose…

A stop in Aley and away we go up towards Zahle. We crossed another small World War II bridge. People here are becoming very familiar with World War II bridges thanks to the Israelis.

Then soon after, the "piece de resistance," a detour under the highest bridge in Lebanon that the Israelis completely destroyed. You can see a photo I found online. I regret not taking a picture now but it was first day and I was trying to not be to experience instead of being behind my camera.

I could only shake my head in disgust. One side was nothing more than metal structural poles/wires strangling out of the crumbling cement into the deep crevasse below. My tax dollars at work. Now the United States may help rebuild it. It would have been easier to just use the money to help people beforehand. Now we are canceling our financial assistance out. A makes a joke that Haliburton can now come and rebuild. Sad joke but true. Just what we did in Iraq. Destroying in order to create business opportunities for an elite group of Americans. This makes so much sense.

The US is going to contribute between $20 and $30 million for it to be rebuilt. They have only put $148 million into reconstruction so far. Peanuts compared to billions we give to Israel in military aid.

Lan nansa…We will not forget. Posters with a picture of Rafiik Hariri are everywhere. Before and after the destroyed bridge and along the road during the entire trip. The phrase does not suggest vengeance just recognition and justice. I think of 9/11 and my evening of remembering the victims that turned into patriotism and the vengeance that led to war. And yet some families said “Not in Our Name.”

It is much drier up here as we get closer to the plateau. We stop for gas and receive free coffee mugs and Arabic coffee. My first cup of coffee of the day. Soon after, we stop for breakfast at the Laiterie Massabki near Zahle. I change a little money at the bank next door just trusting that they will give me a fair rate. I have him write down the rate and describe the money to me. I speak French, not English. I refuse to speak English if I can help it in front of people. I am not proud of being American, especially here and if I can pass, I will. Not sure that I do because my French has gotten so bad. When I arrived in the laiterie, I was greeted by a delicious khubus sag with cream and local honey wrapped inside. Perfection, childhood memories, sweetness, excitement and comfort all wrapped inside my favorite bread. Soon after, a man with a big long grey mustache gave me a café au lait with fresh milk. The refrigerated display case was full of many types of cheeses, creams, and yogurts. On the shelves above and on the counter were jams, honeys, bread, pasta, and wines. I bought a jam made with rose petals and some labeled local honey to give as gifts.

I was frustrated with myself because I can’t speak Arabic. I asked the woman at the counter if she spoke French. She looked at me blankly. It is helpful that I can read and pick out certain words from text and conversation but this doesn’t replace speaking it and the relationships that occur as a result. Ana bidi …. Was even a struggle with this first “I want”… it sounds like baby talk, without extra feeling and words that turn interactions into moments of sharing and exchange. I had to ask for help and tried to remember everything that was said as I even struggled with asking for two honey jars. Tnein, tnein. I smiled and looked her in the eyes and said “shukran.” I didn’t get much of a response. Can people tell I am American, is this why? Or is it just a cultural thing. I’m not from here and do not speak the language and so I cannot expect it. “Shukran” seemed to be about the only word that I could say and I kept on saying it feeling slightly stupid. The man with the long grey mustache helped me figure out my favorite bills so that I could pay. He called me halwe, pretty, I remembered that word.

I have been feeling in this in between place and language is accentuating it. My French is far from perfect and then my Arabic, I remember words and oh yes, I know the alphabet. In the States I feel so impressed with myself when I can even remember the alphabet. Here knowing the alphabet and speaking out of practice French doesn’t feel like enough around all of these polyglots. And yet, in fact it is part of the reason I love it so. It’s a challenge and I welcome those, right???

I am not from here, I understand only words and yet everything seems so familiar to me and comfortable besides. The clear bright sunlight. A full sky of light with the mediterrenean blending into it at some unidentifiable point, the horizon. The smell of cement in the apartment and various building stairways, the tile and marble floors, the small not always working elevator. The clothes used to wash floors and the smell of pine cleaner. I looked up from Evelyne’s balcony to see the Al-Bustan hotel at the top of the hill. Beit-Mery is right above and the ruins…. The place where mother had her first signs of a stroke. Coffee has to rise three times before it is ready. Information that I did not even know I had, stored in some drawer inside my head that I just happen to open as I begin my time here.

A Bedouin community up on the plateau. It was cold. I put all of my layers on. The leader was happy to see us. Evelyne’s family started a foundation that supports the school. Classes up to 6th grade. Small classes with a heater in every room. The children were bundled up in sweaters and hats. They all had these beautiful little back packs. The foundation bought them. One brother said that the children now had a place to store their packs even when they were at home. The kids were so cute. They stood up the way I remember we would when someone entered the classroom. Respect. The girls all had their heads covered with scarves. Small classrooms. I don’t think there were more than 15 students in any classroom. One boy was not doing well in the school for handicapped children. he had been there for five years and hadn’t learned how to read. He had been at the Bedouin school for a year now and he could read. They can’t get through Lebanese bureaucracy to get school credit yet but they have arranged credit with Syria. Ironic.

We were on the roof overlooking the brown fields. Brown because the summer crop spoiled because of the war and they were not able to replant. No work in the nearby fields. One man explained that the Bedouin only work the fields, they do not own their own land. This year the crops were left untouched in the fields because of the bombing. Israeli bombing to make that clear. It turns out that Hizbullah were storing weapons in a warehouse right nearby. Right next to a Sunni mosque. They thought it was an import/export business and were pretty upset when they realized what was there.

One man talked about how great it would be to do a real needs assessment for the community. To figure out what the needs really were and to address those. His church was helping build a well, the Bridges of Love and Peace were helping with the school, $36,000 to run the school, but what else? What were the underlying needs? What would make the community self-sufficient?

Good ahwe and sitting at the eldest son, now the tribe’s leader’s house. We listened to a reading from the bible in Arabic. The son read from a quote on the wall by Tagore it was translated. Much more powerful for me in part because it was translated.

Leaving, we drove through the Bedouin community after moving past the school surrounded by other simple concrete buildings. Long term tents, with doors and layers of plastic and some wood, winterized. One man says that they are open in the summer. People had to leave during the bombing. Many went to Syria others were given refuge by other Lebanese. Throughout the journey, we were reminded of how everyone was affected by this new war. Some were forced to flee, others took people in. In some ways he said this war was worse because there was no going to the bomb shelter in the basement. Entire buildings were destroyed. People who took refuge in bomb shelters could be stuck underneath rubble for weeks if not forever.

More destroyed roads being rebuilt, repaved. I asked by whom and I did not find an answer. Money is flowing from Arab and other international governments including European and the United States. Municipalities doing the work? Impressive how fast everything is getting repaired and rebuilt.

We drove by a destroyed milk factory. Why a milk factory? The story goes that the company won a contract with UNIFIL, the other contender was an Israeli company. Now the Israeli company has the contract. Reminded of the destroyed milk factory when we went to get milk at the local store today. Where is the Lebanese milk? There isn’t any, the factory was destroyed.

Finally, Baalbak. Sorry agin for the internet found picture. I wasn't feeling comfortable behind the camera especially as an American in a Shiite area. Nasrallah posters everywhere. Palestinian concrete “camp” on the right. We stopped to see the largest stone in the world. A man was cleaning up the area and found the stone. Now it rests on its side in a protected area with a Lebanese flag placed on top. The pregnant stone. If women touch it they supposedly get pregnant. Luckily I didn’t. It is now a tourist attraction. For all of the tourists that are now flocking to Lebanon and to Baalbak. I bought more olive oil soap than I can use. I had to buy something. It looks like people are getting olive oil soap as gifts.

Bekaa close to the sun. The land of the sun. Pagan ruins under roman ruins. Early Christians used the ruins as a cathedral. We drove through and around the ruins and then to the school started by A in 1963. A is the aunt of the leader of the other community. They are Bedouin. Evelyne’s father gave her money to go to school and then helped her start the school. It know has over 700 students.

Again we were taken into the formal living room to sit and socialize. More delicious ahwe and stories, lots of stories.

The families lost touch and one of the brother's wife, was looking for a place to volunteer when she came upon the school. When she told A her name, the connection was reestablished.

This is going to end abruptly now because I have limited internet access and must go. I am planning to go hiking up to Beit Mery today. I'll report back later.

Have a great Christmas if this is something that you celebrate!


Anonymous said...

Hi Margaret~

I've been checking your blog and was happy to find a new post. I'm glad you arrived safely and are enjoying exploring the sites you left so long ago. Looking forward to reading more about your adventures!


Amy said...

Hey M can you describe some of the Arabic words you've used? Like the drink ahwe?

Margaret said...

ahwe is coffee my dear A.