Saturday, December 08, 2012

Who knows?

Don't ask me what's going on!  I really don't think I know much any more.  Even my Lebanese colleagues seem fairly vague about the status of things in Lebanon.  My Twitter news feeds say things like "Situation Fragile in the ________ (north, south, border)" and "Lebanon struggles to hang on to neutrality amid the widening Syrian war."  Someone asked me if WMDs, such as Sarin and others would affect us.  No, I don't think so.  We're on the coast with two mountain ranges between us and the Syrian trouble.  While the distance is not far, as the crow flies, chemical weapons would not reach us and the crow doesn't fly that far and never over mountain ranges.  What's worrying is that if the allies threaten action against chemical weapons they might be fighting Al Qaeda, who have been threatening to use them against the Assad regime.  The length of this conflict has created an open door for the terrorists Assad was complaining about.  Now they really are there.

Speaking of crows, Lebanon's lack of law and order has meant that it has had an endless open season on the many migrating birds that have stopped here for centuries on their way to/from Africa.  Thanks to Facebook and other social media sites, our proud hunters have published their photos with  heaps of birds, songbirds, some endangered birds too.  Organizations such as "Animals Lebanon" are letting people know what is going on.  Songbirds, despite being against the law, are to be seen on some menus in rural areas.  They're considered a delicacy in those restaurants though I would not expect to see them on any menu in the coastal cities.

And speaking of organizations, I have recently organized a group called "Anti-Discrimination Student Group."  We received permission from Amnesty International to use this logo:
Until we get some interested art students, we will use this one. Our Facebook page is:  At our first meeting we had more faculty than students show up.  However, we have since gathered a number of undergrad and grad students who are very keen to see this group be successful.  I am keeping my expectations low (realistic).  If the US can erupt in such hate rhetoric as I saw before our last election then what can we hope to accomplish here where the distrust, dislike (hate?), and discrimination have been embedded in religion and politics for centuries?  Nevertheless, perhaps a few students will tell other students and perhaps a few students will tell their parents.  I have contacted another group in Beirut, the Anti-Racism Movement, who work especially for the causes of foreign domestic workers who have been horribly abused in Lebanon.  They told me that, as far as they know, there are no other such groups on the other Lebanese campuses.  But I have already been warned to be careful.  Caritas, another group, Catholic, works with refugees.  Sadly, refugees are not very welcome here and, of course, Syrian refugees bring with them memories of the long-time Syrian occupation.  Our first screening went well.  We watched Freedom Writers and then discussed the possibilities of showing it to the whole campus.  Overall, there was approval with the worry that some might be offended because the teacher in the highly-racist atmosphere in the story uses The Holocaust as a way of teaching about discrimination.  I suggested that we cannot start by filtering history, no matter how we feel about the current situation to the south.  We shall see.  I don't care too much about numbers but rather, meaningful conversations and discussions that take place in a safe and respectful atmosphere.  Members of the Anti-Racism Movement have agreed they will come and talk to our classes or groups of our students.  There is a great deal of interest from the President, the Dean of Students, and faculty.

Of late, I have become rather discouraged with things here.  Perhaps it's because of being so isolated for so long.  I go grocery shopping off campus but, other than that, I haven't gone anywhere or done anything outside of work.  I could ride with my friends to Beirut if only I didn't have a Christmas Concert coming up.  I'm tied to the piano on campus and can only get practice time when the piano teacher is not using it.  I guess it will be an enjoyable concert but our rehearsals haven't been as frequent as I think they should. I was drafted by our Associate Dean, a soprano with a beautiful voice and 4 children who play and sing as well.  There are others involved, a classical guitarist from our faculty, a violist, and various alums to fill out the vocal ensemble.  

I have a tree and a crèche. They're very tiny but, they give a kind of impression of Christmas. 

Perhaps I'm also feeling a bit nostalgic for the many wonderful seasonal events shared with friends and family over the years.  My niece was my Christmas Angel for many years because she enjoyed the season so much, she made it special for me.  I have decided that this year I will go to Beirut for 3 days so I can attend an English service and get off of this mountain for awhile.

I guess I will never understand (or appreciate) the way things work (and don't work) around here.  It's always important to remember that words mean little and promises are easily made and rarely followed by the action expected.  That is tough and leads to disappointment all around.  Many of my colleagues feel the same way. One probably cannot expect that the institution can behave extra-culturally.  And when students don't believe that you will enforce deadlines and standards who can blame them? The complete disregard for the law may be incomprehensible to stable countries where there are laws with real consequences for breaking them.  I did see a police car yesterday, my second one in two and a half years.  Everyone was passing him.  His car wasn't nice enough to warrant notice or respect I guess.
On Wednesday of last week our Patriarch died, His Beatitute, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.  He was 91.  Immediately the school closed.  I was at my door when my phone rang.  Students received cell phone messages and all activity ceased.  As a matter of fact, when the tennis coach tried to come to campus to practice the next day, security turned him away!  They told him that the President had decreed "No Activity."  One of my colleagues wonders if that means no practicing the piano either.  Well, my music is pretty sad so I think it counts as a mournful activity in keeping with the week of grieving.  Classes will start again on Tuesday because on Monday they will take his "blessed body" to Damascus for final burial.  Damascus!  Some of our theology students have been involved and will probably be in the entourage going to Syria.  I pray they will all be safe.  In the meantime, we are all catching up on marking, another activity that makes us sad.
Merry Christmas Everyone! Pray for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men, Women, and Children.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A good Analysis of the City to the North

Friday, September 14, 2012

Moving...again and other things

Family and Friends:

Instead of trying to beat jet lag, I'm going to write this tonight so I don't have miles and piles of emails from concerned folks when I get up in the morning.

I've just watched the moving ceremony of the State Department's return of the remains of the 3 embassy employees and ambassador to the US.  I can understand how seeing the images of the past week might be alarming to many of you.

I've written earlier about troubled Tripoli and the desperation of a poor, uneducated populace there only increases.  They have nothing to lose either so using a film produced and directed by an American-style extremist as an excuse to riot and burn places down, in this case the KFC and Hardees, is as good an excuse as any I guess. The problem with all these protests is that I am sure that 99% of the people have not seen the movie.  Extremism on either side is irrational.  In the States, the West, it produces horrible things like the film everyone's upset about or the Koran burning and over here in the Middle East it produces other kinds of irrational behaviors.

I'd heard from a colleague today that as long as the Pope was here on his "peace" mission, Lebanon would be quiet.  He thought the Pope should live here always but, the truth is, that hasn't helped keep things quiet in Tripoli.  What happens in Beirut often has little to do with Tripoli, just 65 km. away. So, we went up to a mountain village to do a bit of shopping.  It has always been quiet there, a mostly Christian area.  Below I have written down the practical issues of remaining or leaving here.  I am not being foolhardy. 

How many times have I moved? I just counted them up, 23 times, so far.  But in all the moves I've made, this one was by far, the most physically demanding.  First, I couldn't find boxes and, even if I had, I woudn't have been able to move them all by myself.  Second, I was living on the 3.5 floor.  Third, I needed to walk up an incline.  Fourth, I moved to the 3.5 floor!  Let's add that the "new" apartment was not cleaned, per my instructions.  I have seen the cleaning job of the crew here and could not imagine them doing any good at all--with their dirty rags and mops they could actually make things worse.  I began on Sunday and finished on Thursday evening.  It felt like a pre-sports conditioning week, hauling a backpack full of books and two hand-carry bags full of other things each time.  On Tuesday evening I found some boxes on my doorstep from housing so I filled them.  On Wednesday morning housing took them all, the TV, the mircowave, and the hanging clothes (flung in the back of the old pickup truck on top of the boxes) and hauled them up the stairs.  I emptied many of the boxes and brought them back to fill.  That evening, I looked at what was left and thought, "There is no way I can make this many trips up and down the stairs to finish this job!"  On Thursday morning I called a colleague and her husband and they cheerfully agreed, bringing the family van with them.  In short order, we loaded the van, followed it up the hill, and unloaded it.  The second load was much smaller, leaving me the recycling to deal with.

Though I am sitting amidst a few remaining boxes and bags to unload, I am very pleased with the new apartment.  I have my fingers crossed that this 3rd apartment is the answer to my allergies.  Besides that, the view here is stunning, there's no burn pile or caretaker's cottage immediately behind me and my desk looks out over a beautiful valley, harbor, and mountains.  Because this is a newer apartment things work here much better than they did in the older apartment.  There is real hot water that arrives in a timely fashion in the kitchen. The refrigerator is not moldy. They scraped away the mold in the back bedroom and repainted it so that should help...until it gets moldy again.  Of course there is a list of things I've found that were simply neglected.  The hassle of getting help for these things is pretty exhausting at times.  I don't have enough wasta (power/influence) to make people care!

Next Semester
I am somewhat prepared but must work fairly intensively next week to create the coursebooks for two courses in lieu of textbooks that students wouldn't purchase anyway.  Then there is the schedule, filled with holidays (holy days) for two separate religions that makes Swiss cheese out of any schedule.  Finally, there is the uncertainty about whether or not students can get to classes from Tripoli and elsewhere if the disturbances spread.  We shall see.

In the Meantime
  • I keep my computer backed up on a hard drive.
  • I have a small bag with a list of essentials
  • I took my violin back to the States this summer
  • I pay attention to the news.
I must work and this is where my job is.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Birthday Celebration

 This guy offered to sing for us, his own American/Lebanese version of "No Woman, No Cry" mashed up with "Happy Birthday."  Yes, unique!
What a wonderful Birthday dinner I had with friends at Jammal's, Batroun, Lebanon! Friday, June 2, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bits of This and That
The title of this post tells all.  That's how my brain is responding to the end of term, unsettling news here and next door, uncertainty about what I will do next--return or sit out a term--and the way all of this and more is affecting us and our students.

When Tripoli, just 10k away from here, erupts in violence, our students are often prevented from coming to classes.  Of course these are excused absences and so the progress of the class resembles the sand prints of a crab, scuttling side to side, but hoping to reach the ocean or the nest.  I'm not sure we've arrived at one place or the other but the term has ended nevertheless and, for good or ill, final exams will take place in the coming 10 days.

"Really?" I said.  "You mean to tell me that "third parties" find it worth their while to come to Tripoli, insert themselves between the pro-and anti-Syrian factions and stir up trouble so the focus will be averted from Syria?"  I have to say that several people are saying this even though it makes absolutely no sense to me.  If no one knows who started it, then how do they know why they're fighting?  But they do fight and people die, and then there are peace demonstrations, all of which indicate that this is not a pressure valve that needs release but rather a lit fuse that slowly inches its way toward the explosive event that will bring the firestorm down on the heads of the Lebanese once again.  People are holding their breath, hoping for calm, praying, demonstrating and talking about peace but the poorest people in Lebanon with the highest illiteracy rates face each other, sure that the other is the reason for all their problems.  The ignored north refuses to be ignored and yet never gets the kind of attention that really matters-- in health, education, proper nutrition that would provide a way out of the cycle.

And what are people saying about Hezbollah in the meantime? The "what ifs" are endless.  If Syria's regime falls, then Hezbollah will have little to control it and Iran's influence in support of it will increase.  Iran's interests are many but in terms of Hezbollah, definitely destabilization of Lebanon and, at the very least, annoying Israel.  Annoying Israel has never been a good idea for Lebanon, caught between these entities, they always lose.

My (very personal, unscientific) opinion is that as long as there is no international solution or will for tough decisions multi-laterally, something serious will occur in Lebanon this summer.  I will not be here but the heat of summer and the definite sectarian escalation next door are angering the parallel sects here.  The Alawite militia, apparently responsible for the massacres of horror in Syria recently are, by association connected with Lebanese Alawites. 

Personally, the political situation is not the reason I am considering a longer stay at home.  I have had a second round of severe allergic reactions to...something.  I can't imagine what.  It's been difficult to keep going.  On the one hand, a strong mix of antihistamines will quiet the reaction and puts me to sleep.  On the other, the reaction (uncomfortable hives) doesn't allow me to sleep or do much besides trying to copy.  Either way, it's impossible to work.  I do not have a plan, other than getting back to the States and then seeing what can be done.

Speaking of which, I will arrive on the 26th, June, early in the morning on Amtrak from Chicago.  I am really looking forward to catching up with all of you.

Love and hugs,

Monday, May 14, 2012

Latest news

The news you might hear

Hello everyone!
Just when I’d finally decided I needed to say something about what you may hear on the news, the Internet keeps going down and all the IT folks have fled the campus to be with their families.  I guess our families and friends, along with any English news I get on Twitter, will have to wait.  We still have cable TV with CNN, BBC, and a whole host of Arabic channels that my colleagues are watching and translating for me.
I heard about the fighting on Saturday night when my former students, students who live close to Tripoli, started asking each other whether they were hearing the gunfire and bombs.  I discounted it then because gunfire (not bombs) is very common here—bird hunting, neighbourly quarrels, weddings, a wide spectrum of casual and serious need for gunfire.  However, the incidents increased into Sunday and were, at first, based on the arrest of someone who seems to have been supplying arms to the rebels in Syria, against the law here, of course.  What that means is that silly protests, erupting into gunfire and death, can light the fires that have remained smouldering embers in the sectarian fireplaces around this country.  It sometimes seems as though hotheads are watching for any excuse to reignite hostilities between Sunni/Salafis and Alawites.  Now, of course, there is even more reason since the Alawites are the party and roots of Asaad, Syrian president.  They aren’t happy to know that people here are helping the rebels since they are loyalists to the Syrian regime.
What is distressing is that CNN & NPR are reporting: “Syrian violence has spread to Lebanon.”  That is much too dramatic and really incorrect as well.  As I said, these allegiances have been long-held and are barely under the surface in the best of times.  These are not the best of times!
Still, what you need to know is that I’m very safe.  Sometimes our isolation here is a good thing.  To even get up this mountain someone would have to get through a checkpoint.  I cannot hear the gunfire or anything else.  There is a humorous side to all this.  The Ministry of Education cancelled classes in all schools and universities in the north but Balamand, a private university, never observes those announcements.  Students do, of course, as do their parents, with the result that they cancel classes, not the president.  By staying home or having their parents keep them home, they effectively cancel classes and, the students living in the dorms don’t show up either (as a show of solidarity!...or just so they don’t waste time coming).  What we, who live on campus, have discovered is that everyone else has left the campus except for the few IT folks attempting to restore the Internet. 
This is all the more annoying because a colleague was going to take me to her favourite optician in Tripoli to replace the sunglasses that I’d lost a few weeks ago.
The other thing you should know is that I am not afraid or concerned in the least.  My only concern is for you—knowing that unless you’re here, you cannot really understand from news reports what the reality is.  We are fine.  Or, if this continues awhile, bored!
In my uneducated opinion, the Arab countries moved from a tribal directly into a sectarian culture or a mixture of the two with the same kind of loyalty to the sect rather than a civil society, government, and country. When you think of the Islamic calendar date (1433) and where Western culture was at that time, perhaps this is not too surprising.  I realize I have simplified the analysis, giving the impression that I am incredibly naive.  I am not but sometimes, the larger view helps me get some perspective.

Until later,

Monday, March 05, 2012

Syria-Lebanon-Syria-Lebanon, etc.

Hello everyone!  It's been awhile.

I know that I have some wonderful pictures of my Christmas Turkey adventure.  No, I did not burn the bird.  I went to Turkey over Christmas but I would not expect you to remember this after all this time. I will attempt to make that my next posting.  Many apologies!

This is an update about what has been going on from a strictly uninformed, desperate-for-more-credible-information professor.  There is a great deal of chatter around about how Lebanon is and may be affected by what is going on in Syria.

All I know is this:
  • I have been involved in helping collect needed supplies for the refugees.  It is dreadfully cold now and Syrian refugees are fleeing for their lives.  If they make it over the border, they carry nothing with them.  What is Assad doing?  Why?
  • At the moment, there are people down on the coastal plains, and probably in the Bekaa Valley, who are deeply divided on their support for or against the Assad regime.  It has come to blows (well, shootings) in a couple of the more conservative and intransigent areas.  That is, they are holding to their positions despite any news that might suggest that Assad is killing his own people--women, children, young men, all men.  There is fear and expectation that whenever the Red Cross/Crescent does get in to Baba Amr and all of Homs there will be horror and shock at what they see.  I cannot imagine it.
  • Everyone seems to have some suggestion for a good plan of action but I do not see one that will not result in more bloodshed.  It looks to me that Assad is not much different at all from his father.
  • I am safe.  All is well up here on the Balamand mountain where, without cable news, we would never know that the rest of the world, even the next-door world, is in trouble.
I do listen to Fareed Zakaria's analysis.  He is intelligent, insightful, and about as evenhanded as any commentator I know.  Please see: Fareed Zakaria

The other worrying bit of local/regional news is the possible strike from Israel on to Iran's nuclear "installations." Does anyone really know what they are?  Is this another WMD scare?  Here is what we see in Lebanon, should that happen:
  • Israel is nervous, of course.  If they strike they will need all sorts of support (refueling) and airspace clearances. 
  • If Iran retaliates, their allies are closer to Israel than Israel is to Iran.  Hezbollah, funded in part by Syria and Iran sits, partially on Israel's northern border, in Lebanon, unfortunately.  
  • The last time Israel retaliated, attacking Hezbollah, Lebanon paid a steep price.  The whys and wherefores of Hezbollah's presence here  are not worth discussing.  They are a strong political and military force here and even a force for good, helping poor Islamic areas with schools and hospitals, things that Lebanon cannot supply.  
  • If all the above happens, Syria will be involved as well, if they are still a viable power in this area.  Who else?  I'm not sure but I can see the Middle East in ashes when all is said and done.
The whole thing makes me sad--all of it--and it doesn't matter whose politics you espouse, ugliness, mayhem, killing (with words or swords) demonstrates that we so-called civilized folks aren't.  We go around in circles, it seems to me--circles of repeating history.

I'm sorry for this post.  It reflects the hopelessness I feel for polite, respectful discourse here or in the US about important issues.  I wish I could believe otherwise.