Monday, August 31, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 2)

I ended up staying 5 more nights in a suburb of Beirut. I had met some very friendly people in Aleppo weeks earlier who invited me to stay with them. Being at their apartment I felt somewhat normal again. It is amazing how comforting and relaxing doing dishes can be. I was also lucky to meet their flatmate, an incredibly intelligent Lebanese Shia girl, who was willing to teach me about her city and show me the southern suburbs. The southern part of Beirut is mostly Shia and most recently famous for being heavily bombarded by the Israelis during the 2006 conflict. I spent a day on my own cycling through the maze of block apartments and noted the yellow and green everywhere. Yellow for Hizbullah and Green for Amal. Yet unlike the image portrayed by the western media, this area is not patrolled by fundamentalist warriors enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam. Other than the flags, the only evidence of Hizbullah are the men directing traffic, collecting donations or overseeing the rebuilding of buildings destroyed by Israeli strikes. Though they are widely believed to be the most powerful force in Lebanon (the military is almost entirely absent from the Shia areas), they don't seem to feel the need to constantly flex their muscle. And as far as the enforcement of strict islamic principles, I saw people eating and smoking during Ramadan, and stores selling sexy clothing for women. Even being American, I was greeted by many friendly people. Hmmm...

The next day, I was taken through a bit more of Dahieh (the southern suburb) and then to Sabra and Shatila. The names intimidated me. For anyone familiar with the history, or for those who have seen the film "Waltz with Bashir," you know that these Palestinian refugee camps were the site of the Palestinian massacres at the hands of Israeli supported Phalange militias in retribution for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanese president and Phalange leader.

It was the first day of Ramadan and Maya drove us up to the Sabra market. We parked and entered a bustling street lined with shops. Sabra is now home to many many Syrians and Iraqis in addition to the Palestinians and is no longer an official camp. We ducked down a side street and slowly entered Shatila. This extremely dense camp houses over 12,000 refugees. Wandering the filthy narrow concrete alleys felt more like slums from the Indian subcontinent rather than the Middle East. Though not the worst conditions I had seen, it was still quite miserable and I could not keep two things out of my mind: the images I had seen in my studies of slaughtered palestinians in the camps and I could not stop pondering the history that had caused this camp to exist at all. Down one small alley, past some old Hamas posters, I spotted something hop in the stagnant puddle we were crossing. A baby frog. How did it get there? For anyone thinking about the situation from a distance it must have been quite strange: an semi-agnostic American man of partially jewish ancestry and a Lebanese Shia woman laughing, bent over, trying to get a picture of a baby frog in a puddle in a Palestinian refugee camp on the first day of Ramadan after they had been secretly drinking some water. That this moment could happen at all gives me hope.

We left the camp after a few short hours. The only startling moment for me had been went we hit an intersection of alleys and we came across a man sporting a machine gun. I looked at Maya and she seemed unworried so I was relaxed. Then she abruptly stopped for a few moments and I caught a glimpse of uncertainty on her face and she uttered "Oh... its a real gun..." I skipped a few breaths. But then we just continued forward and walked by. Later, driving away from the camp I realized how these years of seeing horrible conditions and the need to be stoic had desensitized me to all this. I felt a little sick that I did not feel more. But this did not last long. It came, and not in any small way. Suddenly, emotionally overwhelmed, my shell cracked.

"Hey, are you okay?" she asked me and reached out to touch the back of my neck.
"Yes," I lied.

(to be continued later in part 3)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 1)

First post in a while. This may seem a bit scattered because I wrote different parts at different times.

Part 1:

I am in Beirut...

I feel so confused.

I arrived at the Syrian/Lebanese frontier in the early afternoon on the last day of my Syrian visa. After the Syrians let me go I crossed the small bridge to the Lebanese side. This crossing, over a small river by the sea, reminded me of my crossing from Mauritania to Senegal a few years ago. Well I suppose the Lebanese side felt more like West Africa. The Syrians were surprisingly composed and relatively orderly. Crossing the bridge brought me into a border post of razorwire, commandos, potholes, French language and Mercedes.

When I finally passed the border, I drove hard for Tripoli (Tarablus). Ahead I could see the green mountains rising near the sea. For a moment everything looked idyllic. But closer examination revealed brutal reality. The entire countryside was coated in debris; both food wrappers and abandoned industrial materials. The fancy cars heading for the border did not seem to fit with the poor rural houses they zoomed past. Before I knew it I was suddenly cycling past a Palestinian refugee camp (the site of the 2007 battles). The shacks on the beach reminded me more of the slums of Dakar, Senegal than anything I imagined to be Lebanese. Hitting my first large town was equally as jarring; many people were dressed in quite sharp clothing and there were more advertisements than I saw in the whole of Syria, yet the road needed repair and many buildings looked abandoned.

I entered the jungle of bulletscarred buildings that is Tripoli through a series of military checkpoints. My first impression was of a city under occupation. I reached my hotel after a ride through a confusing blend of designer clothing shops and crumbling buildings. Once I had showered, I came out to the balcony to a crackling sound similar to gunfire. I tried in my best Arabic to ask what it was but could not understand the response other that it was "good." I took to the streets and discovered a large wedding party down tucked behind some French colonial buildings. The bride and groom were just getting into their convertible porsche, while drummers in traditional Arabic dress played over the noise created by others setting off fireworks.

(This post was interrupted. Now I'm in the Bekaa Valley a week later.)

Alright... back to Tripoli. There I met a Norwegian political scientist/sociologist who explained to me much of the political situation in the north. She was reseaching Sunni mobilization in the city (Tripoli is mostly Sunni while the surrounding areas are mostly Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians). We took a day to escape from the humidity of the coast and went up into the mountains looming over the city. Lebanon is quite stunning from the giant Virgin Mary statue high above Ehden.

I passed a few more days in the region exploring, meeting friendly locals and repairing a broken bicycle spoke. With the bike rideable again, I set off down the coast. This was quite possibly the strangest cycle day I have ever had. Abandoned contruction projects and chic stores, stunning coastline and industrial mining, mansions and shacks, headscarves and sexy bikinis. Huh? And this was after just maybe 20kms. I passed a field of high grass near Byblos (Jbail). I noticed turrets poking out of the vegetation and realized that it was a field of abandoned tanks and armoured personel carriers by a military base. Ten minutes later I was in jetset Byblos eavesdropping on some rich French people complaining about their lives and their yachts while I grabbed a shwarma. An hour later and I was invited in by a Maronite Christian family for a meal. We talked in a hastily invented English/French/Arabic creole as we sat by the sea. I napped on their couch for an hour and woke to more food and an invitation to stay for the night. As we ate the conversation turned to politics and religion which at first was fine. Then a deep gash in Lebanese society again reared its ugly head. "The Muslims are no good" Damnit, I really was in no mood for intolerance. The old man went off on the Muslims, specifically the Palestinians and the Shia Lebanese. As he spewed hatred I examined the tattoos on his arms and pieced together the story. The guy was a Phalangist militiaman during the civil war.

I backed out of the invitation to stay the night, explaining how I misunderstood because I needed to meet a friend in Beirut that night. Cycling away with a package of food and cold water bottles prepared by the old woman, I was deeply saddened. This sadness turned to a feeling of sickness as I passed Jounieh and into Beirut. I don't think I have ever before seen such a disgusting and blatant gap between rich and poor. Well actually I probably have but what makes Lebanon feel different is that it is not a small elite but rather a large group of super wealthy that seem to disregard the rest of the country. I suppose I am just frustrated right now and can't really make a coherent comment on the situation.

Anyway, after passing through a small part of Jounieh where everything was written in Russian and signs for Moldovan travel agencies and "Super Night Clubs" outnumbered all other advertisements I came towards the outskirts of Beirut. I was immediately repulsed by the city (though I loved it deeply by the time I left a week later). Seeing advertisements for alcohol showing a woman saying "plastic surgery made me fabulous" pretty much summed up the initial superficial vibe the bulletridden city presented.

Having survived the drivers, I grabbed a cheap dorm bed and relaxed. Lebanese drivers have to be the worst I have ever encountered outside India. Its not that they driver just badly, they driver as if they don't want to live. You see crazy driving tactics elsewhere but I have never seen so many accidents on the roads. Entering Beirut, I was passed by motorcycles pulling wheelies while weaving in and out of traffic like the beginning of the movie Akira. What compounds the problem is that Lebanese tend to drive huge, gas guzzling vehicles that take up a lot of space on the road. I had one sweet moment of payback for the bad drivers. One woman came up behind me in a brand new Mercedes on a narrow street and began honking. Instead of wait 15 second for the street to widen, she tried to push passed me. She brushed me with the entire length of her car. Unfortunately for her, I was still carrying the ixeace from Georgia and, with a sound like nails on a chalkboard, it left a long scrape down the entire length of her expensive vehicle.

The next day I wandered from East (Christian) Beirut to the West (Sunni) part. The downtown is oddly immaculate while a short walk takes you to the largest monument of the civil war: the Holiday Inn. This hulking skeleton towers over much of Beirut. It seems that nearly every square foot has at least a single bullet hole.

(Fuck it's really hard to write with children screaming and everyone coming up to ask you questions and look over your shoulder. Plus it's Ramadan and I haven't eaten since before sunrise at 4:25 and its now 4:00 which is incredibly difficult considering I biked over a mountain range yesterday so I am obviously a bit cranky.)

That night was quite nice. I met up with two French girls and a Lebanese guy I met in Aleppo and stayed with them .

(Post interrupted again)

Wow I am way behind. I am in Damascus now. I'll go ahead and post this as part 1 and write the rest in part 2.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Syria Part 3 - Like cycling in an armpit

I am speeding through these posts trying to catch up to my present location (Tripoli, Lebanon) so I may update these later to add more.

Hama - Homs short 50km ride to Syria's 3rd largest city. Rather uneventful.

From Homs I pulled a really long day to the coast. The Syrian scenery really redeemed itself on that leg. Half way to the coastal city of Tartus, I made a detour for Krak De Chevaliers (Qa'alat al-Hosn). This crusader castle was quite spectacular. Unfortunately the road up the mountain was the steepest I have seen on the trip. Half way up, in the scorching heat, a motorcycle stopped and threw me a rope. Why not? Towed 2km uphill I made it to the Krak and enjoyed the spectacular view. After the heat of the day had passed, I carried on to reach the Mediterranean for the tail end of sunset. Oh God, the humidity!!!!!!! Hence the title of the post: like cycling in an armpit. It was (and still is in Tripoli) a most miserable combination of heat and humidity (and trash covered coastline). But Tartus was kind to me. I was invited to a Greek Orthodox choir performance for the assumption of the Virgin Mary and most surprising for me I met someone I knew! When I started my cycling trip over 2 years ago from Turkey to Vietnam, I stayed the first night at my friend Paola's apartment on her flatmate Daniele's floor. Well there in Tartus I spotted him again. Small world, no?

Syria Part 2 - Marriage arrangements and nostril-waxing

The road from Aleppo to Hama was quite tough. I had planned to do this leg in two days but due to general lack of any kind of shade on the way, I pumped it out in one, only stopping to visit some Byzantine ruins on the way. Outside these ruins I met a man who stopped me for tea. When he discovered my age (21), he became quite excited. My Arabic is horrible but I did understand that his brother had a daughter who was 16 and would make a good wife. He pulled out a picture of his brother's family and pointed to a woman in full black coverings with only eyes exposed. For all I knew there could be a man under all that covering, so I felt it was ridiculous that he was showing me this.

"Jameela jidan (very beautiful)" I said as a joke. He didn't get it.
"Oh yes very very beautiful."

Hama was exactly what I needed. I was wrecked the night I arrived and slept soundly out on a roof mattress (until the dozen mosques surrounding the hotel went off at 4:00 am!).

A woman from New Zealand who didn't know much about Islam asked me, "What are they saying during the calls?" I was curious to know what she thought they were saying. She responded, "Something like, alright everyone it's time to tell God you love him, he's feeling insecure... AGAIN..." I shouldn't have laughed.

At the hotel I met another traveler on two wheels, except she had an engine. Ania was riding a motorcycle from Poland to Jordan and back. We spent a day together wandering the city and enjoying Arab hospitality. I had to go for a shave and out of curiousity she joined me. It all started quite normal until they shaved president Bashar's signature mustache on me. I felt a little bad about making them cut it off, but it was just too ridiculous. From there it got more and more bizarre, as next came a face scrub with a bizarre humidifier, a mud mask, and then they slathered some green crap just about my beardline. Then they stuck two cottonswabs in the same gunk and shoved them up my nose. At this point I thought they were just making fun of me. I tried to express my concern but I got the reply, "No, no it's Italian." Still trying unsuccessfuly to figure out what this was I got my answer from a swift tug on the cottonswabs in my nose and the resulting pain. Wax. Then, to add insult to injury, they spiked my hair and sprayed on a silver layer. I looked like a hip Syrian and have never felt more ridiculous.

A half kilometer of walking later, I found a man with a hose to spray the silver out of my hair and Ania and I moved on to the next objective: to find wine. Unfortunately it was Sunday so all the Christian shops were closed (Syria is 10% Christian) but the Syrians came through again and found us a bottle of Lebanese wine. Covertly drinking on top of the citadel and looking down on the peaceful city, I could not help but think how fast things can change. Just 27 years ago, large parts of the city were obliterated by the Syrian government to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and 10,000 people died.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Syria Part 1 - Aleppo

I haven't updated in a while because blogging sites are restricted in Syria. Thankfully I just met someone who let me use his computer program to get around this.

I arrived in the early morning to the Syrian border post and after waiting a frustrating 7 and a half hours I was awarded with a visa and entry to Syria. The ride to Aleppo (Halab) was a race against the sun. Though all my concentration was directed toward speeding to my destination, I was vaguely aware of the change in my surroundings. Latin script gave way to Arabic, western-style advertisements were replaced by imposing pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and his signature thin mustache, and the Turkish white star and crescent over a red field morphed into Syrian and Palestinian flags.Aleppo was quite an amazing city.

I had intended to stay only 3 days but a week later I was still there; roaming the old city streets, practicing Arabic over countless invitations for tea, enjoying the fruit smoothies, chatting with travelers (this was the first place I had been that I could call a bit "touristy") or helping my new friends Rani and Abdullah fulfill their commitment to live life as a constant party.

Cycling in Syria sucks. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is insanely hot, the landscape has been uninspiring and trash-coated, the drivers are horrible, and I have been against the wind everyday. Even with that said, this country is fantastic. The people have been so welcoming and everyone has been eager to help me. Also this country gives off the strongest feeling of security. You can walk the streets in any part of any city at anytime and not worry (perhaps a result of ironfisted rule?). Quite different from western perceptions, eh?

Another things that one might not expect is how intimate Middle Eastern men get with each other. I am used to the generally excessive touching and ceremonial cheek kisses but I still can't get over the holding hands. I can (uncomfortably) do the walk with arms locked, but I draw the line at holding hands. Thankfully I have developed a strategy: quickly break the hand free, point to something and ask a question about it and then slyly place the hand in my pocket. Crisis averted.

(Will catch up more about Syria later)Peace-James