Thursday, November 30, 2006


Dawn rises quietly today over Beirut (first photo), as seen from the balcony of Wael & Zena's lovely home in Achrafieh. Well, the post-partum depression phase is not quite here yet, but I've fewer than 3 hours before lift-off from Beirut, to London, then on to Anchorage via Boston & Salt Lake City. The past few days have been a blur, and despite nearly a week of sleep deprivation, sleep would not come to me. The 5 AM call of the muezzin, hypnotic and calming, was a welcome interruption from the incessant buzz of a particularly tenacious mosquito. Boxes and bags packed, goodbyes spoken. And, despite my own disappointment with how much I was able to complete on the OSCP, Wael seems quite satisfied and eager to move forward toward its completion. At this point, there is little to be done about the oil that has weathered to a tarry crust on parts of the nation's rocky shore. The fisherman's port of Delieh continues to act as a sump for a mysterious source of thick oily mousse that laps back and forth on the miniscule tide of this tiny bay.

The Lebanese pastry shops (second photo) are works of art, sparkling clean arrays of tiny nut and honey bites of heaven arranged on shining silver serving plates. The Greek baklava can't compare to the absurdly decadent "beklawa," the Lebanese pride. The baker asked me what brought me to Beirut, and we got to talking about the oil spill, what the long-term effects might be, and what might still be done. With so many other issues on Lebanon's collective mind, the oil spill is far removed from the daily events that teeter toward full governmental collapse. "Every day, I drive by Delieh, and still there is oil, like a bowl collecting if from where, in the sea? I don't know," the baker tells me. I am glad someone has noticed, because the fisherman in the port seem to have come to accept its murky presence and its filth on their hulls, its scent in their nostrils. "Can we really do anything about this now?" he asks. Of course, I reply - we learn from it and plan for the future. Even if warfare once again splits a coastal energy plant's' fuel supply and spits it into the sea, we can try to push it where we want it to go, we can use tools to protect certain areas, we can act faster to reduce its damage. He nods and seems comfortable with this idea. Yes, for later....and it feels good talking to someone outside, who can think about the future. Although, I don't utter my greatest hope - that we can resolve the religious hatred of this war-plagued area and achieve a common goal that ends the useless destruction.

Walking the Corniche in yesterday's unflagging heat, collecting pieces and flavors of Lebanon to bring back home to family and friends, I taste the salty breeze of the Mediterranean, basking in the brief cool breeze that blows the city's stale air high above the city. As every day, men and boys fish along the sea wall, others dive from the nearby rocks and splash about in the flat sea. I watch a passionate game of "combat backgammon" ensue, with the Hard Rock Cafe and other western touches oddly out of place in the background (3rd photo). The long walk home, laden with packages, will be my last through these streets for quite sometime, but I still prefer it to taking a taxi.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It pains me to see this, he says.

It's interesting that where one person sees hope, another sees conflict. In so many ways, this typifies the root of Lebanon's unrest. Although they've tried to maintain a "sectarian" government, where no one belief system is espoused as the that of the entire country's, they've also had to design representation to include the main religious groups. Thus, the president is always a Maronite Christian (who, unofficially, must meet with Syria's approval), the Prime Minister is always Sunni, and the Shia are represented by the governmental ministers. Somewhere amongst the members of Members of Parliament, the Druze and other lower-profile groups vie for representation.

The other day, I listened to the bells toll from St. Georges Church downtown, sitting in a slice of shade to protect me from the sun's mid-day blaze, and looked across the street at the Church tucked right up close to Hariri's famous mosque. A Christian church and a Muslim mosque, no just on the same street, but right next to each other. I wondered and hoped that there was a t least a gentleman's agreement that kept the muezzin call and the church bell toll from over-lapping. Apparently there was none in place to prevent the "elves" who, overnight, managed to paper the city with billboards of the young Gemayel's face next to his shot-up car in which he was assassinated last Tuesday. The one you see in the 2nd photo is right in front of the Mosque and the Church.

As I sat day-dreaming, awaiting Nina for another potentially fruitless day at the Ministry of Energy and Water, a Security guard joined me. "This, it hurts me, to see my mosik next to this church." Hm. "How odd," I replied, "I was just thinking what a beautiful sight it is to see two houses that praise the same God, albeit differently, sitting aside each other, bringing believers to this place." He politely but firmly disagreed..and I we parted. What will it take for people to get beyond this need to have every one of us praise in the same way? In the state's we have made strides, but need to go so much further. As disturbed as I was, I had to remind myself that these were the thoughts of one man, who by no means represents all of Lebanon. Many people seem to take their beliefs seriously without needing to impose (every aspect of) their own brand on others. But still...

One aspect of the Druze faith that I find both disturbing and a relief, is that you can only be born into it. You cannot convert or join the faith. What disturbs me is its exclusion, similar to that aspect of Judaism which precludes marrying outside the faith (and for many years was also a tenet of most Christian sects). On the other hand, it means the Druze are not out actively forcing conversions or imposing their sect on others, which is a painful element that has been the seed of most wars. For now, I'll take comfort in the daily sight of veiled women walking with fully westernized girlfriends, snuggled up next to them and laughing between themselves, and to the nod that passes between a Muslim man in his headdress and a Christian man rubbing his rosary beads.

The 1st photo above is one of Beirut's many eerie reminders of the Civil War that raged through the nation in the 70s and 80s. I find it oddly beautiful, as it crumbles into the surrounding palms and the white sand beach.

Why I have faith

Over and over and over, the overt and subtle allusions to civl war cloud the brilliant sunny skies of Beirut. But as both print and televised media continue to foresee the disaster of civil war, the people of Lebanon repeat their mantra: no, not again, no more, we're finished. "If we fall into another civil wear, I'll have finally lost all of my faith in Lebanon," a woman says to her sister. "No doubt," her sibling concurs,"if that happens, then we really do suck." With such vehement opposition to an internal blow-out, how can it happen? Well, I am told, it's in the hands of the politicians, each and every one of whom has blood on their hands from th past. Described largely by the public as militia who've traded their guns for suits and ties, and changed little else, the figures in power seem to be hearing the collective voice of "don't you dare" that shouts through the nation, but as the December 15th tribunal nears, and the four dominant groups in government fail to come together to accept the UN's mandate, the situation could devolve into chaos. So far, tensions have manifested themselves in minor excursions - a trash can fire in Basta-Tahta, a few people yelling in Beshouieh, but largely people have weathered the situation quite calmly. Road blocks and truck loads of troops crowd high-profile intersections, largely surround the Beirut Central District (downtown), but the troops are bored, singing songs, drinking coffee, playing backgammon - and offering directions and greetings to a wayfaring Westerner who's crossed their path for the past few weeks.

Aside from her extensive knowledge of local and invasive plants, a lust for photography that will reveal itself in a show opening tonight, and aspirations to bring environmentally sustainable landscape architecture to Lebanon, Jana also writes, and Jana's Essay gives a first-person insight to the pain July's war. Reading something like this, or listening to Zena's stories of the events this summer that - incredibly - have strengthened her resolve to stay in Lebanon, work with my daily witness to people on the street who manage to smile through the day and live their lives quite richly to convince me that any government rupture with fail to meet the demise that so much of the outside world deems inevitable. I have deep faith that civil war will not pollute the ties that have held this nation together for the past 10 years..

Friday, November 24, 2006

Mourning - a six-course feast

While one continent partakes in one of its most excessive holidays of the year, spending days in the kitchen for a meal that will likely be consumed in minutes, one-fourth the population of a tiny Arab nation across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean pours into the streets of its capitol, pressed tightly around the Place des Martyrs, waving the national flag and Phalangist party flags, singing tribute for an entire day to the young Minister of Industry, assassinated on Tuesday.

Contrary to the impressions cast by the nerve-wracked BBC reporters Live on the scene, the crowd was quite civil, the procession organized, and after a suitable period of public mourning, speeches, and other rituals of death, the crowds just amiably went home. I almost got the impression that the media wanted the demonstration to devolve into chaos, the streets to fill with rage, and riots to push this country another step closer to the Civil War that only the Lebanese themselves seem to believe is a last resort. But it didn't come to that, and by Thursday evening, as Americans were just waking to the aromas of chestnut stuffing and pumpkin pie spice, a few pubs in Gemayzee had even opened their doors and people began to meander the streets again. In fact, we even made a brief appearance at an art opening tonight, again at Espace SD, for a Lebanese videographer/photographer who, until the July war, had been living in France for many years. As his father slipped further into the toxic nest of cancer cells, he returned home to see, and eventually bury him, and he's since stayed. Tonight, he presented a collection of photographs, eerily orange, all distorted via pixillation, and each of burnings building or collapsing, or smoke obscuring the pain and horror going on within it.

Already, I am tired of images of war. not bored with them, but physically and emotionally tired. And I wasn't even here in July, nor, like Wael, have I spent the first 16 years of my life numbing myself to shots fired in the night, sniper fire in the streets, and a never-ending list of dead, maimed, disappeared, or departed.

Today gave me hope. As the international community almost eagerly awaited the collapse, suggesting that all the nation needs is two more Ministry resignations or assassinations before the government must fall, I had hope in Lebanon, despite her many aliments. Today, the mourners came in relative peace, and left as they came, and Nasrallah's demonstrators will wait for another day.

There is nothing quite like viewing the news form other sources, and Lebanon's local English-language paper, The Daily Star is quite excellent, and well worth its 100% advertisement-free price tag of US$1.60 for about 12 pages of nothing but news, presented from the perspectives of each of the most dominant religious sects in Lebanon. And, contrary to UK and USA opinion, I've found Al-Jazeera's English-language web page reports some poignant less-covered stories while offering an interesting perspective of how the Arab world interprets international news.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A short respite from the nation's tribulations

I think we all need a break from the tension, and the incessant images of despair here in Lebanon, and what better way to achieve that, than to wander visually back to Faraya, lovely Faraya...So let's bask in some nice rock-climbing shots, including a nice view of the day's climbers hanging at the base of the rock, yours truly returning from her first ascent, a view that goes on forever across Faraya, and a nice shot of Wael climbing in the crack. Because he is my friend, I resisted the urge to post the shot I took of Wael THOROUGHLY BUSTED taking a nap while he was belaying.........his wife! Photodoc'll kill ya....

Everything is changed

So, it's official. The Beirut Marathon (Beirut Marathon) organized by Zena's mother, is officially "postponed until further notice." Today was the scheduled opening ceremony, with 3 more days of events until the actual race on the 26th. The country is plagued by much preparation, something to look forward to, and then yet another political disaster steals its momentum, casts it aside to be left, forgotten, or to re-emerge feebly to little enthusiasm. Last summer was forecast to be Lebanon's most successful summer since the end of the civil war, and tourism was expected to be at an all-time high. Zena spent two years working on a project to bring women's art into the sight-glass of Lebanon, and produced a stunning full-color collection of the pieces into a book (Shutabka Ya Mara) only to have the war complete destroy the momentum and derail the opening. After ceasefire, who could care less about art? She watched her effort, dream, and the hopes of so many new artists slip further into isolation.

"They need to just get rid of the marathon."
"But I love the marathon. It is one time when thousands of Lebanese from all the religions come together for 3 or 4 hours, as just Lebanese, not Muslims, not Christians, not Druze, but just to enjoy the day."
"Yes, and the next day, they go back to killing each other."
"Don't be that way. The marathon is a beautiful thing."
"I know. Your wife ran it in her wedding dress."

This is a conversation I overheard the other day, and in so many ways it emphasizes the struggle this nation will endure for quite some time to come. My own goal, to help develop a national oil spill contingency plan to prepare Lebanon in the event that another disaster like Jieh occurs, has been hindered by the kind of resignation I heard in the woman who spoke above. Even as I tried to glean facility information from the Ministry of Environment, its head of Oil Spill Operations and Coordination Center (OSOCC) bristled, "What do I care about oil on the beaches? Cleaning the beach won't feed my son!" Or even more poignantly, why rebuild when someone will simply bomb it all over again...What can I say to this, when I have never had to pull bodies from a bombed building or watch fires rage through my entire city? Although I cannot ignore the future for the plagues of today, I was momentarily silenced.

Sometimes it does seem futile, but I remind myself that anyone can give up and break a system that's already fragile. It takes those who are truly useful, committed, and ambitious, the people who care about more than just their own personal gain and their immediate family's future, to rebuild a community and move it toward a sustainable future.

Which is why Dr. Jaradi and I have discussed a possible program to educate local communities and small tribes in bird capture, treatment, and cleaning, in the event of another oil spill. Dr. Jaradi has already been working with the fishermen of Tripoli, and with the few oiled birds they've encountered, sharing his methods on how to properly care for them. Because there are many ravages of war, and the innocent cross genus/species and geographic barriers. "My time is always free of charge for the birds," Dr. Jaradi emphasizes. "Because if not I, who else will do it?"

Indeed, who? Well, so far, I can name a hefty fistful, those who were out on the beaches, with little gear and no support but family and friends, who despite the bombing overhead and their own government's demands that they cease and desist, spent the hottest days of summer cleaning up their own beaches, watching in tears as the black slick stained the cerulean waters they swam in their childhood. The folks I've been working with at Green Line, particularly Wael and Nina, never seem to give up, and cannot lay down and let the nation's iniquity derail the possibility of a clean, safe, beautiful Lebanon where art enriches the soul, the history of man is embedded in the roots of each remaining cedar, and Lebanese can breathe deeply the rich beauty of their land.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Independence Day

Last night, working away on our draft Oil Spill Contingency Plan for the Zouq Power Plant north of Beirut, Ravina came in to tell Diane and me that Pierre Gemayel, the Minister of Industry, had just been assassinated while driving the streets north of Beirut. The city was now in a gridlock, and other Green Line members, en route to the office for a 5 O'clock meeting, were stranded in the tangled traffic of various sectors around town. Once again, Wael, calling from his cell phone while out of town to evaluate a new Eco-village, advised me to take the back roads home and lay a little low - as he and Zena had advised when the 5 Ministers had resigned from the government last week, leading many to anticipate demonstrations in the downtown area. At Green Line, a virus had overtaken Diane's computer, killing our Internet access, so I was relieved when Ravina suggested we leave a little earlier than our usual 8 PM. Another assassination...and things had seemed so "normal" lately, despite the government's fragile hold on order. The Lebanese know that any mirage of stability is tenuous, susceptible to outrage with a single gun shot ...

For the past few weeks, the image of Hariri has invaded every plane of my view. His visage looms above the highways, erected every 100 meters or so throughout every part of the country that I've seen. He peers down on central Beirut from billboards you can see from across sectors. The billboard has a pleasant head shot of Hariri, and in the background lay the remains of a demolished building scattered about deep pit in the city. Since the civil war, Hariri has been credited with much of the re-building effort in Beirut, so I assumed the billboard celebrated these projects, showing the demolition of an old bombed-out building, soon to be replaced by something new and functional. While my ability to read Arabic has improved, I have a pretty poor dictionary, so the phrase over the billboard, "Lan nansa" (or something like that, as Arabic written text does not include short vowels) made no sense to me. As the days passed and I wandered further throughout the city, I saw similar billboards with the faces of others in front of various piles of debris. A few days ago, Zena once again re-set my frame of reference. These billboards, she explained, represent the many who've been assassinated, starting with Hariri in February 2005. "La Nansa" (I am guessing at the vowels here) is somewhat equivalent to "never forget..." and each image depicts the person assassinated and the site where it occurred, including the shrapnel of their bombed vehicle or the rubble of the blown-up building they occupied.

Once back at the house in Achrafieh, I couldn't pull myself from the news. I was unable to log on to the Internet, as Wael's computer has reverted to a password-protected access mode... For the next 3 hours, I channel-surfed between BBC, CNN, and NBC-Europe, frustrated that I could not e-mail my chronically worried mother that I was safe in Beirut. Due to my brother's history here during the civil war, the country evokes mixed feelings in my family.

My walk home last night was surreal. Avoiding the downtown area, but seeing it in the distance, empty, completely still, and populated by no one but military troops, I took the back alleys through one of my favorite neighborhoods, Basta Tahta (pronounced something like Beh-steh Teh-HEH-teh). This neighborhood is very Muslim, with most of the women veiled, kids running through the streets, and men clustered around backgammon boards with the news booming forth from a small TV or radio. Even here, there was an odd tension - maybe I imagines it - but it felt different. It was the night before the national holiday, Independence Day, though most Lebanese don't take it very seriously... They may be independent of the French, but there is always some foreign finger scratching below the nation's surface. Was the assassination in any way tied to the holiday? Are the shuttered businesses and empty streets of Christian sectors of the city part of a holiday closure, or in respect for the 3-day mourning period following the death of a Christian Minister? Yet, even the business that were open in Gemayzee, Yesouieh, and Nasra had their windows protected with roll-down bars.

The first photo in today's post is of one of these billboards hanging over the noticeably EMPTY Rue Gourand, of Gemayzee. Keep in mind that it is Wednesday at about 10 in the morning, and traffic is normally at a stand-still still on this street. The woman on the billboard is a journalist known for her out-spokenness on Syria; she survived, but now has a prosthetic arm and leg. She continues to anchor on TV, frequently in outfits that expose her new deformities.

The next photo shows one of my favorite streets in the Basta Tahta sector, with Nasrallah larger-than-life above the neighborhood. I don't know what to think about this man. What IS his plan? If Hisbollah truly wants to be observed by the west, why doesn't he push for the tribunal? If the tribunal does expose Syria's responsibility for Hariri's death, can't Hisbollah simply say, "OK, we don't support terrorist acts," condemn the act, and cut their ties to Syria? If so, maybe that first step will open the dialogue. There are still many unknowns, but the Lebanese seem the most aversive to a religious state; a complete conversion to an Islamic government seems highly unlikely. For now, the most important element is to save Lebanon from devolving into yet another civil war - it can lead to nothing but more senseless death and destruction, and exhausted after the bombardment this past July, I trust the Lebanese to avoid this demise - at least I hope so, for their own sanity.

On a more hopeful note, I continue to meet some amazing people who are trying to look after the treasures of Lebanon - it's unbelievable cultural ruins, the (disappearing) wildlife, the stunning (but filthy) beaches. Dr. Ghassan Ramadan-Jaradi is an ornithologist I spoke with today about developing trained local crews for bird recovery and treatment in the event of future oil spills. This country's challenges are many, but focusing on the small victories that may come painfully slowly will hopefully lead to long-term benefits that can eventually guide Lebanon to a new future.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ahhhhh, Faraya!

What more fitting Sabbath, than a trip into the lovely ski resort town of Faraya, poised within a limestone rimmed canyon and home to stunning geology that rivals Utah's Monument valley, in miniature...An early knock on my door stirred me from the pleasure of my morning was Zena asking me if I was ready to leave - but to go where? "Oh, didn't Wael tell you? We're going rock-climbing." Although I knew we had work to do, I couldn't resist, particularly once Wael assured me that we'd have time to catch up in the evening. Thus far, my limited travels of Lebanon have taken me to many lovely places, but truly none has induced the immediate calm that came over me in the streets of tiny Faraya. Weaving through a sparsely populated village (by Lebanese standards) of trees in fall foliage, along the sinuous curves of the town's river, we stopped for my newest favorite, Manooshe - a lovely Arab flat bread baked to a nice crisp on an open-pit stove that looks more like an inverted cauldron. You can get it coated with jiban (cheese) or zaata (thyme), with olives (zaytun), tamaatim (tomatoes), and koosa (cucmber) tucked inside. In the city, you can get one of these very filling treats for a mere $0.30 US, but the manooshe in Faraya was well worth it's $0.60 US price tag.

After breakfast, we picked up Kemo, a climbing friend who won my heart with his "C'est moi qui decide!" t-shirt (you all remember - "I am the decider! I'm the one who decides!") and we drove along the upper rim of the valley, through the stunning ancient ruins that you see in the first photo. No was certain which era they were from (the debate was between Roman and Phoenician), but wandering through fragments of people buried in time stops my breath. How sad it is that many here don;t know what they have, and scraps from these remnants are hoisted off by locals for re-use, or buried over to build condos, or shops, or...

The 2nd and 3rd photos show the area we went to climb. I plan to upload climbing photos in a separate post, but as a first-timer, the local climbing club shared gear, expertise, and kind encouragement to me, Zena, and her friend Lena, all virgin climbers, who are all hungry for seconds!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Beit Ed Dine..."House of Faith," a fitting end to a Peaceful Day

A week ago Sunday, Wael, Zena, and one of Wael's many relatives set out from the heat, noise, and smog of Beirut on a bit of a quest. It is uncanny how many of us on this planet all share the same dreams - clean water to drink and play in, air that feels like life in our lungs (rather than poison), strong communities alive with art, clean industry, culture, and beauty. No matter who you speak with, when it comes down to drinking a beer at the bar and speaking outside of the media's sound-bite idiocy, we're more alike than we'd expect, across America and around the globe. Well, my hosts too have a dream of bringing art to a wider audience in Lebanon, creating studio opportunities for emerging artists, and ideally, creating a quiet country home for themselves in the midst of it. So off we went to look at some land, in teh mountains outside Beirut.

It still amazes me how tiny this country is. If I had a multiple-entry VISA, I'd try to go to Damascus, a mere 2 hours away, or even venture into Israel/Palestine....which is only 2 hours to the south. Still, there is enough here to tease my palate, and this time, it was a visit to the stunning castle Beit Ed Dine. Even though it's not incredibly old (built in the 1800s) it is magnificent, as you can see from the photos, and for all its grandeur a walk on the grounds induces a deep sense of calm. The guard took us through the Presidential suites, the public baths and family baths, and rooms where each square centimeter of wall, ceiling, and floor had etched into it minute beauty...repeating facades that emerged like a mandala. Zena tells me that these elaborately repeated patterns evolved from the prohibition against reproducing man in any form, so art was limited to flowers, ornate designs, and calligraphy. Although limited, here, is a misnomer. Unfortunately, I was not able to photograph the interior artwork, but you can get an idea of the peacefulness of this place, poised high above a stunning valley. In the first photo, Wael catches a nap under a tree in the garden, which extends into the next photo. Third is a picture of a barely detectable Zena under one of the oddly out-of-place nooks, that seems almost like a Swiss afterthought. Finally, a muslim women wanders into the courtyard. I cannot imagine attending a garden at a place like this, but Zena tells me they've had several. Nice......

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Beauty & antiquity, against all odds

As I promised before, I will not inundate you with negative images of a country that's already stolen my heart with its very special and intimate beauty. I wanted to share with you a small piece of our trip from Tripoli to the Palm Islands, so you can savor some of the unspoiled beauty that still dominates the area, despite man's footprint. The first shot is from the boat, as we sailed from Tripoli west to the marine reserve, and the second photo shows the beckoning beauty of the main island. Finally, two fishermen sit on the dock mending nets for tomorrow's catch. Many do the same elsewhere along the dock, in their boats, and on the shore.

Palm Islands - the Pearl of the Lebanese Coast

The Palm Islands Marine Reserve is a complex of 3 coral-formed terraces just over 5 kilometers off the coast of Tripoli. They are subtle; their low, flat profile keeps them barely visible from Tripoli’s harbor, but they are gems in the sea. Wael and I, along with Maria a Lebanese-American journalist, Liam, a Canadian photo-journalist, and Hugo, a fish tissue sampler from Italy, visited the Palm Islands last week to see what residual effects there were from the spill. This precious system, the only marine reserve in this heavily trafficked Mediterranean country. The islands are one of the few remaining breeding grounds for the endangered Loggerhead Turtle. Lebanon is primarily a migratory bird flyway rest stop, and home to resident shorebirds, but the reserve islands are home to the only nesting sea birds in Lebanon.

The first photo gives you an idea of the intricate motif of channels and plateaus that exist on the islands. What may appear as black algae on the surface is the tarry residue of oil form Jieh. The second shot allows a more up-close-and-personal view, for those of you who've not seen the remnants of spilled oil.

The Palm Islands were initially undamaged by the oil spill, but the lack of response to the disaster sent the oil well up the coast and into Syria, and the marine reserve stood naked in the middle of the slick’s path. In late August, the Mediterranean coughed black phlegm onto the exposed coralline shelves of the islands’ southern shores, seeping into the intricate rocky caverns of this unique piece of Earth. Swiss funds, French supervision (Le Floch Depollution), and hastily assembled cleanup crews composed of Tripoli's fisherman, spent weeks trying to scour the reserve of this affront, only to be slapped again. As an early winter storm pounded Lebanon's beaches in mid-November, it tossed oily muck from offshore high up the main island's beaches, re-polluting the beach, fouling more of its pristine white sand, and soiling the small plants that crowd above the tide line.

Many Lebanese have never visited this lovely treasure, located a mere two hours by car and boat from the heart of Beirut. Most Lebanese have no idea of the amazing diversity of their own country. Aside from its wealth of ancient historical artifacts, including the birthplace of the Bible (Byblos), Lebanon is a land of marshes, freshwater springs, sea caves, mountains, reefs, karst, marine life, the cedar trees used to construct cities now buried beneath the Earth, and much more. Such immense wealth… Fewer still are aware that their country sits on the shore of the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem on Earth, encompassing a mere 0.7% of the world’s oceans, yet providing a home to 7.5% of the world’s marine animals, and 18% of the world’s marine plants.

There is no mistaking the abuse that the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill imposed Alaska’s stunning shores; scratch beneath the surface and you’ll likely peer into a pool with the unmistakable odor of something cruelly out of place. But in many ways, Alaska has recovered, now wisened from our prior lack of knowledge about our home and preparedness for the inevitable. Lebanon, too, will see other disasters. But my hope is high that the sea will recover. Despite the tar on the rock reefs - which will likely remain for years after the cleanup crews disperse - we did see fish in the Palm Islands’ crystal clear intertidal pools. And the gentle waves of the Mediterranean lapped at the stunning white sand beach, and asked me to return as we pushed off the island's shore and back into the harbor’s heart.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Everything is Understatement...

Apologies - photobucket no longer has my photos for this post available......

When you've never seen the realities of battle on your own soil, nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for the destruction it casts so haphazardly. I'll share a few photos with those of you who may not have seen the actual remains of the Jieh Power Plant, because I became all too aware that many were unaware of the disaster. At some point, however, it becomes a morbid form of voyeurism. I will try my best to land on that microscopic thin line that sits between awareness and sadism, and focus my photos on what beauty remains in the world. So what you're seeing in the first photo is what's left of the Jieh Power Plant and it's fuel supply tank farm. The second photo is of the oiled shore near Beirut. after 4 months, many beaches are still contaminated, but most Lebanese have other things on their minds, like rebuilding the south...

Looking for clues in a piece of fruit....

NOTE: PLease be sure to check out the updated links I've added for Zena's artwork and the Oil Spill Working Group....

I am about as jacked up on caffeine as I could possibly be, considering that at home I drink decaf, and since arriving in Beirut, I've launched an unofficial cold-turkey campaign to free my self from the obsidian elixir that, when at home, can lure me from beneath my toasty down comforter on a snow-covered morning, with little resistance. Lesson learned: do NOT use the street vendor’s produce stand as an ad-hoc classroom to learn Arabic. It seemed the perfect opportunity (with phrasebook in hand) to decipher the filigree script citing the names and prices of the various fruits and vegetables, but only if you have the time (and the nervous system) for the ritual of sharing bottomless cups of Turkish coffee.

After Nina & I spent another day negotiating the labyrinthine Ministry, a repository of snippets of knowledge (none of them centrally located), followed by too many hours playing fixated drone at the keyboard, I simply needed to play the odds with Beiruti drivers, get my legs moving, and breathe in a bit of the toxic urban cloud that passes for air in too many of the world's hubs. At least my days in Hanoi prepared me for the pedestrian's "disposable status that prevails in this city. Interestingly, it's a relationship of deep trust between complete strangers, each with their own agenda, the driver's most likely to get quickly to his or her destination (and note necessarily with side view mirrors and bumpers intact) and the pedestrian's to avoid leaving this world as road kill. Lebanese drivers tend to use other vehicles and concrete buildings - and even people - as bumpers, banging into them as if they were mere shrubs, and blissfully driving off with yet another dent in the evolving grafitti that differentiates one vehicle from another.

Hence, I wandered towards the Port of Beirut, hoping to catch an art installation at ESpace SD ( I'd read that this gallery was an excellent place to view emerging Lebanese artists, and was dying to check it out. Since I have a penchant for never taking the same route twice, I again found myself further north, south, east or west of where I'd planned to be. It was an interesting detour, which landed me in the Armenian District, made obvious by the numerous shrines to the Virgin on street corners, lit by compact fluorescent bulbs (2 points for Armenian virgins!) rather than candles, and visited by several of the devout during my brief pause on the street corner. So this is how I happened upon several produce stands along the street side...

Opting to squint at the produce signs from several meters away, I was able to decipher several words in Arabic script, including burtuqaal (oranges) and jazar (carrots). After a few moments, the produce vendor came over to see what I was up to, which I was at a loss to explain with my barely-decipherable dog-Arabic and his lack of English or French. Eventually, he walked me through his entire inventory, showing me the items in my book and saying the names as we walked by each, handing me samples of the various fruits and vegetables to hammer the point home: baadinjaan (eggplant), inab (grapes), koosa (zucchini), khiyaar (cucumbers), and baSal (onions). The Arabic numbers are easy to read, and mimic the Latin somewhat, but finally seeing the winding Arabic alphabet resolve into words that I could recognize, or at least look up in a phrase book, was a relief, a welcome exhalation after spending the past week listening to Beirutis slip easily between French, English, and arabic, often within a single sentence, with no more effort than easing on a sweater against the evening chill. After selecting a bunch of grapes from the vendor, Ali, I was abducted into what is likely one of the oldest Arab rituals in the market....sharing coffee. Ali's produce stand was equipped with a tiny shack that house a bed, TV set, a few personal items, and the requisite propane hot plate for cooking a thick black Turkish brew the consistency of molten lava...but delicious nonetheless. Extracting myself from this process proved difficult until I accepted the grapes and some oranges free of charge. This must be more of that Lebanese hospitality I've experienced since my arrival.

Several hours into my evening walk, I finally managed to find ESpace, which was sobering, amazing, heart-wrenching, eye-opening and yet again reinforced how sheltered a life it is that I've lead, safe from the quiet emptiness of combat. Several pieces drew me in for some time, particularly a 3-photo triptych, "they can't take that away from me: evacuation in 3 steps," by Christophe Katrib. In it, a helicopter lifts refugees to the ships offshore, amidst a smoky canvas of clouds on fire with the late afternoon sunlight. I couldn't help thinking how it is that so many disasters, be the from man or from nature, create the most stunning sunsets. Perhaps it's a small gift to focus on despite the devastation around us...

Interestingly enough, Zena put this installation together, which put me another degree closer than six of separation...Last Friday, she and Wael were opening a show, for which he tended bar. I had hoped to join them, but got a little lost in my wandering through town, so was too late; they had already left. The other day, I mentioned to Zena that I was hoping to visit Espace, and that I had passed the gallery and looked through the windows, but had not gone in. At which point she told me, it was the very installation she & Wael had worked at on Friday...and the world keeps getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller....

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Lovely Weekend Opens to a Sobering Monday

Hereafter, I'll be posting photos at in a link at the beginning of each post. I apologize that I am not able to upload images at this time, due to transmission rate problems, but I hope to have that repaired tonight.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Beirut for only 5 days, as so much has occurred in so short a time. On Saturday, Nina & I enjoyed a very productive meeting with the Minister of Energy, which made our fruitless efforts of Friday more palatable. Mr. Ali Berro spent an hour with us pin-pointing high risk areas within the nation and sharing his thoughts on how to find more specific information that will help us develop a good draft contingency plan.

Afterwards, Zena & Wael took me with them to Wael's parents for
lunch. Innocent enough, I thought, lunch on Saturday afternoon. HA!
This was an event, I tell you. I\d been warned in the travel guides
about meals in Lebanon, and how the courses keep coming and coming and
coming....and there were about 20 people over. I tried raw meat, a
mixture of ground lamb and spices that was exquisite. You spread it
on pita and layer olive oil on top. I also had Hasiri, a delicious
lamb soup with cinnamon sticks, and a Lebanese Paella with this
amazing cayenne and squash sauce. And thyme salad - like nothing I've
ever tasted - and of course hummous and baba ghanouj. OK, then comes
dessert. Not just one, but tray after tray after tray. Keydfe (?) is a
farina cake with a mozzarella-like bottom layer, that you pour honey
syrup over; betlawa (lebanese baklava), which is SO RICH - unlike and
far better than any Greek baklava I'd had at home; these interesting
rolled pastries made with pistachio filling and what looked like
barbecued shredded wheat on the outside (these were a meal in
themselves); banana cake and a home-made currant cheesecake (I didn't
try either of these) and a grape & apple plate. My god.......All of
this was followed up with the requisite demi-tasse of Turkish

The best part of the meal was by far the dialogue. I didn't
understand a word of it, but Zena kept me posted every once in a while
on the topics, some of which I gathered based on gestures. The
Lebanese gesture wildly, yell across the room at each other, and laugh
constantly. It was like watching a pistol fight of words. One man
told of how hot his wife looked after he spent a year in Libya during
the civil war, bc the Libyan woman were such dogs. Topics frequently
re turned to the war, and how tired Lebanese society is after spending
48 of the past 60 years at war or occupied...Then of course, it came
around to the (apparently regular) debate between the parents and Zena
& Wael about why they have no kids. Z & W want to adopt, and the
parents are mortified. Finally, Wael's father conceded
they could adopt, as long as they had just one of their own, since all
of the good genes are used up by the first child!

But then came Monday…today, our travels finally took us to places I’d rather not have gone. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of oiled rocks, sheen & mousse on the water, tar balls coughed up on the beach, fishing boats coated with oil staged along the shore.

Today, Wael & I were joined by 2 journalists, a Canadian and a Lebanese-American, who are working on an article for SEED magazine. They joined us as we visited the Jieh Power Plant itself, the tank farm largely rubble, molten detritus from the fire, and the ground charred by burnt fuel oil and metal residue from the power plant pipe-works. A train that was staged adjacent to the plant during the bombardment is barely recognizable as its former self. After a few moments, that acrid air settled into my lungs, and my stomach began to lurch. And it’s been 4 months…

We continued north along the beaches toward Beirut, and every area we assessed after clean-up operations had been re-contaminated either by offshore sheen, oil stirred from below the sand surface, or hidden between the rock crevices – it was hard to determine for certain. The only truth to our eye-witness testimony was that the oil was still there, and nowhere more clearly than at a local fishing port in Beirut, where the clean-up was finished several weeks ago, but already mousse and sheen had overtaken the tiny confined bay. A volunteer diver, Mohamed Sarji, joined us at one point to give us his perspective of the whole clean-up operation and his frustration…something we heard over and over from the Lebanese…their unending frustration with their government. With the remote but real potential for another civil war, the crumbling government, the urgency of those whose homes were destroyed during the July war, it is easy to understand how the Lebanese are immune to the impact of the oil spill. As Wael so poignantly put it, he spent the first 16 years of his life in a war-torn nation. Too many people feel their childhood was lost and that everything is too fleeting, so why concern oneself with the environment, long-term health issues, and the fate of a planet that may not be here next year? It is likely the sense of hopelessness that explained the herd of sheep we witnessed traveling through the waste storage area, their shepherds oblivious to the tarry clumps in their path…and to the indifference of fisherman who continue to collect the bounties of the sea, tainted though it may be…and to the odd play upon the eye of the dazzling turquoise of the Mediterranean lapping against the filthy rock shores that once were the pride of Beirut.

The day wore on, and we ended our evening with 2 Swedish journalists who were surprised at how little has been accomplished since the spill occurred on July 13-15. Wael has been frustrated with the overall lack of coverage, especially by his own local reporters, but it seems the word may be getting out, and most likely due to his incessant voice, always calling people’s attention to the situation.

Tomorrow, we move on from Beirut north to Tripoli and the palm Islands Nature Reserve, where the clean-up operations are still in progress. It is agonizing that these are the circumstances by which I’ll visit these ancient and beautiful lands…

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Warm & Balmy Welcome to the Oasis of the Middle East

Two and half days with 3 layovers finally landed me in balmy, deserted Beirut at ~ 3:45 AM on November 2nd. I'd estimated it would take me 2 hours to get through customs & immigration, and obtain a VISA, but apparently only such beauocracy exists in the US these days. Touch-down 3:45 AM, arrival at the home of my hosts, Wael & Zena Hmaidan, by 4:30, including 30 minutes with the (extremely patient) cabbie & I trying to locate their apartment! Unbelievable...And unlike so many immigration officers, the Lebanese were friendly and welcoming.

A sleepy Wael showed to the room they'd made up for me ~ a love;y nook upstairs that felt like falling into the Rabbit hole. Open & spacious with a private bath (!), the only oddity is the height - the ceilings are about 1.5 meters tall! Zena explained that these fully finished "short" upper flats exist in many apartments from the 1940s. It has a very fantastical feel about, aside from the obvious allusion to "Being John Malkovich..."

I finally got to walk the streets of Beirut a bit tonight. In this city, when you move from one district to another, there is no mistaking it. The changes are dramatic, from building styles and street & sidewalk widths - each district has its own unique "feng shui" so to speak. Most shopkeepers sit out front of their store, sharing coffee or tea with a friend or relative, their conversations lively with the smooth purr of Arabic. This is my frustration, however. I've always picked up languages wherever I've travelled, but here I just cannot seem to "get it." I really need to spend some time each day on it, but my time here is precious. I listened intently to NIna as she spoke with various officials, but it is still too foreign for me. Although I speak now only 2 words of Arabic (marHaba = hello, and shukran = thank you), smiles and nods seem to go far with the folks in the city. The cabbie offered me cigarettes, gum, and drinking water, but I was holding out for him to offer falafel!

By noon yesterday, Wael & I had gone to the Green Line office to review our objectives for my stay here. As Rick Steiner assured me, there are numerous opportunities - the difficulty is making sure I stay focused and get to completion on at least one of them, so the Green Line crew can move forward on their own. They are trying to secure funding for a long-term environmental assessment of the damage, which involves developing a detailed proposal to submit to foundations and other potential funding sources. They also see an immediate need to evaluate the ongoing clean-up efforts, currently operated by a variety of international agencies and local contractors. The concern is that some of the less experienced operators may not be technically trained in the best methods for recovery and minimizing damage. Finally, and much like Alaska in the wake of the Exxon Valdez, they see an immediate need to develop a national oil spill contingency plan and prevention plan, so they know where their highest risks and most sensitive resources are, and can protect them in the future.

Nina Jamal is a woman of apparently endless energy currently pursuing her M.S. in Environmental Policy, and we will be working together primarily on the contingency & prevention plans. We began today with a search for the basics - where are the nation's largest oil stores? As we began this quest with the various Ministries within the government, I was reminded that not long ago, Alaska had little to no recorded baseline wildlife data on bird nesting periods & specific fish run dates, but after the spill, we saw the need and filled it. I've come to realize how lucky we are to have organized data banks to locate information such as land ownership, drinking water sources, and critical habitats. Nina & I will have to exhaust whatever resources we can to find the most basic data not only for archaeological and historical artifacts & fish habitats; we'll need information on the petroleum storage facilities themselves (tank volumes, product specifics, etc.). She & I both discussed that we cannot get dissuaded so early on - the initial pus will be the most difficult, and we will work with whatever we can get. Our goal is to get a good working document going that Wael can present to the Minister of Environment to show what resources are at risk; others can flesh it out at a later date....

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Departure Nears....

The drive north from Homer to Anchorage is crystal clear, with a sky full of stars and the Big Dipper kissing the Kenai Mountains on the north horizon...a perfect night. I realize that I'll see very little of the night sky once I arrive in Lebanon, as the coast is heavily populated and light pollution surely bleaches the evening canvas. I'm still eager to search for familiar clusters at that latitude. I depart Anchorage at 1 A.M. on Halloween and arrive, via Boston & London, in Beirut at a bleary-eyed 3:45 A.M. Wael, the kind man I've met at Green Line, the Lebanese NGO, has generously offered to share his & his wife's home during my stay; I am thrilled to stay in a home, rather than another anonymous pension or hotel.

I don't know when exactly that I decided to go to Lebanon. As an Alaskan, the news in July of tons of oil on the Mediterranean Sea (ug - again!) was deeply disturbing. What bothered me more, however, were the stories of the continued bombing in the area that made it impossible to get oil spill workers to the area safely. Luckily, I never saw the horrors of the Exxon Valdez 1st-hand, though most of my friends & former co-workers have. Still, it's a piece of Alaskan history that has affected us all, and regardless of religion or politics, most Alaskans cringe at this kind of devastation happening anywhere. It seemed right that I should try to go, given my job's imminent end on September 25th. A few Internet searches yielded my contact at Green Line. Even more fortuitously, a local Professor from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks was one of the first U.S. citizens to enter Lebanon after cease-fire.

Rick Steiner has been a presence at (too many) ocean oil spills, including the Exxon Valdez. He spent a week in August collecting data for an initial assessment for the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment. I sent him an e-mail, expecting no response, and a month later, I decided to leave a voice mail (thanks to the University Employee Directory). He returned my call immediately, and invited me to his office to discuss his observations and how he thought my skills might be best out to use. After chatting a bit off topic - and in a manner suggesting that six degrees of separation is off by a factor of 4 - we learned that we were next-door neighbors briefly in the late 90s, when he sublet my good friend's cabin in Bear Valley. He nearly had to walk across my deck to access get to his front door! I will never cease to revel in the complex paradigm of Alaska’s vastness coupled with its small town closeness.

Rick was quite familiar with my contacts at Green Line, and felt confident that these were the right people to work with. That eased the minor nagging at the back of my brain that questioned wandering off unaffiliated to a part of the world that most US citizens fear. I have no idea exactly what I'll do when I arrive, as I'll leave that largely to Wael & Jana of Green Line. The Mediterranean is not the arctic, so they'll be the best able to decide how my skills can be of use. In the mean time, I am happy that Ramadan comes to a close, so I can enjoy the wonderful horn of Lebanese plenty!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Stepping Lightly

I don't leave until Halloween, so I am taking this time to fast-track my knowledge of Lebanon and, in particular, Beirut. Recently un-employed, a former minion of the oil & gas industry, it makes sense that I should head to their oiled Mediterranean coast to use what tools I have there. I have no set itinerary or agenda, which could leave me floundering or open to opportunity. The plan is to spend 1 month in coastal Lebanon in whatever capacity I can be of any use. This could be interesting...