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....

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