Magical realism and technology – Shilo Shiv Suleman; and my talented sister, Kaj

My very talented little sister shared this lovely whimsical TED talk with me:

Her manner of speaking somehow just reminds me to look at things positively, with the eyes of a child discovering new wonders of the world. We could all use a little more of that, no? Apparently, Shilo also has done some pretty cool art in Ahmedabad.

Now, some shameless bragging about my little sister – look at her bright and beautiful recent artwork! I’m l’m on the list to receive some, so quite excited about that.

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This one was made by my sister for our parents. She traced their faces so that the figures would resemble them – and it works! I get the uncanny feeling that they are looking back at me, though nothing about their clothing or features suggests it’s them!

 

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Kaj’s rendering of Mirabai and Krishna.

 

 

My sister is going to visit us in France in May – so we are going to be looking for a drawing class to take together! We would love to learn to draw the human form, and perhaps how to copy sculptures in museums. We are very excited to see each other after what will have been a year, and to spend time together doing something we love. Please send me suggestions for drawing classes if you have any…

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Batroun

Weekend 3: Coast, biking, beer, and fish

On our next-to-last weekend in Beirut, we joined some of Daniel’s colleagues in the coastal city of Batroun. They went early in a car, but we were less willing to wake up early – so we took a bus. One of Daniel’s ex-colleagues, Zeina, is the founder of The Chain Effect (a really cool network of biking enthusiasts which I had blogged about earlier) – so she basically knows about biking that is happening anywhere around Lebanon. Batroun has become a little coastal town (and apparently one of the oldest towns in the world) known for its breweries, wineries, fish, and recently, biking (not that there are any biking lanes anywhere, but it has just become a weekend thing to do for the relatively well-off and/or tourists).

One of Zeina’s friends was renting bikes out of a pop-up shop at Colonel – a cute brewery by the coast. By the time Daniel and I reached, everyone else had already finished biking – so we sat and had some beers with them.

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In the summers, you can actually sip some beer behind the brewery, by the coast

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The brewery
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The brewery

We then walked in the narrow little alleys to a lovely little restaurant and had a lot of fish and hummus and eggplant dip and wine. Someone accidentally ordered the $70 catch-of-the-day (though it was at least shared between six of us) – but it was kind of delicious. It was complemented perfectly with a superb, tangy lemon garlic sauce (I love good sauces). I joined one of Daniel’s American colleagues, who has also become a huge fan of arak, in sipping many little shot glasses of it through the meal. We all sat overlooking the water, talking about biking, and eating and it was another one of those Lebanese meals that left me feeling happy, full, satisfied, and just the right amount of buzzed.

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We finally had a couple of hours to bike before sunset, and so we did! We biked, and I missed the Cambridge days of biking around a town that I knew well. We stopped by some rocks by the ocean to watch the sunset, then returned our bikes and caught a bus back to Beirut.

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Gluttony

Weekend 2 – indulgence & deep breathing

One of the BEST PLACES EVER (which I have resisted writing about until now) is called Bar Tartine. After living for 2.5 years in India, I cannot tell you the tastebuds that this place awakened in be. Fresh olive bread, walnut and fig bread, pistachio bread, cheese, the finest chocolate and almond croissants, the finest chocolate cake, quiches, brownies made of pure amazingness….I could go on. Now, Daniel has always gone to buy his bread at this wonderful place, but then, guess what we discovered? They have an all-you-can-eat brunch – and I wanted to eat all of it.

Needless to say, we visited more than once. The first time was on my second Sunday in Beirut. We thought we would quickly pop in, before one of Daniel’s friends and colleagues came to pick us up around noon to go up into the mountains near her house….but then we saw this…..

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….and proceeded to spend about two hours eating.

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We had to go home and rest a little bit before we could move again.

In the afternoon, Daniel’s friend picked us up to drive to her really lovely family home somewhere in the mountains around Beirut. First, we stopped by a monastery (which apparently has its own little wine shop, which also sells some fresh veggies and goat’s milk) which has beautiful views. We stopped to breathe in the cool air and revel in the pristine beauty.

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Goat’s milk for the whole family
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Deep breath in…
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….and out….

We then went to her house – where we sat and had some tea and brownies in her  mother’s lovely little garden in the mountains – where her mother filled our bags and hands were filled with fresh raspberries, persimmons, oranges, dried lavender, and (really, really hot, we later discovered after adding one to a cup of daal) little red chillies.

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some spoils of the day
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lavender to freshen up our suitcases!

A side note: Daniel’s friend’s mother is  an extremely fit Czech woman who is a runner, her father is Lebanese is a triathlon athlete – and they tend to regularly (like, almost every day) go for 10k runs in the mountains around their house. I felt like her mother looked into my soul with her piercing blue eyes when she so earnestly proclaimed what a lovely thing it is to be so young and healthy, and how much we take for granted, and how exercise cleanses the soul. I immediately proceeded to go for a run the next day (you will see why, at the end of this particular weekend day, all I could do was go for a walk to digest…)

We left to go to a gorgeous restaurant (I have no idea what the name was). It was made to in cozy mountain lodge-style, with a huge fireplace, a lot of wood, white tablecloths, Christmas decorations, large and darkly draped windows looking at the snow-capped mountains – and proceeded to fill our already-filled bellies completely. Daniel and his colleague accidentally had some kind of condensed form of fish’s eggs…but the rest of the food – hummus, eggplant dip, a mix of grilled meats and veggies with that garlic dip I love so much, and a glass of Ixir wine, with a bit of an anise-liquor called arak. Arak is a very high-alcohol percentage liquor, which when mixed with water, turns a cloudy white – and it is generally served already mixed, in little shot glasses with a bucket of ice cubes. All Lebanese people seem to drink it and I sipped it all through the meal. While I found the taste to be strong at first, I started craving it for heavy meals afterward.

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With our bellies more full than ever, and in a sort of sleepy-but-extremely-content-food-coma-haze, we  ended the evening by going to a Christmas fair and eating some more little sugary snacks.

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Don’t you love it when politicians have large photos of themselves everywhere with their own lights? So many countries.

We finally returned to the city to see a mural painted by a friend of Daniel’s friend, meant to commemorate violence against gay couples, and, well, love. It was painted in a spot where a gay man was beaten, I believe, and it was quite lovely. People had gathered to see the unveiling.

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We asked to be dropped off at the corniche, so we could walk for at least 15-20 minutes home to begin digesting everything that we managed to consume.

Weekending like a Beiruti

Some very interesting things about Lebanon are that it is small, its citizens are landlocked by very non-porous borders, and it has varied micro-climates. In an hour or an hour and a half, you can get from the beach where it is in the 70s (sorry guys, I’m speaking in Fahrenheit) to a cedar reserve in the mountains where there is snow on the ground. This is why on the weekends, basically everyone in Beirut who can (and by this I mean of course all of the elites who have second and third homes in the mountains/in their own towns…not the South Asian garbage collectors and the Ethiopian maids…unless accompanying their bosses and charges, of course!) goes out of the city to escape pollution, breathe deep, and spend time with family. Since Dani and I both were working a good bit during the weekdays, we decided to follow suit!

I realized that my lungs actually felt like they were in for a treat in Beirut – I was breathing deep, the sky above me was blue (not gray or blue-ish). I checked and saw that on a random day in December, Beirut was about 3x less polluted than Ahmedabad, and 10x less polluted than Delhi on a random day in December – so I suppose that makes some twisted sense. Nevertheless, after driving about 45 minutes to get into the mountains, the breathing deeply was certainly of a whole different kind, and I felt parts of my lungs I had not felt in ages.

Weekend 1 – Byblos/Jbail

In the first weekend in December – the first one that I was in Lebanon, incidentally – the weather was unseasonably, and very comfortably, warm. We took a bus to Byblos – called Jbail in Arabic – perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, since maybe 5000 or 7000 BC, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the morning, we caught a 1.5 hour bus from Beirut to Jbail – for about $1.3 per person! Only the lower and lower-middle classes use the bus – everyone else has a car or two – and all the buses (well, really large vans) are run by private companies (there is no public transportation).

Once we reached Jbail, we went to a beach for a little while, Daniel took a much-desired dip into the cold, cold ocean (December is definitely winter in Beirut, though temperatures were amazingly in the 60s and 70s for most of the time), then walked around the port.

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We had lunch at an amazing place called Feniqia, which Dani’s colleagues had introduced him to before. The restaurant has delectable grilled meat with the traditional garlicky dip, and lovely presentations of everything from appetizer to beverage to end – which I will provide you the obligatory photos of, por supuesto (once again, I am writing from Buenos Aires – and I just started Spanish classes yesterday. So, apologies for random language insertions!) (also, not pictured: the actual grilled meat. Oops.)

After filling our bellies past satiation, we walked around the Jbail crusader fortress – from getting a 360 panorama of coast, to remnants of the cities of Jbail, to modern city -all doused in sunset hues.

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A bit more about Jbail: in typical imperial style, conquerors occupied Jbail and built their towns and infrastructure one on top of the other, keeping some parts and obliterating others, to replace and take over. The cities built on top of each other are definitely a testament to how the built environment of any town is symbolic of the values of those in power; but sitting back and looking at the remains also inspires awe – I kept thinking about what a time-lapse of the last 7000 years would have looked like. We stood in a space where such a mélange of peoples came and went, torturing each other, conquering each other, and more often than not, just living their daily lives. First came the Phoenicians, then the Persians, then the Crusaders – and I think there were more.

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We ended up in the amphitheater looking out at sea right at the sunset, just as the fortress was about to close for the evening.

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Subsequent weekends to come…phew, (my) blogposts always take longer to write than I think they will!

A quick interlude – excitement about Chile plans (in real time)!

So, this is now horribly out of order. But Daniel and I just sat down to plan most of our February and talked to Fran and Pato and now I am getting very excited. So I thought I would share in real time.

My very haphazard attempt at our itinerary
This is my very haphazard initial attempt at our itinerary. 
Daniel’s much more skillful rendering
Daniel’s much more skillful rendering.

I realized that perhaps I could use technology to aid us….so soon, you will get a much nicer map that can be accessed online! For now, you will just have to figure out what these mean…

Beirut and biking

I’m going to go back in time and try to post about everything since I moved out of India, with the goal of catching up to now….ideally by the end of this week! Phew.

Traveling again

I arrived to Beirut on December 1st – fresh from my last day in India which mostly involved being sick again and frantically, tiredly, trying to pack everything, which I am notoriously terrible at. I will admit, it is kind of ironic and perhaps amusing to hear – the more I travel (which essentially seems to increase every year), the more I 1) get worse at packing, and 2) get more anxious about turbulence. Eh? I don’t get it either.

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Sometimes, I suppose, an Instagram and emoticon can capture the mood pretty well… [November 30, 2017]

Beirut

Anyway, this time around in Beirut, Daniel had a lot of work to finish up, and I had a lot of applications to submit, so we mostly went outside the city only on weekends.

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Me, applicationing.
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We, applicationing more happily in Dar – a lovely Beiruti cafe.

When I visited last March, Daniel had arranged a lovely day of full-on sightseeing, complete with Beit ed-Dine, a cedar reserve, and Baalbeck’s truly superb Roman ruins. I’m posting some photos from back in March 2017 below.

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Flying in. (March 2017)
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Beautiful not-smog-covered mountains! (March 2017)
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A mosque and a church, side-by-side, in downtown Beirut. (March 2017)

 

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A deserted downtown with very pretty flowers. (March 2017)
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Downtown Beirut (not featured: tanks and government-paid guards of the ubiquitous Solidaire – owned by PM Hariri. (March 2017)
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The Blue Mosque – it’s seen as pretty iconic by foreigners that visit Beirut, but for many who live there, it is too new to be iconic. Also, please note the Mercedez. Basically, every car in Beirut is either a luxury car, OR a really old car with blown out windows. The contrast is chilling and a pretty good reflection of the inequality in the city. (March 2017)
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Pigeon rocks – a view at dusk from the corniche. (March 2017)

This time, in December 2017, Daniel was living in Hamra rather than Geitawi (the Christian quarter). Beirut is visibly split by religion – Hamra is mixed, mostly Sunni, and Geitwai is Christian. In Geitawi, Daniel lived in a building where everything else went off during the daily power cuts, with the exception of the eternally lit bulb over the Virgin Mary in the lobby, which apparently had its own generator! In Hamra, Daniel lived in a building where the full-building generator meant that we didn’t even notice the daily power cuts, emblematic of the kind of massive difference in lifestyle between the poor and the elite that one can see here. (Side note: I know what it feels like to live in daily powercuts from my time in Hyderabad back in 2011-12 when Telangana unrest in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh meant 4-8 hours of cuts every day!)

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Sunni-Shia-Christian-Palestinian Refugee Camp demarcation in Beirut. Notice how much is occupied by the Christian elite minority!
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According to Google, “Confessionalism (Arabic: محاصصة طائفية‎ muḥāṣaṣah ṭā’ifīyah) is a system of government that is a de jure mix of religion and politics. It typically entails distributing political and institutional power proportionally among confessional communities.”

Hamra (located within the yellow part of the Beirut map above) is a lovely area, with the American University of Beirut, and situated on the coast, with a wide corniche that I began to painfully restart running on – after essentially not having an iota of regular daily exercise in the last 2.5 years. Eeek. The corniche is nice because one can see lower-middle class families and AUB students walking along, especially in the evenings – and even some other runners. A lot of the more elite Lebanese citizens (women) said they didn’t really prefer it because of the pollution, and perhaps (unsaid) a different type of socioeconomic class than they are used to – there are other seaside areas that perhaps cater more to that segment of the population. But I was very content with the corniche – a 1 minute run away from Daniel’s apartment, quite interesting people-watching, other female runners, and the pollution was certainly a decrease from my time in Indian cities!

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A side note on color

Overall, I was stared at quite a lot by both confused citizens and migrants. Most people who look like me (young, brown females) tend to be South Asian maids or blue-collar workers – so when wearing my western clothes, or my running clothes I was ogled at constantly by both Lebanese citizens, and migrant workers – none of whom could quite understand where to place me. Daniel and I spoke about just how different our experiences are – from each other, and depending on the places we visit or live. Speaking in vast generalities, and just from our own personal experiences (so not at all representative) – In India, a white man is stared at a lot, but often gets more respect than a brown man. Unfortunately, an Indian(-looking) female is also stared at a lot, even when she looks like everyone else – so even in the one place where I can “blend in” by aesthetic, I don’t really get a reprieve from unabashed ogling, especially if I dress remotely differently (of course, I will not get into the dynamics of how much this varies by specific community in India, suffice it to say that it does and I don’t want to over-generalize).  For example, in the UK, brown people tend to comprise a lower class than white people – and I certainly felt some of that vibe in a few days that I spent in London. In Lebanon, Daniel (until he starts speaking) often fits right in, as the Spanish trimmed beard male look can be confused with the Lebanese male look; I stick out like a sore thumb in my western clothing and Indian nose ring, not walking behind any Lebanese woman (as many/most brown and black women are seen doing on the streets – maid uniform advertisements are ubiquitous, many are not seen, and when they are, they are often seen trailing Lebanese women with their kids) – so instead of trying to blend in, I tried to embrace my alienness, with mixed results. It was certainly annoying to constantly be overlooked my waiters in cafes (who would cater to literally everyone else before me) – but I think an important reminder of just how much inequality and discrimination there is. I’d say a black person in India likely feels similarly, if not worse. My experience growing up in the bubble of Athens, Georgia in the US was somewhat sheltered – given that I was in quite an elite community, and race relations were perhaps less overtly tense than they are now. One can definitely argue that the tensions were always around, and the special Indian elite immigrants are certainly not on the worst end. To finish up my long digression, I came across MIXED UP – this really interesting blog on race relations, written by a black South African and white US-American couple living in the US (after reading an article by her in a newspaper) – I found her Subtle Indignities series to be especially poignant.

N.B.: Dani and I have also discussed the difference between how people in different countries characterize others. For example, in India, many people get offended if I say that I am American, given that my parents were born and raised in India. To me, I was born and raised in the US so it seems untrue to tell others that I am Indian. Daniel says that in some communities, nationality is considered ius soli (by soil – where you are born), and in others, it is considered ius sanguinis (by blood – what your parents were). I wanted to argue further and say that my parents are now American, too – so now what! But I think that basically, this all seems to be a way to justify characterizing me based on how I look rather than by the mixed reality of how and where I was brought up, and I do find it a bit irritating.

Bicycles! The Chain Effect

I wanted to write a special note about bicyling in Beirut….even though I didn’t do it. Ahem. So, there are now lovely paintings all around Beirut made by The Chain Effect – a lovely network started and run by one of Daniel’s friends, Zeina, to promote bicycling around the city. They try to refute the view that Beirut is un-bikeable (due to its aggressive drivers and narrow streets). They pursue agreements with companies (the private sector in Beirut basically does everything – Lebanon is that noxious mixture of capitalism, corruption and inequality to an extreme, where the recent bout of trash in the streets was just one example of how the system can break down completely) – to allow for the installment of bike racks, while also spurring up demand by getting them to agree to let them paint beautiful murals to encourage it. It is an exciting, and aesthetically appealing endeavor, and I quite admire it! I was definitely too chicken to try biking around the city…but hope one day to go back and do so.

Here is their own description from their Facebook page:

We began as three friends painting a mural in November 2014.

We think the bicycle is revolutionary – it has the power to transform urban landscapes and social frameworks. We believe the bicycle can become a viable and desirable option for getting around conveniently in Beirut, transforming the city into a healthier, more efficient and more pleasant place to live in and flow through.

Our mission is to promote the bicycle as a sustainable and convenient form of urban mobility and encourage its use in Beirut. We do this through street art, public installations and community projects.

Check out our painted walls on http://bit.ly/28Pd3xF

A few of my own captures of these beautiful murals are below!

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Now, I am signing off from a lovely café in Buenos Aires called COCU boulangerie. Daniel and I have finally found good bread, so we are very pleased. I am going to continue my posts on Lebanon…but for now, I’m going to get this up so I stop delaying! Yallah.