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!

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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.

Happy new year!

In 2018, at least for the first half of the year, I am attempting to blog instead of Instagram/Facebook post photos, 1) because I have clearly recognized the addiction described by all of those articles that I read (ironically advertised to me on Facebook) in myself, 2) because it would be kind of nice to put things together in a thoughtful way rather than with hastily written captions in-the-moment, and 3) because it will make Daniel happy. Even though I already keep my Facebook/Instagram posts private to only some groups of people, it still gets into about one or two  hundred-something people, and as Daniel asks me – really, do all of them really care, and do I really want to share my every day moments with all of them? Probably not. Therefore, I’ve made the availability of this blog address opt-in, and I’m planning to continue (but with more frequency) to post personal things, articles worth reading, and bits of commentary on a variety of topics that interest me.

Starting on December 1, 2017 I left India after being there for about 2.5 years (living in 3-4 different cities). Daniel and I also had been dating for about that amount of time, long-distance (from DC for one year, from Beirut for another), but given that he is Spanish and interested in working in the Levant or Europe and I am American and interested in working in India or the US, we decided to not settle on a single place and just travel together while working remotely for six months or so. From the grad school program where we met, we are rather fortunate to have wonderful friends all over the world, and many from South America – so we decided to start there! First, I went to Beirut for a few weeks while Daniel finished up his in-country work (Daniel had visited me about 9-10 times over the last 2.5 years in India, and I had been to Beirut once and loved it). The rest of our itinerary for the year is as follows:

  1. December – Beirut/Lebanon
  2. Last week of December – Spain – Segovia, Salamanca, Galicia
  3. First week of January – Uruguay – La Pedrera, Cabo de Polonia, Colonia
  4. January – Argentina – base in Buenos Aires, not yet sure about our itinerary
  5. February – Chile – Santiago, Rinihue, Torres del Paine, Valparaiso…
  6. March – Morocco
  7. April – Italy
  8. May – France
  9. June – Spain
  10. July – likely Ohio

The Book of Dust, by: Philip Pullman

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly pulral…

-Louis MacNeice, “Snow”, quoted in “The Book of Dust”

Note: This is a rather hastily cobbled together stream-of-consciousness reaction to finishing a new Philip Pullman book for the first time in ages. It was a lovely experience and I wish I was eleven years old and thinking about all of these things for the first time again.

What is it about Philip Pullman’s writing that I love so much? His Dark Materials, and now this prequel, all center around pre-adolescent children (his other series is more for adults – which I also loved, but in a different way) – and yet I find myself completely enthralled by his words, the feelings his characters evoke in me, and the resonance I have with his themes. These feelings that his characters, stories, objects and themes evoke in me have remained constant since I first read The Golden Compass at the age of eleven or twelve or so. And each time that I read the trilogy, I remember finding new meaning.

On one hand, I think I find it particularly easy to become completely captivated by his storylines because there is such clarity in his stance between good versus evil, science versus religion. And there is such a surety in the underlying belief that there is a final meaning – something scientific, and explainable – even in a world that is so confusing, full of feeling and seeming magic. There is this undying faith that Pullman expresses – in the ability to explain. If we just ask enough questions, we will someday find the answers. I am undeniably sympathetic and attached to this idea.

But I also love the fantasy – the in-betweens and magic and the power of nature and soul that Pullman makes the clearly vital companions to the main characters in his storylines – second only to the pure and vivid children whose feelings, and deep moral and philosophical choices that they are forced to make, play the central characters. Pullman is an avid proponent of science – and atheism – and yet has no problem acknowledging the depths of the secrets of the universe, spirituality, and things that the powerful and intelligent experimental theologians cannot yet explain. He places great weight and importance on curiosity – which, it seems, is the central job of the highly respected scholars who spend all their times doing research and reading in libraries in the colleges in the book. He seems to put contemplation, meditation, and experiment all as different but equally meaningful parts of science – theory and empirics are important, even though the science fads of any age seem to more heavily favor one over the other in our world! It is interesting that these scholars – though representing the opposite of the mainstream evil Christian institutions of the day – are also powerful, respected, and wealthy in themselves…but they are generally portrayed as the benevolent mainstream power. (Should intelligence of only this type be so respected?)

But the story retains a clear black-and-white quality – with children and their natural intelligence and loyalty and love always choosing the side of science – and this makes it particularly absorbing for me, though Pullman’s books are perhaps less nuanced than they should be if trying to explain something true about our universe. While Pullman’s books certainly have characters who are mysterious, these are always the complicated adults, whose loyalties are murky, or witches and the gyptians who are both the most magical, mysteriously experienced and complex, but the most rational of creatures. The central characters – the powerful Christian institutions and the pure, unadulterated underdog children and their daemons (physical, animal representations of their souls) – remain clearly evil and clearly good, respectively. I always know who I am rooting for, who represents the ray of light amongst the corrupted souls and shadows of adulthood.

Now, let me spend a bit of time on daemons. These creatures are not really beings in themselves – because they are the people who they are with. They are the physical manifestations souls, which cannot be wrenched away from the people they are with, without terrible pain on both sides. They are the voices in our heads, our consciences, our very essences…which Pullman thinks perhaps can be explained by science. Conscious Dust – which is seen and studied in complex magnetic fields and is comprised of animate matter which explains the secrets of our universe, and which the Christian behemoth powers that be are avidly looking to quash. Souls (daemons) only touch one another, or another person, when there is true love, or true hatred. How wonderful it would be to see my soul, to be able to converse with it, to be constantly reminded that it is there and everyone else’s is there, too. And how vulnerable – to have one’s soul outside of one’s body, and for others to be able to see its form and its expressions. The daemons take the form of animals, and they keep changing before puberty, but they freeze into one form – their true form – when people reach adulthood. Children are therefore uncorrupted – they can change. But adults – the essence of whether they are good or bad or some mix – stays the same.

As with all wonderful fantasy novels (in my opinion), the third thing that I love about Pullman’s books is the objects in them. Of course, his Dark Materials books were all named after these fantastical instruments – the alethiometer, the subtle knife that cuts between worlds, and the amber spyglass are, to me, perfect symbols to meld magic and unexplained behaviors of the world with science. (I love these objects just as much as I love the magical objects in Ella Enchanted – a book which opens to exactly what you need when you need it, for example!) There is just something wonderful about books, magic, feelings, and ancient metallic and glass objects, isn’t there? And it is perfectly mixed with real-world facts – equations and manuscripts, dusty leather volumes, and scrumptious and hearty English dishes – like apple crumble and fried potatoes. These lovely objects – their descriptions, their constant presence in the stories, the feelings they evoke in the characters – delight me to no end.

Finally, I love the scrappiness and mechanical know-how of the characters. I love the fact that while Pullman seems to ascribe great respect to intellect and the high-mindedness and theoretical work of scholars, he ascribes just as much significance and respect to mechanical knowledge, feats of engineering and architecture and mechanical work – down to all of the ins and outs of how to operate and repair a canoe. In The Book of Dust, the focus, attachment, and clear sense of wonderment and admiration that Malcolm has for obtaining a small can of red paint to paint his canoe with is beautiful, and as someone who is not at all handy myself, I find myself wishing that I had the patience and understanding of how things fit together and work that Malcolm does.

Now – about The Book of Dust in particular. It is mostly an adventure, and little baby Lyra’s history – a miraculous story of survival with two valiant kids, the start of the war between Christianity and atheism, those who want to preserve the world order and those who want to keep questioning and experimenting and getting closer and closer to the truths of nature and the universe. The protagonists of this prequel are Malcolm – a boy on the edge of adolescence, and Alice –  his companion, a little older but also still with a changing daemon. They become the guardians of baby Lyra – saving her from the rigid evilness of the Christians and the dementia of a murderous and crazy scientist, all to deliver her to her father and ultimately to the college of scholars where she grows up. They unknowingly visit some parallel worlds, deal with life and death, and unknown natural (or magical?) forces alluded to by the gyptians, which reside beneath the massive floods that form the environment of the whole book – which, it is suggested, occurred because of humans. What is inside reflects on the outside, too, says a wise gyptian who refuses to explain anymore.

We also get some introduction to the witches (the rational, magical beings who can make prophecies), and the gyptians (of course, the nomadic people who understand everything about how nature works, but who are mostly ostracized by mainstream society who cannot understand them – and who feel no need to prove themselves to the mainstream anyway), and the fairies and giants (purely fantastical creatures right out of mythology, but who are not very complex – and whom kids can fool with clever riddles). One gets the feeling that these side characters – these communities of people, or beings, rather – that mainstream society doesn’t respect – know the most about the world, and the entire story of Lyra and her comrades before and after is really just about mainstream society beginning to question and understand the universe they live in. It’s not really a tale of discovery, but rather one of someone in mainstream society being brave enough to explore and listen to those who have known truth for some time.

The Book of Dust is not as deep as the Dark Materials trilogy – but maybe there will be more in the books to come in Pullman’s new trilogy. So far, I didn’t discover anything new about the world…but I hope I will! In the meanwhile, I think it is about time that I re-read his Dark Materials – which I tend to do about every 4-6 years ever since I first read them in middle school.

Quotes I liked:

These days the prevailing fashion in politics was one of obsequious submissiveness to the religious authorities, and ultimately to Geneva. As a consequence, some organizations of the favored religious kind found their influence greatly enhanced, while officials and ministers who had supported the secular line that was now out of favor had either to find other things to do, or to work surreptitiously, and at continuous risk of discovery.

(wait, are they talking about India???)

Malcolm would have put up with a good deal rather than upset Sister Fenella, whom he loved with a deep and uncomplicated devotion.

“And how were these meanings discovered?” put in Lofgren.

Coram looked at the professor; he’d thought Lofgren was familiar with the alethiometer, as Hallgrimsson was, and believed in its powers, but there was a tone of skepticism in his question.

“By contemplation, by meditation, by experiment,” sad Hallgrimsson.

“Oh. Well, I believe in experiment,” said Lofgren.

“I’m glad to hear you believe in something, said his friend.”

“These meanings – the relation between them – if they work by kinds of similarity,” said Coram, “they could go on a lot past hundred. There’s no end to finding similarities, once you start looking for ’em.”

“But what matters is not the similarities your imagination finds, but the similarities that are implicit in the image, and they are not necessarily the same. I have noticed that the more imaginative readers are often the less successful. Their minds leap to what they think is there rather than waiting with patience. And what matters most of all is where the chosen meaning comes in the hierarchy of meanings, you see, for that there is no alternative to the books. That is why the only alethiometers we know about are kept in or by great libraries.”

“I won’t go into all the steps Rusakov took, but he finally arrived at the extraordinary idea that consciousness is a perfectly normal property of matter, like mass or anbaric charge; that there is a field of consciousness that pervades the entire universe, and that makes itself apparently most fully – we believe – in human beings.”

Then it started to rain, so she went inside and made some coffee and did what she had never done in her life: tried the newspaper crossword. “What a stupid exercise,” said her daemon after five minutes. “Words belong in contexts, not pegged out like biological specimens.”

PS – I love what Pullman says on his website:

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.