Friday, June 22, 2007

vacation blues

Ok, so it's weird. I've been back from my trip (to Lebanon, Damascus, and Istanbul) for a little over a week now and for most of that week I've been stricken by an ailment I've dubbed "the vacation blues." I'm probably not the first to come up with this term. I'm sure you can sympathize. You leave your daily routine of life and head somewhere completely different from where you are for a little while (2.5 weeks, in this case). You fly away; you turn your phone off. And time feels like it's moving so slow when you get there and begin spending time at that faraway place; you get sucked the new world that exists at the coordinates of your escape. Everything is new and therefore you tend to savor the passing moments, so that they don't so much feel like they are passing but that they will last forever. Sure, you talk about your old life in your vacation place, think about it even, but it is not really real, not something you feel and breathe. Occasionally you count the days until you have to go back, and each time you are happy because you still have time. But eventually, the last day comes, the last walk to the beach, the last sit on the balcony, the last dinner, the last night you dream here, the last morning you wake up. The last car ride on vacation is to the airport and you look out the window and the vacation still exists.

And then you fly home.


Back to your life. Everyone and everything is happy to see you. You look at photos, tell stories about airports and night clubs and ferries and cobbled alleys. You tell them about the sarcophagi of 3000 year old mummies, and the corpses themselves, blackened skin that didn't look like skin, clinging in pieces to brown bones. But you also want to know, and they also want to tell you, how they're doing, how home has been without you. And it's almost like you weren't even gone.

Not to be a downer. I realized today--standing on my cousin's roof, a delicious meal beginning to digest inside me and the weekend ahead of me, the sun disappearing slowly below the rainbow sky, the buildings down the hills around us like colored tiles--that it's nice to be back.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

vacation photos

So I have been home a few days and after too many computer-related tribulations, have managed to make my photos from the trip I took to Lebanon, Damascus, and Istanbul available
to you in three parts--here, here and here.

Why Facebook, you ask? Well, I was very resistant, but finally joined the other day, and thank the good lord I did; as I began uploading the photos on my old photoblog page, I was immediately faced with a dialogue box telling me I was out of storage space. After a bit of fumbling, I figured out that it's about a million times easier to load pics onto Facebook, which, unlike the old photoblog, is free of charge and has unlimited space.

The only problem? I've run out of patience and not been able to label the photos, which are in a random order. So, if you have any questions about where any were taken, feel free to ask. The one I've posted here is my sister still asleep on one of the mornings we spent in Ghazieh, the town where my mother grew up in southern Lebanon.

Also, if you want the full-size version of any, ask for that too.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Alone in Istanbul: A Journal Entry

Mom, Dad, Lara left this morning. Alone and Luti (the owner of our hotel) gave me a ride to my hostel at the other side of Sultanahmet in his white Mercedes. "Relax. Don't worry. I want you to have a good time here." He also told me that he doesn't think Turkey will become part of the E.U., that even Istanbul is not ready. That ten years ago, when he bought what would become the Ambassador Hotel, there were folks shooting up in that currently cafe-and-souvenir-shop-studded alley. He has two others and is considering buying another now, near the Four Seasons (in the shadow of the Hagia Sofia) but it is for $5 million, and "that is a lot of money." He looked sad when he said it. I finally had my fish sandwich--grilled fillet stuffed in white fluffy bread with onions, tomato and lettuce eaten sitting on a concrete wall by the water, near the Galata Bridge. It was tasty but made me feel sick. Then I found my way to the Istanbul Modern where I saw some great photos--the encyclopedic dreamscapes of Andreas Gursky (an amazing aeriel chaotic Cairo street scene froze me) and a series of stunning black-and-whites by a Dutch Turk, Ahmet Polat. Also imaginative/disturbing/lovely videos by four international artists and a permanent collection not worth writing home (where's that?) about. Now I sit in the outermost cafe of a strip of sheesha bars at Tophane. Tea to settle my stomach. Sunlight striping the shade. An airplane passes overhead. Youth everywhere and their mixed music. Unsure why I'm anxious about returning home.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Istanbul is Absurd

...but in a (mostly) good way. Here is a list of the top absurdities I've encountered since arriving last Monday.

We were the first people standing on an empty tram platform our first afternoon here. Within five minutes, hundreds of people swarmed around us and there was no where to move. As people negotiated their way on and off trains, they did what they had to do. Not a single frustrated word or angry look...

I was stunned by our first walk on Istiklal Street. The street is lined with eateries, small shops, and international retailers. At parts, cars run across it and a "nostalgic" streetcar runs down it, but otherwise it's a pedestrian thoroughfare. And you see every kind of person you could imagine. I had just finished drinking a bottle of water and eating a simit (a kind of sesame coated bread ring they sell on the street here) and so had an empty bottle and paper wrapper to throw away, but could not find a trashcan anywhere. I was even more perplexed that I didn't see any trash on the street either. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough. I got rid of my trash by leaving it on the table of an excellent pudding shop we had coffee and dessert at. And later that night as we walked around some back streets, we found all the trash. There were horrific piles of it at the edges of the empty streets and the occasional passerby would go on without a second glance. I guess somebody or something comes along in the night and deals with it. I saw a man sweeping a pile out of an alley, a cat going through some, and last night there was a young man rapidly sorting a pile almost as tall as he was into a big plastic sack.

Walking by the water near the Galata Bridge one evening, I was excited by all the food vendors
since dinner was a few hours away and I was hungry. I went towards a man selling mussels out of a box and pointed at the big ones, paying one lira (70 cents) for two. He made a show of popping each one open, and as I ate I realized there was spiced rice stuffed inside the tasty bites of meat. How did that happen?

Getting off the tram one day, my dad picked up the fallen brush of the shoe shine man who was walking in front of him. Upon exiting the station, my dad told us to hold up since the shoe shine man said he wanted to do him a favor for giving him his brush and proceeded to give my dad a quick shoe shine. My father asked us all if we had any small change and we managed to scare up a few coins. In the meantime, the shoe shine guy was quickly working on someone else who promptly gave him twenty lira (18 dollars). My dad produced his three lira, and the guy got upset and then regaled him with a story about how his daughter was in the hospital and asked for twenty, indicating his previous customer. We all walked away and the shoe shine man exclaimed into the air, probably cursing.

Our first dinner here was at a restaurant we'd wandered to after many twists and turns. It was an alright place, with padded chairs, cold beer, mediocre food, and terrible though charming service. After all our plates had been cleared, I saw the (hot) busboy coming towards our table with a dustbuster in hand. I knew what was going to happen next but couldn't believe it when he stopped at our table, turned the thing on, and dragged it across our table cloth, specifically targeting a pile of rice that had fallen off of my sister's plate. I couldn't believe it, but I looked across the table at her and she kept a straight face. When he came around the table and dustbusted a little bit more, my sister finally began to laugh and then of course I had to laugh too, and my dad, stoic that he is, kept a straight face.

Istanbul is currently packed with tourists and, consequently, at most restaurants, bazaars, and stores that cater to them/us there are men standing outside trying to tempt them/us in. A lot of times they are young and/or attractive and they say the damnedest things. They call us angels, ask if we are married, and constantly ask where we are from, try to shake our hands. It's unnerving to a certain extent and only fun when a certain element of the insincerity of these gestures is obvious. Last night, we walked back to our hotel down a street where most of the stores were closed. We passed by one shopkeeper who was moving some wares from the sidewalk into his store. I made eye contact and he enthusiastically said, "Hi!" We were waiting for the requisite follow-up but instead got: "I will clean you with this!" and he smiled, indicating the duster in his hand.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

State of Affairs

It's vacation time and so I've been bad about posting things as they come to me. So, right now, I'm throwing out a haphazard bunch of entries all at once. I've also been taking a lot of photos, and those will have to await their Internet debut until I get back to San Francisco.

Rainbow Wreckage of Dinner

Last night was delicious again, and bright. Looking down at the table as they began to clear things away, the colors called:

Glistening milky orange chunks of mango.
Clear, bright orange of Crush in a forgotten glass.
Vibrant yellow lemon halves, squeezed and resting in a pale blue dish.
Another dish with a bite left of m'hammara—which literally means "reddened"—a bright red paste of tomatoes, nuts, onions, peppers topped with brown bits of walnut.
The two remaining sardines, a lightly fried brown, and one last brown-yellow of home-fried potato on a white plate near a puddle of ketchup red.
A dark brown platter with remains of salad shades of green and the pale red of a mountain tomato.
A brimming bowl of orange and purple spheres, apricots and plums.
And a small crystal glass showing pink liquid yet for me to drink, rose wine made from grapes grown less than a couple hour's drive from here, in the Beka'a Valley.

Bashar's Party

This year, American Memorial Day fell on the day of Syria's presidential election. Bashar al-Asad was elected to another 7-year presidential term, selected by a resounding 99.9% of the electorate. We arrive in Damascus the following day. Our Lebanese driver finds us a Syrian taxi on the highway. As we drive into the city and are swallowed into the traffic of tiny Eastern European cars and ramshackle micro-buses, we stat to notice pictures of Bashar everywhere. Small portraits on car windows--often two or three per car--larger ones in storefronts, and billboards hanging on the sides of buildings. We get stuck at a traffic light. It changes three times from green to red three times and our driver tells us there is a parade, for Bashar. Later we are walking near our hotel and encounter another parade. There are people dancing in the streets and playing instruments, and holding up posters of Bashar. Even away from the dreary Cold War-era architecture of modern Damascus, in the shaded, twisty, cobbled lanes of the Old City, Bashar is everywhere. He is hanging near ancient roman columns, declaring his love for his people from the sides of food carts, and smiling at us above the doorways of quaint little cafes. The man is good-looking in a shirt-and-tie-and-moustache kind of way and in these portraits he's got eyes that follow you everywhere you go. Heading back to our hotel that first night, we hear nearby explosions. They are fireworks and all of a sudden they are all around us and light up the sky. We pass a busy street corner where fireworks are being launched in a small patch of grass. The colors explode dangerously low to the ground and we can't help but turn towards them, watch the colors explode and the light reflect of the largest portrait we've seen of Bashar yet. We walk on under a concrete awning with ten uniform pillars, each pasted with a photo of Bashar. We flip to Syrian tv in our hotel the next morning and there is Bashar, walking through various crowds of various people in various places. There he is followed by his pretty wife. There he is, holding up a baby, dripping medicine into the baby's eyes. Over dinner, Dad tells us he was trained as a dentist or an eye doctor, or something. We are the only ones in the restaurant, happily feasting on the many plates of savories in front of us, and we only notice after it's been going on for nearly half an hour that we are listening to a song, which must be on repeat. It has an electric rock beat and in constant repetition, with minor variation, a chorus of male voices sings, "We love you." They love Bashar, of course. And we joke about if one of us had our face everywhere, like that. And we wonder the same then for our own president, the infamous George W. Bush. But this isn't as funny because we almost think it would somehow be a more honest reality than the one he has created for our country now.

(Or at least it would be a more straightforward dishonesty, or something...But don't get us wrong, we are happy to be American and we enjoyed getting to know Bashar.)

Syrian Border Blues

Lebanon is small—about four hour's drive from bottom to top, maybe two or three across. Briefly, in the early nineties, people were allowed to walk up to the fence at the southern border and look across at Israeli occupied lands. Our mother took us one day and we talked through the metal links to an Arab couple on the other side. But then there was a commotion, as some orthodox Jews came up behind them and some men standing behind us got angry, threw things.

That was the day we visited the old Israeli prison, which had recently become a tourist attraction. The place is hazy in my memory and as we were driving towards what seemed to be nothing but more brownish fields and forgotten trees, the gray buildings materialized from nothing. And we got out of our car and walked into them, from cell to cell and office to field. There was nothing there and no one, but us. That place is not open to the public any more, either. (And might have even been bombed by Israel last summer, according to bits and pieces of information on the 'net.)

Lebanon's western border is the Mediterranean, much of the coastline devastatingly polluted by sewage and by oil spills that occurred during last summer's war.

North and east, Lebanon is surrounded by Syria. There are a few roads that can take you into that much larger country. But, because of various tensions, highlighted recently by fighting going on at the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, only one road into Syria is open, the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Just a few days ago, my father, my cousin, my sister, and I--all U.S. passport holders--were flying across it, in a decrepitly beautiful 70's Chrysler, navigated by a driver we hired in Beirut. We didn't have visas to get into Syria yet and were not sure whether we would make it to our intended destination.

The visas—for our intended purpose of 48 hours of tourism—would have cost us $100 a piece in America. I had gone on my own two years ago and it had taken 10 minutes and $12 to get me across the border. We were hoping for a similar scenario, but we had heard since arriving in Lebanon a few days prior that it wasn't that easy any more. We were told that the border officers would have to send a request to Damascus and wait for a response as to whether we were allowed in their country—and this could take two hours…five hours…seven hours. No way of knowing. We tried to get at why this was only true of U.S. passport holders. Most people said they didn't know, but it seemed that the situation had changed after last summer's war with Israel. Syria ultimately blamed America for that event, and, as repudiation, Syria would treat Americans trying to get into their country with some small degree of the bureaucracy that Americans treat Syrians in the opposite situation.

We exited Lebanon with no difficulty and breezed through the no-man's-land before Syria's border with hopes of being in Syria in time for an early lunch. At the Syrian side, the driver asked me to head into the office with him to talk to the Syrian officers. I answered a few questions:

"We are tourists."

"We are Americans, born Americans."

"My mother is Lebanese."

"I am a student."

"My father is retired. He was a diplomat."

They smiled at me, tapped at the keyboards of their dusty computers and told us to wait. I went back outside to the car and reported what little happened. We sat, reading, talking, and then a couple of hours had gone by. I willed away the thought that we might not get through, that we'd go back to Beirut and my mom and her sisters would titter over us:

"Oh, my gosh! They didn't let you in. Oh, you didn't want to go to dusty, dirty, old Damascus anyway…"

And then we got restless. My sister led me out of the car and across a bulldozer's path into a tiny concrete building to a fly-infested key-hole toilet. I can't tell you much about the stink because I only breathed through my nose for a split second and it was too harrowing to describe. Then we wandered back in the direction of Lebanon,towards a duty free complex that I'd made fun of on the drive in, and certainly not expected to visit. Two Syrian guards whistled at us, called out to us as we walked towards them:

"Where are you going?" "Where are your passports?" All gruff and official.

I grinned, flirtatious: "Our passports are in the border office. We are waiting. We want to eat."

"Oh, you are students, oh, Americans, oh, yes." Easing.


The duty-free had a spotless bathroom and walls of cheap imported liquor and cigarettes. In the restaurant a woman made up to the Elvira-point-of-looking-scary served me an expertly grilled sandwich. As I bit into the cheese and tomato, I hoped that at that moment our visa request was being approved. We got back to the car and they were still waiting.

After three and a half hours, the car got pretty hot, and we stood outside in the shade. A man in fatigues and black shiny boots struck up a conversation with my father. I stayed away, not interested in interacting with a soldier, but when my dad hit his spoken language barrier, he called me over. The man was handsome and affable. He was Lebanese. He asked me why we wanted to go to Damascus.

To see it, I said.

He didn't quite get it, but offered: I wish we had some pull here and could help you out, but...

Don't worry, I said.

And he told me he was getting his service years out of the way, that it kind of sucked, but...

And then a similarly dressed man came up to him and dragged him away and back into the dark gray armored truck they had come in. He came back out of it with a gun--a big black thing that somehow looked like a toy on him, though of course it wasn't. He was followed by eight dour-looking men, handcuffed in pairs. He led them into the visa office with the help of his friend. Illegal Syrian workers, my dad and I guessed. They all came back out a few minutes later and got back into the truck. Our soldier glanced at us and wished us luck.

My dad and I went inside and sat on an uncomfortable wooden bench for a few minutes. We talked and decided to give up. I went to tell our driver and he flat-out refused. I agreed we'd wait another hour.

Five hours after we parked, our request went through, Lebanon became smaller and smaller behind us and we were finally on our way to Damascus.

Heroes are Ordinary People and War is Everywhere

"You are heroes!"

We were outside our family houses in southern Lebanon and walking away from a relative as she exclaimed this after us. My dad, my cousin and I looked at each other and then looked back at her.

"What?" I called.

"Well, you are here," she gesticulated, in barely accented English.

We smiled and headed upstairs, to my grandmother's house where my mom and aunts were waiting. We were decidedly not heroes, we agreed, walking up the stone steps I've walked up on visits here my whole life.

Towards the end of May, fighting broke out between the Lebanese Army and militants in the northern Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr al-Bared. The incidents continue into the present and the most current headline I can find online states, "At Least 14 Die in Lebanon Clash."

And three (or is it four?) bombs went off in or near Beirut in the few days before I got here--one in a prominent shopping district that I often go to, even. No one died.

And Hezbollah protesters have been camped in front of Rafik al-Hariri's mosque and grave for weeks, and that whole area of downtown, which I remember two years ago as being rather open and vibrant, has turned into a maze of barbed wire and quiet cafes where uniformed men insist on searching your purse every 100 meters or so.

Finally the other day, in celebration of some anniversary of something, the stretch of road that has been closed since Rafik al-Hariri was killed more than three years ago has been reopened, and a contingency of the Lebanese government is insisting that international findings regarding that murder be presented to an international judicial body, much to the chagrin of Syria and Hezbollah.

The situation here isn't good, everyone seems to agree. From drivers and shopkeepers, I've heard: bad, mixed, sad, hard.

Our first few nights in Lebanon this time around, there was no one out in Beirut at night. Walking from my aunt's apartment down to Hamra Street was like walking through a ghost town. We are talking about Beirut, a city, that doesn't sleep, or, at least, stays up very, very late, partying. And sidewalks of main streets are blocked off with yellow plastic tape which reads, "No Parking."

And driving to different parts of the country in the last week, we've seen a number of bridges destroyed by last year's war, reminders of that bizarre and brief atrocity. In places, wooden platforms have simply been placed over the damaged parts, or slipshod roads have been paved around them. Most dramatic was a bridge going over a substantial gorge that was missing half of it, bent metal rods extending from it's center and out into the air. We all looked out the windows of the car then and up, silent.

I'm having trouble getting at what I'm trying to say about all this.

There has been a little bird on my shoulder telling me that it's not a big deal, that I personally have nothing to be scared of and everything to learn from, that these things ebb and flow here.

I just went to buy a notebook from the bookstore under my aunt's building, and the lady who sold it to me struck up a conversation, asked how long I'd be here. I told her I was leaving in a few days. "Before the war comes," she responded. She was almost casual, but a curtain fell in her eyes, as she said it.