its about time for an update. apologies of course for the generic character of this email, but i assure it's not due to the standard laziness or inattention, but rather a deeper feeling of paralysis and apathy. basically, i have no idea where i am except that it's some place foreign, further afield than this slothrop has ever been, and therefore infrequently have any desire to do anything constructive or intellectual, which then (feedback) bothers and annoys me and prevents me from breaking the cycle because im constantly bombarding myself these large amorphous questions (palestine, employment, discipline, commitment) but without actually confronting them in some sort of (dia)logical manner.
that being said, im having a fabulous time. im laughing like it's a new skill, cooking great food everyday, and enjoying the sunshine and arabic of this disastrous country. things with amanda and sheila and progressing fabulously, we've formed some sort of vegetarian anarchist enclave on the wrong side of the mediterranean. usually i try to avoid les americains when im abroad, but since i came to live with a couple over here, thats kind of impossible.
i desperately need a job, or thinking more broadly, some source of money. there's a great story amanda told me about this, some sort of parable relating to the palestinian issue, though we couldn't figure quite out --
so a couple comes home one evening to find out their car has been stolen. of course, they're reasonbly distraught -- cars are pretty expensive --
so they call the police and do some prayers or whatever it is. putting the wheels in motion.
the next day the car is back. not only that there is a full tank of glass, its perfectly cleaned, and a note on the dashboard. the note contains two tickets to the theater two that friday night and says:
"were very sorry to have borrowed your car. we really needed it and had few other options. to show our appreciation, we'd like to give you these theater tickets. enjoy"
so they call the police and cancel the report and pray again in thanks or whatever and go bed. and friday night they go to the theater and see some sort of avant garde kazak interpretation of the master and margeritaville or something. and when they come home after post-theater dinner and that whole scene they find their entire house has been robbed, totally cleaned out, empty.
i've been getting to know beirut. ive walked down to the rocks (the closest thing to park these people know) a couple of times and been to the corniche twice, but haven't even seen the downtown yet. it was supposed to have been the paris of the middle east -- a levantine culture of cosmopolitan exchange, polyglots, and tolerance. and now?
to me, beirut is basically like Nice after a war. or, rather, many wars. nice is a good halfway point between new york and bombay, and thats what this place feels like. soho and refugee camps, just minutes apart. lots of honking and prayer calls and heat and street food and makeup. it doesnt have the illusory baseline of wealth that we associate with urbanized sectors of the west, but is more developed than the simple polarirties of el salvador or india, where everything is either prada or feudalism.
the french influence is dramatic: many people speak french, many of the street signs are in french (as well as arabic and sometimes english). the garbage cans mounted on telephones are french, as is the dogshit and bank coroporations (ie sgbl -- societe general banque du liban). the mediterranean vibe is palpable -- the eastern european prostitutes and cheap sandwiches and sea and hermes outlets and slums. and i already met a guy named serge.
today we went to a palestinian refugee camp (chatila) where there was a super famous massacre twenty (?) years ago. incidently, the gentleman that broke the story on this massacre of the palestianians, by the phalangist movement/party and explicitly allowed by the israelis (who were in occupation at the time) was a journalist named thomas friedman. he won a pulitzer for it -- a four page spread that shocked the west and appalled those who thought israel could do no wrong. like i've come around to saying, 'he wasn't always this bad'.
amanda has a book on, _cuatro horas en chatila_ translated from jean genet's original version. it's supposed to be super intense and ill read it after _eichmann in jerusalem_. so much to read -- she has robert fisk's epic _pity the nation_ about the lebanese civil war (it was banned here for some time) and some good burroughs/bukowski type stuff and of course so many books on learning arabic that i should be burying my nose in. if i had any energy for it.
at the moment im finishing _eichmann in jerusalem_ and starting _pity the nation_. the former is about 1/4 the size of the latter, but moves so slowly. i cant believe it was initally published in a magazine (albeit the new yorker) -- there is some complicated shit in those essays. but its mindblowing, her analysis of the german machinery of death, who is responsible, the complicity of the jews -- who in many countries not only picked who would live and die but served as train conductors and executioners -- and the inner workings of eichmann's conscience, his obedience to the Word, the Law. it's brutal and twisted and *necessary*. the latter, by journalist robert fisk, is basically analagous to _from beirut to jerusalem_. im sure the two guys met -- there were in lebanon at exactly the same time. from what they tell me, fisk seems to have a much better understanding of the cultures here. i hope so.
so im going to be volunteering at that refugee camp as soon as i figure out my work schedule, but perhaps only allah knows when that's going to happen. motivation is really at an all-time low. we're also out of propane in the kitchen, so since saturday all my "cooking" has been the assembly of salads and other raw ingredients. some ceviche type products are a must.
amanda's social scene is predictably insane. we haven't spent one night alone, with just the family (sheila, amanda, tobi, and myself). there are always people over to dinner or parties to go to or trips or god knows. she's volunteering at two different place and trying to have two different jobs. sheila and i are sitting at home and listeing to the dead at this point. tobi -- who we picked up from the hostel a couple days ago and invited to live with until his brazilian boyfriend arrives -- goes out intermittently for walks but is slowly being sucked in to our expat apathy. its strange to leave new york where i had so many connections and friends and commitements and obligations, and walk right into another scene which is basically the same, except without it being mine.
and there i was two weeks ago in california, complaining how i was partying too much and couldnt wait to get to beirut for some detox and relaxation. un-likely.
but im still committed, theoretically, to the notion of leading an intimate disciplined lifestyle, of spending two hours a day writing with amanda and reading about the middle east and making simple food and smoking arguila and dreaming about the new society. and i think that will happen, too, as soon as we move into a new place together and create our own life. whereas at this point i feel like ive walked into some crazy nesting of lives already in progress, and while im good at being malleable and jumping right into the stream of endless bombay sapphire and arak (pastis!), maybe its not what i inteded.
so im reading from time to time and hearing lots of crazy biased stories about the civil war and trying to understand why all the national heroes are in prison and practice arabic with the parking attendants and fruit men and the communists at the convenience store and shit is generally pretty good. but i need to find a job and some direction and some literacy.
i know, not too informative or personal, but hopefully you can see how both of those adjective are impossiblities at this point for me. i woke up at the twelve-thirty call to prayer, to a phone call from mira asking me to go to the beach with her in tripoly tomorrow. i have a splitting headache and cant find my clothes. i look for comfort and both tobi and sheila are similarly passed out in the apartment.
i need to assemble some breakfast and take a shower.
lots of love.
a couple of days ago i was writing here in this room, with the sun coming up and the dead blasting on the stereo. i was thinking of the friends back home, my psychadelic guerilla family, and wondering about comparitive efficiencies of various methods of communication -- whether it would be better for me to switch entirely to email since the time it takes these letters to cross the atlantic leaves little room for actual dialogue in so short a time period, or maybe if perhaps i were less hungover or went to sleep at a reasonable hour i could write more or better or something along those lines.
and toby came home from the hospital and told me he was going back to london the next morning (yesterday, it happened) to get some sort of kidney operation. im not sure what the deal is but he had kidney stones and there might be complication. and that really freaked me out because i know nothing about that stuff and have no insurance and goddamn that shit better not happen to me.
and then sheila (amanda's roommate for the last year -- who is leaving on monday for either egypt, palestine, or chicago) walks in and is super hung over from all the dark rum and melon balls i fed her the night before, and outofbreath and outofdesiretokeeponkeepingon and is like 'yo, amanda just sent me a message' detailing how a course opened up at the american-lebanese language center and they were desperate for a teacher tonight from 7-9 would i be willing to go down there asap and interview and familiarize myself with the materials and do this shit?
so i pack up my shit and put on a clean shirt and those white cuban style capoeira pants that have been my staple since memorial day (no they dont have labour day here) and take a service (cab) to "corniche al-masraa" which isnt near the corniche at all. and it takes a long time and costs double the price because its so far but i go because goddamn this little indian needs some money.
and i get there at 1:45 and amanda is teaching until three but the woman who apparently runs the place is there and im like "im the man youve been expecting" and she nods and shakes my hand and says it course 101b and asks me to fill out an application; the director will be arriving shortly to interview me. so i sit down and fill it out -- basically asks for name and nationality and education and what languages i speak, which i fill out satisfactorily. i give it back to her and ask what level the students are at and apparently its intermediate, theyre adults, and therefore i dont need to know any/much arabic to pull this shit off.
so great, she asks me to wait a minute or to and then talks on the phone for a second and comes out and is like "the director is running a little late". do you want to wait or come back later? and since there's water and a little library there i say i'll stay -- i would want to wait to see amanda anyhow at 3 -- and i go to the library and spend the next hour reading Montaigne's _Essais_ and writing to Milee and whatnot.
and then the strangest thing happened. its like 3:10 and still no director and i finished a couple of Essays (reading) and Letters (writing) and Amanda finishes her class and goes into the office and comes out and waves at me and is like, "let's go". so i explain i'm waiting for the director and she's a little confused and takes me out to this balcony area and is like "what?" because apparently she went into the office after her class and they were like, "your friend showed up but we wanted someone with more experience so we're going to find someone else to teach the class". which was weird because when she messaged us that morning, they were totally desperate about the whole thing. and i was totally puzzled because nobody told _me_ that, and if she hadnt come out and informed me of this, i would have gone on waiting for another hour or something. so im standing there totally perplexed and then amanda says, a little grimly, "then they asked me where you were from".
yes. so one thing about the people in lebanon is that they have a really hard time dealing with the fact that not everyone in the us is white. and whenever i tell people im from america they always ask again, but where are you really from? and i'll be like, okay, "california", and think thats satisfactory, but, well, no. they want to know why im not white like their imagination. its like im back in fucking sequim or something.
so at the point the conclusion was pretty obvious -- if im not white im not really american and not really a native english speaker nevermind my passport and diploma and i therefore cant be teaching english to the lebanese. and i knew this kind of thing existed -- milee warned me about it, but fuck, i never thought it be more than frustrating or funny -- that it would transcend blowing the sandwich guy's conception of amerika and sally into denying me employment.
i got pissed and sad and walked down the stairs and because its lebanon men and women cant really touch each other in public so amanda couldnt even hold my hand or anything and that made me feel even more pissed and alienated and i was really hating this goddamn country for a while. it was just so fucked up to feel like my only marketable skill in this bombed out corner of the universe was my language, and that nobody would want me to teach them english because im not white.
it's just crazy and fucked up to me that in such a globalized world these kind of perceptions still exist. and im sure its a mixute of personal sentiment and cultural norm for the woman who denied me -- amada's mentioned time and again how horribly racist the lighter-skinned lebanese christians are here -- but the fact that people here cant wrap their mind around the fact that people who look like milee and i are actually american is really fucked up. there needs to be more coloured folk without accents on tv or some shit like that. and the part that really gets me is that these lebanese think they are so fucking advanced, so european (french, specifically) and westernized and sophisticated. they have the newest cell phones and shop at prada and hermes and look down on the muslim lebanese and even _deny the fact they are arabs_. it's crazy.
but if we're going to be globalizing consumerism and mass communication, could we please globalize some pluralistic values as well? some tolerance for homosexuality or some rights for women or some understanding that not all people in amerika are white? thats where this whole theory of the "open societies" of the west showing the future to the barbarians is going terribly wrong. not that i even agree with the goal of getting people to have the same values that we do across the board -- but i figure if I'm going to have to put up with garish advertisements and car culture and nestle candy bars in some county, i want some racial tolerance to go with it.
but no, coca-cola and thomas friedman dont seem to be doing too good a job of selling that. so much for this fucking "levantine" culture he was so hyped about. jesus christ. amanda and i sat on the steps of the matHaf al-watni (national museum) and i vented and she suggested we move to syria or something. apparently everything is better there -- she's been nine times in the year she's lived here; like everytime she feels she cant handle beyrouth, she goes to syria.
i dont know. it just pisses me off and makes me even more desperate for a job -- if i cant get tutoring gigs because these light-skinned rich lebanese walking around with poor grammar dont want to be corrected by the brown man or something.
but whatever. we went out to barometre with this japanese guy that I want to send to Ryan and Cholmes in new york and had some great hummous and arak and parts of this country are cool. The weather is awesome and the guys down at the communist shop are super nice to me and we do some language exchange everyday, so that's good.
the social set-up in this place is pretty wild. the civil war, from the 70s through 92 i think, was fought between competing members of all kinds of races and religions and political alliances, including the palestinians (both muslim and christian), christians, maronite christians, phalangists, sunni muslims, shiia muslims, and druze (some weird islamic cult thing). the israelis and syrians both invaded for large amounts of time, much of the money for the shiias comes from iran, and the us and the un both had "peacekeeping" stints. im about to start reading another book on it, "pity the nation" by robert fisk, which is actually banned here in lebanon. it should hopefully clear some shit up.
as a result, there is some pretty intense segregation and class structure. the palestinians, as a stateless people, are at the bottom. the armenians, many of whom came here after somebody was massacring them back in 1915, are at the bottom too. and the sri lankans, who come here to do the dirty work of the country, washing windows and sweeping streets and what not, are also at the bottom. there seem to be a lot of people at the bottom, actually.
in the middle are most of the typical lebanese arab muslim folk, who seem to work in the retail sector and kind of scrape by. most of the manual labor is done by syrians, who send all the money back home (its like three hours away). and up higher you find more lebanese christians, who by-and-large are pretty racist and proud of their lighter-skin. they speak french and go the american universities.
and they wont accept that im american. so I went to LAU yesterday, the Lebanese-American University, to try to find a job as a TA in mathclass or as a writing tutor or something. And I was filling out the application and there's all this crazy shit they want like height and wait and nationality and religion and im like "whoa" (keanu style) you could never ask this shit in the us, and im talking to the two women who work there, one of whom is a sophomore doing some work-study and the other is this pretty-light-skinned typically made-up lebanese christian woman. so I'm like, "height and weight?" and she's like, "of course!" some people apply to be security guards. alright, whatever. And i fill it out and I put USA! and she's like "you're from the US"?
this is the day after I experienced some intense racism for being Indian and not really Amerikan so I was feeling pretty feisty and ready to make some larger statements. so I was like "yes" very firmly and a little pissed because I introduced myself as being "a visitor from the United States" and had my passport in my hand. they knew i went to stanford and what i studied and we'd been talking for like twenty minutes already when this happened. so, of course, she's like "but where are you *from*" and I wasnt about to budge and i was "yo, I'm from the US"
- but where are you really from?
california. the united states of america
- yes, but, um (touching her face) even your complexion
(patiently, deliberately) there are people of all colors in the US. its a very diverse country
- and your family is from...
- you are not from the Gulf countries (touching her arm this time). You are not an Arab?
- oh, okay.
at which point she whispers something in arabic to the girl, apparently expressing her total incredulity. so then i write down some other stuff and go to the next section and write down my parents name. and she asks to see the sheet and reads "Bharti Desai" and is like "Aha! See! That's not an American name!"
Yes, it is.
- No, where is she from?
She's from the US
- She was born there
Yes. I was born there. She was born there. My family has been living in the US for 150 years.
- And before that?
- (elation!) See! You are not American
Yes I am.
- but you're from india
and then I kind of lost it, but in a very theatrical way. i was trying to make a point, and everything i said, of course, was a lie:
Look. People come from all over the world to live in the US. They are all americans. It doesnt matter if they look Chinese -- if they are born in America or live in America than they are _American_. My family has been living in America for over 100 years. I have never been to India. I dont speak the language. I dont eat the food. I dont know the culture. I am American. I watch TV and eat hamburgers. American. American.
and she was totally just shaking her head and being like "this guy is crazy, he cant be american". she says, "in lebanon, even if you are born here, you are not lebanese" proudly, and the other girl nods her head. which i thought was pretty shocking, but apparently its true. She went on the dis the palestinians, talking about how they had lived here for 50 years and were born here but aren't really Lebanese and how the armenians who came in 1915 werent really lebanese either. And i was too exhausted to argue the grander political implications of immigration and belonging to a country but I wanted to get the point across that Amerika is not all white people. but i dont know if I succeeded in doing that.
the crazy thing was that she was totally nice and everything and definitely a little "anti-Arab" (even though she's an arab) and thought the muslims were causing all sorts of problems.
so then we talked about religion -- there was a religion box on the form and when i finihsed, it was still blank. so she explained that i had to fill out a religion and i explained i didnt have one. and she was totally shocked when i was like "yeah, most americans dont have a religion. its not a big thing over there". and i was getting really into the fucking with her and lying and shit. and she was like "nooooo, i know lots of professors here and they all have a religion". so i explained how they would write it on the form but really it wasnt a big deal.
and the other girl was like "lemme see your passport, it must say on there" and there was no way i wanted these chicks to see my passport photo but i definitely wouldnt get a job then and I was like "what!" we have separation of church and state in my country and theres no way religion would be on any goverment document. it felt so weird to be explaining basic american shit to these people who want to be so american and all have relatives in ameircan and spend their time at work ordering perfumes online for their brothers to bring them back from detroit. so she explained how in the lebanese governemnt and public jobs were posted only for certain religions under this intense quota system, from the pettiest post office all the way to the top leaders. like the president must be christian, the prime minister sunni, and the speaker of the house shiia.
and this is supposed to somehow prevent another war? fat chance. beirut even has three soccer teams broken down by religion. like, this place is seriously fucked. and she's like, no its cool, in this office were all working together, different religions, because its private and american and everything. so anyway i was like, whatever, can i write Agnostic and she had no idea what that was and let me write it down.
So as I was leaving I was like, alright, well what do I say on the street if someone asks me my religion? Is it okay to say none or is abu-shmoe going to be as confused as you freaks were? And she looks at me for a while and says I cant say nothing because somebody would think I was ATHEIST or something and she spat that word out and was like "there are a lot of fantatics in this country" and its pretty clear who she meant by that.
So in the end she was like, "Well, you're American, so say Christian. It makes the most sense"
i'm not sure what kind of mark the passing of edward said made on the us papers -- it was front page news here at the daily star (the lebanese section of the international herald-tribune, owned by my favorite and much appreciate new york times company) -- the serious looking columbia professor photogaphed at an AUB lecture earlier this year.
his death came perhaps two days before the third anniversary of the second intifada, or, as my friends here refer to it -- the celebration of the beginning of the fourth year of the intifada. setting wiser judgement aside for a few hours, i accompanied the PFLP delegation of Chatila Camp to the march, joining a couple of thousand people, meandering through the streets of Beirut screaming slogans i wasn't so used to (kill amerika! kill israel! palestinian intifada!) until reaching the UNESCO building a couple of hours later.
i got involved in this scene through our -- amanda's and mine -- volunteering at the Chatila refugee camp. Chatila is a Palestinian refugee camp in the middle of Beirut, famous for the massacres carried out there by a Phalangist faction (lebanese christians inspired by hitlers model of organization, ie, "facsist"), under the auspices/supervision/complicity (?) of the Israeli occupiers (this was 1982), who watched calmly from the nearby Kuwaiti embassy without lifting a finger. It was a big deal at the time -- Thomas Friedman's four-page NYT expose of the massacres won him his first (?) pulitzer.
No, I haven't found it yet. I'm sure the NYPL has a copy.
Chatila continues to be a camp to this day, filled primarily by Palestinian refugees -- earnestly waiting to return to their homes in a free Palestine -- but also by some Kurds and Shia' and even a couple of down-and-out christians, like our friend Zeyna. Amanda and I go every Tuesday and Friday to teach English -- she teaches a beginning class post-alphabetic basics and I, sans Arabic, teach an intermediate conversation course to a handful of adults. It's a little absurd even describing the "classes" in this manner -- there are no materials or facilities (well, Amanda gets a chalkboard) of any sort, and the subject matter is whatever we come up with on the cab ride there. basically.
Last time I talked about symbolism and the importance of symbols as being divorced from the actual signs which carry them. We used a poster of Che Guevara they had in the center and the Palestinian flag as an example. Through this lens we can get at grammatical points large and small -- "Does the Black on the flag symbolize sadness in general, or *the* sadness of the Palestinian people?". It's fun -- they're smart people, eager to learn and to discuss their lives, present and future, predicaments and dreams.
So through these classes -- and the social events we're inevitably invited to before and afterwards (It's impossibly to overestimate Amanda's star-power in this country) -- provide me with plenty of opportunity to talk to our students about the situation here in Lebanon as well as the situation in Palestine.
And the impression i get from these conversations is actually really disturbing. I figured their stories would just abett my anger about the whole situation, and confirm my feelings that the US role and the Israeli role are just wrong and evil and that the Palestinian struggle is perhaps one of the worthiest of our time. But that's not how I'm feeling, exactly.
The oppression and fear the israeli's exert on a daily basis in occupied palestine seems real. I have no doubt that what they're doing there is totally immoral and one of the great tragedies of our time. In corrolary, I feel I support the struggle of the occupied people -- the struggle for freedom, for normalcy -- as much as ever. These are the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The other dimension which I had basically no understanding of, despite whatever books I had endeavored to read, was the situation of Palestinian refugees in the Arab countries -- the Palestinian diaspora, so to speak. I gather the situation in Lebanon, the one I'm privy to, is the worst. Palestinians in lebanon are treated like shit. They are not allowed to work most jobs (there are 72 enumerated -- including all the 'professions' and most jobs that require interacting with other (lebanese) humans -- so Palestinians can neither be doctors nor lawyers nor barbers in this country). When The'ara calls prospective employers and they ask her if she's Palestinian (there are dialectical differences in Arabic), she knows the person will *immediately* hang up when she says yes. Tariq, who finished a degree in electrical engineering a year ago, has been totally unable to find work in his field and is now back in school for graphic design in the (vain) hope he'll find work there. Most of know the crippling pyschological pressures of unemployment, but I find it difficult to empathize with a situation where neither your qualifications nor the general state of the economy are the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not you end up with a job at the end of the day. For homework I asked Tariq to survey his friends about education and jobs, to get an anecdotal picture of the situation. He came back to the next class saying that he talked to 10 of his friends -- all of whom had finished university in the last two years, 2 of whom had jobs in their field. Some of the rest worked 'menial' jobs, like trash-picking, others were unemployed.
The incredible thing, to me, is how focused the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are on returing to Palestine. They have an *insane* hope that somehow the israelis will leave ("they dont belong there", "they stole the land") and they will be able to return to their homes. I'm even coming from a position where I agree, theoretically with their position -- I think the way the colonial powers carved up the entire region was bullshit, and the instantiation of israel especially so. But to be so focused on this undertaking of mythic proportions -- the return to palestine -- so as to exclude any kind of hope or action focused on improving their current situation? It seems ludicrous. And what do they propose to do with the Israeli's? Make them into the next generation of Palestinians, of course...
This despite the fact that, as a whole, the Palestinian population -- the refugee population to be more precise -- is remarkably well educated. Many seem to hold multiple degrees -- if only because they couldn't find work in their primary field -- and my students are always quick to see through the games I create and get at the really meaning of my teaching, whether its investigating the nature of symbolism or discerning between the denotation and connotation of words. I see so much possibility for domestic venture, for improving the economic situation of the refugees in Chatila particularly and Lebanon as a whole.
Much of the opposition to such political maneuvers, of course, comes from the Lebanese. I'm beginning to understand that much of the support in the Arab world for the Palestinian cause comes from a desire *not* to have these people in their own countries. As I've mentioned/experienced previously, the Lebanese are particularly virulent in this regard, especially the Christians. So many people marched with them, with us, in the intifada commeroration on saturday *because* they wanted the Palestinians out of Chatila, out of Saida, out of Lebanon. They dont want Hizbollah shooting rockets across the border and Israel retaliating. Many people blame the Palestinians for the Lebanese civil war -- absurd considering the tinderbox of religions and cultures who had been fighting here for the previous century, but widely held nonetheless.
Another aspect of the Palestinian struggle I wasn't fully aware of is the use of ideology and imagery of the left. Che is everywhere, most of the Palestinian guerilla factions were 'revolutionary' or 'socialist' in some way, and even now, the organization i marched with -- the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- carries some sort of Communist alliance. I dont know how much of the revolutionary spirit perseveres, but talking to this character Achmed during the march, I gather there's a little more Stalin than Guevara.
Achmed was the first guy I saw at the march -- the only person with an American flag. It was hung on a large wooden pole with an authentically frightening skull mounted above it, blood dripping down the jaws and onto the stars and stripes. He got the most comments -- all positive -- of anyone in the whole procession, I would guess. Zeyna and I, carrying PFLP flags, flanked him for most of the march. We started talking in Arabic, exhausted my three catch phrases, and moved into eigth-grade english (quite good). After he proudly revealed his Communist position, I attempted (total failure) to navigate subtles between communism and authoritarianism. He then then took umbrage (rightly) at my mention of non-violence.
I mean, I understand it's silly to talk about non-violence in the middle east. Especially silly to talk about non-violence to a Palestinian refugee carrying a violent depiction of us foreign policy in an Intifada anniversary march. I also really believe it's silly to talk about more violence. He was very understanding of all my points but came back to the fact that "sometimes, in order to create a good society, we need to have strong rules and make sure people do certain things". a far cry from democratic socialism.
I'm not trying to blame anyone, least of all people who have spent their whole lives in the physical and pyschological oppression of refugee camps (Achmed lives in the Saida camp, which Amanda tells me is particuarly militant -- she was counseled against volunteering there because for them "white girl = CIA"), but it just seems so counterproductive for people who are being more oppressed by the *lebanese* government than the *israeli* one to cherish a dream about their houses, their land, which they have never seen. Even the PFLP officers in my classes, Samir and Hussein, who are perhaps both in their mid 40's, were born in Lebanon. They have never seen their houses or their land. But they spend every day fighting to get back to them.
A few months ago Ann showed me an article about a Palestinian political scientist who conducted a survey of the Palestinian population, questioning how decisive "right of return" really was -- that is, what percentages of people would accept other solutions from israel (which israel would probably never agree to), like compensation or icantrememberwhatelse. If I could get a copy of that, Id like to see what they think.
For today -- Im going to Chatila in a couple of hours, after I teach a TOEFL class to some hot lebanese co-eds -- I'm going to bring in the obituary of Edward Said and the article about the 27 israeli fighter pilots who refused to bomb Palestinian civilian villages. We'll try to create a little love in this world.
good evening. we've just transcended the sunset here in beirut. bizarre electro-arab music and a faux crystal chandelier provide the atmosphere in our apartment. last night, jean-baptiste told us that hizbollah has its own television channel, with news in french and english in addition to arabic. finally a reason to turn on our tv.
last week i began teaching at the american academy of beirut, a fly-by-night operation which never once questioned my credentials. i began as a substitute for merrilyn, who spent the week in paris, with no intention of ever coming back. so now im mr. shah, teaching 11th grade english literature, and anthropology, international relations, and creative writing to 12th graders. it's pretty ridiculous -- there no books or syllabus for the classes, so i teach what I can remember (i've never taken classes in any of these subjects, really) and use amanda's bookshelf as a library. so far i've done a few analyses of invisible cities for anthropology, gone over some orwell and chomsky (on language and power) for the international relations, and read some ruth foreman and james joyce with the creative writing kids.
the 11th graders are atrocious, but also funny. i try to give them quizzes every day to keep the bastards in line. under the line for "name" and "date", i try to ask them something interesting, to see how they respond. a couple of days ago I gave them a mathegrammatical quiz, with a bunch of (largely insoluable, for them anyhow) math questions whose wording had grammatical issues. at the top of the page I also asked for "hopes" and "fears". here are some of the answers --
hopes: stop making quizzes, to leave to florida, to leave to egypt, to love (subsequently erased), going back to germany, i want at at least a 100 out of 100 as a grade, hello
my personal favorite was from Nour, an overweight seventeen year-old who gives the distinct impression of being funny but not very bright: "I want 2 cheese burgers. and I want to get thin."
perhaps more poignantly, i had the creative writing kids read joyce's "The sisters". I, of course, had never read it and had no idea what it was about when we assigned it. We ended up discussing death at the protagonists reaction to it (the homosexuality was pretty much *mamnua*), which got super intense pretty quickly. Mukhtar was staring at the ground the whole time and responded to my admonition with the news that his best friend died yesterday and his parents forced him to go to school today. great. Munir, who recently moved from Iraq after fighting in the resistance there (not joking), wrote the following for his daily assigment:
"I had a teacher In school taught me for 3 consecutive years. She taught me Biology, She loved alot, but she was harsh in exams and homeworks that is what made me hate her. During the American invasion on Iraq. The last day of was it was the 23rd day I heard news from dad that she was dead by bombing her house by mistake. This day I had cried alot, lot, lot that what made me go to the mosque and praying on her soul. That was the first incident I face in my real life. The same for me happened on 9th of April 2003 guess what event happened?
I cried alot and starting saying religious phrases so god bless them."
i spend most of my other extra-appartmental time working the refugee camp in Chatila (site of the infamous 1982 massacres by the Phalangists/Israelis). i'm reading a really vivid account of said massacres, "4 hours in Chatila", by Jean Genet. see if you can find it. The life of the Palestinians here is really intense -- we talked for quite a while about health care and the (lack of) effectiveness of the UNRWA in education and health care. There is one doctor at the camp; he sees 200 patients an hour and prescribes aspirin to all of them, according to Hussein, who has been sick all week. Why aren't there more doctors, I asked? -- My idea of Palestinian culture, before the catastrophe [the founding of Israel], involved lots of successful professionals. Because, in Lebanon, Palestinians are forbidden from working in the professions (laywer, teacher, doctor, engineer), and indeed, most jobs which require contact with Lebanese. My friends and students have degrees in Electrical Engineering and work as house painters. So, these days, nobody even bothers going to medical school, if even had the funds (which they don't). And the UN doesn't pay enough to doctors to work inside the camp, so those with medical qualifications are also working as garbagemen and painters in Beirut.
this is great fodder for english conversation. I can teach them words like "lucrative" and "catastrophe" and "racism". i can correct Hussein when he says "we living under the level of poverty" or applaud Nada for using the past tense, "two years ago, I tried going to the dentist". it's brilliant. one day their english will be proficient enough that they could get jobs in the service sector if they werent palestinian. maybe in another world they could immigrate to some english speaking country, if they had passports or a right to exist or something.
there's a lot more to say about this. about the incredible, and i think, misplaced, hope so many have for returning to a homeland theyve never seen. about the political posters and the dream of a free palestine. sitting in a slum in lebanon and reading about american jets and helicopters flown by israelis raiding villages and camps in syria, it seems a little absurd. reading about the israelis invading lebanon, occupying beirut, crushing the PLO -- you think, fuck, time and hope should have run out for these people twenty years ago. the british sold them out, the arabs sold them out, even the militants and commies and russians sold them out. one of my students bitterly adds Arafat to the list after the Oslo accords.
i'll try to do some more learning before anymore writing.
personally -- if I could separate dinner table spanish conversation from sanctions, martyrs, and airstrikes -- things are going pretty well. im feeling more comfortable in arabic, getting to know the neighborhood and the names of the vegetables, making friends and seeing sights. last weekend amanda and i went to baalbek, the site of this ridiculously large roman temple to jupiter. the largest in the world, with 30 meter columns (six still standing) over this huge huge huge area. sunset over roman ruins is a pretty magical combination. an hour later we were talking with a local in his stationary shop -- i bought a notebook to bring some semblance of organization to my teaching. an hour after that he saw us walking back from the park and aquaduct and picked us up, took us around town, bought some felafel, and took us home.
three hours later we had almost passed out from pumpkin jam and oil-pikcled eggplant and chiles, bumping along down the bekaa valley in a van to our little shi'a enclave in beirut. good times all around..
anyhow. we're making eggplant enchiladas tonight. im due for some dessication duty.
salaam wa hub
so i kind of missed november. sorry. you see, it was all wrapped up in weather patterns and eriks visit and repeated state-department-defying trips to syria and 70s dodge ramblers and simultaneous sinking notions that i was finally beginning to understand that i really couldnt understand, arab culture or how to fast properly or the goddamn language or even the emotions swirling around inside me.
but anyhow, i escaped. i escaped teaching kids who variably didnt want to learn while reading ilych telling me i didnt want to teach anyway, not like that, in one of those (hiss) schools. i escaped christians hating mulims hating druze (collective now) hating palestinians (compounded now) hating israelis... escaped bumpy egyptians jeeps with arrogant strong ohsomanly officers giving amanda and i the same bullshit (its the best word there is for it, sorry) we'd heard time and time again from the "other" side (while we/they allow our/their-selves the illusion of difference) -- that they were of course against the martyrdomoperations/brutaloccupation but for some reason they spend all their time defending it, because -- you see my lovelies -- you dont really understand what They are like, its this and that and even the Other thing but dont even try to say their human.
and oh those massacres we committed? lies and propoganda -- dont be fooled. honestly were it not for the arrogance bred by power disparities and the accents bred by river valleys, i wouldnt be able to correctly pin the nonsense to the spout.
at some point the violent reawakening mandated by eriks visit, the rediscovery of life on one hand and the Routine on the other, led us to quit our jobs and hit the road, bid a poor farewell to quiet evenings and shi'a prayer calls, to fasting and to teaching and to avoiding the Wrath*, to join Sheila and Shane (recently self-exiled from occupied palestine) on sinai's beaches, overlooking some sort of benign intervention of nature and culture
that is, looking at sunset over the red sea's gulf of aqaba and the vast emptiness (to my overschooled and unlearned eye) of the saudis' arabia, notches left to jordan and pinches the corner of israel, the glance over fifty years of bitter harvests in a land (as im reading now) where warfare was the culture for a good number of centuries (which is why islam was so popular, in that it got people to be chill with the umma (= homies) and quit killing each other) -- and to see the beautiful orange of the sunset and watch the political boundaries reveal their true substance (none) and dissolve into nights we'd share and thanks we'd give with the sudanese hosts and israeli tourists and within our own weird band expatriot complications.
after that? do we still have chronology? everyone in egypt lied to us except mohammed. hmm. this may be one of those rare moments where writing "blessed be his name" would be actually be the heterodox move. oops.
the pyramids are impressive, but not as big as you think. they grow on you. the incredible pollution puts you in the right state of toxicity to appreciate the kitchy british narration of the sphinx, telling pointless stories of cleopatra and nephrititi, men wild as stallions or stallions taming men or something about the world cup. its all a blur of five dollar camel rides and no-i-wont-buy-your-perfume-i-swear-on-my-sister,
and then thirtysix scrambling hours in beirut tying up loose ends and finishing old bottles and losing emails and saying goodbye to another chapter, still unsure of how thick or wellwritten it really was. and now new york and i can say more than four words about this place
i love you.
* reading about the life of pontius pilate yesterday and apparently in those times thats what the christian [dissidents] call the police. not the heat fuzz or man, but, the Wrath.
** be in nyc until christmas day, when flying to india. do write to me. physical addresses on website (tentacle.net/~ank), phone numbers in moreorless constant rotation.