July 04, 2015


Sietske in Beirut is currently on holidays. Posting will continue in September.

June 18, 2015

Go Sulk in a Hole

7 AM at Ramlet el Baida
Here’s another post that will get some people upset. I know there’s lots of things at fault in this town, and for those that like equal opportunities, this may not be the best neck of the woods, but for someone who has now officially lived abroad half of her life, and the other half ‘in-country’, I say “what are you bitchin’ about?”
Okay, so people litter, traffic is horrendous, politicians corrupt, pollution abound, social services non-existing, nature abused, heritage not respected and to have to pay for beach access is ridiculous and I could go on and on. To assume that the grass is greener on the other side is natural, and probably true for many, but to see beauty, you got to open up to it.
Ready for the Beirut Baywatch
I, obviously, am open to beauty. And so I will show you the beauty of a free beach. This morning, I joined a group of dog walkers on their daily walk along Ramlet el Baida. This beach in Beirut is the only public beach left in Beirut, and if I were a guy, this is the place I’d be all summer long. For women it is slightly different; you can swim, but a bikini is not advised. You will be left alone, but if you want to swim in tranquility, a T-shirt and shorts are advised. At least.
Crab in a hole (not sulking)

But for walking the dog at 6:30 in the morning, it is fantastic. Beirut is still asleep, traffic on the boulevard is light (especially with Ramadan now), and you have the city to yourself. The beach itself is about a kilometer long, a bit longer if you walk from end to end.
This morning, the only beach goers were two hard core tanners, a small family having breakfast there, and a man that probably slept there the night. One garbage collector was walking along the shoreline picking up cans and other odds and ends that were either left behind the day before, or got washed ashore during the night.
 The paddle ball crowd – guys that spent entire days on the beach playing back gammon and beach racket ball, a ball game played with a wooden paddle - will show up around eleven.
The dogs
This early in the day, the high rise on the other side of the road casts shades over the beach, and it’s nice cool. Usually there’s a pack of semi-wild dogs roaming there as well, but I didn’t see them this morning. The number of dogs and dog walkers varies each morning. The dog walkers all work; after their beach hike, they hose down their dogs and go to their respective jobs. All in the same city.

Do the dogs shit on the beach? Sure they do. That mixes quite well with what you discharge in your toilet, which eventually ends up in the sea as well. It seems the fecal matter content of the sea water is so high, it borders on the toxic. But what are you complaining about? If you booked a trip to Rio de Janeiro this summer, the quality of the sea water is just about the same.
I was just there this morning, didn’t spend a penny, wasn’t wading through piles of garbage, and I am not the only one who likes the place. And there’s other things you can do at the beach. This guy started a surf club, so no need to go abroad for that; the waves are apparently quite acceptable (hat tip to beirutbrightside, another blogger who sees beauty in it all).

Ramlet el Baida at 6:30 AM, buildings still cast a shadow onto a cool beach.
So no more complaints about representing Lebanon in an unrealistic way, you grim people.  Otherwise, go sit in a hole and sulk. 

June 16, 2015

Parenting 101

Get your motor runnin' , Head out on the highway, Lookin' for adventure in whatever comes our way (source)

We can add ‘comparing beaches’ to the list of controversial topics, together with religion. I have to say, whenever  LebaneseBlogs tweets me, I get this huge spike in traffic. Much appreciated, guys. Many of their readers are quite 'passionate' people, though.
To all the lovers out there, thanks you guys, I really appreciate your messages of support and appreciation. And to all the haters; guys, you take this blog way too seriously! Definitely more seriously than I do. Relax. Chill. It’s just a blog. I am not making any decision on your behalf.
Let’s go to the beach, each,  Let’s go get a wave (source)
And now back to a post that might chase some more people on top of the closet (Dutch expression).
Another reason why I really like this place, is because nobody cares how you transport your children!
I was thinking of that when I drove past this little truck with an entire tribe in the back. The kids seemed to enjoy the ride just fine. No traumatized and teary faces in that bunch.
Don't forget the cooler, honey!

And I really like that. That I can decide for myself whether I transport a child in an FAA approved child-seat, or put a whole bunch of them in the flatbed of a truck.
Four kids on a scooter, twenty-seven little school children in a little Volkswagen van, a family in the back of the trunk with their feed dangling out on the highway, toddlers standing on the middle board of the scooter in between the rider’s legs on their way to pre-school, or an entire tribe in the back of a truck; who cares? As long as you get where you need to go.
Do you see the little feet sticking out. They didn't all fit in the car
You may scream lo and behold, but I grew up in post-seatbelt era, much like many other people, and I’m none the worse for it. I know it saves lives and horrible head injuries to countless people, but in a place where you might get blown up or bombed the next day, does it really matter if we wear our seatbelt? Yes, I know, it probably does, but how about leaving it up to people to decide for themselves. They’re not educated enough to make that decision? Well, that’s a tad bit condescending, don’t you think so? If you can carve out a living for your family here, you can make those decisions.  It’s not like the government is paying for all the medical bills that ensue from injuries caused by not wearing seat belts.  
Letting my freak flag fly (source)
Wearing seatbelts is one of those priorities that work well in the west, where building codes stipulate that electricity outlets have a ground wire, where everyone is medically covered and where there’s a government guarantee you will be provided with the bare necessities’ in case of loss of employment. None of which are in place here.
And that’s why I like this place.

What to say of this? A man in a motorized wheel chair on the shoulders of a three lane highway, on his way to Beirut (yep, against traffic).

June 14, 2015

On Beaches in Lebanon versus Beaches in Europe

I went to the beach yesterday. It’s one of the southern sandy beaches (i.e. beaches south of Beirut). Going to the beach in Lebanon is definitely a different experience than in Europe. More relaxing, I’d say.

In Europe, be it France, or Holland, or Belgium, you’ve got to park your car on one of those massive parking lots some 2 kilometers behind the dunes, and then slug all the way up the dune and down again, through the sand, stacked like a packing mule.

Like a packing mule, because you’ve got to haul all your gear in one shot. The beach umbrella, the beach chairs, the towels, the ice box, the inflatable boat, the drinks, the wind screen, the sun screen, you name it.
There is nothing at the beach, so you either carry it yourself, or you’re sitting in the sand. And for every bit of food, or drink, if you haven’t brought it along yourself, you need to slug all the way back, over the dune, back to the lot, where the food stalls are.


Food stalls which offer either dried out hot dog sandwiches, or something else equally inedible. By the time you’ve carried your bottle of bee back to the beach, it’s lukewarm.
If you’re not an experienced sun bather, and you arrive at low tide, you will probably have set up shop right on the shore line. Subsequently, all your stuff gets washed away while you are somewhere in the surf, much to the amusement of beach goers who have placed their stuff right under the dunes.
If you need to go to the bathroom, back over the dunes you go, and you have to stand in line with another 20 ladies for a not-so-clean toilet, without toilet paper (of course).
And then, at the end of the day, you’ve got to repeat the whole process and drag your stuff, sandy, oily, sweaty and all, back to the car. There is no shower, or just one on top of the dunes, that you have to share with the other 5000 people that went to the beach that day. No changing rooms either.
And so after what is supposed to be a relaxing beach day, you arrive home, sweaty, greasy, sandy, dead-dead tired, totally exhausted and then you still have to unpack and cook.

I used to leave the beach early, because 1) I did not want to get stuck in a 2-hour long traffic jam, and 2) I’d be so stressed out from going to the beach that I felt I needed the time to recuperate at home before being able to go back to work on Monday.

I was contemplating over that, while I lay at this sandy beach in Lebanon. Lebanon, which, by the way, is too dangerous to visit, according to an e-mail I got from a reader, who was contemplating coming here for a holiday. At least that’s the advise she got form people around her. People who probably have not been to Lebanon.
Here in Lebanon we do beaches slightly differently. Granted, we do not have dunes, nor a tide.
But here we drive to the beach, and give our car to the valet parking, while at the entrance a gentleman takes your bags down to the beach. You pick a spot, and another guy gets you some lounge chairs and a little table. A third guy brings a couple of umbrellas and a little waste basket.
And then a waiter drops by and asks you if you’d like to order something. Sure, we’ll have a beer. Lunch? No, maybe later.
There’s an open-air shower as you get out of the sea, or would you prefer the pool? No problem. There are changing rooms, mirrors everywhere, lovely clean toilets, a lounge with beds, and a couple of life guards who make sure your kids don’t drown.

You want to move to a place under the thatched roof? No problem. The men come out and move your stuff. The menu gets read to you. A salad maybe? Which one of the 5 choices? Would you like to eat your lunch in the restaurant, or rather at your lounge chair? No, lounge chair will do.
And thus you lazily lounge your weekend away, on a sandy southern beach for 20,000 LBP a person (hahaha, bet you want to know which one that is. Granted, for 20,000, you do not get a pool; you’ll have to slum it into the sea). There’s like 20 beaches down that stretch of coast to choose from, all with pretty much the same amenities, or even more up-scale.
At the end of the day, you walk back up the board walk (made for you because walking in the sand is so tedious and tiresome), the valet brings you your car, and home you go. And if you’re really disgusting, at home, you let the maid empty your car. Dinner? How bout we call take-out?
If you're too lazy to drive down south (or north, because we've got awesome beaches up north as well; some of them sandy, many of them pebbles), how about a city beach? Just amble down the hill in Beirut, and pick one along the Corniche. There's 6 I can think off right now. 7, counting the AUB beach.
Too lazy to even go home? Heck, have dinner at the beach.
Definitely more relaxing than going to the beach in Europe, I’d say. And if you're going to come up with the argument that at least beaches in Europe are free, well, I guess you haven't paid those parking fees! Nor paid the price of the dried out hot dogs and lukewarm beers. Or stood in a 3-hour long traffic jam coming, and another 3-hour one going home.

(This post is a partial re-run)

June 07, 2015


At the start line in Byblos

The ladies on the right don't know it yet, but they're standing already in their finish order: from left to right, with #31, finishing first, Lea Iskandar, #1 in second place, Aregu Sisay Abate and #2 finishing as third, Sonia Wansa.

The last couple of weeks have been incredibly busy with all sorts of nonsense, none of which was inspiring, nor interesting enough to publish. And if it was inspiring and interesting, I did not have time to write about it. Excruciatingly frustrating, especially since there are so many exciting things going on in town. Maybe it is time for a career change; I’d love to get back to full time writing again. I’ve been reading a lot of John McPhee lately, and there are a lot of things you could do like that in Lebanon, so many projects and people to write about, not enough time, so that’s in the works. I need to get into other people’s business again.
Meanwhile I have to organize my life around the various social events that my daughter organizes with friends & co, further complicated by the fact that both hubbie and I have been invited to the same social event, by different people, and thus we are to either sit at different tables (adding fire to the many rumors that undoubtfully circulate around town), or one of us has to give in.  Who will it be? Let’s not reveal his track record of victories. I might keep you posted.
Don't you love it how the main subjects have somehow disappeared to the back?
Respite is on the horizon however, with the start of Ramadan in some 10 days from now, when work slows down. Summer holiday is also almost here, slowing this society even further down. There are some vague speculations favoring the opinion that this will not be such a quiet summer, with border issues in the south and the north, north-east. Some say our eastern man won’t be able to hold on the power much longer, although I thought 3 years ago already he was a goner, so he’s proven to be a lot more resilient than expected; no need to keep you hopes high for that one.
2nd, 1st and 3rd prize
We still have no president; I think that may account for the peace in town, we should do some research on that. Others say we’re in a downward spiral. I dare say they’ve been saying that for the past 10 years, and look, we still haven’t reached rock-bottom yet! A friend of mine likened life in town to a vortex, and we happened to be in ‘the eye of the storm’. What I love about this society is that – despite our Doomsday approach to life – it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. So what if we’re all going to hell; doesn’t mean we’ve got to get depressed over it!
Red Cross taking care of her

I did go to Byblos this morning to cheer for Aregu Sisay, our housekeeper, who was a favorite for the 10K. I should have run myself, but somehow that plan slipped my mind. Last year she won first place; this year she had her doubts because she fell on the balcony last week (no, not off, just on), and experienced some pain. She did fine for a bit, but ended up limping over the finish line. A visit to the hospital showed she had a fractured right fibula, a so-called ‘stress fracture’, common in runners, so running with a fractured fibula and making it to second place is very respectable indeed. Not sure whether she started out with a fractured fibula, or whether she acquired it during the race. She was complaining she couldn’t ‘run on her fingers’, as she calls running on her toes. She’s a great believer of the forefoot striking technique, and so she was thumping over the course, like an elephant, she said. She could have picked up that fracture then. Either way, she’s in an ‘air cast’ now, and no running or sports activity for at least three weeks. So no more runner stories this summer.
Waiting for the X-ray. It turned out to be a fractured right fibula. The door man at the hospital said: "What's this? I just saw you on TV, and now you show up in the hospital?"
A good sign is that there was at least on other Ethiopian girl, also a housekeeper, and possibly a third one, running in the race. She's been a good role model.

I am not sure what to say about this picture. It has an endearing quality to it, yet a high degree of Gene Wilder at the same time.

May 30, 2015

Struggle Makes You Stronger; on Phenomenal Women

The number of strong women I encounter in this part of the world is quite phenomenal, I was thinking the other night while cooking Pad-Thai. As in, this place seems to breed an unusual amount of strong women.
When thinking of the Middle East, people in the West generally assume that Arab women constitute a sub category of society. Men rule, women abide. There is some truth to that when you look at legislation. Laws do not often provide for equitable situations, and even if they do, local customs and traditions still may interfere with how a judgment is executed. Abuse, discrimination and domestic violence are issues many have to deal with, while the law will not protect them.
Yet in spite of this unfavorable situation, or because of it, the number of powerful women I meet is simply mind-boggling. Powerful in the sense that they run their own life - without help from the government or a partner - run it well, run it without complaining, and run it with flair.
The stories you sometimes hear are rife with suffering, and you wonder how they do it, but they do it. Single women, married women, widows and divorced women. And this is no simple feat in a society where simply making ends meet is a near impossible challenge.

The perception in the West that Arab women are weak and submissive, because society imposes this role on them, is – in my experience - a misconception. A misconception that was evident when a Lebanese journalist earlier this year told an irate sheikh on TV to tone it down a bit, and when that was not heeded, simply cut him off. It was quite a hit, indicating that this action surprised many.
But she was not the first one to call the shots.  The idea that women in this male-dominated society play a submissive role because this is what they have been assigned to do, is well embedded in the west, but not very accurate, as this journalist points out. This region is teeming with strong women; phenomenal women, as May Angelou would call them.
And so, as the author of the commentary, Nesrine Malik, points out, the standing up against a narrow-minded sheikh, “is not worthy of reporting because it shows a woman defying the norms and prejudices of Arab society; it is newsworthy because it challenges your views and prejudices about Arab society.”  
And I was reminded of that last week, while attending a Thai cooking class, hosted by a Croatian lady, and given by an Armenian Lebanese/Syrian lady who is member of the Egyptian’s Chefs Association. I am not a great cook.
Let me rephrase that, it’s not only that I do not cook well, I do not cook at all. That is fine with me. When I got married, my mother in-law saved the day by deciding that if I was not going to cook for her son, she would, and she would send entire meals, complete with salads and side dishes, on a daily basis to our house with a cab driver.
Was the mother in law content with having to cook for an extra household? Heck, she didn’t care, because she wasn’t cooking either. She was a designer and a tough business woman, who was not only a working woman, but also ran a household on the side through a network of employees.
An exception, you say? I don’t think so. She was married at 16, had her first child at 17, a perfect candidate for being cast into the role of weak women. But she ran three thriving three companies with an iron fist, and dealt only with men.
Phenomenal women – in my experience - are the norm here, rather than an abnormality.

Through my work in Lebanon, I’ve met so many of them; women who – despite hardship and unfavorable conditions – managed to shape a life that was meaningful and powerful. I think I should be working on a series to show this side of Lebanese society, which is infinitely more interesting that the fact that we have no president.
To tell you the truth, I had forgotten all about that. We do quite well without one. I dare say, they can send cabinet and parliament home as well; we’ll function, and quite well at that.
So why was I joining a cooking class, you may wonder? Well, I like Thai food. There is no decent Thai food take-out in Beirut, and the lady cooking in my house – the old aunt – is into the old-fashioned northern Lebanese kitchen; no noodles, Thai-pad or coconut milk will come out of her kitchen as long as she swings the ladle.
The other women present were – in this particularly setting - mostly ex-pats, and again, one by one, strong women. They are here because they either hold jobs that assigned them to this country, or are a trailing spouse.  But they too have lived through wars (Croatie, Serbia, Sudan and Lebanon) and family disasters.
There is something about this society, that brings out the best in most women, all women, Arab or not. Because they not only have to fight for their rights, but also fight what is rightfully theirs, but not necessarily doled out fairly. It’s a constant struggle, and struggle makes you stronger.
Just think of conversations you’ve had with plumbers, carpenters or painters. They will fix and hammer as they very well please, totally ignoring how you requested the work should be done. You accept it once, you accept it twice, and at one point you say, “well damn, you will do as I told you, otherwise get your toolbox and get the hell out of here.”
This approach, although hesitantly adopted by this Dutchie at first, is a role I now relish in. A role that I would never have to employ if I had been living in the west (I think), as it wasn’t necessary. That may have its advantages, but on the other hand, you do not really experience what you are capable of. 
It is under hardship that you become strong and confident, and this place has plenty of hardship, and an enormous amount of phenomenal women.  
So that’s what I was thinking about  as I was cooking Thai-pad.

May 25, 2015

One Family; Two Faiths

Had an interesting Sunday. I went to a baptism, where I served as the godmother.
The baptism
I am not a fervent church visitor, and cannot remember the last time I attended a baptism, although both sides of my family come from catholic stock. My mother still remembers they’d have to walk a few kilometers to buy their meat from a catholic butcher, because the butcher shop next door was run by a protestant. Needless to say, things have drastically changed since then in Holland. I don’t even know the exact religion of any of my Dutch friends.

Family and friends in Holland don't seem to baptize their children as much as they do here, religion being an after-thought, rather than an indication of your (political) identity. I am the godmother of one of my brother’s daughters, but don’t think I even attended that ceremony as I was on assignment somewhere.
The party after
But in Lebanon, religion is still a big thing. Sunday’s baptism was an unusual baptism for Lebanese standards as well; the baptized child was not a baby, but rather an eight-year old boy that had chosen to switch religion. The priest had to translate the entire service into French, as the child did not understand the classic Arabic very well. Luckily, the godfather did not seem too sure of the procedure either, and so we were all amateurs at the altar.
The priest was aware of this. When he mentioned that today was Pentecost, and asked the child if he could tell us, the attending crowd, what Pentecost was, we all stood there wondering:  ‘Pentecost’?
uhhhhhh,” said the child.
When Jesus resurrected?” tried the godfather.
No, that’s Easter,” replied the priest. 
I was of no help either. Pentecost? I don’t think we celebrate that in Holland, I am thinking.
‘With the kind of clients these days,’ you could see the priest thinking, ‘we’re all going to end up in hell.”
My mom (baby on the lap) at her baptism (I believe) in around 1922 or 23
When we had to sign the register, godmother and godfather, the priest joked, “Don’t worry too much about your signature. When Daash comes to town, you don’t want them to be able to trace you assisting the baptism of a muslim.”
I thought that was pretty funny; ‘When Daash comes to town.  It seems pretty real these days, now that they’ve taken over Palmyra. My son learned how to ride a bike in Palmyra, right in between the Roman columns.   When I talked to hubbie about it, he dismissed it with a “No, they’re not coming to town,” leaving me somehow reassured, followed by a “Not now. That needs another two years.” Comforting.
My son at the ruins of Palmyra, in 2003. I think he's sporting some type of toy machine gun. Seems quite in place.
When I had my oldest child, my husband, a sunni muslim, suggested we had him baptized by a couple of his friends.
By law, children in Lebanon follow the religion of their father. This was not an issue for us, as we’re not into the organized religion things, as you can see.  I think he may have suggested the baptism because he tried to appease my parents; I was the only girl in a Frisian catholic family (quite a minority, most Frisians are protestant), and the only one who married outside the religion, which -  in the eyes of my parents at the time – was a bit of a worrisome matter.
His friends were a couple of monks in the mountains.
How does a sunni muslim end up with a couple of monks as friends?
One winter, while driving to his pig farm in the mountains (long story, that pig farm), he was behind a little Renault when it suddenly disappeared from view. It was foggy, and early in the morning, and the road was empty. For a moment he wondered if maybe they had taken another road. Until he hit a patch of ice. He was able to stop just in time, but when he looked to his right, he saw that the little car, and its occupants, had slid off the road and down the mountain.
They hadn’t gone very far down, and hubbie was able to clamber down and help the men get out of the car. They were four monks, on their way to a nearby monastery.
Without transportation now, he gave them a ride home, where they insisted he come in and taste some of their home-made ‘medicinal’ drink. A deep friendship was struck that early morning in an unheated monastery over absinthe.
They’d love to baptize him,” he said, “we can do it up in their place.”
Nothing ever came of it though. I am not into the rules of religion, and, after some inquiry, found out that – after a enormous amount of paper work and visits to various officials -  we’d end up with 3 different religions under one roof; a roman catholic, a sunni muslim and a Greek orthodox.  That’d be three too many.
My dad (boy on the left) also around 1922
The baptized child is the son of a friend of mine. She’s a christian, from Europe, married to a muslim, from Lebanon. Both are non-religious, so they never had an issue with the fact that all of their children – as stipulated by local law - follow the religion of their father. 
However, one of her sons, after observing the highly mystical ceremony of his nephew’s communion in a church last year, decided that this is what he wanted as well. He wanted to do his holy communion.
At first they ignored the request. They believe in the goodness of people, and in sharing this Earth with people of all colors and faith. They celebrate Easter with colored eggs, and Christmas with a decorated tree, but that’s as far as it goes.  All traditions that have pagan origins, by the way. But church visits are not really her thing.

Little neighborhood shrines

The child however, was pretty persistent. He started crossing himself at every neighborhood shrine they passed, and asked everything there was to know about Jesus. They decided to put him, twice weekly, in catechism school.
Faithfully (as he should) he’s been attending classes for a year now, and the time had come that he was ready and prepared for his holy communion.
But there was a little problem, her husband understood one day, as he picked up his son from catechism.
He cannot do his holy communion,” explained the priest to her husband. “He is a muslim, according to the paperwork you provided. He has to be christian.”
“No problem,” replied the husband, “we’ll just make him one, if that is what it takes.”
But when the family layer was asked to prepare the paperwork of the child, there was a problem, it turned out.
He will not have the right to inherit anything from his paternal grandparents nor his parents, as he will be of another faith.“  And that, according to the lawyer, was not a decision you could make on behalf of an 8 year-old child.
That was a bit of an issue. Because even if you stipulate in a testament that so-and-so inherits a certain thing, religious inheritance law can overrule that decision.
They decided to go ahead anyway. If Daash comes to town, there won’t be much left to inherit anyways.
It has raised some questions with my youngest who now insists to know her 'identity'.
What am I?” she wants to know.
“A girl.”
“No, like really.”

That’s a choice you can make when you're 18,” I reply.
Oh, like the tattoo and the piercing?”
Good thing her dad and the priest were not within earshot.
At the end of the ceremony, his older brothers, still muslims, posed proudly with him and the priest in front of the statue of Maria and child. I think it incredibly endearing, three brothers, two faiths. The Daash could learn a thing or two from these kids.
Meanwhile outside, the Phillipinas are walking the neighborhood dogs