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

May 23, 2015

Powder Puff Trees

The Powder Puff Trees are in bloom in Beirut. I always thought they must have had a different name, because who would call them powder puff trees? That was until I went and researched the name, and it was , in fact, called a powder puff tree.

May 16, 2015

On Perception

Nothing is ever easy.
I needed 4 glass shelves for my daughter’s bookcase, 24 by 26 cm. Since I do not know a glass man, the issue is discussed over dinner with hubbie. He might know a glass man that can help me out.

A perfectly good window. Too big a piece though.

“Yeah, that guy by the light house, he frames pictures. But don’t buy any glass. I still have lots of glass in the ware house. You know what? I’ll take care of it. Let me handle it,” says hubbs.
That  ‘let me handle it’  implies 3 options:
Option 1: I will wait until he actually handles it, which will require patience, as this could take up to 6 months. If handled at all.
Option 2: I will remind him a number of times, until he has handled it in a more timely manner, meanwhile making me feel like I asked for a heart transplantation.
Option 3: I will do it myself.
And so I wait patiently for a week, remind him once, and then, this morning, decide to go for option 3.
Easier to handle, but this time too small
And so I go to the guy by the lighthouse who frames pictures.
While on my way, I walk past a huge glass window leaning against a wall. Pity, I think. It's too big, but here’s free glass. 
A bit further I see more glass, also discarded. These pieces are too small, but it gets me thinking.
Then I walk past a row of Sukleen dumpsters. And there, next to them, in the garbage, lie two long glass shelves. Perfect pieces, nice thick glass. I don’t have a measurement tape with me, but surely, this looks like 24 cm wide.  All I need is getting it to the glass cutter.
Perfect! Exactly what I need, and for free!
Now the Dutch are a frugal people. Why pay if you can get it for free?
In Holland, once a month there is a ‘grof vuil’ day, meaning 'big garbage'; a day when you can throw away larger items. As a student, we’d drive by the houses (in Holland garbage gets picked up from the house) the night before ‘grof vuil’ days and scrounge for furniture. Beautiful sofas, chairs, entire dining room sets, standing lamps, paintings, carpets and all sorts of very useful stuff for a student dorm would be standing there, ready to be taken away. Many a student room gets furnished this way.
We students used to call it 'tof vuil', a pun on 'grof vuil', meaning 'awesome garbage'. Heck, everybody does it. It is not considered a shameful thing, it is a logic course of action. Someone wants to gets rid of something, you want it, and bingo; everybody happy.
In Lebanon however, dumpster diving has a slightly different connotation. Going through trash is definitely not done. That’s for another class of people; the men that do it for a living, and that go through all the cans early in the morning, looking for clothes, plastic bottles, scrap metal, metal cans and anything else they can use.
So even if you’d see a perfectly fine antique Thonet chair or a classic Eames lounger in pristine condition, you will not haul them home. You do not go through other people’s garbage, no matter how valuable or how useful the item you see may be to you.
Okay, so it's in the garbage. No big deal.
But here’s exactly the glass I need! Perfect. And it is for free!

I am in a bind. I realize I am hesitant to do this because of the perception of what other people might think of me here. It is absolutely not done. On top of it, it’s close to my house. People know me here.
However, the realization that my actions are being influenced by other people’s perception of me is of course equally unacceptable. Had I been in Holland, I’d have claimed it already. And so I stand for a while, next to the dumpster, and think.
You know what? Fuck it. I am taking this glass. I don’t care if they see me. Passing by glass and not picking it up, but pay for it 500 meters down the road is like 'uber snob' to me.
 I walk back home, get my car, and order my daughter to help me. After all, it's for her book shelf.
Seriously embarrassed teenager
“You want me to do what?!” she says, as I stop the car next to the Sulkeen dumpsters. “No way, woman, you do it yourself.”
I need some serious negotiating here, but eventually she gives in; we grab the piece (it’s not even in the dumpster, but outside) and drag it to the car. But it is quite long, and heavy, and three man, just passing by, are seriously confused. They want to help, after all, here are two helpless women in need of some muscle, and Middle Eastern etiquette stipulates they put everything down and help. But on the other hand, we’re getting it out of the garbage can. They hesitate.
It’s okay, we got it, we got it,” I say. They laugh at each other, but are visibly embarrassed by the sight. As if they caught us doing something illegal. They want to help, but they can't help with something that came out of the garbage! They do not know how to react.
Then an acquaintance passes by, and honks the horn in recognition as he passes by.
Dumpster Diving is 'not done' in this place

“Jesus mom, our reputation is pretty much shot,” says a seriously disgruntled teenage daughter.
Yes. Probably. But I don’t care. I got my glass for free.
And on to the frame shop we drive with our long piece of glass.
At the frame shop, the man with the glass cutter takes one look at it, and dismisses the glass.
“Can’t cut that. That’s out of the oven. Heat Strengthened Glass cannot be cut.”
It's not for lack of trying. I accept my defeat in silence.
No so the teenage daughter. She rolls her eyes, and huffs and puffs as she stomps to the car.
This picture is not related to the story, but I needed some visual fillers. This is Beirut though. My neighborhood, where my reputation has taken a serious dent :)
Fine. I tried.
So how much would a glass shelf cost, 24 x 26 cm?” I ask him.
“$5,” is the answer.
That sounds reasonable. Actually, I have no idea what a glass shelf should cost. Maybe he’s ripping me off. But for $5 a shelf, it’s worth it to me.
You know what, I am thinking, let’s buy 6 pieces instead of 4, you never know, I could add some shelves to the book case.
When I bring the glass pieces to the car, teenage daughter takes a quick look at them and remarks, “They’re way too short.”
Now that’s funny, I was thinking exactly the same. But that can't be, I’ve got the measurements written down on my phone Surely I could not make a mistake that big? 24 x 26, it reads.
We drive home, leaving the long shelf with the glass cutter.
At home, we try the shelves.
Indeed. Too short. I take out the measurement tape. The shelf should have been 24 by 48 cm. Maybe I measured the smaller shelves instead? But even that doesn’t work; they are 24 by 36 cm. Seriously? How could I have measured it that wrong?


This picture is  also not related to the story, but I needed some visual fillers.

A day of work, reputation shot, $30 dollars down the hole, a morose teenager in the house and still no shelves.
Nothing is ever easy.

May 10, 2015

A Long Way from Wollo

At the start line. The Ethiopians in the front will sweep the field
Yet another race, a half marathon this time, in Tripoli. For the ignorant among you, that’s 21 point something kilometers. The running season in Lebanon will soon enter its summer stop, so you’ll have to bare with me just a few more weeks. You might get the impression – if you’re an infrequent visitor – that I am an avid runner. Alas, no. But I am an avid supporter, which counts for something, no?
Mind the two different shoes on the third person on the right; one foot fits one kind, the other foot prefers another.

I had high hopes for Aregu Sisay, our housekeeper. Pretty sure she was going to win this one. That was until I saw that the organization has bussed in some heavy duty Ethiopians; professional runners, who travel all over the world from event to event, making a living from running.
Well,  that was the end of that podium position.
Doesn’t matter, she came in first in the Lebanese league. No podium position there either, as she doesn’t have the Lebanese nationality. But she clocked a pretty good time, she thought. That was of course until she spoke to the coach of the Ethiopian professionals.

What was your time,” he asked interested.
One hour and 30 minutes,” Aregu answered with a smile.
Oh,” he replied with a frown, “well, keep practicing then.”
His first woman came in at a mere 1:14.
 But she’s young and she will get there.

Tripoli was in a festive mood. The only females in shorts were the ones that were running. (I will probably get a nasty comment over this one). They’d brought out the music, and the kaak sellers, the clowns, and lots of other things to entertain the crowds.

Aregu initially did not really want to run in Tripoli.
There’s Daash there and they killed a christian man from Bangladesh and an Ethiopian last week,” she said.
Where do you hear these things?” I asked. She cannot read English nor Arabic.
On Facebook. The Ethiopians were warning each other on Facebook.”
I wonder if Zuckerman, when he started Facebook, had any idea that his vision to connect a few university students would enable an entire migrant community to send each other warning signals in case of danger.
"Selfie selfie on a stick, who's got the fairest profile pic?"
One of Niemeyer's projects

All this against an almost surrealistic backdrop; the International Fairgrounds of Oscar Niemeyer.

Commissioned in 1965 by the then Lebanese government to build an international fairground, the world renowned architect designed something on a grand scale. ‘His ambitious plan for Tripoli proposed a new city quarter including zones for commerce, sports, entertainment, and housing, with the fair at its centre.’ (Source)

The war in 1975 ended those plans, and the partially completed complex was never inaugurated. Even now, some 50 years after the start, the place still feels futuristic, partially because nothing has been changed or added over the years; it is exactly as it was planned to look like.
Red Cross was all ready to roll
A seriously overweight clown

Met lots of interesting people too. One runner, a 63 year old Lebanese from Zahle, has been living in my hometown in Holland for some 30 years, and he runs, on average, 8 (half) marathons a year.
I just run on Sundays,” he said, but he’s run some 212 marathons in his life!  Or was it 112? I forgot, but does it matter, it’s an incredible feat either way. I mentioned that I was impressed, but he pointed out some other runners.

That guy, he’s a Lebanese living in Dubai, he’s 67, and just ran 21 k in 1:37. That’s fast, even for a young guy.” A gentleman facing us, well into his 60’s, if not older, runs every event in Lebanon. Ali Makki, who’s over 50, ran it in 1:25 and there are countless other Lebanese, no young guns, who run 21 k with ease.  And most of them didn’t start until they were 40. All these people are getting me interesting in writing longreads again.

Horse riding in the middle of town; why not?

The organization of the marathon, I am glad to say so, was as it should be. The start for the wheelchair riders was slightly delayed because they couldn’t get the lead vehicle up and running. The usual ‘fauda’ of people ending up on the track where they are not supposed to be, and a discrepancy of some four hours between the finish of the winners and the handing out of the trophies caused the majority of the runners to go home before the prize ceremony. The poor Ethiopians, dead tired, couldn’t skip that one, because they had a check to pick up.

No party is complete without the balloon man

 It’s an amazing phenomena, these East Africans and their runner abilities. Maybe it’s a gene thing, but there’s more to it. Running is a way of life (here's an interesting documentary on it: . They train in the mountains at high altitudes, have to run a lot to get to places (not many own a car in the country side), and for many it’s a way out of poverty. Our housekeeper is from Wollo, a rural district where people subsist on farming, and moved 3,000 km away from home to make a living in a country where she knew no one nor spoke the language. She didn’t do any running back home. She’s a long way from Wollo now, and will not ever make it to Olympic level, but if she can make a living from running, that’d be nice.
Chilling after the race
They seemed genuinely amazed by their prices. they were making lots of pictures of them

And the winners are . . .
But enough about Ethiopians, this is supposed to be a blog about Beirut.

May 06, 2015

Kings Day in Lebanon

It’s the biggest party of the year In Holland; King’s Day (formally known as Queen’s Day, when we had a queen). If ever you’d have to choose a day to visit Holland, make it April the 27th:  best party on the block. And although we’re far from home, or maybe because we’re far from home, it gets celebrated here as well. It used to be just an embassy party, but since Tineke (the organization) and Joke (the venue) have gotten into the game, Kings Day in Lebanon got quite festive. The Dutch community in Lebanon isn’t a large one, but it has grown these last few years, due to the presence of Syrian refugees. Many work for NGO’s or the UN.

The Syrian crisis has created lots of jobs for the Dutch (and other Europeans) in the relief effort sector. So there’s been a bit of influx of new Dutch. So on King’s Day, we party. In orange, as you have noticed. That’s because the royal family is of ‘the House of Orange.’  Colors in Lebanon, of course, have a political implication.  I am sure people in the neighborhood must have thought there was an Aoun convention going on. This so called ‘orange craze’ is a phenomenon that pops up during international sporting events (notably soccer and speed skating).
We hang out, bake poffertjes, while the kids play games and sell their old toys (and with the money, they buy other children’s old toys so you still come home with junk) on the so called ‘free market’. And what did not sell, ends up in the fire place J I think next year we should include a Kings Night (the night before kings day, when the party gets going), a band, a BBQ, and a bigger free market (one where adults can get rid of their stuff as well).
It’s a pity you’re not all Dutch in Lebanon, because now you have to miss this party.   

May 03, 2015

She's Raking Them In

First place. Again

Yet another first place. Aregu Sisay, the Ethiopian housekeeper, is raking them in at the moment. 10 kilometers in Naqoura (39:46), 5K in Jbeil (18:31), both in March, the 5000 meters at Jomhour and at AUB (19:10) in April, and this morning the 10K in Ain Mreiseh race, in a mere 39:32. With a serious bronchitis, no less. Then there was the ISF half marathon last month (21K), in 1:29:34, in which she was narrowly beaten by a police woman, Soujoud Salem, from Jordan. And there are still 2 big races coming up; one being the 5K women race from the Beirut Marathon in June.

We’ll be adding yet another shelf in her room for her trophies. She’s worrying about how she’s going to get them all home: Ethiopian Airlines has a 40 kilos luggage limit. All these cups stand on a marble pedestal, and she’s well beyond the 40 kilos by now. And she’s not counting medals.
 And although we’re not on Olympic level here (see for World Records below), she’s slowly chipping away at her time.
The world record for 5K stands at 14:46 , and for 5,000 meters at 14:11. The world record for the 10K and the 10,000 meters are at 30:21 and 29:31 respectively. There’s a difference between running on the road (K) and on the track (meters), hence the different times, I was explained by her trainer.
 You have to keep in mind that she has no knowledge (and neither do I) of what she should eat in order to improve her running, so there’s no balanced diet. Her trainer finally convinced her to lay off on the diet-Coke, but that is as far as it gets.

Another (huge) factor is that she is a working woman; she trains and runs in between her job, which – like any housewife can tell you – is strenuous and never-ending. This week she picked up a cough that has been passed on by the other household members, and has not been feeling well most of the time.

She can be pretty stubborn at times as well, and good advice – further complicated by a language barrier - is not always heeded. 

So all things considered, that’s pretty awesome. But there is even more hope on the horizon. Her club, Inter-Lebanon, has decided to dispatch her to the French Pyrenees this summer for a month long intensive training camp, together with the other top runners of her club. Then in October, there’s the Amsterdam marathon in Holland, and from then on, we’ll see. Pretty good for a country girl who, until she came to Lebanon, never ran.
Milling about at 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning.
I am – and I’ve said it many times - in awe of the runners’ community in Lebanon. It’s a group of people from all walks of life, all religions and (slowly but surely becoming one of) all social groups as well. They merge wonderfully well, because all that matters is the chronometer. “What was your time?” is the first thing they ask each other at the finish line. It’s a good mixture of civilians and military people as well. The Lebanese army’s got some good runners; most of the top male runners come out of the army.
You know the army's got runners in a race if this is awaiting you at the finish line.
The fact that they’re up and about at 6:30 in downtown on a Sunday morning indicates a pretty healthy life style as well. I’d be running too if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got like zero discipline.
She's 23, still too young to be a top runner for marathons, they tell me. Marathon runners peak much later. But she's got the genes. One day, when she will be running New York, Boston and Rotterdam, you can say: I've know about this lady all along, because I have followed her career from the start. Don't forget; you read it here first.