Beirut Dispatch 5.10.06- Sekina, My New Gym, Another Try at Syria, Noam Chomsky
(To the right, Noam Chomsky
, an image from http://www.writersmugs.com/
. Noam came to AUB last night. Always a hit with the Beirutis.
To the far right, Raya and Sekina
, Egypt's most notorious serial killers. I now live with a woman named Sekina, so we are Ria and Sekina.)
My friend Rym was moving to Germany. Her father was in Jordan, but he put me under the care of Hajj Khalid, his most trusted aid. Rym's fathers instructions to put me in a very good home, a safe place where only Arabic was spoken, translated to being sent to the house of the venerable Hajja Sekina Alwayn
, called Sekina.
The most famous crime story in Egypt, one of the most well known in the whole of the Middle East, is that of Raya and Sekina, two sisters who ran a brothel in Alexandria around the turn of the century, who gruesomely murdered dozens of women in order to hawk their jewelry. There are still television shows that run about Raya and Sekina. When I lived in Egypt, entering school each day the guards would laugh good-naturedly, and make a thumping sound with their feet, singing the show's theme song in Arabic "the chorus - durik, durik - its your turn next its your turn," and ask me “Ya Ria, where’s Sekina?”
My new home is composed of Ria and Sekina and Sekina's Sri Lankan maid, called Roro
, but whose real name, inexplicably, is Pamela. Sekina is a massive and very religious woman, and her son, a high mufti in Australia. There are massed produced calendars with a picture of him for every month. We have enough copies of the Qur'an and other religious texts in the house to build a bridge between here and Mecca. Sekina, not unlike many other Lebanese mothers I’ve come into gastronomically exuberant contact with, expects me to eat about 5 times the amount of food that is actually necessary for me to survive and even feel quite content. On my first day in the house she cooked me a 7 course lunch. She does not make anything that includes anything from a can, a box, or use a condiment. She buys groceries every single day. Her industry in the kitchen is incredible.
In Lebanon, we tend to get fruits and vegetables only when they are in season – and its better this way. Imagine, in America, how the tomatoes taste when you buy them from a farm-side stand at the peak of the season. ALL of the fruits and vegetables in Lebanon taste that yummy. Sekina buys mass amounts of vegetables at their absolutely most glorious state of development and then freezes them. She had half a bathtub full of artichokes in the house the other day. I am beside myself with joy at what she produces. Almost all other food I eat now feels somehow, slightly sad. Sekina also bakes me a whole cake several times a week- I eat about half a piece of each cake and I think she finishes the rest. She packs me a little bag of snacks to bring to school- a little bag of sugared almonds tied with a ribbon. She looks as if she is near to crying if I don't finish a Hungry Man sized portion of whatever she has made.
Sekina does not have any friends who are male. No men, without any exceptions, are allowed in our house, except for Sekina's sons, but I am not allowed to be in the house when they are. Our social lives revolved around the ladies from the mosque. They are dear and hilarious. The other day, as I sat with a bunch of her friends who were coming in, she asked all of them if they had any gold, just as the real Sekina would have done before she robbed and killed them. We all laughed. Because Sekina goes to bed at 7:30pm and I sleep no earlier than 2 am, Sekina has bought a red light bulb for outside the front door, making our apartment look, hilariously, even more like a brothel.
One day, when she had some particularly religious gals from the mosque come over, I caught her in a tiny fib when she told them I was studying shariah
law, because to her, it was much more appropriate than telling the truth about my deplorable interest in political science. Out on the street, Sekina wears a long, loose black cloak with a tightly-tied scarf around her head. At home, she dons a lacy black slip that can only be appropriately described as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
We sat and watched a Lebanese music video. A girl and a boy who seemed somehow to be her boyfriend were variously rolling around in the sand in their bathing suits, building a sand castle, making a fire on the beach. “Look at these girls! How inappropriate!” Sekina and Roro boomed. I nodded vigorously in assent. On the couch beside her, I kept it quiet, the fact that I cannot WAIT to roll around on the beach in my bikini again.
At a party, I sat and told Ahmed
and some friends about how Sekina was going to make a concerted effort to convert me while I am living in her house. “Ah, Ria, don’t change your religion, and if you are going to convert for Sekina, convert for me instead!” And we all laughed and then he took me to the back of the house and sat down and said “And by that I mean, I actually actually want to marry you. Think about it.” I thought about things. Because he is a refugee in Lebanon, for Ahmed to have any chance to get a real job, to have regular access to schools or decent medical care, he basically has to marry a foreigner. Or at least that seemed the case initially. I think its sort of sad that Ahmad thinks he would have a better life in America when in Lebanon when he gets a cold 400 people show up to make sure he gets better.
After eating one too many slices of multi-layer cake, in an effort to avoid disaster, I joined a gym. Sekina picked it, so its interesting all right. There are separate floors for men and women. It’s a laugh – the men’s floor, where women are allowed if they want, has a dozen televisions, a radio blasting Snoop Dog, windows all around, fans aplenty. The womens’ floor has only a window or two, a carpet that seems it surely must have been some other color before it was brown, a few treadmills who don’t seem to be capable of reaching a speed beyond a brisk walk, and in the corner, one of those machines, in the 1950’s advertised primarily to women, that is composed of a belt which you sling around your hips, whose shaking action is meant to, I think, jiggle the cellulite off of your upper thighs. When I tried to actually run on the treadmill, it made a scary noise and a group of women came up and said that I was going too fast.
I went down to the boys floor, I turned up the speed, everyone stared and then told me I was running too fast. That I run faster than almost all of the boys in my gym does not say much for the aerobic fitness of my fellow gym-mates. In my aerobics class, taught in Arabic, we are waging a jihad
against love handles. It’s so fun to understand Arabic. “mashallah
, I want to get down on all fours and raise your leg like you are a dog peeing on a fire hydrant.” On the first floor, the boy members of my gym are trying to see which one of them I will date. In front of my treadmill, they do situps and lift dumbbells. It's like a 1980's Olivia Newton John
music video. I laugh and turn up the speed.
To Sekina, the gym has been a crisis – “You are like a stick, my dear Ria, and barely eat anything as it is!” After the first day, she cooked me a whole chicken for lunch, stuffed with pomegranate. She cuts roses from her rooftop rose garden and puts them next to my bed. I was out to dinner the other night with a boy, telling him about what Sekina had done that day. “Ria, how can anyone date you? None of us will ever be able to compete with Sekina.”
I want to say something about television in the Middle East. Most television shows and movies all over the Middle East are Egyptian. This explains why the Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood in the Arab world. Egypt has a history of filmmaking that is more than 100 years old- I love old Egyptian films. Over here, Star Academy is probably more watched than American Idol at home because its a competition not only between individuals, but also between countries. Recently, the Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications halved the cost of the call people have to make to vote for the Lebanese contestant on Star Academy. The Lebanese are way into 18th century Mexican dramas dubbed into Arabic. I haven't figured out why yet.
The commericals are hilarious. Skin bleaching cream is big all over the place. There is one commercial where a mother, in a private moment with her daughter, tells her that she needs some "Fair and Lovely." Upon using this product, after mere days, she has not only somehow, despite having seemed fairly unemployed at an early moment in the commericial, suddenly and randomly attained a lucrative career in television advertising but is also, without any suggestion of a boyfriend existing earlier in the commerical, is miraculously and suddenly engagaed. This unreal standard of beauty does not apply only to women. In another commerical, a boy approaches the door of a girl he is meant to go on a date with. When she answers the door she looks out dejectedly at him and asks accusingly "No Layl?" Layl (night) is a swank hair gel for boys. Said boy is sent away, goes back to his house, loads up on the Layl, and returns to the house of his very pleased girlfriend who then invites him into the house, and I am just guessing, kisses him. Several other commercials show a Gulfi couple in a car or on the street, and a fight ending in the girl ripping off her higab to reveal lustrous, voluminous hair, usually courtesy of Herbal Essences or something like it.
My best friend Meredith (I have two best friends – Meredith and Nicole
– we are all in the same pledge class of the same sorority at Ohio State.) had been sending me a photo of her every month since she became pregnant- and to see her, blooming like a rose at month 9, what a babe she is, my Mere and I'm so proud of her. Anyway, Mere-dog gave birth on April 20th to a 7 pound, 6 ounce baby, Ella Sarone Douglas
, a little girl, such a bundle of yummy, who I am very excited to meet when I go up to Columbus to visit for my friend Caryn Altshulers (congrats Caryn!) wedding, 3 days after I return to America.
Syria, per several reports, had opened up. For Americans, it would only take 4 hours of waiting. With a fair amount of jubilance, I sat in the Charles Helou bus station and waited to depart for a taxi to depart for the border. In that barren tract of land between Syria and Lebanon at the border control, it was like seeing an old friend when I glanced at the rickety wooden bench where my friend Sophia and I had spent so many hours when I tried to go to Syria the last time . “It will take 6 hours for you to go through – you will get in when it is dark, it’s better to go back!," the green wool uniformed guards yelled. Then they brought me into the boss of the director who questioned me the last time, this new one’s office way in the back, with more shi-shi furniture arranged to reflect, I think, his advanced rank. He asked various questions, and I answered. Then he said, “I am from Syria, nothing of what you are saying makes sense, I think you are making it all up, what are your REAL intentions in Syria?”
This time, though, I was prepared. Sekina, after doing several elaborate prayers for my safety, sent me off with a lunch worthy of the name Sekina. She had packed several lamb sandwiches, a bowl of roasted vegetables, a bag of several types of fragrant and beautiful fruit I had never tasted before, cucumbers and tomatoes and labneh (Lebanese full-fat and very delicious yogurt), homemade shortbread cookies stuffed with pistachio with a little container of cream on the side. I found a friendly patch of grass in front of the border patrol Dunkin’ Donuts, spread out a blanket, set out my picnic and opened up my book on Lebanese history. After a quite satisfying meal, I laid down for a nap. That was when the sprinklers decided to come on, soaking everything I own. I went back to sit inside, the loser American who had to wait for several hours when no one else did, and now I was soaking wet. Oh well.
I waited and waited and waited. People had pity on me. The directors office brought me endless cups of coffee in little china cups. I found a great spot on the floor next to the heater, where I might dry off. People thought I was a prostitute and began to subtly inquire as to how much I would charge.
Long ago having counted every white marble tile on the floor, 11 little girls came giggling into the office, all dressed up for a wedding in Aleppo. They came over and began to talk to me and ask me what I was doing. I told them I had been in the office for 7 hours, that I was very bored, that I hoped to go to Syria. A tiny girl said she was sorry and asked if they could sing me a song. What songs did they know? Nancy Agram, of course! They got into a huddle to plan their performance and then did an elaborate dance with a lot of hip gyration. That was the only thing, besides the interrogation I would incur, that was at all entertaining.
“YOU are not allowed into Syria,” a group of guards yelled, waking me up suddenly from sleep, perched as I was, homeless-like, on the bench, clutching my Arabic vocab lists and probably drooling. I demanded to see the director. I was fully interrogated, and he went through my books and my phone book, looking for something, I had no idea what. It seemed rather futile, as he did not speak English, the language in which all of my books were written. He said there was a specific reason that I was not allowed in. He would not tell me what it was. A nice diplomat from Canada came in and asked if I were okay. The Syrian director said he would send an official car to TAKE me back to Beirut. I declined, but went back anyway. Argh! Syria! You elusive muse!
The Vagina Monologues
made their Middle East debut in Beirut a few weeks ago. Sekina has definite opinions about this. They are not favorable toward public discourse on female (or male) anatomy. Sekina also feels that it is definitely a good idea that girls are medically checked to make sure that they are virgins before they are married. Isn’t THAT the truth. Sekina might do well to get a job on President Bush’s Families First initiative or something.
Sekina is very curious about American culture. She asked if there were any Muslims who were not immigrants from other countries in the United States. I explained to her the history of Malcolm X
, and how when he converted to Islam, he started a movement that had great influence among minority prison populations in the U.S. There was a second generation of these converts, so really, there are many Muslims who were Muslims from birth. Of course there were others, but this was maybe the most well-known group. This connection between prisoners and Islam is not what Sekina wanted to hear.
Ya’ll are funny. I love to get sincere warnings of caution, that I please, please stay safe, watch myself, from my friends who chain smoke and eat fried food for lunch, because it is I who worries about every one of you who I think smokes or doesn’t eat enough green vegetables, doesn't exercise or works too many hours with not enough sex or vacation or both or whatever.
I am doing much of the research for my thesis in Arabic. This is a slow and very painful process. My friend Alaa
took me down to the Hizbollah HQ to see if I could get into their archives. I was asked to explain my research, and I did. “But what is your REAL purpose?” I’m sick of this question. Truly, I’m sick of this question. The Hizb guy told us not to make any quick movements because cameras would be watching for anything strange on the street. As if it wasn’t going to be obvious that I was the only American there. The archives were lovely. Studying in libraries where the no talking rule is actually enforced and where a guy continually walks by making me new cups of Turkish coffee in little china teacups is much better than the regular garden variety of study I’ve become so used to in the United States. Okay, so I was the only patron there that morning who wasn’t a sheikh. They told me I could come back whenever I wanted, god bless em'.
I love Sekina. It’t not just because she takes care of me more intently than anyone has in my life. She’s just sooooooooooo nice. When her three sons left Lebanon for other countries, she said she cried for 3 months in her room and now she is on Prozac. She cooks for several orphans who live on our street and boy are they, like me and the rest of our neighborhood, lucky to have her. What will happen when I go home and don’t have Sekina? It’s just too awful to think about just yet.
Today, a quarter million people, backed by Hizbollah
and Michel Aoun
, marched in Beirut to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
. I walked through as the mob hit my house, all the way down to Riad el Solh, and I'm just waiting to see what else Beirut has in store for me before I leave!
The next Dispatch is the Last Dispatch- at least for a while!
I hope you all are well!
Beirut Dispatch 3.27.06 - I Move Again, Trip to the Israeli Border, The Sectarian Cornucopia of Lebanon
(At left, My Cute Nephew Charlie. Right, at the heavily fortified border between Lebanon and Israel, a sign in English, Hebrew and Arabic- www.pbs.org
; far right, the border immediately after Israeli withdrawal, before it was heavily fortified. There are a lot more guns now.)
I feel guilty, as though this might be a horrid, short-sighted mistake, but I put the Dispatch on a blog. You should know that I loathe blogs, and rather despise email. But re: the blog, maybe it's just easier this way. If more than 2 or 3 of you think it's ridiculous, I'll go back to the email - just let me know.
Oh, it wasn’t going to last long anyway, I moved out of my Nebaa house. The first question when I announced that I was departing? "What religion are the people where you are moving to?" "Homma kan Muslimeen" They were Muslims. "Ria, we will go to church on Sunday and pray for your soul." They asked if they could keep all of my clothing. I’ve lived out of the same two suitcases since I left America. You should see the state of my clothes – not one thing is the same color as it was when I left the mainland, some shirts have nearly as much shirt as they do holes, and it’s hard to believe that even a homeless person would want the great majority of it.
A week later on a hiking trip in the mountains of the north, a boy described how a friend of his had recently been stabbed in Nebaa - he had called his mother crying. How could YOU live there, Ria? Everyone is nice to me, I told them. "The man on the corner wont even let me pay for oranges!" Everyone laughed. "They think you are a relief worker, Ria. That's the only reason a Westerner would live in Nebaa."
I had been invited to dinner at the home of my Lebanese friend Rym, whose family, though they are able, at least try not to speak English with me. Almost everyone seems amused by the stories I tell in my deplorable Arabic of my living situation - my manic, delusional father who runs, without knocking, into my room screaming regularly, the 14 year old Mark who hides under my bed waiting for me to disrobe. All of the dinner guests had a good laugh when the Ethiopian maid told me how sorry she felt for me - though she had fled the war in her own country, it was clear that I now lived in more "challenging" conditions than she.
My friend Rym, kindly and selflessly, demanded that I live with her. After initially refusing, I came to my senses and moved my things in and SHOWERED, and after you haven’t showered in a while, its like pure heaven, to marvel at the soap and the hot water and toilet paper. In the kitchen its almost too much to fathom, the idea that there is milk and Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches and all of the other things that I have no doubt must also exist in heaven right next to the angels and all the rest of that stuff. And now, I was in such a clean and quiet house, watched the news in Arabic with Rym, she translating the words I don’t know, I trying out vocabulary in various gramatically incorrect contexts which she then corrected, her brother teaching me Arabic army slang. We sat on the couch and watched Walid Jumblatt give a press conference, saying Shebaa Farms, a part of Lebanon in the south of the country, wasn’t controlled by Lebanon. A few days later he said that even the security at the Beirut airport was controlled by the Syrians. That this place is even considered a country at all often seems, well, a stretch.
Under UN Resolution 1559, the militias in Lebanon have been "disarmed" but you could have fooled me and probably everybody else.
Rym's father the other day described Lebanon not as a country, but more as a sort of jinena alhayawan – animal farm. He was an intelligence official during the war, (and an aide to former- assasinated- Lebanese PM Rafic Hariri) and was kidnapped from the very apartment where I am now living in by black-hooded militiamen during the war. This sounds incredible, but perhaps a higher percentage of older Lebanese were kidnapped during the course of the war than the percentage of Lebanese who have had plastic surgery. "Rym, are you really, completely sure about this girl?" her father asked. I met him, a person lovely beyond description, speaking perfectly clearly and gesticulating generously to aid my comprehension. I again embarassed myself with my Arabic. I told him I was from DC. He just laughed when I took notes when we talked - in order that I could look up the Arabic words I didn’t recognize from the conversation, and we laughed even harder when a large printed document of mine sat on the dining room table, its title written in Hebrew. When he came back the next week, we sat around in our pajamas talking in Arabic about the war. "Ask the jususa (spy) what she wants from the grocery store," he asked Rym.
Rym's mother, who does not live with us, took us to the military sporting club one morning after we went running along the ocean. The old army officers sat around in their track suits, their silver hair gleaming, drinking orange juice with the sun sprinkling gold off of the sea, and if anyone slipped into English, as seems inevitable in Beirut, Rym's mother boomed "NEVER speak English to Ria. She's here to learn Arabic." Bless that woman.
In Beirut, its getting warm, I walk along the beach at night, I eat the green almonds that just came into season and have lunch at a place called Aunty Salwa's a lot, where she makes us roasted eggplant and bowls of pumpkin soup and fresh squeezed lemonade with mint leaves in it.
I cannot express, though, the excitement that fills my heart when I consider how it will feel to return to America for the summer, after not having set foot on her shores for something like, well actually exactly 491 days. Of course to experience the normal things of home, and most of all to see my friends and my sissy's and their spouses and my niece Callie and my nephew Charlie who Iv'e yet to actually hold!
Until the next Dispatch,
p.s. To anonymous poster on this entry - please refrain from sending comments which include profanity. My sisters read this.