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Posts tagged ‘student’

Living Beirut? No, I prefer to be a summer tourist

IMG_5907I’ve survived a good four months in Beirut, but have gotten to the point (well, I arrived at this stage a few weeks ago to be honest) where my nerves are on edge and my love for some of the luxuries of the U.S. (a sense of security that a civil war won’t break out tomorrow, no construction on Sunday, good Mexican food etc.) are at an all time high.

I love the idea of this multi faceted country, rather than its present state, and I am starting to understand why 12 million Lebanese live outside the country and only 3.6 million inside its borders.

Before coming to Lebanon, I had a conversation about the general instability of the world based on a mostly financial US-based perspective. I profoundly recall how my friend replied that financial instability is nothing compared to lack of safety and security found in the Middle East and other volatile regions, “economic and security crisis are incomparable: one is paid in stocks and bonds while the other is paid in blood.”  Now I understand his point.

Security

Lack of security, where advised to stay indoors, is quite disconcerting (referring to the clashes in the south of Lebanon due to Sheikh Assir ). While Lebanese are used to upheaval, a humvee barreling down the street just makes this girl cringe and hide her head under the covers. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked myself why go through this when I don’t have to? But then the sun rises upon a new day and Lebanese begin their shopping, club-hopping ways. Delusional? Or just a coping mechanism? I would say, delusional because they, or better said ‘we’,  need a coping mechanism to remain sane and survive with the least damage.

Empty Beirut

Borded up shops in eerie downtown

Borded up shops in eerie downtown

Due to the lack of political stability (and the general boycott of Lebanon by gulf countries), Beirut’s posh downtown area is empty. Storefronts remain, but house no merchandise. The only way a few restaurants have survived is thanks to Saudi ownership. I cannot tell you how many times I have been the only guest in restaurants which were buzzing just a year ago.

Insane pricing

Prices are skyrocket high; everyone is trying to milk whatever money is left in the country while people continue to ‘live big’ all on debt. That is, if you can still find banks or people to lend you money.

Food

Besides the greater problems affecting the country, homesickness has trickled in. It has come in many forms and as a result of many happenings (as mentioned above). Surprisingly,  Lebanese food, which I have always adored, has even become dull and even gag worthy to my taste buds. I can’t tell you how much I miss Californian cuisine. I even found myself describing one of my favorite dishes to my friends (avocado slices on bread drizzled with thick Italian balsamic vinegar and sea salt).

Good News!

The view from my apartment

The view from my apartment

Some exciting news is that I have moved apartments to a great place over-looking the sea. Most importantly, it is QUIET! I have been able to sleep more than I ever did in the past four months spent in my extremely noisy apartment where my Sunday wake-up was a forced 7.30am due to sawing. So, I am much happier and at peace.

More later…and NYU in the fall.

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Neophyte of Beirut Ep. 1

Living on ones own for the first time is an experience in itself, wherever that place may be! And, Beirut has in store some interesting twists for this newbie.

Let’s start with my first shower. I turned on the tap and to my joy the water ran warm! I breathed a sigh of relief. I remember too well having to heat water on the stove to wash when I lived in Italy. But, when done, I opened the curtain to find my bathroom flooded! I had put the shower curtain inside the rim of the shower boundaries, like I was instructed, but I guess that was not enough! Now, every time I shower I expect the puddle and the fact it won’t dry for a few hours even with the floor drains.

IMG_0623

The construction outside my window, under my deck!

Then, the morning of my first day I was surprised to find myself awake at seven am.  “Why?” I asked myself drowsily after I had glanced at my cell phone watch.  The answer would lie in front of me when I opened my curtains. My studio was right on top of a major construction site. And, unlike in the States where time regulations are generally obeyed (noise production can’t commence until after nine am), this certainly was not the case here! And to my shock, construction continued on Saturday morning too! Sunday seems to be the only day of rest, at least in this part of town.

Another snafu occurred, this time under the category “my bad,” when after showering I found the bathroom undulating with at least two inches of water. But, not just any water, dirty water!  I thought it was due to my hair stuck in the drain but, upon returning later in the evening, I was greeted with reprimands: NO TOILET PAPER down the toilet! There is a wastebasket right on the side for all paper materials!” (This is, of course, all in a mix of French and Arabic).  I must have turned bright red from embarrassment, “I really didn’t know! In America we flush paper down the toilet no problem. Nobody told me you didn’t here!” Today, I was again scolded; this time by the once-weekly maid who explicitly told me what, and I mean EVERYTHING, that came up through the drains due to my flushing of paper.  Even though I spent the past summer here in Beirut, I never came to learn of this rule, which must be second nature for Lebanese.

Up next: Decoding the MANY different types of marriages in Islam

Under Objective Eyes

One of the best things about being around someone that is not family, not of “the same cloth,” is that, if you allow yourself, this person enables you to see your surroundings objectively under new light.

While, for some, it may be painful to see their backyard in reveal, for me, the experience has been one of relief and clarity — my intuition has finally received some sort of back up support!

Now, to the meat (Certified Organic, of course): Every city, neighborhood or house has it’s own culture, unique norms and social constructs. The core of any such assemblage is created by the gradual solidification of a specific belief, often to the effect of the eventual exclusion of others. As of right now, my surroundings largely consist of liberal, highly educated, highly-travelled and well-off individuals.  And put simply, this group of people seem to have bought into the lure of the meme of Organic. To exemplify the extent to which an idea can take over unassumingly, I am going to talk about the community of Organic followers.

The idea of Organic has, in the last few years, become so common—thus so watered down, that it has lost its true meaning. It has been spun by the “socially conscious” into a belief, without them even realizing they are doing so.

I cannot tell you how many times the word, in its noun and adjective forms, comes up in conversation, most often when the topic is not even food. At a recent conference I attended, the word got dropped in almost all of the plenary sessions presented, and let me mention: this was a conference on IMPACT INVESTING!

How many times have I seen my own mother pick up health products, energy drinks, vitamins, oils and supplements JUST BECAUSE they are labeled Organic? Each week a new item comes up, organic garments are woven, new soaps are created and thus she feels, like many others in her community, that she must buy every new thing with that Organic CCOF label.  I have seen how, as the product is replaced by another Organic product, she too will buy that one, use it for a few months and then move onto the next Organic fad.

While buying and “living Organic” is not the worst agenda a group can have, it has made me realize how easily subconscious waves can be spread without ever being seen or processed as such by the entity in focus.

It is fascinating to see hypotheses regurgitated over and over again in this pin pointed group, and to see how do’s become norms and norms because absolutes. And as consolidation of an idea occurs, the confidence in that label morphs into the shunning of those who do not comply with the “rules.”

I agree that health is important, nutrition and exercise are key but, pouring Vanilla CoffeeMate creamer into my guest’s hot mug, instead of the Organic alternative, is not going to kill; it will just shave off a bit of the majority’s untouchability so coveted.

Does a BA really matter?

I have now been home a month and, after battling reverse culture shock (see: #TravelProblems: Transition back”) I, for the first time, had zero plans in regards to what I would do in the coming months. And what a scary feeling that is!

All I knew was that I wanted to write and experience life out of a university setting where my schedule was not set for me and where I had to really “bring it!” So, I applied to internships and jobs and shockingly people started calling! I never imagined I would be wanted by BIG companies or be asked to be on the core staff of a new start-up or work at the HUB, an entrepreneurial space WITHOUT MY BACHELORS DEGREE!!!!

I am so shocked that people in San Francisco really do not even blink an eye when I tell them I have not yet graduated college. This has gotten me excited and intrigued and has led me to believe that no, you do not need a Bachelors Degree in San Francisco if you have entrepreneurial instincts, a strong skill set and are willing to learn from others through experiential means. However, I tend to believe that this new wave of thinking does not have a very big radius; rather, it appears in certain areas around the globe, in pockets of open-ness. As the UnCollege  (http://www.uncollege.org/) and DoItYourselfEducation movement (http://eduventurist.org/) have grown in the past 5 years, I do believe the world is moving toward a different educational model but, while the tide is shifting course, higher education is still an extremely important part of moving up the social ladder or, quite noticeable on the international stage, maintaining that standing.

Upon many months of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that a Bachelors Degree is extremely important for most of the world as it denotes a stamp of intellect and class upon the person (now, if the person actually does have that knowledge is a different topic!) and, if one does not want to work in technology or entrepreneurial fields in the limited liberal innovative spaces scattered around the globe than, a BA is probably a good idea!

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind and I am just now settling my internship/work deals and seeing how to juggle multiple projects. There have been letdowns, miscommunications and miss-following of protocol on my part, as I have never had to “be” anything other than a full-time student. I certainly have learned a tremendous amount. Seeing how complicated and difficult it all is made me comment to my father:  “I want to go back to school! Going to classes everyday, turning in assignments and labs was SO much easier!!!”

In the following months, keep reading to find out what I decide to do in regards to that whole University and BA degree issue 😉

 

 

“Creating” the Orient: Reflection on Part I of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

 

This summer, while studying Arabic in Beirut, the name “Edward Said” kept popping up continuously and so, as soon as I got back to the states I had to pick up his renowned book: “Orientalism”. His writing, it so turned out, responded to many of my longstanding questions and concerns. Through the telling of the past, Said has given me a much more thorough understanding of the complex relationship between East and West and where we thus stand today.

I must acknowledge that I dislike writing on the many diverse peoples, cultures and states of the Middle East using the over-bearing words “Orient” and “East” and “Middle East”, and likewise “West,” since they are all relative. But, the reality is that the many lands of olives, dabke, hieroglyphics and Arabic are encapsulated in these “umbrella terms.” Pardon me.

In reading “Orientalism,” my understanding of present Western attitudes of superiority towards the East have increased tremendously.  It is astounding to retrospectively observe the West’s historic position in molding this area of the world. As Said puts it: “It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator…”

From 1815 to 1914 Europe controlled 85% of the earth but as we will see, “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism.”

Orientalism, as a field of study, is quite expansive and to make it palpable for a European audience, scholar d’Herbolet wrote Le Biblioteque Orientale (1697), which organized information on the Orient alphabetically and helped spread the belief in the acute differences of the Oriental in comparison to the European.  Orientalism is therefore: “Knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.”

With help from colonial encounters in the East, the 18th century saw the relationship between East and West grow in complexity. Scholars of the Orient, who most often used other Western scholars to validate their hypotheses, were able to capitalize on the military expansion of European territories and thus systematically increased awareness of the Orient in Europe on THEIR own Orientalist terms.

For example, the definition of the Prophet Mohammad,  in d’Herbolet’s Biblioteque, reads: “C’est le femeux imposteur Mohamet, Auteur et Fondateur de u hérésie, qui a pris le nom de religion.” Since d’Herbolet was considered an expert on the Orient, Mohammad thus becomes a figure of “heresy” in the minds of European readers. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri even brings up Mohammad in his Inferno.  In fact, “Maometto” turns up in the 8th of the 9 circles of Hell.  That Dante talks about Islam in this way shows that the Orientalist vision is “by no means confined to the professional scholar, but rather the common possession of all who have thought about the Orient in the West.” We are seen how by increasing vilification of the Orient Europeans are able to create their own perceived reality. “d’Herbolet’s character of Mohamet is an image” writes Said and just adds to the theatrical characteristic of the portraral of the Orient to the West. Thus, all that is produced by the Orientalists creates, in all it’s falsities, “the very reality they appear to describe.”

“Since one cannot ontologically obliterate the Orient (as d’Herbolet and Dante perhaps realized), one does have the means to capture it, treat it, describe it, improve it, radically alter it,” wrote Said. And today, sadly, it still seems that the West is fighting, both literally and metaphorically, to sculpt the expansive East. In the eyes of many Americans, and certainly by Westerner policies in general, the people, countries and cultures of the lands south and east of Europe are still viewed as something that needs to be tinkered with and changed to fit the Westerner’s (the Orientalist’s?) agenda. So, I ask, have we really moved that far from our ancestral past practices of “Orientalizing the Orient”?

#WorldTravelerProblems: The Transition Back

Well, who doesn’t say that sometimes the most difficult transitions are those back to your “normal” place, or life before leaving your status quo. My return and readjustment back to the Bay Area, back to living with my family and electricity 24/7 (Ok, maybe that aspect wasn’t too bad), was not smooth.

I had forgotten how Americans, without even being aware of it, seem to get easily caught up in their isolated island, their own individual realities and lose a sense of curiosity for what is out there. The Bay Area, being the technology capital of the world, lives under the guise that “we are SO connected to the world and thus experts on EVERYTHING”—which leads to a sense of fake global awareness and knowledge.   Again, as mentioned in my prior post (“Lebanon: A Harmonic Clash?”), since most American’s truly believe that they are living in the best country that presently exists, do not need to allow their minds to wonder to far off places and different actualities. This is in contrast to all other nationalities that are always so curious about the culture of the Sates, how their particular country is viewed in the US etc.

Now, I remember how isolated I felt when moving back to the Bay Area from Italy and just how off-put I was that the only question I was ever asked was: “How was Italy?” How can you describe YEARS in one sentence? Let’s sit down, get a cup of coffee, a gelato and talk.

Talk. Here, people don’t seem to have the time to talk. And if there is time, often the conversations have seemed so petty. I do understand I am coming off a high of amazing intellectual conversations had during my stay in Lebanon. While I am not saying that this is the norm EVERYWHERE in the beautiful country, I was fortunate to find the most interesting, smart, quirky people and have the best conversations of my life!

Alas, slowly, I’ve noticed, I am getting used to this rhythm of this bay—although I am going to attend a concert given by a famous Syrian singer so I don’t forget THAT rhythm. I never want to forget how I felt in Lebanon.  I hope to bring the vibrancy, urgency, finesse and awareness of the other city by the bahr (sea) to all whom I encounter.

What if Humanistic Education = Scientific Education ?

If you ask someone what they would do if they could change any one thing in the world the responses usually range from world peace to ending hunger and stopping wars. So, imagine my surprise when, amongst a room-full of recent Lebanese engineer graduates, I hear repeatedly: If I were a dictator…. I would give more money to art education and make it so the humanities were as respected as the sciences and creative jobs would be just as well paid as those in the scientific arena.

If only this group of friends knew that education reform is one of my greatest passions!

I than had a conversation with one friend who could have been my mirror: she remarked on how she feels that university made her into a robot. For four years, her brain served as a hard drive and was forced full with theory, which she would have to regurgitate onto exams. Basically, she toiled for four years of intense study of formulae to achieve a piece of paper. And now what? She needs to get a job as soon as possible to pay off her loans.

Does this story sound familiar anyone? For some reason, stories like this keep following me wherever I go and they continue to push me to reevaluate my educational path.

Lebanon: A Harmonic Clash?

Even though everyone told me that Beirut was the most unique and progressive city in the region and the “Paris of the Middle East” (and here I have even heard the “Prostitute of the Middle East”) I still could never have imagined that this would be one of the most oddly liberal cities I have ever visited.

While many people here distort what they think is “progressive” into an obsession with consumerism, in hopes of becoming something they are not (trying to become American/European), and thus disregarding all tradition and heritage, I am quite lucky (thanks to a dear friend of mine) to have seamlessly slid myself into a group of friends who have somehow  managed to maintain a sense of respect for themselves and their culture while embracing the 21st century world we live in and everything that comes with our generation.

This unique group of friends, although all University graduates (mostly AUB), come from an array of backgrounds, sexual orientations and religions. Druze, Christian, Sunni, Shia. Although  I realize it is not that common for a group of people with such different lifestyles to be such good friends (thus the group as an entity is not the norm) I have found it fascinating to see each individual’s opinion on social and spiritual issues molded by their family and their university environment.

First of all, while playing Truth-Or-Dare, I would never have guessed how open my Lebanese friends were in divulging details about their intimate lives. I learned things about these new friends that even my best friends in the U.S. would never speak of. What does this say about Lebanon and what does this say about the U.S.? Before, I had an American media-skewed mind that gave me a blanketed picture of Arab countries as being sanctuaries of modesty and sexual repression but, after playing Truth-or-Dare for hours I began to wonder if people in the U.S. are actually the ones being subconsciously brainwashed into some sort of Protestant ideal. Maybe the oxygen of our thoughts is being removed without us knowing it because we live under the (false?) pretext of residing in the freest country. Thus, since we really do believe in our socially superior position in the world we have become idle in questioning the status quo.

While the majority of my friends in the States and I have similar views on social topics, such as abortion, immigration policy and the death penalty, I have found it so wonderful that this group of friends in Lebanon have a wide range of ideas and opinions in regards to these often unspoken topics and are not afraid to share their thoughts. Last night, at an Iftar (breaking of the Ramadan fast) in the Bekaa Valley, we went around the room and voiced how we would change the world if we were a dictator. Gay rights, chocolate mountains and Shakira came up, as did the death penalty. And so the debate began. There were two main separations at the table: those that believe that there should be capital punishment and those that are against it. What was most fascinating was to see the reasoning behind each person’s stance. It was beautiful to see how even though people’s voices would rise, hands would fly and stark differences would be revealed, at the end of the day we were all the best of friends and it did not matter that we had just been at each other’s throats in talking about issues we really care about. I am embarrassed to say that I have never had a close friendship with someone that thought so differently than I on social issues. That this group of friends is so comfortable with each other to be themselves  further increases my extremely high regard for them all.

When the topic of abortion came up the fire was lit again, but this time I would say there was more agreement in the group and I was the odd one out. The general opinion was that abortion should be legal and allowed in cases of rape and incest but that it was an over-used form of contraception. While abortion here is formally illegal it is widely practiced. I continued to staunchly support the right of choice and it was interesting how, as per usual, the men had a stronger opinion on abortion than the women (I am still confused about why, no matter which country, men seem to care SO much). One of the arguments against abortion was “Why kill babies when so many people who want children cannot have babies, i.e. gay couples.” My response: “Orphanages are spilling over with kids and the world is over-populated for God’s sake!” While others, who do not support the death penalty, stated that aborting a fetus is killing a life. Opinions on abortion also depended on religious upbringing and, according to their certain book and belief, the time at which the soul enters the body. For example, the Druze believe the soul enters the body upon birth.

Honestly, I have had the most interesting conversations in this country and it never ceases to amaze me how similar we all are.

Salon, Diet & Plastic

Lebanon is one of the most beautiful countries I have been to and, naturally, it has some of the most beautiful people (most importantly on the inside BUT also on the outside). The obsession with beauty and perfection in some circles is so extreme that even the woman doing my nails admitted: “it’s too much!” However, this was after she refused to paint my toenails and finger nails different colors, “That will look stupid and people will laugh at you!” Of course, I would not want that!

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Here, the beauty salon is an essential part of many women’s weekly schedule. And what a scene it can be! Although in the U.S. people might go to the salon to get “beautified” here it seems that the salon, while being a place to get even MORE beautiful, is where you go to be seen and talked about. I have now been twice to get my nails done and I saw some of the same women there the second time on a completely different day. I have seen and heard many things at the salon, from meltdowns from diamond studded hijabi women to conversations about the upcoming nuptials of a 17 year old girl. While getting my hair done for the first time  (no, I haven’t done it again) I (unintentionally) even created a little drama. As soon as I sat down  the male hairdresser took a piece of my hair and say: “Shou haida? Shou haida?” I was confused because it was a normal piece of hair and I didn’t know what was wrong with it. Then he said “Moda Adeeema.” He waved his hands gesturing to the past. He was commenting on the fact I have layers and layers were in fashion here years ago. I kept repeating: In the U.S. layers are still in fashion. He just shook his head. Oy Vey. Only a few weeks in and I am already on the Lebanese fashion blacklist. Beirut, and Lebanon as a whole, is not a cheap city but some things, ex. Salons are quite inexpensive! Nails start at $4 or so and a hair blow-out at around $7 and I am not talking about bad hair or nails. I have never had such a

Too-much make-up for my birthday

Too-much make-up for my birthday

good manicure/pedicure in my life! The manicurist deals with each nail with finesse and I am constantly being asked if I want Nescafe or a water by one of the Philippina helpers. Such an odd sensation for me. Beauty is a big industry and is highly regarded. Here, dieticians can get paid as much as “real” doctors as the diet fads shift from No-Carb diets to absurd regiments where you are not allowed to look at different objects each week (for example, for the first week of my friend’s diet she could not look at plants and went as far as having to duck her head every time she saw a tree out of the car window!). Insane! Plastic surgery is also rampant here and I cannot walk down the street without seeing at least a few fake lips, unmoving faces and plastic Pamela Anderson breasts. The Lebanese nose is also something that all women get rid of as high school graduation presents. Even my American roommate, who is of Lebanese descent, thanks God that she did not get her Grandfather’s, allah yarhumhu, dreaded prominent nose. It is a bit sad to see all these girls change themselves to look the same!

 

——— As a side note, one thing that I would never have believed in the states is the ease at which people switch between dollar currency and lira. If I give someone 50,000 lira I will most likely get back change in $10 or $20 bills. And if I pay for something with a $20 I will get change back in lira. When I get cash out from the bank they will always ask if I want it in Lira or Dollar as big amounts of cash are often kept in dollars because the exchange rate is 1500 to every dollar. So, when you come to Beirut do not worry if you initially only have dollars!

FusHa-3meeah-English-French mixtape

The other day my friend remarked: “You haven’t written a blog post in a while.” Sadly, he is correct. I honestly have been so bogged down with class (8:30-3:30 with an hour lunch break) and five to eight hours of homework a night! And when I am not doing school work I try to be out and about enjoying my time here!

One thing that has completely taken me by surprise is the feeling of utter vulnerability in not be able to speak spoken Arabic (3meeye). The Arabic that is taught in class called FusHa or Modern Standard Arabic is only used in writing and in extremely formal situations so, for the first time in a VERY long time I am literally without words. Since I speak Spanish, Italian, English and can get by with French I really do not know, or remember, the feeling of not being able to understand the banter on the streets. Even though most people DO speak English or French here I have always said, and will continue to say, that there is A LOT lost in translation or left out when you do not know a person’s mother tongue. Thus, my thirst to learn spoken Lebanese grows stronger by the day!

On the Lady G

Yesterday I spent the day on my friend’s beautiful yacht and was so lucky to be surrounded by Lebanese speaking people. It helps me so much to hear the dialect and try to grasp the gist of the conversation although I cannot understand every word, of course!! On our return to the port, my friends put on traditional Lebanese music and started singing at the top of their lungs and, while so entertaining, it served as a great Arabic lesson also 😉

Bringing up the yacht makes me think of another topic of discussion: Imbalance of wealth. Lebanon, especially Beirut, is NOT cheap and salaries are NOT high so I ask, “how do people afford these prices? As a father of a friend told me, “4% of Lebanese are extremely wealthy and the rest have to work really hard to make ends meet. Even the women have had to start working!” As a friend of mine would said, “Most Lebanese are on the ‘Struggle Bus.’” It is also fascinating to note that while there are only 4,000 Lebanese living in the motherland there are triple that (12,000) living abroad. To counter act the low salaries most Lebanese have family members living abroad who send momeu home to their families.

I have been blessed to meet the most amazing people here in Lebanon and, in reflection, I realize that, since I am studying at the best university in the middle east, I have (in great majority) met people who are 1) highly educated 2) more often than not come from “good families”

I have not been able to, yet, make real connections with the vast amount of Lebanese who do not fit into these two categories.

At the beauty Salon I try to make conversation in my broken FusHa-Lebanese-English-French mish-mash of words but I truly believe that I will not be able to even start to paint a cohesive and balanced picture of Lebanon without knowing spoken Lebanese.

Back to homework 🙂

P.S.  I think the solution to this small problem  of learning spoken Arabic is to stay in Lebanon LONGER …How about a year Mama? :p

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