Lebanon Part 1

Lebanon

To this day, I am not sure what I expected to see the first time I flew into Lebanon. My Mother always said

“Lebanon, my Lebanon. The Mediterranean waters are blue, blue (with an emphasis on a long drawn out blu-u-ue). The countryside beautiful; the city of Beirut, like something from a dream.” It always gave me the image of a Disney production, and at the very least, I expected to see Tinkerbell flying around the city waving her magic wand. But that is not what happened, nor is it what I saw,

My mother saw it as a magical, fairy kingdom. She left there when she was fifteen, after she was married to my father. She remembers Lebanon this way because it was where she was the happiest. She told me wonderful stories of how, as a child, she roamed the hills behind her house, She would ride a donkey through the orchards filled with lemon, and tangerine trees. From her hillside, she could see the Mediterranean, and she would sit there for long hours staring. When I visited her home, I went up the hill behind her family home. Yes, there was an old Roman ruin there. When I sat upon it, I could see the Mediterranean off in the distance, and it was a beautiful blue.

When I arrived in Beirut it was not the beauty I expected. The first place my guide took me was to the Green Line in the center of town. This is where different factions fought with each other. One side was on one side of the road, the other, on the other side and, they shot at each other. This was during the civil war in Lebanon that took place from 1975 to 1990. I visited in 1995. Very little had been done to repair the damage. The Green Line road was criss-crossed with electrical wires, like a giant, ill formed spider’s web made by a very drunk spider. Everyone had electricity but no one paid for it.

The buildings were largely bombed out shells. People lived in them. Two or three stories of buildings with gaping holes, and minimal plumbing were seen. What must it have been like for these people who had lived together in peace for so many years. Lebanon was a land where Moslems, Orthodox, and Eastern Rite Catholics lived in peace for many years. Together, with the help of the French, a land rich in heritage and architecture was built. But beneath the surface simmered tribal hatreds breaking out in 1975 in a civil war basically destroying the country.

Lebanon is a land approximately 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. It is known for its beautiful mountains and incredible location on the Mediterranean. At the height of the Civil War, there were approximately 47 different factions. My mother did not think it amusing when I said, this would give each faction less than a square mile to control. Hyperbole, yes, but pretty much true.

Brother turned against brother. My cousin had her house bombed by another cousin, who had joined another faction. My friend tells the story of a man who had two sons. Each night they left the family home, and went to fight – each for a different party. One night the father took a gun, and killed them both. He could not endure the thought they might meet in battle and one forced to kill the other. It was a gruesome and bloody time, and here I was staring at the remains.

I was raised to be very proud of my heritage. In many ways, I considered myself more Lebanese than American. I was soon to find out this was not reciprocated.

Lebanon, my dear Lebanon. Land of my mother, and my father. I had heard so many stories growing up, it sometimes felt that is where I lived, in Lebanon. I was raised bi-culturally. We had one culture at home, and one outside the house. At home my parents spoke Arabic to each other and English to us. When my sister was small, the school would not allow her to stay because she could not speak English, and the teacher could not understand her. She could not return to school until she was able to speak English. Not wanting the same thing to happen to me, I was raised able to really understand Arabic but speaking was limited. I never felt part of the culture at school. My friends were limited. I was not accepted. I was often asked why I looked “different.” “You don’t look like the rest of us.” What was that supposed to mean. Once I was told, by a boy I had “bedroom eyes.” I had no clue what he was talking about. Now, I wonder if he knew. We were in the seventh grade, at the time.

All this to say I was really looking forward to being in Lebanon. At last, I had come home. This is the land where I belonged.

I looked around at bombed out buildings with people still living in them. I saw children playing in the middle of the streets, and in between buildings in dirty, muddy water. I wondered about their sanitation system, or lack of it. My friend’s fiancé was driving me, and he took a perverse pleasure in showing me all of the damage done during the civil war. Whenever I asked questions, or was surprised by what I saw, he responded by saying, “What can you expect after seventeen years of civil war?” This was the excuse for everything. There were no garbage pickups, and there had not been for many years. As far as the eye could see until the line on the horizon, was garbage. When I took pictures, I had to raise my camera in order to obtain a picture without garbage.

As we left the city, and started the ride up the mountain to the village where my mother was raised, we suddenly were engulfed with overwhelming traffic. The three lane highway suddenly accommodated five lanes of cars – all beeping and hollering at each other. Khaled, my friend’s fiancé, rolled down the window, and started screaming at another driver across the way. Unfortunately, I understood what he said. It always amazes me the first thing we learn in a foreign language is how to swear. I could not speak Arabic fluently, but I could swear like a trooper. I understood it all, and it was embarrassing.

After we left the city limits and started into the villages, we were confronted with road blocks. I was told not to speak, not to let them know I was American. This happened about every five kilometers. There were conversations, and I, fortunately, was hardly noticed in the back.

Letting Go

I am downsizing or, as I prefer to think of it, releasing my possessions for someone else to love. Although I am influenced by the need to provide financial support for myself to allow me to write, that is not the primary reason. Neale Donald Walsch wrote a book “When everything Changes, Change Everything.” For me, everything is changing, and it is a feeling of needing to catalyze this change.

This process has often been a part of my life. As a child I never owned much; no one did. As I grew, I accumulated things, and then I would either lose them, or give them away. Prior to going overseas in 1993, I sold everything I owned. When I moved to a different country, I often gave things away, and on a few occasions sold items. But now, I have twenty years of accumulation, as like in 1993, I feel a need to make room for changes in my life. To make room for new things; new experiences to take place, is my soul’s need. Through the years as I traveled, I purchased many wonderful rugs, paintings, jewelry, and all manner of things. I had many wonderful items given to me. Each carries a story, and I will share the story of my treasures when the time comes.

Part of me wants to keep everything. No, my mind yells, we cannot sell that. It is special. Don’t you remember sitting in Khaled’s store and speaking of this treasure with him, and sharing tea together with him, and Ron. Both have left for new worlds; new experiences; new dimensions. No, my mind yells, how can you sell that rug? Don’t you remember sitting in Hussein’s store listening to the stories he spoke of the rugs. He wove magical tales with the magical pictures in the rugs. We sat upon piles and piles of rugs. The area felt snug, and truly cozy with the remembrances of centuries. But we must, my soul responds, as it is time to recall these stories in writing, and to relay the lessons of a life well lived. We will have pictures, and as I stare at the pictures, I will dream of past experiences. I will weave my stories like Scherazade in A Thousand and One Nights. She wove her stories to stave off death. She left each story unfinished, and the Shah – hungry for more – would allow her to live another day. Until after a thousand and one nights, he realized he loved her. Her stories were his redemption. What do I stave off with my stories? What do I accomplish with my stories? Will I redeem myself? Will my stories leave you, my reader, hungry for more?

For as I am releasing my goods, I am releasing my mind and its accumulation of lessons learned in this life. It does not matter if no one reads these or cares about them. I do it because my Soul cares, and my Soul needs to experience the rest that comes with resolution. My Soul is releasing much, so it can truly unite with who I am, and truly release the Being within who is struggling to shine through

Remembering Gratitude

Sometimes it is so easy to whinge and whine about my life. When I lived in Rwanda a young teacher related this story to me. I thought I would relate it to you as a way of remembering each moment in gratitude. Jean has now come to the United States to live. He graduated form a premier University in Rwanda where he attended on a full government scholarship. These go to very few students. Always at the tope of his class, he is now seeking to attend one of our premier schools and to further advance his career in engineering and technology.
I had recently asked him to tell me this story again and this is what he reported:
The carrying rocks story is from 2004 when I was a senior 4 biochemistry major on summer break. Our daily livelihood depended on the crops we grew. My village faced a long period of drought dating from late 2000’s. We cultivated beans, sorghum, cassava and sweet potatoes yet there was no successful harvest. A friend of mine got me a job at a construction site as a construction worker aid where we had to carry bags of cement, load /unload delivery lorries, do all the mixing, and rebar all with our bare hands. After that, my whole family, including my two sisters 12 and 14 years old at that time, also worked. I was 16. My mother also obtained a job at another school construction site so she could buy a kilo of corn flour to eat at each meal. The most saddest part of this work experience is that we even had to strike in order to get paid because they did not want to pay as after all. We were borrowing food from local stores hoping to pay when we receive our wages.

Iraq after Saddam

IRAQ (right after Saddam)

The year was 2003, and I was living in Kuwait. To say we were excited would be an understatement. Saddam Hussein had been found in an underground tunnel, and for the first time, in forty years, it was almost possible to visit Iraq. I say almost, because it was still not possible to obtain a visa. Visiting Iraq was a dream for the Director of the school, where I was the Asst. Director. He and I often spoke of how amazing it would be to go there. The news then came through; he was invited to come, look, and to advise about setting up a school there. His fiancé, and I were invited to go along. We were beside ourselves with excitement.

We were headed to Diwaniya. And yes, we were illegal. No one in Kuwait knew we were going. And most definitely, our friends at the U.S. Embassy did not know. And, as I learned later, had they known we were going, our passports would have been confiscated. When I returned, I was treated to many lectures about the folly of our actions. Looking contrite was not easy, as I was exceptionally happy to have the chance to take this trip. It was not possible to get a VISA to visit, and that was disappointing, as it would have been wonderful fun to have a stamp from Iraq. Going through customs is an experience when you have stamps from Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon in your passport. Having one from Iraq would add an additional dimension of deep explanation.

From the time we arrived at the border in Iraq, we were instructed to wear flack jackets, built to handle at least ten rounds from an automatic weapon. We were guarded by Blackwater troops, considered the best in the business. Blackwater troops at that time were considered the elite guards. They were an interesting group of men. From the first time they guarded us until we were delivered home, we were never left alone. Often these men surrounded us and, when we moved, they moved. It was as though they anticipated our every move.

They all looked like Rambo. and I mean this seriously, right down to the dark glasses. We were there as guests of the Governor in the Diwaniya area. One man was an amateur ornithologist, and was tracking the migration of birds back into the Diwaniya area after the war. The camp where we stayed had a small pond behind it with a large number of mosquitoes, and these mosquitoes brought birds. The military wanted to drain it, and James was strongly opposed. When he was on guard duty on the top of the buildings, he was also tracking birds as well as the human predators. No way could he allow them to drain his swamp.

The vehicles, we rode in, were bullet proof, but beyond that two of us sat in the back with a guard, and there were two guards in front. Being a curious sort, I asked our guard about the weaponry he carried. There was an automatic weapon in his hand, a gun in the back of his belt, and an automatic weapon in the pocket of the seat in front of us. If all of this failed, he had a small gun attached to his calf above his boot.

The drive from the border of Kuwait and Iraq was one of the most boring rides, as far as scenery goes I have ever traveled. There was nothing to see. It was flat with very little vegetation or people. This was an area of Iraq where the people had displeased Saddam, so there was no updated infrastructure – only a road through endless stretches of dirt and sand. This was the land that had seen the boots of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. These soldiers had kicked up enough dust to create one of the most intense sandstorms I had ever experienced. During the second bombing of Iraq, I was in Kuwait. I could not see out the window of my apartment for days, as the sand was so thick. The sand was very fine, tending to come in through any cracks around the windows. It would form little piles on the inside of the windows, and accumulate on the furniture, requiring frequent vacuuming. We were unable to leave out homes because of the thickness of the sand. The sand loosened by the boots of the troops marching across the desert, was carried by strong winds into Kuwait. I could not see the edge of the balcony, about five feet from the door of my apartment.

The camp, we arrived at, was specifically for mercenaries from several countries. Black Water were hired on a daily basis to protect the appointed Governor of Diwaniya, an American diplomat. The camp was composed of trailers surrounded by concrete walls. At least when we were inside the camp, we did not have to wear the flack jackets. The Governor arranged for us to visit Babylon. Here we were, the first “tourists” in 40 years…………and what an amazing place to visit.

As I stood in the middle of this relic, I realized I was at the site of the Tower of Babel. I stood in the courtyard where Alexander the Great spent his last days. I saw the walls where once had been the hanging gardens. I saw the remnants of mosaics and statues and I saw incredible destruction. The place had been savaged during the second world war when all of the statuary and anything that could be carried was removed by the Germans and placed in museums. But even so, as I stood there I could feel the thousands of years of history. This was old – so old, and we were so very young. If you listened you could hear the chariots, the crowds, and the lions. As I stood there quietly, I began to “hear” the crowds, the roar of lions, and the noise of a major city center. Saddam envied Nebuchadnezzar, feeling that he, Saddam was greater than this ruler of old. He decided to restore parts of Babylon, to reflect his own glory. He started with creating stones with Arabic writing on them, stating the Arabic equivalent of “Saddam was here.”

Saddam’s palace was grand. He built it overlooking the court of Alexander the Great, so that it would be known he was greater than this ruler of old. The palace was on a hill. Saddam, and his sons built their palaces within view of each other. The legend says they did not trust each other, and always wanted to know what each was up to. The sons, and their father, continually plotted to kill each other. The people did not know these palaces existed. In an amazing display of human manipulation, they believed Saddam lived in poor houses like his people. They never looked up. To do so, to look up, and to see his place was punishable by death and so, they never did. He had fifty palaces, and each was grand.

The one we visited was not finished, and had been stripped of all its finery before we arrived. And yet, it was still amazing. The rooms were huge, the ceilings grand, and the bathrooms amazing. In each corner of each room was a ladder. It was a straight ladder rising up through the floors from the basement floor to the roof. At all times, he (Saddam) wanted easy access for escape, and so each room had multiple exits.

We arrived in Iraq at the time of the celebration of Ashoura. For the first time in forty years the people were allowed to celebrate this festival. Saddam forbade any celebration that singled out one group of people to the exclusion of others. He forced unity. We saw miles and miles of pilgrims all headed for Fallujah, where a holy shrine was located. Miles and miles of people on foot, carrying flags, and walking with no provisions — just the clothes they had on. No food, no shelter.

The only one who was providing for them was Muktida Sidar. He had tents along the way giving the people food, and a place to rest. No wonder Muktida Sidar was so strongly supported by so many people. He fed them; he cared for them. He became the leader, one of the most influential religious and popular figures in Iraq. His popularity is largely due to his care for these people. There were so many people walking, walking, and all headed to Fallujah.

To say this part of Iraq was poor is a vast understatement. Although we were there to look at the concept of building a school for disabled children, we never saw children on crutches, or blind children. We came to understand these children were kept within their homes, as they were killed if seen in public. Saddam had a perfect society, and these children did not represent him. It was the same for all cripples, as they were known. Whoever could not care for himself disappeared, literally. Added to that, were the stories I heard of how beautiful women were kept indoors. Saddam’s sons would kidnap women who caught their fancy, and these women were forced to engage in gruesome acts. Many of the stories were horrifying. It is my preference not to repeat these stories, and to allow them to pass through without being retold.

Iraq was repressive. The people we saw were afraid. Their eyes told the story of an inability to stand up for what they believed. They learned to live by their wits, and knew voicing an opinion could end in their demise in some very unpleasant ways. Some of the stories I heard my first few years in Kuwait were horrifying. They were sickening, to say the least, not to mention what was broadcast on television. On my visit to Iraq many of these stories were retold. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with this kind of fear. Never knowing when I left the house if I would return or end up kidnapped; never daring to lift my eyes for fear I would see something I should not; never daring to speak my opinion for fear I would be heard. It would be like being the living embodiment of the three monkeys – see, speak, hear no evil only in this case it would be for fear of evil. We who were raised in America do not have a clue what this means.

 

 

Have you ever done this??? or something similar…..

I arrived at Dulles Airport all ready to park the car in long term parking. Since I had never done this before, Wanted to make sure I did it correctly. I finally located a parking space as it was extremely crowded. I then carefully noted the aisle number and space number on my ticket, and then decided the safest spot for this ticket was carefully locked inside the car. This I did and quickly grabbed the next shuttle. After I arrived at the airport, and was carefully checked through security, it occurred to me that locking the ticket aside of the car with the numbers did not rank as one of my brightest ideas….. Not much I could do about it then, so off I went to a wonderful weekend with relatives in Texas.

After spending wonderful moments with nephews and nieces, and great nephews and nieces, and now great-great nephews,I came back to the Green Lot in long term parking. “This cannot be too hard,” I thought. “After all I saw the sign and ramp leading to the Purple Lot. It should be easy to find.” After walking up and down aisles, dragging my suitcase, I decided once again, this was not one of my brighter moments.

Stopping one of the shuttles, I asked the driver if I should return to the airport and hire a taxi to drive me around the lot until I found my car. “No need.” he said. “They will find it for you quickly.” He called the central office for parking and 45 minutes later, this angel in a tow truck arrived. Fortunately I remembered part of my license plate. I did not realize how much of the world were now driving a black Prius, and they were all parked in the Green Lot.

The security cameras found my car. After my car and I embraced, the separation caused us both anxiety. I got in, and joined the never-ending line of trucks on I 81 going south. So grateful to be home.  By the way, everyone, keep an ear out. I will soon be joining you on radio. I will let you know all about it.