The South Wind of Summer Caresses the Hills…

I got a call around noon on Sunday — my last Sunday in Lebanon — from my capoeira friends asking if I wanted to come to the Bekaa to do a workshop for a youth camp.

Duh. Of course I want to go on a road trip with a bunch of capoeiristas to northern Lebanon!

An hour later, I was cruising up the Damascus Road in the back seat of a capoeirista’s jeep with a berimbau lying across the middle of the car. We came to the crest of the mountains and beheld the mighty Bekaa Valley. It was supposedly the breadbasket of the Roman empire, full of grains and fruits for nearly the length of Lebanon. Now, it still produces some of the best fruits, vegetables and wines, but it has been left out of the international trade loop, people say. It is relatively impoverished and development has bypassed it. Parts of it are home turf for Hezbollah. On the far side of this deep, broad valley rise the slightly more arid ante-Lebanon ranges. On their far side — in their rain shadow — lies Damascus.

The view has the same effect as the one that greets you coming over the Grapevine from Los Angeles into the Central Valley of California. You know, the view that Tom Joad sees in The Grapes of Wrath when his Okie convoy finally comes through the Mojave.

A little while later we were heading up the Bekaa listening to Salif Keita. We went through some small farming towns, where the people had a hard-bitten look to them, and there were Hezbollah and Amal flags everywhere. They run the show, and the Amal guys we asked for directions were completely helpful, despite the foreign appearance of even the Lebanese in our six-person group. (Amal is a political party allied with Hezbollah.)

Ahead of us was a thunderstorm: a good, old-fashioned, high-desert, afternoon-sky-blackening thunderstorm. My instructor — who lived in Albuquerque for years — and I immediately knew it was going to be a nice rain. We had a fun time arguing with the Beirutis in the car, whose conviction that rain does not fall in Lebanon in August under any circumstances was stronger than the evidence before them. Finally the blessed drops began to fall, and we stopped the car and greeted the moisture with out-stretched arms. Such refreshment is hard to come by down in Beirut.

We turned up into the hills to the west, and began a slow ascent through mountains that looked exactly like the semi-arid country of southern Colorado. The difference was that here, the soil was limestone, and the trees were not pinions and junipers but olives and other deciduous trees. They grew in the same evenly spaced patterns of a pinion forest. A breeze was blowing and I could smell the rain. I felt right at home.

In a small dale where the road was glistening from the recent rains, we stopped by a cabin where some apple trees were growing. A man in camouflage pants with a pony tail came out of the cabin. Some children and women were in the background.

“Hey, don’t I know you?” he said in clear English, with a decaying smile. He then proceeded to offer us “cocaine, ecstasy, hash — whatever you want.”

“Uh, no, we just wanted some apples,” I said in Arabic.

“Oh, OK, please have some. In the summer, we have apples. But in the winter we have cocaine, ecstasy, hash, only.”

It was a puzzling and light-hearted conversation. We had no interest in his more exotic goods, but we left with our delicious, fresh apples and drove above dark green fields of crops (you read correctly, Cypress Hill fans) to the camp where we were doing the workshop. The picture above was taken on the last leg of the trip, above the little valley where the hamlet is.

At the summer camp, we did drills with everyone in the late aternoon on a large stage. People liked it — the children were most enthusiastic — but their attention was mixed until we played in a huge roda and they got to see the acrobatics and contortion of the game. Then, with great enthusiasm, everyone taught us same dabkeh steps and played darbakeh beats on the African drums we had brought along.

We drank fresh cold water from a stream (hope that was OK, everyone was doing it) and ate a meal of fresh fish, fattoush and french fries. The full moon came up over the beautiful valley and the air was very cool (elevation about 1,500 meters). It felt just like a New Mexican village. We left despite the entreaties of several young men who begged us to stay and talked about American music with us. Most of the people in the camp were visitng from the middle of the Bekaa and thought of the locals as a bit backward. (Which was a little funny since that is how Beirutis probably view them.) The town looked like Hezbollah ran most major operations, despite the presence of a cursory Lebanese army post.

We cruised back out over the hills in the moonlgiht and told each other scary stories. I freaked everyone out with La Llorona, which seemed appropriate to the landscape.

Finally, we were back in the flats of the Bekaa, and drove by the awesome (not in the surfer sense — rather, the original sense of the word) Roman ruins of Baalbek. To make everything unbelievably perfect, we had the windows open bumpin’ Marvin Gaye as we drove past the towering columns and still-intact temples of the ancient city. So the denizens of the surrounding town got a nice taste of Sexual Healin’ before we left down. Which is really very appropriate for Lebanon, whether or not you are in a Hezbollah-dominated area. People like to live, and they are used to the outside world.

Anyway, that’s the story of my last Sunday. I gotta say it was a good day.

(PS The title of this blog is from a song by the band The Flatlanders. Listen for an auditory equivalent of the breezes I felt that day.)

Paintballin’, Blowjobs and Hizbullah

OK, so if that title doesn’t boost my page hits, I don’t know what will.

It comes from a short service taxi ride I took the other day (in service taxis, you pay a reduced fee and then the driver takes other passengers along the way).

Two boys, about 19 or 20, are sitting in the back seat when I hop into the cab near my apartment in Hamra. From their nearly perfect American English peppered with a few Arabic bas, ballah and khalas, I guessed they were students at the American University of Beirut.

They are having the sort of conversation I used to hear among boys and girls on the back of the 24 bus in San Francisco on the way home from school – who did what sexually, how far they went, the scandalous context. Voice volume is typically elevated in a sort of exhibitionism: the conversation is as much for the other passengers as it is for the kids.

In San Francisco, these conversations are lurid, and at the same time painful. One has the sense that such working-class kids – often around 16 years old – want to tell the world their activities to convince themselves of the gravity of lives too often laced with suffering. A sort of public transportation therapy.

Back in the service taxi, the kids seem to be approaching similar topics from a different angle – one less crude but more annoying.

“Oh man, so she didn’t even give you a blowjob?” says AUB Boy 1.

AUB2: “No, man.” He pauses as a girl crosses the street. “Oh, I think I know that girl. OK, I definitely know her. I can’t forget that ass. That girl has a nice ass.”

AUB2 says this as if he is trying to convince himself that he really thinks this, and maybe to show off to his friend, and to me (foreigner) that he is capable of such comments. It lacks the rawness of the SF conversations, and the undertone. It is not mixed in with other talk about who got beat up, who has a gun and the excesses of intoxication, as it would be in SF.

These kids are privileged AUB students, even if they do live in war-torn Lebanon, I think.

“Hey man, you wanna go paintballin’ sometime?” says AUB1.

“Sure man, definitely.”

*****

If the middle-aged taxi driver with Islamic prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror understood any English (I do not think he does), he might recognize the reference to paintballin’. He is Shia, I soon learn, and a staunch supporter of Hizbullah, so there’s a decent chance he lives in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where, incidentally, the local paintballin’ facility is also located.

As we drop off the kids in front of AUB, the conversation between me and the taxi driver turns to politics. (It’s inevitable; I should never have told him I am an American. But lying – even little lies – is almost as exhausting as these political conversations.)

I learn that the taxi driver holds Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah in very high esteem. “He is the only honest politician in the world,” he says, or something to this effect. I am still getting used to the Lebanese accent, and my comprehension veers from total to foggy. He says America should leave Lebanon to its own affairs, he complains about Rice and Bush.

I agree, but I draw the line when he says Barack Obama is a liar. The driver is mad because, he says, Obama kicked out two veiled women from a campaign event. (A story based in some fact, apparently.)

He drops me off in a cheery mood – I always seem to be able to effect this with taxi drivers – and I walk by the bars of Gemayze to work.

*****

Woah, I think. These are the paradoxes of Lebanon. What will be the “conversation” that occurs between the Blowjob Bros and this taxi driver’s children one day?

Maybe what they want is not so different. Maybe, because of my vantage point, I have seen the same thing from different angles. I hope so.