Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Chosen One from the Land of the Frozen Sun

Barack Obama’s election as president, many American commentators argue, would immediately improve America's image abroad. My friend Theo wrote about street level support for Obama in Cairo. In decidedly unscientific polling during my time in Salalah, people seem to like the idea of Obama winning too.

I think this might be changing after his recent trip to Israel. Thursday’s edition of Al-Shabiba carried this image on the front page with a headline of “Obama in Sderot: Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel!” The picture with the article has Obama holding up the Sderot version of the “I Heart NY” shirts, which reads "I heart Sderot" with a Qassam rocket piercing the heart.

The continuation of the story inside the paper features a picture of Obama smiling with right-wing Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu. The headline reads, “Obama promises to support Israel if elected President!” Yes, both headlines end with exclamation points and, just a hint, it’s not out of joy.

Obama’s comments about Israel fly in the face of Palestinian hopes to establish the capital of a future state in a part of Jerusalem. And even Barack’s million dollar smile probably can’t compensate for an appearance with Netanyahu whose Likud Party advocates continued illegal settlements in the West Bank, especially when the caption of the photo reads "Obama and Netanyahu: a smile of contentment and agreement."

For many in the Middle East, Obama’s actions don’t seem to reflect a change (we can believe in) in U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestine. Even some Americans are growing anxious that Barack might actually mean what he's saying. But one thing we can be sure of: McCain’s absurd allegation that Obama was endorsed by Hamas – malicious and spurious in the first place – is most certainly not true now.

And maybe that’s the point. Like Hillary, who had to out-men the men in order to prove her fitness for duty, Barack might have to out-hawk the hawks, at least in the case of Israel.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reading the Newspaper in Salalah

Some excerpts from the 17 July issue of Al-Shabiba, one of Oman’s daily newspapers (brought to you by KFC and Hardee’s):
Front page headlines include stories on the results of end-of-year school exams; a meeting between Omani and Iranian officials seeking to “establish joint cooperation;” increasing numbers of foreign fighters in Afghanistan; the King of Saudi Arabia's speech at a religious dialogue conference in Spain; and the Sultan sending congratulations to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on the occasion of his country's national holiday.

In the “Government Officials Shaking Hands and Sitting in Oversized Chairs” section of today’s paper, Al-Shabiba covers the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to Oman. Almost every newspaper has a section devoted to this, but I feel like it’s especially pronounced in the Middle East, where the appearance of government hospitality is an important marker of legitimacy because of its cultural significance. The officials no doubt went a lot farther than posing for pictures; Oman shares control of the Strait of Hormuz with Iran and a potential U.S. attack on Iran would have huge (and catastrophic effects) on both countries.

In the “Rising from Humble Beginnings to Pop Music Superstardom” section, a story on Egyptian heartthrob Tamer Hosni, who admits, “I lived a hard childhood and borrowed from the doorman.”

“Announcements of Flight.” The main Omani newspapers all carry notices like this, which amount to wanted posters for migrant laborers (mostly from south Asia) who have fled their jobs.

“The Curse of California: After the Fires Come Mud Slides.” Looks rather like the end of days. Luckily, California has a man for the job.

Luckier still, I can keep up with other happenings in that cursed state despite the fires and the mudslides. There is, for example, a blurb on the tribulations of Lindsay Lohan, whom the article describes as a “young lady of American society.”

The paper carries a number of syndicated columns from Oman, other Arab countries, and the rest of the world, one of which is a translated New York Times Op-Ed from Paul Krugman, entitled “Ted Kennedy's Big Day.” Between everyone’s favorite bearded economist (take that, Bernanke), the Governator, and Lindsay Lohan, I could mistake this paper for an American one. But I probably won’t due to a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that the picture accompanying the article isn’t Krugman; it’s Nicholas Kristof. Another reason is that in Arabic Paul is transliterated as bool, which means urine. I wonder if Krugman is pissed.

Imagine for a second what kind of image of America this creates. And now remember the fact that on most days the image of America consists not just of the damnation of California, the tribulations of party girl socialites, and the opinions of Urine Krugman, but also military occupation in Iraq, movies filled with a sex and violence, not to mention a President whom most of the world would not trust to successfully execute the Shriner’s mini-car section of a 4th of July parade. America is a strange place. But the way it seems from the far side of the world is even stranger.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Beirut Blues.....and the Theory of Relativity


Along with Paris, London, Rome and New York, it's one of those legendary global cities that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

To most people, it's a cauldron of political instability that dominates the news headlines with alarming regularity, but it's always held a special allure for me. That's something about this city, the Paris of the East, that conjures up romantic images of adventure from a forgotten, sepia-tinged era and the impossible joie de vivre that is the very essence of Beirut's soul.

It's a city I worked and lived in for the larger part of a summer two years ago. Now, I was going back to visit for a few days and hang out with some fellow backpackers I had met in Syria.

The last time I caught a glimpse of her was still etched in my memory, gazing wistfully from the deck of the Orient Queen, an ocean liner chartered to ferry refugees to the safety of Cyprus, as Israeli jets rained down steel and death on Beirut's hapless inhabitants below. I remember having a MacArthur-esque moment, silently vowing to return one day, as the skyline I had become so intimate with slowly melted into the horizon.

Now, l felt anticipation welling up within me, as the taxi sped along the Damascus-Beirut highway to an eagerly awaited reunion with a long-lost lover.

As her familiar skyline gradually materialized in the valley below, I impatiently willed the taxi to go faster in my mind, despite the breakneck speed at which it was already hurtling down the narrow mountain roads.

I found my friends at the Al Nazih Pension which, along with the adjacent Talal Hotel, seemed to be sheltering just about all of the handful of intrepid backpackers in town. The hostel itself was an unremarkable hole-in -the-wall, but merits a mention here though, just for the sheer bizarreness of the staff there. It was run by a wizened old man, who we quickly nicknamed Grandpa. There were another two staff members that were creepy, both in different ways. Eddie, a young former male nurse, sported a unibrow and had this disconcerting habit of feeling up the male backpackers at the hostel, while hitting on just about anything in a skirt. The other employee, whose name I never caught, had considerably less personality than a mortician.

Meeting back up with the troops was great, and I played the role of tour guide and showed them all of my old haunts, such as the expensive-looking downtown restaurant, Al-Balad, which serves one of Beirut's best-kept secrets in its cheap, affordable Ouzi (a lamb dish).

And Bliss Street, that popular, traffic-choked drag outside the American University, with its second hand bookshops and cheap food vendors.

Some of the old zest of Beirut's cafe culture has returned. We watched a couple of the Euro '08 games on huge screens amidst the al fresco cafes that were teeming with locals and tourists. There was even a smattering of Western tourists around, all of this just mere weeks after the heart of the city had been paralyzed for 18 months by opposition protesters living in a tent city. For the briefest of moments in my mind, I was almost taken back in time to 2006, when I watched the World Cup games with a special someone in that very location.


Then, like the trailing end of a gentle summer breeze on my cheek, the feeling passed.

Something felt different. Sure, it was great to return to the place that had been my home for a summer, but there were all the little things that had inevitably changed since then. Many familiar sights greeted me like long lost friends, such as the Starbucks café where I spent so many scorching Sunday afternoons nursing a frappuccino, but like unseen ghosts from the past, I mourned what I had lost. Nothing big, just the little things.

A cafe run by a friend had closed permanently, according to the staff at the adjacent Starbucks. I tried to get in touch with him, but attempts to reach him at the phone numbers I had were futile.

Being haunted by inexplicable feelings of loss and emptiness at being in the city without that former significant other, as if I didn't quite belong there without her.

Then, there was the city's legendary nightlife.

Eddie, a college buddy who now lives and works in Beirut, was gracious enough to take us for a night on the town. Here again, though, I was disappointed by the high expectations borne of my previous experiences. For one, it's almost impossible to get in most places with 7 boys in tow, as we soon found out. For another, Rue Monot, once heaving with fashionably-dressed young Beirutis and a cornucopia of clubs and bars, was a mere shell of its former self. Eddie explained that the partying scene in Beirut has since moved on to the adjacent Gemmayze district and other areas of the city, instead of being centered around Monot, as it used to be.

Allow me the vanity of quoting from an article I once wrote in a school magazine: Nostalgia's a bitch, and man, did I feel her teeth gnawing at me constantly throughout my sojourn in Beirut.

We also ventured into the southern suburbs of Beirut, the stronghold of Hezbollah, in search of a certain restaurant that had been featured on the BBC news, and also because the other lads were curious to see this "infamous terrorist neighborhood". The details of our misadventures there and our brush with members of the "Party of God," however, merit an email in themselves, which will follow sometime in the next week, when I get the chance to put it together.

The reports we had heard from other backpackers before we arrived of "tanks being everywhere on the streets" also proved to be somewhat of an exaggeration. While there were some armored personal carriers and the odd tank or two, they were usually situated near strategic positions, such as the homes of important government members. The only inkling that normal service hasn't quite resumed in Beirut yet was the presence of scores of soldiers cradling M-16s on just about every street corner.

Which brings me to my next observation.

Despite the large number of troops on the streets, Beirut, on the surface at least, seems to be recovering its hedonistic culture of the good old days. It's hard to think of any other country in the world where the people could go on living and partying so nonchalantly surrounded by such a heavy military presence, as if totally oblivious to the political crisis paralyzing the country.

Maybe it's a form of mental escapism, a way for Beirutis to forget their problems and where they are and simply lose themselves in the pursuit of mindless pleasure.

Or perhaps this is normalcy for Beirutis. A warped sense of normalcy, in the sense of the word as we know it, yes, but if conflict and political crises are all that you know, then any chance to celebrate is to be seized and savored, such as the temporary lull in tensions that Beirut is enjoying. Remember, this is a country that was gripped by civil war from 1975-1990, and after a false dawn of a few years of peace, was plunged right back into the horror of war just two years ago.

Looks like ol' Einstein's Theory of Relativity is still alive and kickin'.

My time in Beirut passed all too quickly. Over one last hearty lunch at Al-Balad, it was with a heavy heart that I said farewell to A. and K., my traveling companions for almost two weeks now , for the second time in a few days, this time for good. Email addresses were exchanged and promises to stay in touch were made, but deep down, I think we all knew that this could very well be the last time we saw each other. Passing ships in the night, perhaps.

That's the thing about the nomadic lifestyle. No matter how many wonderful people you meet on the road, or how great the times you share, there's always the inevitable painful good-bye, with nothing left to hold on to but those precious memories and photographs.

And so it was with Beirut. I'll be back again soon enough, I'm sure, but the experience will be different once again, with new faces and new places. It's a city that you never experience the same way twice. The one thing that won't change is I'll always be powerless to resist its Siren call.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Freedom of the Road

Writer's note: This post was actually an email I sent out to my listserv of friends on June 25, so the time references are slightly off, but other than that, I thought it'd make a good first post.

The freedom of the road.

It's that sense of absolute liberty to go wherever your heart prompts you, without any regard for time or place, unburdened by responsibilities, timetables or irate parents. The only limits are those imposed by one's imagination and purse strings.

It's been a while since I've had that feeling. Two years to be exact. It's been so long that I had almost forgotten how great it feels to be able to indulge my wanderlusts at a whim. This past week, I rediscovered that feeling.

It's been about ten days since I've made it back to the Sandbox. While at a hostel in Damascus, I made friends with a couple of backpackers. A.'s a Briton who has been on the road for a couple of years now, traveling twice up and down the coasts of South America and on to Australia, Asia and now the Middle East. K.'s a tall, blonde Icelander who's in the midst of a trek from Cairo through the Middle East, Iran, Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan, and on to India. He's been traveling for five months now, and has no idea when he'll go home as he has no return ticket yet. Both of them had met on the ferry from Egypt to Jordan and are now traveling together till the inevitable separation of paths comes sometime down the road. Despite their differing backgrounds (A. is 26, worked formerly in the finance sector; K. is 21 and has not yet been to university), they both share that same insatiable wanderlust and sense of that adventure that's all too rare nowadays.

In a way, they've rejuvenated me. For a while, I'd been brooding about where my life is headed and what I'm going to do with it. This trip, in many ways, seemed like the finale on what's been a great 27 years of globe trotting. I envisioned myself coming back and finding a job to pay the bills, settling down and all the rest of that jazz. It's been really refreshing to meet kindred spirits that have shown me that no, I'm not weird for wanting to see the world and actually going ahead and following those dreams, that there is another way to live life.

So, when they asked me if I would like them to travel with them to the desert city of Palmyra, I hesitated only for the briefest of seconds. The room I had arranged to rent in Damascus was not yet ready to move into as it was still occupied, and instead of hanging around in the city for a few days, here was the chance to see more of Syria with a couple of rather laid-back, interesting travel companions.

The past week's been a blast. At first I was just going to Palmyra with them, but I had such a great time that I ended up traveling on to Homs, Hama and the really cool village of Hosn, which is perched on a mountain. Along the way, we picked up several more companions, including a amiable Korean lady, a pair of Lithuanian and German law students who had just spent a semester in Turkey, and finally another Korean girl who was taking a one year break from university to travel. And so we were six, spending our last night on a rooftop of a hostel, with nothing but a mat to sleep on. Yet the wonderful conversation, the beautiful setting and sleeping under the stars will forever be etched in my memory.

After parting ways in Homs, I made it back to Damascus yesterday and finally moved into my room in the Old City. I'll be living above a goldsmith's workshop. The goldsmith, Haitham, owns the place and rents out the rooms upstairs to foreigners studying Arabic in Damascus like me. To be honest, it was a little disappointing, as I had been hoping to rent a room where I would actually live with the family. However, things have been working out so far, so I guess I'll give it a go for a month at least. I'll be rooming with an American student (who I haven't actually met yet, as I think he's traveling), and a couple of Swiss guys and two Italian girls round up the rest of the contingent. They've all been really friendly so far, and Michael, one of the Swiss guys, actually showed me how to get to the university and register for classes this morning. The other Swiss and the two girls will be moving out soon though, so I should have some new room mates pretty soon.

I've finally registered for classes and taken the mandatory AIDS test. On Monday, I will have to take the placement test to discover which level I will be placed in. I have been trying to catch up on my grammar terms and revising my vocabulary, but at this point, it's pretty much all in God's hands.

This weekend though, I travel to Beirut to meet up and party with A., K. and possibly the rest of the gang. Despite the clashes and unrest in Tripoli this past week, it should be good times! I can't wait to revisit Beirut and see what it's like now. In a sense, it feels like I have unfinished business there, since I was forced to leave by the outbreak of the '06 Israeli-Hezbollah war. This trip should provide some closure. I'll be sure to provide details in the next email. Till then,


I a n

!! أهلأن و سهلأن

Hey y'all,

The name's Ian, and I'm the latest addition to this little community of Tar Heel bloggers. I thought it'd be best to give a little introductory post just so you know a little bit about myself before I actually start posting.

As some of you might already know, I'm a UNC alumnus from the class of '07 who's currently living and studying Arabic at the University of Damascus in Syria. I 'll be here till the end of September, and then I'll be traveling for a month or so to Yemen (or Iran, if things in Yemen are still dicey), Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

I'm new to this, but I've been a regular reader since last summer, so I'm really excited to officially be part of this community. I must confess to feelings of both envy and admiration when I first started reading the blog last year, given that so many of my fellow Tar Heels were off having adventures in the Middle East, while I was stuck behind a desk in Washington DC. Now, after squirreling away money for several months, I'm finally back in a part of the world that really has become quite dear to my heart.

Thanks to Matt's kindness, I'll be posting thoughts and observations from my little corner of the Sandbox during the next few months. I can't wait to get started!


I a n

Sunday, July 6, 2008

An Omani Wedding

Some parts of Salalah remind me of West Amman. Both consist of dusty open areas interrupted by 1) recently constructed white buildings that are so bright that they make you squint at noon and 2) soon to be constructed buildings covered in scaffolding. Neither place is particularly pedestrian friendly. But I, undaunted in my cheapness, continue to walk. And one of walks last week brought me into contact with some cultural heritage I most definitely would not see in West Amman.

As I walked west on 23rd of July Street (in my professional opinion, streets named after dates are wicked), I noticed a group of men gathering on a street corner. I continued to walk but couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of men and boys headed to the street corner. Looking regal in their white dishdashas and colorful muzzar, nearly all of them wore ornate khanajir (the traditional dagger common in Yemen and Oman) around their waists. Some even balanced rifles on their shoulders.

I decided to figure out what was going on so I walked to the side of the street opposite the corner where all the men were gathering and I loitered, not sure if what I was witnessing was an Omani street theater production of West Side story or just a lazy Friday in Salalah. An Egyptian teacher named Mahmood, who probably was not wondering if the Sharks and the Jets were about to break into painstakingly choreographed musical combat, informed me that this was a traditional Omani wedding, or ‘urs. In his eight years in Salalah he had never seen anything like this.

When over a hundred men had gathered, the group began to walk down the middle of the road. The group – all men – sang and danced their way to a nearby wedding hall. And lest you fear, dear reader, that I’d forgotten words of wisdom about rifles and the bullets that come out of them, a week ago I luckily visited the Bayt Zubair museum on Omani culture in Muscat, where I learned this great bit of information as part of an exhibit on rifles:

Although no one fired their arms in the air, I can attest to the fact that their presence certainly added excitement to the proceedings. As Mahmood and I trailed the procession, he encouraged me to take pictures, lamenting the fact that he’d forgotten his camera phone at home. The wedding party had hired musicians, dancers, and marchers for the occasion. Notice the women carrying incense - an Omani specialty - on their heads.

As they neared the wedding hall the men began making laps around the front of the building. Thinking they were finished and ready for sitting down time, Mahmood and I moved to get a better angle. All of the sudden the wedding party made another lap around the wedding hall and Mahmood and I found ourselves facing this:
Notice the groom in the black garment, known as a bisht, with a look of Kevin Garnett-like focus on his face. He maintained this level throughout the proceedings. I imagine he acted something like this later in the night.

After nearly bringing Mahmood and me into the wedding party, the men sat down in plastic chairs around the outside of the wedding hall. The musicians played and small groups of men danced. I had trouble understanding the Omani dialect in the songs, but judging from the actions of the dancers the words were probably “put your khanajir in the air and wave them like you just don’t care.” Or something like that. Although it should be noted that waving of said khanajir was done with ample care because, as everyone knows, putting a khanjar in someone’s face is just bad manners. My other favorite dance was when the dancers threw money in the air and men close to the dance area quickly picked it up.

All of the women were inside the wedding hall and they watched the events from windows and the roof, asserting their presence with frequent ululations. You can see a few women in black here. (more on gender in Oman to come…which is not to say that this piece shouldn’t be read as an examination of gender)

Mahmood informed me that this ceremony cost some thousands of dollars. And that leads me to an important point. These men were not uneducated peasants but rather the business elite of Salalah. They closed the doors of their Toyota Land Cruisers and Chevy Suburbans and engaged in some of the traditions that have stayed the same even as much has changed. But this is not to suggest a stark dichotomy between tradition and modernity. Like people everywhere, Omanis blend tradition and modernity into a synchronized whole, with men carrying a khanjar in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

I watched the celebration from the outside of the seating area. But I wasn’t the only curious observer. Oman is a diverse place and it has been said that Salalah resembles Mombassa more than any Middle Eastern city. Alongside me, Pakistani and Indian guest workers watched the proceedings. The South Asian men handing out Pepsis to the wedding attendees even brought a few boxes to our group of onlookers. The relationship between Omanis and migrant workers will be explored in future posts, as well, and it’s not always a rosy one. But for now this image of a curious coexistence will suffice.