Saturday, May 5, 2007

Blog: The Resurrection

It is just after 4 AM on a Saturday night and I've been inspired to resurrect my Blog, a thing which I have sworn to get around to do for a few *months* now. Sigh. I feel like I've gotten lost in the process somehow.

Perhaps in a way I no longer felt like a "trailing spouse", given that I have been working since we got back to Beirut in January. But I am still struggling from one four-month term to the next, guessing whether I will have work or not. Unfortunately, I find the new job more mentally exhausting than anything I have ever done, and even more thankless, if you can believe it, than being a tax lawyer.

Don't get me wrong... I think that the experience has been invaluable and I have done so many interesting things along the way! I have toured a Palestinian camp, visited with the Muslim religious leaders of Lebanon, organized Francophonie events (yeah, how ironic!), and met many interesting people working on human rights in the region. All very, very interesting stuff!

Alas, my temporary duty ran out at the end of last week with no prospects of those terms of reference being renewed. Instead, I am in the midst of applying for a new temporary duty in the hopes that I will have any work at all while I am here. I know the file really well, since I was already doing some of the same kind of work... and it doesn't really float my boat at all, but I am hard pressed to say no to this type of experience and, most of all, it is hard to say no to the income (when the other alternative is having no money and nothing else to do)!

I guess the most difficult part of what is to come if I get this new temporary position is the person with whom I will have to work. Fortunately, this person won't be in my face every day (they don't work in Lebanon), but the relationship will have to be managed at a distance. I won't get into the particulars here, but let's just say that I will be working with someone who is known for incompetence, arrogance and an attitude that borders on sexist and racist. How these people get hired into the government is beyond my understanding!

All I am really left with is trying to look at the positive side and look forward to things I can do with the hard-earned money:

(1) Go on vacation. Glenn and I went out to Jordan during the Easter long weekend (will post web album soon), and we are hoping to do more exploration of the region (maybe Turkey?). If we get the time off, we also want to check out China, Japan and Thailand.

(2) Go back to school. I am still waiting for answers from scholarship foundations about funding to go to Cambridge. Hopefully I can find out soon so I can know what I am going to be doing as of September.

(3) Get home to Canada for a while. Attendance at Vince's wedding is non-negotiable in my book, so I will have to scrounge together some bucks for that.

Sigh. I suppose this has not been the most positive way to re-start the blog, but I hope it will only get better from here.

A big HELLO to all of you in Canada who are reading this... we are trying to hang in there, despite my current difficulties! :-)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Alberta, Alberta...

I've been home in Edmonton for the last week and a half and the time has flown by. It is hard to believe that I will be on yet another airplane in two short days. I feel like I just got here; yet this has been the longest period of time that I've spent at home since the summer of '01.

I've been taking pictures of friends and snow and other Edmonton-related things that I have missed since I have been away. Of course, I forgot the cord that I need to upload the pictures onto my parents' home computer, so you will have to wait a few days (until we get back to Beirut) for the photoblog. Just more to look forward to.

During all of these months in Beirut, I thought that my homesickness was due to an over-romanticization of the comforts of home. And though some of my home-related neurosis has returned, being home has only reinforced my affinity for the things that I have missed since I have been away:

Stepping outside first thing in the morning to get the newspaper and taking a big breath of the cold, clean air. Wide roads, lanes and drivers stopping for traffic lights. Quiet walks outside. Long showers in clean water. Turning on the radio to a classic rock station. A TV listings channel for my time zone... in English. Internet connection that works all the time. The endless Alberta sky. Being around people who survived the nasty teen years with me. People who are equally, if not more crazy about the Oilers. Insane Dexter.

It could be a while before I get back to Canada after this. The next time might be for Vince and Connie's wedding in September of next year! And in the long run I will certainly be away from Canada for long stints. But I'll always come home -- I can't really imagine wanting to be any place else!

Hope all of you who are reading this have had a great holiday (no matter what holiday it is that you celebrate or didn't celebrate!). See you in the new year!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Syriana, Part 2

A couple of weekends ago, Glenn and I escaped Beirut to make our second trip to Damascus. Once again, we stayed with Mona and Stephen. We hit the market in the old city and this time entered the massive mosque. I wasn't covered up enough, so we were forced to rent some really drab garb for me, complete with ridiculous velcro closures! It was hard to walk and it was super warm.

The art on the walls outside of the mosque itself (inside the square of the compound) was quite impressive. Stephen, Glenn and I went inside enormous carpeted prayer area, where we saw a large, roped-off display encased all around in green glass. We came over to have a closer look, and saw a shrine and and a tomb. I had no idea what I was looking at, so we checked out our guidebooks... and found out that we were looking at the place where the head of John the Baptist was entombed! Apparently, back in "the day", the Muslims used to allow Christians to worship there, but they don't anymore. Some people were taking pictures of this area, but we thought it was sort of bad form to snap pictures where people were in mid-prayer.

We topped off our couple of days in Damascus with a group dinner in a restaurant on top of the mountain overlooking the city. We heard that somewhere in the mountains there are caves where Cain and Abel (of biblical fame) were allegedly buried.

Here are some of the pictures that we took from that weekend.

Monday, December 4, 2006


A few weeks ago, we made our first trip to Syria. It is about 2 hours drive from Beirut (depending upon the length of time it takes at the border crossing). We stayed with our friends Mona and Stephen who are originally from the Montreal area and are now living and working in Damascus.

I've posted pictures from this visit to a web album. If you click on the image below, I think it will take you to a slideshow of our pictures.

I'll Be Home For Christmas

I haven't been very good about blogging for the past week or so. I was sick for a few days and then this weekend we decided to get ourselves out of Beirut, partly to avoid the protests which were scheduled to begin on Friday and partly to get some Christmas shopping done. So we went to Damascus to hang out with Stephen and Mona, who once again were so good as to put us up in their SQ and also to play tour guides for us through the old city.

The Christmas season is officially upon us now. There were all sorts of fake Christmas trees, decorations and toys being sold in the market in Damascus, and there was even a very Rockefeller Center-esque giant (fake) tree in a square in front of a Catholic church. Here in Beirut, the ABC (that's the upscale version of The Bay here) has a floor that is devoted to Christmas.

To be absolutely honest the whole thing is depressing to me. I can see that the time is going by and that somehow it is now December, but it certainly doesn't look or feel like December or like Christmas to me. It's 20C outside. I cannot complain -- I hear that back home it is -40C with the windchill -- but Christmas will not be the same without winter and family.

That's why I am so happy to be going home for Christmas. Glenn and I will be flying out of Beirut on the 16th. Here are the dates of our Canadian Christmas Tour:

Ottawa - December 16th
Home (Edmonton/Riverview) - December 17th to 31st
Ottawa - December 31st to January 6th

Inhuman weather conditions notwithstanding, I cannot wait to get home to Canada. I have been thinking of all of the things that I want to do out there. Here is a short list of them:

1. Go to the movies and see the latest films -- it takes a while before the big North American films get out here, and the selection is rather random. I want to see The Departed, Stranger than Fiction, and anything else that might have been released since I have been gone. Can anyone tell me anything about this Borat movie that seems to be all the rage?

2. Go out for some kickin' Vietnamese food. They have most kinds of cuisine here, but I haven't found any pho'.

3. Buy books -- a lot of them! I have been going through books at near break-neck pace and I need to replenish the stack.

4. Play in the snow.

5. Drink beer... anything other than Almaza and Heineken, which seem to be the only 2 kinds that are common in Lebanon.

6. Poutine. Poutine. Poutine. Poutine.

7. Hang out with friends and family, of course!

If you are in Canada, I hope to see you in a few day's time (12 days and counting!) Make sure to warm the place up for us, as we have grown soft from our time on the Mediterranean coast!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Taking It To the Streets

The services for the slain Lebanese Minister of Industry are underway in downtown Beirut as we speak. Among those in attendance from Canada are the Ambassador to Lebanon, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Prime Minister (Jason Kenney) and MP Irwin Cotler.

[Incidentally, somehow I can't seem to get away from Mr. Cotler. First, I was working at Justice when he became our Minister and I met him shortly thereafter when he toured the regional offices. Then, a few months later, we were called to the Ontario Bar in Toronto on the same day... of course, his was an Honourary call to the Bar and mine was my first one. He crossed the floor immediately before I did, as we were arranged in alphabetical order. So I literally followed in his footsteps! (Ha! I can only hope to be as great a lawyer someday!)]

Anyway, speaking as an outside observer of the goings-on surrounding Pierre Gemayel's death and now funeral, this has been a rather interesting day. And it is only half over!

The military presence on the streets of downtown Beirut (through which we had to pass on the way to the office this morning) was utterly unavoidable. Certain streets were shut down in anticipation of the funeral cortege and protest. It was only 8 AM (with the funeral mass not scheduled to begin until 1 PM), and yet people of all ages were already arriving on foot and in their cars, decked out in white ballcaps and T-shirts and waving flags bearing the Lebanese cedar, sometimes with the Maronite cross.

The Lebanese are not the least bit subtle in their tribute. Story-high signs bearing the likeness of the young Mr. Gemayel loom large over the streets today, on giant billboards and on the sides of buildings, often accompanied by white ribbons or long flags of the Lebanese red and white. On many of these billboards, the image of the half-smiling Mr. Gemayel is superimposed (in fact, juxtaposed) beside the image of the bullet-ridden silver Kia in which he and his bodyguard were gunned down only 2 days ago. This is not the first time I have seen signs like this, so I was only mildly shocked -- throughout Beirut it is rather commonplace to see similar giant photographic images reminding the people of the assassination of their former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and the car bomb explosion that killed him almost 2 years ago. These signs commemorate different men of entirely different religions, but with the same message: celebrate their lives, but do not forget the anger you felt when they were violently murdered on these very streets!

And to the streets the Lebanese people have taken their tribute. The anti-Syrian Sunnite political leader, Saad Hariri (son of the former Prime Minister), called for a mass peaceful protest just outside of the church where Mr. Gemayel's service is being held -- in a part of downtown ironically but aptly known as Martyr's Square. They estimate that more than a million people have headed downtown to take part.

However, instead of a sombre and slow funeral march, the proceedings give the feeling of being nearly festive. On Lebanese television, the news channels broadcast live as Gemayel's white coffin, draped in a white flag bearing the cedar, was carried atop the outstretched hands of his supporters out of his ancestral home in a mountain suburb of Beirut, following a cortege of limousines carrying his immediate family. But instead of placing it into the Hearse immediately, the mourners continued for several minutes to carry his coffin high above their heads in the street -- hoisting him in the air as if they were celebrating their conquering hero instead of their fallen one. Some even threw flower petals or rice at the coffin as it passed.

Along the highway just outside of Beirut (where the Embassy is located), between Gemayel's hometown and Beirut proper, scooters, cars, trucks and buses full of people waving flags, whistling and cheering, hanging outside of their windows, and standing on their roofs headed for dowtown. Some had decorated their vehicles like miniature floats, complete with blaring sound system and giant pictures of Gemayel or Rafik Hariri or both. Vehicle after vehicle streamed down the street on the highway in front of the Embassy, parting and halting only for the passing-by of the heavily guarded funeral cortege, which was also on its way downtown.

Once again, upon arriving in the Square, Gemayel's coffin was carried by hand through the street and on the way to the church, this time accompanied by the coffin containing his slain bodyguard. The large sea of people who had congregated in front of the church applauded as the coffins passed by. The applause continued into the church itself.

As a stranger to this country, I failed to understand why it was as if the mourners were celebrating Gemayel's win in an election rather than saying goodbye to him. Why exhibit excitement rather than fear or sadness? My limited Canadian mind could only liken it to the Lebanese celebrating a Stanley Cup victory -- as the only thing Canadians would get THIS excited about!

But I should not confuse giddy excitement with energy -- an energy coming, first, from grief. I was told that, because Gemayel died as a young man (age 34), he is being treated in death more as a bridegroom than as an old soul who has passed on. Thus being carried on the shoulders of his friends; thus the throwing of rice; and thus the pure white coffin. Evidently, too, this energy comes from deep-seeded frustration and anger, which has been bubbling over since the high-profile assassination of their former Prime Minister. This has become clear to me as I see some of the faces of those around me as well as of those protesters on TV, some carrying signs reminding the Unnamed that they would soon be facing justice for these murders. "Halas," one woman said, "We have just had Enough."

I don't know what lasting effect, if any, the death of the young Mr. Gemayel will have on the populace and on the situation here. The assassination of the extremely popular and influential former Prime Minister, the senior Hariri, was arguably the catalyst for the mini-revolution, known simply as "the 14th of March", where a couple of million Lebanese took to the streets and affected immediate change in their country. However, the hold that the revolution of nearly 2 years ago has in this country today is tenuous at best. Will this newest casualty throw fuel on the revolutionary fire or will it dampen hopes for the future of this country? I imagine we will know soon enough.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"May you live in interesting times..."

I heard that "may you live in interesting times" is supposed to be a curse. In Lebanon, the people are living through the most interesting of times indeed.

As I strolled home this afternoon from a very pleasant coffee date with a fellow western diplomatic "spouse", I learned that there was a political assassination on the streets outside of Beirut. I subsequently learned that the man assassinated was named Pierre Gemayel -- a Christian political leader. He was only in his 30s. Though I do not have anything more than an academic understanding of Lebanese politics, I cannot help but feel sad. He was very young, only a few years older than myself or Glenn. He was gunned down in his car in his predominantly Christian constituency just outside of Beirut.

I feel sad at this loss of life, but I also feel sad that assassinations such as this one have become commonplace for the people of Lebanon. According to reports, this is the 5th assassination of an anti-Syrian Lebanese politician in the last 2 years.

By all accounts, the political situation here is precarious -- "teetering", as CNN has so aptly put it. Tensions between political factions, which are for the most part divided along religious sectarian lines, are mounting. Opposition political leaders have called for mass demonstrations in the streets and it is not yet known borne out how the assassination of Mr. Gemayel (who was aligned with those trying to uphold the current government) will affect the situation.

I make no judgments here about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The Lebanese people live in a tangled web of religion and politics, with external forces as strong as the internal ones. Even in my short month here, I have witnessed a mix of frustration and resignation among many of the people that I have met -- they desire stability but they feel powerless to change the tides. I don't know what to do but hope the best for them.

My friend Randal said in his blog that one of his Japanese ESL students wrote the words "I hope world peace" in response to a film about war.

On this night in Beirut -- on the eve of Independence Day in Lebanon -- I hope world peace too.