Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bits of Bliss

Apologies for the cryptic posting last time! But words hardly do justice to describing Beirut. They say that it is / was the "Paris of the East" but honestly, I think it would be better if Paris was more like Beirut. And let us say that it is everything that Vancouver is not, but there are the snow-capped mountains and the ocean that make it otherwise seem so much like home.

I have to admit that in Beirut I surrendered to bliss. There is also a Rue Bliss there but I was only close to it. I spoke English the entire time. I don't think we saw more than 2 tourists as we blissfully wandered around the beautiful streets (Syria on the other hand gets 6 million tourists a year). No one asked, "Yabani?". I had a burger and fries, and noted that if this was Lebanese food, they should export it around the world, it would be a hit.

We treated ourselves to a chic place called Eatalian, a place where the waiter asked how our food was a few minutes after serving us. I don't think I recall the last time this occurred. I had risotto fruitti di mare, which was very good. It came with a little surprise in the bottom of it - a small but entire octopus, which is apparently a Beirut "thing". Unfortunately I did not try a single traditional Lebanese-food restaurant, but next time I will order a M'louchie at Le Chef on rue Gourand. Another place I would like to visit is B018, a bomb-shelter-now-bar designed by Bernard Khoury. He spoke at one of the Vancouver architecture lectures a few years ago.

The bliss has continued here, as recently I went to Cham City Centre, a new mall which is about 2-3 years old. This is where the expensive supermarket is with foreign foods. I am not unfamiliar with this sort of institution, having stocked up with 6 jars of pesto when I went to Amman. I go all out and buy meusli, flour (for pancakes!), pesto, and digestives coated one side with chocolate. The latter has not been to satisfaction. At some point in the shipment and/or storage, the chocolate melted and has resulted in a kind of a crumbly digestive cylinder that is a complete mess to eat and transforms me into a 2 year-old.

If you recall, I attended a conference in October here. One of the speakers was Robert Irwin, who I knew nothing about. Indeed, I knew nothing about the Middle East, and he rightly asked me, "What are you doing here?" as we spoke during one dinner. As I was apparently a complete question mark. I am reading now his most recent "For Lust of Knowing", which by force of his knowledge of the Middle East he comes head-on against Said's Orientalism. I hope he answered his question; I hope that a Danish-speaking Chinese-Canadian can also learn about the Middle East.

I'm on page 48. How it was difficult for Christians to learn Arabic and translate the Qur'an, and not so much to learn about Islam per se but in order to refute it. There were no Arabic university courses; it was dicey to hire an Arab teacher because he might kill you (see Ramon Lull, p. 44), and so they go at it on their own, probably with some difficulty. But still, when John of Segovia (c. 1400-1458) wrote a refutation, he was "promptly attacked ... for having given publicity to the doctrines of an abominable heresy. "

This continues to the present day. The presence of Arabic language learning in a public place in Europe or North America hits the nerves like the thought of an unwanted accupuncture appointment. I can't open my Arabic textbook on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nor on the train that went from Brussels to London on Sept. 11th. So the one great thing here in Syria is that learning Arabic is supported. The director keeps asking me, how's the Arabic going?

I've been, of course, working on my talk so the Arabic has actually been set on the back burner. Sort of -though every time I go out and buy things I have to remember certain words. "Walnut" or "cardamom". I keep forgetting "green" although it's a very simple word. I also have to figure out how my visa is to be extended. The process is as transparent as homous and I have all but avoided thinking about it. Who knows, I may need to go to Lebanon to get a visa, which would not be a bad thing. Mali / Burkina is coming back in rounds - I am urged to show my pictures, and Christmas cards sent from Burkina on Dec. 14th and finally arriving now to their respective recipients.

More unrelated bits: Just discovered the existance of Yarmouk via two couchsurfers living there. Yarmouk is a 50-year-old "camp" where 350,000 Palestinian refugees live in Damascus. On the same topic, I recently met Peter Reidlinger, passing through the Danish Institute. He has an exhibition of photographs documenting the ongoing Israeli settlement activity. On at the Goethe Institute which ends soon but is going onwards to other places (he doesn't know yet).

Current residents here at the Institute are all women just now, and include the former Minister for Culture in Denmark, a retired schoolteacher, and a PhD student who is studying Syrian soap operas. If you have heard about the Danish cartoon incidents (which led to the burning of the Embassy here and in Beirut and the shutting down of the Institute), there is a popular Syrian soap opera based on it, where I believe Syrians help Danes learn about the Islamic world. And if you recall my travels to Holkham up in Norfolk "in search of" Jane Digby, there's also a Ramadan soap (a soap that is viewed during Ramadan) based on her story too.

As you can read, things are coming round in full circle. Next week: off to find Jane's grave maybe!

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