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In Danica's Posts on June 30, 2011 at 2:35 am

Hi. This is my old travel blog.  I haven’t posted here since February 2011.  If you are looking for my latest adventures in Beirut, come visit me at http://www.beirutorbust.com.



In Danica's Posts on July 6, 2009 at 5:23 am

Wandering down the siq on our way to Petra.

Wandering down the siq on our way to Petra.

Anees in front of the Treasury.

Anees in front of the Treasury.


The Monastery

The Monastery

Buildings recently uncovered by Brown University.

Buildings recently uncovered by Brown University.

The merry voyagers.

The merry voyagers.

From Sacrifice view you can see forever.

From Sacrifice view you can see forever.

Karma is good karma.

Karma is good karma.

Our campsite.

Our campsite.

i think I once saw a play in this theater, a thousand years or so ago...

i think I once saw a play in this theater, a thousand years or so ago…
Anees with a Bedouin pal.

Anees with a Bedouin pal.

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they find the Holy Grail in this Temple carved into a rock in a huge moon-shaped gully? Well that’s Petra and I’ve been here once before for all of two hours and ever since, I’ve dreamed of coming back.   In 2006, I came to Petra for a short tour with Jordan’s most promising young artists. We only scratched the surface on that trip and spent most of our time holed up in a four-star hotel drinking far too much of the local brew, Arak. The best part of that trip was meeting Anees, the coolest Jordanian ever. Anees is Jordan’s best young sculptor (www.aneesmaani.com). He has long wiry black hair with a splash of grey right in the middle, blue eyes and his favorite phrase is “Ta –dah!”  His largest sculptures reside in the park outside Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts and there are many more within.  He draws his inspiration for his art from Petra and has visited and camped out in Petra too many times to count.  When I met Anees in 2006 and wandered briefly around Petra, I knew I’d have to come back with his as my guide to this ancient land.

For this trip, I’ve emailed Anees to ask if he’d mind spending a few days in Petra with my friend Kathy and me.  Anees is not exactly email-friendly, so my planning conversations with him are vague.  He tells me, “Hey I got married since I saw you last, do you mind if I bring my wife Karma?”  I tell him it would be bad Karma not to. Just as I’m about to walk out the door for the Atlanta airport I get an email from Anees, “By the way, bring a sleeping bag and some fire starters.”  I suspect we’re in for an adventure.

Amman is a mere hour hop from Beirut by plane, just 135 miles if you were to drive it.   A Jaguar from the Four Seasons is waiting for us at the airport and our driver promptly hands us a menu and suggests we order ahead to have anything we want delivered to our room.  Kathy pipes up, “Do you have Al-Maza beer here?” Sadly, we’re in the land of Coors, Heineken and no local beer.  We barely have time to down a cocktail in our plush hotel digs when my good friend, Frances Abouzeid, calls. “Where are you?  I’ve been by the hotel and you weren’t there!” Indeed, I’m in Jordan, where gatherings happen as spontaneously as you arrive.  Frances barks,  “Meet me at Bistro One, you remember the place!” and hangs up the phone.  Frances is American of Lebanese decent and an old chum of my husband. He originally met her in 1995 when he did a profile of George Soros. At the time, Frances worked for Soros and arranged for David to tour Budapest, Prague and London with the billionaire.  Later, they connected again in Serbia after the war.  Since then, they’ve been fast friends at various points around the globe, mostly Lebanon.  You’d think I’d be suspicious when David is non-stop chumming around with a girl named Frances on his frequent trips to Lebanon over the years, but you’ve never met Frances.  Frances is larger than life – a beehive of energy and connections. She knows everyone and could have been the basis for the connector character in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point.  She loves my husband and has taken him under her wing.  I tell Kathy, we’ll have no idea what to expect at our dinner with Frances and she’s game, as long as there’s a cold beer and somebody new to meet.  You can take Kathy anywhere because she’ll start up a conversation with anyone.

At Bistro One, we find a large table full of Middle Eastern mayors and others in town for a conference Frances organized.  We’re lucky to be seated next to a trendy Egyptian artist named Abdallah who does all sorts of street art programs.  His English isn’t great, but he keeps us in a steady supply of cigarettes. Oh, did I mention that Kathy and I have taken up smoking?  At the dinner, I run in to Rama Ishaq.  I met Rama three years ago when she took me into the rural area to see a program designed to introduce women in the village to the idea of stopping violence against women.  The women, all veiled in black chadors, sat around a small room for a discussion and lecture. One of Jordan’s few female doctors gave a PowerPoint presentation designed to enlighten these women. A photo of a battered, bruised woman flashed on the screen which prompted the veiled women to ask, “What did she do to deserve this?  Did she provoke her husband?  Had she behaved poorly?”  There was nothing in these women’s consciousness to allow them to think any differently about abuse.  I ask Rama if things have changed. She looks at me, resigned, “Hardly.”  When you are around Frances, you always meet this fascinating assortment of NGO types and committed individuals.  We wrap up the night early to be ready for Anees to pick us up at the crack of dawn.

We ditch our Louis Vuitton and Prada bags in the hotel storage and cram our Petra camping gear into an Adidas bag and Kathy’s North Face backpack. We’re not quite sure what to bring. All we know is that we’re to spend three days and two nights with Karma and Anees somewhere in and around Petra. Kathy and I quickly determine that when you travel with Anees you’re on a “need-to-know basis.”  We sit outside the Four Seasons with multiple doormen prancing about our paltry bags, offering to help.  There’s no sign of Anees and when he finally shows up with his wild hair and dusty Isuzu 4 x 4, I’m sure the elaborate Four Seasons security gave him a hard time.

When I was a child, I had a favorite doll called Chatty Cathy and my travel companion is a perfect replica. She climbs in the car and immediately charms Karma and Anees who tend toward the more reflective artist types.  It’s a three-hour drive from Amman to Petra and Kathy talks the whole way while I snooze. Kathy is a serious globetrotter, she’s been down the Nile and hiked the Grand Canyon. She has more stamps in her passport than anyone I know but despite that I suspect that our trip to Petra with Anees and Karma will be an adventure for her.

We arrive in Petra and are barely inside the gates when it becomes apparent that Anees is no ordinary guide.  We’re immediately greeted by young Bedouin men hawking their donkeys, “Air conditioned ride!” until they spot Anees and the sales pitch stops.  Anees knows everyone in Petra and we stop and talk to Bedouins as often as we stop to admire the scenery.  The standard greeting involves a hearty handshake and pat.  However, for those he knows well, it’s the standard handshake, pat, and then they lean in close and give him multiple short pecks on one cheek (“To save time we only do one cheek” Anees explains).

The entire arrival at Petra seems staged to create suspense.  You enter the gates and then walk through this dramatic rosy colored gorge called “the siq” which is really two enormous rock faces split in half a gazillion years ago by tectonic forces.  Petra is deservedly one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s this enormous city established in the 6th century BC by the Nabataens. The Nabataens were these super businessmen who lorded over a commercial empire that extended all the way into Syria.  The siq twists and turns and gets narrower and narrower. Along the way, Anees points out carvings and tombs in the rock. He explains that the Nabataens were really true minimalists. They carved simple rectangular features to represent their Gods– yet their buildings were intricate and ornamental.  Suddenly, we catch a glimpse through the rocks of the Treasury and it’s simply spellbinding to have wandered all this way and suddenly come across this elaborate structure carved out of stone.  It’s not a building as much as it is a “carved away” if there were such a word.  This is the premiere photo opp for Petra with camels conveniently perched outside the entrance for the perfect shot.  Anees promises us our camel opportunities are yet to come.

We wander along the  “street of facades” towards the center of the city which is completely unreal because you look out upon hillside after hillside of tombs and structures carved into the rock.  We have to stop often to visit all of Anees’s Bedouin friends.  Along the way we meet a boy with a camel who offers us a ride.  This gives Kathy the opportunity to strike up a conversation. What’s the name of your camel?” she asks.  He pats his camel head lovingly and says “Michael Jackson.” Three days later, we’ll learn of the death of the real Michael Jackson.  We stop at one of Anees’s favorite stands owned by his friend Atallah Abu Thibo, called The Flintstone Shop.  When I tell Atallah I was here once before with Anees he is overjoyed and asks me to remind him what I bought.  Anees tells me that Bedouins never forget a face.  Atallah tells us something we will hear from numerous Bedouins that day, “I was born here, in that cave in the hills.”  Any Petra Bedouin born before 1984 most likely was born right here in the ruins.  After that, out of concern for the buildings, the Jordanian government relocated them to the neighboring town.  Anees says the transition hasn’t been smooth.  “Before they were worried about their camels. Now it’s their cable connection.”  There is no hard sale and we poke around the shop and I leave with an intricately carved knife for my son and two necklaces. When we are about to leave, Atallah tells me to pick a gift to put in my bag. Throughout the course of the day, stopping for tea at various Bedouin shops, I notice Anees has to fight with his pals to get them to accept payment.  They are enormously generous which is not something you expect to find at such a popular tourist site.

We walk and walk and see this huge theater (also not built, but carved out of rock) and this entire village area with huge columns that archaeologists from Brown University are excavating.   There’s more here than we could explore in a week and yet only a fraction (like 1/20th!) of Petra has been uncovered.

We walk up a hillside to this place called the Urn Tomb where one of the Nabataen kings was buried. Somewhere along the line, the Tomb was converted into a church, so I find a quiet moment to pray and try to still my mind.  Kathy as usual finds a moment to try to climb a mountaintop and scare me to death. On the way down, we stop at a roadside shop, where an old Bedouin man has laid out all his wares. He has on display old tuna cans, several soles of shoes and what appear to be ancient treasures. When we ask if these are antiques, he replies tartly, ‘Sure, they were made yesterday, in Taiwan.” I admire a goat horn and he gives it to me.

We stop for tea and potato chips and cigarettes frequently but don’t actually eat until about three in the afternoon. We are dusty and hot and pile our plates with a variety of Jordanian dishes (hummous, salad, fish stew) even though there are flies hovering over the buffet.  We still have the long climb to the Monastery in front of us and we hope to get there for sundown. The Monastery is about an hour trek up 800 steps above the city.  I am tired and cranky and tell Kathy I’m going to count every step and she tells me to shut up and makes me lose my count.  On the way up, we encounter many “unofficial” shops mostly owned by women and girls and you wonder how much these women can make on trinkets we’ve already seen multiple times.  The little Bedouin girls are stunningly beautiful and one follows us around offering to tie our scarves “Bedouin style” for us.    The Monastery is another one of these incredible structures that makes you wonder about the architect.  I mean, did he sit there for days staring at this big rock and say, “Hey, I think I’ll carve this huge 150 foot tall building with three columns and an urn on top out of that rock!”  I also can’t help but imagining what happened if they cut off too much of one rock or got one measurement wrong.  At the top, we sit with Anees’s friends at the Monastery café. They have Anees’ artwork in their shop and serve us Red Bull which goes down perfectly after our long climb.  Kathy wanders off and we still have one more hike to go in Petra. We don’t see her anywhere and one of the café owners tells us exactly where she is.  Anees later tells us, “They watch every single person and see the route they take.” Later, when we are headed down the mountain, following Anees and Karma, we take a wrong turn and a Bedouin yells out, “Wrong way! To the left.”

We wander up another mountain above the Monastery to Sacrifice View.  From here you can look across hills and mountains and see forever.  In the distance is the High Place of Sacrifice where the ritual killing of animals took place.  We sit there, quietly as the day stills below us.  We head down the mountain and walk for what seems like miles to find much of Petra shut down. Are we the last tourists inside the gates?  We had planned on taking a camel back to the entrance and while we spot plenty of camels lounging, their owners are nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, we’re desperate for a beer and we’re in a Muslim country. We finally make it to our car and start driving around the actual town center of Petra stopping at little shops to buy food and finally find a restaurant that will sell us cold Heinekens.  We slurp them up in the car.  Anees and Karma haven’t exactly been forthcoming about our evening plans so when we head out of the city onto smaller and smaller roads, Kathy reminds me “ We’re on a need-to-know basis.”  After driving for miles, up and down hills, through tiny villages, Anees abruptly turns off into what might be construed as a dirt road.  It’s past 10 pm and we drive down this dusty path in the desert for at least half an hour, passing Bedouin tents and the occasional Bedouin compound. Anees offers up assuredly, “Remember I told you the Bedouins watch everything you do? Now they know we are here so if we don’t come out, they’ll come looking for us.”  I’m hardly reassured.  The road is looking more like a desert with a cliff on one side and I’m glad Kathy is in the front seat.  I forego offers of more beer to try to keep my wits about me.  I wasn’t scared on my visits with Hamas and Hezbollah but I’m now beginning to wonder if I’m going to be lost in one of the many Wadis of Jordan, never to be found.  Finally, after driving through terrain that has not changed one bit, Anees announces, “Here we are.”

Anees gets out and squats down and immediately starts a small fire.  Karma picks up larger rocks and moves them away from the campground, “In case there are scorpions,” she explains.  I stumble around and am basically incoherent and Kathy keeps chattering and drinking beer.  We are covered in dust on a rocky patch in the desert and the stars are blazing and I know I have to try to stay awake for this experience.  Karma hands us a thin straw mat and that’s where I put my sleeping bag and crawl in and doze off.  There is not a sound in the desert save for Kathy and Anees’s voices and Karma quietly chopping tomatoes, potatoes and garlic.  She opens a large tin can and I hear Kathy ask, “What’s that?” to which Karma replies, “Meat.”  Karma puts all the ingredients onto a gerry rigged foil platter which eventually Anees wraps up into a cocoon of foil and puts on the coals.  I drift in and out of sleep while Anees and Karma talk about their lives, their art and some of the challenges they have faced along the way.  Kathy keeps peppering them with questions and then she leans over to me and says, “This is my favorite time of the day, around the campfire.  This is when you learn everything there is to know.”  At midnight, they rouse me and tell me dinner is ready.  I sit up and with a glass of red wine in one hand and pita in the other, scoop up the most delicious tomato stew I’ve ever tasted.  We’ve walked over most of Petra this day and we’re sleepy and starved and completely sated by the scenery.  We eat and talk and smoke a cigarette and fall off to sleep under the stars. At some point, a flash of light awakens me. It’s the sun coming up over the desert and I realize we are perched on the edge of a cliff.  I keep my eyes open as long as possible to try to take it all in but doze off, dreaming of rose colored structures carved in stone and sleepy camels.

12-siq-goodAnees in front of the TempleNever turn down a photo opp with a policeman!Miles and miles of caves.

Tea with Hamas and Hezbollah

In Danica's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

I’m sitting on the rooftop of the Hotel Albergo, listening to a favorite old tune, Moon River, and looking out over the Achrafiyeh neighborhood of Beirut.  As at every meal, I’m immediately presented with little glass jars of pistachios and carrot sticks before I’ve even ordered a drink.  I’ve left the group behind at a French restaurant called Paul in the fashionable Gemmayze neighborhood in the hopes that I’ll finally sleep off my hangover from two nights ago and can process what I’ve seen this morning. Today was the first and only day I’ve felt anything that resembled fear and that was fleeting at best.

This morning, we got up early for our back-to-back Hamas and Hezbollah meetings. Both meetings are to take place in a neighborhood I’ve come to know well from the interior of our van, Dayiheh.  It’s all of fifteen minutes away from our hotel, but the scenery quickly changes from chic to shabby with the Armani posters replaced by ones featuring martyrs. In our neighborhood, we have sushi bars, Jacadi and it’s a short walk to the local mall with its Apple store and Tiffany’s.  In Dayiheh, it’s tiny little shops with Arabic lettering featuring everything from Fredericks of Hollywood style lingerie to full burkas.  I wonder if the hidden security have gotten used to us.  This is our fourth or fifth visit to the “hood.” This is the same place we came to meet with Sheik Fadlallah.  In fact, Fadlallah, Hamas and the Hezbollah Media Office are within a few block radius.  I guess that’s why the Israel targeted these blocks during the fighting in 2006.

Our ever-reliable translator and guide, Rawan, meets us at a street corner wearing another adorable outfit and a big smile.  What to wear turns out to be a major preoccupation of my fellow female travelers on the trip, “Scarf?  No scarf?  Long pants or skirt?”  Rawan never seems to mind and typically shows up bare armed and brightly clad, dressed like she’s headed to an American mall.  Our first tea of the day is with Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ representative to Lebanon.  We wait on the street corner for what seems like forever and I notice a white van with a fairly large antenna and point, “Hey there’s some major security and he’s staring right at us.”  David grabs my hand and pulls it down, “Don’t point.  Be normal.”  Oh yeah, normal: I always wake up, have my coffee and head out to meet with Hamas…  Family vacations always involve morning meetings with two groups on the US Terrorism list. NOT!  I’m reminded of one of “N’s” quotable quotes, “We soooo fit in here.”  Finally, a young man with a moped shows up and tells us to follow him. We are about to turn down one of the innocuous looking driveways filled with construction equipment that I’ve come to recognize when the moped clips the bumper of a dusty green Mercedes.  For a moment, we think we’re going to witness our first major traffic accident in Beirut but the drivers smile, wave and keep going.  David constantly reminds us to leave as much as possible behind in the van as getting our bags searched will only slow us down and, after all, we want to spend as much time with Hamas as possible.   We grab our notebooks, David’s tape-recorder (listen at www.1690wmlb.com) and a few cameras and enter what looks like a dilapidated apartment building and head up the stairs. Along the way, we pass by a grandmotherly looking woman carrying shopping bags.

Wissam Al-Hassan, the press officer for Hamas in Lebanon is there to greet us with a big smile on his face and escorts us into the meeting room.  These rooms are beginning to merge together in my mind. This one features nearly the same faded upholstered couches of the last one.  The floors are flecked tiles and we shuffle about trying to figure out our seating arrangements before Osama arrives.  David and the author typically sit up front.  David, so he can make the formal introductions and the author so he can get in key questions for the research into his book.  The rest of us are happy to be relegated to the sidelines of the shabby couches.  There’s always an overstuffed armchair reserved for Osama in front of a window draped with heavy green curtains and two flags, one the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag and the other the Hamas flag with its crossed swords.  This room is slightly smaller and definitely shabbier than the sheik’s. I cannot help but wonder why they put the local leader of Hamas in front of a window… Still, sitting there in this room, I keep imagining a huge flash of light, followed by a loud explosion.  I manage to suppress my fears, since after all, there’s no turning back at this point and after another long wait, Osama finally enters the room.

Unlike our meeting with the Sheik, we’re not required to suit up in scarves but when Osama enters, he first encounters Miranda who puts forth her hand and offers to shake it.  He looks down and says, very apologetically, “I am sorry, I cannot,” and moves around the room, shaking the hands of the men and then looks back again at Miranda and says, “Sorry.”  David goes through the steps of making the formal introductions, this time rushing a bit as we are already worried about being late for Hezbollah. Unlike the Sheik, Osama offers up no formal presentation.  Instead, he seems to prefer a conversation, peppered with questions from us.  He speaks excellent English.

We cover familiar territory, the refugee camps, the status of Palestinians in Lebanon, Israel, resistance and occupation.  For the record, these guys take umbrage with being called terrorists.  Osama’s opinion on the US and what he perceives as their erroneous definition of his group as a terrorist, “When you don’t want to deal with someone, you call them a terrorist.”  I don’t know if he personally is hoping to get an invite to the Lincoln bedroom, but he added as further explanation, “They said a long time ago that Yasser Arafat was a terrorist… but then he was the most important visitor to the White House.”  The issue of being labeled a terrorist clearly rankles everyone from the Sheiks to Hezbollah and everyone we meet draws comparisons from history.

We talked about the tit for tat of Israel and Hamas and Osama feels pretty strongly “when your civilians are being attacked, we have to send a message that we can do the same.  If they are ready to stop killing our civilians, we are willing to do the same.”  I must confess that these conversations don’t leave me filled with hope so I take the opportunity to pose a question about an area that interests me which is the internet, social media and its applications in Iran and here.  After all, in this day and age, you need a good website and a good Internet communications plan.  This clearly piques his interest and he tells us about his frustration of getting his sties shut down by the FBI.

I’m going to get our keen observer Finn to do a post on more of the conversation but will share one last comment from Osama that to me gets to the root of the problem for many people of this region.  He said, “Is it fair to ask the Palestinians to leave this land, this village where their grandfather lived, their great-grandfather lived, their great-great-grandfather lived, their great-great-great-grandfather lived?  You ask them to leave this land for these people, these Israelis who have grandfathers who came from Poland?” I glance across the room at one of the Polish grandkids and he winks, “Time to go.”

Rawan practically pushes us down the stairs to climb into the van.  Hezbollah is waiting and she’s had to leave the room many times to call ahead and let them know we are late.  We’re visiting the offices of Ibrahim Mussawi, Hezbollah’s press officer right around the corner from Osama’s pad.  Our Druze driver is getting the hang of navigating these streets choked with women shopping, construction equipment, stern security guys with all manner of machine guns and the crazy Lebanese drivers.  We arrive at a fairly typical looking office building with a sign out front that clearly states Hezbollah Media Relations.  The stairwell is busy with folks coming down and guys with cameras and film equipment walking up behind us.  This time, we aren’t asked to hand over our cameras and nobody checks our passport or counts our numbers.  (Of course we’d had to fax our passport info weeks before to get the meeting, which makes me wonder how much they know about us…)  We’re ushered into another room, similar to ones we’ve seen in the past.  This one with burnt orange curtains and flea market find gold couches.  There’s a television set in the corner playing Animal Planet.  We start the waiting game for Ibrahim.  Kathy gets excited when she realizes there is an episode on gorillas on TV, “I’m going to Rwanda for my jubilee year next year!!”  David and the author huddle in the corner, sharing the deep political observations that aside from Finn, leave most of us befuddled.  Suddenly, one of the escorts comes in and urges us to get up and we’re shepherded into the next room down.  “Kathy” quips, “I guess this was just the holding room?”  Yeah,” I say, “kind of like the green room for Hezbollah.’  We find ourselves in a tiny conference room with fluorescent lights, a huge fake cherry wood table that takes up nearly the entire room, black padded office chairs and those same burnt orange curtains against a window as the last room.

Ibrahim enters the room with a big smile on his face – he’s clearly a public relations guy. Actually, he’s more professorial than PR. Indeed he used to teach at the American University of Beirut.  Not only is Ibrahim professorial in nature, but he may have learned to talk from a New Yorker. He speaks so fast I can barely keep notes so my blog comments from this tête-à-tête will be more observational than accurate.

Nearly everyone we meet with mentions their “image problem” in the US, in this case the fact that Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist group.  Ibrahim tells us right off the bat, “When it comes to Hezbollah, we are being degraded as terrorists by the American administration.  However in the majority of the Arab world, we’re viewed as freedom fighters.”  They are also all quick to distinguish themselves from Al-Qaeda, The American media keeps telling you the same story. They manipulate the story to present us as fanatics. We have no problem with the Western style of life.”  He doesn’t want to let his one go, “After all, we were the first people to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers.”  Then he draws a comparison that’s not one we hear everyday in your typical conference room in the states, “The people in Afghanistan the Americans are killing. Are they that different in value than those who were killed in 9/11? Are they that different than the housewives and business men on the planes who flew into the twin towers because they don’t have cell phones?”

He talked to us about the roots of Hezbollah and if I understood him correctly, he was trying to explain how Hezbollah really was a grass roots organization that came into being around the time of the US Marine and US Embassy bombings in the early 80’s.  He seemed to want us to believe that there simply was not an established enough group in Hezbollah to have anything to do with these bombings.  Meanwhile there are huge Hezbollah posters all over the neighborhood of Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah terror chieftain who masterminded those bombings, the hijacking of the TWA flight, the taking of hostages and so on…

Rawan, who is not shy, despite her youth and relative inexperience in this crowd, pipes up and asks a heated question, “Why did you refuse to meet with Jimmy Carter when he was here?”  Ibrahim’s sleek PR demeanor leaves him for a second as he confesses that he personally would have agreed to meet with him but it’s not up to him.  He explains that Hezbollah is an organization that has a process and here he begins to punt and we’re not sure what the real reason is until he says, “ You cannot talk to me while you have a sword in my neck.”  He lets us know, loud and clear (and at this point, he’s talking faster and louder) that he feels very strongly that actions speak louder than words and he’s not fond of the US actions and their support of Israel.

Kathy leans forward and is clearly emotional and lets him know she is looking at the situation as a mother when she asks him about the camps, how the people live there. She wants to understand how he can refuse dialogue with Americans, surely it can make a difference.  The hallway is teaming and people keep coming in and ask questions in Arabic. At one point, Ibrahim asks if we’d mind being part of a documentary they are shooting. I immediately glance at Finn, the high level executive, who has her head draped in a turquoise scarf to avoid being photographed in this room. David handles it with all aplomb and explains that he could care less, but there are some Americans in the room might feel uncomfortable.  We can’t get out of any of these rooms without the obligatory cups of sugared tea in matching clear little cups and saucers.  We drink our tea, continue our conversation about Israel, terrorism, the elections and the two-state solution until someone comes in and says in Arabic “times up” and we’re ushered out.

From Sheik Fadlallah to “sheik your bootie”

In Danica's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:35 am

Sheik Fadlallah gives us a copy of his favorite book.The Veuve Cliquot flows non-stop at The Music HallSaudi DiscoMe and Joanna AbboudMiranda calls this "adults gone wild"Indeed we met with Sheik Fadlallah and the story will be told.  After our meeting with the Sheik, we quickly disrobed, changed into our Mahnolos and cocktail attire and headed to the local music hall. An evening our daughter Miranda refers to as “Parents gone wild.”  Still in recovery.

More later today after our meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Martha and Toby rock on.

Our chat with Walid, leader of the Druse, and visit to the Chouf

In Danica's Posts, Uncategorized on June 18, 2009 at 10:08 am

Kathy and David at Jumblatt's compound
Our group with Walid.
I seem to be late every morning which drives our  tour organizer ( my husband) mad.  It’s extremely important that I’m not late on this day as we are meeting with Walid Jumblatt (p://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walid_Jumblatt) tribal chief of the Druse at his home.  The streets of all these leaders are closed off with a guard post, but we are waved immediately in. We don’t even have to show our passports. Walid is awaiting us along with a bounding Sharpei and invites us to sit in his courtyard.  He’s a fashionable looking man, thin with wild longish hair, jeans and a preppy shirt.  Turns out he’s a Harley fan, so Finn, our “Harley Davidson rep,” presents him with a significant Harley chotchke, a blanket emblazoned with the motorcycle logo.  Once formal introductions are made, Walid offers insights over the most recent election.  He describes the election as the “Sunnis, Christians and Druse against the Christians and Shiites.” Outside Walid’s compound, we hear over and over again just how much was spent on the effort to get Hariri elected — with bought votes and foreigners flown in for voting day. Evidently, airports were jammed with foreigners flying back in to cast their votes.  Jumblatt explained, “Our country is not a nation, our country is a group of tribes.”  We are able to sit and have an open ended conversation with Jumblatt about everything from Hezbollah, which he described as a “bi-product of the Iranian revolution.”  Throughout our chat, his prized pooch Oscar, wraps himself around Kathy’s legs and tries to jump into her lap until finally Walid gets up, lifts the pup by his front legs and hauls him off to his waiting servant.  Walid speaks openly of his father Kamal’s assasination in 1977.  He was driving near his country home in the Chouf and taken out by gunpoint at a hairpin turn by the Syrians.  Two weeks later, Walid flew to Syria to continue discussions and negotiations, explaining, “Sometimes you have to put aside your emotions and address your political priorities.”  Indeed, those opposed to Jumblatt call him a waffler – one who baits and switches for his own political gain. The gain is all ours today for when Walid hears we are headed to the Chouf he offers up a private tour of his weekend residence.

But first lunch. We drive outside Beirut into the hills of the Chouf. Beautiful country. For those who think Lebanon is a war-torn place, think again. Imagine the South of France or a mountainous Greek island.   We see nothing but charming villages devoid of bullet holes. We stop in the best restaurant in the Chouf, the Mir Amin Palace (www.miraminpalace.com) where Kathy gets her favorite ALMAZA BEER and I order a half-bottle of Lebanese white wine.  It’s a perfect place to dine because Kathy and I are busy planning Rahwan, our translator’s, wedding. She’s getting married next year and we think the Mir Amin Palace is a perfect spot.  For once, we’ve mastered the art of ordering and forego the 17 appetizers and get delicious skewered chicken dishes and grilled meat platters with our favorite salad fattouch. Fattouch is a mixed salad featuring lettuce, fried pita, cucumbers and lots of fresh ground spices mixed in a light vinaigrette.

We exchange one palace for another as we head to Walid’s weekend compound.  Walid’s summer compound is no shack. Built 345 years ago, it’s a sizeable chateau. Again, here we’re greeted by many guards and once inside, more sharpeis, this one’s name is Caesar.  We’re’ given a private tour of room after room featuring amazing art, elaborate chandeliers, stunning carpets, intricately carved furniture pieces and roman vases.  “N,” the queen of the one-line glances over at a display of Roman vases and quips, “Oh I can pick those up at pottery barn.”  We’re trying to behave, because our appointed tour guide and now two sharpeis are watching us, but Kathy and I dissolve into reams of laughter.  For the second time this day, we’re served Lebanese coffee in neat little porceline cups with intricate designs.
Danica holding one of Walid's prize Sharpeis

What happens in the Bekaa valley….

In Danica's Posts on June 17, 2009 at 5:01 am

Interior of the mosque.  Tea in Hikmet's garden.Hikmet and one of his cutie-patooties.
Mona and the twins.  David has a friend named Hikmat who lives in the Bekaa Valley.  I have never met Hikmat but know him well from the scene in my husband’s Frontline Documentary, Lebanon Party of God.  In this scene, David is driving in downtown Baalbek with Hikmat when suddenly, Hikmat pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car and chats with a fellow on curb.  Hikmat gets back in the car, lurches it into gear, careens away and leans over excitedly to my husband, “You are lucky David. Very lucky. Today is your lucky day. That man?  He hijacked Jordanian airplane.  He fly it around to many city and he bring it back to Lebanon to blow it up.” I am looking forward to meeting Hikmat but do not feel the urge to meet any hijackers.

Hikmat’s son, Rami, meets us at the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek.  The Palmyra is a storied old hotel in the middle of the town square.  The Palmyra is the place where all the CIA agents stayed, along with the likes of Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Kaiser Wilhelm, Ella Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau and others. Their ghosts may be roaming in the faded glory of the hallways of this place.  A wizened old man runs the hotel and allows us to visit Room 19, a place perhaps last refurbished in the 1940’s. “The author” gets us all to snap lots of photos which makes us wonder if there isn’t some intrigue going to happen in this mysterious venue.  We leave the Hotel Palmyra, the ghosts, the dusty courtyard, overrun with sagging cedar trees and head up the hill to Hikmat’s compound.

There is an old saying that goes, “What happens in the Bekaa valley, stays in the Bekaa Valley.”  We’re in the heart of Hezbollah and hashish country.  Truth is, we’re on best behavior today.  Hikmat reminds us, “They know you are here.  You are being watched. But it’s okay, you are with me.”

Hikmat introduces us to “one of his wives, Mona” and his cute as buttons seven-year old twins.  Much later in the day, we begin to embrace Hikmat’s bizarre sense of humor and realize he only has one wife.  By the end of the day, we think he might ask the divine Miss K to be his second.  She sidles up to him and he plies her with her favorite Almaza beer and other treats.  Hikmat’s wife, Mona does not sit with us but serves us massive platters of cherries and plums from local trees and thick Lebanese coffee. The twins dance around, trying out their French and English, showing off their matching outfits, posing for every photo opportunity like pin-up models. This is just the start of a very long, fascinating day for Hikmat gets up suddenly and it’s “yallah” which is Arabic for “Let’s go!”

We have a driver and a large 32-seat touring bus but Hikmat advises that he should drive ahead and we will we follow.  We need Hikmat’s car as escort when we drive through the many villages leading to his hometown of Yamouni.  Indeed, along the way, Hikmat stops and waves or even shouts out greetings.  Our first stop is at one of the many memorial mosques that dot this land. This one is dedicated to the second leader of Hezbollah, Abbbas Mussawi, killed in his car by mortar in an attack by Israeli helicopter.  Mussawi was riding in his car with his wife and young son when the helicopter took them out.  The burned out shell of a car is on display in the parking lot of the mosque. David once attended a Hezbollah rally here where Hassan Nazrallah spoke along with the leader of the Islamic Jihad.  This is back in the day when I avoided hearing any stories of his time in Lebanon – back in the day when what happened in the Bekaa valley really truly stayed in the Bekaa Valley.

The women in our group all gather to one side to don our very colorful versions of scarves.  I keep trying to trade my thrift store fringed peachy number for Finn’s Hermes, but she’s not buying.   Every mosque has different rules and in this one, we are able to enter into the same doorway as the men and wander around freely. At other mosques, we have to leave the men, hand over our pocketbooks to an attendant and can only view from an upstairs galley.

This mosque is a stunning display of mirrors and bright blue tiles.  The whole place sparkles like a feverish blue holiday display.  In the center of the mosque is a glittering tomb, which holds the remains of Mussawi. Our driver lays out a small rug, a stone and leans down in prayer.  We don’t know if this means he’s fond of fallen Hezbollah leaders or just taking the opportunity to pray.  Hikmat introduces the author and our group to Mussawi’s brother who happens to be lingering around the mosque.  I don’t know quite what to say, “Gee, sorry about the car bombing thing?” and I figure silence under my headscarf is probably the best etiquette.  He encourages us to take photos, another big no-no in most mosques so we pull out our cameras, eager tourists we are, and snap pictures of the shrines to Mussawi, the display featuring his young son’s shoes and the glittering tiles.

Planning our next trip to Baalbek for the Springsteen tour.

In Danica's Posts on June 16, 2009 at 3:59 am

We’re in Baalbek to visit David’s friend, Hikmet, who lives on a hill above the ruins.  I don’t know if these are one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but in my mind, they should be.  I actually prefer semi-crumbled ruins to intact ones like the Coliseum because they leave so much more to the imagination.  They say the Temple of Bacchus is the most beautifully decorated temple in the Roman world.  I say any temple designed around a courtyard where vestal virgins dance and keep a sacred fire lit is fascinating.  The Temple of Jupiter is made up of 54 immense jaw-dropping columns, 54 in all, supposed to be the largest in the world.  I may have misunderstood our guide, but I think he said they floated these down a river from Egypt.  Tuborg is in seventh heaven here in Baalbek (for those devotees of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, go ahead, call the joint Heliopolis).  He confesses to far prefer ancient ruins to Hezbollah inspired gift shops and charges ahead with his paintbrush and artists notebooks, forgoing the official tour.  “The author” is busy jotting down notes, taking a particular if not slightly sordid interest in sacred prostitution.  Miranda follows him around with her Canon camera, trying out different settings and scenes for his book jacket cover.  Kathy terrifies us all by climbing to the top of every structure and shouting down “Here I am!” or “Hey, think they sell Almaza here in the ruins?”  Elton John played here in 2002. So did Sting.  Today they are preparing the stage for the Belgium Ballet soon to arrive for he annual summer festival. We’re already making plans to come back for the Springsteen tour.

No beer at the Sheik’s house

In Danica's Posts on June 16, 2009 at 3:01 am

We’re in no shape to show up at Sheik Fadlallah’s restaurant after our long morning at the camp.  We’re covered in dust,  more than a little dismayed and needing to emotionally download what we’ve witnessed.  Lebanon is a study in contrasts, a fact I think we’ll be constanly reminded as we tour this country.  If you check out Fadlallah on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Hussein_Fadlallah you’ll see mention of his ties to Hezbollah, notes on assassination attempts, information on his orphanages, schools and a lot on his relationship to Iran.  You won’t see mention of his restaurant which is a massive, well appointed dining room with an inner courtyard filled with flowers, a fountain and a number of upscale tourist shops. Here you can buy faux Chanel bags or a Sheik keychain.   If I lived in Beirut, I’d consider this place a perfect venue for a wedding reception or birthday party.  We have not yet learned the words for “no appetizer” in Arabic but need to sooner rather than later.  Our translator Rawan orders for us, which is hardly necessary because all of the Sheik’s waiters speak English or at least a smattering of French.  We’re afforded comic relief when Kathy perks up like a new little kitten with her favorite meow, “I’ll have an Almaza!”  Sorry, no beer at the sheik’s house Kathy.

Sabra & Shatila

In Danica's Posts on June 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

I first learned about the massacres in the camps Sabra & Shatila when David worked on a documentary about it for ABC news in 1982. It was one of his first projects as a television journalist and the images from that hour film continue to haunt me.  On this day, we visit Sabra & Shatila a full 27 years after the massacre.

I arrive downstairs at the Hotel Albergo wearing white flared pants and red platform shoes – relatively low heeled by my standards and Miranda calls attention to my outfit. “Dad look what Mom’s wearing!”  I’m immediately sent back to my room to change and put on a pair of sneakers and khakis.  I’m not at all sure what to expect when I hear the words “Palestinian Refugee camp” and I’m not at all prepared for what I find.  We drive through the busy car-choked streets of Beirut and the signs on the road begin to change.  No more Ralph Lauren and Armani ads, and the streets get narrower and narrower. Soon I wonder how our drive will maneuver the narrow streets but I remind myself this is Beirut, where driving is a full contact sport.

Our driver keeps trying different congested alleyways until finally we come across an alley where two official members of the camp have been waiting for us. David arranged to have an official escort into the camps.  I’m guessing it wouldn’t be a good idea to come barging in as tourists with expensive pocketbooks and cameras around our necks. Thank heavens I took off the red platform shoes.

We are advised not to take photos until we get official permission.  This is not a camp with tents over acres of dusty ground but an amalgam of  tunnel-like streets and crumbling apartment buildings which seem to have grown up like a pile of messy weeds.  I am first struck by the noise – jackhammers are raging at every corner.  The few paved streets are being torn up, while others are a loose pile of dirt over crumbled concrete. The pathways among the buildings are so narrow, we have to walk single file. The residents pile past us barely glancing at us in our obvious Western gear.  My friend “N: jests, “We soooo blend in here.” Not.

Our guides give us permission to take photos and then quickly tell us to stop. We’re never sure why they suddenly say “no photos.”  We may be near an official PLO office or perhaps there is a menacing figure in the area.  Whatever the reason, when they say “no photos” we comply.  I take few shots of actual people because I’m fascinated by the construction or lack thereof.  The wires leading between crumbling buildings, the jerry rigged water pipes and spray painted graffiti and posters of Yasser Arafat on the wall fascinate me.

We are not in the camps five minutes before Kathy starts cooing at the bright-eyed children and soon a toothless grandmother pushes her grandbaby in front of us, encouraging us to take a photo. She speaks French and before long I have the little girl in my arms with the grandmother ordering the little girl to give me a “bisou” so I’m blessed with a tender little kiss on my cheek.  Throughout our time in the camps, Kathy becomes our cultural attaché, charming the grandmothers by remarking on the beauty of their children. If we take a photo of one child, we have to take a photo of all in the vicinity.

It’s beyond shocking to see how these people live –17,000 thousand in one square kilometer. Their whole lives take place in this tight, haphazardly constructed enclave.  The Palestinians don’t have passports and are limited to taking few available jobs. There are 73 forbidden job categories for Palestinians which include even the most basic jobs at the local KFC.  Most men work as day laborers and the financial results are evident in the camps.  Poverty is a given and the results are evident here.  In one of the frequent introductions instigated by our bubbly Kathy and one of the grandmothers we catch a glimpse at a typical apartment.  A room no larger than a master bedroom closet in any American suburban household is home to five family members, including one newborn baby. The clearly exhausted mother sits in the street while her newborn sleeps inside in the slightly cooler air of the concrete floor.  The wall is flanked with five short palettes next to a small cabinet. I’m told the kitchen does double duty as the bathroom.

Around every corner, we see groupings of boys, racing in the streets, some pushing deflated soccer balls but most playing elaborate games with toys guns.  They pull the guns out of their pants and shoot at one another from around corners. The loud bangs startle us and then a jackhammer starts its heavy consistent drill or a construction worker yells to get out of the way, a two by four is coming down. There are multiple times when we have to run to avoid getting hit by an errant bucket, stream of water or debris from construction.

We are drenched in sweat, dusty and thirsty when we arrive at our appointment at the local school.  There’s been a miscommunication as to the time of our arrival and the children have been waiting for us and stand at attention at the stairs gaping at us with huge smiles while we take photos.  The children are released and on the top floor we sit and drink thick apricot juice and water provided by the schoolmistress. She points proudly at the children’s art – crayoned pictures of Israeli bombs depicting the most recent war of Gaza war of 2009.  “The greatest hope of these children is to return to their homeland,” she tells us.  One cannot help but wonder what kind of hopes and dreams are being nurtured with these children in the camps.Today is graduation day in the camps

Fireworks not bombs

In Danica's Posts on June 14, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Fireworks not bombs

Our first night out, we wander along Monot, a street teaming with Mercedes, Audis and nightlife.  Groups of three and four, arms linked, parade in the streets as we make our way to the Glass House, one of David’s favorite night spots.   The café is hopping with a live band belting out Lebanese tunes and the occasional couple or individual dancer making their way to the dance floor or standing by their table, mouthing the words to the song, twisting their hands and dancing Lebanese style.  Conversation is out of the question, the music is far too loud.  Smoking hookah is not, (out of the question that is) and is offered as soon as we sit down.  The hookah is a way of life in Beirut and the stuff you inhale is perfectly legal in the US.  In fact, you can choose different flavors for the hookah. At Glass Bar we sucked up a yummy licorice flavored fume.  One voluptuous woman wearing a barely buttoned blouse gets up frequently holding a narrow stick– kind of like a dowel to dance, thrusting it towards her partner or using it simply to amplify her moves.  Kathy asks, “Are you supposed to bring your own stick?” Kathy seems to have an extra dose of serotonin, enough to go around for all of us. She discovered Almaza, the Lebanese beer and we love her frequent squeal, “Oh goodie! Let’s get a beer.” We have rounds and rounds of Almaza, along with the hookah, the loud music and before long, a waiter plops a fez on my head and I see David across the table, clearly disappointed.  “Please don’t do the embarrassing American tourist thing,” he mouths.

Later, in Downtown Central Beirut (affectionately called DCB) with the stunning Rafik Hariri mosque behind us, we walk along the street, careful not to risk death by accidentally stepping off the curb.  Again, our concerns here are not terrorists but the berserk and crazed Lebanese driver.  We hear a loud boom and the sky explodes in a cacophony of color and light.  Nobody in our crowd jumps but we look to the skies in amazement.  Here we are in downtown Beirut, enjoying a perfectly blissful evening, a multi-course meal, fine wine, too much beer and hookah and fireworks, not bombs.Tuborg sampling the hookah...perfectly legal!