Life of a HashBrown

A HashBrown discovering what makes her Half Brown

When a half becomes a whole

I have no pretty pictures for you today.  I have no extravagant tales of food or night life or cultural extravagance.  I have words.

Tomorrow I am going back to America — which in many respects is a ‘more perfect’ country.  After all, the army doesn’t have the right to close the roads to the airports on a whim.  The racism that I know as an American is much less blatant than the racism I have experienced here.  Women in America have freedoms that wives and daughters here could never be afforded.  And a part of my heart belongs to the blessings I experience most days in that country.

But a part of my heart belongs here in Lebanon.

A part of my heart belongs to the kind people who somehow always had hours to spare just for me.  A part of my heart belongs to the reckless abandon of the streets and the souks.  A part of my heart belongs to the way of life that appreciates every single day.  A part of my heart belongs to this Lebanon — the country that I have come to accept as part of me.

And I am never leaving that part behind.

I would be lying if I said this experience was ‘easy’ or ‘good’ or ‘nice.’  But it was an experience — life-changing, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring.  I may be saying goodbye but I’m not actually leaving.  This culture is a part of me, and I’m bringing what I can of it to America.  I’m a living footprint — marked by many kind words, outstretched hands, and accepting people.  Lebanon has always been a half of me, but now it is a whole of me that I will proudly bare.  A whole of me that is well-understood.  A whole of me that is well-developed.  A whole of me that is well-loved.

I guess you could say, I’m coming back to America a WholeBrown.

 

Thank you to everyone who has shared this journey with me.  I hope you gained something from it — a cultural appreciation or a bit of travel-envy.  Maybe even an inspiration to discover a part of you one day.

Down to the basics

When the French volunteers approached me about two weeks ago saying they had a crazy yet very important idea they wanted to pursue, I don’t think I could have foreseen what exactly they meant in that moment…

They wanted to go to a Syrian refugee camp.  For them, the Syrian cause was something they truly cared about and wanted to see firsthand.  Honestly, I knew the idea would not be well-received by other Lebanese people who do not sympathize with the Syrian struggle.  But I had the contact.  I had a group of willing people.  I had two weeks left in Lebanon.  This is a freaking brilliant idea.

I contacted Caritas Lebanon, the organization I worked with during the month of June, to explain what our group wanted to do and to ask how we could accomplish said goal.  While on my death bed Monday afternoon, the French volunteers went to the Caritas MONA (Moyen-Orient et Afrique du Nord/Middle East and North Africa) headquarters in Beirut to meet with the head of the organization’s operations.  Caritas MONA explained what their refugee camp had need for and then assigned us our task — entertain the kids at a Syrian refugee camp for as long as possible.

Saturday was D-day; Friday was running-around-like-chickens-with-heads-cut-off day.  We had no guidance as to what we were supposed to do with the children.  We did not know how long they expected us to entertain said amount of children.  We were a group of volunteers who spoke French, English, and very bad Lebanese Arabic.  How are we going to do this?

Once we started getting into crunch time Friday, it was clear that all of us volunteers were getting frustrated as ideas were shot down due to language barriers, possible time constraints, or unknown amounts of play area.  But as we ploughed through idea after idea, we paused to look back on our experience at SeSoBEL.  What did our kids need most from us everyday?  They needed our energy.  They needed our support.  They needed our love.

We could definitely give that to each child in the refugee.

That Friday night, we scribbled a couple of common games onto a sheet of paper, bought basic items from a nearby convenience store, and planned on getting a good night’s rest — realizing that the last portion would probably be the best thing we could give to those kids.

Saturday we were all awake about an hour earlier than we needed to be.  We grabbed our materials and the address to meet the social worker and headed out by taxi.  After a bit of confusion on the road (we were given two separate addresses for one place…), we found our social worker and drove up the mountainous country side to the very secluded refugee camp.

We arrived to surprised faces still in pajamas.  The kids all stared at us in awe as we began to start conversations in misunderstood French and Arabic.  But it is amazing how simple gestures can cross any language barriers.  Smiles.  Tickles.  Hugs.  They all translated into a bond that formed before the first game began.  But once that first game hit the ground, the fun did not end.  We worked our way through ring toss, coloring books, jump rope, modeling clay, stickers, basketballs, hopscotch, etc.  None of it was planned.  None of it was anticipated.  But none of it needed to be.  We came in with energy, with spirit, and with love.  And when you are trapped in a camp, that is the most you could ever ask for.  Watching how a monotonous game of ring toss or a couple of stickers absolutely enthralled one child was magnificent.  It turned out that our lack of planning was all of the planning we could have ever needed.

And it is easy to get bogged down in the details of how wonderful the children are.  It is magnificent to play with a child who appreciates you for everything you have to offer.  But I cannot neglect the realities of the shelter while describing what was a spectacular day.  Several of the children were asleep on the floor with simple cots as their only cushioning when we arrived at the refugee.  Many of the women in the refugee watched our male volunteers with the utmost caution or even refused to approach them.  The kitchen was bare to prevent people from stealing food or creating a blame game between needy families.  The refugee may have seemed united — cooking together, caring for one another’s children, gossiping like old pals on the outdoor benches.  But that one thing that unites them is the tragedy.  Something or someone took everything from them.  Something or someone abused them beyond recovery.  Something or someone is still an active threat in their lives today.  What Caritas is able to provide for these people is wonderful, but unfortunately they can never remove that terror, that despair, that hopelessness.  That is why our work today was so meaningful.  We, like Caritas, could never remove all of the horrors these people face every day.  But today in what little time and preparation we had, we removed the refugee from those horrors.

Renaissance

I’M BACK!!!

After four days of doing nothing in bed (literally — my best friend became my illegally accessed Hulu account), I have reentered the world.  I have three days left in Lebanon.  But I couldn’t have chosen a better way to make a comeback.

Today was the day that I returned/said goodbye to SeSoBEL.  Honestly, it was agonizing to know that I missed an entire week in this place as a result of stupid (yet formidable) bacteria.  However, hopefully I left them with a lasting impression.  Especially after this happened…

Smurf-themed party.  Yeah -- you try to forget our blue faces.

Smurf-themed party. Yeah — you try to forget our blue faces.

And while the kids I work with are always important (and I’m sure I will have more to say about them later on in the weekend), what was really important was getting out in Lebanon.  And I must say that I chose the best spot.  After La Colonie, the French volunteers and I made our way to Jeita Grotto — what I believe to be the heart and soul of Lebanon.  Behold:

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Lebanon is a place where people pride themselves in disobeying the rules.  Street signs are blatantly disobeyed.  Smoking laws are flagrantly ignored.  Drinking ages are boisterously broken.  But the one thing no one in Lebanon dares disrupt is Jeita.  No photos.  No litter.  No touching.  No smoking.  No yelling.  This is the only place in Lebanon I have seen really respected.

And why wouldn’t it be?  It is beautiful.  

I sometimes get annoyed with people in Lebanon — how they abuse this country and what it has to offer.  But then I remember Jeita, and I find the river in that Grotto refreshing without tasting it.  It reminds me that people here do have respect one another, the land they live on, and what this country represents.  For me, Jeita is the one place where all of Lebanon comes together and says, “We are proud.”  The statement is loud.  The statement is bold.  And for me, the statement is powerful.  It takes a lot of laws and strict rules to make a place important.  But it takes a lifetime of reverent people to preserve a magnificent place like Jeita.  And I am proud to say that I am one of the many in Lebanon who have and will continue to be inspired by Jeita — willing to protect its awe-inspiring power for as long as possible.

Being sick in a foreign country…

SUCKS.

The caps lock is necessary.

Last night after my lovely dinner (check out photos here), I began to feel incredibly ill.  After about an hour into the unpleasantry, my innocent dinner became coming out of both ends (sorry, that’s gross).  To say the least, I had a pretty rough night and a not so great morning.  I woke up at 6:00AM to find Teta and tell her that going to SeSoBEL today was not an option.  It was a bitter-sweet declaration — I really want to be with the kids, I really feel like shit.  After sleeping the majority of the day and surviving off of a diet of oatmeal and kaak, I am feeling better.  Although I won’t be eating any of those Ramadan desserts any time soon, hopefully my stomach will recover soon enough.

I have decided, though, that being sick in a foreign country is one of the worst experiences you could don upon a person (what did I do wrong…?):

1.  You have NO idea what the five billion medications being shoved in your face are, and if you wanted to find out, you couldn’t read the labels since they are in foreign languages…

2.  People will suggest things to you that seem like very bad ideas, but it works for them so it is supposed to work for you (ahem hummus and 7UP).

3.  If you have ever been sick in college, you know that being sick is probably the time you come to appreciate your parents the most since you realize there is no one there to take care of you.  When you are living with your grandmother in an overly-embracive culture, you will wish you were in college with no one to take care of you.  Teta has been in my room approximately every thirty minutes with a new medication in hand.  She is constantly making me food (that I can’t eat) and bringing it to my room.  And then she begins crying when I tell that I am not feeling any better.

4.  You have one week left in this exotic land, and one day has already been spent in bed with Pinterest as your only companion (this is a good time to apologize to all of those whose pinboards I have bombarded today…).  It may not be a wasted day and the recovery was necessary, but it does come at a bad time.  Even though I am fully not recovered, I feel the need to push myself tomorrow so that I won’t be regretting this week.  And I’m not sure if that is the best thing right now…

So there you have it — the unavoidable consequences of being sick in a foreign country.  I wish this experience upon none of you.  And I certainly hope this blog post finds you in better health than it finds me…

 

One weekend down, one weekend to go…

As the title says, I only have one weekend left in Lebanon!  Here are a few highlights from this weekend…

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A farewell barbeque for my father, brother, and family friend

* Saturday night with my French friends and American family in Jbeil!  Unfortunately, all the photos are on another camera.  However, just imagine a table bombarded with music trying to communicate between French, English, and Arabic.  I think you can get a good mental picture of the night!

Shopping cart elevator to the second floor of the supermarket.  And the third... and the fourth... and the fifth...

Shopping cart elevator to the second floor of the supermarket. And the third… and the fourth… and the fifth…

An expert making tannour bread

An expert making tannour bread in Tripoli

My Sunday night dinner buddies!

My Sunday night dinner buddies!

Casual windmill in the restaurant...

Casual windmill in the restaurant…

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A little nighttime entertainment at Sunday’s restaurant

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Restaurant’s beautiful lighting

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Like a mosquito — loving the lights

The good stuff

The good stuff

And now I have regretfully/responsibly chosen to stay at home in order to get a good night’s sleep before I head back to my chillun tomorrow.  I’m going to need all the sleep I can get for this last week…

Highlight of the weekend?

Hands down, it was my night in Jbeil with my father and french friends.  It was so nice to see people working together to communicate and respect one another.  And it turned out to be a spectacular night.  It made me realize how much I love and miss both parties!

Another casual day…?

So today started out as a normal day:

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Our bus taking the kids to the restaurant this morning was raided by this…

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Pool watching at Florida Beach

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A little end-of-the-day beach sunset

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Drinks at Taiga Café

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Two of our four arguilehs flavored with lemon and mint, watermelon and mint, and double apple

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And watermelon and mint is the best — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise

And then the intercom was blaring through the restaurant.  The music was stopped.  The lights were dimmed.  The place was silenced…

Three missiles were aimed at the Presidential Palace in Beirut.  No one knows who fired the missiles, but people believe they were fired in opposition to the recent announcement that the head of the Lebanese army was being reinstated for two years.

After the announcement finished, people went back to their drinks, their music, and their dance.  As if nothing had happened.  My brother and I just stared at each other in shock.  Does anyone care that we were just bombed?!?!?

Apparently not.  This happens every year the head of the army is renewed or replaced.  Conflict is just a part of the life here.  There is conflict every day in Tripoli; people still go to work, enjoy the delicious restaurants, and wave at the tanks in the streets.  Beirut recently had a deadly car bombing; people still flood the downtown area to see the historic sights from the previous wars.  Today started as a normal day, and it ended as a normal day.

This is the reason I laugh a little when I get concerned e-mails about the most recent violence in Lebanon (but I still love your e-mails so keep ‘em comin’ :D).  Honestly, I never feel threatened because no one ever feels threatened.  The violence is just a part of the lifestyle here.  I believe people even enjoy what it has to offer: the uncertainty, the adventure, the camaraderie.  It’s funny to think how cultures can be so different.  But I guess one can easily make the adjustment — even if it is life threatening.

Ever been surprised by another place’s customs?

Yes.  I am sorry Southern world but…

Fried Oreos?  Fried Twinkies?  Fried Snickers?  Fried PopTarts?  Fried Pecan Pie?  Fried Cheesecake?  Fried Butter?

Ever heard of baking…?

Being ‘human’

These are what most people consider to be the initial symptoms of Autism:

As you can tell, a lot of the symptoms have to do with social interaction.  Most experts of Autism believe that children who have Autism do not view people as actual people; they view them as mere objects.  As a result, they are unable to form human relationships because they do not have the capacity to see another being as a human.  Instead they view ‘humans’ as tools to navigate and discover the world — as if ‘humans’ were cars or cutlery.

For the most part, I believe this is a valid point.  After all, the kids that I work with look at me, but they are actually looking through me.  They grab my hand, but they do so in order to have me reach something on a higher shelf.  They wrap my arms around them, but they actually want me to massage their necks.  I see how I am merely their puppet.  And in the words of Gregory and the Hawk, “I’ll learn to love it” (source).

However, it is days like this that make me question that simplified division between children with and without Autism.  Today I accompanied a young boy named Marko to the pool.  Marko is a non-verbal child with Autism, however he understands English and a little Arabic.  Every time I had seen Marko he was asleep in the classroom — to the point where I even questioned whether the teachers were giving him extra doses of medicine in order to sedate him.  Nevertheless, when it was time to leave, I knelt over his pillow and began nudging his small, bronzed shoulders.  “Come on, Marko.  It’s time to go to the pool.”

He snapped his head up, looked in my general direction, and grabbed my hand as he quickly made his way towards the door.  I glanced at the teachers’ shocked expressions as Marko led me to the stairs.  That was easier than anyone had anticipated…

After swiftly arriving at the bus, he promptly began to curl into my body in order to fall back asleep.  As we drove and his eyes began to sag, I debated what I should do.  The one option: I could let him sleep.  The other option:  I could not.

As the bus ride continued, I began to talk to him about whatever I drove into my mind — why I was in Lebanon, how I liked my work at SeSoBEL, what the bus was passing at the moment.  Although I do not know if he understood what I was saying, I do know that he sure could have fooled me.  He looked engaged by my words.  He seemed to smile when I talked about certain things.  He even let out a few laughs when I made a funny sound.

On that car ride, I thought about what was going on in his head as he heard a human voice, as he saw a human eye, as he touched a human hand.  I could never say that he knew I was ‘human.’  But I would venture to say that he knew the difference.  He knew the difference between the static radio and my soft voice.  He knew the difference between what was behind the window and behind my eyes.  He knew the difference between the leather seat plastered against his skin and my warm hand caressing his arm.   I may have not been ‘human,’ but did that really matter?  I was able to relate to him — in a way that no object ever could.  I understand that difference.  And the one belief that motivates me to continue this work when it is frustrating, when it is fatiguing, when it is impossible:  it is the belief that he understands that difference as well.

Family gatherings

Today I made the decision to not stay at SeSoBEL during the afternoon, and I will now be coming to and from my house in Salaata every day for this week.  This was a pretty weighty decision — I was enjoying my time with the French volunteers and the drive is an hour and a half one-way.  However, my brother and father are in Lebanon now, and there is nothing more than I want to do than spend time with them in a country we all split in unique ways.

Families gather in many different ways.  Today, my uncles and their family brought my father, brother, Teta and I to the same restaurant in order to “break the fast.”  It was a night filled with delicious food and beautiful culture, as expected:

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I left this restaurant with a satisfied palette and dissatisfied heart.  The table rambled for hours about how great the food was, how beautiful the restaurant was, how unique the experience was.  But that was not what I wanted.  I had not chosen to leave SeSoBEL for fancy restaurants and expensive cuisine.  I had chosen to leave SeSoBEL to get to know a family in a magnificent country — both of which I feel more connected to than ever before.

As we left the restaurant, I was certainly feeling disappointed.  As the fatigue from our food settled in during our thirty minute trip back to our house, the topic of my Jeda (grandfather) wafted into the dark air.  I never knew my Jeda very well.  He died when I was thirteen-years-old.  I had never held a long conversation with him.  I had never seen him for more than a week at a time.  When I was told he had died of heart failure, I sat in my room for an hour and tried to make myself sad.  But it was like mourning for a stranger.

However, I was now hearing stories about my Jeda in this short car ride home.  Stories about how he was offered positions as CEOs for companies in other countries where he could write his own checks.  Stories about how he would walk around his chemical plant and workers would warn another as to when he would arrive so they were caught working at their best.  Stories about how he made much less money than he could have because he gave so much back to his workers at the end of the day.  Stories about how his funeral was filled with thousands of people — all ready to pass along more stories of my Jeda.

I thought of what I had just learned about this man, and then I thought about what I knew about my dad.  A heart surgeon that could finish a surgery faster than anyone else in Georgia.  A man who had rejected offers to work at other, more prestigious hospitals.  A man who struck fear into the hearts of any person brave enough to enter his operating room.  A man who his known in his hospital for his skill, for his durability, for his passion.  A man who is known to give everything to his patients and to his staff alike.

There are many similarities I now see between these two men.  Two men that I am getting to know in this country.  Two men that I realize have created a legacy.  Two men that I hope to emanate in the future — as a Wanna who now understands this Lebanese family.

The pictures of food are great.  The parties are a lot of fun.  The kids make me happier than I could ever make them.  But the reason I came to Lebanon is for stories like this; stories about roots, stories about legacy, stories about family.

 

What is the most embarrassing story your parents tell other about your childhood?

When I was about ten-years-old, I was addicted to a TV show called Zoids (if you have heard of this show, please comment so I can be your friend and reminisce with a fellow fan [we are a dying breed…]).  My siblings and I found out that the season finale for this show was going to be on a weekday at 5:00… in the morning.  Negating school and sleep, we did not hesitate to set our alarms for 4:50 AM.  However, I was SO excited to see this finale (caps lock are required) that I woke up at 4:00 AM.  Not wanting to be alone, I forced all of my siblings to get up, walk downstairs with me, and wait for the glorious hour to arrive.  Unfortunately for us, our mom happened to hear the TV on at 4:00 in the morning.  Furious, she came out of her room and demanded to know what we were doing.  I explained to her with all the enthusiasm a child can have at such an unGodly hour (which is surprisingly a good amount) that this was basically the most important event of our lives.  She looked at me, looked at my siblings, looked at me, and told me to go back to my room.  No Zoids.  I was (and still am) crushed.  And may still shed a blushed tear every time she tells the story at a family gathering…

Dinner is served…

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Would you rather eat two plates of savory or two plates of sweet?

No contest — SAVORY!!!  Ever since I was little, I would go for the extra plate of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving over the pumpkin pie (but, let’s be honest, there was definitely room for extra mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie).

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