First of all, Happy 22nd Birthday to my dear friend Melissa Centeno!!! I miss you!!!
Ok. So the the CAMES (Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies) program I’m enrolled in at AUB (American University of Beirut) is extremely intense. We have class from 8:30am-3:30pm every day (with an hour break for lunch) taught exclusively in Arabic (*ouch*) and with 3-4 hours of wajib (homework) to do after that.
Suffice it to say I’ve hardly been getting enough sleep, much less exploring the city, actually finishing my homework, or writing on this blog, which are the things I hoped to be doing (as well as studying Arabic, taahba’n)! I’ve been trying to follow the news, because my sense is that Lebanon is absolutely a tinderbox right now, but even that I have little time for. Being in the thick of things is exciting in some ways, because you hear all the rumors and real on-the-ground information firsthand, by word of mouth before it even hits the local media, much less international media or English-language social media.
All of which has impressed upon me one observation in particular: AUB is so insular (and el-Hamra [literally meaning “the Red”] neighborhood generally) it can only be described as a fortress. AUB is immaculate. Built on a hill and rolling down to the Mediterranean seashore of northern Beirut, it is composed of grand yellowed-stone buildings from the 19th century interspersed with small parks, courtyards, and lots of greenery – particularly olive trees (or shajara-azzeitoon, “zeitoon” meaning olives, zeit meaning olive oil) and Lebanon’s famous cedar trees (al-arraz).
I’ve been told (by a Lebanese-American friend on the program named Ramsey, who goes to Skidmore) that AUB is just slightly below (on the Muslim side of) an informal social demarcation line that separates Christian and Muslim halves of Beirut, but of course I’ve only been here a few days so it’s hard to say. We hear the call to prayer regularly , which I have found tremendously comforting and re-centering.
Overall, the university is pristine, with imposing (although elegant) architecture and, most importantly for the purposes of my observation, walls. The walls that surround the sprawling AUB campus are punctuated by only three gates: the Sea Gate (by the “beach” which is mostly moss-covered broken concrete but still lovely to swim at after class), the Medical Gate (across the street from one of Beirut’s top hospitals, on the far eastern side of campus, near the women’s dorms where I live) and the Main Gate, which opens to the south onto Bliss Street, the main thoroughfare for college foodstuffs such as sage bread with za’atar (thyme, garlic, salt and oil) or grilled halloumi cheese, salads, pizzas and ice cream (there is also a Dunkin Donuts). My favorite two shop names on Bliss Street have got to be the “University Crepy” (which sells crêpe and thus I know is not meant to be pronounced “creepy”) and “Comme Si Comme Sage” (an excellent and cheap Sage stand run by a really friendly pair of brothers from Erbil, Kurdistan.
There’s too much to say I suppose in one post, and I’ve really got to get to my homework, but the gist is that the neighborhood I live in is extremely safe, cosmopolitan and even – particularly on AUB campus – a little antiseptic. If you didn’t read the newspapers you would have no idea how tense the situation in the rest of the city is.
For instance, in the south, I read yesterday that 20 Syrians visiting to record a hip-hop album were stabbed to death, and tomorrow we had a class field trip (rehla) to the city center (wasat al-medina), where I haven’t actually been yet, but it was cancelled because there’s a protest scheduled there for tomorrow. Not that you would know that living in el-Hamra; fortunately word-of-mouth seems to travel extremely fast here.