Alterity, or Why The Past Isn’t Comfortable

December 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of the biggest challenges that faces historians is fully recognizing and appreciating our distance from the past’s people.  This is difficult precisely because the past touches us so closely.  The past is where our culture, customs, institutions and social structures emerged.  It has left us plenty of words and tangible objects.  This is true even of the very distant past: we can still read Cicero’s speeches, or go to a museum and see still-bright gold from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, already ancient when Cicero walked the Earth.


Because of the past’s tangible presence in our present, the assumption that past people’s thoughts, worldviews, and experiences must line up with our own can always seduce us.  Giving into its charms is almost always a mistake.


Past people knew different things than we did, and came to know about them in different ways.  Their philosophies of knowledge and their media were radically different from our own.  The scientific method, the development of political theory and social science, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television and the internet all marked dramatic breaks.


The material conditions of their lives also drastically differed from our own.  Rapid transportation, instant communications, mechanized agriculture, mass production, massive centralized government bureaucracies, corporations, and modern medicine all emerged within the past two hundred and fifty years.  Even the most imaginative observers of those revolutions couldn’t quite predict their course.  In Jules Verne and even in Isaac Asimov, there is much that seems quaint.


Unsurprisingly, past people, whose experiences and epistemologies so sharply diverge from our own, also had radically different ethics, values, and politics.  Most historians have experienced the jolt of reading through a piece of writing by a past author who seems humane, kind, and sympathetic and then stumbling upon a sentiment that would mark that person as a monster if they lived today.


Failure to appreciate alterity, which is what historians call this radical difference, leads many of us into historical nonsense.  American readers will probably be familiar with the “Lost Cause” argument that the South fought the Civil War to preserve local culture and states’ rights, not to preserve and extend slavery.  This argument is appealing because most present-day Americans find slavery abhorrent, and we have trouble understanding people who would take up arms to defend it.  But Southern writers at the time saw slavery as a natural order, and Southern state legislators, arguing for secession, railed against Lincoln’s proposed plan to stop slavery from expanding into new territories.  To understand their choice to fight the federal government, we need to recognize and accept that their epistemology, ethics, and politics were radically different from our own.


A similar group of misunderstandings clusters around the US Constitution.  The document is a fetish for a lot of Americans, who praise its authors as visionaries who created a wise, timeless document that speaks clearly and directly to the problems of our age.  Again, this is a view that collapses the vast gulf that separates us from the past.  There’s no way that the framers could possibly know about today’s problems.  They were even unaware of developments that would take place within the next fifty years, like the Louisiana purchase, the invention of the steamship, and the coming of the railroads.  They weren’t framing a document for governing a sprawling country with vast cities, enormous factories, and fast transportation because that country didn’t exist yet. Their own lives predated an unprecedented technological explosion which they couldn’t possibly have foreseen.


If we really want to understand the Constitution, we need to appreciate that it was a response to problems that a particular group of American statesmen saw in their own time.  The framers were trying to provide some sort of basically functional central government for their squabbling, dysfunctional country while providing enough concessions to enough different interest groups to get broad support for that government.  It’s sort of like Lebanon’s National Pact– an expedient document which created a bunch of unrepresentative institutions and mires its state in gridlock.


Alterity can be hard to wrap your head around completely, but it will help you get a grip on how the world actually was, and protect you from the political misuse of history.  If you feel completely at ease in the past, you’re probably missing something important.


Wrestling With Your Sources: A Historian’s Guide to Dealing With “Fake News” and other Epistemic Trash

December 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

Almost every major American media outlet has recently published an article decrying “fake news” articles that spread over social media.


Unfortunately, a lot of these outlets’ own offerings are little better themselves.  As funding for genuine investigative reporting has dried up, a lot of their articles just recapitulate officials’ rumors and announcements or other sources’ stories.  Some, like cable news channels, have given up any pretense of crafting their own narrative, and simply invite representatives of America’s political factions to give their own version of events.


So, functionally, a lot of news content is bullshit of one variety or another.  Fortunately, wrestling with misleading, empty, and actively dishonest sources is the heart of the historian’s craft.  I’ll share some tools of the trade for cutting through the crap.


1: The Hermaneutic of Suspicion

“Hermaneutic” is just a fancy academic word for “way of interpreting.”  Using the Hermaneutic of Suspicion means being skeptical of what you read.  Don’t blindly trust your sources.


2: Seeking the Silences

Omission can conceal as much as deceit.  Think about what issues a writer is carefully avoiding.  Also, think about how they selected the evidence they cite.  You can tell a pretty misleading story by cherry-picking un-representative anecdotes.


3: Metatextual Analysis

Think about why a given piece of writing was created.  Who benefits from it and how?  Politicians and officials tell stories which advance their agendas and make them look good.  Clickbait sites want to draw your attention and stoke your outrage so they can pull in ad revenue.  Traditional media outlets tend to flatter their subscribers’ worldviews or maintain a reputation for neutrality, even when doing so means ignoring the facts.  Institutional representatives will support the company or organization that employs them.  If you’re not sure what a writer’s interests are, look at the language they use for signs of their ideology, and use search tools to figure out what institutions they own or work for.  Following the money is always a good start– knowing that Russia Today is sponsored by the Russian government, Al-Jazeera is sponsored by the Qatari royal family, and the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos tells you quite a bit about the interests those publications will advance.


4: Probabilistic Thinking

How unlikely is the story that you’re reading?  How many strange or difficult things would have to be true for it to be accurate?  How many people would have to keep a particular secret?  Who would need to act against their obvious interests?  This is an especially useful filter for conspiracy theories.  It’s totally plausible that the CIA might put a finger on the scale in a foreign country’s election by spreading rumors and using blackmail, but much less plausible that the world is secretly ruled by a cabal of lizard people acting in harmony to pursue their mysterious goals.


5: Considering Your Source’s Sources:

How does the source claim to know about what they’re discussing?  Did they actually investigate the issue thoroughly, thoroughly documenting their claims, or are their arguments a patchwork of rumor, hearsay, and wild conjecture?  If it’s the latter, you should be more skeptical.  Also, a source that just parrots another is no more reliable than the original source itself.  Trace stories that you want to evaluate back to their origins.


6: Remembering Your Cognitive Biases:

Your sources might be lying to themselves, and you might be too.  There’s extensive scientific evidence that humans privilege sources that confirm their existing worldview or make them feel better about themselves.  You and the sources that you read might be falling into the confirmation bias trap.  Seriously consider this issue as often as you can, and try to take your biases into account when you’re putting together your own understanding of what happened.


Beirut Downtown Part II: Sights, Souks, Solidere

August 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Soon after I saw the protest which I mentioned in my last post,  I arrived in Downtown Beirut itself.


Beirut is an ancient city, older than Athens or Rome.



(Here’s some Roman-vintage oldness, right in the heart of everything)


(I wasn’t the only one gawking at them, of course)

But although the city’s been around for thousands of years, most of its downtown’s buildings are actually really new.

Consider, for example, the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, which is probably the biggest and most immediately recognizable religious building in the city:


It’s so imposing that I had trouble even photographing all of it at once (especially given the way that a lot of streets and other areas downtown are fenced off)– here’s a shot of the portico…


And here’s a shot with its blue dome and minarets from down the street.


We can credit this guy, who’s buried at the mosque for it.  He’s Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who became a multi-billionaire in the ’70s by building big projects for the Saudi royal family.   He and the Saudi royal family helped negotiate peace between Lebanon’s various factions in 1989, bringing a long, bloody civil war to a close.  In the ’90s and early 2000s, he became Lebanon’s prime minister, and his assassination in 2005 led Lebanon’s people to revolt and end the long Syrian occupation of their country.  He also provided social services and patronage to a lot of his political supporters, and so, understandably, was a popular dude.

Other aspects of his legacy are a lot more mixed, though.  In the ’90s his government privatized a lot of Lebanon’s publicly owned infrastructure, which probably helped the country’s economy get off the ground in the short run, and certainly helped a lot of Hariri’s friends and political supporters get rich, but probably also has something to do with its 3-hour-a-day blackouts, its brackish, undrinkable tapwater, and the weeklong garbage crisis which only just finished up here.


(the garbage crisis in action, up by AUB’s fence)

One of those privatizing ventures was Solidere, a private/public cooperative real estate development company which renovated Beirut’s badly war-damaged downtown.  It untangled the area’s really complicated patch of property rights by forcibly buying out everybody who wouldn’t sell to the company, usually for a lot less than the land was worth.  Beirut’s a small city and real estate here is expensive, so Solidere basically stole from a lot of people.

Anyway, though, I meandered my way around the mosque and got to spot the sea:


As you can see from the ships in the harbor, Beirut is a busy container port.


Some Beirut teenagers, wearing pretty representative Beirut middle-class teenager outfits.  Some aspects of youth fashion in Beirut feel like a flashback to the early 2000s in the US– T-shirts with prominent corporate logos, distressed jeans.


A little further along, you can see tons of construction going on.  Can you spot all six cranes in this picture?


So, here’s what post-Solidere downtown Beirut looks like.  As you can see, they’ve tried to keep the Ottoman/French Colonial style of the buildings there.


It’s quite lovely…


But also often quite empty.


One of the city’s sanitary workers.  I remember that the weather was savagely hot that day, so that blue jumpsuit must have been murderous.


One of the intact older buildings in the downtown area– the Masjid al-‘Umari, a former Crusader church which the Mamluks of Egypt turned into a mosque after taking the city.


In the foreground, you can see an old man taking shelter from the sun, which, typical for Beirut, was very intense.


You need to pass through checkpoints to move into the pedestrian area at the heart of downtown.  I got waved through, and if I recall correctly, these two stylish-looking guys were too.  Snapped quickly over my shoulder because I didn’t want my camera to get taken away.


This square, with its clock tower is right in the middle of the pedestrian area at the heart of town.  As you can see, it’s nice to bike around, albeit like much of the rest of downtown, surprisingly empty.


But the area is quite dense in fashionable people– like this guy, letting his jacket hang off one shoulder like a boss.


And these women, who are clearly awesome at colorful headscarf/rest of outfit coordination.


There are also several religious buildings in the center of town.  This one has a mosaic of St. George (ie: the dragon-killing one), the city’s patron, and the namesake of the city’s harbor.


And here’s the entrance to the city’s oldest Greek Orthodox church.  As you can see, the people entering are fairly modestly dressed– in fact, you can’t go in while wearing shorts.  Since I plan to come back to the city sometime during the winter (when I’ll be able to walk downtown in long pants without melting into a puddle of sweat and collapsing), I’ll pay the religious buildings a closer visit then.


After I checked out the square, I headed north to Beirut Souks, the city’s glitziest mall.  It was built atop the ruins of the city’s medieval covered market (which was in terrible shape thanks to the war), in the style of a covered market.


You can even see the ruins of the ancient mall in the new mall itself!  I’m not sure if this postmodern touch is cute or really obnoxious.


Although the interiors are pleasantly cool


And filled with beautiful people.


And fine Italian menswear.

However, much like a lot of the rest of the city center, Beirut Souks was strange empty.  To some extent, this emptiness could be explained by it being Ramadan– from what I understand, something between 2/3 and 3/4 of Lebanon’s people are Muslims, and the daytime fasting has to put a damper on going out.  But I also suspect that it relates to some structural problems.  Some of my acquaintances here have mentioned that the Souks and Downtown were built with wealthy tourists from the Gulf states in mind.  Unfortunately, because of the civil war in Syria, a lot of those tourists are just opting to shop and schmooze and sun themselves in Dubai instead.  Beirut’s downtown is really lovely, but I suspect that the city’s people would have benefited much more from investment in basic infrastructure and services.

Notes from Beirut: Beirut Downtown Part I: Getting there, Seeing a Protest

July 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

This will be another post where I use a lot of pictures to illustrate my observations.


A little while ago, I decided to walk from my apartment in Zarif to the old heart of Beirut.



On my way there, I passed by this quite charming building which looks like some kind of private children’s school


And, as I often do in Beirut, cool old cars


As well as picturesque, yet haunting abandoned buildings


(Here’s another, on an obviously-inhabited street.  Note the Lebanese flag– basically like the modern Austrian flag with a Cedar tree in the Middle of it– on the wall down the street)


I had planned my route poorly, so I found that my progress was blocked by this major highway, which cuts across the middle of town, dividing the city’s wealthier northern sections from its poorer southern sections.  Although I think that the fogginess in this picture makes it more aesthetically appealing, it’s actually very nonrepresentative of weather in Beirut.   Usually, the sky is an empty, piercing blue.


I tried to go down this nearby street (which I later figured out is something like Beirut’s equivalent of Embassy Row) only to find, after a ways, that it was blocked today.  The policeman standing guard (note for people reading along at home: the police in Beirut wear camouflage uniforms and carry assault rifles) politely told me that I was going the wrong way and gave me directions.  If you look like a Westerner, people here will assume that you’re harmless, which has some downsides (cab drivers and store owners will frequently try to cheat you), but some even more important upsides (the police are much more likely to help you than bother you).  The barbed wire and tank spikes in this photo are frequent sights in Beirut.  The police protect government buildings by monitoring and limiting movement in all of the streets approaching the building as well as the building itself.  This is probably great for stopping bombers, but it also makes it much harder for the people here to access public spaces.


So I had to find an alternate way around.  While I was trying to find it, I passed these women.  I feel like this is the kind of image that people like to use to make generalizations about countries like Lebanon, so I want to avoid overinterpretation here: it’s just a Roman Catholic nun speaking with a pious Muslim woman selling something from a plastic bag on a street corner on the south side of the highway.


Another refurbished old car– the Beetle, like most old German cars, is far more common in Beirut than in the US.


Eventually, I did cross the highway.  This is the view from the other side.  The group of skyscrapers on the far side of the image make up one of the city’s main business districts.  I think that the garden in the foreground is supposed to commemorate the victims of the late 20th century Lebanese civil war.  Sadly, it’s not possible to go there.


On my way into town, I noticed this group.  The flag rolled up in that young man’s hand is the Kurdish tricolor-with-sun.  A young woman in the group was wearing a YPG-headband, making it pretty clear that this group had come out to demonstrate in favor of the Kurdish rebels in Syria.  A policeman checked their cars, and the cars of unaffiliated people who showed up, because protests have been a popular target for Beirut’s car and suicide bombers in the past.


Another group of demonstrators drove by, waving flags from their car and shouting slogans.


This group headed towards the Lebanese Parliament on a bus.


This protest had a proud, celebratory character.  Lebanon is a country where the Kurds could protest without having to worry about getting shot by soldiers or rounded up by the Mukhabarat (as the often alarmingly ubiquitous secret police are or were called in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria), but it’s also not one where they could plausibly convince the government to help their cause.  Most of Lebanon’s major political factions are either against getting involved in the Syrian Civil War or in favor of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.  The compromise they seem to have come to is that Lebanon itself stays neutral while Hizbullah’s militia helps al-Assad’s forces in Syria.  Lebanon is a country with lots of small religious or ethnic minorities, but the Kurds are small even by Lebanon’s standards, so they aren’t going to be able to convince the government to do anything for their people.  But they can show the world that they’ll keep struggling for their cause, and the Kurds’ string of decisive victories against Da’esh (which is what people here call ISIS/ISIL) this summer offered them an appropirate occasion to do it.

Because this post is already fairly long, and has a lot of images, I’ve decided to split it into multiple parts.  Next time, I’ll talk about Beirut’s city center itself.

Archival Research at the American University of Beirut

July 16, 2015 § 1 Comment

So, the whole reason why I went to Lebanon this summer was to do archival research at the American University of Beirut.  Today, I’m going to tell you about that!


AUB was founded in the 1860s as the Syrian Protestant College by American missionaries.  The missionaries, after hitting up the ludicrously wealthy American philanthropists who they had schmoozed with at Yale/married into the families of, had obtained a pretty gigantic sum of money in railroad bonds to endow the place, which the missionaries used to buy a lot of land.  Over the years, a lot more money came in, from student and hospital fees, rent for local shopkeepers, and donations from the Rockefeller Foundation, wealthy alumni in the Lebanese Diaspora, and, in recent years, Saudi Princes.  As a result, its seaside campus is really, really nice.



So it has lovely ivy-covered old buildings…


And glorious athletic facilities which sprawl under Beirut’s azure summer sky, beside the even bluer waters of the Mediterranean Sea…


And policy studies institutes which resemble spaceships…


And palatial dormitories which very postmodernly try to merge classic features of Beirut’s Ottoman architecture with the modernist straight-line stylings of Le Courbusier…


And, of course, the best glades around for playing cards with your friends, chain-smoking, and showing off your rad hipster beard.

So, given all this place’s sunshiny charm, I spend most of my days struggling to decipher Ottoman building permits or American missionaries’ scrawled handwriting.  The superficial rhythm of my days is fairly similar– head to the archive, ask one of the archivists for another box from the list you took down after comprehensively reviewing the collection’s card catalog, go with the archivist to get the box from the giant rolling metal racks where all of them are stored, leave the box in the archivist’s office while taking out one folder of documents at a time to look through, reading them over, translating them, sometimes taking notes or writing down quotes or, when permitted, photographing a document.

All of this sounds like drudgery.  It’s not.  This is because what I’m really doing in the archive is a lot like what an archaeologist is doing at a dig site: using a few small fragments of the past to reconstruct a how a past community functioned and thought.  And so, looking at documents and taking photos no more constitute the whole of my research than digging holes and putting pieces of pottery into carefully labeled plastic bags constitute the archaeologist’s.

When I read a piece of text, I’m working on about six different levels at the same time.  The first is literal: “What events do people talk about in this letter?  What sort of relationships do people say they have with one another?  Where do they say they are?  How much money do they say that things cost?”  The second is inferential: “What things are known to both the text’s writer and their audience, but not to me?  What possibilities can we eliminate because they contradict the information available?”  The third is what I’ll call subtextual: “What are the writer’s attitudes?  What assumptions and ideologies and preferences shape what they say?”  The foruth is intertextual: “What other pieces of writing does this one refer to?  How might it be influenced by those pieces of writing?”  The fifth is metatextual: “Why was this piece of writing produced?  Who is its intended audience? ”  The sixth is about the archive itself: “Why was this object saved?  What other related objects might be lost?  How should we take them into account?)

Answering all of these questions, document after document, helps me answer bigger questions: “How did the community I’m studying function?  How did its members think?  How did these things change over time?  And how does all of this relate to broader historical or social-scientific issues?”  If something I read tells me about those broader questions, I document it, with summaries, photos, relevant quotes, and notes on my non-superficial readings of the texts.  I also document major systematic insights as I have them.

When I get home, I’ll work on turning those insights into conference papers or articles.

So, that is basically how my summer works.

Notes from Beirut IV: On Speech and Eloquence

July 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

One of the first things I learned in Lebanon was just how limited my ability to communicate in Arabic is.  Outside the constraints of the classroom, where I could usually predict what topics we would discuss in groups and what sort of vocabulary the instructor would use, or my personal reading, where I could patiently thumb through The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Fourth Edition whenever I encountered a baffling word, I have often needed to grasp for meaning.  During my first weeks, I was often tongue-tied even in very basic situations.  Sometimes, I mangled sentences so gruesomely that the person I was speaking to was totally baffled.  It also didn’t help that most of my studies focused on Arabic’s written form, called Modern Standard Arabic or Fusha, which is as different from everyday speech in Lebanon as Latin is from Italian, or that I had learned words for talking about politics and religion but not the names of eating utensils or fruits and vegetables.


Since then, I’ve gotten more comfortable speaking in more situations.  I’m able to call words to mind and correctly conjugate verbs more easily, and I’ve started to fill in some of the many, many holes in my vocabulary.  But my abilities are still very far from where they were in English.  So, when I speak in Arabic, my social personality changes.

Before, I had not realized just how much of my identity was built on my skill in using language.  Since childhood, I’ve been a ravenous reader, devouring reams and reams of novels and nonfiction.  Over the past few years, I’ve coupled that with an equally ravenous dedication to English’s great spoken forms, film, television, and drama.  And my parents, my professors, my high school teachers, my theatrical directors, and my funnier friends have taught me how to harness the words I’ve encountered there and bend them to my will.  If you’ve ever enjoyed one of my insights or quips, or learned something from a thing I’ve written or said, you’re enjoying the product of those years of practice.  Likewise, if you find me intelligent, confident, funny, or charming, it’s because I know how to use words to project all of those things.


In Arabic, I don’t have that kind of range or eloquence.  I can’t say as many smart things, and when I can say them, I can’t say them beautifully.  In conversations, I tend to spend more time listening and lurking, working to pick out what I can, mostly just speaking when I get asked a direct question.  I suspect that I often seem retiring, childish, clumsy, inept.  I’m still shocked by the degree to which the language gap makes me feel like a totally different person.  I’ve been learning patience by reconciling myself with this.


Interestingly, this experience has tied in with my research.  One of the institutions which I study, the Syrian Protestant College, which became the American University of Beirut in the 1920s, switched its language of instruction from Arabic to English in the 1880s.  My recent language experiences have helped me to understand the power dynamics of that shift– it changed an environment where Arabic-speaking instructors and students had a clear edge in eloquence and expression over their American and British colleagues and teachers to one where they worked at a disadvantage (although after years of study they were surely much better at English than I am at Arabic).  I’ve been examining and thinking about the implications of that shift over the four decades that followed, and I suspect that issues surrounding language and eloquence might be really analytically important to my forthcoming articles, conference papers, and dissertation.

Notes from Beirut Part III: Zarif

June 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

I live in a neighborhood in west-central Beirut called Zarif (or, as it’s spelled in Arabic, ظريف).  Zarif is just south of Sana’yeh (home to Sana’yeh Gardens, one of Beirut’s biggest public parks, as far as I can tell basically Beirut’s Central Park, although it is much smaller than Central Park), and just a little further south and east of Hamra, the district which holds the American University of Beirut (where I do archival research) as well as a lot of Beirut’s shopping malls and Western foreigners.  To the East is the city center, where there are a lot of public buildings plus some really glitzy housing developments which the Hariri family (most famous for providing Rafik, a Lebanese Prime Minister whose assassination led the Lebanese to kick out a Syrian occupation about ten years ago) built after the 1980s-era civil war basically laid waste to it.  A bit further east is Universite de Saint-Joseph, which historically was basically AUB’s Jesuit, Catholic, French counterpart.


As an area, Zarif seems to be fairly middle-income.  A lot of the buildings in the area are dirty or crumbling.  Sometimes, their peeling paint carries bullet scars from Lebanon’s civil war.  Some are still abandoned.  But at the same time, most of the area’s buildings are full of people, plenty of construction is going on, and the streetfronts are full of shops, which seem to do a decent business.  (Said stores seem intriguingly different from stores in the West.  There are lots of small restaurants with no seating, a bunch of stores which sell produce but not other food, minimarkets which sell snacks but also a random assortment of dry goods like eggs, flour, and rice, a store which sells nothing but different kinds of cooking oil, a store which is just filled with giant piles of tires, a store which seems to mostly sell World of Warcraft subscriptions, the cell phone store downstairs which also sells hair oil and naan.  I wonder what kind of social/economic conditions make this sort of mercantile ecosystem happen?)

From what I understand, Zarif is mostly a Shi’a Muslim neighborhood, although that’s much less visible than it would have been in the past because Hezbollah and the Future Movement agreed to take down political symbols in their neighborhoods.  Accordingly, most of the small restaurants in the area are closed between dusk and dawn during Ramadan, which is going on right now.  There are also a lot of foreigners in the area, though– mostly Syrians and people from India and East Africa.


This text blob has gone on long enough, so I’ll tell you some more stuff with pictures:




So, this building is across the street from mine, and I can see it from my apartment balcony.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that a good chunk of the top floor is pretty open to the outside, to get a nice crossbreeze going through (my apartment has this feature too, and it works really well for keeping temperatures down during the day.)  Also, notice the many, many satellite dishes on the roof.  I’ve watched some of the local satellite TV while hanging out with some of my downstairs neighbors.  I was most surprised to find out that Arabic satellite channels broadcast subtitled episodes of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.




Here’s a streetcorner with one of the nice luxury apartment buildings which seem to be creeping towards Zarif from the Sanayeh area.  In the foreground, you’ll see a dude riding a motorcycle with a plastic canopy.  You’ll probably spot a lot of motorcycles in the street scenes that I post.  They seem really popular here– probably because they’re cheap, versatile, easy to park on the sidewalk (people try to do this with cars too, but it doesn’t seem to work so well), and you can weave through traffic on them (or like one very brave soul I saw while driving out to the beach, just driving right into oncoming traffic like some two-wheeled vehicular Honey Badger).




Cool, shiny old cars like this are pretty common in Beirut (although the VW bug’s prevalence here has nothing on its total dominance in Merida, Mexico, IIRC).


DSCN0597So, this place is a mini-mart.  The ten-liter bottles of mineral water sitting out front cost about a dollar, and the locals all buy them because Beirut’s tap water, drawn from the shallow wells which give the town its name and the Dog River a little north of the city, is about as brackish as water can be and still be called fresh, and full of bacteria and just generally toxic.  I really took this shot to capture these kids, though.  Kids in Beirut seem to be pretty autonomous.  You see them all over the place playing, watching adults, picking on smaller kids (like these bike-riding ones seem to be– note the little one in the hat behind the motorcycle), and often selling flowers, delivering messages, running errands, and sometimes even running stores while their parents are out.




This is one of the all-produce shops that I mentioned.  For the most part, the fruits on display taste exactly as good as they look, and they cost like, a fifth of what they would in the US at most.  Basically, they’re awesome.




I made sure to shoot this backhoe when it would be well-lit, so that I could make it clear that no, this is not a gloomy, sorrowful shot of a vacant lot, but a bright, airy one showing that building and construction are going on here. (In fact I can usually hear them from my bedroom window).  The 1980s-era Civil War and massive emigration are still super-salient in Americans’ images of Beirut, but people are actually flooding into the city, and its problems are boomtown problems, not “desolate abandoned place” problems: insane traffic, strained water and power infrastructure (mandatory blackouts three hours a day), ridiculously high rents (comparable to Nashville’s, despite much lower incomes and food prices), a struggle for jobs in spite of lots and lots of economic activity.



DSCN0600Women from India rocking the bright-color loose-to-and-slacks look are really common in my neighborhood.  This woman’s look is pretty representative.




Thick-rimmed hipster glasses are totally a thing in Lebanon, too.


DSCN0607Sadly, this art-deco building doesn’t seem to have been rehabilitated yet.  I would kind of love to sneak in and explore…




I did not exaggerate when I said that this shop was literally full of tires.




The local grocery store!  Which is actually quite a bit like a New York grocery store, albeit with much less bourgeois merchandise.  Amusingly, I think that its name is a Maghrebi (ie: Morroccan) word meaning “the settled lands,” a term which shows up pretty frequently in the writings of the great medieval Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun.




This fresh-squeezed orange juice cart is on that corner every day.  The food stand across the street is called “Fahita,” and yes, the man in yellow next to the name is wearing a sombrero.  The fajita on their menu is quite good, although it only bears a very loose resemblance to either the Tex-Mex or authentic Mexican fajita.




Finally– good to see that nerdery is alive and well here on the other side of the globe.


For next time, I’m thinking about laying down a more substantive post.  Would you guys rather hear about some of the more interesting stuff that I’ve found while doing archival research or about some of my thoughts about the politics of language and second-language use (which will engage with both my experiences and my research)?